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House of Commons

Wednesday 23 January 1991

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions

TRADE AND INDUSTRY

Telecommunications

1. Mr. McAvoy : To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what representations he has received about the telecommunications duopoly.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Peter Lilley) : I have received more than 190 written responses to the consultative document on competition and choice in telecommunications. The vast majority firmly supported the document's main proposals.

Mr. McAvoy : Is the Secretary of State aware that the 14 January deadline for submissions on the Government's consultation document has caused great consternation in the industry? Is two months long enough for comments on a document which proposes such fundamental changes to one of our most important industries--changes which the Government have considered for seven years?

Mr. Lilley : The hon. Gentleman is right that everyone had seven years' notice of the consultation. Forty companies made representations before I even published the consultation document. Six of the 190 companies made representations after the 14 January deadline and we shall do our best to consider any late

representations.

Dr. Hampson : Will my right hon. Friend think twice about proposals to allow British Telecom to deliver entertainment services to households? Those of us who want massive investment in cabling in Britain fear that that might be a threat by British Telecom to deter investment in the cable industry.

Mr. Lilley : I shall, of course, consider very carefully my hon. Friend's remarks and the other representations on that issue that I have received as a result of the consultation process. The considerations that my hon. Friend mentioned are those which originally led me to make the proposal in the consultative document.

Mr. Henderson : When will the Secretary of State be able to respond to the representations that he received in relation to the consultative paper? Does he agree with British Telecom that there can be no effective competition without firm regulation on matters such as the price of access of potential competitors to the BT network? Will the Secretary of State modify the proposals in his consultative paper to ensure that there is effective


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regulation to protect the public interest and to protect a competitive environment, high technical standards, proper research and development and capital investment in the local loop?

Mr. Lilley : I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a firm date by which the conclusions will have been reached. I shall endeavour to do so as rapidly as is compatible with proper consideration of the representations. I do not want an unnecessarily long period of uncertainty. I agree that regulation is necessary, although competition is desirable. Under the previous arrangements for a nationalised industry with which the Labour Government were satisfied, there was no regulator. In the words of the Fabian Society, the nationalised industry was left to regulate itself. We prefer a privatised industry but a firm regulatory authority and that is what we have.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that when he considers the representations he will give greater weight--or at least equal weight--to the representations of user gorups and individual customers than to those of the massive formerly nationalised industry, which now puts so much pressure on the Government to stop free competition? Will equal access be speeded up so that more people can get into the telecommunications market and therefore force prices down through competition?

Mr. Lilley : My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The consumer interest must and will be paramount. We place great emphasis on competition because that is the best way of ensuring the consumer interest, although, in some areas, as I said, regulation is essential to reinforce it. With regard to my hon. Friend's point about equal access, I shall consider the responses to the proposal that I made in the document.

Imports

2. Mr. Allen McKay : To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what plans he has to reduce import penetration.

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Tim Sainsbury) : The Department's policies aim to foster the competitiveness of British industry.

Mr. McKay : Is the Minister aware that, since 1979, import penetration in manufacturing industry has increased by 10 per cent., in chemicals by 12 per cent., in electronics by 21 per cent. and in computer and office equipment by 92 per cent? When will the Minister stop giving bland answers and support manufactures and manufacturing industry? Does he agree that on Friday our balance of payments deficit will be in excess of £15 billion?

Mr. Sainsbury : Import penetration is a feature of advanced economies. Indeed, on the basis of OECD statistics, import penetration in the United Kingdom is a little less than that in Germany, which would imply that we are on a fairly level playing field.

Sir John Stokes : Is my hon. Friend aware that I represent a seat which is thoroughly concerned with manufacturing industry and that the vast majority of my constituents agree with me that the only way to beat


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import penetration is for British industry to make products that can be sold successfully throughout the world?

Mr. Sainsbury : As so often, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I congratulate British manufacturing industry on the great increase in productivity and exports that it achieved in the 1980s.

Mr. Beggs : Is the Minister aware that a United Kingdom company that has supplied a proven product to United Kingdom ambulance services for the past four years has been excluded from a contract valued at £3.8 million? That contract was awarded in favour of an overseas competitor. Does the Minister agree that all Government Departments and those who spend public money must support our manufacturing industry and, when possible, award contracts to British companies? Will he seek the support of the Secretary of State for Health and hold an inquiry into how that contract has been awarded and, if possible, have it suspended during reappraisal?

Mr. Sainsbury : I am glad to be able to reasure the hon. Gentleman that more than 90 per cent. of the goods and services bought by the Government are from United Kingdom sources. Of course, the Government, as a purchaser, are looking to give the best possible value to the taxpayer.

The contract to which the hon. Gentleman refers is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to write to him about it.

Mr. Colin Shepherd : As a manufacturer involved in the manufacturing of consumer goods, does my hon. Friend agree that the bottom line is that the consumer should want to buy English or British produce because it is more attractive in terms of price and design? At the end of the day that is what manufacturing industry in this country must achieve if we are to reverse import penetration.

Mr. Sainsbury : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am glad that he mentions design as an important feature for a successful manufacturer and, of course, good service to the customer is also important. Being close to the market can be a great advantage to British manufacturers.

Manufacturing Industry

3. Mr. Robert Hughes : To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when he next expects to meet the president of the CBI to discuss manufacturing industry.

The Minister for Corporate Affairs (Mr. John Redwood) : Ministers and officials from the Department of Trade and Industry regularly meet representatives of the Confederation of British Industry. Last week I met CBI representatives on two occasions, once to discuss wider ownership and once to hear their views on pay and productivity.

Mr. Hughes : With high interest rates costing industry £30 billion a year, with investment falling, with output down for each of the past seven months and with manufacturing redundancies running at 1, 500 a week, is not it now time for the Government to take up the call of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) in his


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leadership election manifesto for a more interventionist policy by the Government to save manufacturing industry from extinction?

Mr. Redwood : The adjustment to get down inflation has some costs. The CBI itself asked for membership of the exchange rate mechanism and the Government have adopted that discipline. It is very important, as the CBI is now telling its membership, for higher productivity that the adjustments should take place. There are many market opportunities and big export opportunities. Manufacturing exports are at record levels and there are many opportunities for import substitution. Many good companies in British industry are now addressing those matters to offer jobs and prosperity.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton : Does my hon. Friend accept that the decline in our manufacturing industry has directly led to our economy becoming extremely vulnerable? Does he further accept that the level of interest rates and the level at which we entered the exchange rate mechanism continue to contribute to the undermining of our manufacturing industry? Will he accept from me the sad news that several leading United Kingdom manufacturers in high technology are considering locating manufacturing plants in other countries in the European Community where the economic climate is much more advantageous?

Mr. Redwood : There are many fine companies and industries in our manufacturing sector. They are doing much better than they did under Labour in the 1970s and they will continue to do so. The aerospace, pharmaceutical and motor car industries are finding many new opportunities. I welcome the great expansion in the motor car industry where output is running at about 1.3 million cars per annum compared with a low point of only 900,000 cars less than 10 years ago. That is welcome progress. Of course, the Government want the adjustment to a low-inflation, high-productivity economy to occur rapidly. The sooner that that adjustment takes place, the greater the success will be.

Mr. Alex Carlile : Does the Minister share the concern felt by many that manufacturing output and investment are collapsing much more quickly than the Government predicted? Does he agree that that is partly due to the corporation tax system and its non-neutrality with regard to inflation? Will he and his colleagues urge the Chancellor of the Exchequer to reform the corporation tax system, for example, by increasing investment allowances to 40 per cent?

Mr. Redwood : Corporation tax policy is a matter for the Treasury, not the Department of Trade and Industry. However, the hon. and learned Gentleman should know that corporation tax in Britain is one of the lowest in the free enterprise world. It is welcome that the tax burden is proportionately lower here. That may be a contributory factor to the large amount of inward investment which Britain has attracted in recent years. Many overseas countries and companies recognise that Britain is the place in which to invest and we intend to encourage such investment further.

Mr. Devlin : Does my hon. Friend agree that today's refusal by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to allow the takeover of ICI Agricultural Chemicals by Kemira has come much too late? Does he agree that if it


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had turned down Kemira's earlier bid for Fisons and if his Department had prevented that nationalised company from undercutting and wrecking the market in agricultural chemicals, many of my constituents would not face the prospect of unemployment as a result of today's announcement?

Mr. Redwood : I hope that ICI finds some other solution for its agrochemical business, if there is a commercial and industrial way of doing so, because I want those jobs to be preserved. The MMC findings illustrate the wisdom of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when, as a matter of policy, he drew the attention of the MMC to the possibility that bids from nationalised industries could be more damaging and less fair than other bids. In its two reports published today, the MMC illustrated that that can be the case. In the case that my hon. Friend mentioned it found against the deal partly because of anxieties about the conduct of nationalised companies. The Government are determined to see fair play in markets. Part of that fair play must be to make sure that nationalised companies do not abuse their position in capital, product or service markets to the detriment of British jobs and industry.

Mr. Gordon Brown : But with manufacturing output down by £2 billion, manufacturing investment down 4 per cent., 100 companies going bankrupt every day and unemployment rising faster than anywhere else in western Europe, are not the Government, who began by provoking a manufacturing recession, causing yet another such recession far more severe than Ministers are prepared to admit? Is not it time that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, not just a junior Minister, spoke up for the needs of industry, ended the self-satisfied complacency and argued the case in Government, first, for a cut in interest rates and, secondly, for a budget for investment in industry?

Mr. Redwood : My right hon. Friend speaks up well for British industry and is a great ally and friend of it. British industry is flourishing considerably more under this Government than it ever did under the Labour Government. Output in manufacturing is up, whereas it used to fall under the Labour Government, and our unemployment is considerably below the European average. Whenever something is adverse in comparison with Europe we hear about it all the time from Opposition Members, but that is not the case on unemployment because they know that we have a much better record than do some of our European partners.

Last year, more new companies were created than fell on hard times. There was an extremely satisfactory rate of new company formation last year and we welcomed it as a sign of a flourishing enterprise economy.

Mrs. Maureen Hicks : Is not it a credit to the increased efficiency of the British motor manufacturing industry--I pay particular credit to Rover in the west midlands--that, despite a decline in United Kingdom car sales, the export of British cars has been tremendous? That is largely due to the fact that we have achieved increased efficiency. As a result of the 44.7 per cent. increase in car exports those companies are now working to full capacity.

Mr. Redwood : My hon. Friend makes her point extremely well. The British Government are extremely proud of the British motor industry and are proud of all those companies investing and located here. They have


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made great strides in improving the quality and performance of their products. They now have a number of world-beating products that will continue to go from strength to strength on world markets. The latest figures for the export of motor cars are heartening. They show that the British economy can flourish based upon more exports to overseas markets where there are good opportunities for growth and based upon import substitution as, once again, British people back British products because they are well made and good.

Trade (Germany)

4. Mr. Skinner : To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what are the latest trade figures between Britain and Germany ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Sainsbury : In the first 11 months of 1990, United Kingdom visible exports to Germany were valued at £12 billion ; imports from Germany were £18.5 billion. Compared with the similar period in 1989, exports are up by 18.5 per cent., while imports are virtually unchanged.

Mr. Skinner : Why does not the Minister have the guts to tell us what the deficit was in 1979? Is he aware that the deficit between Britain and Germany was £1.6 billion when the Tories took over and that when the Government announce the figures on Friday, it will be £7.1 billion? No wonder the Germans told the Governor of the Bank of England to get lost yesterday. Is not it a sad reflection on this country that, after 1945 when everyone was throwing their caps in the air, the Government are now going cap in hand to the Germans? We know who the top dogs are now.

Mr. Sainsbury : It appears that the hon. Gentleman has some reservations about the Government's economic policy. I should like to hear him pay tribute to the success of those parts of our industry that are exporting to Germany so effectively. Clothing industry exports have gone up 40 per cent. and medical and pharmaceutical exports are up 41 per cent. in the first 11 months of this year.

Mr. William Powell : Is my hon. Friend aware that there are immense opportunities for British companies in the former Soviet sector of Germany, now eastern Germany, particularly for the infrastructural industries of transport, telecommunications energy and water? Will my hon. Friend use the full resources of his Department to draw those opportunities for trade and investment to the attention of British companies?

Mr. Sainsbury : I very much agree with my hon. Friend. He will be aware that an extremely successful seminar was held last week, jointly sponsored by my Department and the CBI, with the Treuhandanstalt. That seminar drew the attention of British industries to investment and trade opportunities with the former East German territories.

Mr. Hoyle : But in relation to the deficit with Germany does the Minister ever go out and talk to manufacturers? If he does, what have they told him about going into the ERM at 2.9--almost 3--deutschmarks to the pound? [ Hon. Members :-- "You wanted it."] We did not want it at that figure. Those manufacturers would tell the Minister that it is not possible to be competitive at that rate. What is the Minister and the miserable team that he has round


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him doing about that? I know that none of them has any experience of industry--the Minister for Trade was kept in the back office of the family firm. The Minister and his team should at least get out and, in the words of the former Prime Minister, back British industry, and tell the Treasury that it was wrong.

Mr. Sainsbury : I assure the hon. Gentleman that I make it my purpose to have contacts with industry nearly as close as those which I had when I spent 20 years in industry. I also assure the hon. Gentleman that, although it is sometimes suggested that a lower exchange rate would be helpful for exports, I frequently hear it suggested that a stable exchange rate and lower inflation are much more to be welcomed.

Manufacturing Output

5. Mr. Harry Greenway : To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what was the level of manufacturing output for the past year ; what was the level in previous years ; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Edward Leigh) : Figures for manufacturing output are not yet available for the whole of 1990. Provisional estimates show that manufacturing output in the first 11 months of 1990 averaged 119.0, based upon 1985 equal to 100, similar to the record annual level of 1989.

Mr. Greenway : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the volume of manufacturing output increased by 8.5 per cent. during the first 11 months of 1990? Does my hon. Friend agree that that would not have happened had not our industry been made much more competitive as a result of the transformation achieved by the Government over the past 11 years--in terms of competitiveness and everything else?

Mr. Leigh : My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the transformation of British industry in the last decade. Output, productivity, exports and investment are all well above their 1980 levels and exports are at a record level.

Mr. Tom Clarke : Does the Minister agree that the steelworkers of Lanarkshire are only too willing to contribute to British manufacturing output--in particular the men of Ravenscraig, Clydesdale, Dalzell and Imperial who are losing their jobs? The Minister for Corporate Affairs tells people to buy British. When will he tell that to British Steel?

Mr. Leigh : The prospects for British Steel have been transformed under this Government. Losses running into £1 billion in 1979, under the Labour Government, have been tranformed into profits of more than £600 million now. Opposition Members like to pose as friends of manufacturing industry. It is interesting that when they were last able to act on that friendship, manufacturing output fell.

GATT

6. Mr. Lester : To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will make a statement on the progress of the Uruguay round of the GATT.


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15. Mr. Brandon-Bravo : To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will make a statement on the likely results of a successful completion of the GATT negotiations.

Mr. Lilley : We continue to press for the early resumption of talks, as a successful Uruguay round would include fully for the first time agriculture, services, textiles, intellectual property and investment as well as significant reductions in tariffs, quotas and other barriers and improvements in disciplines and safeguards. Such an outcome would be highly beneficial for the United Kingdom and would provide a much-needed non- inflationary stimulus to the world economy. Failure would mean a return to protectionism, trade wars and beggar-my-neighbour policies.

Mr. Lester : My right hon. Friend continues to press for a settlement of the Uruguay round. Although the House is now concentrating on the Gulf war, many of us are still concerned that the GATT round remains unresolved. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the United States estimates that, by the end of the decade, non-inflationary growth in the world will amount to about $4 trillion? That would be of particular benefit not only to the United Kingdom but to many developing countries about which many of us are still deeply concerned.

Mr. Lilley : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The United States has estimated that, in terms of reductions in tariffs alone, a successful round would produce an extra $4 trillion of income in the world by the end of the century. My hon. Friend is also absolutely right to point out the importance to third-world countries of a successful outcome to the Uruguay round as those countries, more than any others, need an open and buoyant world trading environment.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo : My right hon. Friend will know that, before coming to this place, I spent my life in textiles and that I therefore have a deep interest in the outcome of GATT and in its effects on the multi- fibre arrangement and the textile industry. If there is a gap between agreement on GATT and the phasing out of the MFA, a dreadful vacuum will be created. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the textile industry about what he might do if such a vacuum were created?

Mr. Lilley : My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance for the textile industry, in his constituency and more widely, of a successful outcome to the round. Failure to agree would mean that the existing multi- fibre arrangement would lapse in July of this year. That would be unacceptable to us, to the industry and to the world and would lead to the necessity for other arrangements. It would be better by far to have a successful conclusion to the GATT round by the target date of 1 March.

Mr. James Lamond : Will the Secretary of State ensure that his remarks are conveyed to those negotiating on our behalf? He must have received the same anguished letters as we have from manufacturers who say that unless the GATT regulations are strengthened and enforced, doing away with the MFA will bring further problems for the textile industry, which is already very weak.

Mr. Lilley : The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The embryonic agreement on textiles which would be available if we conclude the whole GATT round would


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result in a transitional phasing out of the MFA over 10 years, which would be more acceptable than its precipitate ending in July. We have done all in our power--and I continue to consult colleagues in the European Community, as well as in other countries with whom we established close relationships during the Brussels week of negotiations--to urge an early resumption of talks.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing : Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the Government are bringing forward specific proposals which might lead to the resumption of the talks, which are vital to all who represent constituencies not only with textile interests, where we see redundancy after redundancy, but with agricultural interests which are important to the rural community?

Mr. Lilley : The GATT negotiations are carried out by the European Commission on behalf of member states, so it is essential that the Commission should use its negotiating power to the full and that it should seek to get back to the negotiating table as rapidly as possible. We have pressed for that within the Community, as is widely recognised.

Mr. Dickens : I am afraid that I cannot speak with great volume today. The hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Lamond) was right in his plea for the textile industry in the north-west. The round of negotiations is critical for thousands of textile workers in the area. I implore my right hon. Friend to make sure that he gets it right.

Mr. Lilley : I never thought that I would have difficulty in hearing my hon. Friend. I entirely endorse his message that the industry is of great importance to the north-west. We are very concerned to ensure a proper settlement within GATT. There is the basis of an agreement which would be satisfactory, I think, to the textile industry ; certainly it would be much more satisfactory than failure to agree.

Ms. Quin : Has the Secretary of State seen the widespread criticism in the press of the Government's stance on agriculture within the European Community? Is he aware that agriculture accounts for 1.5 per cent. of our GDP while manufacturing, construction and financial services account for over 50 per cent? Surely the Government can find ways to help agriculture that do not put in jeopardy the major part of the economy.

Mr. Lilley : I have not seen the widespread criticism. I recall the last Labour Prime Minister's son-in-law describing me as the hero of the GATT negotiations, but I do not think that that is what the hon. Lady was referring to. I have done all in my power, as have the whole Government, to bring about a successful conclusion to the talks, including success on the agricultural front.

Lloyd's

7. Mrs. Gorman : To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he has any plans to review the self-regulation of Lloyd's of London.

Mr. Redwood : The Neill committee in 1986 reviewed regulation at Lloyd's thoroughly. Its 70 recommendations have been implemented in full and I think that the new system now requires a period of stability.


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Mrs. Gorman : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. He must be aware of the disquiet felt by people who are in dispute with Lloyd's because there is no form of independent appeals procedure. Will he express concern for my constituent, Mr. Cawen, who, after 25 years of exemplary service at Lloyd's, has been disbarred on a technical matter which would not occasion any form of prosecution in a court of law? Is my hon. Friend also aware that the United States Congress has expressed grave concern about the way in which Lloyd's is regulated? Will he therefore give an assurance that people in dispute with Lloyd's can look forward to a truly independent appeals system?

Mr. Redwood : There is an appeals system within Lloyd's and a large number of independent members are involved in regulation at Lloyd's-- indeed, they are in a majority. If my hon. Friend would like to pursue the case of her constituent, Lloyd's would be prepared to talk to her about it, if she has her constituent's consent in so doing

Mrs. Gorman indicated dissent.

Mr. Redwood : I am telling the House today that I think that Lloyd's would be prepared to discuss the case with my hon. Friend if her constituent authorises her so to do. She is also welcome to come and see me about the matter, but regulation is for Lloyd's which has a system of regulation established under statute, and independence is an important characteristic in the appeals procedure.

Ms. Mowlam : Is the Minister really as satisfied with the system at Lloyd's as his remarks just now seemed to suggest? Not only are there internal problems, as the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) pointed out--she has tried to talk to Lloyd's, but the response from Lloyd's has been negative and the Minister's response

unacceptable--but there are difficulties at Howden and, as the Minister is aware, a record number of years of books are outstanding at Lloyd's. Is that what the Minister regards as regulation working?

Mr. Redwood : The new system at Lloyd's is much tougher than the old one. The recommendations are wide ranging, as the hon. Lady would know if she had done her homework. That system is now tackling the problems that arose before 1986 and the fundamental review. It is ridiculous for the hon. Lady to describe my reply as unacceptable when I have told my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) that she can talk to me about the case in question and also to Lloyd's. What more can a Minister do than offer to talk through a particular case and to see whether Lloyd's can provide satisfactory answers for my hon. Friend, who needs to know both sides of the story?

Postal Services

8. Mr. Barry Field : To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when he next intends to meet the chairman of the royal mail to discuss the quality of postal services in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Leigh : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meets the chairman of the Post Office, Sir Bryan Nicholson, regularly to discuss various matters of mutual interest.


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Mr. Field : Is my hon. Friend aware that some post offices have run out of forces air mail letters? Will he promise to look into that shortage? Does he agree that the Post Office is doing an admirable job and playing a proper part in maintaining the morale of the forces in the Gulf, and none more so than the sub-post offices in our rural communities? Will he therefore ensure that those offices can compete on equal terms with Crown post offices in future?

Mr. Leigh : On the latter point, we have received assurances from the Post Office that the sub-post offices will offer the full range of services provided by Crown post offices. Indeed, the Post Office Users National Council report seems to suggest that there is more satisfaction with the service at sub-post offices than with that at Crown post offices.

As for my hon. Friend's first and important point, I emphasise that the Post Office has a comprehensive service of providing free aerogrammes to the Gulf--the blueys--and parcels can be sent to the Gulf at the same rate as the inland parcel rate. I was disturbed to hear what my hon. Friend said about some post offices not having blueys. When our troops are prepared to pay the supreme sacrifice, the Post Office must ensure that their loved ones can communicate with them easily. I shall write to the Post Office today.

Miss Hoey : I am sure that the Minister is aware of this week's report by the Post Office Users National Council, which welcomes the significant improvement in people's feelings about how capably the post office has been handling first-class mail. Will he use this opportunity to state clearly once and for all--and to keep morale in the Post Office high- -that the Post Office will not be privatised under this or any future Government?

Mr. Leigh : The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the Post Office Users National Council survey which shows that 86.2 per cent. of first class letters are being delivered the next day. As for her other point, the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) gave a commitment, which stands for the present Parliament. As regards the future, however, we are open minded and will consider all suggestions.

Mr. Soames : Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the reasons for the fairly dismal performance of the first class letter service is the extensive restrictive practices still carried out by the trade unions represented in the Post Office? Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps he intends to instruct the chairman of the Post Office to take to break this union power?

Mr. Leigh : There have been some alarming cases of trade union industrial action which have resulted in a less than perfect service to Post Office customers. We keep these matters constantly under review. All options are open.

Property Descriptions

9. Mrs. Irene Adams : To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what further steps he is considering to protect housebuyers from misleading property descriptions following his review of the Trade Descriptions Act.


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Mr. Leigh : As the then Minister told the House in several written answers last year, it is the Government's intention to amend the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 to apply its provisions to descriptions of real property. That remains the Government's intention, subject to parliamentary time being available. However, an order under the Estate Agents Act 1979, dealing with the misdescription of property, will be laid before the House as soon as possible. This is part of a package of measures to curb malpractices in estate agency which was announced last April by the then Minister and was the subject of a consultation document issued by my Department last year.

Mrs. Adams : Does the Minister realise that, because of the Government's refusal to introduce their own legislation on this, they have left the door wide open for hundreds of unscrupulous estate agents to mislead thousands of home buyers? How can the Government justify their lack of action?

Mr. Leigh : On the contrary, the Government have listened to a number of representations. My predecessor gave a commitment on behalf of the Government, which has necessitated a full consultation period during which a number of problems have come up ; but if the hon. Lady had listened to my answer she would have heard me give a commitment. She may also be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mr. Butcher) drew a high place in the ballot for private Members' Bills and intends to promote a Bill to deal with misdescription of property.

Mr. Anthony Coombs : Given the cost, inconvenience and occasional distress caused to house buyers by the more fanciful hyperbole of less scrupulous estate agents, will my hon. Friend agree that the measures shortly to be brought forward by the Government in regulations and in the private Member's Bill to which he referred are welcome not only for the benefit of consumers but for the benefit of the more responsible estate agents?


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