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House of Commons

Thursday 18 January 2001

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill (By Order)

Order for further consideration, as amended, read.

To be further considered on Thursday 25 January.



Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Trade Union Recognition

1. Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): What assessment he has made of the operation of the new provisions of the Employment Relations Act 1999 setting up the statutory arrangements for trade union recognition. [144527]

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell): The statutory recognition procedure has been in force since 6 June last year, and so far 38 applications for recognition have been received by the central arbitration committee. Early indications suggest that the procedure is working well and is becoming an accepted feature of the employment relations system.

Mr. Healey: Is my right hon. Friend aware that this week's TUC report shows that the number of new recognition deals signed by unions in the past 12 months is double that of the year before? In its northern region alone, the Transport and General Workers Union has signed or is in the process of signing 16 new voluntary agreements. Does that not demonstrate that the extreme hostility displayed by the Tories throughout the Act's passage through Parliament shows that the party is as out

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of touch with the modern employer as it is with the aspirations of ordinary working people, who simply want fairness and protection in the workplace?

Mrs. Liddell: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. He was a very active member of the Standing Committee that considered the legislation and he knows that it aims to bring stability to collective bargaining. Not only do the Tories want to return to boom and bust, but they want to return to the them-and-us situation of the 1980s and 1990s which plunged the country into industrial unrest. The aim of the new procedure is voluntary engagement, and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the TUC report published on Monday shows that there have been a record number of recognition deals--159 covering 58,000 workers in the 13 months from November 1999 to November 2000. That is a sign of consensus and of a voluntary approach to these matters. Stability has returned to industrial relations.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): Can the Minister explain why the number of strikes called in the past 12 months has increased by over a fifth?

Mrs. Liddell: The hon. Gentleman is anxious to return to the days of the Government whom he supported, when industrial unrest was created and trade unions were not recognised. We are now seeing a greater spirit of partnership between employers and employees. The hon. Gentleman should be aware that 44 of the top 50 UK companies recognise trade unions. Working in partnership is the way forward for a Britain with a stable economy and stable industrial relations.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): Does my right hon. Friend agree that recognised trade unions are important in ensuring that British industry meets its obligation to create wealth without damaging health? Will she consider bringing together trade unions, employers, insurance companies and lawyers in the construction industry, the steel industry and, in particular, the power industry with a view to facilitating the introduction of sectoral no-fault liability schemes for asbestos victims?

Mrs. Liddell: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point that underpins the Government's attitude to industrial relations, which is that the spirit of partnership should be fostered. I shall reflect on his point and get back to him.

Consumer Protection

2. Mr. Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton): If he will make a statement on recent steps he has taken to ensure consumers receive value for money. [144528]

The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr. Kim Howells): We are ensuring that consumers get better value for money through stronger protection in such areas as distance selling and

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e-commerce, better advice through consumer support networks and, most important, a stronger and more effective competition regime.

Mr. Dobbin: House buyers are consumers. Can my hon. Friend offer them some protection and an honest deal from unscrupulous cowboy builders?

Dr. Howells: Ultimately, any disagreement is a civil dispute between a customer and a builder. However, colleagues at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions have developed a quality mark scheme to help consumers find reliable builders and workers in allied trades such as plumbing and roofing. The scheme ensures that quality mark builders are technically competent, possess relevant qualifications and display financial probity.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): Does the Minister agree that one of the worst examples of a failure to give business and private consumers value for money is in the banking sector, where consumers are being ripped off by up to £5 billion a year, according to the Cruickshank report? Will he explain how the Government intend to implement the report's recommendation that mergers involving a major bank--such as the present merger between Lloyds and Abbey National, which affects the current account market--will automatically be referred to the Competition Commission? Will he assure the House that the fact that the banks are helping to establish the Post Office universal bank will not lead to their being given an easy ride on competition policy?

Dr. Howells: As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, competition matters are judged and decided by the Office of Fair Trading. There will be no automatic referrals. We consider the judgment of the Office of Fair Trading, under the director general, as the most valuable source of information. In most cases, we accept it.

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw): On the issue of ensuring that consumers receive value for money, my hon. Friend will be aware that I presented a petition to the Office of Fair Trading which bore more than 20,000 names. It demanded an investigation into the rip-off involving the holiday fuel prices charged by holiday firms. May I ask for an assurance from my hon. Friend that he will ask the Director General of Fair Trading when an inquiry will take place and when we can have the findings that ensue so that we can finally put an end to the rip-off of holiday price fixing, and especially fuel supplements?

Dr. Howells: Like my hon. Friend, I am determined that holidaymakers should get good value for money. I know that he has been waiting for answers to the questions which he put to the director general in writing last July. Successive directors general have promised him responses. Now that my hon. Friend has raised the matter with me, he can be assured that I will raise it with the director general and ask him to contact my hon. Friend immediately.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): But why are the Government undermining consumer rights by persecuting traders who are selling fruit and vegetables

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off market stalls in pounds and ounces? Why did the Government not even try to extend the directive, which would have permitted the continuing use of pounds and ounces in the way the previous Government succeeded in doing in 1989? The Government did not even ask for that. Why did they have such a warped sense of priority that they failed completely to bring forward their promised consumer Bill, which would have clamped down on rogue and dishonest traders, while at the same time, and instead, they are persecuting honest traders whose only crime is to serve their customers in units which they ask for and understand?

Dr. Howells: As the hon. Gentleman knows, it was the Leader of the Opposition who signed up to the directive in the first place. The previous Government agreed with the Commission that twin pricing, so that metric and imperial pricing could operate alongside each other in shops, would be phased out in 1999, but the Labour Government secured a 10-year extension to it. It is indicative that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), who has a much bigger voice than appetite, could manage only a quarterpounder--he could not manage even a Big Mac.

Tyre Manufacturing Industry

3. Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): What recent discussions he has had with the UK tyre manufacturing industry regarding UK production. [144529]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Richard Caborn): As the main tyre manufacturers are major inward investors into the UK, the Department keeps in close contact with them both at a regional and national level in the UK.

Mr. Pike: My right hon. Friend will be aware that Michelin announced last year that the production of tyres at its Stoke factory would cease. He will also be aware that over the Christmas and new year period, cuts in production and output were announced by Goodyear at Wolverhampton. Does he recognise that in my constituency, where there is a Michelin factory, and in others there is considerable concern about the future of the tyre industry? Will he give an assurance that he believes it is essential that we continue to manufacture tyres in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Caborn: My hon. Friend is right. Global restructuring has obviously affected some British companies, and Michelin is but one of them. I remind the House that tyre production was worth in excess of £1 billion in 1999, and there were about £800 million worth of exports. There are still more than 8,000 people employed in the industry. I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, and the Department will be commissioning a competitive study to examine the entire rubber industry, and especially the tyre sector, where electronics are playing a greater part in production. With our research establishment, we want to ensure that we are at the leading edge of technology. Companies such as Pirelli are showing the way by introducing a robotics line in the UK. I think that we will be moving up the value-added chain in the tyre sector.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Given the importance of exports to the UK tyre manufacturing

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industry, and given that since its introduction two years ago the euro has declined sharply against the pound sterling, should not the policy of the Government, on reflection, have been to try to ease the burden of taxes and regulations on the industry, rather than bringing about the exact opposite?

Mr. Caborn: The way in which the Government have assisted industry, by creating a strong macro-economic framework and, at the micro level, introducing tax advantages for many parts of our manufacturing base, has been welcomed by manufacturing, including the tyre manufacturers. Three of the five major manufacturers of tyres are in the UK. They look to the Government to give the lead, as we shall do, on a foresight programme to develop new technology for those industries. The euro has not affected the global reorganisation that Michelin and others are undertaking. We want to help such industries to manage in the most effective way the changes involved in globalisation.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): But does not my right hon. Friend believe, as I do, that if a company such as Michelin closes down tyre production in the UK, or General Motors closes down car production, or Orange behaves badly as a telecoms operator, we should encourage the British consumer to be discriminatory, to buy products that are manufactured in our own country, to favour industries that stay and manufacture in the UK, and to penalise those that do not?

Mr. Caborn: I do not think that in this day and age that would be the right way forward. We look to the consumer to buy the best quality at the best price. The Government support the continued management of the globalisation of trade through organisations such as the World Trade Organisation. I remind my hon. Friend that in the past decade, that policy has enhanced world trade by 25 or 26 per cent. We believe that that is the way to go--to expand the global economy in a managed way that will produce a good result for the consumer. We are doing that through leading-edge technology in many industries.

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