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13 Feb 2003 : Column 1029—continued

Women Entrepreneurs

19. Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): What progress has been made towards creating a strategy for increasing the number of women entrepreneurs. [97610]

The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): As my hon. Friend the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness said a few minutes ago, a national strategic framework on women's enterprise has been produced by the Small Business Service and is currently out for consultation. This strategy, which will be launched in April, will strengthen business support for women who want to start and grow a business.

Ms Munn : I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. Will she take this opportunity to congratulate Yorkshire women, who are not only the most

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entrepreneurial women in the country but are more entrepreneurial than Yorkshire men? Are there lessons to be learned from Yorkshire women's businesses, such as the Sheffield-based public relations company, diva, which recently won three awards, that could be included in the Government's strategy?

Ms Hewitt: I readily congratulate Yorkshire women generally, and diva in particular, which is a business that I know, on their great entrepreneurial success. I also congratulate my colleagues in business links, in south and west Yorkshire, who are developing successful networks of women entrepreneurs. The fact remains that if we could get women in the rest of the country to set up new businesses at the same rate as men, we would have an extra 100,000 new businesses in Britain every year.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): Does the Minister agree that entrepreneurs—whether men or women—are, by their very nature, highly self-motivated, imaginative and problem solving, and that those traits cannot be created by a Government strategy?

Ms Hewitt: I am afraid that it is typical of Conservative Members to imagine that Government can have no effect on that. We find from the entrepreneurs and small businesses that we help that—as with the Manufacturing Advisory Service we discussed earlier—they welcome that support and want more of it. We are delivering it.

UK Companies (Women Employees)

20. Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell): What recent discussions she has had with UK companies who employ women in developing countries. [97612]

The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): I have regular meetings with British companies that have operations overseas. Promoting corporate social responsibility both at home and abroad, including ethical employment practices, is a high priority for this Government.

Mr. Challen : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. I am sure that she would agree that an expansion in free trade should not lead to an expansion in sweatshops and the exploitation of women in developing countries. Sadly, in many cases, the reality does not match the rhetoric. One example is the Gina Form Bra Company, which operates in Thailand and has been condemned by that country's National Human Rights Commission. The company oppresses trade unions, but it employs 1,100 women. It also supplies a major, well known British high street retailer, as do many other such companies. Will she have a talk with British retailers about where they source their materials from and about eradicating the practices that I have mentioned?

Ms Hewitt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I am aware of the situation that developed at Gina Form Bra Company in Thailand and I know that the Labour Minister in the Thai Government has already taken action on it. Once I have received more

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information, I will certainly discuss it with the British retail companies concerned and with my opposite number, Dr. Adisai, the Minister for Commerce in Thailand, whom I had the opportunity to meet recently, and agree with him on the need for free and fair trade across the world.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The right hon. Lady said earlier that she has introduced Fair Trade tea and coffee in the Department of Trade and Industry, on which I congratulate her. Is she aware of the John Lewis Partnership initiative of encouraging trade in Fair Trade

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wine, and will she undertake to meet Steve Esom, managing director of Waitrose, and Sir Stuart Hampson, chairman of John Lewis Partnership, who have done so much to encourage Fair Trade retailing in the UK, and the fair employment of people overseas?

Ms Hewitt: I am delighted to congratulate John Lewis and Waitrose on that initiative. I have great admiration for those companies, which are, of course, owned by their employees. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness recently met the organisation to discuss corporate social responsibility.

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Airport Security

12.30 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Urgent Question): I hope that the Home Secretary might be willing to make a statement to describe his assessment of the current situation at Heathrow, and the Government's response to it.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): Since Tuesday, there has been an enhanced level of security throughout the capital. As the Metropolitan police said in its statement, which was made on behalf of all those engaged in the operation, this was likely to be most visible at Heathrow airport. At the request of the operational services, it was agreed that, as in the past, the armed services could be called on for preventive and protective measures.

It may help the House if I set the events of this week in the context of what was said in my statement of 7 November, and if I recall key points. As I made clear, we face a real and serious threat. We know that al-Qaeda will try to inflict loss of human life and damage upon the United Kingdom. That is why we have explicitly pointed to some of the most obvious risks, such as to transport infrastructure, and why the Government have taken a range of measures to improve public protection. In doing so, we have been mindful of the importance both of keeping the House informed, and of keeping continuity of operational policing and security measures.

The House will forgive me if I quote the most relevant passages of the statement of 7 November. I said:

The statement continued:

This is precisely what we have done this week, and will need to do from time to time in the future. If the situation were to change, I would inform the House. If there are specific incidents—as tragically occurred in January, with the death of Detective Constable Oake—I will come back to the House. However, I do not believe that it is responsible to provide a running public commentary from the Dispatch Box on every end and turn—any more than previous Governments did during the past 30 years, when facing the threat from Irish terrorism.

As with those Governments, our view is that we must do nothing to undermine the work of the police and the security services. We have to make fine judgments, which must ensure the safety of sources of information. The terrorists must not be able to assess what we know and how we know it.

We must give the public the information that they need to protect themselves and others. We did precisely that with the statement last Tuesday morning. However, we must also avoid frightening people unnecessarily or causing the sort of economic and social damage that does the work of the terrorists for them. The public must

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be alert but not alarmed. That is why I have consistently—and again this week—facilitated confidential briefings for the shadow Home Secretary and the Liberal Democrat spokesman.

Finally, I again pay tribute to the work of our police, security and armed services. We owe them our deepest gratitude for the continuing vigilance, courage and professionalism that they have shown.

Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to the Home Secretary for coming to the House and making a statement. I join him in the tribute that he pays to those who put themselves at risk to protect us.

In his statement, the Home Secretary repeated the sentiment expressed in the letter that he sent me this morning. The right hon. Gentleman wrote:

I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that it is far better to set the precedent of measured and comprehensive statements in the House than to allow a "running public commentary"—to use his words—to be provided by confused and conflicting signals given by other Ministers, on the airwaves and in press briefings.

As far as the substance of the Home Secretary's statement is concerned, the right hon. Gentleman has, as he knows, the full backing of the Opposition. On the basis of what he has said today, and of other information that has been vouchsafed to us, we believe that the actions taken by the Government, the security agencies, the military and the police are justified, responsible, appropriate and proportionate. However, I remain concerned, as I have been over the past nine months, that the level of general preparedness to deal with and contain the effects of any major terrorist attack is not yet fully adequate to the task.

There is worrying evidence, whether we look at the protocols governing inter-service co-ordination at local level or at the level of equipment and training of personnel in key positions, that, although preparations are being made, the pace of action is too slow. When those signs of lack of preparedness are allied to insufficient levels of prevention—for example, in relation to the security of ports and nuclear power stations—one begins to have the uncomfortable feeling that there is a degree of inertia in Whitehall. [Interruption.]

Labour Members may tut; they are ill advised so to do. It is the Opposition's duty to ensure that pressure is applied to the Government to ensure that the Government do everything necessary to protect the British public. I fear that we may still be at the stage where no one wants to upset the Whitehall apple cart, and where no one in Whitehall wants to offend anyone in the nine Government Departments with responsibility for the various aspects of civil protection.

I ask again, as I have asked for months, whether it can possibly be right for there not to be a senior Cabinet Minister who attends to these matters from early in the morning till late at night and whose remit is to galvanise Whitehall into action. Would not the existence of such a Minister also ensure that the Government were able,

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in the proper way and through the House of Commons, to speak with one clear and unwavering voice about matters that affect us all?

Despite Labour Members, we in the House today are ultimately all on the same side of the same barricades. We all share the desire to protect the public and ourselves properly. We look to the Government, in what may be troubled weeks and months ahead, both to instil an appropriate sense of urgency in the official machine and to ensure that public trust and public confidence are engendered by a flow of accurate and timely information.

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