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Regional Development Agencies

Volume 459: debated on Thursday 3 May 2007

1. What assessment he has made of the efficiency and effectiveness of regional development agencies in supporting businesses. (135424)

The performance of the regional development agencies against their targets is laid before Parliament every six months. The RDAs have delivered tangible benefits to business. In 2005-06 they helped create or attract almost 19,000 new businesses, supported 800,000 businesses through Business Link, and assisted more than 166,000 businesses to improve their performance.

One of the concerns that many of us have is that beneath those headline figures there is a lack of hard evidence and real performance analysis of the RDAs. For example, in the north-west they are funding 21 schemes but there is no significant evidence of any hard outcomes in terms of business. In London, the lack of transparency in respect of the schemes operated by the London Development Agency is such that it has sometimes been referred to in the press as the slush fund for the Mayor’s pet projects. Is there not a need for a consistent national template of target setting and monitoring? Otherwise, we might as well just open a suitcase full of money and throw it at them.

There is a consistent way of monitoring and ensuring that RDAs meet their targets: through the reporting against their targets to Parliament. We have also ensured that the National Audit Office has undertaken an analysis of the performance of the RDAs, and it has classified all of them as performing either strongly or very well. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take advantage of the opportunity to look at the data before Parliament and then come back and give us some real reasons why he thinks that the RDAs are not performing.

Against the background of the high administrative costs of the RDAs—which was most recently revealed in the Richard report—is the Minister confident that it will be possible to co-ordinate their activities better to ensure that they do not, for example, wastefully duplicate each other’s activities in overseas markets and that they are able to provide a proper national service to national industries such as aerospace?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, because I gave evidence before his Trade and Industry Committee, we are working to ensure that there is much better co-ordination between the RDAs, particularly in relation to some of the major industries in the country. In respect of aerospace for example, they now have a common application form, a common monitoring form and a common assessment form. Therefore, although the money might come from different RDAs, for the industry there will be one form, and one gateway through which it has to travel. We are working hard to ensure that in the work done overseas there is proper co-ordination between the RDAs and UK Trade and Investment—UKTI.

Despite the Minister’s claims, there is significant duplication. At least one third of funding for regional business support is lost in bureaucracy; the Minister managed to overlook that. However, it also now appears that some RDAs are misusing their money. In March, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury launched a political pamphlet called, “Redesigning Regionalism”. That pamphlet said that the RDAs are wonderful and marvellous and should have more powers—and, indeed, that they should have more money. [Interruption.] It turns out that three of the RDAs spent £15,000 of taxpayers’ money on self-serving paper, so can the Minister explain—[Interruption.]

Order. The Minister does not tell me my job; I tell her what to do. There should be a question. I think there was the hint of one somewhere.

You are absolutely right, Mr. Speaker, and it is a good one; the Minister must be patient. Will the Minister explain, not only to the House but, more importantly, to the thousands of small companies whose corporation tax bills are about to rise, why the RDAs are spending taxpayers’ money to promote themselves instead of doing what they should be doing: backing businesses?

This morning we are finally getting the old Tory agenda. The RDAs are probably up for grabs again, as it appears that they will be part of the £21 billion of cuts that the Opposition want to impose on the country as part of their tax-cutting efforts. Let me also retort to the hon. Gentleman that although he repeatedly says that one third of the expenditure on business support goes in administration, that is simply untrue. He will know from the work that we have done that the proportion is less than 10 per cent., and that we are constantly trying to cut that. Are the RDAs right to engage in a debate on how best to devolve government to areas where we can have the best intervention to achieve the most effective economic success? Of course the RDAs have a role to play in that debate, and the hon. Gentleman knows that we are currently considering which is the best level, below national level, for intervention to be effective and to help us to continue to achieve the great economic growth and prosperity that we have achieved over the past 10 years.