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Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Will the hon. Gentleman divide the House?

Mr. Forth: I certainly will, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in seeking to do so.

Mr. Skinner: But I am on my hon. Friend's side.

Mr. Forth: I do not care which side the hon. Gentleman is on; he can join me as a Teller to make sure that there is a vote--[Interruption.] Does the hon. Gentleman want to intervene?

Mr. Skinner: I am not allowed to on a ten-minute Bill.

Mr. Forth: What a pity--I wish the hon. Gentleman could.

It surely cannot be right that the House should approve a measure which, however well motivated--and whether or not we all want political correctness in our lives--is utterly impractical.

In effect, the hon. Gentleman is asking that products be labelled in such a way as to inform consumers about their origins, the conditions in which they were made, the labour conditions of those who worked to produce them, and the environmental impact of their production. We already have comprehensive labelling to do with nutritional values. That, I suppose, is of some use to people concerned about their diets. But to expect all this additional information to be labelled on a product, however small the packaging, is patently absurd.

I hope that the House will not begin gesture voting for things that may sound superficially attractive but which are utterly nonsensical and unworkable.

What is worse, after the hon. Gentleman's rant against the wickedness of the multinationals, he seemed to suggest that they could be relied upon to provide the very information that would enable so-called ethical decisions to be made. That strikes me as an interesting proposition: I expect someone I thoroughly distrust to provide information on which I can make an ethical decision.

In other words, this is a well-meaning and well-motivated measure, but I believe it to be naive, ill founded, poorly thought out, impractical and absurd. For those reasons and many others, I hope that the House will reject it.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Vernon Coaker, Mr. John Heppell, Mr. Jonathan Shaw, Mrs. Fiona Jones, Gillian Merron, Liz Blackman, Mr. Paddy Tipping, Mr. Colin Pickthall, Mr. Derek Twigg, Mr. Alan Simpson, Ms Karen Buck and Dr. Nick Palmer.

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Labelling of Products

Mr. Vernon Coaker accordingly presented a Bill to make further provision with respect to the labelling and display of food and goods to assist the consumer in making choices on ethical grounds; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 6 February, and to be printed [Bill 109].

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Orders of the Day

Regional Development Agencies Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): I must inform the House that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. I should also inform the House that Madam Speaker has decided that the 10-minute limit on speeches will apply today for Back Benchers' speeches.

4.45 pm

The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning (Mr. Richard Caborn): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

One of the commitments that we gave in our manifesto, which the British people overwhelmingly endorsed on 1 May last year, was to address the economic under-performance of the English regions. We promised each English region a strong development agency--agencies that would provide for effective and properly co-ordinated regional economic development, underpin the wider regeneration and enable the English regions to improve their competitiveness.

The Bill provides the means for doing that. The RDAs will play a major part in the future economic success of the United Kingdom. The Bill will give the regions the tools they need.

The success of the United Kingdom in improving its economic performance and its competitiveness depends on the success of all its regions. I can tell the House that, in our regions, there is an overwhelming desire for the opportunity to play a full part in revitalising the nation's economy. We must compete as a nation in the global marketplace, and to do that, all our regions must maximise their potential. That means finding more imaginative ways of tackling the problems they face.

For far too long, the English regions have been disadvantaged compared with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We need to put all the regions in a position to perform at the level of the best. Many of our regions are performing well below the European average, and that is simply not good enough. Out of the 10 English regions, only two marginally come up to the productive average of the European regions.

Since I became Minister for the Regions in May, I have visited the English regions and initiated a dialogue with the regional stakeholders. During my visits, it was evident to me that the regions are working hard to improve regional performance. Unfortunately, however, the previous Government gave them little support, for the Conservatives do not believe in regional autonomy. They centralised power and denied the regions the opportunity to prosper. They drove policy from the centre, as if the rest of the country did not exist. In effect, they put the regions off the map.

The Tories produced programmes that lacked coherence, particularly at the regional level. They consistently ignored the views and advice of those in the regions, who, after all, are best placed to find the solutions to their own problems.

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My discussions with people in the regions have shown that now, more then ever, the English regions are looking for a new approach, and for the opportunity to shape their own future.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Does the Minister agree that the reason why some regions do less well than others is simply that the European Commission will not permit aid to be given to a considerable part of this country? Southend-on-Sea, for example, was put forward for aid on two separate occasions by the previous Government, but both applications were cancelled by a Commissioner. Does not the Minister think that there is some ground for suspicion by hon. Members that the whole business is part of the exercise in regional government that is being pushed all the way by Brussels?

Mr. Caborn: That may be the hon. Gentleman's opinion, but I do not share it--and I do not think that the people in the regions do, either. They want to address the economic weaknesses in the regions.

We are facing a grave problem in this nation. I repeat that only two out of 10 English regions are approaching the average of the European regions in terms of gross domestic product per capita. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the problems revolve around a few grants from the European Community, he under-estimates the real problems facing our English regions.

Our discussions with people in the regions have revealed that, more than ever, they wish to play a role in shaping their future. They have responded enthusiastically to our proposals for regional development agencies. For example, our consultation paper received more than 1,500 responses, which universally supported the case for development agencies in England to match those that have worked so successfully over many years in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Only last week, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), and I visited the regions again, and we found the same enthusiasm for our White Paper proposals. Therefore, I hope that we will hear no nonsense from Opposition Members who seek to contradict the clear message that we are getting from the people of this country. I have seldom seen a more badly drafted reasoned amendment to a Second Reading than that which appears on today's Order Paper.

The people in the regions understand that RDAs will bring real added value to the United Kingdom's economic performance. They will build on the work that has been done at a regional level by local authorities, regional partners and the Government offices for the regions. For the first time, there will be an organisation in each English region that is strong enough and sufficiently broadly based to make a significant difference. The Bill is part of a radical new agenda for the English regions.

Regional policy is one of the Government's top priorities. One of our first acts when we came to government last May was to start to address the regional economic deficit. More generally, we made it clear that we are determined to bring a new dimension to policy making.

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We have five guiding principles for taking forward our regional policies. The first is integration. That is at the heart of our proposals for RDAs. RDAs will bring together at the regional level our policies for jobs, growth and social cohesion. We want RDAs to take an integrated approach to all their work across the regions.

That will be particularly important in the case of rural areas. We want rural affairs to be part of the remit of RDAs, because we recognise that they, and the people who live in the countryside, have particular needs. We believe that those needs will be better addressed as part of an integrated regional approach than as a policy apart. That will avoid marginalising rural areas, as occurred under the previous Administration.

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