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11. Mr. Beith : To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster whether he will make a statement on the rate of growth of British exports.
Mr. Maude : Since 1979, visible exports have increased in volume-- that is in real terms--by 30 per cent., and invisible exports by about 40 per cent. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to join us in congratulating all those businesses that have worked hard to achieve that major success story.
Mr. Beith : Is the Minister aware that the Budget prediction that trade will be in balance by 1992 depends upon an annual export growth of 7 per cent. and an import growth 4 per cent. lower than that? By how far are we currently failing to achieve that and has the prediction of the balance of trade by 1992 been revised?
Mr. Maude : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured to be told that during the three months ending in April 1989, non-oil exports have risen by 7.5 per cent. compared with the equivalent three months a year ago, and that represents the sort of growth in exports about which the hon. Gentleman will be relieved and delighted to hear.
Mr. Soames : Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government's work in establishing and promoting the 1992 programme in Europe has been of great benefit to our exporting companies, but is he also aware of the considerable confusion that is caused to British industry by the rather garbled and confused message that appears to have emanated from the Government on European policy since then? Will my hon. Friend clarify to the House what steps the Government intend to take to stabilise the exchange control mechanism and when they will all be singing one song?
Mr. Maude : I am sure that if my hon. Friend has been listening carefully he will have heard not only one song but a very good song. We are fully engaged in the EC, we have led in many respects and we have achieved a great many successes. In continuing to improve our exports, nothing can substitute for the ability of firms to produce the goods and services that their customers want, but we have done a great deal in providing the sort of help that is needed to do that.
Mr. Morgan : Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), which did not fully comply with the EEC brown nose directive, unlike the question from the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Amos), in what year does the Minister expect our trade to be in balance and to be able to make good the accumulated trade deficit of the past three or four years?
Mr. Maude : I see no reason to divert from the most recent forecast of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Mr. Page : While welcoming the increase in the volume of our exports, may I ask what effect a reduction in soft loans will have on their rate of growth, and do any of our foreign competitors intend either to increase or to decrease their support in that respect?
Mr. Maude : Clearly, changes in the amount and extent of soft loans available do have an effect. However, that
Column 329matter is not one with which I deal directly, but no doubt my hon. Friend will receive at some stage a satisfactory reply from my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade. I make no apology for repeating that nothing can substitute for the ability of firms to compete in the market place.
Mr. John Garrett : What does the Minister have to say about the Confederation of British Industry survey published this week, which shows that our export prospects are the worst for two and half years? Is not that directly attributable to the Minister's right hon. Friend the one-club Chancellor, whose policies are crippling British exports?
Mr. Maude : The hon. Gentleman is wholly wrong. As I said in an earlier answer to one of his hon. Friends, the effect of interest rates on business is considerably less than the effect of unjustified increases in earnings. As to the competitiveness of exchange rates, the hon. Gentleman will recollect that Japan increased exports considerably even when the value of the yen doubled. I say again that it is the ability of businesses to win markets that matters, not what the Government do.
13. Mr. Adley : To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster how many reports produced by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in the last five years have been prompted by him ; and how many have been initiated by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission itself.
Mr. Maude : The Monopolies and Mergers Commission has no power to initiate investigations. It can investigate and report only on matters referred to it by Ministers, the Director General of Fair Trading, Director General of Telecommunications, Director General of Gas Supply, or the Civil Aviation Authority. In the last five years some 78 reports by the commission have been published. Of those my right hon. and noble Friend and his predecessors were responsible for initiating 54.
Mr. Adley : Does my hon. Friend agree that there should be manifest evidence of widespread discontent before the Monopolies and Mergers Commission decides to investigate matters that are at the heart of our national life? Can my hon. Friend say whether his postbag or his constituency surgeries are bulging with letters or with discontented pub- goers, because mine are not? Is the commission short of work, or is Government policy perhaps dictated by liberal interventionism, as evidenced by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs?
Mr. Maude : As I told my hon. Friend in my original reply, the MMC does not initiate investigations. The inquiry to which my hon. Friend makes oblique reference was referred to it by the Director General of Fair Trading in the belief that certain matters required investigation. The report that the commission produced bears that out. As to the contents of my postbag, I can tell my hon. Friend that I received at least as many representations in favour of implementing the MMC's report as I did against. We are weighing those representations very carefully to arrive at the right answer. When a report containing trenchant findings, as that report did, is produced it is clearly not an option for the Government to do nothing.
Mr. Holt : Will my hon. Friend say out of the long list of people that he gave, which of them is the lunatic who referred the merger between William Hill and Mecca to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission? Whatever the outcome may be, the fact remains that William Hill, for which I had the pleasure of working for six years, no longer exists in its previous form. Its directors have either retired or resigned, and anything that the MMC does is now a complete waste of time and money.
Mr. Maude : No doubt my hon. Friend will make his observations, in whatever form he feels is appropriate, to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which is carrying out that investigation. The reference was made on the very firm advice of the Director General of Fair Trading.
14. Mr. Dunnachie : To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what responses his Department has received to the White Paper on information technology (Cm. 646).
Mr. Forth : I have received written comments on the White Paper from one firm, a United Kingdom computer manufacturer.
Mr. Dunnachie : The Government are now involved in negotiating a detailed sector plan with the breweries. Is it not time for the Government to get around a table with the information technology industry to try to find a way for Britain to reduce the £4 billion trade deficit in this vital industry? Why has the House not debated the White Paper on information technology, and when can we expect to see a trade surplus in IT?
Mr. Forth : I do not recall the hon. Gentleman being present for the debate that we had on information technology a couple of months ago. Perhaps he did not notice that there was to be a debate, or perhaps his interest was not as great then as it seems to be now. The Opposition's record has stuck in a groove. The same phrases and the same prompts have been used twice in fairly quick succession, and, if I may, I shall give the same answer. Of all the major OECD countries, only Japan has a surplus in IT products. The proud record of the United Kingdom is a trade surplus in IT with the rest of the European Community. We shall not contemplate the old-fashioned and time-worn answer of sector plans : we threw that out years ago, and as a result our economy has boomed and become successful.
15. Mr. McAllion : To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what is his estimate of the cost to industry of recent rises in interest rates.
Mr. Newton : Bank base rates have risen by one percentage point in 1989. The estimated cost to industrial and commercial companies of such an increase is about £0.4 billion in a full year.
Mr. McAllion : What is the point of the DTI running a £12 million publicity campaign to raise industry's awareness of 1992 when at the same time the Treasury's high interest rates policy is undermining any investment boom that the Minister thinks that he sees, and crippling
Column 331the long-term capacity of British industry to compete? In recent months, as we have seen, the Chancellor has been prepared to sing a different song and to stand up even to the Prime Minister. When will the Minister stand up for British industry and take on the Chancellor in the interest rates battle?
Mr. Newton : The latest survey of manufacturing industry's investment intentions suggests a further rise of some 15 per cent. in the present year, following a rise of about 15 per cent. last year. That reflects the continuing financial strength of British companies. I have here, and would read out if I had time, a string of investment projects in the hon. Gentleman's own city which, as he must know well, have been announced in recent months or are already going ahead.
Mr. Gow : If interest rates were reduced as the Opposition recommend, would not domestic inflation increase and the value of sterling diminish, and would not that in itself add to inflation?
Mr. Newton : I see no reason to quarrel with my hon. Friend's analysis. He has made the point well that the real threat to the future of British industry would be a resurgence of inflation, taking it back to the levels run consistently by the last Labour Government.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : What factors does the Minister believe will lead to a reduction in inflation, and what is going on now that will result in such a reduction?
Mr. Newton : The damping down of the pressure of domestic demand, which is the objective of the Government's policies, has, I think, been acknowledged--for instance, in a number of recent surveys and speeches by the CBI--to be having an effect, not least in the much slower rise in factory-gate prices, which will feed through to the retail prices index in due course.
Mr. Hind : My right hon. Friend will no doubt agree that, given the 15 per cent. increase in investment in this country, it ill behoves the Opposition to give us lectures on advances and investment in industry when their own leader, when asked by Mr. Naughtie on BBC radio whether they had any answer to the problem of inflation, replied that he had no such answer. We recognise that interest rates present the only way of curbing inflation.
Mr. Newton : Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend.
Mr. Gould : In view of the continuing damage done to British industry by the Chancellor's attempt to buck the markets through high interest rates, what representations has the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made to him on the subject?
Mr. Newton : The hon. Gentleman refers to "the continuing damage to British industry". I invite him to explain why we now have a dramatically greater investment boom, a dramatically greater improvement in productivity and a dramatically greater improvement in output than when the Administration that he supported left office. That is the strengthening of the British economy that has taken place.
16. Mr. Robert G. Hughes : To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what monitoring he has undertaken of the level of awareness among business men of the single market achieved by his Department's "Europe-- Open for Business" campaign.
Mr. Maude : The Department of Trade and Industry carries out a detailed survey of 100 different firms every week. The results show that 90 per cent. of business throughout the country is aware of the single market.
Mr. Hughes : Has my hon. Friend had time to look at the CBI survey which shows that three quarters of British companies have taken action on 1992? Surveys in France and Spain show that half the companies have taken action, a survey in Italy shows that a third of companies have taken action and another survey in West Germany shows that one seventh of companies have taken action. Does my hon. Friend take some comfort from the fact that the action that his Department is taking is having some success?
Mr. Maude : My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the CBI survey. He is also right to say that it bodes very well indeed for the future, but that is not to say that British firms can become complacent and relax. The opening of the single market by the end of 1992 will, as I have said before, create much sharper competition. Every firm will have to intensify its activities and increase its cutting edge. However, my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the extent to which British firms are doing better, and doing it faster, than other firms in the Community.
Mr. Gould : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that neither the British people nor British industry are fooled by glossy television advertising? [Interruption.] It may have escaped the attention-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker : Order. Interruptions take up a lot of time.
Mr. Gould : It may have escaped the attention of Government Members that we are not permitted to advertise during election campaigns in this country. Does the Minister accept, however, that glossy television advertising does not fool either the British people or British industry? They understand very well that the legacy of 10 Tory years has left British industry woefully ill prepared for the single European market. That is one of the major reasons for the Government's disastrous showing in last week's Euro-elections.
Mr. Maude : I can think of no better demonstration of the hon. Gentleman's first proposition than the result of the 1987 general election. As for the hon. Gentleman's second proposition, the fact is that British business is now in better shape. It is fitter ; productivity is better ; output is higher. In every way British business is better fitted than it has been for a generation to take advantage of the opportunities. The one thing that British business does not need is advice from the hon. Gentleman on how to conduct itself.
20. Mr. Martlew : To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what progress is being made in the regulation of estate agents.
Mr. Forth : After an extensive review of estate agency issues, I have concluded that the best way to achieve a significant improvement in the practices of estate agency is through a combination of self-regulation and statutory provision. I have asked the Director General of Fair Trading to discuss with the industry the introduction of a code of practice for estate agency. He has agreed to report early next year.
We will need to support this code by acting against a number of undesirable practices, including tie-in sales where the agent refuses to pass on bids unless the purchaser agrees to arrange finance or insurance through him. I intend to do this by introducing an order under section 3 of the Act which would define certain practices as "undesirable." I have also asked the director general to review the arguments for extending the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 to misdescriptions of property.
Copies of my report have been placed in the Library and the Vote Office.
Mr. Martlew : Does the Minister agree that the people of this country have been ripped off too often by estate agents and that it is time that there were statutory, not voluntary, regulations to curtail the cowboys among estate agents?
Mr. Forth : I assure the House that this was not a planted question. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider carefully the answer that I have given rather than make a pre-prepared response. I am sure that he will find in my proposals and in the report that I have placed in the Library and Vote Office that I am dealing firmly but fairly with estate agency problems.
Mr. Latham : Can my hon. Friend confirm that any legislation that he introduces will contain a provision that recognises that organisations such as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors are governed by proper professional standards?
Mr. Forth : Yes, I am pleased to acknowledge the role that the RICS and many other bodies have played in bringing forward their own positive suggestions to make the property transfer market work as efficiently as possible. Let me make it clear to my hon. Friend that we are not contemplating new legislation. I am using the provisions of the Estate Agents Act 1979 in what I regard as appropriate ways.
Ms. Quin : Has the Minister found time to respond to some of the criticisms levelled at the voluntary, self-regulatory approach by some of his hon. Friends, including the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) who said that the rules of conduct should be enshrined in law and backed up by full powers of the law? Furthermore, will the Minister's proposals for regulating estate agents deal with the worst abuse at present--estate agents preferring purchasers who are also getting financial services from those estate agents?
Mr. Forth : I can confirm that that is precisely one of the matters that will be covered by my invocation of the statutory powers under section 3 of the Estate Agents Act. I am sure that when the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) study my proposals in detail, they will find that they are to their entire satisfaction.
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