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7.22 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): It is a great pleasure to be able to speak in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar) on his maiden speech, to which the House listened with great attention. It was a multi-faceted contribution. My hon. Friend was generous in his remarks about his predecessors. His pride in his constituency shone through.

I am excited about the debate because I have been interested and involved for a long time in trying to make our country more competitive. The situation in most of the regions is dire. As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning said in his opening remarks, only two of the United Kingdom regions are above the European Union average in terms of the quality of life that our constituents enjoy. That is pretty disgraceful.

Interestingly enough, the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who had such a leading role in former Conservative Governments, could only crow about securing inward investment. What a sorry situation he left us in when we consider the average quality of life of our individual constituents in the various regions. That is not only because of the relative economic decline of our country and our failure to compete but because of the way in which misguided policies over 18 years destroyed the independent base of our regions.

Consider the way in which Conservative Governments changed the basis of the utilities. The electricity, water and many other utilities lost the bedrock of being independent organisations based in the regions. That has all gone. Most of the electricity companies are owned by the Americans, and water companies are owned by the French. Some of us are lucky that our local companies retain an allegiance to development in the region but many of the companies have much less of a commitment to the region than did the former public utilities.

Look at the way in which Conservative Governments allowed building societies to move into the private sector. They are now footloose financial institutions with little commitment to those places that grew them, invested in them and developed them over 120 years.

The basis of independent companies--large employers--in the regions with their headquarters in the regions has diminished dramatically over the past 18 years. We need the regional development agencies to try to turn back some of the dreadful things that have happened.

Who are the major players in most constituencies today? The major employers in my constituency and in many others that include the towns and cities of our country are the local university or universities, the hospital and health trust and the local authority. There are few large employers left in our constituencies and in the regions. That is partly due to the nature and industrial structure of modern Britain and of the global economy, but much of it is down to accelerated decline, and that is

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the responsibility of 18 years of a Conservative Government who did not, strangely enough, understand the need to be competitive.

It was interesting to listen to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, who had been a Cabinet Minister for so long. The only straw to which he could clutch was inward investment. The right hon. Gentleman argued that we were up there as the best in Europe as the home for the most inward investment. I give him that, but that is why he focused on inward investment. However, Conservative Governments failed to initiate the regeneration of our industries within our country, using the talents and skills of our people. That is what they failed to do over 18 years of Conservative rule. They failed to grow successfully the companies that we needed to create the good life, the quality of life that we in this place are elected to try to secure through governmental policies. Those Conservative Governments failed for 18 years.

The RDAs have the possibility of focusing upon and bringing together the tremendous efforts that are being made in every region that I visit in the United Kingdom. I meet people of tremendous ability in the private sector. Many of them are running their own businesses and are prepared to go that extra mile and to give up extra time to try to do something about improving the local regional economy.

I meet people who give of their time without charge. They are highly qualified people, including leading business people. When I talk to them, they say uniformly that they need a regional development agency. They say, "We are all doing very good things" but our effort is not properly focused. The strategic role of an RDA would be invaluable. That is the voice of people with whom Opposition Members have ceased to engage in conversation. I am talking of leading industrialists, entrepreneurs, people who are engaging in successful wealth creation in our towns and cities. They are excellent people. There are also the leading lights in local government and those who run our training and enterprise councils and universities.

The universities are key players. In looking to the future in considering where we create our wealth, we have underrated the universities. That is my one little criticism. We must bring in the universities and give them a powerful role. They have enormous potential for creating growth, development and enterprise and yet we have not begun tapping into that skill, knowledge and innovative base. There should not be just a token university representative on the RDAs. They should take on the university role. In Yorkshire and Humber, we have nine universities, which are crucial for the future of our economic development.

If hon. Members want to know about the success of the Conservative Government, the IBM consultancy report--"The True State of Britain's Manufacturing Industry"--with the London business school, said that, after 14 years of Conservative Government, only 1 to 1.5 per cent. of British companies were world class. There were 38 per cent. which, with a superhuman effort, could become so. One had to start praying for the rest.

We do not have enough world-class companies in this country. We have to tackle that, not by expecting some

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wonderful Japanese or Korean company to settle in our region. To compete we have to grow innovative, enterprising small and medium enterprises.

Seventy five per cent. of people who leave school today will work in small and medium enterprises--not ICI, Zeneca or BP, not the giants, not Rover, not the large companies, but for small, innovative companies. We have to grow them at a great rate. The regional development agencies will have the capacity to lead and focus that fight.

I like the Bill because it is enabling. If some regions do not want to move as fast as others, so be it, but if some of our regions want to run fast and hard, let us be allowed to do so. That is right. Our regions are diverse and different, and some of the less cohesive regions will run faster than those that traditionally see themselves as much more coherent, so there will be very real change there.

I also like the Bill because it will allow for growth. It is organic. Of course training and enterprise councils, business links, the universities and other sectors will have to be more absorbed into the RDA as time goes on.

We must also ensure that the democratic deficit is made up. There is one small gap in the measure: a parliamentary Select Committee system tailored for regional development and the regions. It is no secret that Labour Members have constituency weeks. There is a great, untapped potential for hon. Members to be involved in this great enterprise of regional development through a regional Select Committee that will close the democratic loop and be very valuable.

I entreat my hon. Friends on the Front Bench to be aware of that. It is a campaign that we on the Government Benches will run. I hope that Opposition Members will join us to ensure that we get such a Select Committee system.

We have the opportunity in the Bill to get it right. It is so important to get it right because the future well-being of our people in this country depends on realising the opportunity--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. Time is up.

7.32 pm

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I should, perhaps, begin by noting that it can never be easy to make a maiden speech, and to have done so under the difficulties that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar) is currently enduring is a tremendous additional effort. I learned more about Govan in 10 minutes than I could have imagined. I am sure that the House will feel that, if the difficulties are cleared away, the people of Govan will be represented by someone who is very knowledgeable about their interests.

The excitement of office after so long is very understandable. I sometimes feel that the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, who moved the Bill, is like a traveller in an antique land: he is so thrilled with what he sees that he describes it in immortal prose in the White Paper. Who can fail to respond to insights such as:


    "The regional economies are the building blocks of a prosperous economy."

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    With insights such as that, it is rather churlish in a way to doubt the contents of the Bill, but I remind the Minister of what travellers in antique lands encounter:

    "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

    Stand in the desert."

For our current traveller, the names on the legs of this edifice might well be Redcliffe-Maud on one and Banham on the other. One of the great temptations for all reforming Governments is to imagine that, if one simply changes the boundaries of local government, one will somehow set free the talents of the nation. Neither Redcliffe-Maud nor Banham, set up by Governments to modernise Britain, produced changes that have made any serious long-term difference. The people of England, as report after report has shown, feel neither loyalty to, nor interest in, arbitrary groupings created by Governments for administrative convenience.

I remember when I was a civil servant in the Scottish Office--indeed, working with Bruce Millan--that Kilbrandon, the Scottish equivalent of Redcliffe-Maud, recommended, with perfect logic, that the banks of a river should be in the same local authority, but the people of Fife rose as one man, or woman, and rejected it. The result was that two of Scotland's great rivers remained with one bank in one local authority and one bank in the other.

It is no good the Government, trying to pretend that economic success can be achieved by the creation of new and artificial regions. The Government are obsessed with the German model of regional government. They cited it in support of their Scotland Bill, and no doubt they will cite it in support of this one. Why can they not understand that the German regions are older than Germany's central Government, and are not its creation? German Governments exercise powers given up to them, not the other way round.

Page 15 of the White Paper contained a revealing map of gross domestic product per head in the European Union. What it shows is an impressive concentration of the successful areas--coloured grey or black--in the heart of Europe. The only areas in the United Kingdom that compare are the two nearest the mainland, yet the Government quote the success of the Welsh and Scottish development agencies as the model for their new RDAs. If they are so successful, why are their regions not grey on the map as well?

The map suggests that it is national, not regional, policies that need to be overhauled. If Scotland has done better than many expected, is it not likely to be due at least as much to its extraordinary success in getting 50 per cent. of women graduates as to the operation of a development agency?

I start from a thoroughly sceptical position on the proposed agencies. I believe that their creation is driven by Labour's desire to balkanise England and dilute the risk that England will, in time, reject new Labour. We all know that, to guard against that day, the Government have insisted on giving no proper answer to the West Lothian question.

Let us look at the Bill. In my region we have Kent, the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth, Milton Keynes and Oxfordshire. We do not, of course, have London, yet all our main travel routes go to London. A huge percentage of our population commutes daily to London. We do not commute to Portsmouth or Oxford. Moreover, in my

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county we have made alliances, very profitably, across the channel. That is where our other centre lies. So why do we want this hybrid, artificial, incoherent region? We do not.

Regions will enhance the way in which we are governed. We know that, because the White Paper says so. They will modernise Britain and decentralise decision making. That is claptrap. In February 1997, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), now Prime Minister, said:

He then sets up the most powerful quango that he can devise, to be run by business leaders appointed by Government. Three or four local councillors will be added, but to ensure that they have no genuine local accountability, they will stay on the quango even if the electorate chucks them out. He then gives those quangos a host of powers. We have heard a great deal about the compulsory purchase powers in clause 20, for instance, and I will not say more about those just now; but they are pretty horrendous.

Who will be the business men and women? Will they genuinely be locally based? Most locally based companies consume too much of their people's time to allow for such service--but, if they are nationally or internationally based, why should they care especially about their region? Will those people be paid? If so, how much; and if not, will they be able to give the region the priority it requires?

In these bodies will be subsumed the powers and duties of the Development Commission. That is typical of the present Government, who claim to care about rural areas, but then destroy the only body that really focused on them.

It is interesting that, despite the determination to create an integrated policy to regenerate the regions, the proposal for the regional development agencies leaves out the national health service. We heard earlier how important it is for the health of the locality to be included. The NHS is a huge employer, a huge landowner and a massive purchaser, yet it remains wholly under the hand of central Government. I suppose I should be glad about that, however: otherwise, after the RDAs have got into their stride, the House would have very little to do.

The Bill is a further step in the downgrading of the House. Rather than establishing artificial, unwanted, unrecognisable regional assemblies, we should try to build up the position of an English Parliament. It is here in the House of Commons that English issues should be debated and resolved. The cranes across the street are now beginning to build a new office for the United Kingdom Parliament; but it is one of the truths of history that organisations only secure the premises they need in order to function effectively when they no longer have a function to perform.

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