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9.15 pm

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Rothwell): We have only to contrast the last two speeches--the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) denied the existence of the regions and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) pointed to the many achievements of Lancashire Enterprise and the great difference that it has made to the economy of Lancashire--to appreciate the balance of debate in the Chamber today.

After 18 years of Conservative government, whose economic mismanagement did so much to create the present disparity of income between the different English regions and which ensured that any initiatives to redress that at local government level were either frustrated or, in the case of metropolitan counties, abolished outright, it is a relief to have before us a Bill that vests some responsibility and some authority in the regions to tackle their economic development needs.

There is much that is very welcome in the Bill and in the White Paper, "Building Partnerships for Prosperity"--not least the RDAs' responsibility for drawing up a strategy for economic development that serves every region and is both economically and environmentally sustainable. I also look forward to a significant role for RDAs in the transport White Paper and to the leading role that RDAs have been promised under a new system of allocating EU structural funds from 2000.

However, I am concerned to ensure that RDAs are given sufficient flexibility and empowerment to make their economic strategy work to best effect. I am particularly concerned about that in the context of Scottish and Welsh devolution, which I strongly support. I fear that, in the context of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, the Bill may not go far enough to prevent England and its regions from falling further behind the Scots and the Welsh in promoting economic development.

A great deal has been said today about inward investment. I spent a number of years as the chair of the Yorkshire and Humberside regional development association, which had responsibility for inward investment. Regional selective assistance will remain the preserve of Whitehall and its offices in the regions, while the role of the RDAs will be to provide advice to the President of the Board of Trade to ensure that regional economic strategy is taken into account when support for individual companies is being considered. That will not be the position in Scotland and Wales.

Personal experience in seeking and securing Japanese investment in Yorkshire and Humberside tells me that, when faced with Scottish Enterprise or a Welsh Development Agency that is able to take decisions in house or an English RDA that must go to the Department of Trade and Industry for approval for any incentive packages, Japanese business men or other potential investors might prefer to deal with those parts of the United Kingdom that are directly empowered to act. We are committed to providing a level playing field for inward investment. I hope that there will be clear answers about how we shall achieve that aim in the context of the Bill and those powers granted by other legislation.

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I am concerned about the way in which regional skills are developed, and I support the comments about training and enterprise councils and about RDAs and higher education matters. I am also concerned that Treasury restraint on regional development agencies may be responsible for some disparity of powers. As the YHDA was very successful in securing a large amount of private sector investment, has any thought been given to the way in which RDAs might acquire private investment? In those circumstances, the way in which the Treasury dealt with their expenditure might mean that they would be less dependent on the public sector borrowing requirement.

I welcome the proposal that RDA boards will draw in all the regional stakeholders, including local councillors. I would not want local government figures to dominate RDAs or to exercise control over their work, but it is important that there is some regional accountability. I believe strongly, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside, that the regional chambers must represent all stakeholders and that ultimately we must give responsibility to directly elected regional assemblies.

It is important to ensure that the needs of the regions are being properly met by both direct access and by the accountability of the democratically elected representatives of the regions and their distinct parts. More needs to be done to build on the good work of the Northern regional assembly, the parallel organisations that exist in the north-west, and, more lately, the Yorkshire and Humberside regional assembly. It is important that they are more than bodies that are merely listened to. I hope that the time will come when they have greater significance, or when their successors have greater significance.

If we deny RDAs adequate power by giving them insufficient control over regional development purse strings, they may not be seen to be successful. If we give them power without responsibility, they may fail to be the efficient and rational promoters of economic development that we would wish. If that were to happen, the cause of regional accountability would be set back, along with our hopes of securing genuine democratisation of the regions.

The best policy must surely be to give RDAs the opportunity at least to secure powers that are adequate to their brief, including some of the jealously guarded powers of the Department of Trade and Industry. We must make them accountable to the regional chambers but not their playthings. That will help to ensure that the chambers serve as a bridgehead to directly elected regional assemblies.

9.22 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): It is an irony that the debate should follow two days of consideration of the Scotland Bill. That measure was accurately described by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who has been in his place for most of this debate about English matters. The hon. Gentleman described the Scotland Bill in a devastating indictment of the devolution cause as

I agree with him entirely.

The essential hallmark of the Government's programme is a raft of policies that are designed to break up the United Kingdom. Devolution, regional government and closer integration with Europe all lead inexorably to that destination. At its core is Scottish devolution.

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I have three key objections to the Bill. The first is that it is irrelevant to the needs of England. Secondly, it is ill considered. It substantially extends the power of central Government to control powerful regional quangos and it threatens the currently democratically elected councils. Thirdly, and perhaps most important, it significantly increases the prospect of European federalism by dividing England into bite-sized chunks for European federalism to be swallowed up by Brussels.

I shall briefly deal with each of the issues that I have mentioned.

Mr. Caborn: It is only an RDA Bill.

Mr. Howarth: The Minister says from a sedentary position that it is only an RDA Bill, but it confers on him and his colleagues in the Government substantial powers of patronage, and paves the way for further organisations, such as elected regional assemblies, which will be the instruments of the break-up of the Kingdom.

The Bill's principal purpose is to give a spurious legitimacy to the transfer of powers exercised by Westminster to Edinburgh. Proposals that England should suffer the same affliction arising out of Scottish devolution are not new. As the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) said earlier, that was part of the agenda of the last Labour Government, who, in 1976, issued a Green Paper, "Devolution: the English Dimension", which considered the implications for England of Scottish and Welsh devolution and suggested a number of options for devolution in England. None of the options was pursued, but, as she rightly pointed out, the Bill is picking up a 1970s agenda.

Today, there remains no enthusiasm for devolution in England, save, as has been suggested, in some parts of the north of England. I do not have constituents beating a path to my door in Aldershot, saying, "What we must have, Mr. Howarth, is a regional assembly for Aldershot and the south-east." It is not an issue for them. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) made the point that there is already substantial voluntary activity between the public and private sector to promote the cause for that particular region, so there is no necessity to have an RDA for that purpose.

While some in the north may be in favour, I can tell the Minister that my own county council in Hampshire has declared its outright hostility to the outline proposals for regional government in England that the Bill foreshadows; many others have expressed grave reservations about the proposals, although these are not included in the White Paper, of course. The British chambers of commerce; those representing rural interests; even Labour councils concerned at the democratic deficit resulting from the massive extension of "quangoland" created by the Bill: they have all made it clear that they have reservations. Indeed, the Local Government Association has expressed reservations about the Bill.

There has been an extraordinary rewriting of history by the Government, as though nothing happened in the 18 years of Conservative government, during which we saw the most massive investment in industrial and manufacturing jobs in the United Kingdom, including, for example, Honda, Nissan and Toyota. None of those

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required an RDA to bring them to the United Kingdom. What brought them here were the policies pursued by central Government for labour market flexibility, control of inflation and for good infrastructure and the best communications in the world. [Interruption.]

The Minister says, "What about Scotland?" I am pointing out that much of that great investment in this country came here notwithstanding the fact that there was no development agency. That brings me to my second point about the Bill's intrinsic defects.

Although the Government's real agenda is to create directly elected regional assemblies, they cannot do so in the Bill because they have no mandate for that. In the absence of such a mandate, they plan to create a series of massive quangos giving Ministers vast powers of patronage.

Recognising that interest in regional government is largely confined to the north of England, and that there is outright hostility elsewhere, the Deputy Prime Minister intends to create a patchwork of constitutional confusion throughout England. Parts of the north will have regional assemblies, the south will have no truck with it, and the south-west will be locked in permanent argument about which side of the Tamar the Assembly is to be located--assuming that they can agree that one is in their interests.

The forerunners of regional assemblies will add a further expensive tier of bureaucracy to this country. We face the prospect of powers going to these authorities. None of those powers will come from central Government, but they will have to come from somewhere--from local authorities, which are already working responsibly in this area.

Hampshire county council has made the point that it is working voluntarily with other organisations to achieve some of the strategic objectives that the Bill seeks to formalise under the RDAs. For example, it is co-operating with organisations such as Serplan, and recently the south-east regional forum. Hampshire county council says that the establishment by the Government of additional bodies to replace that activity would be both unnecessary and expensive. I agree with the county about that.

Let me return to the third point that I raised. I believe that, whether by design--I do not know whether it is by design--or by inadvertence or, indeed, by incompetence, these proposals will give heart to those who want the sovereignty of these islands to be diminished, and the United Kingdom to be consumed by a federal European structure. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) referred to a document. This is a serious issue, and I do not believe that the people of England realise what is happening.

The people do not realise that this Parliament will be dominated by constitutional change--and one of the constitutional changes will be the Bill, which will split up the United Kingdom into chunks that are convenient for the administrative purposes of the European Union. Only Christopher Booker, in The Sunday Telegraph, has made that point, but it poses a real danger to the people of Britain, and the Bill represents the key to that danger.

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