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Mr. Caborn: In 1999, Thailand was the UK's 39th largest export market with exports of £468 million. Exports for the first four-months of 2000 have shown an increase of 59 per cent. over the same period of 1999. Top export products are electrical machinery, power generation equipment, industrial machinery and leather goods.
The UK ranks as the 5th largest investor in Thailand, being strongly represented in the retail, power and water sectors. The last year has also seen major investments in banking, with HSBC (£620 million) and Standard Chartered (£206 million) acquiring majority holdings in Thai banks.
The recovery from economic recession in Thailand has been reflected in the levels of interest Trade Partners UK has seen from British companies looking to do business there, both in numbers of planned trade missions, exhibitions and seminars, and in the numbers of companies taking part.
To this end we have established the Partnership Fund which aims to promote the goal of better employee communications. The fund makes available £5 million over four years to assist with the development of workplace projects including improved consultation of employees. 18 such workplace projects, have received funding, involve SMEs.
We are also working to promote best practice by spreading the message about the achievements of the best companies, whether large or small. Business Links are able to provide guidance to appropriate sources of advice. The independent Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) also produces guidance material and works with employers to help modernise their employment practices. The 1998 review of the Service identified this as a priority area for ACAS.
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In addition, small and medium enterprises are subject to the existing statutory framework for information and consultation of employees, as regards proposed collective redundancies (i.e more than 20 redundancies proposed at one establishment within a 90 day period), transfers of undertakings, health and safety and information for the purposes of collective bargaining.
Mr. Caborn: A stable economic climate is vital to stimulate development. The DTI aims to promote enterprise and innovation and is particularly keen to support successful, sustainable business start-ups. It has set up the Small Business Service (SBS) specifically to champion and service the needs of small business and act as a strong voice on their behalf within Government. The Chief Executive of the SBS, David Irwin, has 20 years experience in the North-east of helping people to start up and grow their businesses. Small businesses make up nearly 99 per cent. of all businesses in the UK and employ more than half the total workforce. The North-east has fewer than its fair share of new start-ups. This fact is recognised by the Regional Development Agency, One NorthEast, who have published their Regional Economic Strategy. One of the key objectives is to address this problem and the new European objective 2 Single Programming Document will be an important vehicle to drive this forward.
Mr. Alan Johnson: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has so far discussed the review of maternity pay and parental leave with the Confederation of British Industry, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Chief Executive of the Small Business Service. Officials from my Department have additionally discussed the review with the Federation of Small Businesses, the Forum for Private Businesses, the Engineering Employers' Federation, Opportunity Now, the Industrial Society, the Employers' Organisation for Local Government, the National Health Service and the Institute of Personnel and Development. They have also met a wide range of other interested organisations.
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Dr. Cable: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what assessment he has made of the implications for the competitive balance of the internet of the proposed merger between MCI WorldCom and Sprint. 
Dr. Howells: This case fell to the consideration of the EC competition authorities under the EC Merger Regulation (ECMR). The Commission prohibited the proposed deal and announced this in a press notice on 28 June.
Mr. Fearn: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will make a statement on the report from the European Commission's business environment simplification task force of July 1998. 
Ms Hewitt: The Government welcome the recommendations of the BEST task force, particularly those on regulatory simplification and reform, and now looks forward to the first Annual Report on BEST which will be issued by the Commission later this year. Policies on business environment simplification are currently being developed under initiatives such as the proposed Multiannual Programme for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship for 2001-05 and the recently adopted European Charter for Small Enterprises.
The Commission's draft Multiannual Programme proposes the introduction of a new BEST procedure, based on the identification and adoption of best practice in the enterprise field, with work towards simplification and regulatory reform being driven forward as part of the follow-up arising from the Lisbon Special Summit earlier this year.
Businesses which provide credit reference information about consumers already require licences issued by the Director General of Fair Trading under the Consumer Credit Act 1974. The Director General has to satisfy himself that a licensee is a fit person to engage in the activities covered by the licence and he can vary, suspend
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or revoke licences where he considers that licensees have engaged in practices that appear to him to be deceitful or oppressive, or otherwise unfair or improper (whether unlawful or not). He therefore monitors the complaints he receives about licence holders and he has demonstrated that he is ready to take the necessary licensing action to protect consumers where he considers it justified.
Mr. Chope: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what percentage of correctly presented bills were paid by his Department in (a) 1998-99 and (b) 1999-2000 within 30 days of receipt of (i) goods and services, (ii) a valid invoice and (iii) other agreed payment terms. 
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