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9.30 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): We have had an excellent debate, in which hon. Members from all quarters have raised many questions. I hope that, in the time available, the Minister will answer some of them.

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The debate was, in my view, marred only by the extraordinary and rather churlish refusal by some Labour Members to acknowledge the superb economic inheritance that the present Government have enjoyed, uniquely among post-war Administrations. It made it clear that this is a Bill for which there is little public demand and no rational case. It is a Bill which creates nine new quangos that are unlikely to attract a single pound of new investment. It is a Bill which--as the Chairman of the Select Committee, who is not present now, and the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) both recognised--conspicuously fails to make those quangos accountable. It is a Bill which--as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) just pointed out--massively increases the powers of the Secretary of State and the role of central Government, and erodes the powers of local authorities. It is a Bill which reflects the Government's continuing hostility to the countryside.

It is also a Bill which--as my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) and other Conservative Members pointed out--has been presented solely because the Government remain totally unable to answer the East Lothian question. [Hon. Members: "West Lothian."] All right, the West Lothian question, but I prefer East Lothian, myself.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) explained, this is a Bill which creates regions whose boundaries have no logical basis. It is a Bill whose premises ignore the recent history of investment growth in England's regions, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) so knowledgeably demonstrated.

This Government have inherited the control of a country which is enjoying record levels of inward investment. One might think, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," but this Government are very uncomfortable when they see an unrivalled success story that stems solely and directly from Conservative policies, so they decide to meddle. They are, after all, the Government who sent the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) to abolish personal equity plans and tax-exempt special savings accounts--and it is the right hon. Member for Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), whom I welcome to the debate, who is now ending the policies that have made our country the envy of the European Union because of our ability to attract inward investment at a greater rate than any other European country.

For a decade, this country has enjoyed new investment at a rate of £200 million a week. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) asked so powerfully, how and why do the Government think that the nine new quangos will increase new investment? By how much will our record share of foreign investment increase as a result of the creation of regional development agencies? How, indeed, will the Government prevent the kind of damaging competition between the individual RDAs that was described so clearly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry)?

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have stressed the lack of accountability of the proposed RDAs, and that is one of the most serious weaknesses of the Bill. The only reference to parliamentary scrutiny is in clause 17, which requires the Secretary of State to lay each RDA's annual report before the House. What will that document contain? The Bill states that the report will contain

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    "such information as the Secretary of State may specify by directions to the agency".

There we have it. The Government, who have often boasted of their commitment to greater openness, are establishing nine new, unaccountable bodies which will wield considerable powers and control significant budgets, and are apparently intended to achieve great things. That same Government have decided that all that Parliament can be told about those bodies is what the Secretary of State decides it is safe to disclose. Clause 17 makes the Minister without Portfolio's approach to the running of the millennium dome look like a shining example of transparency.

The use to which regional development agencies put their compulsory purchase powers, the dangers of which were trenchantly exposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley), will be described to the House of Commons only in terms specified by the Secretary of State.

Sadly, these quangos will be no more accountable to the regions. Clause 18, which is hilariously entitled "Regional accountability", says that if there is a regional chamber, the Secretary of State can specify, through directions, what information the RDA can give it. If that chamber asks any questions, the Secretary of State will specify in what manner the agencies will answer them. The Secretary of State will even specify where RDAs should hold their public meetings. He will give guidance and direction about how those meetings are to be conducted.

Is that what the Secretary of State meant--I am not sure where he has just gone--when he wrote in his introduction to the White Paper that the Government were elected to democratise decision making? Is it what he meant when he claimed:

Will the Minister tell us whether she agrees with the views of the North Durham Labour party in its response to the consultation document? It said:

    "We believe that the mechanisms of accountability proposed in the Consultation Document are palpably inadequate".

The truth is that the Bill involves a huge increase in the powers of the Secretary of State. Although the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning said that the Government trusted the people, clause 2 gives the Secretary of State the sole power to appoint the regional development agency boards. Clause 7 enables the Secretary of State alone to dictate the strategies that RDAs should follow. Clause 8 allows the Secretary of State alone to decide whom the regional development agencies should consult. Clauses 9 to 13 give the Secretary of State total financial control over the RDAs, even to the point of telling them how they should keep their books--and so on throughout every part of the Bill.

A great deal of the parliamentary draftsmen's time could have been saved if the Bill had been cut to a single clause saying that the Secretary of State shall have the power to establish and run RDAs as he sees fit without the tedious inconvenience of informing Parliament of what he is doing.

Furthermore, the Bill shows how comprehensively the Secretary of State and his ministerial team were routed in the interdepartmental war inside Whitehall. His colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry must

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be laughing up their sleeves. They conceded nothing: not a single power, nor a penny of their budget. Even regional selective assistance remains under DTI control.

More serious than that is the fact that some of the powers that the Secretary of State will exercise--or will tell the RDAs how to exercise--will have been seized directly from local authorities. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling said, they include planning powers, which is a flagrant breach of the commitment in the White Paper published only weeks before the Bill. It said that planning would remain clearly under local democratic control, so that is another promise which Labour has broken.

In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning tried to claim that the planning powers proposed for the regional development agencies are no different from those currently exercised by English Partnerships. Will the Under-Secretary confirm in her winding-up speech that section 159 of the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act 1993 severely circumscribes the kind of land over which English Partnerships may exercise those powers? Will she amend the Bill so that it contains similar limits on regional development agencies, and will she admit that the Minister of State was misleading the House when he claimed that the powers to be given to RDAs were the same as those that were already exercised? [Interruption.]

Will the Minister also confirm that the press have been invited to the Department for a private briefing tomorrow afternoon on planning issues? Will that briefing cover the use of planning powers by regional development agencies?

Mr. Bennett: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Opposition spokesman to accuse my hon. Friend the Minister of misleading the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: To my hearing, he did it indirectly and not in an infamous way, so I let it pass.

Mr. Yeo: I shall now turn to another of the Bill's glaring weaknesses--the relationship of RDAs to rural communities, an issue eloquently highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman).

As the Secretary of State was unable to persuade any other Department to contribute a penny to the RDA budgets, he plundered the budgets of an agency that is under his direct control. His attack on the Rural Development Commission provoked the resignation of its chairman, my noble Friend Lord Shuttleworth. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) said, the Secretary of State literally added insult to injury by his extraordinarily ungracious slur on the work of my noble Friend.

I welcome the fact that the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) at least paid tribute in his speech to the work of the Rural Development Commission. Unfortunately, it is the right hon. Gentleman's party which has effectively dismembered that commission. It has seized the commission's rural

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regeneration programme, which constitutes more than half the commission's budget, and that renders the RDC rump scarcely viable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) rightly raised the concern about how the cash that was taken from the RDC will be used. Will the Minister confirm that that money from the RDC budget will go back into rural areas, and will not be diverted into towns?

The White Paper states that the regional development agency boards will have 12 members, although the Bill provides for up to 15. The White Paper says:

That is an extraordinary insight into the Government's attitude to the countryside. Never mind that one person in five lives there and that four fifths of the land area is rural: in the Government's mind, a token board member is sufficient to discharge their responsibilities to the rural community.

In its response to the consultation paper, the Consortium of Rural TECs stated:

There are widespread fears that the RDAs will be urban-based bodies that will focus on urban issues. Like many of my hon. Friends, I represent a rural seat. I live in a small village, and the fear in that rural community is that RDAs are another plank in the Government's strategy to urbanise Britain, first through the planning system, and secondly by starving the rural areas of resources by changes to the revenue support grant and in other ways. Thirdly, they will change the character of the countryside by banning traditional recreations.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield said when he opened for the Opposition, the Government have a longer-term agenda. Behind a smokescreen of claims that they favour decentralisation and want bodies that are accountable to the regions, they are conducting an exercise whose long-term aim seems to be to increase ministerial control, expand quangos, empower bureaucrats and undermine local government.

The Government's plans for the eventual creation of regional assemblies remain hazy, perhaps because they have not yet decided how those bodies will fit into what remains of this United Kingdom after the Labour party, pursuing its own narrow party political interests, has finished trying to smash the Union. Perhaps it is waiting to see whether the European Union evolves into a Europe of regions rather than a Europe of nation states. Whatever the reason, the confusion, the secrecy and the deceit that characterise the way in which the Government are edging towards regional assemblies should be ended forthwith.

This is a bad Bill. It implements a mistaken policy; it inhibits rather than encourages investment; it increases the power of Ministers; it reduces the accountability of Government; it cuts back on the role of local authorities--in short, it has nothing to recommend it. I commend the Opposition amendment, and I invite the House to reject the Bill.

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