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12.2 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): Let me say in his absence how much of a pleasure it was to listen to the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Daisley). He need not worry about having made such a late maiden speech. Historically, new Members were told not to make a maiden speech for at least six months to a year. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has let himself down and I appreciate why he has not spoken before. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman shares his predecessor's fondness for toads—or newts—but I hope that he will be as independent as his predecessor and not become just another Labour toady, but we shall have to wait and see.

It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman). I lived happily in Fulham for many years. I enjoyed my time there

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greatly, but one thing I could never say about Fulham was that it was an exciting place. It was very nice, but I would hardly describe it as one of the country's hot spots. I am glad to hear that it is doing well.

The hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about the high rates of unemployment in London. This brings us to the theme of today's debate. Everyone knows that our capital city would not function without the large numbers of people coming from abroad to work here—many of them asylum seekers or refugees working illegally. New Zealanders, South Africans and Australians are found serving in many pubs in London. The city is drawing in tens of thousands of workers to help it survive, yet there is enormous unemployment among the native population. That skills gap needs to be addressed. It is nonsensical that people should come from abroad and get jobs, while people in the east end of London and other problem areas such as north Fulham remain unemployed. Solving that problem is a challenge to us all.

In reading out her prepared text, rather hurriedly, the Minister broke a convention of our Friday debates, which we try to make more thoughtful and restrained than our mid-week ones. Once again, she promoted the myth that all the problems that exist today are something to do with 18 years of Tory misrule. That is absolute nonsense. Every commentator knows that the tough economic decisions taken by Conservative Governments in that time laid the foundations for the prosperity that we have today. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) may laugh, but independent commentators will substantiate that.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister's remarks are an insult to the good sense of the British people, who elected, re-elected and re-elected again Conservative Governments, presumably because they thought that they were doing rather a good job?

Mr. Atkinson: Indeed, that is precisely why the British people re-elected Conservative Governments. They knew that they were taking tough decisions that needed to be taken.

I can see those Governments' legacy in my region in the north-east of England. Under our stewardship, failing industries closed and derelict land was cleared. Newcastle upon Tyne now has one of the best cityscapes in this country, because of the Tyne and Wear development corporation, set up by a Conservative Government, which did so much to regenerate a rundown area on the riverside. The development corporations were good and efficient organisations, and the Government should learn some lessons from them when they redraft their regeneration projects.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend is making an important point. Labour Members always denigrate our record on urban regeneration. He has mentioned the west end of Newcastle, but many other major city sites were

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transformed by the urban development corporations, including the centre of Glasgow, Leeds, London docklands and the Albert dock in Liverpool.

Mr. Atkinson: Yes, our record is extremely good indeed, and we had a much tougher time, with much greater problems to deal with, than the present Government.

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) put her finger on it when she mentioned Canary Wharf. Here was a tremendously successful urban regeneration scheme cheek by jowl with pockets of extreme poverty. That is the problem that we face. It is the same in the north-east of England. People say that the north is depressed, and it is true that we have a lower than average percentage of gross domestic product and some more social problems, but to write it off as a depressed area gives the wrong impression entirely.

Much of the region is affluent, with content, healthy and well-educated people, and we have a most beautiful and wonderful landscape, but there are pockets of severe deprivation, especially in the old coalfield areas, that certainly need help. Are the Government targeting the areas of poverty efficiently? I suggest that they are not. I had hoped that the Minister would give us some better ideas about what they intend to do, but all I heard were the usual words: "top-down strategy", "framework", "planning".

Ms Keeble: I mentioned £24 million being spent on one development, a regeneration trust to deal with a whole range of refurbishment and a housing trust. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us anything that the Conservatives did for the coalfield areas other than shutting the pits?

Mr. Atkinson: Yes, I can. We invested millions and millions of pounds in clearing—

Ms Keeble: You shut the pits.

Mr. Atkinson: Was the hon. Lady going to keep them open? She has her history utterly confused. She may remember that it was her former colleague, Tony Benn, who closed more collieries in the north-east of England than anyone else: more than 1,000 collieries were closed by a Labour Government because they were uneconomic. We did precisely the same thing. Is she saying that she and her Government would have kept all those pits open?

Ms Keeble: We are talking about what we have done to regenerate the coalfields, the pits having been shut down by the Conservative party. We have taken action, while the Conservative party profoundly did not.

Mr. Atkinson: Nonsense again. The Minister clearly has not been to the north-east for a while; if she had she would have seen the regeneration effected under a Conservative Government in those coalfield areas. If she drives down to the coast from the city of Newcastle, she will see the industrial landscape on both sides of the Tyne, transformed as a result of Conservative initiatives. To say that we did nothing is nonsense: we did immeasurably more than the Labour Government have done. As far as I can see, we have a plethora of initiatives with very little happening on the ground.

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My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) referred to rural poverty and disadvantage. I have a striking example of that in my constituency: a community called Haltwhistle, a little settlement midway between Newcastle and Carlisle. It is actually in the centre of Britain, a feature the local tourist board makes something of.

As well as being a very old border town, Haltwhistle was also a small industrial town. It made a living off the local coalfield—which more or less collapsed in the 1930s—but it had an industrial base. In the last few months, there have been job losses in the town, with the consequence that, according to the local press, nearly half the working population of a town of 3,500 people is either currently unemployed or will be unemployed in the next few months. A paint factory that has been there for generations is closing and production has been moved away. The last coal mine is closing down, with 100 jobs going, and a construction company has gone bankrupt. All the associated jobs, in transport and elsewhere, are suffering and that is devastating for a town such as Haltwhistle.

I was hoping to find out from the Minister what the Government will do to address the problems of rural areas. We have the rural development plan and the market town initiative, neither of which is capable of reviving a town such as Haltwhistle unless the Government make some proper infrastructure improvements. Isolated communities depend on infrastructure.

Because of the Government's continual refusal to upgrade main highways in the north-east of England, such communities are hugely disadvantaged. We ask for the roads to be improved but the Government reply that traffic flows do not justify it in value-for-money terms. However, it is value for money if we build roads to open up and develop areas that need that. I appeal to the Government, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and the Highways Agency to make the improvements to the roads for the community of Haltwhistle.

Mr. Tom Harris: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the deregulation of bus services in 1996 had a catastrophic effect on the travelling public? Would he like to see some modification of that, such as the franchising of local bus routes?

Mr. Atkinson: I would not, and I disagree fundamentally with that idea. I know that the hon. Gentleman—who likes to intervene so much—was a Labour spin doctor for many years, but he must look at the facts. Deregulated bus services have vastly improved services in city areas, but in areas such as mine—the most sparsely populated constituency in England—running buses is an impracticality. It is not practical to leave Haltwhistle to travel 13 miles by bus to work and then return that day. Jobs need to be found for people in the areas where they need them, which the Government are singularly failing to do.

I wish to refer to the regional development agencies set up by the Government. The situation reminds me of the old joke about the lost traveller who asks the rustic for directions to the nearest town and is told, "If I were you, I would not be starting from this point." Like my right hon. and hon. Friends, I would not be starting from this point because we oppose regional development agencies.

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It was wrong to spread a network of agencies across the whole of the country. It is important for disadvantaged areas such as the north-east of England to get some additional advantage by having development agencies, and we used to have a development corporation. But if every area has a development agency, it simply means that other parts of the country will compete for funds out of the same pot, to the disadvantage of the genuinely disadvantaged areas.

I have no complaint about the staff or the board of my local agency, One NorthEast, which does the best job it can. However, it has no real power. Every decision it takes depends on somebody else. It has no power over education, planning, economic policy or highways. All the action needed to regenerate an area depends on somebody else doing something. The agency does not have enough priority. If we are to make the RDAs better, they should concentrate on fewer things, such as economic regeneration, and not on peripheral things that local authorities can do better.

Finally, I want to discuss regional government, which is another threat to the north-east. As we know, many Labour Members are frightfully keen on regional government. They want to balkanise England and turn it into a series of regions—an idea that is being pursued with great vehemence in the north-east. Fortunately, as I understand it, the move towards regionalism was torpedoed by No. 10 Downing street. According to leaked reports, the Government's White Paper will insist on dismantling an entire tier of local government if regional government in the north-east is to go ahead. That will involve abolishing Durham and Northumberland county councils.

I should tell the House and the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp)—he is not allowed to speak because he is a Whip—that people in the north-east will not vote for a regional assembly in those circumstances. They do not want their local county councils or district councils to be taken away and replaced by a regional assembly that is located far away from their communities. We should bring government closer to people, not move it further away. In effect, the Government have sabotaged regionalism—probably deliberately—by demanding the withdrawal of an entire layer of local government.

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