Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw) : I make no apology for highlighting the unique position of my constituency--the only Labour constituency which does not receive any rate support grant. Of 18 councils which do not receive rate support grant, 17 are Conservative in the rolling hills of Surrey, Berkshire Buckinghamshire or where the wealth is, and the other one is Bassetlaw.

Bassetlaw does not have assisted area status. It used to, but it was taken away. Yet we have massive unemployment. That is peculiar. We used to get £3.8 million in rate support grant in 1977, but now we get nothing. Yet we have few new industries. Because we have three pits and three power stations, the Government say that we have sufficient rates from industry.

The industries provide us with pollution, slag heaps, heavy lorries, acid rain and everything else associated with them. Nottingham county council takes 85 per cent. of industrial rates. leaving Bassetlaw district council, which is 45 miles from Nottingham and has all the aggravation of the industry, with 15 per cent. That stops us getting rate support grant.

Out of 633 constituencies, 606 have a better employment rate than we have in Bassetlaw. We are at the bottom of the fourth division for new jobs. Our council is not loony Left or even Labour-controlled--it is a hung council. [Interruption.] It is a Labour-controlled council, but Labour does not have a majority. There is no silly spending. We are not being punished for daft spending. We do not throw money away on daft items. The committees meet in the evening. It is a solid, responsible


Column 559

council which went to Brussels to get extra cash and which has been lobbying the Minister and doing its best to rectify the position. Yet everywhere we turn, help is removed. In 1980, assisted area status was removed and rate support grant has dwindled to nothing. Yet we have one of the highest rates of unemployment in Britain.

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield) : Does my hon. Friend accept that part of his constituency comes under Mansfield district council, which is a solid Labour Council? [Hon. Members :-- "Loony Left."] It is certainly not loony Left. It does not waste money either. It, too, has been involved in trips to Brussels. It is losing businesses because of its lack of assisted area status. Large firms are leaving to go to areas with assisted area status.

Mr. Ashton : My hon. Friend is right.

Only 10 constituencies in England have a worse unemployment rate than Bassetlaw. Three are in the same county as

Bassetlaw--Nottinghamshire--and one is next door in Derbyshire. Unemployment is dire. In the largest town in the constituency there is 14.7 per cent. male unemployment. There is nearly 8 per cent. female unemployment. The percentage has fallen slightly because of part-time jobs in retail shops which have recently been constructed--there is a large Co- op and a large Tesco--and in parts of the food industry. About 20 per cent. of all the workers in the area are employed in the declining industries of coal and textiles. A third of the unemployed are under 25 years of age, despite the Government's training schemes, for which there is no lack of applications. Half the unemployed have been in that position for 12 months or longer.

The Minister read out the criteria set by the EEC and drew attention to the five clauses to be satisfied. The House should understand that Bassetlaw has the third highest unemployment rate in the east midlands, although I accept that the rate in Mansfield is slightly higher. The rate in Skegness is also higher, but that is seasonal. It is higher in the winter and lower in the summer. If we exclude the Northern Ireland constituencies, Bassetlaw and Mansfield have some of the worst rates of unemployment among the remaining 633 constituencies. There are few constituencies with worse rates. Unemployment has fallen nationally by 15 per cent. in the past year, but by only 5 per cent. in my constituency. With the declining coal and textile industries, there are real fears for the long term. Over the past few years the east midlands, the area within which Bassetlaw falls, has received only 0.6 per cent. of the development grants paid by the Common Market. Mansfield and Bassetlaw are on the fringes of the south Yorkshire steel and coal belt, but as the constituencies are within Nottinghamshire and the east midlands they lose practically everything that is available.

The anomalies stemming from assisted area status are well known to the Minister. Many of the areas that enjoy that status have far lower rates of unemployment than Mansfield and Bassetlaw. The Minister has stated--he may have had valid reasons for so doing--that he will not engage in redistribution of assisted area status until after the next general election. Those who live in Bassetlaw and Mansfield receive nothing from the Government and will be left to struggle because of the anomalies within the present system.


Column 560

That means that we have a good claim for Common Market cash. Indeed, the Minister has put Bassetlaw on the list of areas that he recommends should receive the cash. The Common Market will say, however, "If your own Government do not give you any money, why should we?" That is what it will throw at us. Bassetlaw will be competing with Greece, Portugal, Ireland, the bottom half of Italy and the French islands in the Caribbean for Common Market cash. We have heard about the second objective of the new rules and the list to be formulated, but nothing has been said about how the list, or league table, will be drawn. Will the assisted areas be at the top of the list? Will areas such as Bassetlaw be at the top? What sort of ranking will there be?

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, talked about additionality. The Common Market has made it clear that there must be additional money, not substitution money, and I have the feeling that if the Government are giving nothing the Common Market will also give nothing. In effect, there will be a pound for a pound. I accept that rate support grant is Government support, but if the Common Market determines that it will provide cash only for areas receiving Government support poor old Bassetlaw will fall between two stools--it does not have assisted area status and it does not receive RSG. Yet 90 per cent. of other constituencies enjoy a better employment rate and better employment prospects. There is a massive anomaly. I hope that the Minister will tell us what additionality is. The EEC document says :

"The money must be genuinely concentrated on geographical areas most seriously affected."

On any geographical or statistical basis, on any criterion of youth unemployment or long-term unemployment that the Minister lays down, my constituency must be counted as such an area--unless there is an additionality factor. Will the Minister explain the principle behind the idea of "additional to", as opposed to "not a substitution for" ? How will that apply to constituencies such as mine, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale)? This is a glaring loophole, and it means a great deal to us. I hope that the Minister will meet a deputation from my constituency to explain the issue. 11.2 pm

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow) : Before discussing the structural funds, I want to comment on the presentation and accuracy of the documents before us tonight. In my copies, some pages are duplicated, others are missing and the reference numbers do not tally. Earlier this afternoon, the House heard my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) draw Mr. Speaker's attention to the fact that an important document from the Community Court of Auditors was not available. That gives us great cause for concern.

This nation is now in Europe and destined to stay there. It is high time we got one or two things straight--not only the paperwork, but the importance that the Government attach to European matters in the parliamentary timetable, the importance generally attached to European matters and our general relationship with European institutions, including the European Parliament and its Members.


Column 561

For 15 years, I have had only one reservation about Britain in Europe : whether we shall go into the Community with a will and determination to succeed. I can see no benefit in entering the Community unless we play to win. We are all well aware that the stakes are high, so it is important to play to win. My reservation--my fear--is in no way allayed by some of the antics of the House or some of the utterances of hon. Members.

The United Kingdom must play a full part in Europe by taking the lead in its counsels, by making it the sort of community we want to live in and, not least, by getting the best deal from it that we can for the people of these islands. The alternatives do not bear contemplation : isolationism and the worst of all worlds, socially and commercially.

Some hon. Members will have heard me say before that I think the structural funds are a lottery. They are cash-limited ; it follows that not all projects will be treated even-handedly. I have also referred to the funds as a roundabout. Money is taken from us, the taxpayers, and ultimately remitted to Brussels. Then the big shuffle starts, and we all get involved in trying to get the money back again.

Another aspect about the funds that worries me is that they are wide open to abuse--or rather, corruption. They lead to the sort of headlines that we have seen in the press in the last seven days, such as, "Traders print money" and "A crop of fraud". The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who left his accustomed place a moment ago, spoke about the scandal, of which we are becoming increasingly aware, of the trade in beef in the Community. Sadly, we do not know enough about that because it was dealt with in the document that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East was unable to obtain in the Vote Office.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud) : Is my hon. Friend aware that, this year and for many years past, tens of thousands of tonnes of corn come across from France, are unloaded in the south Devon ports, stored and taken within a few days to Southampton an re-exported to France? Who benefits from all this activity?

Mr. Gill : My hon. Friend asks a good question. The British farmer does not benefit ; nor does the producer on the other side of the Channel. The consumer does not benefit either. In such cases, the actions of middlemen or traders do the trade in the products a great disservice and bring the trade and the bona fide traders into disrepute. As my hon. Friend knows, we currently spend no less than £12.5 billion per annum on the storage and disposal of surplus crops and agricultural produce. None of that benefits the producer. Quite apart from the structural funds being open to abuse, a sheer administrative nightmare is created. The Public Accounts Committee recently heard evidence from the Intervention Board for Agricultural Produce about refunds to British exporters which are up to 12 months in arrears. The board gave computer problems as a reason or explanation for the delay. That is a lame excuse and perhaps it warrants further inspection.

My next point is allied to the structural funds. We are 10 days from the end of the year and our beef farmers have just learned that the scheme that they expected to end on 31 December will continue until 5 March. Hon. Members


Column 562

cannot dispute the fact that, administratively, there is much to be desired in the workings of the European Community. On a positive note, we can help to build a much better future in Europe. That is important, and our people need to understand it. We are in Europe, and we have to get the best terms.

Mr. Meale : The hon. Gentleman talks about understanding. Perhaps he would reflect on what he has said so far to see whether it had anything to do with the structural funds. Will he get to the point and deal with the structural funds? He has already used up much time, so perhaps he will now let us have his thoughts on the subject under debate so that we can hear other hon. Members

Mr. Gill : I am pleased to reply to the hon. Gentleman and give him my views on the structural funds. They have a low priority in terms of achieving what we expect and need to achieve in the European Community. The top priority is a market in which there are no fiscal, technical or practical barriers. That is the goal. From that, all else flows. The structural funds do not form part of these priorities. I suggest that they work against them.

We must not put our trust in the ideologues and Eurocrats. We must have faith and confidence in the individual, who will unfailingly adjust to changing circumstances and new opportunities and meet the challenges of tomorrow rather than those of yesterday. The sum of individual human endeavour will give us a better, more permanent and useful result than anything devised by Governments or bureaucracies. Our job as politicians is to create a climate in which the legitimate aspirations of individual citizens can flourish, to the benefit of themselves, their families and their countries.

I support the Government's pragmatic approach. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to heed my warnings about the structural funds, not least because I for one am sceptical that when the Government talk about ensuring that the funds are concentrated on the regions in greatest need, that means the United Kingdom. On that point, I have the gravest doubts.

11.11 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford) : The House would do well to accept that we are in Europe. Whether we lump it or like it, the documents show some of the results. We must get the best possible deals. It is no good arguing that we have paid our money and then go begging it back.

I should like to refer to regional funds. On 29 November, in an Adjournment debate, I put the case for Wakefield metropolitan district council. I am worried about those hard-hit areas which are not included in the travel-to- work areas which attract assisted area status. I shall not put Wakefield's case at length because it has been well documented in the House. But Wakefield district is a prime example of traditional industry in decline. Until recently, the major industry was coal mining. Only five pits are left, employing 4,000 miners. Only four years ago there were 16 pits, employing 15,000 miners. Few jobs have replaced them, so the district's two travel-to-work areas have the highest unemployment in west Yorkshire. Unemployment is higher than in many assisted areas. A written answer on 25 November revealed that there are 17 intermediate areas with lower unemployment than the


Column 563

Wakefield and Dewsbury travel-to-work area and 35 intermediate areas with lower unemployment than the Castleford and Pontefract travel-to-work area.

In the Adjournment debate on 29 November, the Minister was good enough to confirm that west Yorkshire met the criteria for objective 2. But will the European Commission select the most severely affected parts of west Yorkshire? My main worry is that the Commission will decide that only assisted areas will be eligible. If the Commission decides that only areas that have qualified for assisted status will be acknowledged as eligible for aid from the regional development fund, areas with unemployment and industrial decline levels that are not nearly as bad as the areas to which I have referred may attract grants. If that is so, the regional fund will not work fairly. I am aware that the Government have included Wakefield on the list which they have presented to the Commission. However, we are not aware at this stage whether that full list will attract regional development funds. If it does not, the areas to which I have referred will fare badly.

After the Adjournment debate, the Minister kindly wrote to me suggesting that the Commission may stick to its original decision, and will consider areas outside those that attract assisted area status. One hopes that at the end of the day that will be so. I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that issue.

The Government have proposed Wakefield as an objective 2 area. I understand that the Government first sent their proposed list of objective 2 areas to the European Commission in a letter of 19 July. Would the Minister be willing to place a copy of that letter in the Library? I hope that he will be able to tell us in his reply. The Minister's letter referred to a meeting in Leeds between one of his officials and officers of the five west Yorkshire district councils. At that meeting, it was suggested that in January the Commission would once again ask member states to nominate the most seriously affected parts of eligible counties. If the Government resubmit their list, will Wakefield still be included?

The regulations set a timetable for the next stage. The Government must submit regional plans to the European Commission by the end of March. If the objective 2 list is not finalised until the end of January, there will be only two months in which to submit the regional plans.

The European Commission has allowed itself a little longer in which to respond to the regional plans. It will have six months in which to draft a community support framework. That framework will determine what measures can be financed by the European funds and how much will be set aside for each operation. It is only when the community support framework has been completed that decisions on measures can be taken, which is not until the end of September 1989.

Little time is available to draw up the regional plans, but the plans will be the key to obtaining European funds over the next three years. It is vital to an area such as Wakefield that the regional plan takes account of the programme drawn up by the local council and local industry. Will the regional plan for Yorkshire and Humberside take the Wakefield programme into account? I hope that the Minister will give a commitment that all interested local authorities will be consulted on the drafting of regional plans.


Column 564

The regulations refer to a partnership between local authorities, the Government and the European Commission. If that partnership is to be effective, local authorities must be involved in drawing up the plans.

I have previously drawn the Minister's attention to the programme for the regeneration of the Wakefield district. The district council, together with the chamber of commerce and other local business people, have drawn up an £88 million programme of public investment, designed to stimulate private sector investment in the district. It is summarised in the "Ideas for Action" brochure of which the Minister is aware.

Is the Minister aware that the regulations allow programmes to be submitted before the community support framework is drawn up? They can even be submitted at the same time as the regional plan. That document was first presented to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment in May. Discussions have continued between officers of the council and officials of that Department and the Department of Trade and Industry.

I hope that the Government will back the "Ideas for Action" programme submission to the EC at the earliest opportunity. The Wakefield district has suffered greatly as a result of the decline in the coal industry and there is a cast iron case for recognition under objective 2. I do not believe that that claim can be refuted and I am glad that the Minister has not sought to do so. The people of Wakefield are ready to help themselves to revive their area. The district council and business community have joined in partnership to devise the "Ideas for Action" programme. They have approached the Commission for funds to implement it. That partnership must include the Government as well as the Commission and that is why, once again, I ask the Minister to back Wakefield.

11.20 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) : I am concerned that the proposal places great stress on giving moneys for objective 1. As I understand the documents, objective 1 would debar England, Scotland and Wales from making successful applications. I would have preferred to see much more stress placed on objective 2 for which we would have some chance of qualifying.

I am also worried that, in the projected figures, the United Kingdom's recovery from the funds rises from £750 million to £1 billion by 1992. That seems to represent a diminishing proportion of the growing fund and it will make our rebate position more difficult.

To give the House an idea of the imbalances that the funds will create in moneys distributed around the Community, we can compare Portugal with the EC average. On the basis of the last year for which we have proper figures, Portugal will receive 1.3 per cent. of its gross domestic product in the form of cash from the funds whereas the Community average will be 0.1 per cent. We are talking about a massive transfer of moneys from British taxpayers, and for that matter German and French taxpayers, to Portuguese, Greek and Spanish taxpayers.

We are also talking about the development of Communitywide programmes such as Star and Valorem, which are of dubious value anyway. It would be far better to liberalise the telecommunications industries than to


Column 565

have the Star programme. Those programmes also exclude England, Scotland and Wales. I would rather that we promoted objective 2, tried to cap the total growth of the funds and asked some fairly tough questions about the use to which those moneys are put. I notice, for example, that Spain and Portugal have been receiving, and will continue to receive, subsidy moneys to build up the industries designed to compete against our own. British taxpayers are helping to finance the growth of the furniture, food and engineering industries in Galicia, which will doubtless then compete on a more favourable cost basis against our domestic production. That is against the spirit of the Treaty of Rome, which I welcomed. I welcome the Common Market, I welcome the free open market, I welcome the strongly enforced competition policy, but I do not welcome English or Scottish taxpayers' money being routed to Calicia to compete against us.

How many of the investments that have been backed by such moneys get into trouble or even go bankrupt? Our experience of that type of force-fed industrial winner picking from Whitehall has been bitter. I wonder whether that experience will be any better if it is directed from Brussels or whether we shall see a lot of money going down the drain in ropey organisations.

I notice that the Court of Auditors report, which was available in the Library, but not elsewhere, backs those of us who have fears about the way in which some of the moneys have been used. It has said of the structural measures of the regional fund :

"the Community, for lack of overall accounting documents and implementation reports, does not carry out any follow-up examinations and does not assess the results achieved."

That is bad enough, but it did some follow-up checks of its own on projects to which regional fund moneys had been applied. It reported :

"In two thirds of the cases studied, the net utilisation rate of the projects was found to be less than 50 per cent.".

There is good evidence from the Court of Auditors report that a lot of the money is going into projects that do not work, are unnecessary or are scarcely necessary in the context in which they are established.

The report considers further examples, but there are too many to cite. One did catch my eye, however, when I read it. The report says :

"In some cases the work has no related economic development objective."

Yet that was the criterion for awarding the moneys in the first place and it quoted the example of the Termoli sewage plant in Italy which had received money, but, according to the European Court of Auditors, did not meet the prime criterion.

As we learn to live with the structural and social funds, I hope that we will learn to ask the tough questions to ensure that the moneys are wisely spent, that not too much money is spent, that no money is wasted and that we edge the criteria away from objective 1 to objective 2. If we do not do that, I do not think that this country will get a fair deal from the funds.

11.24 pm

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) : For once I agree with the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) : I too would promote objective 2, because I want some of the Halifax ratepayers' money back into my area. We might be


Column 566

in Europe, but it seems to me that some of us are more equal than others when it comes to the Mickey Mouse lottery that Europe appears to be.

I want to jog the Minister's memory about the fact that I have been in correspondence with him, because the Department of Trade and Industry has not recommended my area for objective 2. When assisted area status was taken from us, we found ourselves--I will not use the over-played term, the "hole in the doughnut"--the hole in the middle of the Polo mint. We are surrounded by areas which have assisted area status, and that has been very damaging to the local economy. The Minister very kindly wrote to me to explain why we had not been put forward in negotiations as eligible for objective 2. He wrote : "We had to take a wide range of considerations into account. Calderdale is not alone in the country in having to be omitted and it will not be entirely surrounded by eligible areas even if the Commission agrees to all our recommendations, because Pendle in Lancashire is in a similar position."

We feel slightly betrayed by the Department as a result of that explanation. The Minister continued :

"the average Calderdale unemployment rate over the 3 months April 1985, April 1986 and April 1987, comes just below the EC average when the United Kingdom figures have been harmonised."

I wrote to the Minister stating :

"It would be most helpful if you could let me know the basis for this calculation, and most particularly how an allowance for self-employment has been made, when no figures are available below County levels"--

especially when the figures that are available are notoriously unreliable. I am sure that the Minister will appreciate the importance that we attach to achieving objective 2 status. The Minister replied :

"Calderdale will not be entirely surrounded by eligible areas". I replied in my turn :

"Calderdale has a boundary of around 50 miles, 47.5 miles of this is adjoined by areas that the United Kingdom is putting forward as most seriously affected parts under objective 2. The

Calderdale-Pendle boundary"--

to which the Minister had referred in his letter--

"is only 2.5 miles long and lies in a remote moorland area." In fact, Calderdale will be surrounded by 95 per cent. of areas that qualify under objective 2. We will have to go through the process of relocation again, and our industry will be sucked out. Some of us are suffering under the peculiar logic upon which the funding is based. Will the Minister consider my specific points, because we are seriously disadvantaged? We believe that we will suffer in future, in particular in the textile industry, because things may happen over which we have no control. We desperately need the money, and we want some of our money back.

11.29 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stafford) : About one year ago, I served on the Committee considering the Bill that led to the abolition of regional grants. Having spent many days in Committee on the Regional Development Grants (Termination) Bill, I find myself late at night considering a remarkable change in direction. To put that, and the social engineering that I believe lies at the heart of this measure, in perspective, the House may like to know that the amount involved will be £8,500 million in 1992. I have the 1986 Community budget figure, and if one calculates from the documents what percentage that £8,500 million


Column 567

will represent of the Community budget in 1992, converted into ecu, the figure is 13,000 million ecu from a total Community budget of about 35,000 million ecu.

That is an indication of the increased amount of money being made available. My hon. Friends have made the point about scrutiny that I have made repeatedly over the past few years. It is difficult to understand why we find ourselves dealing with matters of such dramatic importance to the United Kingdom so late at night. The report reveals that, effectively, the money will go to Greece, the mezzogiorno, Portugal, large parts of Spain, and so on--along with the French overseas departments. Those are the areas regarded as most requiring the money. Against the background of the Court of Auditors' report, to which reference has also been made, that matter needs to be carefully examined, and it is one over which a much greater degree of not only scrutiny but control is required.

Recently, members of the Select Committee on European Legislation visited Naples, to whose sewage plant reference has been made. We saw it--it was absolutely chaotic. It did not work, and money was being wasted like the sewage the plant is supposed to treat. It is scandalous that large amounts of British taxpayers' money is being spent on such projects.

I say, not as any kind of anti-European gesture, that it is in the interests of the Community as a whole, and of the United Kingdom as an integral part of it, that we sort out the way in which funds are being spent, that we maintain proper control, and that we ensure that the British taxpayer receives good value for money. As I wish to be brief, that is all I shall say tonight--but much more could be said. 11.32 pm

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North) : I am very happy to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash), and I agree with every word that he said.

My hon. Friend the Minister said something about my attitude to Europe. I put it to my hon. Friend that he does not really know what my attitude to Europe is. The reason why I made the intervention that I did was that I have quite a strong attitude towards democracy. The way that this matter is being handled is shameful in democratic terms. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford has just said--and I am not blaming the Government or my hon. Friend for this--that this concerns in 1992, in today's money, 13,000 million ecu. That is knocking on for 40 per cent. of Community expenditure. And here we are, nine days, or whatever it is, before 1 January, when it comes into effect, and the die has been cast and the decisions have been taken. Here we are, for one and one half hours late at night, before we disappear for Christmas, almost on the nod, looking at this highly complex and highly important issue.

It really is a massive democratic deficit. What are we talking about? As my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) has said, we are talking about regional policy. Big chance in regional policy? We would have a massive statement, followed by a full-day debate. Our view of regional policy in the Conservative party is totally different from the obscure, Socialist view of the Community. And yet up with it we are having to put at this time of night. It is talking about urban policy. We have a totally different view on urban policy from the rest of the


Column 568

European Community. It is talking about combating long-term unemployment. Our views as a Conservative Government in this country are very different from those of the other European Community countries.

Let us look at it. Supposing that by stupid economic policies in other European Community countries there is a vast increase in long-term unemployment, that means that those Community countries would get a bigger slice of the cake. So the less efficient their Government, the more disasters they have within their own economies, the more we have to fork out as a result of these policies we are discussing tonight. Reinforcing failure--that is what it is about. Fourthly,

"facilitating the occupational integration of young people". I am not quite sure what that gobbledegook means. Obviously, if you have failures in the education system of Greece and Italy, they are going to require more of this bunce that is going around at the moment--again, reinforcing failure. Other people fail, we cough up the money.

My hon. Friend the Minister has said that we have got to take all this on the nod and accept it because it is good for Britain. Who says it is good for Britain? The Government say it is good for Britain. That is not what democracy is about. Democracy is about Parliament deciding what is good for Britain--and Parliament, Madam Deputy Speaker, has not got an earthly. We have not had a chance. When should we debate it? Well, is it good for Britain? My hon. Friend the Minister has said it is good for Britain. Although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham has said, today we get 15 per cent. of the European regional and social funds, in 1992 we shall get less than 12 per cent. I suppose that is good for Britain, but I cannot work it out, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I dare say you cannot. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will explain to us later on how a reduction of 3 per cent. in our share is actually of benefit to Britain. I look forward to hearing that.

So when are we going to debate these vital and important issues? I ask my hon. Friend, can we debate it before a common position is agreed--because if we do not debate it before a common position is agreed, what chance have we got of influencing it? If a common position is agreed, then it goes before the European Parliament. If the European Parliament does not change that common position, it does not come back to this House again. If the European Parliament does change the common position and it then comes back to the House and we debate it--it having been changed by the European Parliament--at that late stage, what chance have we got of changing these massive, significant and important issues that we are debating tonight? If I ask my hon. Friend one question this evening, what I want to do is to enlist his support--he has my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary sitting alongside him--as he, I know, is desperately concerned about the democratic deficit and desperately concerned about democracy. Will he, having spoken to my right hon. Friend, give the House an undertaking that in future with important, significant issues like this the House will have an opportunity to debate them before the common position has been taken up?


Column 569

11.38 pm

Mr. Atkins : With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker. One point that I have learnt since I have been involved with these regional funds is that every hon. Member--or almost every hon. Member--does as I would do, were I still on the Back Benches, and put the case strongly for their constituency or borough in wanting more money, whether from the Government or Europe. That is entirely fair and we would all uphold it. But the problem is that, as a Department, we must consider those requests across the board and make our choice of priorities. One reason that we took so long originally in plotting the map of assisted areas and development areas, leading up to 1984--as hon. Members who were here at the time will recall--was the vast number of representations. One reason that we do not want to change the map too easily is the amount of effort that would be needed and problems that it would cause, especially in terms of stability and continuity for businesses, local authorities and--dare I say it--hon. Members, as well as their constituents. So we hold to the decision not to change the map before a general election, although that inevitably poses some difficulties.

Opposition Members--and some Conservative Members--have raised their concerns. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) made the case for Bassetlaw in his inimitable way--a case with which I have considerable sympathy. He would not expect me to say this evening that I can wave a magic wand, but I hear what he says. I should be delighted to receive a delegation. We do it all the time. I shall be happy to hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say, because people take a lot of trouble over such matters, normally across the party divide. I shall be happy to do that, and we can make the necessary arrangements in the new year if he would like that.

Mr. Ashton : Would it be possible for my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) to be included?

Mr. Atkins : Of course--whoever is appropriate in the circumstances. Provided that we can fit them all into a room at the Department of Trade and Industry, I shall be more than happy to see them. The hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) will not be surprised to learn that, in addition to her representations, my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson) has made his case in his own inimitable way--not only for his own area but, as the hon. Lady will be pleased to know, for hers as well-- because he recognises the problems. The hon. Lady has written to me again, but because of the post we may be a little behind. I shall certainly make every effort to reply to her and to answer some of the questions that she has raised.

That applies to several of the questions that have been asked. The hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) and I had a delightful Adjournment debate the other evening when he waved booklets at me, and I did the same back to him. I have told him that I will do all I can. However, as I said at the beginning, it is not up to me to pick priorities like that. Wakefield has a case, and it will be pressed as strongly as we can within the context. That is as I suggested to him in that debate.

Mr. Caborn : To clarify the position, I referred to European bulletin No. 92, which said that the criteria to be used by the Minister's Department were based on assisted


Column 570

area status and the urban grant areas. Is the Minister now saying that there will be a criterion outside those two areas that will be considered for submission for the new grant regimes from the Community?

Mr. Atkins : The hon. Gentleman should be aware that, as I told his hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford in our recent Adjournment debate, we are putting in one or two areas over and above the assisted areas--let us call them non-assisted areas--for consideration. Several hon. Members of all parties have pressed cases for individual constituencies or boroughs. From that point of view, yes, the report was grossly exaggerated.

Several technical questions arose. I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) who made, as I would have expected, a speech that raised several important questions, as did one or two of my other hon. Friends, who spoke about the difficulties of dealing with such matters late at night and near to Christmas. These matters are important to the country and I understand the views of my hon. Friends, whatever their position on membership of the European Community. My right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary has heard those views, as have other colleagues. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has stated that the matter concerns him also. We shall devote some thought to how best we at the Department of Trade and Industry can help.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : I am grateful that the Minister has mentioned his Department. Will he not reconsider what he said at the beginning of the debate? Although there were difficulties over the summer recess, the Minister can look to the Official Report and see that last Thursday the Leader of the House said that he would have to take action in order for this debate to take place. Will the Minister give an undertaking that his Department will try to secure debates, or let the House authorities know that they should take place, before the common position is decided?

Mr. Atkins : Whenever the hon. Gentleman writes to me or to anyone else about European legislation, we always take him seriously. We would not wish to be at odds with him or his Committee, which plays such a valuable part in such matters. I promise the hon. Gentleman that we shall endeavour to ensure that the difficulties that we have experienced over these regulations do not arise again, if it is within our power to do so. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns. He will know from our letters and from the comments that I made earlier that this is not a situation that we enjoy, and that we shall try to make sure that it does not happen again.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) asked a question about additionality. As he said, the Government are considering the future treatment of local government capital receipts. I note his preference for the second alternative in the Green Paper. My colleagues at the Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office will make a statement in due course --I cannot say when, but it will be sooner rather than later.

The hon. Gentleman raised another point about article 15. He has asked the same question before, and he will receive the same answer, which is that we shall consider possible further applications in the light of the progress that we make with the schemes and with the regulations. We do not have a closed mind on the issue. I understand


Next Section

  Home Page