Previous Section Index Home Page

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Does he acknowledge that many of those companies were small companies? Given that small companies are the driver of the British economy, does he agree that any new tax on small or medium-sized companies would be a retrograde step? What discussions has he had with his counterparts at
22 Feb 2007 : Column 399
the Treasury about the possibility of a new local business tax resulting from the Lyons review? Would he oppose any such tax?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman is asking me to anticipate the outcome of the Lyons review and to make pronouncements before it has been completed. We are in close touch with the Treasury on all business matters, and it is certainly the role of the DTI to provide business support. We do that through Business Link, which is attracting a great deal of interest and received more than 700,000 hits last year from businesses, helping them to stay in business and to develop. We have also published our better regulation simplification plan for all businesses, and the small business forum is part of the ministerial challenge panel that I chair, and helps to ensure that small businesses can survive in today’s competitive market.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the figures that he has given to the House provide only a partial picture of what is going on in UK business, because much business formation consists of sole traders and partnerships, rather than limited liability companies? To put the matter in context, will he tell the House how many limited liability companies were registered during that period, to give us an in-and-out measure?

Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend is describing the positive position of British business, and I can tell him that the three-year survival rate—a key indicator—for businesses registered in 2002 was 71 per cent., and that three-year survival rates have been increasing since 2000. The number of registrations at Companies House has exceeded the number of deregistrations each year between 1995 and 2005. That is a very positive image of British business.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): With both individual and corporate insolvencies now on the increase, is it not the case, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) said, that the small business man is increasingly feeling the heavy weight of this Government’s regulations and stealth taxes and, in many cases, simply closing up shop?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity to say a little more about the Government’s priority of better regulation. We are the first Government to quantify administrative burdens and publish the results, and we have committed ourselves to a 25 per cent. reduction by 2010. Business has always identified the administration burden as one of its top priorities. The DTI’s contribution to the £2 billion of savings that we have identified to be achieved by 2010 is £700 million a year, and we are working closely with all levels of business to ensure that we are addressing this issue. If the hon. Gentleman has any suggestions for improvements in better regulation, he can either hit the better regulation website or drop me a line. I will be very happy to hear from him.

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive

6. Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): If he will make a statement on the role of his Department in
22 Feb 2007 : Column 400
implementing the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive. [122137]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): Mr. Speaker, in 10 years of answering questions at this Dispatch Box, this is one that I did not want ever to have to answer. You will see why.

The Department of Trade and Industry has lead responsibility for the regulations that implement the majority of the provisions of the WEEE directive in the United Kingdom. These were laid before Parliament on 12 December 2006 and come fully into force on 1 July 2007. The DTI will shortly be issuing detailed guidance on the regulations and will continue to work with industry, local authorities and other parties to ensure the establishment of—wait for it—an effective WEEE system in the United Kingdom.

Dr. Pugh: I thank the Minister for that response. A recent survey showed that 43 per cent. of large firms were unsure about how to implement the electrical waste directive, and that 70 per cent. of small firms did not even know that it existed. In the light of that, and of the sheer lack of recycling industries in the UK, is not an electronic waste mountain now inevitable? Do we not now need strong cost departments and urgent action?

Mr. McCartney: It is true to say that this is one of the most complex pieces of legislation to come out of Europe. It is not true, however, to say that the Government and industry are not working together on it. All the proposals that have been implemented at local government level and at national and regional level have been implemented after full consultation with the British Retail Consortium. The arrangements and financial resources that have been put in place in local government and the industry itself reflect their requests about the operation of the scheme. Unless we put the scheme in place by July 2007, companies will increasingly be liable to dispose of those electrical goods themselves. That cannot be right. We have to have a comprehensive and effective system. We are taking our time over this matter to ensure that producers, distributors and local authorities are at one and that the scheme will be managed effectively.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I do not think that the Government could have got a more appropriate Minister to answer on the WEEE directive. Some of the electrical items may have been bought from Tiny in the past, but we will not go there. Will the Minister praise local authorities—including Ribble Valley—that have places in their recycling depots where people can bring their electrical waste items? In the implementation of the directive, will he ensure that enough thought is given to the unintended consequences, thinking not only of fridge mountains, which we saw in the past, but fly-tipping, which will take place in a number of areas throughout the country?

Mr. McCartney: I was going to ask Mr. Speaker to stop people taking the Michael out of me on this subject. This is a serious issue. The hon. Gentleman is right in this sense: I will congratulate local authorities. Local authorities and the British Retail Consortium have taken a leadership role on the issue. That is why
22 Feb 2007 : Column 401
there is something like an additional £10 million, from the retail sector itself, for local authorities to upgrade their civil amenities sites in advance. Alongside of that, we have changed legislation to give greater powers to local authorities to deal with fly-tipping, which is a serious social problem, as it always has been. The difference between this scheme and the fridges scheme is that this scheme has been well thought out and, from the beginning, there was a buy-in from local authorities and the industry. I believe that we have an effective scheme in place to start operating from July 2007.


8. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): If he will make a statement on his Department's efforts to increase trade with China. [122140]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): We are engaging with our Chinese counterparts at the highest level through our annual summits and joint economic trade commissions—JETCs—as well as the Deputy Prime Minister’s China taskforce, which has a substantial trade element. Indeed, the taskforce is meeting as we speak. During my visit to China, I established a rapport with the Chinese Government, which I have used to good effect—pressing China to further open its markets, marketing the United Kingdom’s strengths, lobbying on some of the key company issues, and assisting in the realisation of major contracts, such as the Rolls-Royce £400m engine contract with Air China and Arup’s contract to design Kunming airport.

Mr. Hands: The UK trade deficit with China in the past five years has been £3.8 billion, £5 billion, £6 billion, £7.3 billion and, finally, £9.4 billion. The Minister mentioned the China taskforce under the Deputy Prime Minister, which has as one of its four priorities the promotion of trade and investment between the UK and China. To what concrete achievements of the China taskforce in promoting trade with China can he point?

Mr. McCartney: It never ceases to amaze me that when we are trying to promote the United Kingdom in one of the world’s growing market, we get no continuity of support for either British business or British investment. It is not just the taskforce that is promoting trade with China—that is also happening at prime ministerial level, between the two Prime Ministers, and at Secretary of State level across the economy. It involves business after business and the City of London. There is now a 19 per cent. increase in UK exports to China. Our exports to China are growing faster than imports from China. That never happened under the Conservative Government. In the service sector, there is a 2:1 balance in favour of trade with the UK. We have the right policies, the right programmes, the right relationship and the right businesses to do business effectively with China.

Asbestos Claims

9. Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): What investigation has been undertaken into his Department’s performance in
22 Feb 2007 : Column 402
handling asbestos claims associated with British Shipbuilders. [122142]

The Minister for Industry and the Regions (Margaret Hodge): The day-to-day handling of such claims is undertaken by the solicitors Eversheds. The Department’s internal audit partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers, undertook a high level review and made a number of recommendations, but overall was complimentary about Eversheds’ handling.

Mr. Clapham: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, but she will be aware that many of the people who have been exposed to asbestos while working for British Shipbuilders have developed mesothelioma cancer, which means a very short lifespan. Will she therefore ensure that any delays that have been identified are removed so that claims can be settled quickly? She will also be aware that the Department for Work and Pensions has introduced a fast-track system. Will she ensure that her Department works within the framework of that fast-track system to ensure that mesothelioma sufferers are paid the money before they die?

Margaret Hodge: First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his consistent hard work over a long time in the House on behalf of mesothelioma victims. I will take note of his wise words, and we will ensure that claims are settled quickly. When preparing for this morning, I found that there was some slowness last year because of a lack of proper information regarding the settlement of claims. He is right to draw attention to the fact that mesothelioma victims tend to have the prospect of a short future life, so it is crucial that we act quickly. We will examine the DWP fast-tracking scheme to determine whether we can learn anything from it.

Trade Balance

11. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What the UK trade balance is; and if he will make a statement. [122144]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): The deficit on trade in goods and services was £4.9 billion in December 2006, the most recent period for which figures are available from the Office for National Statistics. There was a robust growth in UK exports of goods and services in 2006. The value of exports of goods and services was up 12.7 per cent. on 2005. The value of UK goods exports was up 15.2 per cent. on the previous year. The stock of inward investment in the UK rose to £483 billion at the end of 2005, a rise of £119 billion over the stock at the end of 2004. The UK is the second most popular destination for inward investment in the world today.

Mr. Amess: Throughout the whole of the last Conservative Government, we used to listen to Labour Members telling us how important it was to have a surplus in goods and services, but we have not had a surplus since January 1998, and we now have the worst deficit ever. Will the Minister tell the House exactly what this wretched Labour Government are doing to promote exports?

22 Feb 2007 : Column 403

Mr. McCartney: When it comes to wretched Governments, the hon. Gentleman should know one—he was a sycophantic supporter of them before he lost his seat. Under his Government, we had inflation at 10 per cent., 3 million on the dole, 1,000 businesses going to the wall every week, national debt doubled and 350,000 young people on the dole. This is now a different country with a world-class economy and a Government who are committed to British business. We are providing 2.5 million new jobs. This is a different country—thank God—with a Labour Government.

Women and Equality

The Minister was asked—

Human Trafficking

19. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on efforts to eradicate the trafficking of women into the UK. [122152]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Meg Munn): I regularly discuss these issues with the inter-ministerial group on trafficking, and I recently wrote to Cabinet colleagues to support our signature to the Council of Europe trafficking convention. At our last meeting, we discussed the progress of the UK human trafficking centre, the first of its kind in Europe.

Mr. Hands: I thank the Minister for her response and welcome the UK finally signing up to the convention, following Conservative pressure.

The Minister will be aware of last June’s massive and authoritative report by the US State Department on human trafficking in the world. In a mixed review of the UK, it stated:

Will she tell us the Government’s response to the suggestions from the US State Department?

Meg Munn: The Government are doing a great deal on trafficking, which is why cross-government work is going on. We have had successful operations in relation to people coming into this country, such as Operation Pentameter. We are leading Europe on providing for victims and ensuring that people are recognised at ports. This must be an international issue and it needs to be dealt with through international action. We are making great progress, and we are recognised as a leader in Europe.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): I agree that we are making progress, but what steps are the Government taking to ensure that schemes that are designed to help victims of trafficking are available outside London?

22 Feb 2007 : Column 404

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend asks an enormously important question. The Home Office funding for the Poppy scheme, which is based in London, between 2003 and 2006 totalled £2 million. Last year, we entered into a £2.4 million funding agreement to provide 25 crisis places, 10 resettlement places and the first ever outreach service for UK victims of trafficking. Work is going on to develop places outside London, and we are examining the situation as part of our overall review of support for vulnerable people.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): The whole House understands that it is very difficult to take effective measures against this contemporary form of slavery, given the desperate circumstances that many of the women face in their own countries and the ruthlessness of the criminal gangs, but the key point has to be to try to stop those women leaving their country and coming here. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Policing Minister with a view to sending senior police officers, perhaps even retired ones, to some of the countries that are the worst offenders to see what action they can take to try to tackle the problem at source?

Meg Munn: The hon. Lady raises an enormously important issue, and indeed such work is ongoing. I am also pleased to say that this week the Department for International Development has produced a booklet called “Breaking the chains - eliminating slavery, ending poverty”, which is designed to recognise that it is poverty and social exclusion that make people vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of contemporary slavery. DFID’s work in supporting long-term programmes to help tackle the underlying causes of poverty, including social exclusion and conflict, are also adding to our work on the issue.

Flexible Working

20. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): What rights parents have to request flexible working; and if she will make a statement. [122153]

The Minister for Women (Ruth Kelly): In April 2003, we introduced the right to request flexible working for parents of young and disabled children. Finding working hours to match caring responsibilities is a crucial issue for many families. Some 3.6 million parents have that right; almost 25 per cent. of them have asked to work flexibly; and about four out of five requests are accepted.

Jo Swinson: I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she agree with her colleague the Minister for Children and Families that all parents should have the right to request flexible working? Indeed, given that there are so many reasons other than caring responsibilities for people wanting to manage their work-life balance differently, does she agree that there would be benefits for all of society if the right were extended to everyone?

Next Section Index Home Page