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12.24 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Nigel Griffiths): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on securing this important debate. The right hon. Gentleman has represented his constituency for 25 years and he spoke with considerable knowledge. I grew up in the borders and I have always taken a keen interest in the issues affecting Berwick, Galashiels, Hawick and the other conurbations. I am pleased to be able to respond on behalf of the Government.

I worked briefly in a textile mill and I have some first-hand knowledge of the sector. I am sad, but not surprised, that neither the shadow President of the Board of Trade nor any of his Conservative colleagues have appeared in the Chamber to listen to this important debate on the problems facing the textile industry, particularly in the Berwick area. I am afraid that it is yet another example of the Opposition failing to know or care about the problems that have been raised.

The textile and clothing sector is of great importance to the United Kingdom economy, to local employment and to regional economies. The sector is the ninth largest UK manufacturing industry, if we include footwear. Manufacturers' sales total over £17 billion and the value of exports was over £7 billion in 1996, the latest figure available. With employment totalling over 421,000, it is clearly an important and significant employer. That is why my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry has met representatives of the textile, clothing and footwear industries over the past six months. He has had the opportunity to discuss with them the important issues affecting that sector.

The Government are supporting a range of activities aimed at improving the competitiveness of the textile and clothing industries. These include projects to help improve marketing skills, develop supply chain partnerships, encourage better links with industry and academia and improve environmental performance,

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as well as promoting the profile of the industry and assisting young fashion designers, which I know that all right hon. and hon. Members will welcome. My hon. Friend has also initiated a dialogue with the leading trade associations and with the trade unions with a view to reviewing and establishing a national strategy for the textile and clothing industries.

Let me indicate the help that has been given and then go on to deal in more detail with some of the other points raised by the right hon. Member for Berwick- upon-Tweed. In the five years from April 1993 to 31 March 1998, enterprises in Northumberland received 127 offers of financial assistance from the regional selective assistance scheme. That totalled almost £24 million. The projects involve a total investment of £156 million, and they aim to create 3,340 new jobs and safeguard 865 existing jobs.

The right hon. Gentleman told us of some of the ways in which the Scottish Office has been able to respond to the Pringle closure, which demonstrate the value of regional autonomy. That is not yet available in the English regions, but the Government have introduced legislation that will result in the creation of regional development agencies. They will be in operation in April 1999. Until then, the Government's response will be as strong and positive as possible.

A number of steps have been taken so far in response to the local crisis to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. The regional director of the Government office for the north-east has already been in contact with Berwick-upon-Tweed borough council and will be visiting soon to co-ordinate a response group. That group already includes the Northumberland training and enterprise council, the Employment Service, Northumberland county council, Berwick-upon-Tweed borough council, Scottish Border Enterprises and representatives from Pringle. Initially, it is trying to help those affected by the redundancy by improving counselling, careers guidance and advice on retraining opportunities. The group will also examine ways in which

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to make better use of resources, including the Government's new deal programme and funding from a range of European sources.

The right hon. Gentleman has asked me whether his constituency is eligible for Retex assistance. Berwick-upon-Tweed is eligible for assistance under the EU's Retex II initiative. The purpose of that scheme is to provide assistance to areas affected by the decline in the textiles industry. The closure of the Pringle factory makes the area an obvious choice for funding from the scheme.

Over £500,000 is still available and can be used to provide business support to small and medium-sized enterprises, and for the conversion of former textile buildings to put them to commercial use. Another source of EU funds is the objective 5b northern uplands programme, which provides funding support for four main priorities: economic development and diversification, tourism, community development and environmental enhancement and conservation. Some £2 million of assistance is still available from that resource.

The creation of a response group provides the basis for a robust reaction to the Pringle factory closure. My officials in the Government office for the north-east understand the priority that I attach to ensuring that the group gets all possible Government support. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to liaise with the group to ensure that it benefits from his considerable expertise, which he has built up over a long period.

Mr. Beith: Can the Minister assure me that there is no obstacle to the response group drawing in expertise and interest from bodies on the Scottish side of the border?

Mr. Griffiths: I can confirm that. Scottish Border Enterprises is a member of the group and is working with representatives of Pringle and the right hon. Gentleman's local council. I hope that their excellent input will ensure that all possible local and national resources are devoted to ameliorating the problems that he has rightly highlighted in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

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