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UK Shared Prosperity Fund

Volume 795: debated on Monday 4 February 2019

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress it has made on the design and implementation of the proposed UK Shared Prosperity Fund in the light of reports that the Prime Minister is considering providing additional funds to former steel and mining communities and industrial towns.

My Lords, first, is the money that the Prime Minister has been scattering around actually new money, or is it money that would otherwise come out of this shared prosperity fund? Secondly, we might need this fund in seven weeks’ time. How come, therefore, we have yet to have a consultation on it? We do not know whether it will be allocated on the basis of need or prosperity. Can the Minister assure us that, if it is needed in seven weeks’ time, it will be up and ready for the communities it is to serve?

My Lords, first, the noble Baroness will be aware that current EU programmes will run their course—in some cases, beyond 2020—so I do not quite recognise the urgency of which she speaks. At the same time as the Prime Minister announced that the consultation would be short, she talked about the importance of tackling inequalities between communities—something I am sure the noble Baroness welcomes, and it may well be something that the right honourable Member the leader of the Opposition chose to discuss with the Prime Minister. I am sure that she would hope so because, clearly, this is very important. We have been doing a lot of work with engagement events around the country. The consultation will start shortly and the decisions will be made in the spending review.

My Lords, in a letter in today’s Times, my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford makes it clear that the offer of cash subsidies to an MP for the benefit of constituents provided that the MP votes for the Government’s withdrawal agreement is in breach of Section 1 of the Bribery Act. Does the Minister agree that having ad hoc, specific discussions of this nature is not just legally unwise but a disreputable act of a desperate Prime Minister?

My Lords, I bow to nobody in my discipleship of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, on legal issues, and I am sure that what he says is correct, but noble Lords should not believe everything that they see in the newspapers. What is important in regard to any fund—such as the shared prosperity fund, on which we will consult shortly—is that it tackles inequalities across communities. I am sure that the noble Lord would agree with that, and I would think that he would want to engage in the consultation on that basis.

My Lords, in his usual generous way, when the Minister answered the question from my noble friend Lady Hayter, he answered more than she had asked. However, he did not answer the crucial part of her question, which was whether it was new money.

My Lords, I answered that, to the extent that I said that any spending decisions would await the spending review. However, the noble Lord will be aware of the amount that is currently spent on EU programmes—more than £1 billion per year—which I am sure will inform that review. Any decisions will await the spending review, but I am sure that that is a good guideline figure.

My Lords, do the Government agree that many of these steel and mining areas have been left to rot for many years, and it is about time that the Government provided funds to address some of the poverty in those communities?

My Lords, it was on that basis that I said that the Prime Minister was very keen to say that this was about tackling inequalities between communities, which I would think noble Lords would welcome very widely—I hope that the Labour Party does—and we will be keen to stress that in the consultation and the future spending review.

My Lords, twice now the Minister has referred to inequalities being a key factor in the shared prosperity fund. How does that sit with the latest consultation on the fairer funding formula, where deprivation and need have been excluded? Will this not mean robbing Peter to pay Paul when it comes to inequality and need?

My Lords, I will make two points. First, I referred to inequalities in communities because that was in the Written Statement on the UK single prosperity fund made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government in July; it was restated by the Prime Minister, and in looking at that consultation we have talked about the importance of people, infrastructure, business, environment, ideas and place. The noble Lord referred to the fairer funding formula but did not do so totally fairly, if I may say so. He will be aware that deprivation is recognised as a key factor in many areas, such as health.

My Lords, to come back to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, can we have the position made absolutely clear, that the money that was being talked about over the weekend is not in any way conditional upon support for the Government in the House of Commons? Can that be made absolutely clear at this Dispatch Box?

My Lords, I will make two points. The first is a relatively minor one, but lest the Order Paper appear strange, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, did not table the Question but was cited in another question. In relation to the content of the letter that was read out, I am sure that the noble Lord is right legally. I say simply that the context of this consultation, when it happens shortly, is about ensuring that we address inequalities between communities. That is the essence of what we are looking at.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that if any meetings are held with individual MPs, the minutes of those discussions will be published immediately after they have taken place?

My Lords, that is well beyond my brief. I am not quite sure whose discussions the noble Lord is referring to. As he will be aware, many confidential discussions are held, and both MPs and Ministers respect their confidentiality. It is unthinkable that a Government Minister is breaching the law in the way that has been suggested—directly and, in some cases, indirectly—in the Chamber today. Once again—your Lordships should not need encouragement in this—noble Lords should not believe everything they read in the newspapers.

My Lords, in view of the Minister’s concern for former steel- and coal-mining areas, I ask that it be extended to areas devastated by the demise of the shipbuilding industry. On the allegations of bribery, does that not apply to the agreement between the Government and the DUP?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is fair. I shall address the first part of her question, which is certainly fair; the second, I think, was a throwaway comment. I am sure she is more concerned about the shipbuilding industry than scoring political points. On shipbuilding, I address her to the fact that much of the EU funding that will no longer be in place has been to assist such areas—the north-east, which I know she is familiar with and concerned about, is one of those areas. As I said, it is about addressing inequalities in communities, so I am sure those communities would be part of that; for example, there has been an engagement exercise in Gateshead, where I am sure this policy issue would be considered in framing a consultation. There have been engagement events around the whole country—the UK, not just England.

My Lords, will this policy affect Airbus or Vauxhall in north-east Wales? It will cause tremendous devastation of the economy in those areas. Does he really think that coming out of Europe will be to our benefit and ease the austerity in Wales and other places?

My Lords, I bow to no one in my respect for Airbus, but I would not be as keen as the noble Lord is to write it off. He will be aware that it is in an area not currently in receipt of cohesion funding, and I shall not be making decisions here—I do not have the writ to do so anyway—about who gets money after the consultation and the subsequent spending review. Those are the parameters: the consultation will happen shortly, the spending review later, and that is when decisions will be made which will shape what happens post Brexit.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that in the consultation, local community organisations will be assured that they can access the new fund so that local issues really do rise to the surface in use of the funding?

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for raising the matter. I can confirm that this will be a wide consultation. I very much hope that the sorts of organisations he referred to will participate, and obviously we will react to what we find in the consultation.