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8. Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester) (Lab): What plans she has to reduce the regulatory burdens on British manufacturing companies to enable them to compete successfully for Government contracts. 
The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The Government are committed to British manufacturing and in particular to helping British manufacturers to compete successfully for public procurement. That is why, in the pre-Budget report, we set out what we are doing on public procurement, including making sure that British businesses can compete on a level playing field in Europe.
Mr. Foster: First, on behalf of the 3,000 workers at GUS Home Shopping in Worcester, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the announcement she made earlier. Does she agree that it is about time we got businesses, trade unions and other interested parties together to take forward the procurement agenda that is in the best interests of UK manufacturers?
Ms Hewitt: I thank my hon. Friend for his first point. On the second point, I entirely agree. I very much welcome the fact that the CBI and the TUC have been working together and working with Government on the crucial issue of public procurement. We put in place in 2002 a new defence industrial policy, which was the context for the decision to award the contract for Hawk. That was hugely important in securing jobs in many parts of our country. Last September I brought together a number of the unions and business, the Office of Government Commerce and other Departments to focus on that, and since then we have done a great deal
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): At a time when manufacturing profitability in the latest quarter is a miserable 7 per cent. and investment in manufacturing is at very low levels, does the right hon. Lady accept that the awarding of Government contracts is extremely important? Does she further agree that it would be a disaster for British manufacturing competing for overseas Government contracts if Export Credits Guarantee Department cover were withdrawn from defence contracts, as the Liberal Democrats propose?
Ms Hewitt: I am very happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman on that last point. The Export Credits Guarantee Department has a very important role to play in supporting British manufacturers and other exporters in a number of different world markets. I am glad to say that we have recently appointed a new chairman of the board of the ECGD, and we are in the process of recruiting a new chief executive. I have no doubt that the ECGD will go from strength to strength in supporting aerospace and other parts of British manufacturing.
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that her department will continue to examine ways of reducing burdens by using the regulatory reform procedure? Here I refer to the Regulatory Reform Committee, which I chair. Is she not surprised that Conservative Members put in almost zero attendance? They are very rarely seen in the Committee.
Ms Hewitt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and thank him in turn for his work on the Committee responsible for regulatory reform orders. They are a very important part of the reforms that we have put in place to simplify some of the out-of-date regulation that we inherited. I share my hon. Friend's surprise and disappointment that Opposition Members are not doing more to contribute to that work.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths): In 2001, 34,845 businesses registered in London. We raised the VAT threshold to the highest in Europe, so thousands of businesses in London no longer have to register for VAT. In 2002, London's rate of VAT registrations was 54 per cent above the national average. For 2003, early indications show a significant rise in VAT registrations. VAT registrations, of course, do not tell the whole story.
Mr. Griffiths: I do not take lesson on statistics from the Liberals. I note that the hon. Gentleman was not interested in responding to my comments about the 2003 figures, because they are too optimistic for him to stomach. Why does he not take the figures from Barclays, which show that the latest survey reveals that the number of start-ups in London increased by 2.5 per cent., to 41,000, in the last year for which figures are available? I know that the hon. Gentleman will want to join me in congratulating the Mayor of London on the part he may have played in the growth of businesses there.
The Minister for Trade and Investment (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Since September my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I have had discussions on reviving the Doha development agenda with a wide range of Trade Ministers in Europe and across the world. In recent weeks I have already visited India and my right hon. Friend has visited China to discuss these issues. This weekend I shall meet EU Trade Ministers in Brussels, and my right hon. Friend will meet ministers from other countries at Davros.
Liz Blackman: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. A key objective of the UK Government at Cancun was to support the voice and interests of poorer developing countries. My hon. Friend mentioned India, a country with enormous economic potential. In the light of his recent visit, what assessment has he made of the potential for progress of the Doha negotiations in the coming year?
Mr. O'Brien: There was a great deal more optimism at the meeting I had with Arun Jaitley, the Trade Minister, than there was in the immediate aftermath of the Cancun summit in September. Indeed, the letter from Bob Zoellick, the trade representative, was very encouraging, and the US has set out a positive agenda for further meetings on the Doha development agenda. A mood is now developing that I hope will be reflected in the views of EU Trade Ministers when I talk to them at the weekend. It is possible to create a broad-based set of parameters for further negotiations that will in due course lead to an agreement that can lift 300 million people out of poverty. There is not only a commercial and economic imperative to get this going again, but a moral one.
The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Patricia Hewitt): I am working very closely with Iraqi women's groups so that they can play a full part in the reconstruction of their country. In particular, I am supporting the establishment of the Iraqi women's higher council, which will be an umbrella organisation for women's non-governmental organisations that is intended to act as an advisory body to the new Iraqi Government.
Mrs. Cryer : Does my right hon. Friend remember that there was a time when Iraqi women, unlike those in surrounding countries, were well represented in all the professions? What steps is her Department taking to help those women to regain prominent positions, including in the leadership of the country?
Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Decades ago, Iraq had a leading position in terms of the prominence of women and their participation in the professions and in public life, and Iraqi women want to get back to that. We have already worked hard to try to get more women into leadership positions, and they now include three members of the governing council, a Minister and four deputy Ministers, and the many women who are, I am glad to say, taking up positions on local councils. I am delighted that the Iraqi authorities have appointed their first woman ambassador to the United States. The position is improving, and there is no doubt that Iraqi women are hugely grateful for the British Government's support. However, there is a long way to go if they are really to fulfil their potential and to rebuild their country as they want to.
Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): I hope that the Minister agrees that we can learn from the lessons of the past. She will be aware of the recent article in Amnesty arguing that the international security assistance force failed to protect women, which hindered their participation in the post-conflict rebuilding process. What is she doing to ensure that we do not repeat the same mistakes in Iraq?
Ms Hewitt: I have discussed that with Iraqi women and with my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary. There are security problems, particularly in Baghdad and the immediate area, that affect both men and women. Until now, it has not been possible for the security services or the emerging Iraqi police force to give the additional attention that is needed to protect women from sexual assault and rape, which many of them fear and some, unfortunately, have
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend knows, Iraqi women have long enjoyed some of the most modern legal protections in the Muslim world. Can she assure people in this country and in Iraq that the recent decision by the governing council to introduce sharia law was a minority decision, and that there is no intention by Ambassador Bremer or anybody else to sign it into law?
Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend has played an outstanding role in supporting the Iraqi people in their struggle against tyranny, and the House and I pay tribute to her. I agree with her about the consternation that the decision has aroused in Iraq and more broadly. We share her anxiety and are working to ensure that sharia law does not become the basis for the new constitution of Iraq.