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I turn to the Government's approach to payment times. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wells mentioned that it was the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green who pushed questions about payment times and said how disgraceful the situation was, but as soon as the hon. Lady left the Department of Trade and Industry, it all went to the dogs. The percentage of bills promptly paid is now down to 93 per cent. from the original figure of 97.7 per cent. Let me quote from The Sunday Telegraph--the Secretary of State may quote from The Sun if he likes. A headline from last Sunday reads: "MPs slam DTI for late bill payments", and the following article states:
The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell): Replying to the debate gives me the privilege of welcoming the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce). It is a particular pleasure for me do so, because I know his constituency well and my parents lived there for a while. However, despite my detailed knowledge of the constituency, I was unaware of the Falkirk wheel, and I, like the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), will happily take up my hon. Friend's invitation to visit it.
My hon. Friend represents a very impressive constituency made up of very impressive people. I hope that it will benefit from the assistance that we have been able to give Longannet to secure the future of coal mining on the Forth--many of the constituents of Falkirk, West work at Longannet. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend has begun a distinguished career, but if the hon. Member for Lichfield intends to visit my hon. Friend's
Mid-debate, I found myself checking whether this was an Opposition day, given that the Opposition Benches had the appearance of the Mary Celeste. That is a clear sign of the consideration that Conservative Members give to our manufacturing industry. It is significant that the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) said in mitigation at the start of his speech that he did not want to think about the past--let us forget the past and look to the future, he said. If I were in his position, especially if I had been a Minister in the Conservative Government, I would want to forget the past as well. The hon. Gentleman failed to point out that unemployment in his constituency has fallen by 56.7 per cent. between 1997 and 2000, and by a further 14.7 per cent. since 2000--directly as a consequence of the policies of the current Government.
Both the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) spoke of the killer, devastating policy that is supposed to win their party the next general election: a Conservative Government would appoint to a council of economic advisers someone from the manufacturing sector. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Bank of England and everyone else will be quivering in the face of that killer Conservative policy. Yesterday, one of my colleagues said that the Conservatives' economic policy would disgrace Mickey Mouse, but that was an insult to Mickey Mouse.
The right hon. Member for Wells made much of the climate change levy. Let me take up some of his points relating to the Engineering Employers Federation report and the Ernst and Young survey which other speakers mentioned. I do not recognise the figures contained in the press release to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. The EEF estimates that the net cost of the levy will be £100 million, but the basis of those figures is wholly unclear. The EEF appears to be confused about which sectors are eligible to enter into negotiated agreements and it has missed the fact that, in a modern economy, the ability to use energy efficiently is not merely a matter of having a sensible environmental policy, but one of being globally competitive. One of the strengths of the levy is that it is designed to make companies examine their use of energy and use it much more effectively.
Companies can seek exemptions and they can make changes to improve their energy efficiency. They can use new forms of renewable energy and good quality heat and power. The levy will be revenue neutral: it is estimated that in its first year it will raise £1 billion, all of which will be recycled back to business via a 0.3 per cent. reduction in employers' national insurance contributions; £100 million in enhanced capital allowances for investment in energy-saving technologies, the need for which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden); and £50 million for the Carbon Trust that will provide energy-saving advice and audits and promote low carbon technologies, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable).
Mrs. Liddell: As Lord Marshall said in his report on the environment, which I think was published in 1998, energy efficiency is not a one-off venture and should continue throughout the company's operations. That is common sense.
The right hon. Member for Wells also told us how Conservative economic policy would lead to reduced interest rates and lower inflation. No wonder the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire asked us to forget history, as this week 10 years ago the inflation rate was 8.5 per cent. and the interest rate was 14 per cent. The Government's economic policies have moved us away from the boom and bust of the Conservative years. We have economic stability, as was recognised in the report that was outlined in The Sun and to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred.
Manufacturers need economic stability and Labour is delivering that. Public borrowing has been cut by more than £45 billion in three years, inflation is lower than it has been for 30 years and long-term interest rates are at their lowest level for more than 35 years. Those policies are giving businesses the opportunity to expand and create employment.
The Government regard manufacturing as a key part of the economy that makes a major contribution to Britain's productivity, innovation and trade performance. We recognise, however, that some sectors of manufacturing industry are going through considerable difficulty. We are helping them by providing the macro-economic stability to which I referred. Low interest rates, low inflation and sound public finances will help all UK manufacturers in the long term.
We recognise that some companies are affected by global circumstances. Such companies are often in traditional sectors where they are unable to benefit from technological changes. I do not blame Opposition or Labour Members for concentrating on high-profile cases involving job losses, but there are also good news stories, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): The situation in the west midlands is undoubtedly better now than during the two major recessions of the 1980s, as all hon. Members who represent west midlands constituencies recognise. However, is my right hon. Friend aware of my concern about a Swedish-owned company that is based in my constituency and which is being closed? Sandvik is to be completely closed by August, with the loss of 139 jobs. Will she or one of her ministerial colleagues receive a deputation on that important matter, about which I have already written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State?
Mrs. Liddell: I am aware of the case to which my hon. Friend refers and I recognise his concern. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade will be only too happy to receive a delegation.
In addition to the specific measures that we have taken to support manufacturers--my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the assistance that we have sought to give to the textile industry--we have also introduced the lowest ever rate of corporation tax. The right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) made much of corporation tax, but we have the lowest rate in Europe.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield asked about research and development. We have made a £150 million research and development tax credit available for small and medium enterprises and introduced new 100 per cent. allowances for small and medium-sized businesses to help them in adapting to information technology. Those are concrete measures that are of direct assistance to industry in dealing with the management of change.