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Mr. Eggar : It was generally felt when the gas industry was privatised that there was a need for consumer protection and that the best way to achieve it was through the operation of Ofgas and the Gas Consumer Council. The Gas Consumer Council, together with other similar consumer bodies, must be able to show that it is working hard in the interests of consumers in order to justify its continued existence.
Mr. Neil Hamilton : The Insolvency Service's disqualification unit has recently been increased by four staff on loan from other Government Departments and by two fully qualified staff seconded from the private sector. In 1994-95, we propose to provide further resources to enable up to 15 extra staff, including secondees from the private sector, to be added to the complement of the unit. Official receivers will be committing more of their resources to disqualification and prosecution work. As a result, disqualification proceedings against unfit directors are expected to increase substantially within 12 months of completion of training of the new staff.
Mr. Jones : The Minister's announcement of a total of 15 extra staff is welcome, but it is hardly likely to make much of a dent in the increased demand on the Insolvency Service from the increase of over 400 per cent. in bankruptcies since 1987. What does the Minister say to the National Audit Office's report on the Insolvency Service last year, which stated that up to 50 per cent. of directors who merited disqualification would not be disqualified because the resources were inadequate, or to the admission
Mr. Hamilton : Since 1989-90 the number of staff employed in the Insolvency Service has increased from 1,400 to 1,800. There has been, as a result of the recession, a significant increase in the workload of the service with which it has coped extremely well. We are aware of the problems that were identified by the National Audit Office's report. We are considering methods of addressing those difficulties and I am waiting now for the report of the Public Accounts Committee, following which I shall, I hope, be in a position to make an announcement.
Mr. Page rose
In contrast to the carping question from the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), does not the increase in manpower reflect to the credit of both the agency and the Government ? Is not it a positive reaction to the National Audit Office report and the Public Accounts Committee inquiry in January this year ? Will not the improvement allow closer co-operation between the Insolvency Service and the agencies, and make company directors more aware of their responsibilities, thus giving greater protection to the public, which we all want ?
Mr. Hamilton : I agree with my hon. Friend and I pay a warm tribute to the staff employed by the Insolvency Service for the way in which they have coped with the dramatic upturn in work in recent years. We must try to find more flexible means of taking on staff to cope with such peaks as well as troughs in the work. The consultancy studies presently being undertaken will help to do that and we want to be able to contract and expand the service according to the work available. Thus, we shall not have to take staff permanently on to the books who will be under-utilised at times when there is not enough work for them.
13. Mr. Alan W. Williams : To ask the President of the Board of Trade how much was invested in research and development by British industry during 1992-93 ; and what percentage this represents of gross domestic product.
Column 201industrial competitors. Does the Minister agree that as a society we should be devoting something like 1 per cent. more of our GDP to research and development ? What proposals do the Government have to achieve that ?
Mr. McLoughlin : Investment in research and development is a matter for companies to take into consideration when they come to formulate their plans. I was encouraged by the CBI innovation trends survey which showed that 50 per cent. of companies had plans to increase their expenditure on research and development in 1993.
Mr. Cash : Will my hon. Friend consider the relative position of our research and development in comparison with Japan, the United States, Germany and all the other countries in the EC ? Have we done well enough in relation to those countries ? If not, we will go down the tubes.
Mrs. Anne Campbell : Does the Minister agree that it is important for our international competitiveness to improve our business expenditure on civil research and development ? Has not the time come for Government incentives to ensure that companies invest in research and development ? Does he consider tax incentives to be a good way forward ?
Mr. McLoughlin : We will always look at any representations that are made. The Government have a good record on rates of taxation for companies and it is for companies to decide how they wish to invest. There have been huge investments in this country.
14. Mr. Steen : To ask the President of the Board of Trade when he hopes to meet his European counterparts to discuss reducing the number of general directives affecting small businesses emanating from Brussels.
We frequently have meetings with other Ministers in the Council of Ministers and high on our agenda for discussion is deregulation and the need to reduce the regulatory burdens on business which threaten to destroy so many jobs on our continent.
Mr. Steen : The problem is the over-zealous interpretation of general directives by Whitehall officials on which other countries take a relaxed view. Is my hon. Friend aware that in Spain there are 63 fisheries officials based in Madrid--1,000 miles from the coast ? That is just like running the Wembley cup final with the referee in Aberdeen. In this country, there are more than 300 fisheries officials looking after fisheries business who are based in ports. In the future, we should make sure that we pursue general directives only when other countries pursue them as rigorously as we do.
Column 202House. It is vital that Britain does not impose differential burdens on its employers and businesses. We must apply the lightest possible regulatory touch, learn from the experience of other member states and take a more imaginative approach to some of the European Union directives.
Mr. Hain : Is the Minister aware of the widespread concern among those offering bed-and-breakfast facilities and holiday cottages that a forthcoming European directive may prevent them from taking deposits for holidays ? That would have a devastating impact on those small businesses. What are the Government doing to prevent that devastation ?
Mr. Hamilton : I welcome the hon. Gentleman's interest in deregulation--he is usually on the other side of the argument. I well appreciate the problems, as reported to the hon. Gentleman, that confront bed-and-breakfast establishments and I assure him that they do not lack for an advocate in the Department of Trade and Industry.
15. Sir Teddy Taylor : To ask the President of the Board of Trade what has been the total balance of trade with the European Union over the most recent five-year period for which figures are available ; and what was the balance for manufactures only in the same period.
Mr. Heseltine : In the five years to 1992, the UK had a cumulative trade deficit with the rest of the European Union of 1.8 per cent. of GDP. The deficit in manufactures over the same period was 1.6 per cent. of GDP.
Sir Teddy Taylor : The figures show that our cumulative trade deficit with the European Community has now broken through £100,000 million, which is equivalent to £8,000 per British family. Is not there a case for an inquiry into why there is such a huge deficit compared with the profit that Britain used to have on its trade with Europe before it joined that ridiculous socialist
organisation--especially as the Government recently changed the statistical basis for calculation, which makes matters look better ?
Mr. Heseltine : I would hope that, without such an inquiry being set up, my hon. Friend would know the answer. The explanation is simple--it is that we have not been sufficiently competitive in selling our goods in the European market in the way that Europe has been successful in selling its goods in Britain. Until the hard lessons of that fact bear upon the industrial, commercial and political world, we will continue to have a deficit.
There is another, important side to the argument. We attracted more than 40 per cent. of the stock of Japanese and almost 40 per cent. of the stock of United States inward investment into the European Community in 1992. That would be at risk if were to question our membership of the European Union.
Mr. Arnold : May I welcome the considerable progress now being made ? We have long needed an effective link between the high-quality commercial sections in our overseas missions and our high-quality exporters in Britain, especially the potential exporters in our constituencies.
Mr. Heseltine : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall take this opportunity to say a word of thanks to the many companies--rather less than 75--that have seconded high-quality staff to my Department. They are having a profound effect and are working extremely well with the 80 officers that the Department has seconded to survey and report on the 80 senior markets to which we export.
Mrs. Clwyd : How many people in the right hon. Gentleman's Department are involved in promoting the export of coal, so that pits such as the Tower colliery in my constituency will not, through sheer vindictiveness, be forced to close on Friday because of the incompetence of both the Government and British Coal ?
Mr. Heseltine : The hon. Lady can go on making such remarks for as long as she likes, but the reason why British Coal's pits have been closed is that they could not produce a product for which there was a market at a price that people were prepared to pay. If anyone has the slightest doubt about that, he should reflect on why the private sector is negotiating to take over pits that have been closed by British Coal--it is because the private sector believes that it can make a success of them.
Mr. Dickens : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the greatest export promoter for British industry is for it to design and manufacture products that the rest of the world wants to buy, produce them at competitive prices and of excellent quality, deliver them on time and give good after-sales service ? That is the great export promoter for Britain and that is what Britain is doing at the moment.
Mr. McLoughlin : The Government's policies of liberalisation and encouraging competition have created a world-class telecommunications sector and we have seen a 30 per cent. reduction in British Telecom's charges to the consumer in real terms since privatisation. My Department is working closely with all parts of the United Kingdom telecommunications industry, including the manufacturing sector.
Ms Hoey : Does the Minister understand that his obsession with competition is undermining British Telecom's ability to compete as one of the big four or five international telecommunications companies ? Why is he not doing something to allow British Telecom to get into the American market instead of giving favoured treatment
Column 204to cable operators and other international telecommunications companies to enable them to operate here, without having reciprocal agreements for BT ?
Mr. McLoughlin : That was an extraordinary outburst from the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Ms Hoey). Competition in telecommunications has resulted in a reduction in costs to the consumer. More people have telephones in their homes now than before privatisation. We are keen for British Telecom and the other telecommunications operators to become world- class companies and, by freeing them from the state sector, we have allowed them to do so.
Mr. Cousins : Does the Minister know of another exciting experiment- -sending video down telephone wires ? At long last that is starting in Britain, but the technology comes from France, Canada and the United States. What is he going to do about it ?
Mr. John Marshall : Will my hon. Friend confirm that not only do we have the most liberalised telecommunications market in Europe, but that that liberalisation has led to a dramatic improvement in the quality of service since the industry was privatised and to a massive increase in investment and productivity, all of which the Opposition choose to ignore ?
Mr. McLoughlin : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The quality of services has improved, prices have been reduced and both domestic and business consumers have benefited, as have the taxpayer and the economy.
Mr. Illsley : I am grateful to the Minister. Does he believe that there should be much wider publication of those papers, especially the paper relating to the construction industry task force in view of its serious recommendation for the repeal of the Fire Precautions Act 1971 ? If we repeal that Act, are not fire precautions and safety checks likely to be weakened ?
Column 205recommendations of the construction industry task force have since been superseded by a new review of fire legislation and the organisation of fire safety enforcement. Mr. Alf Thompson, the chief officer of the Durham fire service, is one of the five members of the team involved, so I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the concerns of professionals will be taken properly into account.
On present plans, I intend to visit Argentina, Austria, Bahrain, Brazil, China, Colombia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Oman, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Thailand and Venezuela.
Mr. Pawsey : Clearly, my hon. Friend will be a very busy and much- travelled man. May I congratulate the Department on the emphasis placed on overseas trade missions ? What is the Department's budget for such missions and what emphasis is placed by it on promoting the export of engineering products ?
Mr. Needham : The budget for the provision of support for missions is some £1.7 million a year. But the key point is that, with the support of our 75 export promoters, we now have market plans for each of the major 80 markets in the world. In addition, we have a plan in each sector, which in almost every country includes engineering products. We are determined to provide a peerless and first-class service to our engineering companies exporting overseas--a service that rivals anything available in Japan, Germany, France, Italy, the United States, or anywhere else.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : When Ministers and trade missions are abroad will they let it be known to officials of foreign Governments and to business men that in Workington there is a 500,000 sq ft modern factory site, formerly occupied by Leyland National for the manufacture of buses, but now empty ? That site is available for inward investment. Will the hon. Gentleman push the factory's availability ? We need a new tenant or acquisition by another company.
Mr. Mans : Bearing in mind the fact that many previous trade missions have resulted in billions of pounds' worth of aircraft exports, resulting in the creation of many jobs in this country, will my hon. Friend welcome the first flight of the Eurofighter and will he liaise with the Ministry of Defence with a view to setting up a trade mission to sell this aircraft abroad ?
Mr. Hanson : On the day of the publication of the coal prospectus, would not it be appropriate for the Minister to arrange an urgent meeting with the chairman of British Coal to ensure that the scheme of enhanced redundancy payments for miners will continue after 30 April so that workers in the Tower colliery and in many other pits throughout the country do not have to face an agonising choice between losing redundancy payments and fighting for their jobs ?
Mr. Robin Cook : Will the Minister confirm that the prospectus for the sale of British Coal, which has been published today, establishes that the Tower colliery will be placed on a care and maintenance basis despite the weekend vote of the work force that it be kept open ? Why is the hon. Gentleman determined to close a pit that is in profit ? How can he defend a market that closes pits that produce cheap coal, making possible the production of electricity that is cheaper than gas, nuclear energy or French imports ? Why are men who have doubled their productivity being rewarded by being made redundant ? Will the hon. Gentleman, during the last few months of public ownership of the mines, halt the redundancy among the miners ?
Mr. Eggar : Even by his own standards, the hon. Gentleman is being highly irresponsible. Clearly he has not read the document that has been published. It says quite clearly that the Tower colliery is currently operating, but that British Coal has proposed its closure. It could not be a clearer or fairer representation of the actual position.
23. Mr. Spring : To ask the President of the Board of Trade to what extent the level of United Kingdom motor car production has changed in the past 12 months ; and what the equivalent figures are for France and Germany.
Mr. McLoughlin : United Kingdom car production for the year ending January 1994 was 5 per cent. higher than for the year ending January 1993. This compares with falls of 14 per cent. and 22 per cent. in France and Germany respectively.
Mr. Spring : Is my hon. Friend aware that the number of new car registrations is up by about 7 per cent. in the first quarter of this year and that the industry's productivity showed an increase of 7 per cent. in the whole of 1993 ? Does he agree that the reputation of British cars, once so poor, has been totally transformed in the past 10 years--hence these excellent export performances--and that they are now among the finest in the world ?
Column 207Kingdom is now securing huge amounts of investment in the motor manufacturing industry, something that was unthought of in the late 1970s.
Mr. Miller : I am sure that the Minister will join me in congratulating Vauxhall Motors at Ellesmere Port on sustaining a massive export effort. Does he share the views expressed by a number of major manufacturers in the area that that export effort would be improved if investment were made in the railway infrastructure, especially the west coast main line and the links into the manufacturing complexes ?
Mr. McLoughlin : Investment in the rail industry is important. As the hon. Gentleman says, since 1989 some £200 million has been invested in manufacturing facilities for production of the Astra at Ellesmere Port.
Mr. Fabricant : Is my hon. Friend aware that Toyota, which is sited just between Lichfield and Derby--an area which my hon. Friend knows well-- will, when it comes on stream at the end of this year, make Britain a net exporter of cars ? Is he further aware that, had it been up to the Opposition, Toyota would not even have looked at Britain because of their introduction of the social chapter ?
Mr. McLoughlin : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he rightly says, I know the Toyota factory to which he refers, as it is only two miles from where I live. Toyota made the largest single investment ever made in Europe. It chose the United Kingdom because it was confident in how the Government had transformed the economy.
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