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2.3 pm

Ms Helen Southworth (Warrington, South): I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate on this Bill, in the week of the Second Reading of the Regional

16 Jan 1998 : Column 654

Development Agencies Bill. I remind the House that the Government have introduced a comprehensive range of constitutional reforms to modernise the political system. That was in our manifesto, which was put to the British people and received overwhelming support. It included proposals for a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, which were backed in the referendums, and an elected mayor and strategic authority for London. Most important for my constituents, it proposed greater accountability for the English regions.

Devolution to the regions is being met with great enthusiasm in Warrington, which is geographically at the centre of the north-west, and its industry and business make a significant contribution to regional development. We are looking forward to developing partnerships for the growth and regeneration of our local communities.

I hope that you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I am new to the House, and it has been pointed out to me that in our debates "our" means the House; but, as a representative of Warrington, to me it means the people whom I have been elected to represent.

There is private sector support in my area for regional development; small businesses, in particular, urgently seek a framework. We have developed a dialogue with business, which is a recognition of the fact that the Government's proposals are being accepted. Warrington chamber of commerce has told me this week that it actively supports and welcomes the Regional Development Agencies Bill. It believes that it will put us on a level playing field with Scotland and Wales. It wants to see devolution working in the north-west as soon as possible.

Mr. Swayne: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Southworth: Not now, I am afraid.

Partnership with national Government and opportunities for strategic co-operation are very important to my local community. We want to move away from the centralism and unhelpful competition that was favoured by the Conservative Government, and which has disadvantaged the north-west.

The chairman of Warrington 2000, which is a private-public sector partnership working to promote the competitiveness of our local economy, has said that the principle of decentralisation is extremely welcome as a starting point for development, and will allow strategic partnerships to grow.

The opportunities that a regional structure will give to create a regional network and to build on successful partnerships with national Government will help our region to achieve economic and industrial success. In Warrington, we recognise that we cannot achieve economic success and social cohesion alone: we must work in partnership.

I shall refer briefly to a success story that shows the demand from local businesses for, and the effectiveness of, regional economic growth. Warrington has a Business Connections exhibition, which was created due to a demand from local business. It has grown from a small tent on Victoria park to an international exhibition that markets businesses in the north-west, creates opportunities for inward investment in the region and provides regional business with access to growing international markets.

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On 28 and 29 April, there will be 500 stands at this year's Business Connections exhibition, with an expected 5,000 visitors over those two days. The international dimension involves business development agencies, companies and groups from 14 countries and 20 American states. It is an effective marketing tool, and is a way of developing contacts with eastern Europe, European Union countries and the rest of the world. It provides an opportunity for businesses in the region to grow and to develop a competitive local economy, which will bring social cohesion.

That is a Warrington initiative, but it shows the regional demand. The effectiveness of Warrington is due to its central position in the north-west, its transport networks and our experience of developing international marketplaces. The exhibition shows our effectiveness because, although 36 per cent. of the participants are from Warrington businesses, 8 per cent. are from Lancashire, 10 per cent. from Greater Manchester, 15 per cent. from Merseyside and 13 per cent. from Cheshire.

It is not merely because Warrington is ideally situated in the north-west that it will grow and prosper under a regional development agency, and will play a key part in the economic regeneration of the north-west to benefit the people, but because in Warrington we live in the real world, where the private and public sectors work strategically together to develop inward investment, training and support for business, transport networks and international markets. Regional devolution, the partnership with national Government that the present Government have made possible and strong relationships with Europe are the cornerstone of the north-west's success. We live in the real world, not in the cloud cuckoo land supported by this Bill.

In my constituency and my region, business and the community are working together to reverse the social and regional economic decline. We are certainly not looking for the petty distractions and frivolity that this Bill represents.

2.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth): This has been an interesting debate. The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman)--who, I am sure, will re-emerge at some stage during my brief speech--has done us a service by at least allowing us to debate some of the issues and by demonstrating that the case for a referendum on an English Parliament has not been proved.

The hon. Lady opened her speech with a reference to one of the most topical stories of the day--the fate of the two Tamworth pigs.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Boars.

Mr. Howarth: Boars, indeed. The hon. Gentleman would know a great deal about that.

The pigs are Tamworths, and it will not have escaped hon. Members that the modern Conservative party was founded on the Tamworth manifesto, published in The Times on 18 December 1834 in a letter from Robert Peel. I am not trying to be discourteous to Conservative

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Members or their party, but I see a similarity between the fate of the two boars and the state of the modern Conservative party.

I understand that one of the pigs--known as Butch--was captured last night and is being held by the Daily Mail. The second is still at large, but is being chased by an inspector from the RSPCA with a gun, with which he hopes to quieten it. Hon. Members can choose which fate to specify, but it strikes me that some of them face the fate that I have described.

The debate should be seen in the context of the Government's constitutional reform package. Let me say immediately that we are deeply committed to the democratic renewal of the country. Much went wrong under the last Government but, above all, the failure of confidence in our democratic institutions was a major contribution to the defeat suffered by the Conservative party in May.

I think it worth while to give some indication of our constitutional reform programme and of how we intend to achieve our aims. Several Opposition Members have misrepresented our package. Let me tell them that it is not piecemeal reform. This is not a package that we have plucked out of the air because it sounds nice; it is a genuine response to the British people's concerns about how our constitutional arrangements have worked and, in some ways have been perverted, over the past 20 years or so.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. George Howarth: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. We share a name, but little else.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I am grateful to my namesake the Minister. He may rest assured that there will be no need for the RSPCA to use a tranquillising dart to deal with him--his hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), perhaps.

The Minister has been kind enough to give way to me. After that mild insult, may I ask him a question? He says that there is great concern in the country about the way in which the Conservatives managed our constitutional arrangements. Will he tell us precisely where in England there is a demand for any new form of democratically controlled government? If there is such a demand, why is he not providing it, rather than setting up a huge quango called a regional development agency?

Mr. George Howarth: No discourtesy was intended; it was a throwaway remark. There is considerable demand for different constitutional arrangements for the government of London. That was still part of England the last time I looked. The hon. Gentleman heard my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) and for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth) talk of the need for a focus through which the economic regeneration of our region, the north-west, can be taken forward. I shall discuss how we see that process working if I have time. There is a demand for strategic direction in the regions. Conservative Members have had difficulty grasping that.

On the arrangements for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, many speeches by Conservative Members were predicated on the mistaken assumption

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that through those institutions we were taking the first faltering steps on the road to a federal Britain. People who have read Hansard will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland made it clear earlier this week that devolution is not the same as establishing a federal system of government. It is a process by which the House can send some powers to the Scottish people through a body elected by them. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) is on the edge of his seat and looks as if he wants to intervene.


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