A LABOUR Government would have far fewer ministers because power would be handed down to local areas instead, under surprise plans floated today.
Chuka Umunna, Labour’s business spokesman, pledged to reverse decades of “centralising” by putting towns and cities in control of their economies.
And he pointed to the far-smaller Government in France – long thought of as a centralised state as well – as evidence of the need for change.
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Mr Umunna said: “They have about 40 ministers – we have over 80 in this country - and that’s partly because there’s a lot more power for their mayors and local elected representatives “Therefore, there isn’t the need for so many ministers at the centre. That illustrates just how centralised we are as a country.”
Asked if Labour could similarly slash the number of Whitehall ministers, Mr Umunna replied: “I think that’s certainly something I can envisage – yes “If you end up with a smaller number of ministers, because you have pushed power out, then I’m fine with that.”
The Blair and Brown-led Labour governments had been “quite centralising and statist in our approach”, Mr Umunna admitted.
And he added: “How can I be dictating to people in Manchester, Sunderland, Newcastle, Birmingham - wherever it is - what is best for their regional economy?
“They know what’s best for their regional economy, they know how they can be world-beating - and we’ve got to give them the tools to do that.”
However, the shadow business secretary, speaking at Westminster, gave few clues as to how power would be devolved, with the general election just 15 months away.
Mr Umunna said he was “awaiting eagerly” the recommendations of a ‘growth review’ being carried out for Ed Miliband by former Transport Secretary Lord Adonis.
He also declared himself a “big fan” of both Lord Heseltine’s blueprint for handing billions of pounds to local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and of the Coalition’s ‘City Deals’.
As The Northern Echo revealed last week, Labour plans to give local areas some powers over back-to-work schemes, taking contracts off multinational firms.
Mr Umunna suggested similar arrangements could follow in other areas, including skills budgets, adding: “That will give you a sense of our direction of travel here.”
Labour has accepted the status quo of LEPs – rather than arguing for the rebirth of regional development agencies (RDAs) – but wants them to be strengthened.
Ministers are currently considering bids from every LEP for a slice of devolution cash to be handed down in local “growth deals”, from next year.
But the amount being released from Whitehall is only around £2bn a year – a fraction of the £12bn-plus recommended by Lord Heseltine.
Meanwhile, there are also huge doubts about the performance and accountability of many LEPs, although those in the North-East have been praised.