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Druridge Bay, Northumberland

9. Mr. Beith: To ask the President of the Board of Trade if land at Druridge bay, Northumberland, owned by Nuclear Electric, is to be released for sale. [13511]

Mr. Page: The land held by Nuclear Electric at Druridge bay is to be assigned to Magnox Electric, and will therefore be staying in the public sector.

Mr. Beith: Will the Minister convey to his right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy my appreciation of the fact that he decided not to release the land to Nuclear Electric's successor, British Energy? Does he recognise, however--given the 40,000-signature petition that we took to the Department--that local people want the land to be taken entirely out of the hands of the nuclear industry? I am sure that the Minister would not want the industry to remain nationalised indefinitely, but I think that he would want it to be made clear that that will not be the site of a nuclear power station.

Mr. Page: The right hon. Gentleman has been prominent in the campaign to retain the site in the public sector. I shall pass on his good wishes to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy. The settling of the terms on which Magnox Electric will hold Druridge bay will start shortly; those working on the site will be consulted, and I hope that a satisfactory solution will be achieved.

Mr. Atkins: Does my hon. Friend recognise that the nuclear industry plays a significant part in the operation of our economy--not least in Lancashire, where British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. employs a large number of people, and has been so successful that it is about to provide 100 new jobs in the Lancashire area? That demonstrates yet again that our policies work, unlike those of the Labour party.

Mr. Page: My right hon. Friend makes the point that privatisation will be valuable to the nuclear industry, just as it has been to many other industries. I confidently

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expect that there will be more jobs and expansion, and that Nuclear Electric will provide a stimulus and competition for other power generators.

Mr. Battle: Does the Minister agree that the Government's proposals to privatise the nuclear industry are increasingly being exposed as a bad deal for the taxpayer? Is this not proving to be a closing-down sale that will cost the country billions? Moreover, it cannot be assumed that a Labour Government will pick up the tab for unknown nuclear liabilities if the assets are stripped. Is not nuclear privatisation likely to prove even more disastrous than the Government's botched attempts to privatise British Rail? It is clearly not in the public interest. Will the Government call it off?

Mr. Page: I can give a short answer to that question: certainly not. We will not call off the privatisation. As I have said, I expect it to raise substantial sums for the taxpayer, and it will free the industry to make its own decisions. As for the liabilities, I know that a segregated fund will be established to ensure that long-term decommissioning liabilities will not fall on the taxpayer by default.

Gas Consumers Council

10. Mr. Gerrard: To ask the President of the Board of Trade what representations he has received as to how this year's Gas Consumers Council budget will affect its ability to represent the interests of consumers. [13512]

Mr. John M. Taylor: I have received no such representations.

Mr. Gerrard: Is it not a fact that the Gas Consumers Council's budget is being cut at a time when the number of complaints is rising? Can the Minister explain why, since Ministers announced last May that they would work with British Gas to raise the company's performance to the highest level, it has managed to lose its charter mark, and complaints to the council have more than doubled?

Mr. Taylor: The Gas Consumers Council will not be inhibited by its budget, which for 1996-97 has been increased by more than inflation. Since privatisation, domestic gas prices have decreased by more than 23 per cent. and industrial gas prices by 40 per cent. Although the Gas Consumers Council is independent of the regulator, it keeps in close touch with the Office of Gas Supply, as it should.

Mr. Gallie: Does my hon. Friend agree that the largest cuts in the gas industry have been those for domestic gas consumers' bills since privatisation?

Mr. Taylor: I certainly do.

Balance of Trade

11. Mr. Alan W. Williams: To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he will make a statement on the balance of payments deficit for the calendar years 1994 and 1995. [13513]

Mr. Oppenheim: In 1994, the balance of payments deficit was 0.3 per cent. of gross domestic product. In

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1995, the deficit is forecast by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be about 1 per cent. of GDP.

Mr. Williams: How can the Prime Minister claim that Britain has the strongest economy in Europe when our growth rate, at 1.8 per cent., is at eighth place in Europe and when our share of world trade, at 5.2 per cent., is the lowest this century? When we have had a devaluation of 20 or 25 per cent., why do we still have a balance of payments problem?

Mr. Oppenheim: The Prime Minister may be thinking of the fact that, whereas in the decades after the war our share of world trade slipped steadily, since the mid-1980s we have stabilised that share, when many developing countries have increased theirs. He might also be thinking of the fact that, since 1981, the volume of manufactured exports from Britain has grown faster than those from France, Germany or Japan.

Mr. Brooke: I express dismay and despair at Opposition Members' lack of understanding about why the United Kingdom's share of world trade in manufactures ceased to fall in the 1980s--for the first time since the war--and, indeed, began to rise. Does my hon. Friend endorse the research carried out by Owen and Wren Lewis recently, which showed that critical to that change is the strength of investment in United Kingdom manufacturing industry?

Mr. Oppenheim: Obviously it is a matter of not only the amount of investment but the quality of investment. What differentiates investment now compared with the 1970s is that in the 1970s a lot of investment was state inspired, state sponsored and state directed into enterprises that turned out to be uneconomic, such as building massive, unneeded capacity for British Steel. Investment now is market-directed and high quality and results in goods that we can sell abroad.

Mr. Hardy: Does the Minister deny that Britain's share of world trade is lower today than it has been throughout our history?

Mr. Oppenheim: No; in answer to an earlier question, I explained that, although Britain's share of world trade fell steadily in the decades after the war, since the mid-1980s it has stabilised. That is quite a performance when the share of other industrialised countries has fallen as a result of the increased share of developing countries.

Mr. Anthony Coombs: If the Labour party cannot recognise the hugely improved competitiveness of British industry, will my hon. Friend recognise the recent comments of the president of the German CBI, who said that, of all the countries in Europe, Britain was best placed to deal with the challenge of global competitiveness? Is that not proved by recent figures from the West Midlands development agency, which show that this country now attracts record investment? In particular, in the past year, the west midlands has seen no less than £1.25 billion-worth of investment, which has safeguarded or created no fewer than 10,000 jobs.

Mr. Oppenheim: The German gentleman to whom my hon. Friend alludes may have been aware of a recent survey

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that showed that, whereas the manufacturing productivity gap with Germany widened sharply in the second half of the 1970s, since 1979 the competitiveness gap between Britain and Germany has narrowed by three quarters. That shows that the period when Britain really was in danger of becoming a low-wage, low-productivity, skivvy economy was not under the Conservative Government but in the days of Labour's heroic industrial strategy.

Mr. Hoon: As the Minister is so keen on making comparisons with the previous Labour Government, he should note that the previous Labour Government achieved a surplus in both 1977 and 1978, having turned around a deficit inherited from the Conservatives. Despite the Minister's selective use of statistics, is it not the case that, first, in 1995 the Conservatives presided over their 10th successive annual deficit in the balance of payments current account; secondly, the UK's trade balance in manufactured goods went into deficit in 1983 for the first time since the industrial revolution, and has stayed there; thirdly, the United Kingdom's share of world trade has fallen to its lowest point this century, from 7.7 per cent. in 1980 to 5.2 per cent.--[Hon. Members: "Question."] I said, "Is it not the case?" That is because, notwithstanding the Minister's historical comparisons--I am tempted to say hysterical comparisons--the United Kingdom has today fallen to 21st place in the international investment league.

Mr. Oppenheim: I think what the hon. Gentleman means is that under the last Labour Government our trade was roughly in balance in one year and in surplus in another, but that the position was rapidly deteriorating by 1979. Under the last Labour Government, our performance consistently deteriorated in every aspect of manufacturing output and productivity. We inherited the problems of that Government and Britain's performance has markedly improved in trade, manufacturing output and productivity since then. That is what the Opposition do not like.

Mr. Mans: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a direct correlation between interference in industry by countries, particularly in Europe, and a reduction in the manufacturing base, whereas countries such as ours which do not interfere increase the manufacturing base? Does he further agree that the only way in which some European countries manage to prop up their exports is by subsidising their industries and that in the long term that can result only in the demise of those industries? Will he ensure that Britain continues to follow the policy of not subsidising industry?

Mr. Oppenheim: Needless to say, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. As Opposition Members are keen on comparisons with the last Labour Government, I shall give them the example of Triumph Motorcycles. It was a world leader in the 1950s, but it was meddled with and interfered with and had appalling industrial relations in the 1970s. It went bankrupt and the Japanese took the market; but in the 1980s, under a Conservative Government, Triumph set up again and it is expanding jobs and output and exporting to Japan. That is symbolic of the difference between manufacturing then and manufacturing now.

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12. Mr. Purchase: To ask the President of the Board of Trade with which European countries the UK has a surplus in both visible and invisible trade. [13515]

Mr. Oppenheim: In 1994, the latest year for which detailed information is available, the UK had an overall surplus, in visibles and invisibles, with the Republic of Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands.

Mr. Purchase: The Minister makes a brave attempt. According to the figures that I have seen, we have a surplus in both areas only with Ireland, which is, I think, 16th in the enlarged Community--all the countries of which, except us, enjoy the protection of the social chapter. Is it not surprising that the Minister claims that we are doing well whereas we are doing rather badly?

Mr. Oppenheim: I think that the hon. Gentleman's figures are a little out of date. As he is quite rightly concerned about our trade position, he will no doubt be delighted to know that our current account deficit with Europe is falling quite sharply. It is much lower than it was 10 years ago, and in the last year for which figures are available our exports were up by 11 per cent.--3 per cent. more than imports were up.

Mr. Butcher: Does my hon. Friend agree that the formation of a north Atlantic free trade area in which both tariff and non-tariff barriers were eliminated would be healthy for western Europe and the eastern seaboard of the United States, would boost the prospect of ports such as Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol and Cork and would integrate western Europe in the global market and the enterprise culture? Should not that objective be pursued with great vigour by his Department? I draw his attention to the remarks of Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and officials at the American Department of Commerce which all seem to open the door to the President of the Board of Trade being the champion of this cause.

Mr. Oppenheim: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If trade barriers produced industrial competitiveness, countries such as India and Brazil would be great industrial powers. It is the fact that those countries followed interventionist and protectionist policies from the end of the war until recently that has caused them great damage. I entirely agree that we need more free trade, not less, and I certainly agree that we must pursue every avenue for opening up trade with the United States.

I hope that my hon. Friend does not underestimate the difficulty caused by many of our fellow members in the EU constantly giving way to vested interests that are crying out for anti-dumping duties and trade barriers. These include occasionally the United Kingdom Commissioner--the former leader of the Labour party. Sadly, the same is true of the United States, which often speaks the language of free trade while practising just the opposite.

Mr. Clapham: Would not the use of regional selective assistance to support successful companies, such as Koyo in my constituency--whose application was turned down--assist the surplus in invisibles? Koyo came to Barnsley in 1992, and it now has a turnover of £25 million. The company wants RSA to double the size

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of its factory, to increase the work force by 180 and to increase its turnover to £66 million. However, its application was turned down. Will the Minister review that decision and, in doing so, will he see a delegation from the company?

Mr. Oppenheim: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the success of inward investment in Britain, and I take seriously his point about the company in his constituency. I understand that the matter is being looked at, and if the hon. Gentleman wants to bring a delegation to the Department of Trade and Industry, we will be glad to see them.

Mr. Marlow: What would be the impact on our balance of trade with our European partners if there was a single currency in central Europe, including Germany, France and, perhaps, Belgium and Luxembourg, while the pound sterling was maintained in the United Kingdom? In particular, what would the impact be on our invisible trade with Europe?

Mr. Oppenheim: The simple answer to a complicated question is that any country unwise enough to join a single currency before the time is right would almost undoubtedly suffer from a massive loss in competitiveness.

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