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House of Commons

Thursday 27 January 2000

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


Baxi Partnership Limited Trust Bill [Lords]

Considered; amendments agreed to; to be read the Third time.


Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar (Eriskay Causeway) Order Confirmation Bill

Mr. Secretary Reid presented a Bill to confirm a Provisional Order under section 7 of the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act 1936, relating to Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar (Eriskay Causeway): and the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time, and to be printed [Bill 52].

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--


1. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): What recent discussions he has had with representatives of business about the regulatory burden on industry and commerce. [105749]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Richard Caborn): Regulation is one of the many issues that I discuss as part of my regular contacts with business.

Mr. Bercow: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that spectacularly uninformative reply. Given that Labour has spewed forth more than 2,700 new regulations since 1 May 1997, adding £5,000 a year to the costs of the average small business, and that the number of business failures has soared by more than 20 per cent.--

Madam Speaker: Order. I require questions, not explanations of questions.

Mr. Bercow: Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us now in which year Labour intends to honour its promise to stop lacerating small businesses and start liberating them?

Mr. Caborn: We do that every year. The hon. Gentleman's tirade does not match the information in the

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Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development "Economic Outlook" published last month, which said that the United Kingdom had fewer economic and administrative regulations than any other OECD country including the United States. That report covered 1998. Less than 5 per cent. of all regulations affect business.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition should start growing up when they talk about regulation? The Financial Services and Markets Bill, which is to be considered this afternoon, will do British commerce the power of good. Good regulation of the City of London means that we become an effective, better centre for international commerce. We have a good record--

Madam Speaker: Order. I mean to go on as I began: I want questions, not explanations. I am trying to get through more questions in the House. Was the hon. Gentleman asking a question?

Mr. Sheerman: Yes, Madam Speaker. Does my right hon. Gentleman agree that some regulation helps commerce and industry, and makes our economy profitable?

Mr. Caborn: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. His comments concur with the British Chambers of Commerce document, which reports on confidence in profitability and turnover, and claims that it is the strongest it has been for three years. That view is supported by the CBI and the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply. That shows that we have a healthy economy. Business welcomes our action on regulation.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House--in pounds sterling, not euros--by how much he intends to reduce the cost of regulation to business in this Parliament?

Mr. Caborn: We have strengthened the operations that existed when we took over from the previous Administration. We have a new panel of Ministers, which will consider regulation--[Hon. Members: "How much?"] Indeed, if the previous Administration had implemented some of their taskforce's recommendations, the system would have been more effective. We have had to clear up that mess. The taskforce is chaired by Lord Haskins and its members include David Irwin--[Hon. Members: "How much?"] Madam Speaker, I am trying to show what the previous Administration did, and what we are doing about the 5 per cent. of regulations that affect business. If the Conservative party returned to power, would it remove from the statute book the regulations on the minimum wage or working hours?


2. Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber): What plans he has to ensure the confidentiality of encrypted material in electronic communications. [105750]

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The Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce (Ms Patricia Hewitt): On Tuesday, the House gave an unopposed Third Reading to the Electronic Communications Bill, which will promote cryptography support services that guarantee the confidentiality of electronic transactions.

Mr. Stewart: Does the Minister share my view that the growth of e-commerce is immense, and has tremendous potential? Does she further agree that the constraint on its development is security for individuals and for business, and that cryptography exists? Does she agree that we must ensure maximum security for commercial transmissions through e-commerce?

Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree. That is why we are working with the Alliance for Electronic Business to put in place the T scheme to help give companies and individuals the assurance that they need about the security of electronic transactions.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): I congratulate the Minister on the fact that it has only taken the Government three years to decide not to include in the Electronic Communications Bill the provisions on encryption, and on taking Conservative Members' advice about that. Will she assure the House that, as she has wisely not included those provisions in the Electronic Communications Bill, she will tell her colleagues in the Home Office to do the same in the measure on interception?

Ms Hewitt: The previous Administration, whom the hon. Gentleman supported, made the proposal for mandatory key escrow. We refused to introduce that and have ruled it out from the Bill. On law enforcement, encryption--which protects all our credit card details, for example--also enables money launderers, paedophiles and other criminals to evade detection. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be making proposals to ensure that when the police have the power to seize information they can get it quite properly, either in plain text or with the key to decode it.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), will the Minister explain which aspects of confidentiality will fall within her responsibilities and which will fall within those of the Home Office? Now that the e-envoy is at his desk at last--we welcome him to his new job--may I ask to whom he will report on such matters? Exactly what are his responsibilities; what is his job description; and what is he expected to achieve?

Ms Hewitt: The e-envoy's responsibilities are set out extremely clearly on his website, which I recommend the hon. Gentleman visits. He has responsibility as the lead official in Whitehall for co-ordinating across government our efforts to make the United Kingdom the best place in the world for e-commerce. My role is that of lead Minister in co-ordinating that work across government.

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Ice-cream (Impulse Buying)

3. Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): On what date he received the Competition Commission's inquiry into the impulse buying ice-cream industry; and when he intends to publish its findings. [105751]

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry received a copy of the Competition Commission's report on the supply of impulse ice-cream on 21 September. It will be published as soon as is practicable.

Mr. Russell: That is not a helpful response for the independents in the ice-cream distribution industry who have been waiting months for the report, which has been completed. I have one such distributor in my constituency. What message can I take back to that gentleman--the appropriately named Mr. D. Frost--whose business is suffering? Does the Minister agree that the Wall's stranglehold is anti-competitive and not in the interests of consumers and retailers?

Mrs. Liddell: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman finds my reply unhelpful, but it is the only one I can give. I am sure he is well aware that a number of companies in the ice-cream market are publicly quoted and I therefore cannot give any indication in the House on market- sensitive matters. The publication of the report is market sensitive. The Government are well aware of the difficulties, and I congratulate him on his endeavours, but he should know that it is not in the interests of the ice-cream industry to make statements in the House that could destabilise the market.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Much as I would welcome the publication of the report, does my right hon. Friend agree that there will be major repercussions for British jobs and the way in which customers perceive their ice-cream? There is no reason why we cannot have stability in the market, even though we need the report to be published as soon as possible.

Mrs. Liddell: My hon. Friend makes a good point. He, too, has been vociferous on the matter, and all his points will be taken into account when the report is published.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): Under the Competition Act 1998, a company can be fined up to 10 per cent. of its annual turnover. Out of the blue last August, the Government announced that that could apply to three years' annual turnover, effectively tripling the fine to 30 per cent. Was that always their intention, before and during the passage of the 1998 Act, or is it a new policy departure?

Mrs. Liddell: In all their deliberations on competition, the Government take into account best practice and the best possible conclusions that we can reach to achieve a truly competitive market. The hon. Gentleman of all people should know that it is very important to ensure that adequate and proper competition is in place in the United Kingdom.

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