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Column 310they will stick by the commitments and agreements that they signed? Or are we about to see a further turnabout, with the stabbing in the back of the regions and a reduction in the regional development fund yet again?
Mr. Maude : I understand that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs has written to the hon. Gentleman, and I am sure that he will find much food for thought in that letter.
politician-dominated Europe tied down by a central currency and a central bank? I hope I shall not be struck dead for saying that from this corner seat of the Front Bench below the Gangway.
Mr. Maude : The Government's policy remains as set out on 3 March 1988. The review, the results of which we announced at that time, concluded that the effect of a merger on competition in the United Kingdom should continue to be the main criterion in deciding whether a merger should be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
Mr. Darling : In the light of the Scottish and Newcastle referral, is it not clear that competition is by no means the main criterion applied by the Department? Does he recognise that there is considerable uncertainty in British industry as to what exactly the British Government's policy is? Is he aware that this is resulting in companies keeping up share prices to ward off hostile bids, instead of investing? In view of the present state of British industry, would it not be better to revise once again his competition policy so that we can see what it is, and stop cutting to pieces the British industrial base?
Mr. Maude : As the level of investment in business in this country is at extremely high levels, the basis of the hon. Gentleman's question is tendentious. My noble Friend and I were advised by the Director-General of Fair Trading that the Scottish and Newcastle matter should be referred to the MMC on the basis of the competition issues outlined, and the MMC concluded, on the basis of the competition issues, that it would be against the public interest. It was on the basis of those two bodies' conclusions that we decided to take the steps that we took.
Mr. Tredinnick : Can my hon. Friend confirm that the role of the MMC is to ensure that companies do not engage in price fixing, and to stop monopolies coming about? Will he also confirm that it is not the job of the MMC to tell industries how to run themselves? Is there not a danger that the MMC is going down this road, as evidenced by a number of recent and pending reports?
Mr. Maude : The role of the MMC when matters are referred to it is to decide whether, in the case of a monopoly reference, a monopoly is in existence and if it decides that it is, it makes recommendations to which the Government have to respond.
Mr. Morgan : Is not one of our endemic problems that industry is run for the benefit of takeover bidders rather than on the basis of creation of real assets? Is not one of the tragedies of the last week the announcement by Plessey, under the pressure of a take-over bid, that it will close down its gallium arsenide microcircuit business at Towcester in Northamptonshire, which will also have tragic implications for the attempts in this country, led by university college, Cardiff and the Welsh Development Agency, to build up expertise in gallium arsenide, one of the principal materials for succeeding silicon chips as a way of processing microcircuits that are faster than those produced by silicon? On silicon, we have lost out to the Japanese and now we are losing our main chance to get in with the next generation.
Mr. Maude : The purpose of business is to provide goods and services for customers, and not to build up real assets, nor to run companies for the benefit of takeovers. If companies cannot provide the goods and services that customers want, they will go out of business. It is for businesses to take commercial decisions and rely on their judgment. It is not for Government to try to second-guess them.
competitiveness, efficiency and quality of service both before and after 1992.
Mr. Bowis : In the light of the perceptive assessment by my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade of the abysmal delivery record of letters by the Post Office, is it not high time that the Post Office letter service had a little competition from the private sector? In particular, will my right hon. Friend make a clear declaration that he will resist any attempt by the Post Office to stitch up a European monopoly with its counterparts abroad, the purpose of which would be to keep out private enterprise competitors, to the detriment of the public of this country and the European nations?
Mr. Newton : I would neither add nor detract from what my hon. Friend described as the perceptive comments of my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade in the Adjournment debate on Friday. As to the latter part of my hon. Friend's question, I imagine that he is referring to the paper prepared by a group of European postal administrations as an input to various Commission discussions. Those do not represent a commitment by the Commission, the Government or the Council of Ministers. There is a great deal to discuss in the approach to 1992.
Column 312that they use it to deliver, albeit inaccurate, leaflets about the poll tax. Why does not the Minister just tell the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) that the Post Office in Britain is the most efficient in the world, and that that is why the Government use it so much?
Mr. Newton : I do not wish to behave towards my hon. Friend in a fashion different from that in which I would behave towards the hon. Gentleman. I will try to curb any instinct of aggression. As to the Post Office and the leaflets, it is commendable that, within a couple of hours of having been asked to do so by the Department of the Environment, the Post Office had issued instructions all round its network.
Dr. Goodson-Wickes : My right hon. Friend will be aware of the unfortunate and spreading practice of the Post Office sealing boxes secondary to industrial action. Can my right hon. Friend imagine any private company getting away with offering such an appalling service to its customers?
Mr. Newton : I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to observe that I am reluctant to let him get away with asking that question, the subject matter of which relates to a question that appears later on the Order Paper.
12. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what progress he has made in his considerations regarding the application of the Furniture and Furnishing (Fire) (Safety) Regulation 1988 to baby products.
Mr. Forth : I have decided that the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations should be amended to exempt the cover fabric of nursery equipment from the match test requirement. Draft amending regulations will be issued as soon as possible for consultation with industry, consumer and fire prevention interests.
Mr. Bennett : I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Does the Minister agree that it is important that parents concerned about small babies ensure that the foam that they use is not toxic when it burns, that it is easy for a child whose face is in contact with the fabric to be able to breathe through it, whether or not it is wet, and that the fabric is covered with a non-toxic material that is unlikely to cause problems to a baby? Will he emphasise the concern that there is still much toxic foam in households, some of which may be used on products that have been altered for the household? Parents should be concerned about using such foam near a small child.
Mr. Forth : I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that he will accept that in the changes that I have made I have struck the best balance available between trying to ensure fire safety and a degree of permeability. Those factors are all-important for the welfare of babies, but I believe that in this rather difficult area we have achieved the right balance as a result of the changes that have been made.
I hope that the changes that we have made to the safety of furniture will be and have been, of increasing benefit to the community. One of the by- products of the changes is much wider awareness of the potential toxicity of materials
Column 313when they burn. That is more widely understood, but we shall continue to watch carefully to ensure that we have the balance right.
Mr. Dykes : I thank my hon. Friend for deciding to amend the regulations. He will agree that retaining the match test would have made outer surfaces extremely uncomfortable for babies and toddlers. When does he therefore intend to convey this good news to the industry, if he has not already done so?
Mr. Forth : I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I hope soon-- within days rather than weeks--to issue the draft regulations for consultation. I shall then be able to consider the responses of industry, consumers and fire prevention interests. I have every reason to believe that our amendments will receive widespread support.
Mr. Forth : I hope to meet my European Community counterparts and Mr. Van Miert, who is Commissioner with responsibility for consumer issues, at the Council of Consumer Ministers, which the Spanish presidency has planned for 1 June. The provisional agenda is as follows.
Proposal for a Council directive amending directive 87/102/EEC for the approximation of laws, regulations and administrative provisions of member states concerning consumer credit ; draft resolution for the relaunch of EC consumer policy ; Commission report on the European home and leisure accident surveillance system ; exchange of views on the Commission report on consumer education ; Commission presentation of the general product safety directive ; and any other business.
Mr. Garrett : I am sure that the House was fascinated by that agenda, the sheer complexity of which amazed me. A consumer issue was considered yesterday in Brussels. Irrespective of whether the House is composed of smokers or non-smokers, an issue of national sovereignty arose. Is it not time that hon. Members forgot party lines when considering national sovereignty? My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) and I have been long-standing members of an organisation and have warned it about the loss of national sovereignty. The question of national sovereignty and consumer affairs should be placed high on the agenda. One of the countries that voted against us was France, which has a nationalised tobacco industry. Its "dangerous to health" warnings on cigarette packets are so small that one cannot see them with the naked eye. It is guilty and dishonest, and that should be pointed out to it.
Mr. Forth : The hon. Gentleman's question should more correctly be addressed to his Front Bench. It strikes me that, when we catch sight of the Labour party's policy on the European Community, the hon. Gentleman will have considerable cause to be concerned. I hope that he will take this matter up with the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould).
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the stance taken yesterday in Brussels by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and for the support
Column 314which he is giving to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the concern that she expressed yesterday from the Dispatch Box.
Mr. Yeo : Will my hon. Friend make it clear to the Commissioner that this country will give all the support possible to any Commission proposals that are genuinely designed to produce a free market in goods and services but will strenuously resist any bureaucratic meddling in matters that should be determined by this Parliament?
Mr. Cryer : When dealing with consumer choice, will the Minister raise under any other business the issue of burden-sharing arrangements for textiles? This is a Government matter and the Government must take action to ensure that in 1992 all imports of textiles to the Common Market are not directed towards the market with the best access--the United Kingdom--where half a dozen distributors cover every major city and town in the country, unlike any other member state. This kind of arrangement is important for the retention of jobs and for the textile industry in Bradford, west Yorkshire and elsewhere.
Mr. Forth : If I were able to persuade the presidency to put that matter on the agenda, it would probably be more in the context of the fact that consumers generally will benefit from the most open market arrangement that we can have. One must be extremely careful in making any market arrangements. The consumer's interest is virtually always better served by the most open and competitive arrangement that can be arrived at.
14. Mr. Holt : To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what are the latest tonnage figures for the importation of tropical hardwoods ; and what were the figures for five, 10, 20 and 30 years ago.
Mr. Holt : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Does it not show that we are still ripping out hardwood forests at too great a rate? Would not this subject usefully be dealt with by the Commissioners in Europe, resulting in a European initiative to solve this vexed problem which seems to affect not only the hardwoods but the climate in North America? The furniture industry would welcome such an initiative wholeheartedly, but not, as with fire regulations, if we did it on our own.
Mr. Clark : My hon. Friend is right. There is growing feeling in the European Community and, indeed, in most western, sophisticated economies that steps must be taken to assist in the conservation of these materials. A variety of options is at our disposal. I am often approached by people who want to ban the import of these materials. One does not exclude that idea, but this cannot be done in isolation. Steps of this kind and other less extreme conservation measures are best addressed within a Community context.
Mr. Dalyell : Will the Government look sympathetically at the idea of helping countries such as Papua New Guinea which have a law that they are trying to implement to replant their hardwoods in areas where cutting down has taken place?
Mr. Clark : As the hon. Gentleman knows, the International Tropical Timber Organisation is active in this regard. Less than two months ago I had a meeting with its executive director, Dr. Freezailah, and discussed where the organisation's efforts would be best directed. The organisation's headquarters are in Tokyo and the emphasis of its activities appears to be directed towards the Pacific basin.
Mr. Alan Clark : The usual export services of the Department of Trade and Industry are available for exporters dealing with Nigeria and Ghana. The President of Nigeria has recently concluded a state visit to the United Kingdom and a number of useful discussions on trade-related subjects took place.
Mr. Speller : Will my hon. Friend consider reinstating export credit guarantees, which are no longer offered to Nigeria, both in view of the successful visit of President Babangida and also, in the case of Ghana, because the economy is showing signs of great success following hard work?
Mr. Clark : My hon. Friend is right about Ghana, and subject to the access criteria of the Export Credits Guarantee Department, normal underwriting judgment is being satisfied and cover is, in principle, available for exports to Ghana on both cash and longer terms of payment. For Nigeria, although cover for cash business continues to be available, there are no plans at present for any general resumption of medium-term cover.
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