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Column 676That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows :-- Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
To be presented by Privy Councillors or Members of Her Majesty's Household.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is an important petition but I cannot hear it. Could you please ask hon. Members to leave quietly or to listen to the petition?
Many people who live in the area value it as an essential transport system and many people wishing to visit the area use it as an amenity. For people travelling between the midlands, Yorkshire and Scotland, it is an excellent line both for communications and for historic beauty.
Therefore, I present this petition gladly on behalf of my constituents in the hope that it will do some good. It contains 2,000 names, and I understand that some 8,000 names will be presented this week.
To lie upon the Table.
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury) : I wish to present a similar petition on behalf of Mrs. Patricia Ashton, Mr. John Ashton and over 2,000 people living in the Dewsbury area of west Yorkshire who are concerned about the future of the Settle-Carlisle railway line. They believe that the railway line should have a future, not only as a tourist attraction and not only because it opens up an important and beautiful area of the country but because it should also form an essential part of this country's rail network and could have a use as an important freight line if British Rail were to exploit its full potential.
Column 677Many people in the north of England understand the full significance of the line--its historic significance, its engineering significance, and the way in which it opens up beautiful parts of the north of England to serve the many people who can appreciate its beauty.
We believe that British Rail has not taken the line seriously. Contrary to the views of Conservative Members who do not seem interested in this matter, we believe that this is an important issue. It is a significant achievement that over 2,000 people in my constituency and, I understand, over 80,000 people in all have signed petitions about the future of the Settle-Carlisle railway. I hope that those who are seriously concerned about the future of railways in this country, and in particular about the future of this Settle-Carlisle line, will urge the Government to reconsider their position on this matter. This line has great significance to the whole of the north of England and to this country's railway network. To lie upon the Table.
Column 678Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), the Settle-Carlisle railway line passes through my constituency and is a matter of great importance to many of my constituents. This petition has been signed by about 3,000 people, many of whom are constituents of mine.
I have expressed my views on this line previously in the House. Indeed, I expressed them a few months ago when the disappointing announcement was made that the line had to pass out of British Rail's hands. I hope that it will be possible to find a way to keep the line open in the future. It is a famous line which has justifiably received a great deal of publicity. Its features have become widely known and understood.
The petition is in the name of Mrs. Rosalind Templeman of 7 Railway Cottages, Garsdale, Sedbergh, Cumbria. I have great pleasure in presenting it to the House.
To lie upon the Table.
Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central) : I also have the honour to present a petition regarding the Settle to Carlisle railway and the associated Blackburn to Hellifield branch line. It contains approximately 2,050 signatures, and states that the
petitioners pray that the Settle-Carlisle railway and the associated Blackburn to Hellifield railway will be retained as an integral part of the national railway network.
To lie upon the Table.
Column 679Wakefield (European Regional Funds)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Alan Howarth.]
Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford) : I am grateful for the opportunity of initiating this Adjournment debate. The Minister and his predecessors will be aware that, for many years, representations have been made by members of the Wakefield metropolitan district council and, in particular, by representatives of the Castleford area, but we have not yet been able to persuade the Government to give the district any aid or to include it in the zone for assisted area status.
The case that I put tonight is supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and for Hemsworth (Mr. Buckley), who are present.
I am pleased to have the opportunity of raising the issue tonight. It may seem to some hon. Members to be a small, parochial issue. However, behind Wakefield district's elegibility for European regional funds lies the economic regeneration of an area that has been devastated by the decline of the coal industry.
The district has had no support or assistance from the Government. The Government took away the area's intermediate area status. It has had no support from the urban programme, yet today the problems of the district are far worse than those of many assisted areas. I do not intend to take up my time with a bad-news story. Instead, I ask the Minister for good news about reviving the Wakefield economy. Pontefract and Castleford is one of four constituencies in the Wakefield metropolitan district. My hon. Friends will join me in congratulating the district council on its hard work in developing a programme for revitalising the local economy. The programme is summarised in a brochure entitled "Ideas for Action". The Minister has seen a copy of it. I am pleased to see that he has a copy of it. The ideas for action programme was developed in conjunction with the local business community and has created a partnership between the council and the private sector. The partnership approach has been adopted in implementing the programme. I hope that the Minister has read the summary of the ideas for action programme. He will know that it involves the investment of about £88 million to provide the infrastructure needed to trigger further investment by the private sector. If the Minister has not read the document, he should do so. It makes an unanswerable case. I should like the Minister to acknowledge, either by nodding his head or otherwise, to acknowledge whether he has read it.
To meet the costs of the ideas for action programme, the district council and the business community approached the Government and the European Commission. It is hoped that the district will be recognised as an objective 2 area under the new rules for the European regional fund.
Column 680In May of this year, a delegation from Wakefield met both the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment and officials from other Departments. The district was represented by the chamber of commerce, local employers, industrialists and district councillors. Both the council leader and Conservative group leader were on that delegation.
In July, in reply to a debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry stated :
"It is possible that Wakefield might be eligible for assistance from the European regional development fund, which is currently being restructured I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will keep the interests of Wakefield closely in mind during the negotiations."--[ Official Report, 28 July 1988 ; Vol 138, c. 660.]
That was good news. I understand that the Government have submitted to Brussels a list of areas which they wish to be recognised under objective 2 and that Wakefield is on that list. I am grateful that at last the Government have acknowledged the strength of Wakefield's case. However, it is possible that the European Commission will not agree to the whole of the British list, so some areas may fall off. Can the Minister tell me how the list has been ranked and how near the top or bottom of the list Wakefield metropolitan district is? In a letter on 14 November to Mr. P. G. Thompson, honorary secretary of the Yorkshire and Humberside regional association, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State referred to the selection of objective 2 areas in west Yorkshire, south Yorkshire and Humberside, and said :
"We hope that all the assisted areas in these counties will be selected ; some non-assisted ones too."
Can the Minister tell me whether the Government are giving priority to the selection of assisted areas over non-assisted areas? The Wakefield metropolitan district lacks assisted area status and does not have support from the urban programme. There is a danger that the European Commission may accept only assisted areas under objective 2. Can the Minister reassure me that the European Commission has stated positively that non-assisted areas can be selected under objective 2?
The European regional development fund provides finance for two main types of measure : infrastructure and investment subsidies. Investment subsidies operate only in assisted areas. Is the Commission happy to see objective 2 areas which can use only the infrastructure part, not the investment subsidy part? Have the Government explored that issue with the Commission? If not, why submit non-assisted areas which the Commission will have to refuse? I am aware that assisted area status is not included in the criteria laid down in the new regulations for selecting objective 2 areas. At one stage it was suggested, but dropped after some countries objected. Article 9 of the Council regulation EEC 2052/88 states :
"In establishing the list the Commission shall seek to ensure that assistance is genuinely concentrated on the areas most seriously affected at the most appropriate geographical level, taking into account the particular situation of the area concerned."
The letter that I quoted earlier makes it clear that the most seriously affected parts of west Yorkshire will be selected. By any honest criterion that must mean Wakefield metropolitan district. West Yorkshire is covered by seven travel-to-work areas. Over the past three years Castleford and Pontefract
Column 681have suffered from the highest unemployment rate with Wakefield and Dewsbury in second place. Wakefield metropolitan district has suffered from the sharpest industrial decline. Only four years ago, coal mining was the largest single industry in the district. Some 15, 000 miners worked at 16 pits. Today 4,000 miners work at five pits, one of which is already earmarked for closure. Mine closures have a knock-on effect on the engineering and service sectors. Since the beginning of the year, there have been almost 1,400 notified redundancies in the district, 327 of which have been in mining engineering or mining-related firms. There have been major redundancies in British Jeffrey Diamond, Fletcher Sutcliffe and Wild and in Thyssen. The food and drink sector has also been badly hit, with 673 notified redundancies in food and drink firms.
The loss of 12,000 miners' wage packets has taken millions of pounds out of the local economy. The figure that I have been given shows that in Castleford £104 million a year has been taken out of earning capacity. During the past four years, £460 million has been taken from the earning capacity of miners working for British Coal. Very few jobs have been created in their place.
Unemployment takes its toll in other ways. People's health declines when they are without work. A recent report in the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners shows that jobless people are twice as likely to go to hospital. Unemployment causes strains on families and in communities. In pit towns where the pit has closed young single people are moving out, leaving behind the old and those with young children. The latest unemployment figures for Castleford travel-to-work area show that 42 per cent. of unemployed people are aged under 24.
Wakefield metropolitan district is the most seriously affected part of west Yorkshire. I hope that the Minister will confirm that. His colleagues in the Department said in a written answer on 25 November that Wakefield was one of the worst areas. I suggest that it is the worst.
Unemployment is much higher in Wakefield than in many assisted areas. The latest figures show that only three intermediate areas in England have higher unemployment than Pontefract and Castleford. In England as a whole, 21 intermediate areas have lower unemployment than Pontefract and Castleford, and 13 have lower unemployment than Wakefield and Dewsbury. The Minister's answer to another written question on 25 November shows that the position is even worse, with a total of 41 areas having unemployment lower than that in Pontefract and Castleford. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier), knows all about that. The intermediate area with the lowest unemployment is Accrington and Rossendale. The other constituency in Accrington and Rossendale is Hyndburn, which is a marginal Tory seat. I say nothing more about that.
Selecting only assisted areas is clearly incompatible with the regulation, which demands the selection of areas most seriously affected. Much effort has gone into restructuring the European funds. It would be embarrassing for all concerned if an area such as Wakefield was not included while other areas with lesser problems were included. Wakefield metropolitan district is ready to use the funds. Its council and business community have the
Column 682plans and the desire to reconstruct the local economy. Its case for recognition is unanswerable. I hope that the Minister has good news for us on the attitude of the Government and the European Commission to Wakefield's case.
Wakefield is not sitting back and not helping itself. The district council and West Yorkshire passenger transport authority are working to reopen the Pontefract-Wakefield railway line for passenger services. The proposal includes the building of new railway stations at Pontefract, Featherstone, Streethouse, Sharlston and Crofton. That will enable people from those areas of high unemployment to commute to larger cities such as Leeds and Sheffield.
I have already given the Minister notice of my questions to him tonight. I shall repeat them as briefly as possible. It is possible that the European Commission will not agree to the whole British list, so some areas may be taken off. Can the Minister tell me how the list has been ranked and how near to the top or bottom of the list is the Wakefield metropolitan district?
In a letter to Mr. P. G. Thompson, honorary secretary of Yorkshire and Humberside regional association on 14 November, the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry spoke about the selection of objective 2 areas in west Yorkshire, south Yorkshire and Humberside. He said :
"We hope that all the assisted areas in these counties will be selected : some non-assisted ones too."
Does that imply that the Government are giving priority to the selection of assisted areas over non-assisted areas? Can the Minister assure me that the Commission has positively said that non-assisted areas can be selected under objective 2? Is the Commission happy to see objective 2 areas that can use only the infrastructure part but not the investment subsidies part of the European regional development fund?
Have the Government explored this issue with the Commission? If they have not, why submit non-assisted areas which the Commission will have to refuse? Can the Minister confirm that Wakefield metropolitan district is the most seriously affected part of west Yorkshire? I should be grateful to the Minister for answers to those questions.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Robert Atkins) : It is a measure of the respect in which the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) is held in the House that he has been able to encourage his hon. Friends to support him in a debate about his constituency and the immediately surrounding area. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being able to talk about his constituency in the way that he has.
As I expected of the hon. Gentleman, he has also been courteous enough to talk to the people in my office this morning and to tell them and me of the questions that he wished to raise. I shall endeavour to cover all the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but if I miss any of them, or if we run out of time, I shall be more than happy to write to the hon. Gentleman and take-up the points that may be missed.
I have been approached by representatives of Wakefield, not only from the majority side--which is quite substantial--but also by Conservative councillors and
Column 683their supporters. That is a measure of the support across the party divide for the case that the hon. Gentleman has presented. I am glad to take this opportunity to recognise Wakefield's interest in the European regional development fund and to explain in more general terms how things stand on eligibility for the fund and what we hope to obtain from it in future. Even though Wakefield district has not in recent years been an assisted area, the north-western part of it has already benefited from the regional fund. The fund has been supporting the business improvement services scheme for small firms in the west Yorkshire textile closure area, which includes most of Ossett and parts of Dewsbury.
I am well aware of the vigour and diligence with which the district council has pursued the case for future regional fund eligibility for the whole area. I shall come to that in a moment. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the document that he waved about. I have read most, if not all, of that. I congratulate his constituents and the council, as one or two European Commissioners have done, on the quality of the document. Its authors have not made the mistake of knocking their area which, I think the hon. Gentleman would agree, is not necessarily helpful to the future of such areas. They have intelligently and carefully highlighted the problems as they perceive them. Despite the colour of the document, it is extremely ably put together.
Wakefield is showing a welcome adaption to change. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that more needs to be done, and I hope that the European regional fund will be able to help. As he knows, there is to be a new regime for all the European Community structural funds and new criteria for eligibility under them. The Single European Act calls for the amending of the rules of the funds, including the regional fund, so as to strengthen the Community's economic and social cohesion and to address its principal regional imbalances. The funds are to be doubled by 1993 for this purpose.
The bulk of the funds will go to the less developed regions that are to be found in the southern part of the Community. The framework regulation for the reformed funds which was adopted in June contains five objectives for their use. The precise point at issue tonight is how much of Britain, and of west Yorkshire, the European Commission will select as qualifying for the fund's new objective 2. Objective 2 will, from the beginning of 1989, confer eligibility for the European regional development fund and a certain priority for the European social fund. At present, European regional development fund eligibility essentially depends on assisted area status, so Wakefield has not been eligible recently, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said--except for the special BIS measures that I mentioned. In future, there will be no necessary exact correspondence between the assisted areas and those eligible for the fund. I know that there has been some confusion about aspects of this eligibility, so it is worth while spelling out the situation.
An early draft of the structured fund's framework regulation proposed that objective 2 support should be confined to nationally aided areas, but the Commission later withdrew this proposal and the final regulation does not include it. The hon. Gentleman has done his homework, and is perfectly well aware of that. It does not mention nationally aided areas at all. It was the will of the
Column 684Council that that should not be so, and the British Government's recommendations for the objective 2 list was based on this clear understanding.
Therefore, I am disturbed to hear from Brussels that there should be some suggestion that the Commission may, after all, decide to exclude all areas that are not nationally aided areas. By overturning the previous clear understanding, this would be wasting our own representations, the hon. Member's and those of all others concerned with the inclusion of areas like Wakefield. We are making urgent attempts to clarify that, although I have every expectation what was originally intended will be the case.
As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, objective 2 is of major importance to the United Kingdom. It calls for the conversion of the regions, including inner city communities, that are seriously affected by industrial decline, and the Government have made it clear in Brussels that we expect continuing recognition of the needs of those of our regions that have still not overcome the problems of conversion away from some, mainly traditional, manufacturing industries. We continue to need that regional fund.
We accordingly secured criteria for objective 2 that would pick out those regions and areas where industrial activity has been strongly based, although declining, and where unemployent is above the Community average. The outcome, incorporated in the framework regulation, is three criteria that are applied at county level, and three others to apply to adjacent areas, inner cities, and other industrial areas. The regulation goes on to say that assistance in the counties that qualify as counties is to be concentrated on the most seriously affected parts of them.
The hon. Gentleman has raised three questions, and I shall deal with them as he raised them with me. He asked about the ranking of Wakefield metropolitan district. As far as we are aware, there is no ranking. If the Commission should say that among our suggestions some are eligible and some are not, we would want to know the basis for that decision and would consider our further response. As of today, there is no ranking.
The second question was about the letter I wrote to Mr. P. Thompson, the honorary secretary of the Yorkshire and Humberside regional association.
Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton) : I am intrigued about the question of ranking. How does the Commission describe the first, second and third, up to the 10th or whatever? Where is the cut-off point, and how does it arrive at that if there is no ranking?
Mr. Atkins : We have no sign as to what that ranking may be. Clearly, when the matter eventually comes out, when the decisions are finally taken, they may establish the criteria on which it has ranked. As from now, there is no ranking, and no suggestion of ranking and there is no ranking in the submissions that we have made. We have put in all the assisted areas that we could find of which there are others like Wakefield. There is no ranking as far as we are concerned, and as of now there is no ranking as far as the Commission is concerned. We await developments, and, as the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will know, the mills of the Commission grind exceedingly slow, and until it produces something we shall not be able to make a judgment.
Column 685under that objective, would it not be simpler for the Government to accord Wakefield assisted area status now, given that there are many areas in this country with far better employment figures than Wakefield has at present?
Mr. Atkins : Bearing in mind that time is limited, I do not want to get drawn into a regional discussion, but we have always made it clear that we do not want to change immediately the assisted areas map, which took four or five years to establish and culminated in the decisions of 1984, largely because of the requirement for stability and planning in the future. We have said that we will not review that map this side of a general election, although some areas come up and others go down. When that review takes place, we shall then have to make a rejudgment on the basis of those submissions.
As it stands at the moment, Wakefield is not an assisted area and will not be so within the foreseeable future. However, we are pushing with the Commission the case put so eloquently by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford.
In my letter to Mr. Thompson of the Yorkshire and Humberside regional association, I said :
"We hope that all Assisted Areas in these counties will be selected ; some non-Assisted ones may too."
Every possible assisted area is being included. The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I could assure him that the Commission has stated positively that the non-assisted areas can be selected under objective 2. We are exploring that point further and we shall endeavour to let him know as soon as we know exactly what the position is.
The hon. Gentleman also asked me whether I could confirm whether Wakefield is the most seriously affected part of west Yorkshire. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs said earlier, it is one of the most important areas, but, as the hon. Gentleman will know, there are others, including Bradford city urban programme area, Kirklees borough urban programme area and Leeds city urban programme area, which go side by side with Wakefield in our suggestions to the Commission. Although Wakefield's case is important, there are other cases of concern which Opposition Members who represent nearby constituencies will understand also have merit.
Column 686We are endeavouring to push the case wherever we can for the Commission to consider what assistance it may give under any of the objectives, but, in this context, under objective 2. In those circumstances, we hope--we cannot predict the results at this stage-- that the hon. Gentleman will find acceptable the results that we obtain.
Mr. Atkins : The hon. Gentleman is quite rightly pushing the case for his area, and that is understandable. I would do exactly the same in his circumstances. I am faced with the prospect of having to deal with a wide variety of submissions from all over the country, all of which are argued to have equal merit. I shall do my best to ensure that Wakefield gets a fair crack of the whip, largely because it has a case to make in view of the document to which I have referred and in view of the hon. Gentleman's comments. That case will be put as strongly as possible. However, as the hon. Gentleman is a fair man, he will realise that there are other areas represented by both his hon. Friends and my hon. Friends which also reckon that they have a pretty good case to put.
Mr. Atkins : The hon. Gentleman makes his point. He understands the situation as well as anyone. In the circumstances, I can assure him that we will press the case for Wakefield. He is pushing against an open door in that respect, but we must balance the relative importance of all the areas concerned.
Time is running out. There may well be other aspects of this matter with which I have not dealt. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that. If he wishes to come back to me, perhaps in correspondence, I will be more than happy to pursue the matter. I reiterate that Wakefield has a case and that we will continue to pursue it. I hope that the results will be to the satisfaction of the House and of the hon. Gentleman.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Eleven o'clock.
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