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Consumer Rights

8. Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): What plans he has to extend further the rights of consumers. [120512]

The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr. Kim Howells): In our White Paper "Modern Markets: Confident Consumers", published last year, we set out how we intend to improve consumer law to help people get a fair deal. We are consulting on these changes to the law, which will provide tougher sanctions against rogue traders, tougher controls against the misdescription of services and better advice to consumers.

Mr. Smith: Has my hon. Friend's Department any plans to attempt to liberalise trade with the European trademark directive, which has resulted in a ridiculous

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situation where British retailers cannot market branded clothes at a competitive price because of bureaucratic European rules? The British consumer has been ripped off for too long, especially on designer clothes.

Dr. Howells: The Government are working with other sympathetic EU Governments, especially Sweden, to examine--and, where appropriate, promote--the benefits to consumers of relaxing the current European Union rules governing trademarks, parallel imports and other restrictions on the free movement and sale of goods. There should be no acceptance by consumers or retailers that people in Britain should be paying the same number of pounds for goods and services as they would be paying in dollars in the United States.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Does the Minister agree that, while addressing people's rights as consumers, we must allay their concerns about health and the environment? In view of the concerns expressed about the health implications of mobile telephony, why are the Government not making a statement today about the report addressing those concerns that is published today? When will they come to Parliament and give us time to discuss the issue?

Dr. Howells: That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Business Start-ups

9. Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans): What measures he is considering to encourage responsible risk-taking in business start-ups. [120513]

The Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The Small Business Service will encourage people who are starting or growing a business to seek support from Business Links. There is good research evidence to show that those who do receive support and advice can significantly reduce the risks that they take and are more likely to stay in business.

Mr. Pollard: What measures are the Government taking to ensure that those who have incurred bankruptcy because of reckless or fraudulent practice are treated differently from those who have simply made honest mistakes?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. We are reforming bankruptcy law to distinguish between the vast majority who are honest and responsible risk takers, and the minority who have engaged in fraudulent practice. Our measures will ensure that those responsible risk takers will be discharged earlier from bankruptcy and, indeed, when appropriate, given help to set up again in business. At the same time, however, we shall protect creditors and impose tougher penalties on the reckless and dishonest minority.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Today, when the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister encourage young entrepreneurs to go into business, will they also advise them about the business risks? Will they, for example, warn them not to go into information technology and become specialists so that they do not get clobbered by IR35? Will they warn them not to forget

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to build into their cashflow forecasts the costs of administering the Government's ill-thought-through schemes, such as the working families tax credit, which will cost business £340 million in administrative costs alone?

Will the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State also, however, encourage those young entrepreneurs to develop thick skins--so that, when they eventually become world-class businesses and discover that yesterday's entrepreneurs have become today's fat cats, they will understand that there is nothing personal in it, just new Labour looking for a soundbite?

Ms Hewitt: Well, that was a very snappy question. I am sorry that the hon. Lady did not feel able to welcome this morning's launch by the Prime Minister and business organisations of Enterprise Insight, which will indeed encourage more people of all ages to take the plunge into setting up a business. As for business burdens, perhaps I can remind her of her own words when, as a Minister in the previous Government, she said that she would be the first to say that they did not do very well on regulation. [Interruption.] We are reducing the administrative costs to business. Indeed, the new chief executive of the Small Business Service sits on the regulatory reform panel, which will help to ensure that we improve the regulatory environment for small and large businesses.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): When it comes to risk taking, is there not a distinction between caution and inaction? Many firms that are at the cutting edge of developments in sectors such as the biosciences are finding it extremely difficult to obtain necessary capital from banks and other financial institutions. Does that not undermine the work of the small firms loan guarantee scheme?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The issue that is most often raised with us by small businesses is the need to obtain proper finance, and finance on the terms that they require. That is why we have created the enterprise fund, which will ensure not only continuation of the very successful small firms loan guarantee scheme, but the creation of regional venture capital funds to help close the equity gap in funding for small and growing businesses.

Climate Change Levy

10. Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): What assessment he has made of the effect of climate change levy upon the competitive position of aluminium converters. [120514]

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell): The effect of the climate change levy on companies engaged in aluminium conversion--rolling and extrusion--will depend on whether they benefit from the various levy exemptions, whether they take advantage of the proposed new scheme of capital allowances for energy-efficient investments, and the extent to which they may qualify for a discount from the levy.

Mr. Gill: We all know that the Government have difficulty with simple arithmetic, but does the Minister understand that if the Lawson Mardon Star Company--an aluminium converter and roller in my constituency, which

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employs 600 people--is obliged to pay somewhere in the region of £600,000 or £700,000 per annum, while expecting to receive only £10,000 in employers national insurance rebate, the cost to that company will be of the order of £1,000 per employee? Does she realise that that poll tax on workers in manufacturing industry, coming on top of all the other cost burdens imposed by the Government in the past three years, will be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel's back--or is she content to see British workers' jobs exported to countries where environmental protection is nothing more than a sick joke?

Mrs. Liddell: I welcome that speech--I thought that I was going to get a question. The hon. Gentleman is clearly not prepared to take into account the environmental obligations on every country and every company. The climate change levy is a key element in tackling climate change. A draft national programme was published on 9 March. The Aluminium Federation has been involved in discussions with the Government about the levy. We have just come to the end of a three-year programme on competitiveness in the aluminium industry that was partly funded by the DTI. We have continued to work with the industry, particularly on issues of sustainable development. For companies throughout the world, climate change issues will not go away. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has revised his plans for the climate change levy, putting in place capital allowances to assist industry to become much more energy-efficient. Unlike the Conservatives, we are not prepared to bury our heads in the sand on climate change issues.

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): Does the Minister accept that the perfectly reasonable question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) expresses the concerns felt not just by the aluminium industry but by the whole of industry on the climate change tax? Is she aware that industry feels that the DTI has abandoned its sponsorship role, particularly on sustainability? I have one direct question for her. As the various agreements that have been reached require permission from the European Union, because they will be regarded as state aid, will she give a guarantee that the levy will not be introduced until the Commission has granted permission? If not, it will cause hundreds and thousands of job losses.

Mrs. Liddell: Again, the Conservatives have underlined their complete opposition to taking any action to ensure that this country has a sustainable economic future. The hon. Gentleman should take into account that, throughout the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, there is a need to tackle climate change issues. British industry has an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage on that. The Government have consulted widely on climate change issues. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been involved in discussions with industry, and the DTI has acted as a sponsor for the aluminium industry and the entire industrial sector. My right hon. Friend will reveal the outcome of his consultation in due course.


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