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Dairy Industry

11. Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): If he will make a statement about competition in the dairy industry. [105759]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers): The members of Milk Marque have agreed to a voluntary separation into three independent successor bodies. I welcome that decision.

Mrs. Winterton: What research did the Department undertake into the impact of the break-up? It should be borne in mind that, by the time the decision was made, Milk Marque's share of the market had dropped considerably, and the statistics used were therefore out of date.

Mr. Byers: It would have been wholly inappropriate for my Department to intervene or to instruct a voluntary organisation such as Milk Marque. It was the members of Milk Marque who decided, voluntarily, to break into three successor bodies, in the light of the report by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. I welcome that voluntary decision. I rejected the commission's recommendation for a break-up to be imposed on Milk Marque: I thought that it would be far better to leave the decision to its members. They have made their decision, and I look forward to healthy competition in the milk industry--and also to allowing processing in due course.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): The recent report caused great dismay. At present there is no real competition; the only competition seems to be competition to offer farmers the lowest possible prices. The market is depressed, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. Something must be done: we are losing hundreds of farmers a year in places like Ceredigion. I urge the Secretary of State to speak to his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Mr. Byers: I will certainly do that, but the MMC report was such that the Government could not ignore it. I had to seek a remedy that was appropriate to the circumstances. I disagreed with the commission's recommendation for a compulsory break-up, but I am pleased that the members of Milk Marque considered the situation carefully and, on a voluntary basis, agreed to form three independent successor bodies. When they are competing effectively--I hope that there will be clear indications of that by April--I shall be able to allow them to start processing. That will enable them to produce products with a higher added value, which I think will make a real difference to the industry.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The agreement was voluntary only in the sense that the action of someone with a shotgun pointed at his head is voluntary. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the long delay before his decision, and the disastrous effects on milk processing, are much resented in the dairy

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industry? Next time he considers it necessary to meddle in agriculture, will he talk to the primary producers--the people who get up at 5 am to milk the cows, who are losing money hand over fist?

Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman talks of meddling in agriculture. What I did as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was disagree with the MMC's proposal for a compulsory break-up, because I did not think that it was in the industry's best interests. Farmers have told me that that was absolutely the right decision. If the hon. Gentleman disagrees and thinks that I should have rubber-stamped the commission's report, let me tell him that I could easily have done that, but I did not; I put the industry's interests first.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): The Secretary of State has repeated today things that he said at our last Trade and Industry Question Time. On 9 December 1999, he told me--and my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who is present--

The right hon. Gentleman must know that, with viability in mind, the industry pressed repeatedly to be allowed to form two bodies, not three.

Mr. Byers: All I know is that the members of Milk Marque voted for three independent successor bodies. That is exactly what I said on 9 December, and have said again today.

Mrs. Browning: The members of Milk Marque were finally forced to accept that arrangement. After our last Question Time I wrote to the chairman of Milk Marque, who wrote back saying:

The Secretary of State will know that the matter is now the subject of a judicial review. Why did he not use his powers to help the industry, and why does he not give answers at the Dispatch Box that tell Members exactly what is behind the decision making?

Mr. Byers: The hon. Lady needs to be aware of the different responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Competition Commission. I would be justifiably criticised if I intervened with the Competition Commission. I do not do that--perhaps the previous Government to which the hon. Lady belonged used to.

The correspondence between the Competition Commission and Milk Marque is a matter for those two bodies. I act in an independent capacity. But it is no secret that the MMC report said that between three and five would be an appropriate division. I decided that there will not be a compulsory break-up of Milk Marque, and that has been welcomed by the industry.

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Trade Union Recognition

12. Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): What progress is being made in implementing the provisions of the Employment Relations Act 1999 relating to statutory trade union recognition. [105760]

The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson): The Government are making the necessary preparations to bring these provisions into force in the near future.

Mr. Coaker: May I urge my hon. Friend to bring the provisions into force as soon as possible? This is a radical piece of legislation, which is much needed. Workers in my constituency who are seeking to organise themselves on a trade union basis are looking forward to these measures. They need the strength of a trade union to protect themselves in the workplace.

Mr. Johnson: My hon. Friend can be assured that we will put the legislation in place as soon as possible. He will understand that major pieces of subordinate legislation are also necessary, including codes of practice on union access to workers during a ballot on recognition, and on the right of individuals to be accompanied to each discipline and grievance hearing. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service is preparing those for us at present, and we shall need to consult on them. The important thing, as I know my hon. Friend will accept, is not the speed at which the measures will be introduced--although that is obviously an imperative--but to ensure that, once introduced, they are fair and balanced in accordance with the legislation.

Textile Industry

13. Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): How many textile and clothing factories there are in (a) the north-east and (b) the east midlands; and if he will make a statement on the organisations which exist to promote economic development in each of those regions. [105761]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Richard Caborn): There are 360 textile and clothing companies in the north-east and 3,106 textile and clothing companies in the east midlands. There are many separate organisations whose task it is to promote economic development in those regions, the most notable of which are the regional development agencies--One North East and the East Midlands development agency.

Mr. Tredinnick: Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that the textile and clothing strategy group has recently recommended that Government assistance beyond objective 2 area status be given to some companies in the east midlands? Secondly, does he not feel that now that there is an action plan for the north-east textiles industry, which was set up by his Department in December, something should be done on similar lines in the east midlands, given that that is where most of the companies are?

Mr. Caborn: That has been under active discussion between the Government offices and the newly formed regional development agencies, and it is to be welcomed.

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Going over the boundaries of the assisted areas would be very difficult, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and would break the European Union rules on dispersal of structural funds money. However, he could have discussions with the regional development agencies on how they can assist the continued development of this important sector. I believe that they are trying to develop a cluster around the textiles and clothing industry in the east midlands, bringing in academia and other strands of financial support. A positive attitude has been taken in the region, which the Department welcomes.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): May I congratulate the Government on their efforts in setting up a taskforce to look at the textile industry in the north-east of England? It is an excellent initiative. There is no future in protectionism, although some of us are concerned that the top management of companies such as Marks and Spencer appear to have callously sacrificed the jobs of British textile workers in an effort to save their own--which may well not work out for them.

Will my hon. Friend be willing to meet Members of Parliament from the north-east to see whether we can make progress on the action plan and taskforce? We want to take up the Government's policies to promote small businesses, assist them with taxation and get new products, design and technology into our industry to give it a long-term future.

Mr. Caborn: I fully agree with my hon. Friend. However, the new design and development will not be carried out in Departments--I can assure him of that: it will be done in the regions. The taskforce is operating in the north-east, with all the partners involved in a very creative way, and will deal with some of the questions raised by my hon. Friend.

Yes, I will meet the Members of Parliament and, indeed, any of the partners in the taskforce, but the solutions to the problems will be found in the regions--in that partnership--rather than in Whitehall.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I support the request made to the Government by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick). Does the Minister agree that textiles and clothing are industries of strategic importance to the United Kingdom; that they remain substantial employers; and that they are frequently undermined by unfair competition? Is it not important that the existing systems for dealing with unfair competition should act more quickly than they currently do?

Mr. Caborn: The hon. Gentleman makes a justifiable point. Several of the procedures for reacting to what he describes as unfair competition need to be questioned. That is one of the matters that we are taking up with the World Trade Organisation, and I am taking it up in the European Union in other ways. The hon. Gentleman is right. There should be a review of our responses to such claims and allegations. Information technology could be used much more effectively than has been the case hitherto. I accept the hon. Gentleman's comments.

Mr. Andrew Reed (Loughborough): Areas such as Leicestershire have not secured objective 2 status or assisted area status, but still have a large number of textile jobs. What practical measures will my hon. Friend take to

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work with the regional development agency? Will he also take a lead in the Government to ensure that those jobs are retained? A large number of jobs in the east midlands--especially in Leicestershire--still depend on the textile sector. We are keen that they should be retained.

Mr. Caborn: My hon. Friend is aware that a taskforce is operating in his area, as I have just pointed out. The taskforce is considering matters such as education, trade policy, export and industrial sponsorship. Such partnerships consider opportunities, nationally and internationally, in a changing world.

Many people realise that liberalisation of the global economy is taking place. We have to keep ahead of the game by retraining the work force, developing design and ensuring that academic institutions, as well as further education institutions, play a role in ensuring that we have the design skills and the skilled labour that are necessary to keep ahead in an extremely competitive market. The way forward lies in the partnerships between the regional development agencies, the Government offices and the partners in the regions.

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