Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Fabricant : It took 55 minutes.

Mr. Marland : Yes, it was a long speech.

I begin by complimenting my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade on all the energy that he has expended in trying to stimulate trade for this country. His travel schedule has been punishing and has earned him the respect not only of the people who travelled with him but that of many hon. Members of all parties. I hope that he will have the health and strength to keep going.

It will probably come as no surprise to my right hon. Friend to know that it is my intention not to speak about Lloyd's. [Interruption.] It probably will come as a surprise, in fact. I wish to speak about the problems facing the recycling industry. My interest in its efforts are well catalogued, and my right hon. Friend the Minister has shown considerable interest in the difficulties facing the industry. I have talked to him about them several times. What are the problems facing the United Kingdom's metal, textile and paper recyclers ? How do I want the Department of Trade and Industry to help ?

The problem, simply put, is one of definition. Well-intentioned legislation is placing unnecessary and ill-considered regulation in the way of developing businesses in this sphere. That regulation is beginning seriously to hamper their development, jeopardising their exports and adding considerably to their costs and paperwork. In short, the European Union's definition of waste needs to be amended.

Before I outline the problem in more detail, let me give the House some idea of the scale and breadth of the metal recovery industry in the United Kingdom. Each week, the industry collects 175 tonnes of reusable metal, 30,000 old motor cars, 30,000 refrigerators, 20,000 washing machines and a further 20,000 assorted white goods--items such as cookers, dryers and deep freezes. In addition, it collects huge quantities of industrial, demolition and constructional reusable material, as well as ships, torpedoes, telephones, old bicycles, discarded House of Commons metal chairs and paper clips.

That reclamation activity saves in energy terms the equivalent of 140,000 gallons of petrol for each 1,000 tonnes of new steel produced from recovered metal rather than refining original ore.

The environmental advantages are also obvious, yet the important recycling business, along with the textile and other recycling and exporting businesses, is now under threat from ill-defined and ill-considered legislation, which insists that, irrespective of evidence to the contrary, the metal recovery industry is merely a waste disposal industry, and that those businesses are merely handlers of waste.

The misconception spreads throughout Europe and beyond. Last year, the ferrous reclamation industry collected, processed and sold more than 9 million tonnes of iron and steel. Nearly 4 million tonnes of that recovered metal was sold abroad ; hence my interest in today's debate on exports. The trade was market driven, and brought more than £300 million to the United Kingdom in overseas earnings.

Today, however, the United Kingdom metal recycling industry, together with other recycling interests, faces the


Column 407

greatest threat to its activities since the era of export controls pre-1979. The heart of the problem is the misconception that valuable recovered metal, prepared and sold for melting into new steel, is waste and that it should be controlled in the same way as harmful waste for disposal.

It is not merely a domestic problem, as I shall explain. The recycling industry needs help from the Government at home and abroad to change the definition of waste.

So where did that well-intended, but ill-considered, legislation come from ? It was the Basel convention. Quite rightly, the Basel convention seeks to control and reduce the export of hazardous waste from developed countries to developing countries. Furthermore, at its second conference, the Basel convention banned all movements of hazardous waste destined for recycling or recovery from OECD to non-OECD countries from 1 January 1998. On the face of it, that sounds a good idea, but the definition of waste under the Basel convention is very broad, as is the classification "hazardous", and that brings problems to the industry.

In a forum dominated by Greenpeace International, and with civil service experts from participating countries' environmental departments only, there is a real risk that the balance will swing too far, so that recovered and processed material could be considered as hazardous waste. I have examples of just that happening. The OECD proposed a separate regime for the trans- frontier shipment of wastes for recovery, dividing such wastes into red, amber and green lists. Why should recovered and processed metal, together with other material, be regarded as waste, when these products have been bought by the recipient and are to be reused as a raw material ? The difficulty is that some countries may and do place restrictions on the trade, simply because the material appears as waste, irrespective of which category of waste it is.

The European Union seeks to regulate the movement of waste into, out of and within the Community along the same lines as the OECD, using the categories green, amber and red. While green wastes are subject only to normal commercial regulations, non-OECD countries can insist that such wastes are controlled as if they were amber or red-listed. That means that, after 1 January 1998, exports of green-listed recovered metals, papers and textiles could be banned. It is interesting, if horrifying, to note that, only last month, at an international reclamation and recycling convention, a senior official of the Spanish Government spoke with some passion of his country's refusal to import waste. Quite obviously, he had not done his homework and did not understand his own regulations, as Spain currently imports 3.2 million tonnes a year of reprocessed metal, which is classified as waste, for its own steel industry. I am pleased to tell my right hon. Friend the Minister that 1.1 million tonnes of that furnace feed comes from the United Kingdom. Is it any wonder that United Kingdom business men and politicians are sceptical about our European partners enforcing European regulations, when their own senior civil servants do not even seem to understand them ?

Further afield, the Indonesian Government, failing to understand the ramifications of the waste lists, advised the


Column 408

European Union last month that they had imposed a ban on the importation of all waste. That meant that a large cargo of recovered ferrous metal classified as waste, which at that time was on the high seas bound for Jakarta, was therefore illegal and would not be accepted.

However, thanks to pressure from the United Kingdom--and, I suspect, from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade--the Indonesian Government realised the potential harm to their own steel industry and reversed their earlier decision. They, too, did not understand the regulations.

Now India and Turkey, which between them import nearly 1 million tonnes of furnace feed per year--the bulk of it from the United Kingdom--have announced that they will not import waste.

The House will be aware of the difficulties faced by the industry with regard to exports. Those of India and Turkey were further cases of not understanding the waste regulations.

There was also the case of the lorry from Swinnerton Brothers, a company based somewhere in the United Kingdom. It was carrying a load of secondary raw material from Britain across Belgium to Italy. The cargo was described as waste and stopped by Belgian customs officials, who delayed the load for 10 days, causing much frustration and expense for those involved. That was another case of the Belgians not understanding their own legislation.

In the past few weeks, the following countries have demonstrated that they do not understand the waste regulations : Indonesia, Turkey, India, Spain and Belgium.

What must be done is clear, and the United Kingdom Government can show some real leadership at the heart of Europe. Those responsible for the regulations must realise that the material we are talking about is not waste, but a valuable secondary resource, for which buyers are willing to pay large sums of money.

Mr. Fabricant : Hear, hear.

Mr. Marland : I appreciate my hon. Friend's support. The waste regulations must be changed.

Madam Speaker--I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker : if that is the worst error I make in my speech, I will be all right.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery) : It is flattery.

Mr. Marland : As we are in the business of quotes, thanks to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, Oscar Wilde said, "Flattery will get you anywhere."

To give credit where credit is due, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside have recognised the problem and are trying to help.

The impact of international legislation spills over onto the United Kingdom domestic scene and it is intended that United Kingdom recycling should be brought under the auspices of Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the United Kingdom waste management regulations.

The regulations and the licensing regime were due to apply to the metal recycling industry from 1 May, but, thanks to the interest shown by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside, who took the time and trouble to look at the industry at first hand, he has recognised that metal processors should be licensed as metal recyclers and not as waste managers. In the light of


Column 409

his first-hand experience, he has given the industry a further five months--until 1 October--to apply for exemption from the current waste management licensing regulations.

A further problem, however, is that the competent authorities in the United Kingdom for licensing and inspection, as well as for export purposes, are the 140 waste regulatory authorities. I believe that in describing material for export and interpreting the Government's regulatory guidance, there would be a standardisation problem, with 140 different authorities throughout the country. Furthermore, those authorities would have great difficulty in ascertaining whether the countries of destination had the appropriate and authorised facilities to receive processed metal cargoes described as waste.

I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that no one in the recycling industry fears appropriate regulation and licensing. On the contrary, that would be welcome, for there are still far too many unscrupulous operators, who do nobody any good, in the market.

We are talking about a high-tech industry which has invested millions of pounds in its plant and machinery. In all its different guises, it employs thousands of people and brings enormous wealth and massive environmental benefits to this country. That industry is in danger of being over- regulated and unnecessarily regulated, so it warmly welcomes the Government's determination to deregulate. Today, too much well-intentioned national and international legislation is introduced as a result of activity by well-funded and determined single-issue politicians and pressure groups. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is to reply to the debate, to understand that recycled material for sale is not waste, but a valuable secondary raw material. In recognising that, and in redefining waste, they will release the stranglehold that regulation could exert on much of British industry and its export potential.

6.40 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland) has done the debate, and the House, a service by raising the important issue of the recycling industry. The House is in his debt. From our constituency experience, we all know that that is indeed an urgent problem.

I should like to talk quietly to the Minister for Trade on six subjects-- very succinctly on five of them. First, the right hon. Gentleman referred in his speech to Livingston. I used to represent part of Livingston--it is in the West Lothian area--and I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was rather hard on British Leyland. Honestly, it was not industrial relations that brought the Bathgate operation to an end, but the great difficulty of having a motor industry located away from the centres for the ancillary industries. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) knows, there were deep-seated problems and, at least over the past few years, the British Leyland management were in no way critical of the co- operation that they had received from the work force. Hon. Members who represent Birmingham and Coventry seats will know what the problems were. I owe a great deal to the late George Park, my colleague from Coventry, who used to give me much expert advice on the real problems of the


Column 410

parts of the motor industry that had moved out of the midlands. Perhaps the mistake was ever taking them out of the midlands in the first place.

Another question arises, and I want to address it to the Minister for Trade. Are we sure that we have the balance right between the money that the British state puts into attracting industries from the United States, Japan and elsewhere, and what we do to help our own industries ? There is a great feeling that if only more money had been invested in, for instance, the North British Steel Foundry, that would have been far healthier than spending those huge sums on attracting industry from abroad.

I shall never forget visiting a famous Japanese company, accompanying a ministerial visit by the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) when he was Minister for Technology. I asked him, "How much grant are they getting ?" and the right hon. Gentleman gave me the figure. It was confidential, but I was taken aback. The sums that our indigenous industries receive do not bear comparison with what goes to incoming industry from abroad.

Also on that issue, I give a gentle warning to the Minister for Trade that in areas such as mine people are most concerned about the effect of local government reform. He said that prosperity had come to the area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), and he was right ; there is a good story to tell. But part of that story is the way in which Lothian region has been able to react quickly to packages suggested to it-- for instance, by Motorola. I doubt whether smaller unitary authorities could have acted in that way, and even at this 59th minute of the 11th hour I tell the Government that they will get into terrible difficulty over local government reform in Scotland. I am not an English Member, but I understand that there may be problems in England as well, with all the orders that are now to be introduced. I really believe that the Government should think again.

My second main question concerns the quarrying industry. I shall start with two facts. To build the new Scottish Office building for the ancient monuments board and other branches of the Scottish Office at Longmore in Edinburgh, Ullapool marble is being used. But that has to go to Carrara to be processed and then come back to Edinburgh. For the new work at the Broomielaw in Glasgow, not Aberdeen granite but Brazilian granite is being used, and that has to be processed in Portugal.

We used to be a country with a thousand quarries, but now we have very few. Off the top of my head, I would say that in Scotland there are now six sandstone quarries, one marble quarry, one flagstone quarry--in Caithness-- and no slate quarry. That may be a matter for import substitution, but we must ask how the Department of Trade and Industry can resolve a chicken-and -egg situation so as to rejuvenate the British quarrying industry.

That industry is all the more important because 50 per cent. and more of the building being undertaken by the construction industry is not new build but repair and renovation, so traditional materials are that much more important. Another reason for concentrating on traditional materials is that the people employed in quarrying are often over 40, and the Minister and I know that those are the most difficult people for whom to find alternative work.

I ask for some reflection on the state of the British quarrying industry, and especially to what extent snatch quarrying can be encouraged. That describes what happens


Column 411

when a certain amount of stone is urgently needed for new buildings in the centre of cities, or for new public works such as the national museum of Scotland or the science museum in Exhibition road. I can say quickly what I have to say on my third issue. The Minister and I served on a Standing Committee that dealt with the question of markets ouverts. In that connection, I must mention the export of art. In the light of what has happened at Floors, at Scone and at Abbotsford, the Scottish heritage is in peril. Those places attract hundreds of thousands of visitors, and artefacts have been stolen from them and quickly disposed of. I cannot expect an immediate answer, but I know that the Government are working on the problem. Markets ouverts are a real problem, and I hope that they will be able to do something about that.

The fourth issue, like the next two, concerns countries abroad. What is happening to our exports to Iran ? Our political relations with Iran have been difficult enough, but they are becoming even more difficult because, for some reason or another, which has not been made clear to the House, we are asking for Iranian diplomats to be withdrawn from this country. That leads to a tit-for-tat situation. On the surface, the reasons seem trivial, but Iran used to be an important market and I ask the Department of Trade and Industry to ask the Foreign Office whether it has the right sense of proportion and whether it should be developing appalling relations with a country that is a good market.

My fifth point takes me next door to Iraq. This is not the occasion to parade my views on how we should react to sanctions against Iraq, but does the DTI realise the extent to which the French have gone back to Baghdad ? Last May, in controversial circumstances, I stayed in the only major hotel in Baghdad, where it was almost impossible to get breakfast--I shall put it that way--for the want of people from Elf Aquitaine and other French companies, who said that they were not breaking sanctions, but preparing for the time when sanctions would be lifted. Dutiful as I am, I gave a full report to our embassy in Amman as soon as I crossed the border into Jordan. On the night of my return, the Foreign Secretary courteously saw me in his office and I made the same point.

Remembering that Iraq was one of our best markets--for instance, we undertook massive graduate training there--I believe that operating sanctions may present a problem. The DTI should reflect on what our competitors are doing in Iraq, which has the second biggest, if not the biggest, oil reserves in the world. I do not want to trespass on other matters and I realise that there are great difficulties following the Gulf war, but, at the very least, questions should be asked.

The sixth and final matter on which I wish to dwell involves Libya, again an awkward subject. The Minister and I have discussed the matter before. Libya, like Iraq, was a British Arab market and not an American market. The Americans had other markets, particularly in the Gulf and in Saudi Arabia. Britain's university and technical colleges have trained most of Libya's decision makers. I know that I was on unsafe ground when advancing my arguments on Iraq because difficulties were involved that were not germane to this debate. I feel very strongly,


Column 412

however, that there is a case for lifting sanctions against Libya until we have a far clearer idea of who perpetrated the Lockerbie crime.

A libel case has been successfully conducted in the courts by the Maltese against a Canadian company that asserted that there was a Maltese connection between the bomb and Pan Am flight 103. Once the Malta connection is challenged, as it is more and more by serious people, the case against the Libyan state falls to the ground. In an Adjournment debate and in other debates, I have argued that the Libyans were not involved and that other people have made them the scapegoats for an appalling crime. I went to Lockerbie on day three. The police from my area were there to clear up. The Lockerbie crime was the most terrible crime against civilians in the western world since 1945. Before we operate sanctions, however, we have to be clear that the people against whom we are operating them are the people who perpetrated the crime. There is mounting evidence that we have got the wrong people.

I asked the Prime Minister to identify the lead Department in the matter. I suspect that it is probably the Crown Office in Edinburgh. It is high time that the DTI went to the Foreign Office, the Crown Office and the relevant sections of the Home Office and asked, "For how long are we going to go on denying ourselves access to the plums of the Libyan markets ?"

We still have 5,000 British nationals working in Libya. There are huge demands because of its high-quality oil, which can finance huge projects such as the great man-made river, which those of us who visited it thought was an ecologically sound and major project. There will be huge developments there and British industry is missing out. It is my strong impression that the Italians are not missing out. I not only have an impression, but am certain that the South Koreans are having a field day and making a bomb. [ Laughter .] Sorry, that was an unfortunate phrase. If I could erase something from Hansard , that would be it. They are making a pile. No, that is also unsatisfactory. They are making a fortune and British industry is missing out.

If the Minister thinks that I am exaggerating, let him talk to senior management at Babcock and Wilcox, who said only yesterday that it had major orders waiting and that, if sanctions were lifted, it could start those orders tomorrow.

I promised to be brief. I leave those thoughts with the Minister and I hope that he will reflect on them over the next month. 6.56 pm

Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West) : I do not want my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade to reply to my comments. I wish merely to place them on the record and to ask for some discreet inquiries to be made of his officials. I want to discuss corruption in Russia and the extent to which it may pose dangers to British exporters.

The Russian market presents huge opportunities, but it may also present huge dangers. It appears that gangsters and mafiosi have almost totally penetrated Russian commerce and industry. There is, in effect, an alternative and more effective governmental system operating in Russia. It may be highly dangerous, therefore, when British and western European companies go into Russia to look for joint ventures. Russian gangsters may apply the


Column 413

same methods to western European joint ventures that they do to Russian businesses. Those methods are well known. They involve blackmail, extortion, protection and the placing of henchmen in a company's management structures.

Perhaps most worrying of all, a new phenomenon seems to be appearing. Employees of joint ventures with foreign companies are being asked to accept middle managers and observers, who may go to the host country, usually western Germany, to go on a study mission and to learn what is happening in the exporting country. They may also be there, however, to spy out the land for the development of their particular form of exports-- corruption, extortion, blackmail and other methods that I mentioned.

That fear has been expressed in some quarters. I ask only that Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry, who have put in place the excellent structure about which we heard earlier, undertake internal studies of the extent to which their officials are picking up such signals and the extent to which British business men are being exposed to pressures that, initially and to a large extent, were placed on German business men, the most prevalent group of business men in Russia.

We take great pride in the fact that our business ethics and the way in which we do business are of the highest order compared with almost any other country. We do not want certain corrupt practices to wash back to the United Kingdom as a result of sincere, open and honest efforts to indulge in joint ventures in Russia or merely to export to Russia.

I leave those thoughts with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, who commented in opening on the way in which he and the President of the Board of Trade have organised exports. That is music to the business community, which has wanted something like this for a long time. The system that my right hon. Friends have delivered makes Britain a first division player in export activity and I congratulate them on it.

7 pm

Mr. Nigel Jones (Cheltenham) : I seem to be making a habit of following the hon. Member for Coventry, South-West (Mr. Butcher). When I last spoke, I followed his generous speech ; today, he made a thought- provoking speech, following his extremely amusing point of order earlier in our proceedings.

I am delighted that the House has found time to debate one of the most crucial issues that faces Britain. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) mentioned Iraq, which I visited in helping British exports before the recent troubles. Will the Minister tell us what happened to the money owed under the Export Credits Guarantee Department's scheme to companies exporting at the time of the troubles ? Does he think that British exporters are getting a fair share of the construction work in Kuwait ?

By inventing things before anyone else and by making high-quality products for sale to the rest of the world, the British have traditionally enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the world The industrial revolution began in the west midlands--with the invention of railways, for example--and that peaceful revolution continues to bring change across our planet.

In recent years, Britain has fallen behind--or, rather, other nations have caught up and some have overtaken us. The centre of invention has moved away to Europe, North


Column 414

America and, increasingly, Japan and the far east, and with that movement, the potential, through exports, for future wealth and prosperity in the United Kingdom has been threatened.

Our competitors will not easily give up their new-found wealth. They have succeeded by investing more than us in the future. Their Governments play a more active role than ours in co-ordinating, encouraging and, in many cases, providing financial pump priming for, exporters. Liberal Democrats and Conservatives understand that, in a free market, Governments should not attempt to run industry. But this Government fail to understand that even in a free market, Governments continue to have a vital role to play in helping industry to help itself.

The Minister gave examples of help that the Government are giving, but it is not enough. The President of the Board of Trade once promised to intervene before breakfast, lunch and dinner to help British industry, but we have seen precious little sign of his doing so. We have seen even less sign of the Government's investing in the future or of their having a vision or a strategy. Instead, they appear to be conducting a closing-down sale.

I should like the Minister to explain why a quarter of the people employed by the Foreign Office to help exporters have lost their jobs in the past 12 years. Has any research been conducted into the correlation between export success and Foreign Office assistance ? Our scientists and designers have a superb record of inventing things--there is nothing wrong with our innovation--but, too often in recent years, Britain has missed opportunities and has failed to generate wealth by exporting its inventions. As a result, we have a serious balance of payments deficit, including a deficit on manufactured goods. We must look again at making high-quality products for export on a large scale, so employing people who should be employed and paying taxes rather than sitting at home miserably twiddling their thumbs. Only with higher employment and higher-volume productivity will Britain afford a decent social programme, which probably all hon. Members want.

Our key industries, such as aerospace, must be nurtured. Companies such as British Aerospace, Rolls-Royce, Dowty TI, Westland and Smiths Industries bring in a net £2.5 billion to our balance of payments. Some people think that the black gold in the North sea--oil--has been wasted. Instead of giving unsustainable tax cuts to the rich, the Government should have used oil revenues to invest in the future and in Britain's infrastructure.

We have heard about the pharmaceutical industry and financial services today, but we run the danger of missing out on future opportunities in information technology, converging communications technology--made possible by fibre optics--environmental technology and biotechnology. These are key new areas in which high value-added jobs should be created in Britain. They offer huge opportunities for United Kingdom exporters. Other countries may have a lead, but it is not too late to do something to enable British companies to compete in world markets.

With margins squeezed in the European Union, many companies have looked further afield for business. The relaxation of the COCOM--the co-ordinating committee of western nations on technology transfer--restrictions has helped significantly to open up opportunities in central and eastern Europe.


Column 415

What United Kingdom exporters need like a hole in the head is the reintroduction of national trade barriers ; they need existing barriers to come down. They must be able, where possible, to buy components for their products from United Kingdom suppliers. I shall give an example from an industry in which I spent more than 20 years--the computer industry. At this stage, I should declare an interest in ICL. Companies that manufacture information technology in the United Kingdom have global competitors. A company in the United Kingdom that assembles, for example, a box using a 486 processor will probably import its semi- conductors from the far east, but the European Union maintains high tariffs on semi-conductors, so a United Kingdom company that has made the box for export is at a price disadvantage in relation to its competitors in Japan or the Pacific rim countries, which need not pay that artificial tariff. A practical step that our Government could take would be to seek to persuade the EU to reduce or remove tariffs that harm our companies as they seek to compete in export markets around the world.

Another prime example of the United Kingdom's shooting itself in the foot is in relation to the new telecommunications technology and information super-highways. The commodity of the future is information. In the 1970s and 1980s, jobs that should have been kept in the United Kingdom and Europe migrated to low-cost Pacific rim countries ; if, through inertia and misguided regulation, we allow North America and Japan to take an unassailable lead in the new communications technologies, the same fate will befall our knowledge-based industries in the 1990s. Those industries have the greatest potential for growth. Emerging information industries will simply locate where they find the best infrastructure and skills. Potentially, the United Kingdom has an immense amount to offer in terms of technology, software skills--two out of five computer games are designed here--creativity and, crucial in a knowledge-based world, culture. We also have the English language, which is an enormous benefit to us. But it all needs to be joined together in an information super-highway. Current United Kingdom telecommunications policy, however, effectively excludes the two British flag carriers, BT and Mercury, from developing all but the most limited broad-band networks. It is a disaster. Perversely, it has resulted in cable television companies--largely United States-owned--being handed out a patchwork of technically different regional monopolies for an indefinite period to deliver broadcast television and telephony down the same pipe.

Mr. McLoughlin : The hon. Gentleman must get the facts straight. He cannot say that he supports investment while attacking it ; and he cannot say that he wants to promote super-highways throughout the country while attacking all the ways in which they are being promoted in terms of cable television companies. He must accept that nothing stops even the two major players to which he referred operating cable television companies. Indeed, BT has the licence for Westminster.

Mr. Jones : I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention. BT has said that it wishes to invest £15 billion of its own money in constructing an information super-highway, but it cannot do so if it is prevented from


Column 416

earning revenue from conveying television on such a network. Mercury backs BT on that. Sir Bryan Carlsberg, the Director General of Fair Trading, has warned of the dangers of new cable monopolies owned by overseas interests. BT and Mercury should be allowed to compete on level terms with those American companies to ensure the deployment of a broad-band, multi-media network throughout the United Kingdom.

Other countries are beginning to see the potential of the information revolution--for example, Vice-President Al Gore plans an information super- highway that reaches into every home and business in the United States. But the British Government are content to leave the infrastructure's installation--the cables under the pavements--to market forces. The result will be a second-rate system cobbled together by companies, most of which are not British, and the network will cover only the most densely populated areas of Britain. A map of the franchises that have already been granted shows that 80 per cent. of Britain is not covered.

Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West) : As the hon. Gentleman is concerned about broad-band highways, will he be kind enough to comment on SuperJanet and the work that has been done in that area ?

Mr. Jones : I do not know much about SuperJanet, so I cannot comment on it. But I know that much of the system currently being installed is not even consist fibre optics, which were invented here. So those people who are now being inconvenienced by having their pavements dug up will have to have the job done again if we are to have a proper super-highway throughout Britain. Remote areas, including most of Wales and Scotland and parts of England such as the south-west, East Anglia and the north, will be locked out of new services that will provide not just entertainment and video on demand but distance learning, shopping from home, information

exchange--perhaps with doctors, local councils and Government Departments-- and even, in the future, local referendums.

The United Kingdom supply industry is already being damaged by the lack of a United Kingdom platform from which to export its skills. It is extremely ironic, for example, that the Germans are installing the latest telecommunications technology in the former east Germany with a state-of- the-art fibre network. The network that it is installing is based on United Kingdom thinking, as trialled and demonstrated by BT and United Kingdom manufacturers in a specially localised dispensation from the regulatory rules at Bishops Stortford. United Kingdom technology was proven and copied, yet the suppliers in east Germany are all German and American because United Kingdom companies are prevented from benefiting from a domestic market in the United Kingdom.

Let me refer briefly to some other industries. We must support British scientists and companies in new technological industries such as biotechnology and environmental technology. British companies complain that they cannot find adequate finance for biotechnology, yet it is a hugely expanding field which opens up exciting possibilities for the future. Research and development are being carried out in connection with disease and drought-resistant crops. Properly developed and deployed throughout the world, biotechnology would eradicate hunger and starvation from planet Earth for ever. I can think of no more laudable aim for mankind than to end


Column 417

starvation. If Britain fails to develop solutions to that most pressing of all global problems, other countries will--and they, not we, will reap the benefits both financially and through greater influence throughout the world.

We are also missing out on environmental technology. We currently have 1 per cent. of the world market in environmental technology. Germany enjoys the world lead with 36 per cent. and the USA has 15 per cent. The market is expected to treble by the year 2000. As understanding grows about the seriousness of the threats posed by pollution, global warming and ozone layer depletion, every country will need technological solutions to save the planet's environment. An example is the Coal Research Establishment. At Stoke Orchard in Gloucestershire, British scientists have developed a world lead in clean coal technology, yet the Government have shown little recent interest. I tabled questions asking what plans the Government have for the future of the CRE and received the reply that it was a matter for British Coal, not the Government. The Government are handing over to Japan, Sweden and others the market for fitting clean-up technology to the world's coal- fired power stations when Britain had established a technological lead that could and should create jobs and wealth for the future.

The phenomenon of Britain inventing something and other countries making money out of it has arisen occurred too often. It must not happen in the future. Many people call it "the hovercraft syndrome". We must have a vision for the future. We invest too little in education ; we plan short term rather than long term ; and we undervalue our scientists and inventors. Other countries with which Britain competes invest more in education. They are making breakthroughs and their companies are benefiting.

Another problem is language. In many new markets, particularly eastern Europe, the ability to speak the customer's language helps to win business. That is where the Foreign Office can help. It is important that schools start to teach languages as early as possible, certainly before the age of 11. In Sweden, where I have worked, children are bilingual by the age of 11 and go on to learn a third and sometimes a fourth language during the remainder of their school career.

We must invest more in education ; plan for the longer term ; encourage innovation ; and have a strategy. We may then be able to turn the opportunities for United Kingdom exporters into real jobs and wealth for our people.

7.17 pm

Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West) : Whenever the House debates trade, industry and exporting, I feel that there is a tinge of regret and that we are looking over our shoulder at our history. Centuries ago, we had organisations such as the East India Company. Later, we were in the forefront of the industrial revolution. We took the fruits of our inventions, and made ourselves the leading trading and exporting nation of the world.

But then the pendulum started to swing away. Although trade and industry did not exactly become dirty words, it was certainly not the career for the socially mobile. We heard apocryphal stories such as that of the teacher who took her charges round a factory and, as she loaded them into the coach afterwards, said, "And there you are. If you don't pass your exams, that's where you'll end up." It became a career that was moving down market.


Column 418

In the 1960s and 1970s, we began to realise that our share in world trade was slipping away, and we faced determined and efficient foreign competition. So the Governments of the day, particularly the Labour Government, started to think that it was up to the state to reverse that trend and save the day. Nationalisation and state intervention became the norm, and politicians had the conceit to believe that they could run industries better at third hand than the people who had spent a lifetime in those activities.

Perhaps the classic example is the setting up of the National Enterprise Board, which put hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money into various ventures. It collapsed, and I do not know of a single example of its activities that returned a profit at the end of the day.

To be fair, in the 1980s, the pendulum swung violently the other way, and Government reacted dramatically by removing themselves from the industrial scene wherever possible. I strongly support the privatisation process. That has been essential in introducing a new vigour and a new strength into British industry. However, at the same time, industrialists found themselves with a lead Department, in the shape of the Trade and Industry Department, which was starting to operate at arm's length.

The Department became a transitory post for Secretaries of State. I defy most Members of the House to name the Secretaries of State who headed that Department between 1979 and 1991. The average stay was slightly more than a year and a half. At those times of abandonment of trade and industry, I called for tax allowances to compensate for that lack of Government interest, because Government help does not have to be in the shape of money and handouts, but should more properly be in the shape of co-operation and smoothing the way. Today I believe that, with the present departmental approach, due to the direction and influence of the Ministers who are currently in that Department, industry does not need those blanket taxes. It does not need those allowances. Governments should consider now only a selective approach for specific targets, such as the Japanese use for their machine tool industry.

That change is due to the Ministers. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade. I congratulate him on his recent appointment, which is well deserved. He has done a magnificent job in promoting Britain throughout the world. For that, this country owes him a debt of gratitude.

I do not feel the same sense of regret in the debate today, because, for the first time in all the years that I have been in the House, I have the feeling, contrary to what the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) said, that we are starting to achieve something that approaches a coherent plan-- a plan that starts to tackle the subject of manufacturing and exports.

The recent White Paper on competitiveness is an important part of that overall strategy. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South-West (Mr. Butcher) said that that plan was music to his ears and I endorse that. After much work on its preparation, at long last we have a reasonably accurate appraisal of where we stand in the world vis-a-vis the competition. Anyone who operates in the real world might find it amazing that we have not carried out such an appraisal for decades. At long last, we have done it.

I am afraid that it is a characteristic of politicians that they think of the grand, sweeping design and forget all the


Next Section

  Home Page