HC Deb 05 February 1998 vol 305 cc1211-3
4. Mr. Kirkwood

If she will make a statement on the Government's proposals for reform of the objective 5b criteria. [25687]

Mrs. Roche

We welcome the Commission's proposal for continued support for vulnerable rural areas under the new objective 2. We want to see a fair balance of the available resources between rural, industrial, urban and fisheries areas, ideally determined at the national or regional level. We will seek an overall system and detailed criteria which are fair and equitable to the UK regions and to the United Kingdom as a whole.

Mr. Kirkwood

Can the Minister do anything to allay the fears that are circulating in the Scottish borders and in other areas of the country as a result of the rumours that have been flowing from Brussels, suggesting that the eligibility criteria for rural areas will change substantially? Would it not be perverse and unfair for the United Kingdom, which is the fifth poorest of the member states but the fifth largest net contributor, to be denied millions, if not billions, of ecu in structural funds? Will she seek to persuade her opposite number in the Commission of the need to adopt GDP per head figures rather than unemployment rates as the future eligibility. criterion for objective 5b areas?

Mrs. Roche

I recognise that the Scottish borders, like many other areas, face particular social and economic problems. Of course, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, the area benefits from its objective 5b status. At this early stage, I cannot predict the areas that will be eligible for the new objective 2 status. However, we are seeking a proper balance between rural and other areas and we want to use that objective criterion to determine areas of greatest need. I know that the hon. Gentleman and the House want that. I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that we certainly prefer a system under which the total eligible population of each country is related to national GDP. I assure him that my colleagues and I are working hard on this issue.

Ms Atherton

I listened with interest to my hon. Friend's answer on structural funding. In view of the devastating news that has just been announced that we have not been successful with a viable package for the last tin mine in Europe, South Crofty in Cornwall, does she agree that perhaps objective 5b has not delivered for Cornwall in the way that many of us had hoped? Will she and the Government seriously consider objective 1 funding for Cornwall?

Mrs. Roche

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her leadership in the campaign to save South Crofty. I know that that sentiment is shared by hon. Members in all parts of the House. My officials and I have worked hard, in hand with my hon. Friend and with local management and the work force at South Crony on the application for regional selective assistance. I regret that the application has had to be rejected as the proposal would not lead to a viable business. I think that that is understood by all the relevant parties. The Government are looking hard to see how the local economy can be regenerated, and we recognise Cornwall's strong arguments for objective 1 status. The House may be assured that the Government will push hard to secure the best outcome for Cornwall and for other parts of the UK in the reform of the structural funds.

Mr. Boswell

Moving from one metal to another and from the real problems of Cornish tin miners, may I ask the Minister whether she concedes that her answers will go down like a lead balloon in rural areas where farmers already face a record slump in their incomes? The Rural Development Commission has been filleted and there are threats to country sports and concerns about an overall right of access. There is a profound belief that the Government do not care about rural areas and will not provide continuing support for them—and that all they are going to do is build houses all over them.

Mrs. Roche

I have considerable respect and admiration for the hon. Gentleman, and I am sorry that he takes that view. Plainly, he did not listen to my reply to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) when I stressed the importance of rural areas. We are keen to achieve the right balance and a fair deal for all areas. Rural areas are close to our hearts, particularly, of course, because Labour Members represent so many rural areas as a result of the last election.