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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley ...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

The government was pressed by peers from all parties to transfer more government work from London and the south east to other parts of the UK where there were fewer job opportunities.

Labour's Lord Brooke, who raised the issue, said that in the past, governments faced with problems of recruitment and retention, and housing shortages for civil servants, have had major reviews of government departments and agencies to identify work that could be shifted to the provinces to ease those problems. Had the government considered doing that - and if not, why not? he asked.

For the government, Lord Bassam said individual departments and agencies were free to make their own decisions about location, but added that dispersal of civil service functions across the UK had worked well. The government believed the administration of public services benefits from national and regional diversity, and it would continue to keep the matter under serious consideration and review.

Conservative Lord Elliott said modern communications had substantially removed old problems of distance. The north east of England had benefited enormously from the movement by government and business to the region during a period of sever industrial change.

Labour's Lord Campbell-Savours said there was a row over the establishment of the national cattle traceability centre in Cumberland in 1998. Civil servants opposed the move, but Lord Rooker - then an agriculture minister - overturned their recommendations and moved the centre to Cumbria. 'Does not that show that sometimes civil servants' objections must simply be overturned?', he asked.

Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Lord Newby said the state of regional economies varied considerably, with overheating in the south east and spare capacity elsewhere.

'Although the RDAs[regional development agencies] and the proposals for regional government may be welcome for many reasons, one of the consequences of that policy is that every region looks to maximise its own growth. There is a lack of co-ordination in the dispersal of government functions throughout the country, and little thought is given at the centre of government to balancing regional economies', he declared.

Lord Bassam insisted government policies showed they were well co-ordinated. Regions were keen to promote themselves and ensure, rightly, they got a fair slice of the cake.

Conservative frontbencher the Earl of Northesk said that despite Lord Bassam's assurances, deputy prime minister John Precott insisted on 9 January that 'no assessment has been made' of the scope for relocation of the executive functions of government departments.

Former Conservative minister Lord Roberts of Conwy said the proposals in the regional government white paper made it more difficult to disperse work. 'Each part that has a regional assembly, including London, will jealously guard its own employment', he commented.

However, Lord Bassam said the proposals 'will probably make things easier, rather than harder'.

Hansard 9 May 2002: Column 1257-1259

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