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The Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The North West Development Agency will spend nearly £4 million over the next two years to initiate the north-west incubation programme.
Campus Ventures, which is a Manchester-based company, is playing a leading role in the development of the programme. It recently initiated discussions with key players in the region with a view to establishing a seedcorn capital fund. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to underline the importance of such a fund to new enterprises and encourage public and private organisations to contribute to the fund once it is established?
Ms Hewitt: I readily respond to my hon. Friend's question. Seedcorn funds of the sort that he mentioned are enormously important in helping more businesses to start up and to grow. I congratulate Jim Keaton, the chairman of Campus Ventures, and the vice-chancellors of many of the universities in the north-west, who have collaborated in different ventures, including the Manchester challenge seed fund, which was helped by the first round of university challenge funding that we provided.
The Minister for Trade (Mr. Richard Caborn): The climate change levy is an environmental protection measure designed to avoid damaging the competitiveness of UK manufacturing. The levy's impact on individual businesses will depend on the extent to which they take advantage of the various levy exemptions, the new scheme of enhanced capital allowances for energy efficiency, the energy efficiency advice and support from the new carbon trust, and whether their sites qualify for a discount from the levy. The hon. Gentleman knows that we are offering an 80 per cent. discount to energy-intensive industries exposed to international competition in return for their commitment to challenging energy- saving targets.
Mr. Winterton: Has the Minister seen the report published last week by Ernst and Young, which was commissioned by the Engineering Employers Federation? Will he comment on the remarks of Nick Turner of Ernst and Young, who said:
Mr. Caborn: I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the levy is one element of a national climate change programme, which was published in November. Our answers to earlier questions make it clear that we want to approach energy in the most effective way and to stop damage to the environment. The levy is one of the instruments that is being used to address the Kyoto targets, with which I think the entire House agreed. We have made major concessions in discussions with organisations such as the Engineering Employers Federation--I listed some of them in my main answer--and dialogue continues with them. The tax will take effect in April. It must be seen as part of the Government's attack on damage to the environment.
Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): Is it not the case that the Government have given many millions of pounds of relief to the British steel industry on the levy? Corus repaid the Government's generosity by giving £700 million back to its shareholders and promulgating 4,000 job losses in Wales, including 400 in Shotton steelworks in my constituency. Bearing in mind the fact that the Shotton steelworkers went, with Corus, to see the Government to ask for the levy on steel to be lessened, my steelworkers think that that is a disgrace.
Mr. Caborn: Some of my right hon. Friend's questions about Corus should be directed at the company itself. However, the climate change levy was not a major factor in the decisions that were made, rightly or wrongly, on the present restructuring. That was clear from the evidence given to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry by the chairman and chief executive of Corus.
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): How is it that the Department of Trade and Industry has the professed aim of helping manufacturing industry and improving competitiveness--that appears in its so-called mission statement--but in reality is so weak and ineffective that it allows the Treasury to impose a new energy tax, which will come into effect in less than two weeks, at a time when energy prices for industry are already rising fast? Will the Minister confirm that the new tax will be particularly damaging for manufacturing industry, which has already lost more than 350,000 jobs since the general election, and that it is an unwelcome additional burden on the steel industry, which is already suffering severe job losses? The damage caused by the new energy tax has been confirmed by the chairman of Corus.
Will the Minister also confirm that the tax is an extremely clumsy and inefficient way of tackling climate change, which could be dealt with much better by other means, such as emissions permit trading, and that the tax has been condemned by business groups, all of which have declared that it is ridiculously complicated and an additional stealth tax? Above all, will the DTI start to
Mr. Caborn: I repeat what the chairman and chief executive of Corus said: the climate change levy was not a major consideration in the company's decision to restructure, as has been said at the Dispatch Box before.
The levy is part of the Government's attack on the question of damage to the environment, and of our responsibilities as a Government. The DTI has been extremely active on behalf of British industry, including manufacturing, in our discussions and dialogue with the Treasury. Because representations were made, and strongly supported by the DTI, we have a package of measures to address the concerns raised by manufacturers when we first started discussions on the climate change programme last November. We are now coming to a consensus, and when the levy starts to operate on 1 April, we shall be able to reflect and see that it is a sensible move for all the population.
The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mr. Peter Hain): Some 2,100 claims in the Yorkshire area have been settled in full, with the highest full settlement to date being £61,004. A further 6,200 claimants have received interim payments, the highest being £30,000. In Yorkshire alone, we have paid out £100 million in coal mining compensation. In total, the Department has paid out more than £360 million in compensation for respiratory disease and vibration white finger, and we continue to pay out about £1 million per working day.
Mr. Michie: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and for the work that he is doing to increase the speed with which compensation is paid out. He will be aware that 139,000 cases are still waiting to be dealt with, and that more cases are still coming in than are being completed. He will also know that it will be a long time before those claims are completed. We had another meeting with IRISC this week and were given further suggestions on how to speed things up. Will he again visit IRISC to see what help he can provide in that respect?
Mr. Hain: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for visiting IRISC and I know about his close engagement with its headquarters in Sheffield. We have put in place a series of steps that are resulting in huge improvements in the speed of compensation delivery. Although my hon. Friend is right that there are about 140,000 claimants in the system, many of them have received payments and 1,000 are joining every year, which makes this the biggest compensation claim in Britain's history. He will be
Ms Winterton: I welcome the opening of a centre in Doncaster to deal with vibration white finger claims, but I was concerned to hear yesterday from Tommy Bird, a constituent of mine from Armthorpe. Mr. Bird has chronic bronchitis and emphysema, but even though he has had his final medical assessment, it is likely to be about 15 weeks before he gets a final offer. As I understand it, the problem lies in getting the medical assessment from Healthcall to IRISC. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to speed up that part of the process?
Mr. Hain: We will certainly consider the case of my hon. Friend's constituent. Mistakes have been made and there have been bottlenecks, but we have gradually removed such problems so that the compensation scheme is proceeding much more speedily. There should be no rigid figure of 15 weeks or any other period. We are now processing 1,000 medical assessments each week. That compares with about 500 claims per week last year, so it is clear that the process is being speeded up. I am sure that we will pay special attention to my hon. Friend's constituent's case now that she has raised it with me.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I am concerned about miners' compensation in Yorkshire and Wales. I wrote to the Minister on 6 January, congratulating him on his appointment and asking for an urgent meeting to discuss the matter. Is he happy that I received a reply on 3 March saying, "Try some time later in the spring."? That is simply not good enough.
Mr. Hain: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for congratulating me, but I remind him that he has had an Adjournment debate in which I gave a full response. I am as happy to discuss any matters with him as I am with any other hon. Member. We have been working night and day to drive the programme forward in Wales, as elsewhere. [Interruption.] On Friday week, I shall open a new medical assessment centre in Ystrad Mynach, which will take forward the whole process of compensation. [Interruption.]
Mr. Hain: I remind the House that while Plaid Cymru whinges about miners' compensation, we are delivering it on a scale that has never been seen in British history and that the Tories refused to deliver in their long years of power. We will continue to do that.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his decision on claimants' pension rights, and, in particular, on his decision about asthma cases in which it is shown that a man could have contracted asthma by working in dust underground. I have no doubt whatever that such cases would have gone to court if the Conservative party had been in power. He will know
Mr. Hain: I will certainly consider that. There is no reluctance on our part to pay out the money. Recently, £50 million in offers was stuck with solicitors who were unable to make progress. We want them to speed up their operations. My hon. Friend is right to remind the House of the hugely complex process of litigation. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) often makes the point that the Labour Government in the 1970s dealt with such claims immediately and with great speed. We have been unable to do that because of the court process. However, speed has been increased greatly, and compensation will be paid throughout the country.