HC Deb 07 March 2000 vol 345 cc851-2
5. Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)

If he will make a statement on the potential role of regional assemblies in tackling social exclusion. [112176]

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong)

The eight regional assemblies and chambers are already starting to identify social exclusion issues in their regions and will have an important role in setting the regional context for tackling social exclusion. That will include, for instance, neighbourhood renewal, on which the Government's social exclusion unit is in the process of drawing up a national strategy.

Ms Blears

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Now that we are all comfortable with the fact that there are real disparities in economic performance between and within regions, can she confirm that she will encourage regional development agencies and assemblies to develop policies to tackle unemployment, skill shortages and all the issues that contribute to social exclusion? In particular, will she encourage the sharing of regional good practice on social exclusion, such as the unique Salford school for social entrepreneurs, which is setting up community businesses and giving people real opportunities for the future?

Ms Armstrong

I am delighted to hear of the work taking place in Salford to tackle social exclusion. I shall certainly encourage regional assemblies and RDAs to pick up good practice and spread it. They have a prime responsibility to tackle disadvantage wherever it arises, and to develop and implement strategies to do that. Unless they take account of social exclusion, they will not succeed in uplifting the economic performance of their regions.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

Can the Minister explain why she thinks that the regional assemblies, whose administrative costs alone will be more than £205 million a year, are better placed to tackle the worsening problems of social exclusion than elected and accountable local authorities? Her own Department was condemned by the Government's performance and innovation unit for failing to deliver co-ordination between Departments, for poor cross-cutting and for making unnecessary obstacles in dealing with social exclusion. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has warned that, despite 100 spin-doctored policy announcements about tackling poverty and social exclusion, the problems continue unabated. How long will it be before the Secretary of State loses responsibility for this flagship issue too? The Secretary of State is all talk and no trousers and has all but lost his briefs.

Ms Armstrong

I am sure that the country will be weary of the Tory Opposition failing once again to admit to their responsibilities. The reason we had to set up the RDAs and the reason why regional assemblies were formed—they arose in the regions; the Government did not set them up—was the failure of the previous Administration to address regional imbalances and to understand the yearning in the English regions that their problems should be tackled. The previous Government did nothing; we are developing a coherent regional policy and a strategy to address the problems. People out there know the problems need to be addressed; it is a pity that the Opposition do not.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the regional assemblies and the RDAs are already showing that they are better able to tackle social exclusion and economic problems in their areas? Does she think that, in the long run, they should also be given powers to deal with the problems of education and housing in the regions? They will ensure that we have better answers for local problems and better use of Government resources.

Ms Armstrong

I agree with my hon. Friend that regional assemblies and RDAs already make a significant impact in the regions. It is a pity that the Opposition have not picked up that fact. Perhaps when they do so, we shall see another U-turn. The work that is being done in the regions will be developed over time. We shall work with people in the regions to make sure that the agencies work on what they want locally in a way that produces a real difference.

Forward to