Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Bercow: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Byers: I want to make some progress. We have had a long debate and I know that the House wishes to divide.

That is why it is important to create the right economic climate so that businesses can plan ahead with certainty. Particularly noticeable was the reference to the Dun and Bradstreet survey, which showed that there was some 11,000 business failures in the first quarter of this year.

30 Mar 1999 : Column 911

I shall take that on board and reflect on it. However, it is worth noting that one quarter of the world is in recession and Japan, the world's second largest economy, is in the depths of a deep depression. That is bound to have consequences for the United Kingdom.

But 11,000 business failures in the first quarter of this year pales into insignificance compared with the 62,000 business failures in 1992 when the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) was the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs. That is the right hon. Gentleman's golden legacy.

Mr. Fabricant: The right hon. Gentleman made that point earlier, but surely, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) was Minister there was a world recession. If people lose their jobs now, it will not be because of a world recession but because of this Secretary of State's legislation.

Mr. Byers: The problem was that we were going through a Tory boom and bust. Interest rates were at 15 per cent., inflation at 10 per cent. and we had lost more than 1 million manufacturing jobs. That was the right hon. Gentleman's legacy as a Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry, and I shall not let him forget it. He has form: he has a record, and people need to be reminded of it.

Mr. Redwood: That is a tired old erroneous charge. Does the Secretary of State agree that the problem was caused by our membership of the exchange rate mechanism? The Labour party supported that policy. Will he now apologise, as the Conservative party has done, for the fact that that policy went wrong?

Mr. Byers: The right hon. Gentleman fails to acknowledge the fact that he was a Minister who signed up to the ERM. He could have stood by his principles and resigned office, but he failed to do so. We do not judge people by the apologies that they make five years too late: we judge them by their actions at the time. The right hon. Gentleman could have resigned from his ministerial position and stood by his principles. He failed to do so, and he put his personal position before a principled approach. In 1992, he did not resign: he held on to his ministerial position. That is his record, and he will be reminded of it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We are straying from the subject of small businesses.

Mr. Byers: Yes, we must come back to the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I shall do so.

When the right hon. Gentleman moved new clause 1, which would exempt companies employing 50 or fewer people, he admitted that that was not his personal option--he would favour an exemption for firms employing 100 or fewer. I am bound to ask whose policy it is that we are debating. Is it the right hon. Gentleman's policy, although he personally favours exemption for companies employing 100 or fewer, or is it the policy of the Conservative party? We need to know whose policy it is. I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman to allow him to clarify the position.

Mr. Redwood: I have said that the Opposition would welcome an exemption for companies employing fewer

30 Mar 1999 : Column 912

than 50. We moved the new clause because we thought that we were more likely to get an exemption for those companies than we were to get an exemption for companies employing fewer than 100 people. If the Secretary of State were to offer an exemption for companies employing fewer than 100, I would be very grateful.

Mr. Byers: So the official spokesman for the Opposition favours one position--that is worth noting--but moves an amendment that takes another. The figure of 100 is relevant because such an exemption would cover well over half the working population. Those people would be denied the basic entitlements provided by the Bill.

What are these basic entitlements that are apparently so dangerous to the future of small business in the United Kingdom? One entitlement is time off for a parent whose child is sick. Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that parents should not be able to have time off if they happen to work in an organisation that employs 50 or fewer? That is the implication of the new clause moved by the right hon. Gentleman. A mother with concerns about the welfare of her child would not be able to have emergency leave to look after that child.

We are providing the right for part-timers no longer to be discriminated against, but Opposition Members are seeking to take that right away from millions of employees. The provision of unpaid parental leave to carry out the responsibilities of bringing up a child would be denied if the Opposition succeeded with their new clause. Millions of people would be denied those basic entitlements. We shall resist the new clause, because it would discriminate against millions of people in the most gross and unfair way.

Mr. Bercow: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Byers: No, I shall not.

Opposition Members raised the genuine issue of the burden of regulation. The Government must address that issue, and we intend to do so. During questions last week, I said that the Department of Trade and Industry is reviewing every regulation to see whether it is worth while and, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office this afternoon, to ensure that it is proportionate and necessary. That is the Government's policy, and it applies across all Departments.

Mr. Bercow: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Byers: No, I want to make this point, because it is important.

That is why, just 10 days ago, I met representatives of business to identify an agenda on which we can jointly make progress on regulation and the steps that need to be taken. What we have heard tonight from Conservative Members reminded me of the debates that were held when the House debated the Equal Pay Bill, which became the Equal Pay Act 1970. Conservative Members said that that

30 Mar 1999 : Column 913

legislation would destroy jobs for women: that was their constant refrain. It has not done so, and women in the workplace have gone from strength to strength.

Mr. Bercow rose--

Mr. Ian Bruce rose--

Mr. Byers: No, I shall not give way.

Conservative Members sought to talk down small business. They spoke about small businesses being in a desperate situation because of measures introduced by the Government. They spoke of business failures. This year, 400,000 new businesses will be established because of the framework that we have created in government. Barclays bank says that the small business population has risen by 58,000 in the past two years. More importantly, survival rates are now improving. More than 80 per cent. of new businesses now survive their first year of trading compared with 75 per cent. in 1994. That is because we are creating the right climate and the right framework for businesses to prosper.

There will be support for innovation, and we shall work to increase finance for small businesses. We introduced legislation to tackle late payment of commercial debts. The Conservative party in government did nothing to address those issues.

If the new clause were to be introduced, millions of workers would lose basic entitlements. Part-timers would be denied minimum rights. Parents would denied the security of knowing that they could take time off to look after their children.

Ours is a balanced approach that recognises the needs of small, medium and large businesses. We also recognise the responsibility that we have to ensure that all workers, whatever the size of the firm for which they work, have decent minimum standards of employment. The new clause seeks to deny that, which is why we shall resist it and vote against it in the Lobby.

Mr. Redwood: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) for the leadership that he has shown on this and other issues in Committee. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends who not only worked hard in Committee in the interests of all businesses, but have been present in this debate, unlike some of the Labour Members who were on the Committee. They either did not come to the Chamber for the debate or came but said absolutely nothing either in defence of the Government's policy, which is indefensible, or in support of our new clauses, which would make life a lot better.

Mr. Ian Stewart: The right hon. Gentleman is not aware that at times in Committee not one Conservative Back Bencher was present behind his hon. Friends on the Front Bench.

Mr. Redwood: I am well aware from the evidence of those Committee sittings that my hon. Friends made all the running. They had all the good ideas, took the debate to the Government, and Labour Members were remarkably silent on most of the important issues, as they have been today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) produced a tour de force and gave six very important reasons why these new clauses should be

30 Mar 1999 : Column 914

accepted. I shall not repeat them, but I remind the House of the strong case he made. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) set out why it mattered to London that small businesses should be exempted so that they had more chance of flourishing and creating the jobs that parts of London still desperately need. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) made a passionate case on behalf of small business, drawing on his own experience and that of his son, who now runs their successful family business despite the many burdens and costs imposed on it by the Government's policies.

Next Section

IndexHome Page