The Minister for Trade (Ian Pearson): According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, in 2003, the UK's export of goods and services to China amounted to £2.7 billion; imports of goods and services amounted to £8.7 billion.
Given those figures, the Minister will doubtless agree with the Prime Minister's comments in his statement on Monday about the challenge to our competitiveness that China poses. Does he also agree that China presents us with a huge opportunity for trade and collaboration? What is the Government's strategy
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to ensure that, in the 21st century, China becomes one of our major trading partners and that we maximise the opportunities and minimise the threats?
We are actively encouraging UK businesses to export more to China. We have set a target of doubling exports by 2007 and quadrupling them by 2010. There will be more than 100 UK Trade and Industry-supported trade missions to China this year, and an active programme of awareness raising is taking place throughout the United Kingdom. There is also the UK China Task Force and I should like to acknowledge the valuable work of the China Britain Business Council. We shall publish a trade and investment strategy on China shortly. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are massive opportunities and that it is important to take advantage of them.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that much of the new investment in mainland China is from companies based in Taiwan? What steps will he take to promote trade not only with Taiwanese companies that are based in mainland China but with those based in Taiwan?
Ian Pearson: My hon. Friend is right to point out that there is an active trade with Taiwan and Taiwanese companies in other countries. Many UK businesses also do business through Hong Kong, which is perceived as a safe starting point for entering the Chinese market. We want to up our game on export performance. Trade performance is important for the UK economy and, as Minister for Trade, I want to promote far greater trade with China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and south Asia, which is a huge growth market for the future.
Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): Despite the opportunities that China presents, is the Minister aware of the problems that arise from bad debt for those who trade in China? The problem is such that old China hands say, "Don't invest more than you're prepared to lose." The Chinese judicial system makes recovery of bad debts a live issue. Will he undertake to engage in conversations with Chinese trade officials about how that can be tackled?
Ian Pearson: I am happy to engage with Chinese officials on that and a range of other issues on a regular basis. I shall meet the Chinese ambassador later today and I shall visit China at the beginning of next month. We need to explore a variety of issues with the Chinese Government on trade and other matters. I assure the House that the Government are actively focused on the potential for China, its future growth and how we can take advantage of it and work bilaterally.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
(Lab): Before we get carried away about what is happening in China, let us remember what happened a few weeks agoI am referring to the Rover Group debacle. What happened?
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Those idiots from Phoenix trotted across to China and said, "Here's the certificate, here's the technology. You can have it for little or nothing", and we finish up with all those workers being chucked on the dole. I would advise any Minister to be careful of the Chinese takeaway.
Ian Pearson: As ever, my hon. Friend makes his point in a very distinctive way. We need to recognise that the Chinese are very good at doing business and are very strong negotiators, but it is also right to point out that there is no such thing as a slow boat to China any more. China's economy is growing rapidlyit has grown by 9 per cent. a year for the past 10 yearsand there are massive opportunities in that country. It is important for the UK's future prosperity that we do our utmost to ensure that we get a share of those new business opportunities.
The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): The Department of Trade and Industry works through an industry forum known as Pilot, which I chair, and with other organisations to increase the attractiveness of the oil and gas sector to all age groups. For example, a recent engineering event in Glasgow was aimed at schoolchildren. For the future, Pilot has undertaken a census, due to be completed by the end of the year, which will give a clearer understanding of the current capacity of the work force and will point to the need for specific intervention or appropriate collective action.
Miss Begg: I thank the Minister for that reply. It is very important that the perception that the North sea oil and gas sector is a sunset industry be laid to rest. There is at least 30perhaps 50years' work still left in the North sea, but what could turn the industry into a sunset industry is our failing to get fresh blood into it, both offshore and onshore. While Cogentthe sector skills counciland the companies themselves clearly have some responsibility in this regard, they are looking to the Government for a steer. What might that steer be?
Malcolm Wicks: On visiting an oil rig for the first timethe North sea's Elgin-Franklin oilfieldI was impressed, as many before me have been, by the work being undertaken and by the skills of the work force. As my hon. Friend says, there are oil and gas reserves in the North sea for several decades to come, so in that sense this very important industry is not in decline. It has massive opportunities, and given that so many of its work force are over the age of 50, we need to address the skills issues and, indeed, the communication issues. On visiting Aberdeen, I was impressed by that city's status as an international centre of excellence in the oil and gas industry, and in the wider energy industry.
Mr. Anthony Wright (Great Yarmouth)
(Lab): I recognise the initiatives that the Government are undertaking in this area, but we should recognise that there is a particular shortage of the skills to which the
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Minister has referred. We are talking about not just the North sea oil and gas industry, but a worldwide market. The industries in my constituency have drawn my attention to this skills shortage, pointing out that we will need such skills for the next 30 to 50 years. What are the Government going to do to address this problem?
Malcolm Wicks: We are working very hard with the industry and with the sector skills councils. A new traineeship has been created under the modern apprenticeship banner, bringing younger people into the industry. I am certainly not complacent about the question of the work force's demography, and we are working hard to address this issue. This is a great British, and Scottish, industry, and a very attractive prospect for young people thinking about career opportunities.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Meg Munn): Work-life balance benefits business and employees. We introduced the right to request flexible working, and nearly a million parents have since made such requests, of which almost 90 per cent. were accepted. We plan to extend this to carers of adults. We consulted on further measures in the "Work and Families: Choice and Flexibility" consultation, and we will announce the results in due course.
Mr. Reed: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and welcome her to her new position on the Front Bench. Does she agree that work-life balance is probably the biggest issue that many people face in terms of quality of life, and not just in the early years? While pursuing the Warwick agreement, recognising the importance of extending maternity leave, and increasing paternity leave for fathers like me who have had young children in the last few years, should we not also recognise that this is an important issue for those in mid-life, and particularly in the context of caring? Quality of life is crucial, and we will improve it only if we also reduce the length of the working week. Is it not important to achieve flexibility and to ensure that we do not work the longest hours in Europe?
Meg Munn: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments and I very much agree with what he said. It is very encouraging that many new fathers want to spend time with their children, and we are consulting on introducing greater flexibility in that regard. As I said earlier, we are also consulting on extending this provision to adult carers. We want to get this right, and it is important that businesses have the opportunity to comment, because we want them to succeed. On long working hours, I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that they are coming down, but I agree that we need flexibility and balance.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
(Con): I welcome the hon. Lady to the Dispatch Box and hope that she has a successful ministerial career. I recently
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attended an awards ceremony in Macclesfield at which the company, Complete Medical Communications, was given a work-life balance award. I am delighted about that. Clearly, work-life balance has an important part to play. [Interruption.] Wait! However, does the Minister accept that seeking to spread the work-life balance culture could add significantly to the costs of industry and commerce? Will the Government ensure that regulation and additional costs are not foisted on industry and commerce without the proper cost assessment being carried out, so that the Government know and business knows what additional costs they will be expected to bear? We are concerned about competitiveness.
Meg Munn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments and congratulate the company in his constituency. The fact is that many companies that have good work-life balance policies are very successful, but we do take account of the hon. Gentleman's considerations about the proper calculation of costs. We are not rushing into any proposals and they will be properly assessed before we introduce them. We know that Conservative Members were worried about the costs of the national minimum wage and the social chapter, but they have both proved to be good for business and good for Britain.