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Steel Industry

7. Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): What steps she is taking to ensure that the UK steel industry can trade freely in the USA. [25551]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Miss Melanie Johnson): We are making every effort to ensure that US markets remain open to exports of UK steel products. Working very closely with the European Commission and our European partners, we are in frequent contact with the US Administration to seek to persuade them not to impose unilateral restrictions on trade.

Ms Munn: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will she impress on the US Administration that much of the steel industry in Britain has already undertaken the

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restructuring that President Bush has requested and that the imposition of trade restrictions would be detrimental to my constituents who work in the steel industry and would have negative effects on the steel industry in many countries? Importantly, it would significantly hamper the valuable work that has been done by the OECD steel group to find ways of addressing the need for restructuring throughout the world steel industry.

Miss Johnson: In addition to my answer, I can tell my hon. Friend that the Prime Minister yesterday wrote to Sir Brian Moffatt to confirm that we take the issue very seriously. We are continuing to press our case at the highest level and he will press the case with President Bush at an appropriate time. I agree that the safeguard action will not solve the problem of global overcapacity in steel production. The problems that are being experienced in the US are largely of its own making and we believe strongly that it should not seek to export those problems to the rest of the world. We will continue to register our strongest opposition to the proposals and I agree that the OECD and multilateral talks about how to deal with the problem on a global basis are the way ahead.

Tony Baldry (Banbury): Does the Minister agree that those who advocate global free trade cannot just pick and choose which bits of free trade they are going to support? Are not the US's proposed sanctions and tariffs against UK steel in breach of World Trade Organisation legislation?

Miss Johnson: I entirely agree. The proposed US action is contrary to its WTO obligations.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): Is my hon. Friend aware that more than a year ago steel industry management at Corus announced the closure of Teesside technology centre and the transfer of the work force to a new technology centre in Sheffield? Many of my constituents who work at the Teesside technology centre are still waiting to hear about their future. Will my hon. Friend raise that matter urgently with the Corus management?

Miss Johnson: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point, because the staff involved are highly skilled scientists and lab technicians. Uncertainty over the future of such highly marketable individuals is not helpful. My hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy will raise the issue when he meets the company shortly, including the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar).

Export Credits Guarantee Department

8. Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): What real return on capital employed is required of the Export Credits Guarantee Department. [25552]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths): None.

Mr. Viggers: I find that reply rather baffling. Is the Minister aware that other nations run their export credit as a facility for exporters, whereas the Export Credits Guarantee Department is run as a profit centre and is

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expected to make a 6 per cent. return on capital employed? Is he aware that there is a widespread feeling that our exporters—especially small and medium enterprises—are disadvantaged because of this? Is he concerned about that? What is he going to do about it?

Nigel Griffiths: The facts are these: last year saw the largest amount of supported business in this area for a decade. We backed more than 100 UK exporters and investors to the tune of £5.6 billion, securing tens of thousands of jobs here. In the light of that record last year, we will take no lessons from Conservative Members.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough): Is the Minister aware that there is great disquiet about the transparency of the export credits guarantee scheme; in particular the decision to allow an export to Tanzania before Christmas, which came under great scrutiny in the media? However, there has been little chance for Members of this House to scrutinise the decision here. Where there is criticism of particular export credit guarantees, will my hon. Friend take steps to ensure that we are able to discuss those and to press home the case that sometimes they are not in the best interests of the country concerned?

Nigel Griffiths: I am not sure if my hon. Friend is referring to the Tanzania air traffic control project.

Mr. Reed indicated assent.

Nigel Griffiths: He is. I can tell the House that it receives no ECG support, nor is it seeking it.

Computer Hardware Industry

9. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): What steps she is taking to promote employment in the computer hardware manufacturing industry; and if she will make a statement. [25553]

The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The Government are today announcing a new £24 million LINK programme to support collaborative research in information storage and displays. This should lead to the development of the next generation of monitors and disk drives for PCs. The Government already have in place a range of assistance and schemes that are designed to increase the productivity and competitiveness of UK industry.

Michael Fabricant: That is good news for the industry. The Minister, who represents a Paisley constituency, will be aware of the fall in the number of jobs available in the development of computer hardware and computer chip technology. He will be aware that this is partly due, but only partly, to there being overcapacity in the world market. Is it not also the case, as the chairman of Fujitsu pointed out, that, for the first time since the last Labour Administration in the 1970s, the on-costs of employment in Britain are now higher than in Germany? Is it not the case that companies such as Siemens, Fujitsu and others who are having to cut back in a worldwide market are now choosing Britain to cut back rather than Germany

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and other countries because the cost of employment here is now so much higher because of Government legislation?

Mr. Alexander: As we have said, we cannot wholly insulate ourselves from international challenges at the moment, and the overshoot in the technology sector generally over the last couple of years is having an effect on the British market. The challenge does not come just from Germany. The challenge for computer manufacturing more widely is to move up the value chain in the UK. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to mention my constituency of Paisley, South. In that area we are clear about the importance of computer manufacturing. The Compaq facility—where I myself was employed—is only just down the road. The challenge for such facilities is this: how do they move from basic computer manufacturing up the value chain, often involving software design? That is why the money being put into research and development by this Government is critical in assisting those companies as they move up the value chain.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South): I congratulate my hon. Friend on yesterday's conference on women in IT, which was intended to increase the employment of women in the computer industry and across the technology industry. However, the record in terms of the employment of women is lamentably bad in that sector. With that in mind, what further measures will the Department take to increase the awareness of employment opportunities in those industries among young women, particularly, whose perception of the industry is that it is full of net nerds?

Mr. Alexander: I endorse entirely my hon. Friend's statement. If we are to be globally competitive, we cannot afford to draw on the talents of only half the population of the UK. That is why I particularly welcomed yesterday's announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. If I had to refer to one aspect of it, it would be the work done by ambassadors, who are going into schools and actively talking to young women about potential employment opportunities within this dynamic and important sector.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): The Minister may recall that the 2000 Budget document stated that Britain would be the best place in which to trade electronically by 2002. The year 2002 has arrived and the latest report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that Britain is 22nd in the ranking of those with access to broadband technologies. Will the Minister acknowledge that the Government have failed in their target, and what will he do to rectify the lack of broadband access?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman will know that, in December, we published the broadband stakeholders group report, which drew on wide expertise from across industry. We also published the next stage of the Government's strategy in response to the challenge of broadband. Two challenges exist: extending the 60 per cent. infrastructure coverage that exists at present, and driving up broadband usage levels. At present, 1.9 million small businesses are online. One of the challenges in broadband is to deliver services and content that small

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businesses consider to be valuable. That is I why I especially welcomed the initiative that we launched in December, "Broadband Britain: The Content Challenge", which was directed specifically at developing content that will drive up broadband usage in the months and years to come.

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