Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Debts (Late Payment)

7. Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans): What plans he has to strengthen legislation on the late payment of commercial debts in respect of its impact on small businesses. [105755]

The Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce (Ms Patricia Hewitt): I am keeping the impact of the new law under close review, but currently we have no plans to amend it.

Mr. Pollard: I thank the Minister for that answer. Does she support the European Union late payment directive, which allows the recovery of costs associated with the collection of commercial debts? Will she support domestic legislation on the matter?

Ms Hewitt: We do indeed support the principle of the proposed directive, but we and some other member states are concerned that its scope is too broad. We are working together to sort that out. We have provision in current UK law to allow individuals to recover costs through county court proceedings.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Coming as she does from Leicestershire, is the Minister aware of the impact on small businesses in our area of the failure to pay and late payment of commercial debt by a company called

27 Jan 2000 : Column 567

TransTec, in Coventry? Will she now answer the parliamentary questions tabled, more than two weeks ago, by me and other hon. Members?

Ms Hewitt: Those questions have already been fully answered. The investigations are proceeding and will be dealt with in due course in the normal way.

Poor Countries (Exports)

8. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): What progress he has made in persuading the UK's EU partners to fulfil their commitment to allow tariff- and quota-free access for all exports from the world's 48 poorest countries. [105756]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Richard Caborn): The European Union commitment is to provide duty-free access for essentially all products from the least- developed countries by 2005 at the latest. We expect the European Commission soon to make proposals aimed at implementing that commitment, giving both tariff- and quota-free access. More generally, the Government will continue to call for zero tariffs to be applied to all goods from the least-developed countries, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister promised in his speech at the Mansion House on 22 November 1999.

Joan Ruddock: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that tariff- and quota-free market access for the poorest countries should include all exports, and that there should not be exclusions on the grounds of any sensitivity? Does he also agree that there is no reason why those small concessions could not be made immediately, and that there should be no attempt to include them in any further trade rounds?

Mr. Caborn: That is exactly the British Government's position and what we are trying to negotiate with the European Union. As I said, the Prime Minister stated the British Government's position on the issue in his Mansion House speech, and we have to convince our European Union partners to accept that position. Arguably, however, the European Union already offers probably the most generous preferential terms for developing countries. Nevertheless, I agree with my hon. Friend that we have to go that extra mile, and we shall be pushing very hard to do just that.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Does the Minister agree that by far the best way of helping poor countries out of poverty is to enable them freely to export their goods to our markets? Will he condemn those who weep crocodile tears for the poorest countries, but spend all their time dreaming up ways of restricting their imports into the countries of the developed world on grounds that free trade is not in their view fair trade?

Mr. Caborn: Yes. The Government's commitment on tariffs and quotas has been laid out by the Prime Minister, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been working with the International Monetary Fund on trying to relieve the debt of the heavily indebted countries. We want to ensure that the least-developed countries have sustainable economies, and one of the

27 Jan 2000 : Column 568

prerequisites in achieving that is to provide those countries with access to markets such as the European Union.

Coal Industry

9. Mr. John Grogan (Selby): If he will make a statement on the future of the coal industry. [105757]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers): We are introducing reforms to the electricity market to remove distortions that worked against coal generation. The new electricity trading arrangements in the Utilities Bill published last week will change the way in which the generation market operates, with credit being given to coal for the flexibility that it offers to the system. In 1997, the industry asked for fairness not favours. That has been, and will continue to be, our approach.

Mr. Grogan: Given the huge subsidies currently paid by the German, Spanish and French Governments to support their coal industries, will the Minister establish, with the European Union, which state aids might legally be payable to support the British coal industry? Is not a diverse energy portfolio in the interests of both Britain and Europe as a whole?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend raises an important issue. First, we must study carefully the level of state aids given by other European Union member states to ensure that they do not achieve an unfair advantage. I know that my hon. Friend has considered very carefully the aid that the UK Government can give to the coal industry. He will know that the Government do not consider that we have the power to offer aid for operating costs, because of decisions taken by the previous Administration. However, given our concern about the coal industry, the Government will look closely at any alternative opinion.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): If the Government lifted the moratorium on gas-fired power stations, how many coal mines in this country would remain competitive?

Mr. Byers: I said that our intention was to introduce fairness not favours. Our aim is to make the energy market fair. To achieve that, we are introducing changes through the Utilities Bill. However, we have introduced a stricter gas consents policy to protect industries in the energy sector that would be affected adversely by the fact that we do not at present have fair competition.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): May I urge my right hon. Friend to maintain the consents policy for gas-fired power generation? If that policy were relaxed, there would be another dash for gas and more consents would be issued for gas-fired power generation. That would wipe out what remains of the British coal industry. My right hon. Friend is correct to insist on a fair energy policy.

Mr. Byers: Given his personal and constituency experience, my hon. Friend is a powerful advocate for the coal industry. We have put in place the stricter gas consents policy so that we can make the changes

27 Jan 2000 : Column 569

contained in the Utilities Bill to secure a level and fair playing field for energy generation, which we do not have at the moment. Until we achieve that, the stricter gas consents policy will remain in place.

British Nuclear Fuels

10. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): If he has decided on a process and a time scale for the privatisation of British Nuclear Fuels plc. [105758]

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell): On July 13 last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the Government were looking to introduce a public-private partnership into BNFL before the end of the current Parliament, subject to BNFL's overall progress towards achieving a range of performance targets, as well as to further work by the Department and our advisers.

Mr. Chaytor: When the Government are in a position to clarify the way forward for BNFL, does my hon. Friend agree that, given the size and sensitivity of the operation, there needs to be a full public debate about all possible ways forward for the nuclear industry, and for BNFL in particular? Does she also agree that that debate must be underpinned by the principles of open government, transparency and full freedom of information?

Mrs. Liddell: I very much concur about the need for an open debate on the issues connected with BNFL and the public-private partnership. The Government have chosen to study the option of a public-private partnership because there are great international opportunities for BNFL, as is evident in the acquisition strategy involving Westinghouse and ABB. However, it is important that BNFL meet certain targets. The PPP will ensure that BNFL can benefit from commercial freedom, and from commercial disciplines.

It is important that we have transparency of information, and that people join with the Government, and, indeed with the trade unions and management of BNFL, in looking at the international opportunities for British Nuclear Fuels to become market leaders.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): In the light of the Minister's answer, it is evident that the Government remain the dominant shareholder in BNFL. Therefore, may I ask the Minister what discussions she has had with the board of BNFL about increasing its role in terms of nuclear power generation? As I understand it, closing one sixth of a major coal-fired power station saves the amount of carbon dioxide required by the climate change levy. More work in generating electricity by nuclear means could save us all an awful lot of trouble.

Mrs. Liddell: The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but we have to see nuclear generation within the context of a balanced energy supply. My right hon. Friend has just referred to the measures that the Government are taking to ensure that the coal industry can play its proper part in an electricity market that is not distorted. It is important to point out that BNFL, through its acquisitions strategy, can now enter into a much wider range of commercial activities. The US arm of BNFL, Westinghouse, is well able to participate internationally

27 Jan 2000 : Column 570

in the very important field of nuclear power. This is a sound decision for the Government to take. There are many commercial opportunities that would expand the opportunities for BNFL and its international subsidiaries in a way that ensures that internationally we have a sustained and mixed energy supply, to give us security and diversity of supply into the future.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): May we have an assurance that the performance targets to which my right hon. Friend refers include nuclear waste disposal targets, which affect my constituents, and that there will be no partnership and no progress until we have absolute assurances in those areas?

Mrs. Liddell: I can give my hon. Friend a guarantee on that. The issues surrounding nuclear waste and those connected with his constituency are much in our mind. We have set demanding targets for BNFL as we approach the public-private partnership. We wish to see those targets met, not just in commercial terms, but also in safety terms.

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley): This is an issue that is very important to people in Northern Ireland. The Minister will be aware of concerns about pollution in the Irish sea emanating from the reprocessing plant at Sellafield. Can the Minister give us an assurance that, should the Department proceed with privatisation, there will be no reduction in safety standards or in effective regulation, so that we can prevent pollution in the Irish sea in the future?

Mrs. Liddell: The hon. Gentleman makes a point that he has made on a number of occasions. First, let me point out that this is not a privatisation; it is a genuine partnership, a public-private partnership, that has been accepted and welcomed across the board. Issues of public safety and pollution are very much at the heart of the nuclear industry. My colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are in the lead in relation to the environmental considerations, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Department of Trade and Industry is most anxious to ensure that the PPP leads not only to the maintenance of safety and environmental standards, but to a continuing improvement in them.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): Will my right hon. Friend also ensure that we do not lose the highly successful training centre for apprentices at Springfield in Preston, which represents many industries--not just BNFL, but all the leading companies? There is a danger that through privatisation we may lose it. Can we ensure that that will not happen?

Mrs. Liddell: I stress again that this is not a privatisation. The aim of the public-private partnership is to develop BNFL as a centre of excellence. We believe there are substantial global opportunities for BNFL, which will require a highly trained work force. I would hope that throughout British Nuclear Fuels there would be an enhanced emphasis on training and skilling the work force to make sure that we are truly globally competitive. I pay tribute to the work that is done at Springfield in my hon. Friend's constituency.

27 Jan 2000 : Column 571

Next Section

IndexHome Page