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Fibre Optic Cable Companies

5. Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): What assessment he has made of the impact of the regulatory framework upon the operation of fibre optic cable companies. [133891]

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The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr. Kim Howells): The Government believe that the current overall regulatory framework provides a sound basis for protecting the environment while safeguarding the legitimate interests of public utilities.

We will continue to promote a high level of investment in the telecommunications department. That is essential for the future of UK business. We are also encouraging the industry to do more to minimise disruption during the laying of cables.

Mr. George: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does he recognise that the majority of transatlantic fibre optic cables have landed in my constituency, with all the associated infrastructure, and that local people see virtually no protection from the Telecommunications Act 1984, which enables the giving of 25-year licences to wave after wave of companies whose cables cross through the area? Does the hon. Gentleman accept that people's lives and livelihoods have been blighted and that the planning system and the landscape have been compromised? Does he accept that there is an urgent need to review regulations that have not kept pace with technological development and commercial exploitation?

Dr. Howells: I readily acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman's constituents have suffered greatly during the process. The Government fully acknowledge the real concerns about the localised but significant disruption that has taken place. We are pressing the industry voluntarily to improve its performance. There are various initiatives within the street works community, including those to encourage best practice and co-ordination within the industry. We shall back those initiatives with greater powers to enable action to be taken where the industry's response is inadequate, particularly by putting in place a charging system for utilities that take too long to carry out street works by implementing section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): The Minister will know that the change in regulations to the telecommunications industry were taken out of the Utilities Bill when the Government halved their proposals during the Session. A White Paper is coming forward, which has been promised for many years. When will it be published, and when does the hon. Gentleman expect the Government to bring forward legislation to introduce a new regulatory framework for the telecommunications and multi-media industry?

Dr. Howells: That White Paper will be published before Christmas, and we will introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Land Rover

6. Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): If he will make a statement about his discussions with Ford on their plans for the future of Land Rover. [133892]

The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson): We have regular discussions with Ford covering the whole range of its activities in the UK, including Land Rover. As a result of these discussions, I am confident that Land Rover will continue to build

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on its existing worldwide reputation, and that it is well positioned to achieve new record levels of production and sales.

The recently announced £130 million investment in the Freelander model is a strong demonstration of Ford's commitment to the brand and to the Solihull plant.

Mr. Taylor: I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he accept that many people in Solihull think that entering the Ford family may be the best thing that could have happened to Land Rover? I draw to the hon. Gentleman's attention Land Rover's training plans--which involve visits to Ford, Volvo and Jaguar sites for about 2,000 members of the work force and are aimed at improving quality and production--and its interesting proposals to give the work force personal off-road driving experience. I invite the Minister to join me in congratulating the company.

Mr. Johnson: I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Ford on that initiative.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): My hon. Friend will be aware that Land Rover is supplied with engines by the Powertrain plant at Longbridge, which also supplies engines to MG Rover, and that that plant remains owned by BMW, which has indicated that it may wish to sell it. In the light of what happened earlier this year, will my hon. Friend join me in saying to BMW that as it makes decisions about the future of the Powertrain plant which supplies engines to Land Rover, it should bear in mind the long-term interests of the west midlands and manufacturing industry, and should show that, unlike the Conservative party, it has an interest in the long-term future of the west midlands?

Mr. Johnson: Powertrain indeed provides engines to the Solihull plant. I am happy to confirm the Government's agreement with my hon. Friend that we should seek to keep in the UK as many of those manufacturing jobs as possible. We will watch carefully the situation that he describes.

Small Businesses

7. Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): What recent consultations he has held with small business representatives on administrative and compliance burdens. [133893]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers): I meet with small business representatives on a regular basis.

Mr. Boswell: Although there may be some legitimate room for disagreement between us as to the appropriateness and even the cost of the additional regulatory burdens imposed by the Government across the whole of business, does the Secretary of State agree that, at least in relation to the smaller business, whatever administrative burdens affect the bigger business are magnified many times over, and therefore have an entirely disproportionate administrative effect? Has he noticed, for example, the recent alarming escalation in the number of

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unfair dismissal claims, and is he not a little concerned about that and all the other problems that small employers and small businesses feel that they are facing?

Mr. Byers: I broadly agree with the general direction of the hon. Gentleman's question. There is no doubt that successive Governments have not done enough to realise the impact of regulations introduced by Government on business in general, and more particularly on small business. Particular demands made on the small business community need to be reflected in our approach. I was pleased that we adopted a different approach, for example, in relation to stakeholder pensions for businesses employing fewer than five people. That will make a real difference. Increasingly, we will need to reflect that more generally in our approach to regulation and related matters.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): Will my right hon. Friend give his assessment of the likely burden on business, especially small businesses, if the so-called fuel protesters attempt to repeat the reckless behaviour that they visited on the country in September?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The House should recognise the consequences of the fuel disruption that took place during the second week of September. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who chairs the fuel taskforce, will make a detailed statement on the matter in a few minutes' time: The House should be aware that many businesses, including many small businesses, were in grave financial difficulties and close to going under as a result of the action taken in September.

Whatever the merits of the argument in one direction or the other, it is simply unacceptable that innocent business people trying to create wealth in our country have to risk going out of business because of protests such as those that we saw in September. I hope that all Members will recognise that we can have a genuine debate about the levels of fuel duty and taxation generally, without that leading to support for the disruption that took place earlier in the year.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Can the Secretary of State tell us which of the 23 proposed directives listed in the European social agenda document that the Government endorsed yesterday will reduce burdens on business?

Mr. Byers: Some of them will reduce burdens on business. [Hon. Members: "Which ones?"] The right hon. Gentleman needs to be aware that there is a clear distinction between the Conservative party and the Government. [Interruption.] I hope that Opposition Members will listen to this, because the distinction is important. In the Conservative party, "cutting red tape" is code for cutting basic standards in the workplace. When the Tories talk about cutting red tape, they are talking about attacking the national minimum wage. They are talking about attacking better maternity provisions and the right to paid holidays. They are talking about attacking working parents who are trying to balance holding down a job with being a good parent.

We will lift the bureaucratic burden on business, but we will not compromise our commitment to decent standards in the workplace.

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