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The Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce (Ms Patricia Hewitt): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) on securing the debate and on drawing attention so eloquently to what I know is an enormously important issue for him and for other right hon. and hon. Members who have glass packaging plants in their constituencies.
My hon. Friend has certainly been a strong and assiduous supporter of those of his constituents who work at the United Glass factory in Harlow. He has set out admirably their concerns and the issues at stake in the regional selective assistance application. I must also acknowledge, as he has done, the close interest taken by other right hon. and hon. Members in the future of other existing glass packaging plants in South Yorkshire, Scotland and elsewhere, and the reaction of others who also see threats from potential investment in new plant.
I know that my hon. Friend and several other hon. Members expressed those serious concerns on behalf of their constituents when they came with employee and management representatives from some of the major firms to see my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade just before Christmas.
We do not often debate the subject of glass in the House. I suspect that we have all tended to take glass packaging for granted, whether it was the humble milk bottle on the doorstep, the traditional bottle of beer, or the bottle of headache pills. Glass bottles have been with us for centuries. However, we have now come to accept that milk can also come in cartons, beer in cans and pills in foil wrapping in boxes.
The fact that we still have a sizeable glass packaging industry in Britain is a reflection of the flexibility and adaptability of the manufacturers who have innovated, designed new products and sought out new markets. At the same time, there have been very strong competitive pressures on the glass industry generally which have, unfortunately, led to real difficulties, such as at Ravenhead Glass at St. Helens. The glass packaging sector, in particular, has had to respond to its own competitive threats, not least from alternative packaging materials.
Before I turn to the specific issue raised by my hon. Friend, perhaps I could refer to the support that has been given to the British glass industry since the Government came to office--not, of course, including the previous grant to Quinn Glass. Since 1 May 1997, offers of regional selective assistance totalling some £18 million have been accepted by the United Kingdom glass industry overall, of which £1 million has gone towards the manufacture of hollow glass. In addition, my Department has been working with British Glass and Glass Technology Services Ltd. in a number of areas, including financial support for an innovation project to design safer screw threads on glass bottles and assistance with the establishment of a glass manufacturing improvement club.
We held discussions last year with British Glass, the trade association for the sector, about other projects, including a competitiveness analysis. I regret that those discussions have not progressed as we had hoped. However, I stress that if the glass industry wishes to take these or other issues forward, the door remains open. I strongly urge them to consider working with the Department on a competitiveness analysis. I hope that my hon. Friend will make that point to his constituents and to
On my hon. Friend's central concern, Quinn Glass has confirmed publicly that it is seeking UK Government support towards the establishment of a new manufacturing facility in the north-west region. I can therefore also confirm that the Department is currently considering and appraising an application for regional selective assistance from the company. However, as with any RSA application, all the information contained in it is commercially confidential. I know that my hon. Friend understands that, and I hope that he will also understand when I say that I am not able to discuss the company's application in detail.
In potentially sensitive cases such as this, I have heard it suggested that the Government should not even consider an application for regional selective assistance. However, I stress that providing an application meets the qualifying criteria for regional selective assistance; we cannot refuse to consider it. Each application is rigorously assessed against a number of detailed criteria which are published. The application is then considered by the Industrial Development Advisory Board--an external adviser--which makes a recommendation to Ministers on each case.
I am afraid, for the reasons that I have given, that I am not able to discuss progress on the Quinn Glass application for RSA, nor can I say when the case might reach the final stages of consideration. However, I can assure my hon. Friend and his constituents that the specific issue of job displacement is one of the key criteria that has to be considered on any RSA application and will therefore be considered on this application.
I have one final point on Quinn Glass; my hon. Friend has also referred to it. The Government would be powerless to prevent any investment by Quinn Glass if the plant were to be constructed without support--assuming, of course, that it met planning and other appropriate requirements. Nor could we stop imports to this country if that plant were to be constructed on an alternative site elsewhere. I am sure that my hon. Friend and his constituents understand that.
I referred earlier to the meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade in December, when he indicated that he was reviewing the glass packaging sector. That work has progressed on two fronts. First, as part of the appraisal for this application, against the published criteria, we are considering a number of economic areas, including job displacement. That work of appraisal is in hand but, like the Quinn Glass RSA application, the information will have to remain commercially confidential.
We have also commissioned Key Note Ltd. to update an earlier market research report on the glass packaging sector published in 1999. That earlier report has been extensively quoted in other papers on the glass packaging sector which I have seen. The new report from Key Note Ltd. has just been received by the Department. It will form part of the information used in appraising the Quinn Glass RSA application. I am therefore pleased to announce that the Department can now make copies of the new Key Note market research available to the glass packaging industry.
I must also mention letters from right hon. and hon. Members and information about the glass packaging industry which we have received from other parties in recent months. We have received a report commissioned by Barnsley development agency from ECOTEC Research and Consulting Ltd., which considered the economic impact of the Quinn Glass proposal on Barnsley, South Yorkshire and the wider regional economy. We have had a briefing paper on the UK glass packaging industry structure dated November 2000 and a paper from British Glass entitled "The UK Glass Container Industry Review", dated spring 2001. All those reports are being considered during the appraisal of the Quinn Glass RSA application.
My hon. Friend mentioned overcapacity, which is an important issue in the sector. I was interested to read in the latest paper from British Glass that the estimate of overcapacity in the glass packaging sector is now only 5 per cent. compared with the figure of up to 20 per cent. which was quoted at the meeting in December. I also noted that imports into the United Kingdom in 1999 took some 19 per cent. of the market, although of course part of that total may have come from UK firms importing from their associate plants on the continent.
I end by saying how much I appreciate the enormous anxiety that will be felt during this period of uncertainty by the constituents whom my hon. Friend represents. Once again, I assure him and his constituents that we fully understand the importance of the issue and that we will take all the relevant factors, including job displacement, into account when the decision is made on the basis of the published criteria.