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The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): In particular, the work of the regional co-ordination unit is achieving better scrutiny of proposals for new area-based initiatives and the review of existing ones.
Mr. Blizzard: When my hon. Friend tries to co-ordinate the work of regional public bodies in the eastern region, will she examine the East of England Inward Investment Agency, which was set up by the previous Government? Will she consider the serious under-performance of that organisation and its failure to attract any inward investment to those parts of the region that need it? Why are we spending public money supposedly attracting firms to places where they would go anyway? Is that not rather like giving grants to people to sell ice creams on a hot day?
Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Will the Minister establish whether the unit was consulted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the distribution, as from Friday, of the exemption from stamp duty of 4,000 deprived wards in the United Kingdom? Will she also try to discoverthis has astonished us in Southendwhy the Milton ward, to which the Minister made an excellent visit, is not covered by those regulations, bearing in mind that it is more deprived than almost any other area of England or Wales?
Mrs. Roche: I know of the great interest that the hon. Gentleman has in deprivation, in particular how we can get help to the most deprived wards in the country. I am grateful to him for his remarks on my visit, which I greatly enjoyed. I will certainly consider the issue and bring it to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends across the Government.
Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): Can my hon. Friend assure me that the regional co-ordination unit and her Department in general will work closely with regional development agencies in the run-up to the publication of the promised White Paper on regional government? Although regional government involves more than just economic development, does she agree that it will be essential for the RDAs to be at the heart of such governments when they are established?
Mrs. Roche: I can give my right hon. Friend that assurance. I have made a number of regional visits, as has my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, to discuss that subject. We have met representatives of the Assemblies and the RDAs. It is clear that a great deal of good work is being undertaken on economic regeneration.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Delivering improved local public services across all regions of the country is our top priority, and the Cabinet Office is working to ensure that Government offices for the regions play a key role in helping to deliver results.
Mr. Pike: My hon. Friend will know that the Deputy Prime Minister visited Burnley and east Lancashire twice recently. He will also be well aware of the problems that that north-west region faces, in particular the large number of empty private sector houses and the heavy dependence on manufacturing sector jobs. More than 30 per cent. of the work force are employed in manufacturing, which is experiencing major problems following 11 September. Will my hon. Friend make it
Mr. Leslie: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work and efforts to rebuild the community, especially that in his constituency. He voices important concerns about the need to tackle crime and housing problems, and it is essential to rebuild the local economy. The Deputy Prime Minister considered such matters during his visit. The task force chaired by Lord Clarke will publish its report in December and is considering the issues that my hon. Friend raises.
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Does the Minister understand that if he closed down the hapless Government regional office in the south-east tomorrow there would be no tears in Bracknell or elsewhere in the region because we think that it creates unnecessary extra Government bureaucracy and is a huge waste of taxpayers' money?
Mr. Leslie: If the regional office in the right hon. Gentleman's area is such a waste of time why did his Government set it up in the first place? The Government offices for the regions need to be enhanced and supported so that we ensure that they work not just on traditional housing and regeneration issues, but on planning, environment and anti-crime measures. The area-based initiativesnot least those started by the right hon. Gentleman's Governmentneed to be properly reformed so that they make a difference on the ground. [Interruption]
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): May I say how pleased I am to hear that the Minister is taking joined-up thinking so seriously? Some months ago I was promised someone on secondment from the Cabinet Office to assist with urban regeneration in Burslem. Will he consider whether those resources can now be made available to assist with the regeneration that is so urgently needed in north Staffordshire?
Mr. Leslie: It is important that there are secondments from central Government to localities where extra efforts are required. I shall certainly endeavour to look further into the case that my hon. Friend mentioned. We should not only focus on regeneration at the grass roots but delegate people from central Departments to areas where it matters most.
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Does the Minister agree that the efficient delivery of public services can be disrupted and delayed by extended staff absences? Will he initiate an in-depth analysis to determine whether Departments and public services need to put in place arrangements to prevent such disruption and delay?
Mr. Leslie: I am responsible for overseeing the day-to-day running of the civil service, and I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that attention to sickness and absence levels throughout public services is central to
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Does the Minister agree that the effective delivery of high quality public services depends less on the grand panjandrums of Whitehall and more on the morale and enthusiasm of the civil servants who work directly with the public throughout the country? To that end, does he agree that there is a need for a civil service Act and a national framework for civil servants' pay?
Mr. Leslie: The Government are certainly committed to introducing a civil service Bill when parliamentary time allows. On a national framework, my own feeling is that departmental managers need the flexibility to incentivise good performance in their own Department. We are in discussion with civil service unions and others about these issues.
Mr. Leslie: There are differences within regions just as there are differences between them, and we have to ensure that each has an opportunity to develop its economic strategies in as fair and equal a manner as possible. There are serious issues that require attention. Of course, making sure that the most deprived areas of our country get the assistance that they need is a priority, and one which I would hope the hon. Gentleman shares.
Mr. Collins: It was a very simple question and it needed only a yes or no answer. Is it Government policy to reduce the north-south gap, or not? I have to say that if it is, Government policy is failing because the latest independent figures show that the gap is widening. Would the Minister like to try again? Is it his policy to reduce that gapyes or no?
Mr. Leslie: Well, if the hon. Gentleman thinks that the policy is as simple as saying that the north is poor and the south is wealthier, I really think that he needs to get a grip. There are significant pockets of poverty and deprivation in the south of England, just as there are wealthier areas in the north of the country. We need to take a more sophisticated approach to the whole question.