Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Caborn: I remind the right hon. Gentleman of the response from his area to our consultation document. The response was from the West Midlands Regional Economic Consortium and its partners, which include the CBI and chambers of commerce--all the other major actors on the economic stage. It states that the consortium and its partners

Sir Norman Fowler: The Minister does not believe--and certainly no one in the west midlands believes--that the organisation to which he refers remotely speaks for the west midlands. To suggest otherwise is nonsense. It is elected people such as councillors and hon. Members who speak for the area.

Beyond the issue of regional economic development, which is the Bill's stated purpose, we should recognise what has been achieved over the past 20 years. The Minister skated over that and at the end of his speech spoke about the inward investment that has been lost to this country. Under the previous Conservative Government, there was record inward investment, creating new jobs and new industries and leading to major exports. I shall describe that record not in the words of that Conservative Government, but in the words of the White Paper, which states on page 30:

That is the true record of the previous Conservative Government, and it is in the White Paper.

I shall put it another way. It is estimated that between 1979 and now, 172,000 jobs were created or safeguarded in the west midlands. The figure for the north-west is 92,000 jobs, for the north-east is 84,000 jobs, and for the south-west is nearly 40,000 jobs. In securing foreign inward investment, Britain has not been the laggard in Europe but the European leader, and that investment has brought employment and development to every English region. There is nothing in the record for which Conservatives need to apologise and everything to suggest

14 Jan 1998 : Column 383

that the sort of organisation and structure that we set up have been remarkably successful in producing economic development and jobs in the English regions.

Mr. Sheerman: I spoke in Birmingham council house on Thursday, and the uniform picture that I got from local business, from the chamber of commerce and from elected representatives such as those from the European Parliament, the House and local authorities was that the past 18 years had been a disaster not only for the west midlands but for all the English regions. Since 1979, compared with the average in Europe, we have slumped down the competition league as regards the average wealth of our citizens in all the regions that the right hon. Gentleman can name.

Sir Norman Fowler: It is plain that the hon. Gentleman is totally unaware of what has happened in the west.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler: I should like to reply to the intervention before I give way again.

The characteristic industry in the west midlands is the motor industry, which is experiencing record exports. We turned round companies such as Rover, which were brought to their knees by the last Labour Government because of appalling industrial relations. The hon. Gentleman should speak to people in Derby and in the east midlands about Toyota's investment and to people in the north-east about that of Nissan. The hon. Gentleman shows blind prejudice. More than that, he shows a total ignorance of what has taken place over the past 20 years.

Mr. Sheerman rose--

Sir Norman Fowler: I shall not give way again.

Conservatives do not need to apologise for anything. What was achieved was a remarkable revolution that was recognised by most industrialists in the west midlands to whom the hon. Gentleman has been speaking.

It is anything but clear that the English regions will be improved by the new development agencies. What is there to suggest that there will be an improvement? It is anything but clear that England will be better served by nine competing regional development agencies, each seeking to sell its own region and, of course, comparing unfavourably any competing region. It is anything but clear that the creation of nine new development agencies, each with its bureaucracy of a chairman, a deputy chairman, board members, a chief executive and executive directors and staff, doubtless each with his own office in Brussels, will help England overall to attract new investment.

At its mildest, the case is not proven. We shall carefully monitor the success of the new agencies and compare it with the kind of success that was achieved in the past by bodies such as English Partnerships.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Bill is as much about supporting existing businesses in the regions as it is about attracting new ones? That is why the Bill contains

14 Jan 1998 : Column 384

provisions for investment, for the development of property, premises and training. Is he further aware that the CBI in a letter to hon. Members within the past few days states:

    "Second Reading of the Regional Development Agencies Bill takes place next week. This is an issue on which the CBI supports the Government's overall proposals for RDAs believing they can make an important contribution to enhancing the UK's growth and competitiveness."

Was the right hon. Gentleman not aware of that statement from the national CBI?

Sir Norman Fowler: I am sorry that the hon. Lady is obviously used to getting her instructions from organisations and not using her own judgment. Hon. Members are here to take an independent view. I shall come to the issue of consultation. The hon. Lady's argument is deeply unattractive. She says that one organisation supports the proposals so all hon. Members should immediately fall in behind that organisation. Of course that is exactly the way that the Labour party has gone, but it is not the way that Conservatives do things.

Mr. Blizzard: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler: No, I will not.

I come directly to the hon. Lady's point. The Government say that the consultation has shown overwhelming public support throughout the country for the agencies. They do not speak just about the CBI. We should be frank on these matters. The consultation was probably the most invisible process of all time. It was based on what was without doubt the flimsiest document that has ever been produced by any Government including this one. The document on which they consulted is precisely four pages long--I could almost read it out now. It was copied at the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, but it left many of those lucky enough to get a copy in some bewilderment.

The hon. Lady referred to the CBI, but Ruth Lea, the head of the policy unit at the Institute of Directors--

Mr. Caborn: It was a qualified response.

Sir Norman Fowler: I see, we can quote only one organisation. I shall read Ruth Lea's response to the consultation as I do not think the Minister ever reads such responses, but only one or two headlines that are drawn to his attention. She said:

In other words, the proposals set out were not remotely focused.

In the end, out of the 40 million people living in the English regions, only 1,500 responded.

Mr. Caborn rose--

Sir Norman Fowler: I shall put my argument and then the Minister can respond.

14 Jan 1998 : Column 385

Very few responses came from members of the public. I suspect that not as many as one person in 1,000 in England knows that there has been a consultation on regional development agencies. The responses have come predominantly from organisations of one sort or another, virtually all of which suffer from one defect. Whatever criticisms they had, in the final analysis--and here the Minister is right--those criticisms would always be qualified, for the very good reason that if RDAs were going to be set up, most of the respondents wanted to sit on the new boards. As the White Paper suggests, many of the responses were no more than collective job applications. I do not decry that. The Government have a massive majority and they will doubtless get their legislation through. The RDAs will be set up and there will be competition to sit around the boards' tables. If it is the only game in town provided by the Government, organisations will not want to be excluded.

Yet even in the muted consultation process, rather more criticisms have been made than is evident in the words of the copy writers who put together the White Paper text. Central to that criticism is the lack of accountability of the new agencies and the erosion of the power of local authorities.

Next Section

IndexHome Page