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Volume 201: debated on Wednesday 15 January 1992

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To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will make a statement on RECHAR.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs
(Mr. Edward Leigh)

The European Commission's approval of the programmes for RECHAR grants for British coalfield areas is overdue.

Is the Secretary of State for the Environment mistaken in pointing out that the Government's position on RECHAR has become untenable?

For a start, the so-called leaked document in question dates from last July. Discussions do take place within this Government—we are not so Stalinist as Labour's national executive committee in these matters.

Secondly, our position is clear: we will not allow the House of Commons to lose its control of public spending. Labour Members may be interested in devolving power to the nomenklatura of Brussels—we are not.

The Cannock Chase area badly needs these funds, not just in my constituency but in surrounding constituencies. Is my hon. Friend aware that we hold entirely responsible for this delay the former Labour Member of Parliament and now Commissioner in Brussels, Bruce Millan, who is playing a fairly despicable party political game? Will my hon. Friend do everything he possibly can firmly to nail the blame on Bruce Millan for the delay in these funds coming to the coalfield areas?

I find it difficult to understand Mr. Millan's position. On his own admission he is dissatisfied with additionality procedures in other countries—for instance, in Italy, the Netherlands and France—but, uniquely, he picks on this country, despite the fact that the structural funds have doubled and we are not receiving any benefit. Why is that? I understand that Mr. Millan is a socialist; could he be making a party political point? Is he an honourable man?

These funds have been administered in this way since 1975. When Mr. Millan was Secretary of State for Scotland he administered them in exactly the same way as that for which he criticises us. What is he trying to do?

The Minister himself was making a party political point in his reply. Will he come back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths)? The Department of the Environment says that the Government's position is untenable. Is the Minister aware that France, Germany and Spain have carried out their undertakings under the agreement? Does he not realise that his party is being slaughtered in Scotland? We are job-hungry in Scotland and we need this money. Why does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the position is untenable and reach an agreement to bring the money to the areas which need it?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman to this extent—that the coal mining areas need this money. If Mr. Millan releases the money, every last penny of it will go to the coalfield areas. I have said that Mr. Millan is an honourable man—[Interruption.]—and I am sure that Mr. Millan wants the money to go to those areas. We pay in £300 million more to the European Commission than we receive back. The ball is now in the Commission's court. These moneys are genuinely additional. All that Mr. Millan has to do is to release the money and it will be spent.

Is it not outrageous that coalfield areas such as Nottinghamshire which have been waiting nearly two years for this money are still denied it because of the party political games played by the former Cabinet Minister and now Labour Commissioner Millan? Will my hon. Friend make sure that he or his officials contact the office of Commissioner Millan today and demand that the money be freed so that it can be well spent in areas such as the one that I represent?

My hon. Friend is quite right. There is another point: the additionality test is to ensure that the moneys are spent only because of the grant. Clearly, the moneys are not being spent, because Mr. Millan is holding up their distribution. What clearer laboratory or litmus test could there be to show that our methods are genuinely additional? I repeat that Mr. Millan has had his day in court. These moneys are genuinely additional and we await his decision. We want these moneys to go to the coal mining areas, many of which are represented by Labour Members. I hope that they will take the opportunity to ask Mr. Millan to release these moneys for the benefit of their areas.

Does the Minister accept that although some of us may have a disagreement with Bruce Millan, we have known him for many years and we know that he has always been, and is, punctilious in the exercise of his duties? He could certainly teach the hon. Gentleman how to master legislation. I have complete confidence in Mr. Millan's analysis of the situation. When will the Government own up to their responsibilities and release the money to areas such as Fife which need it?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. When Mr. Millan was Secretary of State he was punctilious in operating a system that he now condemns. The House is entitled to ask why that was so. For the sake of the hon. Gentleman's constituency and areas such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth), these moneys must be released. Some £109 million is being held up. We made it absolutely clear to Mr. Millan and the Commission that we were prepared to be flexible and to listen to any representations. At the end of the day, however, we must ensure that the House retains control of public expenditure. That is the reality of the dispute. Hon. Members must address that problem. Opposition Members may wish to make party political points, but do they want to lose control of public spending?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the Minister's unsatisfactory reply and the slur on Bruce Millan, I shall have to raise the matter on the Adjournment.