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Energy Supplies

3. Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): What action he is taking to ensure that consumers are able to change their energy supplier more easily. [100526]

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell): The Government are concerned that some customers find it difficult to switch supplier. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has therefore announced a research study to look at consumer motivations for and against switching supplier, so that everyone can benefit from the considerable savings that are to be made.

Mr. Foster: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response, particularly her comment about setting up an inquiry. Will that inquiry take account of those with pre-payment meters, which are used by many people in

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my constituency who are on low incomes and who, unlike people who pay by direct debit, have not been invited to take part in the new competition possibilities?

Mrs. Liddell: My hon. Friend makes an important point. If customers are able to switch suppliers, they can save about £65 on their annual gas bill and £20 on their annual electricity bill. Many people with pre-payment meters lose out on those opportunities and, indeed, end up having to pay more for the privilege of using such a meter.

The Director-General of the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets has already announced in his social action plan that he wants to investigate pre-payment meters. One of the problems associated with such meters is that many of the people who use them are in debt, and the companies prevent the transfer of anyone who is in debt. In the past year, some half a million transfers were stopped by gas suppliers and 80,000 by electricity suppliers because of debt. That is an important issue because people should be able to reap the benefits of competition. It is also important to try to end the scourge of fuel poverty.


5. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): If he will make a statement on his policy on metrication. [100528]

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell): The Government are taking forward the policy adopted by successive Governments since 1965 of overseeing the change to metric units as the primary system of measurement in the United Kingdom. A report by my Department on the progress since 1965, particularly regarding goods sold by weight or measure, was placed in the Library of the House on 23 July.

Mr. Swayne: That is most regrettable. After the end of this month, Madam Speaker, if you were to go to a market trader and ask him for a pound of apples, and he indulged you by weighing out a pound of appels and selling them to you, he would be committing a criminal offence. What measures has the Minister taken, what effort has she expended and to what lengths did she go to extend the life of the current derogation that we enjoy in respect of the sale of loose goods?

Mrs. Liddell: We are at the dawn of a new century, but sometimes I think that the hon. Gentleman, instead of looking forward to a knowledge-based society in the 21st century, would rather cling to the 19th century. The House recommended metrication in 1862, and the changes that are to take place at the end of December were introduced in 1994 by the previous Government--a Government whom, I understand, the hon. Gentleman supported. However, given that the campaign that he now supports is being promoted by the UK Independence party, I wonder whether we are seeing more divisions among Conservative Members than have hitherto been apparent.

There have been discussions with the European Union about the 10-year extension. I say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that 99 per cent. of retailers are ready to switch

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on 31 December 1999. It is regrettable that the hon. Gentleman has not got his act together sufficiently to enable him to switch on that date.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch): Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is genuine unhappiness, particularly among traders in my area, about enforced metrication? Is she further aware that the crucial directive that enforced metrication, which is still playing out today, was issued in December 1979, and that translating that directive into statute was one of the early actions of the Thatcher Government? The directive was further amended 10 years later and again in 1994. The brunt of the responsibility for metrication should therefore be borne by the Conservatives, not Labour.

Mrs. Liddell: My hon. Friend does well in pointing out the rather hypocritical position adopted by some of the opponents of metrication. I recognise the anxieties of some--particularly small--retailers about the change. That is why the Department of Trade and Industry has conducted an extensive publicity campaign. Trading standards officers stand ready to give any assistance required. We are encouraged by the fact that almost 99 per cent. of all retailers are prepared for the switch on 31 December.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Does the right hon. Lady recognise how inappropriate it is to use penalties which were designed to deal with fraud against small businesses which offer their customers some freedom of choice in how loose and bulk goods are measured? In recognising the difficulties presented by what happened under the previous Government, will she take any remaining opportunities to achieve some continuing security from prosecution for fraud for small business men who are trying to help their customers to deal with a difficult situation?

Mrs. Liddell: The right hon. Gentleman raises a point that has been raised on many occasions in this Parliament. Indeed, since the Magna Carta there has been legislation to ensure that legally defined units of measurement are available. If we do not have a means of ensuring that, customers could be given short measure. It is important to protect consumers, and we recognise that we must.

At the same time, we are giving considerable assistance to retailers to ensure that they are able to offer the service from 31 December. Indeed, anyone who asks for a pound of apples, as the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) suggested, will be in no difficulty whatever. The consumer will be able to ask for goods in imperial measure, and retailers will be able to measure in metric amounts. Everything possible has been done to allow the switch to be as easy as possible. This has been a long time coming and there have been plenty of opportunities for preparation. I remind Opposition Members that it was the previous Government who introduced the measures in 1994.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): Is the Minister aware--it seems from her answers that she is not--of the confusion and difficulty faced by many elderly shoppers and, indeed, by people who are not so elderly, in buying cheese, fish or fruit in kilograms? She says that responsibility lies with the previous

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Government, but they introduced a 10-year derogation in 1989, which expires at the end of this year. Her Government have been in office since 1997, just when negotiations should have started again. Why did not her Department even bother to request from the EU another 10-year derogation on loose and bulk sales? Is this yet another example of this Government's weak approach to fighting for British interests in Europe?

Mrs. Liddell: The hon. Gentleman should not write his notes the night before; he should listen to what is said. In 1994, his Government introduced the order that comes into effect on 31 December 1999. I have also pointed out to the hon. Member for New Forest, West that the consumer--elderly or otherwise--will be able to go into any shop and ask for goods in imperial measures.

I was intrigued this morning to read in The Times an article attacking the measure by someone who knows Immanuel Kant rather better than the closing days of the 20th century. He suggests that the imperial measure is the lingua franca of both recipe and school books. It must be a long time since he has cooked a dinner, because recipe books give weights in both imperial and metric measures, as do school books nowadays.

EU/UK Balance of Trade

6. Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): What has been the cumulative balance of trade with the EU since Britain joined that organisation; and if he will make a statement. [100529]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers): There has been a deficit of £130 billion.

Sir Teddy Taylor: As the trade deficit with Europe has been absolutely horrendous over the years, will the right hon. Gentleman take steps to remind the Government of France that if, as a consequence of their illegal action on beef, British consumers turn against French products, the people and industry of France will suffer? Will he do all in his power to promote free and fair trade, and not restricted trade?

Mr. Byers: On the action of the French Cabinet yesterday evening, the French need to be reminded that the EU is not like some Woolworth's pick-and-mix counter, where they can choose some regulations with which they agree, but not others with which they do not. Law, science and--I think--good taste is on our side on this issue. We shall now try to negotiate a settlement with the French Government. They have not been prepared to accept that, so we must ensure that the Commission exercises its legal powers. I understand that it intends to do so and to take the French Government to court.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not good for trade in the European Union or anywhere else when the European Commission takes an inordinately long time to complete inquiries? Does he share my concern that, despite the fact that the details of the recommended aid package between BMW-Rover and the Government have been with the EU for some time, a decision still has not been made? Does he recognise that in the west midlands there is a great deal

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of concern about the possibility that the goal posts are being moved? Can he assure me that we are doing all we can to expedite the matter and ensure that a decision is made as soon as possible?

Mr. Byers: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I spoke yesterday to Commissioner Monti, the Competition Commissioner, who deals with these matters, specifically about the application to provide aid to BMW in relation to Rover at Longbridge, and I stressed to him the urgency of arriving at a decision.

There is some time available, though. I have discussed the matter with BMW, which will be content provided that a decision is taken within the next six months. We need to make sure that the Commission treats the application fairly. I believe that it will do so. It must go through the usual procedures, and that is what is happening. Provided that we get a decision, probably before May or June next year, there is no reason why the aid should be threatened, as that is the sort of time scale to which BMW is working as well.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is hardly necessary to blame Brussels or Paris for the large cumulative trade deficit, which is due to prolonged lack of competitiveness of British industry? Looking to the future, does he agree with the assessment of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, confirmed by the House of Commons Library, that British manufacturing has suffered a decline in competitiveness of 12 per cent. since the Government came into office because of exchange rate changes, and 25 per cent. since the end of 1996? Or does he agree with the comment made during the week and attributed to the Prime Minister, which may well have been inaccurately reported, that Britain now has a competitive exchange rate? To which of those two views does he subscribe?

Mr. Byers: From my conversations with many manufacturers, it is clear that they know that the rate of sterling is linked to the fact that we have a strong and growing economy, which is reflected in sterling. They have improved their productivity and, as a result, many manufacturers can compete globally. The latest figures for manufacturing for the last two quarters show that there has been a real improvement.

It is important to bear in mind that more than half of the deficit was accumulated between 1986 and 1990. In that five-year period, well over £60 billion of the deficit was accumulated. That was in the middle of the Lawson boom, when we sucked in exports and did not use the opportunity to improve our economic base. This Government do not intend to make those mistakes. We are steering a course of stability to ensure that we continue to have economic growth and prosperity for all our people.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): On the issue of fair competition, down the years many people in the United Kingdom shipbuilding industry have complained about the lack of fairness, largely because of the hidden subsidies given to shipyards elsewhere in the

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European Union. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that no hidden subsidies are now being given to shipbuilding yards in other member states of the EU?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Like him, I represent a shipbuilding constituency, so we share a concern about those matters. One of the actions that I have been pleased to take as Secretary of State was to alter the way in which the shipbuilding intervention fund can be used. The changes that we have introduced will benefit not just shipbuilding, but conversion work. That has allowed a number of significant orders to be achieved by yards in the UK. I believe that shipbuilding, ship repair and ship conversion have a real future, especially if there are increases in global trade. I will do all I can to make sure that there is fair competition, that we can support the industry in the UK and that there are no unfair subsidies in other countries.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): The Secretary of State's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) showed clearly that many people exaggerate the share of Britain's trade with the European Union. We, probably more than our European partners, also look to the dollar zone--especially to the United States--for our trade. What analysis has the Department carried out on how the balance of our trade between the euro and dollar zones ties in with pressures on our currency? If the United Kingdom were part of the euro zone, we would face different trade pressures from the rest of the European Union. Will the Secretary of State explain how the different trade patterns fit the economic tests that the Chancellor set for the United Kingdom joining the euro?

Mr. Byers: We know that the hon. Gentleman would like to rule out joining the single currency. That is not the view of the Leader of the Opposition, but it is the hon. Gentleman's position and that of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). It would be interesting to know how they reconcile their personal views with those of the Leader of the Opposition. The hon. Gentleman does not like to be reminded of his principled position on the single currency.

To answer the hon. Gentleman's specific question, the latest figures show that 58 per cent. of all United Kingdom exports are to the European Union, whereas only 55 per cent. of imports into the United Kingdom come from the European Union. There are benefits from that. The deficit that I mentioned earlier is largely due to decisions that the Conservative Government made between 1986 and 1990. The danger of the approach that the hon. Gentleman advocates is that, if it were adopted, the United Kingdom would no longer be the leading place for inward investment from Japan and the United States. He wants to renegotiate our position in relation to the European Union, but that would put thousands of jobs at risk. The Government will put the national interest first, and not rely on political dogma.

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