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Business Support (Cornwall)

3. Mr. Matthew Taylor: To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he will make a statement on the provision of financial support to businesses in Cornwall. [524]

The Minister for Industry (Mr. Greg Knight): More than £4.4 million of financial support has been offered so far in the current financial year to businesses in Cornwall, generating more than £26 million of investment and 538 jobs, and supporting research and development.

Mr. Taylor: It is some years since the West Country development corporation sponsored work by Coopers and

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Lybrand highlighting the differential financing as between Devon and Cornwall, and areas of Wales and Scotland with lower unemployment and higher wages. For example, DTI development area funding for such areas works out at £46 per head in Scotland and £65 per head in Wales, but only £21 per head in Cornwall and Devon. Does the Minister justify such a differential, especially in view of the great problems of people in Cornwall and Devon?

Mr. Knight: The hon. Gentleman's point is not as meaningful as he thinks. It is not possible to make meaningful comparisons between areas because a range of conditions determines whether a company wants to invest in a particular area. They usually include the availability of a skilled work force and a suitable site. What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that the assisted area of Cornwall has a higher level of regional selective assistance offers per capita of working population than does Great Britain as a whole.

Mr. Harris: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment as a Minister and thus on ending his silence of several years as a Whip. I also welcome his answer. Does he agree that grants are not the beginning and end of everything, and that what industry in Cornwall would fear, probably above all else, is the imposition of the social chapter and the minimum wage--policies advocated by the Liberal Democrats?

Mr. Knight: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. He is, of course, absolutely right. That is why Great Britain is No. 1 for inward investment. Indeed, only three weeks or so ago I announced a DTI grant that triggered £5.1 million of investment in Cornwall. An American company, Continental Sprayers, decided that it wanted to invest there.

European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardisation

4. Sir Mark Lennox-Boyd: To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he will make a statement about the recently announced decision of CENELEC. [526]

Mr. Page: CENELEC, which is the European electrical standards body, has voted for the second time in two years to reject proposals to harmonise electrical plugs and sockets in Europe.

Sir Mark Lennox-Boyd: Was it not always crazy to try to create a standardised European plug, as some people advocated? Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that what happened was a massive victory for common sense? Is it not rather disquieting that the officials who attended the meeting that made the recommendation were enjoined not to talk about their discussions? Should not such decisions be made in a way that enables us to approve of or criticise them openly?

Mr. Page: As my hon. Friend says, this is a victory for common sense. Although the idea of harmonising plugs on electric appliances so that people can plug in their Hoover in Calais as well as in Dover seems to offer some advantages, the costs of achieving such a vast benefit outweigh it. I congratulate CENELEC on reaching its decision.

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CENELEC decided that it would not publish the reasons and records behind its votes, but I can indicate to the House that there was a fairly massive majority against introducing any form of harmonisation.

Mr. MacShane: The Minister's reply shows the extent to which he lives in a cocooned world. Any business person who travels to Europe tries to plug in his laptop, recharge his mobile phone and perhaps send a fax, and has to take many different plugs for the various sockets. I am not for one, giant Euro-plug, although I am pro-European, but the Government would clearly like to pull the plug on Europe altogether. There is a serious point, however. We want to allow our businesses to work in Europe; they should be allowed to plug into Europe.

Mr. Page: Although I realise that the hon. Gentleman is a rather elderly jet-setting yuppie, I must tell him that the cost of converting some 20 million homes to a harmonised plug and socket regime is a little more than he might calculate.

Mr. Batiste: Will my hon. Friend remind the pseudo-yuppies on the Opposition Benches that, if they insist on taking their mobile computers with them, they can buy an adaptor that will fit any plug in the world? The question asked by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) was as ill informed as most Labour party policy.

Mr. Page: My hon. Friend brings practicality to the political claptrap. If the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) takes my hon. Friend's advice, he will get on a lot better in this world.

Mr. Skinner: Does the Minister realise that it is enough to make a cat laugh to hear the Tories talking about what is happening in the Common Market? The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Sir M. Lennox-Boyd) is one of the people who dragged us into the Common Market. The Tories voted for it in 1971. The Tory Government, under Lady Thatcher, took us through the Single European Act in the 1980s. This Government passed the Bill on Maastricht; Labour voted solidly against it. I am very pleased to hear the sounds coming from my hon. Friends on the Front Bench and others, who are beginning to speak out against the single currency. The Minister wants to be careful when he talks about Labour because, when it comes to the election, it will once again be Labour that will be standing up for British working-class interests.

Mr. Page: I would like to get this absolutely clear: was that official Labour party policy, or just old Labour alive and well and kicking in Bolsover?

Electricity Regulator

5. Mr. Alan W. Williams: To ask the President of the Board of Trade what proposals his Department has to strengthen the powers of the electricity regulator. [527]

Mr. Page: I have no such plans.

Mr. Williams: Given that the electricity companies have made combined profits of more than £14 billion

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since privatisation, that the pay of their fat cats has doubled and that they are reputedly submitting takeover bids for virtually all cash machines, is it not time that we said enough is enough for Tory-style regulation, and that we had a Government who put the interests of the consumer first?

Mr. Page: The hon. Gentleman got the last part right--we have put the interests of the consumer first. Since privatisation, under the regulator, the cost to the private home owner has fallen by some 10 per cent., excluding VAT, in real terms, and the cost to industry has fallen by 14.7 per cent., excluding VAT, in real terms--the lowest figures since records began in 1970. The consumer is first. The hon. Gentleman must not muddle large sums of money with return on capital. If he did that when running a business, he would soon find that it ran into trouble and chaos.

Mr. John Marshall: Will my hon. Friend confirm that, apart from the massive reduction in electricity prices in real terms, there has been a massive increase in productivity since privatisation? Does that not demonstrate how irresponsible it was of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) to lead the opposition to privatisation?

Mr. Page: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and there have been many other advantages. Since privatisation, disconnections are down by a massive 98 per cent. I endorse what my hon. Friend says. My only advice to the Opposition is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Mr. Battle: Disconnections are down only because most people have self-disconnection meters. Is it not the case that, since privatisation, eight out of the 12 electricity companies in England and Wales have been or are being taken over, for a total of £11.5 billion? Does not that show that, in this brave new world of takeovers and mergers, consumers increasingly are, and feel that they are, an afterthought in the face of high profits and redundancies? A Labour Government will positively put consumer interests first. Why do not the Government toughen up regulation to put consumer interests first now?

Mr. Page: I cannot square what the hon. Gentleman is saying with his party's willingness to have a windfall tax that would undoubtedly impact on prices for the consumer; it is double-talk. This country has the best inward investment record, and allowing our electrical industries to be owned by companies from other countries does not alter the fact that prices for the consumer have dropped. That has happened through privatisation, brought about by a Conservative Government.

Mr. Congdon: Does my hon. Friend agree that key proof of the success of privatisation of the electricity industry and of the role of the regulator is that consumers have benefited substantially from the reduction in prices in real terms, in contrast with what happened when it was nationalised and prices went up month in, month out? Does he share my concern that the proposals for a windfall tax on profits will put that success at risk and ensure higher prices for the consumer, who should beware the crazy proposals of the Labour party?

Mr. Page: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I should like to think that the Labour party would listen to and

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learn from his wise words. In addition to what has already been achieved, there has been the £50 bonus from the flotation of National Grid. Further reductions will come through from the tightening of transmission price controls, which will help the consumer even more. All that has happened under a Conservative Government.

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