The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths): The Government take the issue of late payment very seriously. That is why from 7 August we are giving all businesses a new right to claim interest on late payments, a new right to claim a fixed sum of compensation for debt recovery costs, and a new right to have a trade federation or other appropriate organisation to challenge any attempt contractually to reduce the right to statutory interest.
Mr. David: I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. I am pleased that the third phase of the 1998 legislation is being introduced. Will my hon. Friend say how effective current legislation has been in reducing late payments?
Nigel Griffiths: The latest information that we have from the European business survey by Grant Thornton confirms that the average time taken to pay invoices is down from 50 days before legislation came into effect to 41 days. That is a cut of almost 20 per cent.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I warmly welcome the Minister's response to the main question, but does he not agree that smaller businesses are squeezed at both ends? Often, a large business will squeeze them because it uses them as what I would call a cash-flow till. At the other end of the scale, the banks levy substantial charges against smaller businesses. Is it not important that we ensure that the acorns that we hope will produce the big businesses of the future are allowed to use their money to expand, rather than allowing bigger companies to use them as a cash-flow mechanism?
Nigel Griffiths: The hon. Member puts the point well. I think that the whole House greatly welcomed the action taken by the Secretary of State in ensuring that there was a proper inquiry into bank practices. The banks have been instructed to modify those practices to the benefit of small businesses.
The hon. Member is also right about the issue of a minority of irresponsible large businesses who regrettably seem to follow the advice of a former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, then President of the Board of Trade, in his previous business career of delaying payment to the last possible moment. That is deplorable advice, and it is not the advice being given by the Government.
John Mann (Bassetlaw): The small business community will undoubtedly welcome that further improvement. Some of the worst culprits are Government Departments and agencies. Will the Minister monitor them and name and shame those that cost the Exchequer money because of interest levied as a result of their failure to pay up on time?
Nigel Griffiths: Yes, and my hon. Friend makes a particularly good point, as we now publish information on the time that Government Departments and agencies take to pay. The target is 100 per cent. prompt payment. Government Departments and agencies achieving that now exceed 95 per cent, so there is room for improvement, but they are setting quite a good standard. However, we want them to achieve the full target.
Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): Does the Minister accept that beyond the changes that will take place then, the overwhelming priority for most small business organisations is the promotion of best practice in credit management rather than the imposition of new regulatory controls?
Nigel Griffiths: Of course, but small businesses and small business organisations tell me that they need tough action to back that up, perhaps contradicting the messages from one or two people, and regulations are necessary to achieve that. If we are going to introduce measures on 7 August, which the hon. Member welcomed, we need regulations. To my mind, those regulations do not impose any burdens but, I hope, help to liberate small businesses and allow them to play the vital part in the economy which the House knows they need to play.
The Minister for Energy and Construction (Mr. Brian Wilson): The Department is supporting cleaner-coal technology by providing some £17 million over the period 1999 to 2005 for research and development and technology transfer, as well as assisting with the promotion of United Kingdom exports of clean coal.
Mr. Illsley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply. At a time when our whole energy policy is under review, it is essential that we maintain our coal industry, especially with increasing gas prices and certain nuclear power stations coming to the end of their life. Will my hon. Friend press for more investment and the application of research and development of clean-coal technologies to provide extra markets for our coal industry?
Mr. Wilson: The short answer is yes to all of that. Clean-coal technology is important domesticallyif we are to continue to have a coal industry, it must be based on cleaner coalbut it also has tremendous export potential. Probably the best thing that we could do globally for the environment is to make sure that clean coal is used in countries that are heavily dependent on coal and in most cases on old and dirty technology.
David Burnside (South Antrim): The Minister should be aware that the cleanest coal is not the black stuff but the brown stuff; it is called lignite and is used extensively by a number of our colleagues in continental Europe, especially Germany and Spain, for power production. Near my home in Ballymoney we have extensive lignite resources close to the surface; there are extensive resources in the west of my constituency at Crumlin and Lough Neagh, and there is lignite throughout the United Kingdom. Will the Minister give a commitment in any review of energy priorities that may be in production that lignite will be given precedence? Will he liaise with his colleagues in the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments to see that lignite, the clean coal, is used for power production in the UK in future?
Mr. Wilson: I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman said. In the context of the consultation on the White Paper and the emphasis on cleaner-coal technology, I am pleased to give the undertaking for which he asked.
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Government supported the new IGCCintegrated gasification combined cyclefor clean-coal technology in particular, that would result in a long-term future for our coal industry? It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the need to transport coalbecause plants can be sited on colliery premisesand the need to quarry limestone. It would also provide new opportunities for our engineering industry.
Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): Will my hon. Friend remain mindful of the special needs of coal-fired power stations such as Aberthaw in my constituency, which was designed exclusively to burn coal from south Wales, in particular from Tower colliery, with a high sulphur content? In future, the pressure will be on those power stations to increase limitations on their emissions.
The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): I understand that the hon. Gentleman intends to introduce a private Member's Bill on this subject later in the month. I have already welcomed a Bill on the same issue that has been introduced in another place. I can of course make no commitment in regard to parliamentary time, but we will certainly keep the matter under review, because there can be no justification for treating women who are members of mixed-sex private clubs as second-class citizens.
Mr. Walter: I am somewhat disappointed by that reply. When the Sex Discrimination (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill was proceeding through the House of Lordsit is due to have its Third Reading on Monday eveningit was supported by the Government, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benches. I hoped that the Minister would be able to give us a clearer indication that Government time would be made available when that Bill came to the House of Commons and took its place alongside my virtually identical Bill. It seems to me that the Government are more interested in the welfare of foxes than in the welfare of women.
Ms Hewitt: Until that point, I was full of sympathy for the hon. Gentleman. As I think he knows, there are technical problems relating to Lord Faulkner's Bill and the Bill that the hon. Gentleman intends to introduce, connected with, for instance, amendments to the Licensing Act 1988 and aspects of the drafting. If the hon. Gentleman wishes, I shall be happy to ensure that my officials discuss the drafting of his Bill with him; I shall certainly continue to discuss the issue with the business managers.