My Department is investing £2.3 billion this year to strengthen regional economies through the regional development agencies. Since 2002 the less prosperous regions’ growth rates have caught up with those of London and the south-east. We are currently consulting business on the details of a new enterprise strategy, which will further address the issue of regional disparities in economic performance.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that regional economies can be international drivers? I draw his attention to the Scotch whisky industry. In my constituency, I am lucky to have a cooperage, distilleries, coppersmiths and a blending plant. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the industry provides a real opportunity to blend traditional skills with a modern economic industry, and that those traditional skills are vital to the preservation of a modern economic base?
Given your interest, Mr. Speaker, I obviously need to answer the question in the right way. I am a great fan of blends, so I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) about the importance of the Scotch whisky industry. It is a significant employer, and there is much technology and innovation in the industry. I can assure him, and the House, that the UK Government are doing all they can on issues such as ensuring that Scotch whisky can be sold freely and fairly around the world, without unnecessary high tariffs. I have just come back from Korea, and I can assure my hon. Friend that I raised that point directly with that country’s Trade Minister.
Over the last 10 years the Government have talked a great deal about the north-south regional divide, and indeed they have spent some £13 billion through the RDAs, yet the prosperity gap between the regions has widened since 1997, with the north and the midlands falling further behind the national average. Having spent £13 billion in that period, will the Secretary of State explain why the north-south gap in prosperity has actually grown? Is it a deliberate Government policy, or just ministerial incompetence?
The tone of these exchanges has suddenly lowered dramatically. I pointed out—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman wants an answer and I am trying to give it to him. I pointed out to him in my answer the progress that is being made. It is important to remember that the problems that we are discussing did not arise in 1997, and it is worth reminding ourselves—[Interruption.] No, these problems go back 80, 90 or 100 years. If we are to succeed in sustaining the progress that we are making, that will call for investment and support for the work of the regional development agencies, which I have never heard a Conservative Member signal since we established the RDAs. One thing that always emerges from our exchanges is the sniff of hypocrisy and humbug. The hon. Gentleman never showed any interest at all—
Of course I am talking about the Conservative party, Mr. Speaker. Thank you for that helpful clarification. If the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) had any record to campaign on that would allow us to believe that he was serious in the concerns that he expressed today, we would take him more seriously. Sadly, there is no evidence to support his view.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government recently announced that she wishes to set up a cross-departmental group to look at the special needs of some of our coastal towns? Will he actively engage in that group so that the economy of a town like Blackpool can be regenerated and help to strengthen the whole of the regional economy?
Yes. I want to praise the work that my hon. Friend does in representing her constituents in the matter. My Department will do all we can to support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in the work that she is doing to rejuvenate our coastal towns.