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The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey): We have introduced a range of measures to encourage UK businesses to invest more in R and D, including schemes run by the regional development agencies in England, the technology strategy of the Department of Trade and Industry and the higher education innovation fund. We have also introduced R and D tax credits, and I can tell the House that national statistics published this morning confirm that the value of the small firms tax credit last year was £259 million. Overall, the total cost of support claimed under the tax credits is an estimated £1.3 billion, so there is big investment under a Labour Government to try to boost the levels of innovation in the economy.
Dr. Kumar: I praise the Government for their efforts to promote research and development along with science and technology. Compared with the situation when the Opposition were in power, that is greatly to their credit. On Teesside, we have two great centres of excellencethe Teesside technology centre for the steel industry and the Wilton centre for research to benefit the chemical industryboth of which are supported by large companies. What effort is my hon. Friend making to promote the tax credits that he mentioned to small and medium-sized industrial businesses, because we must ensure that they follow the policies that he outlined?
I have had the privilege of visiting the Wilton centre, and I was impressed by its work. My hon. Friend knows that it does not just work for big companies but provides specialist support for small and medium-sized enterprises and start-upsthe very companies about which he is concerned. He is anxious about small firms' knowledge and take-up of the R and D tax credit. There is in fact high take-up among eligible companies and he may be interested to know that Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, together with the Small Business Service, recently published a guide to try to help small companies with their applications for
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R and D tax credits. I will send him a copy, and he may wish to share it with small companies in his constituency.
Ed Balls (Normanton) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend encourage the Small Business Service to do more work with regional development agencies to encourage small companies to take up research and development tax credits? Does he agree that the Small Business Service would be less well placed to encourage small firms to benefit from the Government's support for research and development if it were abolished, as proposed by the Opposition?
John Healey: One feature of the Opposition's proposals before the election was their lack of support for the levels of investment in many things that are in place to secure the country's long-term growth and prosperity, including support for business through the Business Link service. As for the R and D tax credit, Business Link services run by the regional development agencies often provide specialist support for companies with R and D requirements. My hon. Friend will know from the performance of Yorkshire Forward, which offers the same service as One North East does in the north-east, that the R and D tax credit is a vital partbut only one partof the measures that we are putting in place to support greater innovation, research and development and prosperity for our regional companies, all of which are essential for future growth. He will also know that figures published yesterday show that, as well as foreign direct investment into the UK almost trebling, there was an increase of almost a quarter in research and development projects, and of almost two thirds in software projects.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Des Browne): Since the members of the European single currency do not have the ability to vary national interest rates and the nominal exchange rate between the euro area countries no longer exists, there is an additional premium in flexibility in capital, product and labour markets in the euro area. Consequently, to be fully equipped for the global economy, Europe must become more open and outward-looking, more flexible and competitive and more committed to reform to compete worldwide and move to full employment. It is against this background that the Government have set out an agenda for European economic reform during their presidency of the European Union.
Mr. Crabb: Have any minuted discussions taken place in his Department that have specifically considered and assessed the likelihood of one or more members of the euro zone reintroducing national currencies in the medium and long term?
Mr. Browne: I am unable to be precise in my answer to the hon. Gentleman's question because without notice of such a question, I cannot at the Dispatch Box be absolutely certain that I have seen every single piece of paper in the Treasury. What I can say to him is that I have taken part in no such discussions.
Although, as we know, the Foreign Secretary is making a statement immediately after business questions on the Government's plans for their presidency of the European Union, as is right and proper, will the Leader of the House provide an early opportunity for the House to debate in detail the contents of the Foreign Secretary's statement and the Government's plans? I personally congratulate the Government on apparently accepting what the Opposition have been saying for yearsthat Europe needs major changebut the issues that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have raised in the past few days, and the slight ambiguity over the rebate as set out in Prime Minister's questions yesterday, mean that it is essential that Members have the chance to debate these issues quickly.
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Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in welcoming back to this place my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack)? Will he work to ensure that the private Member's Bill proposed by my hon. Friend to address the unfortunate events in his constituency has the chance to pass through the House and into law? What has happened has revealed an alarming loophole in electoral law. We have seen how an election can be disrupted by an individual tragic death, but there is also the risk of a general election campaign, and, indeed, an incoming Government, being disrupted by, for example, a targeted terrorist campaign against minor party candidates. That loophole must be closed quickly.
Will the Leader of the House re-examine the programming of the Identity Cards Bill? I am aware that the programme motion was passed on Tuesday, but he knows that the Bill's timetabling has caused concern on both sides of the House. I know that he is committed to and has a long-term interest in providing sufficient time for debate: will he re-examine the programming of the Bill and make sure that debate is not curtailed on that important issue?
The proceedings of the current court case involving Railtrack are sub judice and cannot currently be debated in this House. Given the seriousness of some of the information that is emerging in court, however, will the Leader of the House provide an opportunity for hon. Members to debate the information that has emerged from the Government when the case is complete?
Why is the Foreign Office so reluctant to make a statement on Zimbabwe, particularly given yesterday's comments by the Prime Minister? On Monday, we heard from the Home Office on immigration issues in relation to Zimbabwe, and today's debate on Africa is too important for it to become a proxy for a statement on Zimbabwe. Can we have a detailed analysis from the Foreign Office of what is happening and what it is doing?
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