Major accused of buying votes

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Millions of pounds in European Union grant aid which ought to have gone to some of Britain's poorest regions has been diverted by the Government to help buy votes in marginal Tory constituencies, Labour alleged yesterday.

The European Commission approved an unprecedented grant of pounds 2bn for 10 of Britain's poorest industrial and urban areas. But Labour accused the Government of a pre-election carve-up of the money aimed specifically at boosting the Conservative vote in certain regions.

Comparative figures show that the English North-east, western Scotland, eastern Scotland and South Wales have had their percentage share of EU regional funding cut, Labour said. On the other hand London, the East Midlands, west Cumbria, and the area encompassing Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Cheshire have all received significant increases on the amounts they received over the period 1994 to 1996.

Bill Miller, MEP for Glasgow said: "This is a deliberate ploy by the Government to buy votes in marginal constituencies using money which should be going to Labour strongholds.

"It is highly ironic that John Major's government, which is being completely skewed by the Eurosceptics, is now using eurofunds to finance his election campaign."

EU officials said that objective criteria are used to determine which regions qualify for grants, as well as the shareout within member states.

The breakdown announced yesterday, however, shows that East London stands to receive about 14 per cent more than it did under the last funding round while western Scotland's share is down by 8 per cent. Mr Miller said this represented a loss of around pounds 30m on the share the region had been expecting. South Wales will be receiving pounds 6m less than it had hoped for from the carve up, he said. Total investment for all ten regions will come to around pounds 4.2bn when government grants are added. A further pounds 500m is expected from the private sector. The Commission is insisting that the Government match EU grants pound-for-pound.

The latest round of funding is likely to be the last on such a scale. Former Eastern Bloc countries are queueing up to join the EU, and Monika Wulf Mathies, the EU Regional Development Commissioner, has warned that resources will have to be concentrated on regions which need most help.