§ 2. Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)
If he will make a statement on his proposals to strengthen regional policy. 
§ The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)
The launch of the regional development agencies last year demonstrated our commitment to maximising the potential of the English regions. We now look forward to seeing their implementation plans for the regional strategies that the Government welcomed in January this year.
We have also secured the establishment of voluntary regional chambers in all the English regions outside London. Together with the RDAs, those bodies are helping to build up the voice of the regions and to enhance regional identities.
§ Mr. Taylor
Is my right hon. Friend happy that our regional policy adequately addresses the very serious state of the textile, clothing and footwear industry, which employs a third of a million people, a quarter of whom are in the east midlands? The industry is bigger than farming, car manufacturing or the chemical industry. Does he agree that it is as important to defend the interests of poorly paid women in east midlands textile factories as it is to defend the interests of well-paid men in the London-based financial services?
§ Mr. Prescott
The House is aware of the difficulties that the textile industry and its workers have been facing for some time. I am glad to say that the regional development agency in the east midlands is working closely with the East Midlands Clothing and Textiles Partnership, which is exactly what regional bodies should be doing. It has brought together all the interests in the industry and examined how they may develop and sharpen its competitiveness. That is why the RDAs are so 847 important for reducing the disparities between and within the regions, which would be made worse now that the Tories are preparing to abolish them.
§ Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)
Does the Deputy Prime Minister remember saying in December 1996:as we have made clear in our Manifesto we are committed to moving, with the consent of local people, to directly elected regional government in England?Can he clarify how that pledge squares with a statement made by the Minister for Local Government and the Regions who said, when asked whether she would introduce elected assemblies in the next Parliament, that she had "no idea"? Will "no idea" be the Deputy Prime Minister's chapter in the next manifesto and is not the real truth that Downing street and the rest of the Government have backed off that pledge and left him hanging out to dry?
§ Mr. Prescott
I am glad that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) has decided to intervene on these occasions and that he has started off by quoting our manifesto. Our position now is precisely as it was then. We are developing the new manifesto—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] We are a party that implements its manifesto. We have already implemented 80 per cent. of the manifesto that we put before the country and we are planning the new one because we have no doubt that we will be the party in power next time. The reason for that is that our policies are relevant to people. For example, the regional development agencies have already done much—and will do more—to reduce the economic disparities between regions. However, the hon. Gentleman proposes to abolish them. Perhaps he should pay some attention to that.
§ Mr. Norman
It is hard to tell whether the Government remain committed to elected assemblies. If they do, why cannot the House now be told when they will be introduced? What will happen to the county councils as a result? Will the Deputy Prime Minister clarify why he has described elected assemblies as being very important, whereas the Minister for Local Government and the Regions described them as a diversion? Perhaps both are really saying the same thing, for once—that they are an important diversion.
More importantly, will the Deputy Prime Minister clarify who is responsible for this area of Government policy? First, he had transport taken away from him and given to Lord Macdonald, then responsibility for the countryside was transferred to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, and now we understand that the Committee for the Regions is to be chaired by Lord Falconer. Whenever the Government have an expensive failure on their hands, do they not always call for the Minister for the dome? Is not the truth that the Government are moving away from elected regional assemblies because they have learned that the only way to rig elections successfully is to make sure that everyone involved is appointed?
§ Mr. Prescott
That is really cutting stuff. The Government's regional policy is implemented by me and my Department. I certainly retain responsibility for 848 transport: others may say that I do not, but I notice that they are always asking me to make the statements to the House.
The hon. Gentleman referred to regional assemblies. They have already been established, include 100 Tory councillors, and are supported by the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress. Will he say whether he will persist with his intention to abolish them?
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Whatever my right hon. Friend does with regional government, he must not have it quoted on the stock market. If he did, would not educated Archie over there buy it, and sell it off to Wal-Mart?
§ Mr. Prescott
I have no doubt that the experience to which my hon. Friend refers will be best utilised in the next statement to be made to the House.