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Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): My hon. Friend will know of the Select Committee report, and, in particular, the concern about how the TECs will fit into the framework. Will he confirm that, as he told us when we were making our inquiries, he hopes that the process will evolve towards a point at which the TECs will be accountable to the new regional set-up?

Mr. Caborn: Yes. I have said very clearly that, under the Bill as it stands, the TECs will be part of the development of the skills strategy. Responsibility for the skills strategy for the regions will rest with the RDAs: that is clear, it is understood, and it was spelled out both in the White Paper and in what I said in my evidence to the Select Committee. The RDAs will be the lead organisations in regard to the skills strategy for their regions. They will also go further: as I said earlier, they will co-ordinate the strategy with further and higher education.

Clause 6 enables Ministers to delegate functions to RDAs--for example, the administration of the single regeneration budget funds. Part I also replicates for RDAs the statutory powers and duties of the Urban Regeneration Agency--for those who do not recognise the name, it is

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now called English Partnerships--so that RDAs can take on the regional regeneration role of EP, which the last Administration put on the statute book.

We intend all EP's roles and functions to move in due course to the RDAs, which will themselves work in co-operation on issues that are cross-regional, and for which there is advantage in a combined approach. Meanwhile, EP's highly effective national capability and expertise will be retained in order to allow national projects such as the regeneration of the Greenwich peninsula and the coalfields initiative to continue.

Part II provides for the Rural Development Commission and EP to make schemes for transferring property, rights and liabilities to the RDAs. Part III contains general and technical provisions.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Will my hon. Friend emphasise what I know to be the truth, that the very good staff of English Partnerships, who have been so innovative, will have jobs in the new RDAs? Many hon. Members feel strongly that English Partnerships' staff have made a great contribution to the regions in which they work.

Mr. Caborn: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. Last week, the Under-Secretary of State, and I went around the English regions and met the staff of English Partnerships and the Rural Development Commission. There is obviously uncertainty at a time of change, but they have been reassured--[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) want to make a comment?

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): There is no uncertainty about what you have done to the Rural Development Commission. You have taken away--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I do not have responsibility for such matters.

Mr. Yeo: I only wish you did, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Minister referred to the Rural Development Commission, but the House knows that it has been completely dismembered, because his Department has failed to get a single penny of any other Department's budget into the RDAs. He has had to take away from the highly successful, well-respected Rural Development Commission its rural regeneration budget, which covers more than half its total programme. To add insult to injury, the Secretary of State--who I notice is not present--delivered, in extraordinarily ungracious terms, an unwarranted attack on the outgoing chairman, who resigned in protest at what has happened to his agency.

Mr. Caborn: I invite the hon. Gentleman to get out of London for a change and visit the English regions. He should speak to the staff of the Rural Development Commission, as we did last week. It would be a good idea if you went back to your constituency occasionally.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It is important to remind hon. Members to use the correct parliamentary language.

Mr. Caborn: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will go back to his constituency and discuss the matter with

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members of the Rural Development Commission, as my hon. Friend and I did last week. There is tremendous excitement about the development of a coherent strategy to replace the dog's breakfast that was left by the previous Administration.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): The Rural Development Commission office for East Anglia is located in Bury St. Edmunds, and I spoke on the telephone to managers there this very morning. Although they did not discuss the merits of the Bill in policy terms, they expressed grave concern about their jobs. They are worried, because they have heard nothing about their future, whether it be with the RDA or on the dole. I should be grateful if the Minister would give some comfort to my constituents to whom I spoke this morning.

Mr. Caborn: More than that, I shall inquire immediately as to why those people were not contacted when we made our regional visit. We asked specifically for staff of the Rural Development Commission and English Partnerships to meet us as we went around the country. I shall ensure that they are contacted, and I shall find out why they were not given an invitation to the meetings that were organised last week.

Since we published our White Paper, the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs has carried out an inquiry into RDAs, and its report was published earlier this week. We are grateful for the work that the Committee has done in the short time available. We shall consider its conclusions and recommendations carefully.

That report will provide a useful background to the debate on the Bill. It was difficult for the Committee to complete its work in the short time available, but I hope that, like me, it feels that its inquiry was useful. The report will be helpful to the Government as we take the policy forward.

The debate will continue in the weeks ahead, but, as it gets under way, I stress that no one is more enthusiastic than I am for RDAs, except, perhaps, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. [Interruption.] Quite honestly, Conservative Members should have paid more attention to what the Labour party was doing in the past few years. That would have been instructive, because they would have realised that my right hon. Friend was the author of a number of documents on regional devolution, and has an honourable record. Indeed, he set up the Millan commission. His record is there for all to see. He is an enthusiast for devolution, and especially for RDAs. He presented the White Paper a few weeks ago, and was questioned by Conservative Members. He gave a full and frank explanation of the Government's position on the devolution of power. The Bill comes out of that White Paper, and was supported in consultations throughout the country.

We must be realistic about what we ask RDAs to do. They will be new bodies, and will have much to do to establish themselves and to develop their work programmes. In time, as their experience develops, there will be scope to extend their role, and the Bill allows us to delegate further functions without the need for additional legislation. For the time being at least, the package that we propose in the Bill strikes the right balance and provides the right critical mass.

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The Bill is an important first step in our regional agenda for England. Our vision is for the English regions to grow and prosper alongside Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and within the European Union. For years, we have been dogged by a lack of co-ordination in the regions. Programmes did not work to the same goals, inward investment was lost through lack of co-ordination, and indigenous industries and small and medium-sized firms lost out because of the lack of a regional strategic approach.

The basic purpose of this exercise is to create sustainable growth and to improve our wealth-creating base in the regions: we want to bake a bigger cake. We must deal with the structural and cultural barriers to business success, and address the under-performance of the regions that we inherited from the previous Administration.

The so-called cohesion gap between the best and the rest in Europe is already widening. European monetary union and enlargement towards the east will require our regions to run a lot faster to compete with France, Germany and others.

The Bill will ensure that the United Kingdom has 12 strong development agencies. They will be economic powerhouses, and will work for the success of the whole of the United Kingdom. This country will, for the first time, be firing on all 12 cylinders, not just two.

5.16 pm

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I shall be brief, given the truncated nature of the debate. I agree with the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning on one issue: the importance and vitality of the regions in England. My constituency is in the west midlands, which has the twin traditions of industrial and commercial power, and the tradition of strong local government going back to the Chamberlains. Those two forces--the strength of industry and commerce and the vital part played by accountable local government--govern my attitude to this proposal.

I need no persuasion of the suspicion in the regions that too much decision making is centred in London. I need no persuasion of the resentment in the regions that too many great national events are staged in London. I was an opponent of the Greenwich dome even before the Minister without Portfolio was put in charge of it. I need no persuasion that the continued development of the regions, such as the west midlands, is crucial.

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A belief in the regions and their continued development does not automatically and by definition lead to support for the policy now being proposed by the Government, of which regional development agencies are but one part. For the Government to win support for RDAs, they must establish that the proposed organisations are necessary for the economic development of the regions. More than that, they must explain why those bodies will be unaccountable to the people whom they are supposed to serve. If regional government is their aim, why have the Government not set out their plans clearly? The House and the public have only one part of a picture that goes far beyond economic development.

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