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9.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle): I congratulate my hon. Friend the

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Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar) on his maiden speech. I agree with him when he abhors racial prejudice and the development of Islamaphobia. I also agree with his desire to ensure that ethnic minorities are treated equally and given a fair chance.

This has been an interesting debate, but there has not been a consensus across the Floor on what the Bill is about. Indeed, I wonder whether Tory Members live in the same world as the rest of us. It has been an interesting spectacle. The Tory militants now occupy the Front Bench as well as parts of the Back Benches. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) was quite hysterical--he made Baroness Thatcher look like a wet liberal. He and the hon. Members for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) demonstrated a Eurosceptical paranoia of epic proportions, putting all sorts of connotations on the Bill--[Interruption.] How could I forget the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth)? I shall put him in with the rest of them. They were joined--worryingly for the future of the Tory party, but it has to resolve its own difficulties--by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) and, as ever, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo).

We should contrast the hysterical meanderings of those hon. Members with the extremely interesting and thoughtful speech by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who brings a great deal of expertise to these matters--[Interruption.] I am sorry to embarrass the right hon. Gentleman, but his contribution was thoughtful and full of the expertise he has gained from being in office. It is a problem for the Tory party that, in the extreme party that it has become, the right hon. Gentleman is unable to take a seat on the Front Bench. I hope that the Opposition will allow him his voice and that he will serve on the Standing Committee, so that we can have some constructive discussions.

The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield could not decide whether the Bill was the end of democracy as we know it or a damp squib. He asked why the RDAs were not accountable, while also saying that we had gone too far in creating them. He cannot have it both ways. The Bill is essentially evolutionary. It is not the final say on regional government; it is the beginning of what we hope will be an evolutionary process that will lead to the creation of regional government that will make our regional economies more focused strategically and more able to act efficiently, thereby giving to the people of the regions the higher living standards that this Government believe they deserve.

The right hon. Gentleman read out a long list of figures for inward investment, but failed to mention that the Bill is about the English regions. Most of the figures that he quoted included Scotland and Wales. The issue is not only about inward investment, important though that is; it is about creating a structure that allows us to foster our own local businesses so that we can be more dependent on our own resources and have a flexible economy that can react to the economic cycles that occur in a global economy.

The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield talked so much about the remarkable revolution of the Conservatives' 18 years in office that I wondered why they suffered a landslide loss in the general election and face a 178-seat Labour majority in the House. They enjoyed the worst electoral result since 1906, and the worst

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performance in seats since 1832. If that is a remarkable revolution, let us hope that there are more of them, particularly when we get round to holding the next general election.

A difficult part of the right hon. Gentleman's speech was when he said that the 1,500 responses to our consultation process--which was genuine, despite his scepticism--agreed with the Government views because they were merely collective job applications. That comment is more revealing of his thought process than it is of the way in which people responded to a genuine consultation process. The comment displayed unbelievable cynicism.

The right hon. Gentleman seemed to say that the Institute of Directors was somehow against the Bill. On 25 November, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning met Tim Melville-Ross, of the IOD. The minutes state that, at the end of the meeting, Mr. Melville-Ross

and that

    "He would reflect this accordingly at the meeting of his regional chairmen on 26 November, and would write a positive piece in a forthcoming issue of Director magazine."

Therefore, the IOD--with many of the other organisations that we consulted, which is something that the previous Government rarely did when in power--approves of what we are trying to do in the Bill.

We have heard some interesting speeches. What struck me about many of them was the breadth of experience of the regions displayed by many of the hon. Members--not only Labour Members but Liberal Members--who spoke. Their speeches demonstrated what is already known by those of us who bother to go out into the regions and talk to people: the Bill will create a strategic focus in making progress on the regional agenda.

Conservative Members seem to think that the United Kingdom's economic performance is acceptable because two of the current 10 regions are close to the European average gross domestic product per head, but the Government are not satisfied with that performance. The Bill is about baking a bigger cake so that we can better distribute and increase prosperity. It is evolutionary legislation that will create partnerships, to ensure that we can effectively accomplish those goals.

Mr. Yeo: Will the hon. Lady confirm that the figures for regional GDP per head in the White Paper are extremely misleading, because they relate to 1993? Since 1993, the United Kingdom has enjoyed four years of outstanding economic growth, in which national GDP growth has been substantially above the EU average, has beaten every other major European country and has been substantially above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average. If up-to-date figures had been used in the White Paper, the picture would have been completely different.

Angela Eagle: The hon. Gentleman again displays his complacency. The Government are not as complacent about what is happening in the economy as the previous Government were in their 18 years in power. If anything, we believe that the position is getting worse. We know that we have to create efficient regional economies, so

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that we can react to increasing competition in the global market. The Bill is intended to accomplish those objectives.

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) welcomed the Bill and was kind enough to say a few words about the report of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee. The Government welcome the Select Committee's report and the work that it did in producing it so quickly. We shall respond in due course to the individual points in the conclusion of the report.

We recognise the democratic deficit argument, but the Bill is evolutionary. It is the first stage and, with the consent of those at regional level, we hope to pursue the accountability argument and, where the regional electorate wants it, create directly elected chambers. In the meantime, it is quite right that the RDAs should be accountable directly to Ministers for the money that they spend. Ministers will ensure that RDAs are involved in the shadow regional chambers that are being formed in every English region so that we can ensure that the partnership that is the key to making the idea work develops.

I should mention the rural dimension, as there has been much scaremongering about the alleged urban bias of RDAs. It relates to the old language about urban domination, but RDAs are about partnership and building co-operation--creating a strategy at regional level that will ensure that the needs of all the communities involved are taken account of, planned for and met. I reject the idea that rural areas will be dominated by urban areas when, in many cases, their needs are pretty similar and can often be met in a strategic way. We are not creating RDAs so that rural areas will be dominated by urban areas. Opposition Members who fear that or go around talking about it are simply scaremongering. Quite rightly, there will be a strong rural dimension to all the economic work that we undertake.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds is one of the main perpetrators of the rural alarm myth that has been much quoted by Conservative Members. The hon. Gentleman failed to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan on his maiden speech. He then did not wait to hear the whole of the next speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). When the hon. Gentleman observes the courtesies of the House, I shall give him the courtesy of a reply to his questions.

The Bill is evolutionary. It is the beginning of a process for which the English regions have waited a very long time. My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) made an eloquent case for RDAs. I can assure her that we are taking a very robust approach to the negotiations on European structural funds and that we shall do our best for her area, but she must also recognise that they are tough negotiations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) made an extremely eloquent speech demonstrating her wide understanding and experience of these complex issues, and showed what a difference development agencies can make. I recognised her descriptions of what was happening in my own area much

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more than I recognised those by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, who did not seem to be living in the same region.

RDAs will bring positive added value at regional level. They will have an executive role in administering the single regeneration budget challenge fund and they will take over the regional regeneration role of English Partnerships and the rural regeneration role of the Rural Development Commission. They will ensure better value for money for the public sector funds that we invest in the regions.

A key objective of the Government is to ensure that the best use is made of existing programmes and resources. RDAs will provide the means of securing better value for money for existing spending by taking a more focused approach to delivering services, improving output and enhancing job opportunities, and it is with a great deal of pride that I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The House divided: Ayes 148, Noes 388.

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