Regional Economic Performance and Imbalances

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The Chairman: Before we move to questions, I advise hon. Members who are sitting beyond the Bar that their presence will not be recorded--and nor can I see them where they are sitting. They must come forward of the Bar.

I invite a gentleman Member to ask me on a point of order whether jackets may be removed, if only to put the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) out of his misery.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): On a point of order, Mr. McWilliam. Would it be feasible for gentlemen to remove their jackets, with your permission?

The Chairman: This afternoon, jackets may be removed. I am tempted to suggest that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby should put his jacket back on, but I shall not.

Mr. Steen: I hope that that is not a sexist point of order and that women may also remove their jackets.

The Chairman: Ladies do not have to ask permission. They may choose whether to wear jackets.

Mr. Steen: What is wonderful about this place is that people here live and learn, although I just seem to live.

It is always a great pleasure to represent my party, and today is no exception. I am a little disappointed that more of my colleagues are not here, but that is not surprising because they are not much in favour of regional government, and do not especially like regional development agencies.

It is a pleasure to see the Minister. The last time I had the pleasure of a debate with her was on the Floor of the House about my private Member's Bill, which, as she knows, was a tour de force and much needed.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is going on for rather a long time without asking a question. Will he please do so?

Mr. Steen: I am known for being long-winded. I wind up a bit, and then ask a question at the end.

The Chairman: Order. It is Question Time. The hon. Gentleman may be as long-winded as he likes when it comes to the debate, although he will be preventing others from speaking.

Mr. Steen: I do not want to prevent anyone from speaking. One of the reasons for my point of order was that I, unlike many colleagues, must fight the general election for a marginal seat and will therefore not be staying for the entire debate. I hope that the Minister understands.

We last met on the Floor of the House a little while ago, and I should like to ask the Minister a couple of questions. The first relates to the voluntary chambers, or whatever they are called; they are called all different things all over the place. What is their status? I stumbled into a meeting at Exeter county hall and thought that I was in the Albert hall, as there were so many officials in the chamber. There must have been 200 or 300, all paid for by the taxpayer, and they all had prescribed questions. It was a talking shop. Everything was pre-rehearsed, and it did not do any good at all. Does the Minister believe that that is the way to proceed?

Secondly, regional development agencies sound marvellous until they are presented with a problem. The south-west has had a major problem with foot and mouth, as the Minister knows. North Devon and Torridge and West Devon have been badly affected, as have some other areas.

I hope that the Minister will comment on regional development agencies' ability to help small tourism businesses, especially in Dartmoor national park, which has in effect been closed for the past three months. There have been devastating results not only for the animals but for tourist operators, hoteliers, post offices and everyone else. The regional development agency needs to target its money now to help small businesses and tourist operators, and it is not doing so. I hope that she will agree and explain why, now that there is a genuine problem in the south-west in respect of helping small beer businesses, that cannot be done. The most that the Government have said that they can offer is £15,000 grants to small businesses in difficulties, but that does not go far, especially for hoteliers. Will she help me both on the question of regional voluntary chambers and on the failure of the regional development agency in the south-west to do what should be done immediately with regard to the foot and mouth problem?

The Chairman: Before I invite the Minister to reply, I advise hon. Members that questions are supposed to be questions.

Ms Hughes: The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will testify that voluntary chambers have now been established throughout the country. Although they vary slightly, they tend to have a common membership that comprises representatives of the constituent local authorities, many voluntary organisations and some sections of the private sector.

As is the case with all such matters, voluntary chambers are evolving. As I have said, they have an important role to play in scrutinising RDAs, for which the Government have provided extra resources, enhancing their status in the scrutiny role that we hope that they will develop.

Regional co-operation that involves local authorities and other stakeholders is an important counterweight to the agencies, so it is important for those chambers to be active and effective and to represent and provide a conduit for all stakeholders to scrutinise what is going on and to have a say.

One of the developments that we have witnessed during recent months, following the foot and mouth outbreak and the unfortunate job losses announced in some areas, is the ability of a strategic regional body to act much more quickly in bringing people together, identifying key areas and mobilising the various partners that need to be mobilised in order to develop and implement a recovery plan. The RDA for the south-west, was one of the first, if not the first, to put together a taskforce that brought together the local authorities, farmers, landowners and tourist industry representatives.

Mr. Steen: It has not done anything.

Ms Hughes: The RDAs have done some things. Last week, I was in Cornwall to examine the problem of foot and mouth. Without any prompting from the Government, the RDAs have put £8 million of their own resources, along with £2 million of EU money, into a starter fund specifically to help non-farming businesses. Since then, my Department has provided £15 million, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment announced an extra £24 million this week. Those funds are being channelled through the RDAs because they are best placed to identify the precise problems in each region. The problems are many and varied. Those experienced in the south-west are unlike those in other parts of the country, where the manifestation of foot and mouth has been very different. To have agencies at that level is a strength. They can mobilise partners and respond to crises in a localised and sensitive way.

Mr. Quinn: On behalf of the permanent members of the Committee I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. McWilliam. It is good to see you here today. I also welcome the Minister on this historic occasion. Some of us would argue that, when Standing Order No. 117 was formulated by the House, there was a desire that the business of the Committee should be brought forward urgently. Will the Minister explain the reason for the obvious delay?

In my part of England, Yorkshire, there is a growing and enthusiastic demand for regionalism, intervention and a proactive approach to the Government's economic policies.

Ms Hughes: I share my hon. Friend's impatience at the delay—[Interruption.]—although that is obviously not shared by all parties in the House.

The Chairman: Order. Hon. Members must not heckle.

Ms Hughes: I share my hon. Friend's frustration. To put the matter in perspective, the Committee was established in 1975. It met approximately 13 times, the last of which was in 1978. There was a long period—throughout the Tory Administration—of no interest at all in the Committee, or in the regions as an important perspective to feed into policy.

In my statement, I outlined what has happened since 1997. We established the RDAs in the first parliamentary Session. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that we acted precipitously to do that. The RDAs had been set up, but in April 1999 they were still embryonic. They had first to develop an economic strategy, which took some time, and they have effectively been going for little more than a year.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that we have had a great deal of difficulty. He knows that the re-establishment of the Committee was strongly resisted by the Opposition. In re-establishing the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House tried to obtain consensus to ensure that the Committee is attended and endorsed by all parties, and she spent a great deal of time trying to achieve that. That is the main reason for the delay between the order last April and the first meeting today. It is a pity that we have not been more successful in achieving more active participation, but I share my hon. Friend's view that we could wait no longer and it was important that we meet today.

Mr. Beith: I am sorry, I did not mean to heckle—it was an involuntary expression of amazement.

The Chairman: Order. The right hon. Gentleman was not the hon. Member to whom I referred.

Mr. Beith: I was unable to stop myself expressing amazement that the Conservative party should completely abandon the discussion on the affairs of the regions, such as the one that you and I represent, Mr. McWilliam, in the north-east of England—not to mention the south-west and others.

Does the Minister recognise that the most disadvantaged regions need a higher level of public expenditure on essential services to compensate for that disadvantage and become economically successful? Scotland has done that to a significant extent through the Barnett formula. Does she recognise that such a formula, if applied to the English regions, and the creation of a mechanism to set it up, could make a profound difference?

Does the Minister accept figures, such as those used in early-day motion 618, tabled by the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), who is present in the Committee, which illustrate that, in many areas of public service, expenditure in Scotland is at least 20 per cent. higher than in the north-east of England, for example, and in some areas higher still. Industry spending is £171 per head compared with £119 in the north-east, and tourism spending is £5.85 per head compared with 16p in the north-east. Does she admit that such disparities exist and see them as a handicap? Are the Government prepared to reform the Barnett formula so that all parts of the country—Scotland, Wales and the regions of England—have a basis that reflects their needs?

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