29 Nov 2001 : Column 1085

House of Commons

Thursday 29 November 2001

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Construction Industry

1. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): If she will make a statement on the prospects for the construction industry. [16469]

The Minister for Industry and Energy (Mr. Brian Wilson): The prospects for the United Kingdom construction industry are good despite the present economic uncertainties. The industry has enjoyed an extended period of growth and most industry experts forecast that this will continue. The industry continues to benefit from the rethinking construction process initiated by Sir John Egan.

Mr. Swayne: I thank the Minister for that answer. He will be aware of the acute shortage of skilled operators for plant. What estimate has he made of the impact of the European physical agents vibration directive and, in particular, the European Parliament's amendment to the common position? What effect will that have on the industry, and what action is he going to take to defend the common position?

Mr. Wilson: I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the use of vibratory tools and vehicles. Our position is not to support the amendment, which could in some cases result in only two or three hours' use of such tools and vehicles in a day. On the other hand, we must get a sense of balance on the construction industry. It does not have a good record on health and safety. He lifts his eyes heavenwards, but he should look at the statistics because many people are killed and injured in that industry, which is why Sir John Egan and I have made health and safety one of our top priorities, working with the industry to address that record. We should not lightly dismiss health and safety measures.

As part of my responsibilities, I see the effect of vibration white finger on people who have been exposed to the uncontrolled use of vibratory tools. Let us not sneer

29 Nov 2001 : Column 1086

at such matters. We should get a sense of balance. In this case, we believe that the balance has gone too far the other way, and we will work to redress that position.

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester): The brand new hospital project in Worcester is nearing completion. At St. Barnabas primary school in my constituency four dilapidated mobile units are being replaced by four permanent classrooms. I understand that such projects are taking place up and down the land. What assessment has my hon. Friend received of the impact that such work will have on the construction industry?

Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend is right. Record levels of investment are being made in health and education, some of which is going into construction projects up and down the country. I do not know the details of the specific project that he mentions, but a huge instrument in supporting that programme is the use of public-private partnerships. PPPs are justified because they offer value for money, make it possible to do so much more and, at the same time, generate tremendous activity in the construction industry.

Having said that, some 40 per cent. of procurement in the construction industry comes from the public sector. We are working to ensure that that is done better and more effectively. If we can make sure that it is carried out on a more rational basis, we could have even more building projects, like the one that my hon. Friend mentions, for the amounts that are being invested. We have to do all that better and keep the levels of investment going. One of the biggest beneficiaries of that will be the construction industry and those who are employed in it.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): Does the Minister accept the great value that self-employed construction workers add to our economy? If so, will he replace the IR35 legislation with something that really tries to tackle tax abuses in the system without unfairly impeding genuine people working in the construction industry?

Mr. Wilson: On this side of the House we believe in fairness in taxation and do not support devices to get around that. Of course there is a role for genuinely self-employed people in the construction industry, and many are in that position. However, we are much more sceptical about the role of companies that treat people as self-employed, relieve themselves of responsibilities towards those individuals and therefore use self-employment as a means of cutting cost. That is not fairness in taxation. It is also not fairness in employment.

John Cryer (Hornchurch): Is my hon. Friend aware of the Harvey report, which suggests that there are 300,000 to 400,000 bogus self-employed workers in the construction industry? Is he also aware that that has led to a deep fragmentation of the industry? There has been an undercutting of health and safety measures, and 105 people died on construction sites last year. That might not matter very much to the Opposition, but it certainly matters to us. Will my hon. Friend undertake to review the construction industry with our hon. Friends in the Treasury, and consider bogus self-employment in particular?

Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend makes two excellent points. Self-employment has a role; bogus

29 Nov 2001 : Column 1087

self-employment does not, and it is far too deeply embedded in the practices of the construction industry. It is undoubtedly one of the factors that leads to the appalling safety record which, as he says, is so lightly treated by the Opposition. I am pleased that the safety issue is being taken seriously in the rethinking construction process, under the leadership of Sir John Egan.

One of the major priorities of the rethinking production programme is to treat people with respect in the construction industry. If projects can be better planned and implemented, if more work can be done off-site and if we have proper employment practices in the industry, undoubtedly we shall reduce the disgraceful number of deaths that my hon. Friend mentioned. The process must be systematic and we must work with the industry. That is why the rethinking construction programme is so important.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): No one is sneering at industrial injury or vibration injury that is caused by anything from jack hammers to sewing machines. It was a Conservative Government who saw the beginning of a continuing process in 1994. The Government have brought us to a ridiculous position, where farms, factories, articulated lorries and forestry are involved. The construction industry will be ruined, and life will be made impossible for small family farmers. We expect the Minister of State to use the six-week conciliation period to go to Europe to sort out the problem, and stop the nonsense that is so damaging. It gives the European Union a bad name.

Mr. Wilson: As it is a sworn role of the Conservative party in its current manifestation to give the European Union a bad name, whether fairly or unfairly, I am not surprised by the hon. Gentleman's comments. I absolve him. I am sure that he takes these issues seriously. However, I can assure him that the response of Members sitting behind him does no credit to his party.

We take the issue seriously in terms of its impact on business. We also take health and safety issues seriously. I shall be pleased to work with the hon. Gentleman and those of his colleagues who share our concerns. We can surely cut across parties by addressing the fact that there are about 10 deaths a month in the construction industry. The industry also manages to kill one pedestrian every month. Surely we can do better than that, and we can do it by working together on a non-partisan basis.

Aviation Industry

2. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): What action she is taking to assist the aviation industry following the 11 September terrorist attacks. [16470]

13. Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly): If she will make a statement on the progress which has been made in providing support to the aerospace and airline industries since 11 September. [16482]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): This Government were the first to underwrite insurance for UK airlines and service providers after 11 September to ensure that the airlines could continue flying. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport Local Government and the Regions

29 Nov 2001 : Column 1088

is considering whether further aid should be offered to the UK airline industry. We have been in close contact with the aerospace industry since 11 September, and will continue to work with it to help deal with the impact of the terrorist attacks and to ensure a strong future for the industry.

Paul Goggins: My right hon. Friend will know that this has been a difficult week for the aviation industry in the north-west, with the announcement of further job losses at BAE Systems and at Airtours. May I draw her attention to the plight of 620 staff at FLS Aerospace at Manchester airport who undertake essential aircraft maintenance work? They were recently served with 90-day notices.

In welcoming the action that the Government are already taking, will my right hon. Friend join me in urging FLS to co-operate fully with the work force, Manchester Airport plc and other companies in striving to retain as many of these skilled jobs as possible?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is right to say that these are difficult times for the airline and aerospace industry. I share his dismay at the impact of the terrorist atrocity upon his constituents and others who work in the industry, particularly those at FLS Aerospace. I understand that the company is hoping to avoid compulsory redundancies. We shall do everything possible to work with it to ensure that as far as possible these highly skilled workers stay in employment. Where that is not possible, we will do everything that we can to ensure that workers who are made redundant get new jobs as quickly as possible.

Mr. David: I thank my right hon. Friend for her response. I am sure that she will share my concern about the fact that there have been 350 jobs losses announced at GE Aircraft Engine Services at Nantgarw near Caerphilly in south Wales. Will she say what discussions have taken place at a European level about possible support for the industry?

Ms Hewitt: I entirely share my hon. Friend's concern about the impact of the situation on his constituents and others at GEAES in south Wales. I understand that it is one of the world's leading companies in aero-engine repair and maintenance. I know that every help is being given in Wales to the company and its workers; my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and the Chancellor have both been in discussions with our counterparts in the European Community about what support should properly be given to the industry.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): Will the Secretary of State make a full statement on 1,000 jobs lost in my constituency this week at BAE Systems at Woodford? Will she comment on the further losses expected at Manchester airport, especially at FLS Aerospace and Airtours? How far are they due to 11 September, and what is she doing to ensure that the skills involved are not lost to the nation?

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point. We must all understand that the atrocity of 11 September and subsequent events have severely damaged the airline and aerospace industries. In north America, for example, there is a decline of 30 to 40 per cent.

29 Nov 2001 : Column 1089

in passenger numbers; in Europe, the decline is between 10 and 20 per cent. We will continue to work with companies and affected workers to support them in every way that we can. However, I also stress to her that the aerospace industry in particular remains fundamentally strong. Despite the devastating job losses, particularly at British Aerospace, the longer-term future remains bright with new orders recently placed for Airbus, and Lockheed and its British partners securing the contract for the joint strike fighter. I am sure that she welcomes that as much as I do.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Does the Secretary of State realise that it is not just British Aerospace? The sudden announcement today by Rolls-Royce will lead to problems, particularly in the Derby area, where a huge number of job losses were confirmed this morning; I know that she will be aware of that. Will she have urgent talks with her colleagues at the Ministry of Defence to see if there is any way in which some of those announcements can be alleviated by looking at defence contracts? Will they consider whether the defence industry could have a beneficial impact on the aviation industry, particularly at this severe time?

Ms Hewitt: The announcement this morning of the job losses at Rolls-Royce is confirmation of an announcement made some weeks ago following the events of 11 September. We have already awarded £750.000 million to the east midlands taskforce, to help particularly with the appalling effect of those redundancies in Derby and Derbyshire. I have already had discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence on those matters.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): Will my right hon. Friend consider introducing a summit for the aviation industry and those who supply it with components? Is she aware of the job losses both in Lancashire and among suppliers? What hope can she give them of bringing forward orders such as those for large aircraft, which will bring the work back? Work on the joint strike fighter order is far away; we need work now if we are to continue in future.

Ms Hewitt: I am, of course, aware of the redundancies to which my hon. Friend referred. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and other colleagues have done everything that they can to strengthen security at airports and restore passenger confidence in air travel. Fundamentally, that is the best way to assist the industry right through the supply chain. Of course, my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy and I will continue to work very closely indeed with the aviation and aerospace industries to see how we can support them in both the short and longer term.

Next Section

IndexHome Page