MPs attack powers of regional `viceroys'

Select committees to investigate `unaccountable` top civil servants
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The Independent Online
TEN senior civil servants, whose unprecedented powers make them provincial governors of England, are to face the scrutiny of MPs anxious to learn how they spend more than £4bn of public money. The regional directors, appointed by the Government last year, have sole responsibility for implementing policies of four big-spending Whitehall departments: Environment, Employment, Transport, and Trade and Industry.

They also administer the newly integrated programme for inner-city regeneration, the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB), worth £1.4 bn.

The 10 - who include three women - have been likened to the district commissioners who ran the British Empire, to Roman pro-consuls, French prefects, even to viceroys. They include several high-flyers destined to become Permanent Secretaries, but their prerogatives and comparative anonymity have led to all-party anxiety about the concentration of power in an unaccountable bureaucracy.

A regional director may allocate enterprise grants, organise training schemes, order repairs to housing estates, and share out funds for ethnic minorities. He or she will negotiate with the European Commission, run the employment service, determine industrial policy, and set transport priorities.

Until last year, each Whitehall department sent its own director to the regions. The new regional directors are more senior, each of them a career mandarin on the second or third most senior civil service rankings and paid at least £51,000 a year. Each heads a staff of up to 300, and commands spending powers that are the envy of local councils.

But none is accountable to local government or MPs. They are responsible to individual Secretaries of State for policies other than the inner-city regeneration budget, which is overseen by a new Cabinet committee, EDR.

This is not good enough, according to two powerful Commons committees. The select committee on trade and industry, now investigating the structure of government offices in the regions, including London, is expected to conclude in April that the work of the directors should be monitored regularly; while the public accounts committee is considering a full-scale investigation into the efficiency of the new structure following complaints by Peter Kilfoyle, Labour MP for Liverpool Walton.

Mr Kilfoyle is worried that regeneration budgets for Merseyside, including extra funds from the EU, have been allocated without full consideration of the region's strengths and weaknesses.

"I cannot even discover how the structure works, who gives the final nod," he said. "The system seems to be running secretively, with grants of up to £3.8m awarded without any elected representative considering the application.

"The regional director seems the most powerful influence in the process. He has extra powers which lead me to think of him as a viceroy appointed by a far- away power, with little or no regard for local opinion or democratic rights. Is this network of civil servants and quangocrats giving value for money, or is their function more political in nature?"

Ministers commend the new system. "We are trying to push decision-making more toward people living in the regions and slightly less from Whitehall," said Sir George Young, Financial Secretary to the Treasury.

David Ritchie, regional director for the West Midlands, said his appointment had been "a touchstone for a more co-ordinated and united voice in the region". An integrated Whitehall presence in the provinces had enhanced the pro-active potential of government. Coventry University, for example, had plans for a science park which could be eligible for support from several departments plus Europe. A bespoke government package was easier to tailor through the regional director's office.

The directors meet monthly to discuss common management issues and be briefed on matters concerning ministers. The next council of governors will be in Sheffield this month, the first to be held outside London.

The Yorkshire region director, Jeremy Walker, was recently told brusquely by a Labour MP: "When we're in power, you're not going to be running up and down to London reporting to Gummer and Heseltine. You'll be reporting to a regional development agency or assembly."

Labour has already seen in the new network what Graham Allen, MP for Nottingham North, called "an embryo of the regional government we will create".

Richard Caborn, Labour chairman of the trade and industry select committee, said: "We're looking at the structure and the powers invested in the directors. We've come to no conclusions yet."

Gillian Ashmore 44, married with four children (S. East; Berks, Bucks, Hamps, Kent, Oxfordshire, Surrey and Sussex) Educated Winchester County HS for girls and Cambridge. Joined Dept of the Environment 1971. Sign on her wall says: "Secrecy is the handmaiden of bad government".

Pamela Denham 51, widowed (North East; Cleveland, Durham, Tyne & Wear and Northumberland) Educated Central Newcastle HS and London University. Joined civil service 1967, and worked for DTI from 1970. Likes walking, skiing, cooking and reading.

Mark Lanyon 55, married, two children (E.Midlands; Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northants and Notts) Educated Ardingley College and St Andrew's University. Began in the Ministry of Aviation, worked on Concorde and rose through ranks of the DTI. Likes caravanning.

Brian Leonard 47, married, two children (S. West; Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire) Educated Dr Challoner's Grammar, Amersham, and LSE. Began in the Price Commission. With Department of the Environment since 1974. Member of MCC.

Marianne Neville-Rolfe 50, divorced, no children (North West; Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester and Lancashire) Educated St Mary's convent, Shaftesbury, and Oxford University. Joined CBI, 1965, moving to DTI in 1973. Former principal Civil Service college. Opera lover.

David Ritchie 46, married, no children (West Midlands; Hereford & Worcester, Shropshire, Staffs, Warwickshire) Educated Manchester Grammar and Cambridge University. Joined Dept of the Environment, 1970. Member of Birmingham Diocesan synod, fell walker and cook.

John Stoker 44, married, no children (Merseyside) Educated King Edward's school, Birmingham and Oxford University. Joined Department of the Environment, working on council house sales and poll tax, moving to Merseyside in 1992. Member of Middlesex CCC.

John Turner 48, married with three children (Eastern; Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Herts, Norfolk and Suffolk) Educated Ramsey Abbey and Northwood Hills grammar schools. Entered Dept of Employment 1967. Lives in Sheffield, likes music, motoring and "the outdoors".

Jeremy Walker 45, married with three children (Yorkshire & Humberside) Educated Brentford school and Birmingham University. Joined Department of Employment after graduating, working on the Manpower Service Commission's Community Programme.

Robin Young 46, single (London) Educated Fettes College, Edinburgh (with Blair), and Oxford University (with Clinton). Joined Dept of the Environment 1973, Non-executive director of housebuilders Bovis. Likes squash, tennis and cinema. Top high-flyer.