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Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Does the Minister accept that there is not only a record number of home owners but a record number of repossessions? Does he accept also that there is concern that estate agents do not get the best possible prices for repossessed houses? The individual not only loses his home but ends up in debt. As repossession often occurs because of high interest rates and the problems of having to live on benefits, will the Government do something at least to make sure that estate agents get the full market value for repossessed homes?
Mr. Forth : I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his elevation to the Back Benches. I hope that his knowledge of estate agency matters will soon match his knowledge of education. If the hon. Gentleman has any specific cases that he wants to bring to my attention I should be grateful to know about them, because I will then be able to add them to the evidence that I have been gathering about the operation of estate agents over the past few months.
Mr. Maude : I have had no such discussions recently. However, the improvements to merger control procedures that we are proposing arose from our review of mergers policy, to which the CBI submitted views.
Mr. Taylor : When my hon. Friend next has discussions with the CBI, will he remind it that many of its members are now successfully making acquisitions in other countries and that, rather than introduce protectionism in the domestic market and tinker with the takeover code, the way forward is for it to back my hon. Friend's efforts to remove restrictions in other countries, particularly within the European Community?
Mr. Maude : It is worth pointing out that for the last 12 months for which figures are available, till September of this year, the value of acquisitions by United Kingdom companies overseas was slightly more than double the value of acquisitions in the United Kingdom by overseas companies. The policy of openness that we have espoused has been beneficial for the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend is absolutely right in saying that barriers to takeovers are being mounted in other countries within the European Community. I have asked the European Commission to bring forward proposals to address some of the barriers, and I have had an encouraging response.
Mr. Austin Mitchell : Why does the Minister not admit that the Government's merger policy has been a total disaster? It has been diluted, it takes no account of jobs, industrial logic or the national interest and it has encouraged an orgy of speculation and takeover, rather
Column 310than investment, which has reached record heights in the last quarter. All the research shows that there has been not overall benefit, but overall harm, from those takeovers, yet the Government have dithered on with their review of policy. Why does the Minister not come out with the truth and tell us that the Government's only mergers policy is a great big "for sale" notice over British industry?
Mr. Maude : It is difficult to know which of the hon. Gentleman's propositions is more wrong. He has got it wrong all the way down the line. We have made clear our policy. We shall refer mergers when a competition issue arises. We would not ordinarily refer mergers on any other basis, although it is not an exclusive criterion. As the figures that I have just given show, the fact is that we have been benefiting enormously from having a broadly open policy towards acquisitions. The result is that we have United Kingdom externally owned assets which are higher than those of any other country, except Japan. I should have thought that that would make the hon. Gentleman, with his well-known nationalism, rather proud.
Mr. Atkins : I want my hon. Friend to listen carefully. The issued share capital of Short Brothers plc comprises 3,600,000 ordinary shares of £1 each, 7,710,000 A preference shares of £1 each and 79, 700,000 B preference shares of £1 each. Of these, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry holds 342,000 ordinary shares and 4,840,000 A preference shares. That adds up to about 10 per cent.
Mr. Cash : Does my hon. Friend agree that Shorts has an extremely bright future and that it is a company that some of us wish to campaign to privatise? Does he further agree that if my right hon. Friend were prepared to accept such a proposal, it would lead to Shorts having an extremely bright future in the European Community for the next 20 years?
Mr. Atkins : My hon. Friend is right. Shorts has contributed greatly to British Aerospace success. That is what it is and the House should be aware of it. Its plans for the future, which include privatisation and a new aircraft which it hopes to launch, suggest that its future will be as bright as it has reason to expect on the basis of its past achievements.
Mr. Cryer : Is not the truth that the attempt to privatise Shorts produces uncertainty, and has not our experience of privatisation shown that it always leads to sackings under the guise of slimming down and improving competitiveness? Surely, in a place like Northern Ireland, it is better to have certainty to reduce the level of unemployment, which must contribute to the sectarian strife there. The Government's recipe is a recipe for disaster.
Mr. Atkins : The main plans for privatisation will be controlled by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. As I said, our shareholding is relatively small. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I believe that privatisation has proved a success story in the
Column 311aerospace industry. British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce clearly show what that success has been, and Shorts deserves the same consideration.
Mr. Marshall : Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that the European Community takes 50 per cent. of our exports underlines both the potential for 1992 and the folly of those who sought at the 1983 election, and subsequently, to take Britain out of the European Community?
Mr. Soames : With his well-known enthusiasm for the European Economic Community, does my hon. Friend agree that, although British business has done well in the Community recently, a limiting factor to developing our business is the poor language skills of British managers? Does he agree that the Government should take steps to ensure that companies are much better geared to promote their goods in the countries to which they are trying to sell them?
Mr. Clark : My hon. Friend is entirely right. One problem is that so many of our customers speak English--of a kind. That sometimes deludes British exporters into thinking that they can reply at length, deliver technical specifications and issue sales literature in English. In fact, the sooner they realise that it is essential to circulate their literature and to converse in, if possible, the language of their customers, the better their prospects.
17. Mr. Tony Lloyd : To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster by what percentage in constant value terms investment in manufacturing industries has changed from 1979 to the latest date for which figures are available.
Mr. Atkins : Investment in manufacturing industry, including leased assets, in the first three quarters of 1988 is provisionally estimated to have been only 1.5 per cent. below the 1979 average level in constant value terms. However, it was 10 per cent. greater than in the same period a year earlier, and this strong growth is forecast to continue.
Mr. Lloyd : Given those rather pathetic figures, will the Minister speculate whether the failure of manufacturing industry to invest in its and our future has any relationship with the massive and growing balance of payments crisis facing this country? What do the Government intend to do to stimulate investment?
Mr. Atkins : The hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to be aware that there was a world recession in 1980-81. We were not unique in suffering from that recession. The fact is that investment is at an all- time high. The CBI forecasts a rise of 14.5 per cent. this year and a further rise of 9 per cent. next year. That appears to fly in the face of what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting.
Mr. Forth : My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that a large and growing number of firms are improving their competitiveness by taking the enterprise initiative. Since January, 15,000 applications have been received for the self-help package of assistance with consultancy projects- -2,500 of them in the last six weeks.
Mr. Forth : My hon. Friend is right. The initiative is aimed primarily at small firms. We have been delighted with the take-up. I shall tell my hon. Friend what I probably do not need to tell him : we have already received 288 applications for consultancy projects from Cornwall, and 128 projects have been approved for assisted consultancy. I am sure he will agree that this is encouraging. We hope to see this greater progress maintained.
Mr. Atkins : The Anglo-Italian EH 101 helicopter programme is approaching the end of its fifth year of full development. The flight- testing programme has been in progress for over a year and three development aircraft have now flown. Aircraft performance has generally been good, with problems no more than would usually be expected with such a development.
Mr. Atkins : As I have already said, the participation of Rolls- Royce in engine manufacture is proving highly successful, and the RTM322 is no exception. We hope that provision will be made for that engine to be available for the super version, but it is for customers to decide what they want.
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