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Mr. Ridley : I should like to agree with my hon. Friend that the role played by inward investment into this country from overseas has begun to fill some of the industrial gaps left by the ravages of the Socialist Government when they tried to have an industrial strategy.

Northern Development Company

9. Mr. Trotter : To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when he expects to be able to announce the level of his financial support for the Northern Development Company for 1990.

Mr. Douglas Hogg : I expect to announce the levels of grant in aid which will be awarded to each of the regional development organisations, including the Northern Development Company, for the financial year 1990-91, in March 1990.

Mr. Trotter : When my hon. Friend comes to consider the funding of the NDC, will he give due regard to the great value to the region of the excellent work performed by it in promoting the region both at home and overseas? Will he further give regard to the commendable level of support which it receives locally from industry and authorities in the region?

Mr. Hogg : Most certainly. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for the help that he has given to the NDC and for the part that he played in setting up that organisation. He will be pleased to know that, over the years, funding has steadily increased. For example, in 1981-82 funding was £230,000, but in 1989-90 it is £1,182,000, inclusive of core funding.

Mr. Caborn : The Minister gave his usual non-answer. What does the Secretary of State have in mind for English Estates? Incidentally, in 1936, the right hon. Gentleman's father was one of the first directors of English Estates and it is evident that he had more vision than his son, especially as press reports suggest that it is about to be privatised. That privatisation would be a further blow to the northern region because English Estates has played a significant role in the development of science parks and technology transfer centres. Those developments are sorely needed if we are to get manufacturing back on to a competitive edge so that we can start to reduce the £20 billion trade deficit.

Mr. Hogg : I have a very high regard for the work of English Estates, but the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I say that if he wants to ask a question about English Estates it would be a good idea to do a bit of homework and table a question. We are now talking about the Northern Development Company, which is a different thing altogether. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman appears to be unaware of that difference and I find it remarkable that such a person should be sitting on the Front Bench of the Labour party.

Mr. Jopling : Is my hon. Friend aware that the NDC does not give the appearance of having much more than a polite interest in the affairs that it is supposed to overlook in Cumbria? Before he starts giving it a whole lot of money

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will he try to extract an undertaking from it that it will demonstrate a more positive approach to the problems of Cumbria?

Mr. Hogg : Having had the privilege of serving under my right hon. Friend when he was Chief Whip I can think of nobody more competent than he to remind NDC of that. I look forward to the discussion that I am sure will take place between NDC and my right hon. Friend.

Consumer Protection

11. Ms. Armstrong : To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he has any plans to introduce new legislation or regulations on consumer protection.

Mr. Forth : We intend to improve the protection given to consumers in a number of ways, including the introduction of an order under the Prices Act 1974, as amended, on price indications, and unit pricing about which we are currently engaging in public consultation, and changes to other legislation affecting consumers' interests.

Ms. Armstrong : What steps is the Minister taking to try to implement the recommendations of the National Consumer Council on product guarantees? Is he considering following the practice in the United States where consumers are given a guarantee that if a major purchase breaks down and is not satisfactorily repaired a full replacement is supplied?

Mr. Forth : I am, of course, giving close and careful consideration, as I always do, to the recommendations by the National Consumer Council. Although I yield to none in my admiration for the United States I do not believe that we should always seek to copy what our friends in the United States do. Although I shall consider carefully the recommendations of the National Consumer Council, I have yet to make up my mind about whether they would be beneficial to our consumers.

Mr. David Shaw : Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to provide consumer protection is to have a proper degree of competition between the companies that provide the goods and services consumed by the public? Surely it is competition and free enterprise that provide good consumer protection.

Mr. Forth : I have enormous sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. I am sure that if we look carefully at these matters we shall see that consumers in the West under capitalism have enjoyed a much greater degree of consumer protection and benefit than their opposite numbers behind what we used to call the iron curtain. Therefore, the best possible approach is the one that we are now taking, which is to temper the advantages and benefits of the market and competition with a light regulatory touch.

Mr. Matthew Taylor : In view of the Minister's direct responsibility for consumer protection, will he be contacting the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to urge him to make available to the consumer information regarding the safety of the use of microwave cookers?

Mr. Forth : The hon. Gentleman has wasted his opportunity because, as he well knows, my right hon.

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Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will shortly be at this Dispatch Box giving a full and comprehensive statement on the matter.

Mr. Barry Field : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the joys of the market place is the ever-changing perspective of the need for consumer protection, as with the levelling off of the housing market? Does he agree that now that the frothiness has been taken away, the need to legislate against estate agents has been reduced?

Mr. Forth : As my hon. Friend knows, I have asked the Director- General of Fair Trading to look carefully at estate agency and its business practices, and to come up with recommendations. When he reports to me early in the new year, as I have asked him, I will look, as always, most carefully at his recommendations to see whether we can agree on the best way forward.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths : Does the Minister accept that public confidence in any new legislation to protect the consumer is severely dented by his failure to implement current legislation? A young girl died on 5 November after swallowing part of a toy in an egg like the one I have in my hand. That was the second such death and the manufacturers are withdrawing the egg. Consumer protection officers have asked for it to be banned, and yet despite that it is on sale in large quantities in hundreds of thousands of shops throughout the country. Why does not the Minister use his powers under section 13 to ban the toy altogether?

Mr. Forth : I slightly regret the tone and terms with which the hon. Gentleman has presented the matter to the House, but I shall give him a full answer. As he well knows--or perhaps he does not--the enforcement of existing laws is a matter for the trading standards officers who do an excellent and superb job in enforcing consumer protection laws at local level. In this case, which one of his hon. Friends raised earlier, we looked carefully at the matter and were affected by the death of the young child. However, on balance, given that the product has been on sale for many years in this country and throughout Europe--millions of them are sold every year and its packaging contains a warning--I took the difficult decision that the death did not justify banning the product. I did so mainly because the child's tragic death was caused by the ingestion of a small part of the egg's contents. Many other products and toys with small parts are available in the market place. If we were to start banning every product that could be swallowed by a child, there would be very few toys left in the market. This is primarily a matter for parents and I am sure that all parents are aware of the potential danger to children of small items. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that we look at all such cases most carefully and, in this case, made a difficult-- I believe the right--decision.

Takeovers and Mergers

13. Mr. Ian Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what progress is being made within the European Commission in agreeing Communitywide powers to regulate cross-border takeovers and mergers.

Mr. Ridley : At the 23 November Internal Market Council, major progress was made in negotiations on the proposed EC merger control regulation setting out

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Community powers to regulate certain EC mergers. Agreement was reached in principle on a number of important issues. Discussion will be resumed at the Council on 21 December.

Mr. Taylor : Will my right hon. Friend accept congratulations for the work that his Department has done to speed progress in European co- operation towards achieving the 1992 programme in competition policy and other matters such as insurance services? Will he confirm that the French have dropped their requirement for an industrial element in this policy as opposed to our desire for competition principles to be predominant? Has the Commission decided satisfactorily on the degree of flexibility in referrals for smaller countries?

Mr. Ridley : I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I can confirm that good progress was made at the last Council. I am hopeful--but not certain-- that an agreement will be reached during this Presidency. We can be satisfied with the criteria for the Communitywide mergers to be considered by the Commission, which are almost entirely on competition grounds.

On the possibility of smaller nations with no mergers control machinery inviting the Commission to consider mergers betwen the thresholds of 2 billion and 5 billion ecu, we have a satisfactory formula which will allow the Commission to take remedial action only in the smaller member state that makes the application in the first place.

Mr. Ron Brown : Whether the House is for or against the EEC--I am certainly against it--can the Secretary of State tell me exactly what the Government are doing to protect Ferranti, bearing in mind the predators within and outside this country who intend to take it over and asset strip it? That means that jobs will go and a major asset will be reduced to ruins both north and south of the border. Are the Government doing anything about that? Will the Government act as a guarantor for British industry or will they just sit back and listen?

Mr. Ridley : I think that everything in that supplementary question was out of order and unacceptable-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Batiste rose --

Mr. Hood : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Am I right in thinking that you are the only person who can rule whether something is in or out of order in the House and not a Minister from the Dispatch Box?

Mr. Speaker : If I had thought it out of order, I would have said so.

Mr. Batiste : Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is an important strategic need to develop large transcontinental companies across Europe in many of the important industries of tomorrow? In order for those companies to emerge, is there not a need for a coherent and consistent takeovers and mergers policy across Europe? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is wholly committed to the creation of such a regime?

Mr. Ridley : I do believe that the regime-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Ridley : I believe that the regime in Europe should put as its first priority the preservation of competition, both in distinct markets and in the Community market as

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a whole. It is more important that there should be competition than that we should seek to construct large European champions in any industry. I believe that there is room for both, but competition must come first.

Mr. Riddick : Once the European countries have hammered out an agreement on this, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in this country will not carry forward its unfortunate practice of investigating whole industries where companies are competing unless there is clear evidence that prices are being fixed or that the companies are following other incorrect trade practices? Will he stop the MMC from producing grand bureaucratic designs for those industrial sectors as it did with the brewing industry?

Mr. Ridley : The subject matter of this question has been Communitywide mergers of assets in excess of 5 billion ecu. Of course it is true that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is also asked to carry out investigations into situations of imperfect competition. Those investigations are agreed by myself or, in the case of the beer report, by my predecessors. It would be wrong not to turn the spotlight on uncompetitive aspects of the particular industry under consideration. We should continue to have that power. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have views on the beer report that he might wish to express when the orders come before the House.

Mr. Cryer : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) raised a point of order about the Secretary of State not being allowed to decide which questions are in order in the House, and you indicated your agreement. Surely the Secretary of State cannot brush aside a question by declaring it out of order? He should apologise to the House for usurping your job ; otherwise, any Minister could ignore questions.

Mr. Speaker : I have said endless times before that I am not responsible for what is said in answer to questions. I said that I did not judge the question asked by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Brown) out of order.

Japanese Market

15. Mr. Yeo : To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what recent representations he has received regarding access for British exports to the Japanese market.

Mr. Douglas Hogg : I refer my hon. Friend to the reply given by my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) on 1 November. In the first 10 months of this year our exports to Japan increased in value by 30 per cent.

Mr. Yeo : Does my hon. Friend agree that, given level playing fields in the markets of Japan and elsewhere, plenty of British exports such as Scotch whisky and financial services are world beaters? As we allow free access to our market for the benefit of British consumers, will he do everything that he can to ensure full reciprocation in Japan and other countries?

Mr. Hogg : I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. My hon. Friend the Prime Minister pressed the Prime Minister of Japan vigorously on this point, and Japanese markets are being substantially liberalised. I have

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already mentioned the increase in exports in the first 10 months of this year. Last year, I am glad to say, there was an increase of 17 per cent.

My hon. Friend referred to the Scotch whisky market. He will be pleased to know that whisky sales between last August and April of this year increased by 102 per cent.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing : The Minister will know that that 102 per cent. increase is greatly appreciated, not least in my constituency, in which there are 43 distilleries. What specific action is he taking to ensure that the advance achieved over the past year will be enhanced by finally breaking down all barriers against Scotch whisky in the Japanese market?

Mr. Hogg : I should like to have said that I had the hon. Lady in mind when I gave the figure but that would not be wholly true. She is right to be concerned. The problem relates to deception by look-alikes. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister strongly pressed the Japanese Prime Minister on the need to take action to prevent deception by look-alikes in the Japanese market and she was able to obtain considerable reassurances from him on that point.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Does my hon. Friend agree that one way of getting more products into the Japanese market is to make British products more competitive? Under a previous Conservative Government there was a 6 per cent. payroll tax, in the form of employers' national insurance ; under the next Labour Government it was 13 per cent., and it is still too high in the United Kingdom, at 10.5 per cent. Will my hon. Friend talk to the Chancellor about reducing it is soon as possible?

Mr. Hogg : As so often, my hon. Friend is right. The Labour party has learnt nothing on this sort of matter. For example, it proposes a payroll tax, echoing the errors that it committed in the past.

Citizens Advice Bureaux

17. Mr. Ron Davies : To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what discussions he has had with the citizens advice bureaux on the funding requirements in 1990-91 of their comprehensive advice service.

Mr. Forth : The funding of individual citizens advice bureaux is a matter for local decision, and my Department is not involved in those discussions. I have however met representatives of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and of Citizens Advice Scotland in recent months and among the topics discussed was their funding requirements.

Mr. Davies : Will the Minister take this opportunity to express his appreciation of the invaluable work carried out by CABs in giving free and confidential advice to members of the public? Will he acknowledge that the CABs are now dealing with a vast increase in the number of inquiries about, for example, unemployment benefit, health and social security payments, cuts in housing benefit and now problems about debt repayment following the increase in interest rates? Given that many of those problems stem directly from the Government's social and economic policies, does he think that he has a moral responsibility to ensure adequate and continuing funding for the CABs?

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Mr. Forth : I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in praising citizens advice bureaux all over the country for their marvellous work in advising people who come to them for advice on a range of matters. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government have funded the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux to the tune of £9.9 million this year, an increase from less than £2 million 10 years ago. That demonstrates the Government's recognition in funding as well as praise, which I am happy to give to the work of the national association. I emphasise that, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, the funding of local bureaux has always been and remains a matter for local authority decision. Local authorities can amply take care of that and I expect them to do so.

Mr. Mallon : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker : I shall take the point of order later.

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