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Manufacturing Investment --

12. Mr. Nicholas Winterton : To ask the President of the Board of Trade what has been the level of investment by United Kingdom manufacturing industry in the last year for which figures are available ; and what is the comparable figure in real terms for 10 years previously.

Mr. McLoughlin : In 1993, manufacturing investment was £12.8 billion, compared with £6.9 billion in 1983. This was a welcome increase in real terms of 25 per cent.

Mr. Winterton : I welcome my hon. Friend's response, but does he accept that manufacturing industry is the sole provider of non- inflationary, sustainable growth in this country and as such requires a better deal from Government ? If we are to reduce unemployment, we must regenerate our manufacturing base. Will he consider making appropriate representations within the Department and to the Cabinet through our right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade to ensure that the Cabinet, through our right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduces capital allowances to enable British industry to invest to the level necessary to create jobs and genuine wealth ?

Mr. McLoughlin : My hon. Friend should not be so critical. Ours is one of the few countries in Europe seeing a reduction in unemployment. I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomes that. Manufacturing industry invested a greater proportion of its output in the 1980s than it did in

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the 1970s. Of real importance is a stable economic background, with low inflation and low interest rates. They are the most important influences on investment.

Mr. Burden : Is the Minister aware that Britain invests less of its national income in industry than virtually any other major industrial country and is he happy with that state of affairs ?

Mr. McLoughlin : Of course one would like more investment, and that will be achieved by making Britain an attractive place in which to invest. Government policies have gone a long way to that end. Labour relations in this country are far better now than ever they were when Labour had anything to do with the government of this country. That is an important factor when companies decide where to invest.

Mr. Dickens : Does my hon. Friend agree that British industry is responding ? It knows that if it designs products that the rest of the world wants to buy, manufactures them to a high quality, sells them at competitive prices and gives good after-sales service, it will lead the world. British industry is doing that now, which is why it is leading the world. If one buys from the United Kingdom, one travels first class.

Mr. McLoughlin : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am not sure that there is much that I can add to his comments.

Mr. Robin Cook : So that the House will not be misled, will the Minister admit that the 1993 investment figure in which he just took such pride is 13 per cent. down on 1979 ? On present industrial trends, it will be 1999 before manufacturing investment returns to the level of 20 years before, under Labour. Is that not a more honest measure of the deep damage that the Government have done to British industry ? Does the Minister have the courage to admit that ?

Mr. McLoughlin : I realise that I cannot ask questions, Madam Speaker, but the damage being done to this country is the support that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues continue to give strikers. If Britain has a reputation for strikes, it will not attract the kind of investment that both the hon. Gentleman and I want.

Assisted Area Status Grants --

13. Mrs. Lait : To ask the President of the Board of Trade how many inquiries have been received by his Department for assisted area status grants from companies in Hastings and Rye ; how many have converted into firm projects ; and how many grants have been given.

Mr. Eggar : Precise figures for the number of initial telephone and written inquiries originating from Hastings and Rye are not available. Formal applications have been made, or are being worked up, in 22 cases from Hastings and Rye. Grant offers have been made in three of those cases. Two of the offers have been accepted so far.

Mrs. Lait : I thank my hon. Friend for that updated information. Is he aware that, after a shaky start, which caused enormous upsets to businesses in Hastings and Rye, the Department's performance has improved enormously ? It has improved so much that the time taken to answer a letter has been reduced by 50 per cent. Can he assure me

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that, in the spirit of greater competitiveness, the Department's speed of decision making will move nearer to that of businesses ?

Mr. Eggar : The Department and I are grateful to my hon. Friend for actively pursuing her constituents' interests. We have learnt lessons about speed of response and improved the service. I am confident that we shall improve it still further. If there are any other difficulties, I am sure that my hon. Friend will inform me.

Competition --

14. Mr. Bellingham : To ask the President of the Board of Trade what recent initiatives he has brought in to encourage more competition.

Mr. Neil Hamilton : The White Paper on competitiveness reaffirmed the Government's commitment to maintaining competition and introducing it into new areas wherever possible.

Mr. Bellingham : Does my hon. Friend agree that although part of our future lies in Europe, much of it lies in the Pacific basin, Latin America and South Africa ? Those are the areas from which competition will come. If we are to compete with those emerging markets, would it not be disastrous if Brussels allowed the social charter into this country by the back door ? Does my hon. Friend agree that some key directives should be renegotiated as soon as possible ?

Mr. Hamilton : I entirely agree. As the internal market Minister, I miss no opportunity in the Council of Ministers to put those points to our partners. In recent years, Europe has clearly exported jobs to other parts of the world outside the Community, including those that my hon. Friend named. It is vital that all European countries grasp the nettle of improving competitiveness. On-costs for employers in the United Kingdom are 25 per cent. lower than in Germany, which is a matter of increasing concern to the German Government.

Mr. Flynn : Does the Minister agree that the competitiveness of British industry has been aided greatly by the efficiency improvements at Companies House and the Patent Office, which have been supported enthusiastically by the trade unions at those two agencies ? Will the Minister deny a scurrilous report in The Guardian today suggesting that the President of the Board of Trade said that the trade unions at those two agencies are always against change ? Will the Minister confirm that the President of the Board of Trade would never make a statement so insensitive, so untrue and so stupid ?

Mr. Hamilton : Denying a scurrilous report in The Guardian would be an act of supererogation on my part. However, I can certainly confirm that efficiency has improved greatly at Companies House under this Government and we look forward to future efficiency gains as well.

Mr. Gallie : Has my hon. Friend seen a recent Scottish engineering report which shows that output volumes are up, capacity utilisation is up, recruitment is up and orders are up ? Does that not suggest that Scottish engineering is competitive and is it not welcome news which Opposition Members would rather deny than proclaim ?

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Mr. Hamilton : I have not seen the report, but I have just heard it.

Coal Industry --

15. Mr. Barron : To ask the President of the Board of Trade what assessment he has made of the procedure accepted by British Coal for offering individual coal mines for sale to the private sector ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Eggar : British Coal has offered pits for lease and licence, not for sale. The licensing of pits to the private sector is a matter for British Coal in the light of its statutory duties.

Mr. Barron : Is the Minister aware that British Coal announced the closure of Kiveton colliery in my constituency in April, saying that it would offer it to the private sector in September when the current work force finishes ? In April, British Coal stopped the development of three roadways which would have gone into new coal seams so that there might have been something worth buying in September. British Coal is scuttling the collieries before they are offered to British Coal's so-called friends. Will the Minister stop that ? Will he tell British Coal to take on some of the miners who worked in the headings, and who were sacked by British Coal in April, so that they can develop those coal faces ? If that were to happen, the colliery might be seen as an economic unit that someone might want to run, rather than as a colliery which British Coal wants to shut and stop from providing jobs in my constituency.

Mr. Eggar : The hon. Gentleman's wild allegations would carry rather more credibility if British Coal had not already leased and licensed seven pits. It is in advanced negotiation on two other pits and it is possible that we shall have 32 pits in operation early next year. That compares very favourably with any of the predictions made by Opposition Members.

Mr. Batiste : Does not my hon. Friend's comment about the prospect of 32 pits operating in the private sector in the near future vindicate the Government's decision that the future of coal lies in the private sector and that British industry is prepared to put its money where its mouth is to promote a profitable industry in the long term ?

Mr. Eggar : I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. With the private sector willing to invest in the future of British coal, it is important that we have a level of co-operation from the unions and the work force which guarantees success on a world-competitive basis.

Mr. Tipping : What steps does the Minister intend to take to ensure the fulfilment of his promises and those of his colleague the President of the Board of Trade that the work force and management will be in the pole position in any buy-out ?

Mr. Eggar : We have made it absolutely clear that we welcome bids from employees and management. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, we are making finance available to assist in those bids. However, we have also made it clear that any bids received from those sources must be judged on their merits in comparison with other bids.

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Competitiveness --

16. Mr. Kynoch : To ask the President of the Board of Trade when he next proposes to meet the Institute of Directors to discuss industrial competitiveness.

Mr. Neil Hamilton : I maintain close contact with the Institute of Directors and discuss a wide range of issues, including industrial competitiveness.

Mr. Kynoch : Does my hon. Friend agree that British industry needs a stable economy with low interest rates, low inflation and a stable currency, particularly for exporting, alongside a flexible labour market ? Does he further agree that the proposal to reintroduce secondary picketing or to sign up to the social chapter, as proposed by Labour Front-Bench Members in their fight to gain leadership of their party, would be a total disaster for the competitiveness of British industry ?

Mr. Hamilton : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Certainly, one of the greatest advantages that British industry has derived from the Conservative Government in the past 15 years is the vastly improved state of industrial relations which has been the essential concomitant of the legislation that we have put through the House. We have better industrial relations figures today than at any time since the 1870s, but in many respects it is the 1870s to which the Labour party wishes to return in terms of legislation on industrial relations and trade unions.

Mr. Dalyell : As a Scot and a guinea pig for the poll tax, now that directors in Scotland say that they are horrified at the costs of local government reform which are coming through to them, what discussions have the Government had with directors and industrialists in England about their proposals for English local government reform ? Let them be warned by what happened on the poll tax.

Mr. Hamilton : I think that the hon. Gentleman is labouring under the illusion that I am an Environment Minister.

Sir Michael Grylls : When does my hon. Friend expect to see completion of the internal market for telecommunications, gas and electricity ? Britain could do extremely well if those markets were freed up.

Mr. Hamilton : That is one of the items at the top of our agenda in the European Community. At the Internal Market Council in Luxembourg last week, I participated in discussions which aimed to open up those markets. As my hon. Friend says, they offer huge opportunities for British business and we are well placed to take advantage of them ; all that we need is the opportunity. I am pleased to say that this is one of the instances in which we and the Commission are at one.

Mr. Dalyell : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In view of the ludicrous nature of the Minister's reply, I wish to raise the matter on the Adjournment.

Madam Speaker : As it was not the hon. Gentleman's substantive question, I cannot accept that point of order.

17. Ms Armstrong : To ask the President of the Board of Trade what representations he has received following the publication of his White Paper on competitiveness.

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Mr. McLoughlin : The White Paper on competitiveness has been well received by a wide range of companies and trade associations.

Ms Armstrong : Is not the Minister expressing some complacency today, given yesterday's figures which show that the trade deficit between this country and countries outside the EC has doubled ? Does that not demonstrate that the Government's policies of pushing skills down, opting for a low-skill economy and going from-- [Interruption.] I wish to goodness that Conservative Members would tell the truth. A low-skill economy is not the way to make this country properly competitive. Does the Minister agree that we need a highly skilled work force to ensure that we really can compete effectively ?

Mr. McLoughlin : The hon. Lady says that she wishes that Conservative Members would reflect more truthfully what is going on. The hon. Lady has not reflected very well what is going on. This country has been exceedingly successful in attracting huge inward investment which is providing jobs--jobs which have also gone to the north-east. I should have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome that. [Interruption.] Apparently if it is not going to her constituency it does not matter--it is irrelevant. We are seeing huge inward investment into this country. If the hon. Lady's constituency cannot attract it, perhaps she should ask what her local authority is doing.

Mr. Jenkin : Does my hon. Friend think that a single European currency would make Britain more competitive, given that a single European currency as proposed by the Commission would require consequential increases in Community expenditure in terms of transfer payments between the richer and the poorer member states ? As we have already learnt that a single monetary policy, as implemented through the exchange rate mechanism, made Britain uncompetitive, does my hon. Friend agree that a single currency would make Britain less competitive rather than more competitive ?

Mr. McLoughlin : Not surprisingly, I agree with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in saying that the time to discuss that matter is when it is a proposition or even, possibly, a reality.

Companies House --

18. Mr. Morgan : To ask the President of the Board of Trade what consultations he has had with the registrar of companies in relation to the future status of Companies House.

Mr. Neil Hamilton : The Department is in regular close consultation with the Registrar of Companies on all issues relating to the future status of Companies House.

Mr. Morgan : Does the Minister agree that it is high time that the 900 or so staff working at Companies House in Cardiff were put out of their misery as they have had the sword of potential privatisation hanging over them for far too long ? Does he also agree that there is a European Court of Justice ruling that one cannot make a profit out of a regulation function with regard to dealings with companies, and that it is therefore probably not legally possible to privatise Companies House ? Is it not time that

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the Government accepted that position and dropped all proposals to privatise this extremely important employer and regulator of British business ?

Mr. Hamilton : I accept the point that continued uncertainty is undesirable and I will seek to resolve that uncertainty at the earliest possible moment. No decisions have yet been taken on the options, whether they be privatisation, contractorisation, management buy-out or any of the other options available. As to the impact of the European Court case, that is being closely studied.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Does my hon. Friend agree that almost every Government owned and run organisation supposedly threatened with agency status or privatisation first resisted it and then, when it came about, found that it freed up the organisation to be of excellent service to the public ? Indeed, it has been beneficial to all concerned.

Mr. Hamilton : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. What we are looking for here is improvements in efficiency to bring better value for money for the customer. In the past, privatisation or contractorisation has often produced significant advantages for employees as well as for the public at large.

Coal Industry --

20. Mr. Skinner : To ask the President of the Board of Trade what recent meetings he has had with the chairman of British Coal to discuss pit closures.

Mr. Eggar : Both my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and I meet the chairman of British Coal as necessary to discuss a variety of coal industry matters.

Mr. Skinner : Is it not tragic to tour the coalfields of Britain--a once-proud industry--and see the decimation that has gone on over the past few years with hardly any pits left and the remaining ones having been privatised and taken over, with 250 men employed where perhaps 1,500 had been employed before ? Does that not contrast sharply with the fact that when the President of the Board of Trade was asked last week on radio whether he wanted another job as chairman of the Tory party he said, "No, I want to keep my present job" ? We should contrast that with position of the 31,000 miners he chucked on the scrap heap.

Mr. Eggar : I wish that the hon. Gentleman would learn to look forward, not backwards. I also wish that he would pay tribute to the work done by both central and local government to provide new opportunities for work, whether in the north-east, in Scotland, in Wales or in the central coalfield, and to the tremendous efforts made by many agencies to provide training and new jobs for miners.

Mr. Riddick : Does my hon. Friend agree that the real tragedy of the British coal mining industry is that it was not privatised many years earlier ? Does he agree that if that had happened, working practices would now be much more up to date than they are, the stranglehold of the

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National Union of Mineworkers, which has done such immeasurable damage to the industry, would have been broken, the British coal industry would have been able to compete in the modern world and, as a result, many more pits would be open today ?

Mr. Eggar : I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the great tragedies of the coal industry is exactly that. If we are able to achieve the significant productivity improvements that we have achieved over the past year or two, why was it not possible to do that 10 years or 15 years ago ? I have to tell the country and the House that a lot of the blame for that lies with the NUM in particular.

Mr. Redmond : Will the Minister explain why British Coal is closing down pits in this country and importing fuel and coal from abroad ?

Mr. Eggar : One reason why we are importing coal is that we no longer have coking coal or anthracite in significant quantities. [Interruption.] Hon. Members who know anything about the coal industry know perfectly well that that particular quality of coal has been virtually mined out over the past 200 years in this country. Opposition Members should also know that one of the major objectives of the private sector companies that have taken over the pits closed by British Coal is to provide coal to the industrial and domestic markets, which previously were not adequately competed for by British Coal.

Manufacturing Industry --

23. Sir David Knox : To ask the President of the Board of Trade when he next expects to meet the president of the Confederation of British Industry to discuss manufacturing industry.

Mr. Eggar : My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade maintains close contact with the CBI on a wide range of issues, including manufacturing industry.

Sir David Knox : When my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade next meets the president of the CBI, will he discuss with him the means of ensuring that manufacturing industry performs better in the next 20 years than it has in the past 20 years, during which manufacturing output has scarcely risen ?

Mr. Eggar : One of my right hon. Friend's major objectives in the White Paper on competitiveness was to address some of the underlying issues relating to improving productivity and reducing costs throughout the British economy. I think that my hon. Friend will agree with me that the White Paper is an important statement which has been welcomed throughout the trade associations and by the CBI, and that it points the way forward.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Speaker : I shall come to the hon. Gentlemen after I have made a short statement, which is about the grouping of oral questions.

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