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The Secretary of State was asked—

Coal Health Claims

1. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): How much was paid in coal health claims up to 31 March; how many claimants have benefited; and if she will make a statement on plans to increase the speed at which claims are processed. [224748]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths): We have paid £2.6 billion to nearly 420,000 claimants. Some £64.5 million of that was spread between 13,094 claimants in my hon. Friend's constituency. I pay tribute to his work in that regard. On 28 February, the Department began to make fast-track offers to claimants. We aim to ensure that remaining claims are dealt with as speedily as possible.

Paddy Tipping: The sum of £2.6 billion for coal health claims is very significant. Will the Minister remind us that the last Conservative Government refused the claim, and will he make it his policy to put more money into more miners' pockets more quickly?

Nigel Griffiths: Indeed. I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have striven to ensure that they get justice for sick miners and their widows and families.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I welcome the Minister's statement. In Barnsley, £166 million has been received in the community; in my constituency the figure was £39 million. I draw his attention to yesterday's report by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry which recommends that the 3,500 to 5,000 surface workers who have less than five years' service should be admitted to the scheme. Will he examine that recommendation seriously and consider either implementing a new scheme for such workers or bringing them into the current scheme?

Nigel Griffiths: I gave evidence to the Select Committee and I understand that its report was produced this week. I have not yet had a chance to study
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it, but I think that my hon. Friend knows that we give every sympathetic consideration to helping sick miners and their families. The surface workers issue is difficult, and he knows that I have taken a keen interest in it. I have not yet found evidence that would allow us to extend the scheme, but I will obviously read the Select Committee's deliberations with great care.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): Obviously, the announcement by the Minister is fantastic news. My constituency has benefited from almost £79 million in compensation.

I wonder whether the Minister will take this opportunity to update the House about the negotiations to establish a minimum compensation level of £500 for chronic bronchitis? This week, I encountered yet another example of a former miner suffering from it in Hemingfield in my constituency who was receiving a full and final settlement of just £53.01. It is important that we examine the issue and establish the minimum fee as quickly as possible.

Nigel Griffiths: I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, on Monday I had a meeting with the head of the National Union of Mineworkers in Scotland to discuss how we could progress with the minimum fee. The solicitors made a proposal, and said that, as their average fee including VAT is about £2,300, they might sacrifice some of that to make up any payment offers under £500 up to that sum. We are now working on the mechanism that would allow that to be delivered.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that those who worked for other employers as well as the National Coal Board and British Coal have some difficulty? As he knows, there is a problem with multi-claims. Some private employers are refusing to pay their whack out of the total payment. Therefore, we must jump on them severely to try to get the claims settled. Such claims form the bulk of the outstanding claims. If we can get that show on the road and deal with the fast-tracking of £1,000, we will make much more progress for the next Parliament and get a lot more money.

Nigel Griffiths: We certainly will. Indeed, we have already honoured our part of that bargain. I am certainly the Minister to jump on such people.


2. Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): If she will make a statement on Government policies to promote investment in the private sector. [224749]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The Government have put in place a stable macro-economic environment. We also support business investment through research and development tax credits, grants, regional selective assistance and the technology programme. Business investment rose by 5.5 per cent in 2004.

Mr. Viggers: Is it not the most damning indictment of this Government that over the past eight years two public sector jobs have been created for every private sector job lost?
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Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman is, not surprisingly, completely ignoring the fact that since 1997 over 2 million more people are in work than when we were elected, that more people are in work than ever before in our country and that unemployment is at its lowest level for more than 30 years. All of that record of economic stability and employment would be put at risk by the policies that he supports: £35 billion of cuts in public spending and a return to the policies that gave us 15 per cent. interest rates and boom and bust.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that on the subject of investment, the proposed joint venture between the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation and MG Rover is not only vital for the west midlands but offers long-term benefits to both companies and both countries? I express my appreciation for the work that she and all Ministers are doing to bring the matter to a successful conclusion. I thank her for the Department's statement that bridging finance could be made available within the rules. I ask her to confirm the comments of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday that the Government will continue to do all that they can to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion to the benefit of both companies.

Ms Hewitt: I thank my hon. Friend for his support and for his active involvement on behalf of his constituents. I can confirm what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, other Ministers and I are doing everything possible to bring this matter to a successful conclusion, and that remains the case.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware that I share the location of the Longbridge factory with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). Probably like him, I have been receiving many distress calls this week from workers at the factory. As I understand it, one of the principal stumbling blocks with the Chinese is whether or not the factory can be made solvent during the two years that it will take to get the new cars into production. To that end, can the right hon. Lady tell us what efforts her Department is making to sell off the MG sports car, one of the pinnacles of British manufacturing success, which might help to keep the plant afloat? Will she give us some of the details of the financial offering that has been made by the directors of Phoenix Venture Holdings? There are many people in the midlands who believe that they have lined their own pockets with the assets of the plant, which should now be available to keep the plant afloat.

Ms Hewitt: I completely understand the anxiety that the present situation is causing to the 6,000 outstanding Rover workers and their families, and others who are potentially affected in the west midlands. The hon. Lady asked what efforts the Government are making to sell the MG Rover sports car. It is not for us to sell any company, and I am sure that she will understand that. I hope that she will also understand that I cannot comment on the details of the commercial discussions that have been taking place between MG Rover and the
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Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation. I have to point out to her that the cuts that she and her party are proposing of £500 million—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I say to the right hon. Lady that we must not make mention of the policies of the Conservative party. [Interruption.] I shall tell right hon. and hon. Members why not. From Monday onwards those policies can be mentioned, even by myself, if I wish, but not now.

Ms Hewitt: I understand, Mr. Speaker, that you are looking forward to your liberation.

I shall make an important point. It is only because there is a Department of Trade and Industry, a Department with a significant budget, that we can undertake the efforts to which I have referred, and provide the sort of support that we have made available to companies throughout the country—manufacturing companies that have benefited from regional selective assistance in particular. This has safeguarded thousands of jobs that would be directly threatened if any future Government were either to abolish the Department or to reduce its budget by £500 million. Jobs and manufacturing in Britain would all be jeopardised.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab): I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for opening Infolab at Lancaster university recently. It represents a major £10 million public investment in world-class university research which will bring and is bringing huge private sector investment in its wake, bringing many hundreds of jobs to the area and establishing Lancaster as the centre of information technology-led business for the north-west for the future. I assure her that the city of Lancaster was glorious before the Labour Government but has been made even more glorious, and does she realise—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman too much licence.

Ms Hewitt: I congratulate my hon. Friend not only on the achievements of the wonderful city of Lancaster but on the enormous work that he has done on behalf of his constituents. I am sure the whole House will join me in offering him every good wish for the future. I was hugely impressed and excited by the opening of Infolab at Lancaster university. It is a striking example of exactly the kind of partnership we need between our great universities and the business community. We are facilitating that through our investment in science, our technology programme and our investment in innovation. That is how we will ensure that Britain remains one of the world leaders in high-technology manufacturing. It is essential to the future of our economy that we make those investments and create those partnerships. All of them would be put at risk if that investment were not available.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): We all want to see the 6,100 jobs at MG Rover, the skills at Longbridge and the wider supply chain saved, so will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to say on the Floor of the House, in relation to her policy of promoting investment—we are in live time, as we
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speak—and without hiding behind commercial confidentiality, given that taxpayers' money is being offered, whether the Government are definitely making the £100 million bridging loan to MG Rover to draw down now, to see the company through its financial crisis to the point when the deal with the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation and the consent of the Chinese Government can be secured?

Ms Hewitt: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I ensured that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and the Regions briefed him and the appropriate spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats on the progress that had been made at the end of last week. I propose to brief both of them again at an appropriate point as matters develop, and to make a statement, but I am not in a position to comment at this point on commercially confidential negotiations. He will understand, because we have discussed the matter before, that a bridging loan has been offered in order to provide a bridge to a commercial deal. That remains the case, but commercial discussions are taking place and at this point there is nothing more that I can say publicly. The Prime Minister made the Government's position clear yesterday, and that remains the case.

Mr. O'Brien: This, being my second question, is the last opportunity for the Secretary of State to make a statement on the Floor of the House, so notwithstanding the constraints under which she claims to be operating, will she tell us, in the context of the concern over a million jobs having been lost in UK manufacturing since Labour came to power eight years ago, what she and the Chancellor are doing to arrest the demise of our only volume car producer in the west midlands? If it did unfortunately suffer a demise, that would lead to the haemorrhaging of the wider supply chain across the west midlands, which is so important to the jobs and the skills base of one of the centres of excellence in our economy.

Ms Hewitt: My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor and I have been doing everything possible to bring the Rover partnership's discussions with SAIC to a successful conclusion, and I really am not prepared to take lectures on manufacturing from the hon. Gentleman, who is a member of a party that presided over not one but two recessions, that destroyed hundreds of thousands of good manufacturing companies in the west midlands and throughout the rest of the country, that destroyed manufacturing jobs, that said the country did not need manufacturing, and that has now promised to scrap the regional selective assistance that has supported—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Mr. O'Neill.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the efforts that she and her colleagues are making in this matter. [Interruption.] It is a pretty sad day, albeit just before a general election, when the Opposition try to dress up cheap political points on such a serious matter as this, and rediscover the manufacturing industry which they wanted to abandon for so long, not least because this country still has the most successful automotive
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assembly industry in Europe, in which foreign businesses are more than willing to put their money, rather than just the mouthings of the Opposition. [Interruption.]

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The 6,000 workers at Rover deserve a great deal better than the laughter and the jeering that we have just heard from Opposition Members. We, including the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, have been giving Rover every possible support, and we have done our best to deal with this on a bipartisan basis. I regret very much, as my hon. Friend does, the way in which the Opposition have acted on this, but I thank him for the support that he has given, not only in the matter of Rover but for the investments that we have made in firms such as Nissan, LDV, Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port and Ford in Dagenham, all of which underline the success of our vehicle manufacturing and other advanced manufacturing in Britain. The best of British manufacturing is among the best in the world, and we are determined to keep it that way.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that when taxpayers' money goes into investing in the private sector in the UK, the headline jobs that are created there are often replicated by jobs destroyed elsewhere? Does she not recognise that Sean Quinn's 500 jobs have been put on hold because 1,000 jobs in existing manufacturing plants are likely to be lost, and in my constituency, jobs at R. B. Farquhar of Huntly have been lost as a direct result of public money being put into a Danish competitor to steal business from it?

I appreciate the courtesy of having been included in the discussions on MG Rover, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it is predictably ironic that the directors of MG Rover have put us in this position at the start of a general election campaign, and will she ensure that if public money is to be invested in that company it will be only on the assurance that there is a long-term solution, and that the directors put everything that they have at their disposal into that guarantee, because, after all, they have led the situation to the point where we are now in crisis and up against a deadline that the Government are struggling to meet?

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of Quinn Glass. In that case, as in every case in which we consider investment support, we examine whether the company is willing to invest in new products and processes, which are essential for success in manufacturing today. We carefully examine additional investment, and the record on regional selective assistance is that for every pound of public money—we have put in more than £2 billion since 1998—we get more than £9 of private sector investment. As I understand it, the Quinn Glass production facility is on hold for planning reasons, which is a matter for the planning system. We will continue to support private sector investment in this country. Thanks in part to the stable macro-economic conditions that we have created, business investment has risen for the past seven quarters. The record on investment is outstanding, and it is a vote of confidence in the British economy.
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