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EU Structural Funds: Least Developed Regions — [Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:29 pm on 26th June 2019.

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Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 3:29 pm, 26th June 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh, and I congratulate Paul Blomfield on securing this debate on an issue that is close to my heart, given the effect of European funding on the highlands and islands over the years. He cited CPMR figures of €13 billion and £11 billion, and as he rightly said, those numbers have been backed up by the House of Commons Library, and may even be an underestimate of the funding available had we remained in the EU. Indeed, if the Government had decided to take a sensible approach, we would still be beneficiaries of that funding.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the least developed regions, which get a bigger share of that money because they have greater need, and about the EU stepping in where Westminster had not. My constituency contains some big, iconic signals of that. Predating devolution, the Kessock bridge crosses from Inverness to Ross-shire, and it would not have been delivered without intervention from the EU. It has been transformational. Similarly, the University of the Highlands and Islands is now a physical entity, and it has helped hugely with some of the issues described by Members today. There is no town, village or community in the highlands and islands that does not show a wee EU sign to explain how it has benefited from that funding over the years. The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about a range of positive and social economic benefits of European funding, and we share that view.

Mr Betts asked a question that many of us have asked: why is there no consultation? What is holding up the Government? He raised the important point that we will no longer be a member of the European Investment Bank, and the deficit that that holds. Derek Thomas said that people are looking not for a handout but for a hand up, and he listed the criteria. That is where the EU has stepped in in the past. He spoke about a protected allocation of funds, and said there is no reason to believe that that is not what is intended. Let us see the evidence for that; let us see the delivery. There is no detail and, as we have heard, not even a consultation.

Anna Turley spoke about investment and innovation, business and work skills, youth employment in the Tees valley, and about how essential those things are given this UK Government, and the times of Tory austerity we have been living through. She said that people have no knowledge about what is coming, and with her customary niceness she said that plans are “very light on detail”—I would have used stronger terms, but she is absolutely right. Sarah Newton said that the way the Treasury looks at funding overlooks rural areas, and that she will be working hard to ensure her party honours that commitment. We need to hear the Minister say that the funding will be fully replaced, and whether it will be included in the spending review.

Gill Furniss talked about the three years of uncertainty that the communities and recipients of that spending have lived through, and she wondered where we will go next. Importantly, she mentioned the positive impact of the funding on disabled people, because often the best of it goes to those who are left behind in the thoughts of Westminster. She spoke about there being slogans from the Tory Government rather than investment, and today the Minister has an opportunity to put some meat on the bones and give the guarantees that everybody is asking for.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the importance of such funding in the shadow of universal credit, and as an MP for a constituency that has seen UC over six years, from pilot to full roll-out, I know that money from the EU is vital to address some of the deficits caused by that programme. Indeed, we share a rise in food bank reliance as a result. She said that funding should be targeted, focused and devolved, but we are still waiting for a consultation.

Justin Madders talked about how regional equality has dropped, and there are now extra children living in poverty. He asked why in 2019—I agree with this—Westminster still holds all the power. He said that people are fed up to the back teeth with Westminster’s approach, and that we need bottom-up decision making. Luke Pollard spoke about below-average spending from Westminster. He said that EU funds are fairer, and that there is a better recognition of the issues by the EU. He rightly spoke about the risks of a no-deal scenario.

In the short time that she took to make her speech, my hon. Friend Patricia Gibson spoke succinctly, and rightly, about the real living alarm over the lack of detail about what is coming. Who will be eligible? How will it work? What will it be worth? Will there be—this has been mooted but not explained in any detail—like-for-like funding? Will that guarantee be yes or no, regardless of a deal or the catastrophe of a no-deal hard Brexit? She pointed out, as have nearly all the contributors today, that the funding formula must respect the devolution settlement, and she said that neither she, her constituency, nor her country should be short-changed. We call on the Minister to give those guarantees.

I am grateful to the all-party group for post-Brexit funding for nations, regions and local areas for its reports. It backed up a lot of the comments made around this room. It had lots of submissions, including from the Welsh Government, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, EHRC, and many educational and voluntary bodies, which all said that budget funding should be

“no less in real terms than the EU and UK funding streams it replaces.”

It pointed out that shares for the devolved nations should not be reduced, and that as we have heard, it should be a devolved matter.

Mrs Murray rightly asked when we will see action, even just the consultation—that is a pro-Brexit Member asking for that guarantee. Dan Jarvis spoke about the failure of successive UK Governments to address regional disparity, and he mentioned the most centralised political system in the world here at Westminster. I think his four principles are absolutely right: the budget should be no less that it currently is, there should be no competitive bidding, it should be fully devolved, and it must be beyond spending reviews and political cycles.

We have had a promise from the Tory Government, but then delay after delay in getting any information. Evidence from the House of Commons Library shows that we are approaching nearly 300 parliamentary questions, without an answer on any detail of this funding.