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Parliament and Central Government: Relocation

Volume 777: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the case for moving Parliament and central departments to the north of England.

The Government have made no assessment of moving Parliament to the north of England. This is a matter for Parliament to decide. Government departments determine their workforce requirements and the Civil Service has a significant UK-wide presence, including in the north of England.

My Lords, the British economy is ever more unbalanced, as most growth and investment are dragged into the already congested hothouse of London and the south-east. Meanwhile, the so-called northern powerhouse amounts to little more than a few new railway lines and roads, welcome though they will be. Does the Minister not agree that in order to rebalance this country we need a real new vision, in which a wholly new capital city is built somewhere near—

—the geographical centre of the country, in the Midlands or the north? That would provide a new centre of government for the country, taking power to the powerhouse out of this congested place we are in, together with a new home for Parliament. Only by something as radical and visionary as this will we ever tackle the problem of imbalance that so affects us all.

Well, my Lords, this is a radical suggestion. I feel that Parliament should really be in the capital city but your Lordships will be relieved to hear that it is not up to me. Indeed, it is not even up to the Government to decide. It is a decision for both Houses following recommendations from the Joint Committee. The House of Commons Commission and the House of Lords made the decision in 2012 that the Palace of Westminster should remain where it is.

The second part of the noble Lord’s question was about the northern powerhouse. The northern powerhouse is absolutely going ahead and is very important to this Government, but it is about private sector growth, not public sector growth.

My Lords, although the people of Dunsop Bridge, which is at the geographical centre of the country in Lancashire, might be perturbed to find that the capital would be moved to that part of the country, nevertheless is the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, not making a good point? Does the Minister not agree with the maxim of Benjamin Disraeli that centralisation is the death blow of democracy, and that in the rust-belt towns and cities of the north of England, where there is considerable disaffection, it is crucial to ensure more subsidiarity, not least to the elected mayors and councils?

That is why we have taken great care to make sure that the Civil Service is placed in various hubs all round this country, including the north. It is also why in central London we have moved from having 181 offices in 2010 to only 54 now, which has contributed £2.8 billion in workforce savings. We are supporting departments in moving to smarter working and encouraging them to have regional hubs outside central London.

My Lords, when the Labour Government were last in power—some time ago now—we pledged to devolve power down to the nations that make up the UK. What plans do this Government have to establish a people-led constitutional convention to consider the future shape and extent of necessary reforms—including the location of the capital if that becomes necessary?

That is exactly why the Government are concentrating at the moment on the devolution which is happening, bottom-upwards.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that one of the side benefits of the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, might be that there were a lot of early retirements from the senior ranks of the Civil Service, enabling us to inject fresh northern blood into it? There might even be some early retirements from this House.

I thank my noble friend for that very interesting point. We are encouraging people to join the Civil Service and looking for highly intelligent, motivated people. As I said earlier, a lot of those people will be working in the north; they will also be working in the east, the west and the south. That is why we are encouraging departments to have hubs outside the centre.

My Lords, what I know is certain is that the people of the north of England would appreciate Civil Service jobs there. Before being so dismissive, would the Government be prepared to have discussions with the BBC, which took an inspired and successful decision to move so much of its activity to MediaCity, on the border of Salford and Manchester?

Yes, that was certainly a very good decision by the BBC. That is why the Government Property Unit, which is in charge of seeing how the departments work with their civil servants, is indeed trying to drive this radical reshaping of the Civil Service estate, and so encouraging departments to move their civil servants out of London, as I said earlier. That could well be to the north and it would certainly encourage people from the north to take those jobs.

My Lords, given the Government’s commitment to devolution and the reference in the Autumn Statement, do the Government have specific plans to devolve financial powers to local level? Has the Minister taken note of the various reports that state that, for the economic balance to be redressed away from London, financial and fiscal powers need to be given to local authorities across the country?

My Lords, the problem is that that could interfere with central budget considerations, and then the whole thing becomes a bit muddled.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned that the northern powerhouse will be mainly private sector. Will the Government encourage the artistic institutions to move up there more?

Absolutely. The whole point about the northern powerhouse is that it considers everything in the round—businesses, artistic initiatives and tourism. It is meant to bring financial stability to the country in the round for all interested parties.

My Lords, will the Minister please stop referring to devolution when it comes to the northern and western English regions? All this Government have done is to transfer responsibility for carrying out government budget decisions. When will London and the south-east and its representatives here in Parliament stop micromanaging the rest of England, where we would like genuine devolution?

I am surprised the noble Baroness says that. That is what we are doing with devolution. We are not interfering. That is the whole point: for it to go out into the communities for them to be in charge of what they want.

My Lords, is there not a nasty tone in some of this debate, of people attacking our capital city? Given that the people of London subsidise the rest of the country to the tune of billions of pounds each year perhaps it would make sense if, before we go down the road of automatically deprecating London, we remember that it would be a very satisfactory outcome as far as the people of London were concerned if the principle of devolution were followed and London had full fiscal autonomy.

The noble Lord certainly has a point. London is our capital, but I do not think noble Lords were denigrating it when they were talking about moving things to the north. Our capital is very important, and that is why I think we feel that this is where government should be.

My Lords, does the Minister think there might be merit in building a purpose-built ship, which would help British shipbuilders and British steel, could visit various parts of England when needed—and would be quite useful during recesses as well?

I think this is an excellent idea. The only problem is that I only have to step on a ship and I feel very seasick, so I might not be able to take part. As long as it was full of admirals, I am sure we would be in agreement.