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Northern Region: Development

Volume 491: debated on Monday 11 January 1988

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2.57 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what further proposals they have to deal with the social and economic problems of the northern region.

My Lords, this Government's policies will continue to assist in the social and economic development of the northern region. We remain committed to policies which will encourage wealth creation and increase prosperity in the region.

My Lords, in view of the complacency of that reply, may I remind the Minister that, after eight years of this Government, unemployment in the northern region remains, outside Northern Ireland, the highest in the United Kingdom? It is still five times greater than it was when this Government came to power. If the Minister is to tell noble Lords about the decrease in unemployment in 1987, may I point out to him that it will take 42 years before we come back to the original total? Finally, in view of the reports in the newspapers yesterday and today that the Government are to abolish regional developments grants—

My Lords, may I ask him whether, if that happens, the results will be devastating for the northern region?

My Lords, I shall take the noble Lord's first point on unemployment. The northern region is beginning to mirror the improvements in unemployment, redundancies and job vacancies that are taking place in many other parts of the country. The unemployment, rate in the region fell from 15.9 per cent. in November 1986 to 13.8 per cent. in November 1987. I should say to the noble Lord that my noble friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has made it clear that there will be no reduction in the overall level of spending by his department on regional measures.

My Lords, is not the noble Lord aware that changing the structure of regional aid without extra financial assistance will not help our northern regions, especially where they are grappling with male unemployment rates of 20 per cent? Will the Minister therefore, by some ways and means, get his department or Her Majesty's Government to give extra financial assistance and staff to British Coal Enterprise Limited, the body responsible for finding jobs in the unemployment blackspots in the coalfields'? Also, will the Minister sympathetically consider receiving the officials of the coalfields communities campaign to discuss these problems? After all, they represent 70 local authorities where the unemployment problems in the North are at their worst.

My Lords, I shall pass on the noble Lord's suggestion to my noble friend the Secretary of State. As regards schemes of support, wherever they may come from, nearly 97 per cent. of the working population of the North-East are covered by the assisted areas map. That is the highest percentage in any region. Therefore they benefit from all the government schemes, and I hope they benefit also from many other initiatives which are trying to reduce the level of difficulty in those areas.

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that unemployment in the Isle of Wight is comparable with that in the North, with that in Wales and in other such areas? However, we do not receive the regional benefits that those other regions receive. Does not my noble friend agree that it would be a very good thing if the unfairness by which other parts of the country can attract industry to a greater extent than we can were put right?

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have any good news for my noble friend. Ministers have frequently made it clear that they have no intention of reviewing the assisted areas map in the foreseeable future.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree with the Conservative Bow Group, which argues that the present regions are paying up to 95 per cent. of their own aid?

My Lords, I am aware of the Bow Group's assertion, but I would say in reply to the noble Lord that corporation tax in this country is now one of the lowest in the developed world.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is no begging-bowl attitude in the northern region, as demonstrated by the joint initiative taken by the employers, the trade unions and the local authorities in setting up the Northern Development Company? As that company could be quite crucial in the development of the northern region will the Minister consider giving increased aid in addition to the rather meagre help which has been given in the past?

My Lords, I should say to the noble Lord that the level of spending in particular areas will, as now, depend on the number of good projects which come forward from those areas.