Regional Development Agencies

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Mr. Waterson: That is unfair to Castro.

Alan Johnson: I agree.

RDAs are increasingly effective. They are supported by bodies such as the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress, and the chambers of commerce, as well as most people who are genuinely interested in balanced and effective regional development in England. The role of RDAs is increasingly well understood by regional stakeholders, who have provided effective input to the regional economic strategies guiding their activities.

The new single pot budget arrangements represent a significant opportunity for RDAs, and a significant challenge. Their achievements to date justify the faith that we place in them by enhancing their role. We now look to them to fulfil their promise and make a sustainable improvement in the economic prospects of

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people in all the English regions. I hope that hon. Members will be critical friends of the RDAs in that vital mission. I look forward to this afternoon's debate.

The Chairman: There is now the opportunity for hon. Members to ask questions of the Minister for up to one hour from the beginning of his statement, which is until one minute past 3.

Mr. Waterson: First, I thank the Minister for letting me have an advance copy of his Havana address. That was helpful and courteous. A large part of the RDAs' work was previously done by the Government offices for the regions and English Partnerships. What is the value added by the RDAs? What are they doing that was not already being done by those two organisations?

Alan Johnson: Theirs is a co-ordinating role. They have set an economic strategy and are involving all the partners. The Government offices for the regions are the Government's eyes and ears in the regions; they do not aim particularly to bring together different strands. English Partnerships, which is currently undergoing the quaintly named quinquennial review by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, has a much more focused and defined role.

The RDAs' role—as we found in the cases of Scotland and Wales—cannot be replicated by something provided centrally by the Government or by a national organisation with a local office. The RDAs work from the bottom up. The point is to allow people in the region to choose their priorities and to decide how to attract match funding to achieve those priorities. That cannot be undertaken by the other bodies.

Some of the work of the Government offices is being transferred to RDAs. For example, regional selective assistance applications of up to £2 million will from 1 April be dealt with by RDAs. That was part of the Department of Trade and Industry review. Once they have seen the RDAs in action, the work of many other Departments will become much less centralised. I think that RDAs' value-added capability has been proved in the past couple of years.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Will the Minister give us an intimation of what his Department is doing to combat the threat to the important business development work of the RDAs coming from the European Commission's Competition Commissioner on the state aid issue? Does he agree that it is essential that the Government focus on the issue and ensure that that ruling does not contradict the efforts to develop the region made by the Regional Policy Commissioner?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I have heard raised not just in relation to the north west but about the west midlands and other RDA areas. We are considering the matter. There is no immediate and obvious reason why that recent interference should have been made and such concerns raised. I have heard that the state aid rules are being applied more stringently, but that does not affect some regions. However, there is a genuine

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problem, and I assure my hon. Friend that we are taking steps to sort it out, because as she rightly says, it is seriously affecting the RDAs' role and their opportunities to deliver their regional strategies.

Mr. Steen: Although I think that the Committee should not be meeting, now that it is, it would be best to ask the Minister a few questions. First, may I welcome him? It gives me great pleasure to have the opportunity to question him for the next hour. I hope that he enjoys the experience as much as we who ask the questions will. I think that it would be best to ask a few questions at a time, and not to confuse matters with lengthy interventions. I am going to set a record of short questions.

First, is it the Government's intention to get rid of the Government office for the south-west and replace it with the RDA, so that we end up with one body rather than two? Secondly, on the word ''region'', it is difficult to understand where the south-west region is. Does it start at Swindon? Does it extend to Bournemouth? Does it end in Penzance? It probably does, but there is a lack of clarity about what the region is. I should be grateful if the Minister could help us on those questions.

Alan Johnson: I do not know whether we are working to Parkinson's law. As I understand it, the questions do not have to run for an hour if hon. Members do not want to ask any.

The Chairman: I said up to an hour from the beginning of the statement.

Alan Johnson: I made a Minister's clarification.

The answer to the first question is no. It is not our intention to get rid of that Government office. In fact, Government offices come under the Cabinet Office, and they were developed on entirely proper lines during the previous Administration. Instead of Government offices being the mouthpiece of one particular Department, which used to be the case, the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Trade and Industry—indeed, all Government Departments—play a role in them. There are no plans to abolish any of the Government offices.

Where does the south-west region start and finish? It finishes at Penzance—that is one definite answer that I can give. I believe that it starts around Swindon, but the hon. Gentleman knows full well where the RDA in the south-west is located. There has been some controversy about that, but controversy is not confined to the RDA. All regional bodies in the south-west have experienced problems because they are in such a disparate region that stretches over a wide area.

John Mann (Bassetlaw): I have two questions for the Minister.

The Chairman: Order. Could we establish that the hon. Member for Totnes slipped in two questions? Hon. Members should ask one question at a time, although they may be called more than once.

John Mann: I shall ask one question.

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The coalfield programme resides with English Partnerships. Should it not reside with the regional development agencies, and when should that happen?

Alan Johnson: I understand that that is part of the quinquennial review of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Indeed, I think that the Department recently concluded that it is examining those precise questions. I cannot answer my hon. Friend's question today, but the results of the review will be published shortly.

Andrew George (St. Ives): I am pleased that the Minister afforded the hon. Member for Eastbourne the courtesy of providing him with an advance copy of his speech, but I am sorry that he did not afford me the same courtesy. It is important that the Liberal Democrats, as the effective Opposition, receive such information before the Committee meets.

I should like to follow up on the good question asked by the hon. Member for Eastbourne. Will the Minister clarify the effectiveness of the organisations that the RDAs replaced? Many people want to know the ways in which those organisations were failing. For example, the Rural Development Commission had a good track record. What did it fail to do that the RDAs are now doing? Which of the tasks successfully performed by the RDC have been effectively carried over to the RDAs?

Alan Johnson: I know that there is a contest about which party is the official Opposition, and I am sure that it will continue for years to come. I followed the protocol, but I have no problem with releasing my speech. I promise to send a copy of my speech to the Liberal Democrats when the Regional Affairs Committee next meets.

The hon. Gentleman's questions were probably more appropriate following the publication of the Millan report—we debated the issue in 1998. Millan conducted a lengthy and vigorous analysis and said that too many organisations were going in different directions. Although many such organisations have continued to operate—RDAs have not taken over the world; far from it—a co-ordinating body was needed, and that role can be better achieved through the RDAs.

I am not sure which tasks the RDAs took over from the Rural Development Commission. However, I know that all RDAs have a clear focus on rural issues—that is part of their central drive. We hear criticism from urban areas that we pay too much attention to rural areas. That actually means that we have got the focus just about right. However, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a more detailed answer without going back through the Millan report.

Mrs. Ellman: Does the Minister agree that the work that was done by several county councils during the 1980s on setting up enterprise boards shows the importance of a development agency that can work with business and the voluntary sector—as well as with the public sector—and invest in the economy? Lancashire Enterprises, of which I was vice-chairman, worked with the private sector to rescue

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Leyland Trucks by investing in the company, and purchasing the site and developing it as a key manufacturing area for the entire north-west. Does the Minister agree that that is a good example of the work that regional development agencies can do—although, in that case, it was done by Lancashire Enterprises, which was county council based?

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