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9 Mar 2009 : Column 59
5.39 pm

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Select Committee on Business and Enterprise, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff). When the Department was restructured, we had a discussion about where regulatory reform fits into it, given the new responsibilities of my Committee, the Select Committee on Regulatory Reform, and we now have a good working understanding of how that relationship fits together. That is an example of how we can build bridges and make structures work.

I wish to make some observations about the departmental structure. I, too, was concerned when I first saw the structure that was set up after the last election. In fact, my Committee passed comment in its first investigative report on the moving of responsibility for regulatory reform from the Cabinet Office to the new Department. When we took evidence during that investigation, it was interesting to find that the majority of people had come to the conclusion that there is always difficulty in creating the right structure of government, as successive Governments have demonstrated. The hon. Gentleman mentioned science, which has been around five or six different Departments. There is never a perfect place to put it. The important thing is not creating departmental structures but creating mechanisms to make Departments talk effectively to each other.

I have come to the conclusion that the hon. Gentleman is wrong about Ministers with a foot in both camps. There is a role for them, and it is particularly useful if there is a foot in the Treasury camp, as there are cross-cutting matters to consider. It is interesting to note his observation that both the CBI and the Engineering Employers Federation have said that certain things are working better in the new Department than in its predecessor. That is partly down to the new cross-cutting arrangement.

My Committee’s report concluded that we would want to revisit the role of regulatory reform in future, based on experience. There is a good argument to be had about whether it can be dealt with effectively by one Department, given that it should transcend every Department of State and every aspect of local government. I respect the hon. Gentleman’s view, but I believe he would acknowledge that, on some matters, we can come to conclusions only when we have the advantage of hindsight. It is a great benefit to be able to use hindsight from time to time, but of course it can be too late if we have got things wrong. However, I believe that we have made some important steps.

I commend to the House the survey of business undertaken by the National Audit Office during the past year. It has thrown up some fascinating data about where individual businesses perceive the burden of regulation to come from. There has been a slight move in the right direction, with businesses perceiving that the burden is shrinking. Interestingly, the perception is sectorally based. The Committees that the hon. Gentleman and I chair will consistently have problems in being able to drill down on the impact of Government legislation on individual sectors of the economy and come to conclusions about the best way forward. I would like detailed work of the type that I have mentioned to be commissioned, so that we can get away from the rather silly headlines about the number of regulations and so on and consider how individual sectors are affected.

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Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that the cost to business of additional regulation amounts to £66 billion over the past 11 years? That is not a silly figure—it is a most disturbing burden that businesses have to face and tackle every day.

Andrew Miller: That is an easy headline, but missing from it are the cause of the regulations, the sectors on which they have an impact—

Mr. Binley rose—

Andrew Miller: The hon. Gentleman is so anxious that he will not let me finish my sentence. It is important to consider the way we try to shift the burden away from businesses, and which regulations have gone through the House with all-party support. We must also recognise that some burdens that we place on businesses are necessary. It is easy to cite figures that sound horrendous, but when one asks what the burdens are—as the National Audit Office asked businesses; clearly, the hon. Gentleman has not read its report—it is interesting to note that only a few businesses, which totalled 5, 6, 7 and 8 per cent. of the 1,000 surveyed, identified the same burden. However, the survey had an extremely long tail of little gripes from individual businesses. I am concerned that we are not drilling down and considering those properly.

Mr. Binley: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Does he also appreciate that, when the sets of regulations were examined, 62 per cent. were found to be gold-plated by the Government? Is that a silly statement, too?

Andrew Miller: Neither our report nor the National Audit Office found that. I am not sure whether it is proper for me to try to recruit, but there is a Conservative vacancy on my Committee, and I would look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s participating because we are desperately short of Conservative Members. Indeed, no Conservatives bother to turn up.

Mr. Bailey: My hon. Friend takes a great interest in regulation. Does he agree that it is rather odd that Conservative Members complain about the so-called burden of regulation on businesses, but almost in the same breath blame the Government for not regulating the financial services sector more heavily in the past few years? Is the Regulatory Reform Committee considering the possibility of analysing the appropriate regulatory framework for the financial services sector?

Andrew Miller: The financial services sector is, of course, the purview of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (John McFall), the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, but we are discussing our next subject of inquiry with him to ensure that we consider issues in which industrial and financial matters cross over. I will deal with some of those problems when I speak shortly about the vehicle industry, which is dear to my heart. However, my hon. Friend makes a good observation.

I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire about credit insurance. It is increasingly a problem, especially, as he said, in the construction industry. A couple of weeks ago, I visited a company in my constituency
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that has successfully traded for two generations. The father started the business and the son continues it. It deals with ground-level works, ground clearances and environmental clean-up. The Minister for Trade, Development and Consumer Affairs will be interested to learn that the company—Morgan’s—won a major health and safety award as a result of its work, in competition with other, much bigger companies.

Morgan’s is typical of the kind of company that the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire spoke of. It is genuinely concerned about the problem of credit insurance, which is an area where we need some rapid movement by the Government to try to help to underwrite some of the important work that is available. There is a lot of potential in the publicly funded contracts that can emerge as a result of the Building Schools for the Future programme and other such projects, but we must ensure that the potential contractors can fully participate without risk to themselves.

My fourth point is about vehicles. I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) has joined us, because he visited my constituency last week—he did not bother to tell me of course, but that is the nature of things these days. We are not as polite to each other as we used to be. [ Interruption. ] I can see that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is seeking to stand up and apologise, but he does not need to bother, because I accept that from him. His was supposedly a private visit—that was what it said in one newspaper, but last Saturday’s Daily Post quoted him at length on what he thought of the vehicle industry. I am sure that he will not have seen that, because the Daily Post does not circulate in his neck of the woods, but I commend the online edition to him, because he is quoted in it at length, suggesting that the Government have done nothing to aid the vehicle industry.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman and I would probably start with some common ground, in that Vauxhall, which is part of GM Europe, which is part of General Motors, has transformed itself beyond all recognition. He will have seen a company that is tooling up for a new vehicle that is going to come on stream in September, part of which has been supported by a significant degree of public money—so significant, in fact, that it was subject to inquiries from Europe about whether it was legitimate under competition rules. That money has been given the green light and is being used.

That work is being done by the company in partnership with West Cheshire further education college, which is upskilling people, and not just for the new vehicle in September. Plans are afoot to keep that training programme, so that we will be in a position to capture some of the new work that will come into Europe and, I hope, into the UK as a result of the investments being made in electric cars. I hope that we can get a cross-party consensus to encourage companies such as General Motors to work with all parties in the House in bringing that about.

If we do that, not only will the 2,200 people who work at Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port be beneficiaries, but there will be massive supply chain implications. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire touched on the supply chain and he is absolutely right. In my constituency we have just lost a tiny company called Cabot Carbon, which had been there for 60 years. It had certificate No. 1 under the Marshall plan and was formally sponsored and backed to the hilt by the late Harold Wilson when
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he was President of the Board of Trade. Cabot Carbon made carbon black, an essential product in tyres, but the market in carbon black has collapsed across the world. Factories around the world have closed because of the failure of vehicle companies to sell their products.

The problem starts at the raw materials level and goes up from there. It is not just the companies that make components that are affected; it is companies that make the raw materials that make the components. We have to look at the supply chain comprehensively and ensure that the programmes that we put in place as a result of the Government’s proposals reach out to all parts of the industry. It is no good our simply saying that we can do nothing, as some have suggested, and that we should leave things to the market. That is not good enough.

There must be some direct intervention to offer support with short-time working and scrappage, as I indicated in the Liaison Committee—the hon. Gentleman will recall that I asked the Prime Minister about that. There is a raft of issues that we can examine, although it would be wrong, incidentally, to use the scrappage scheme as a pretend environmental scheme. We must be clear that the issue is not whether the project is environmentally friendly; it is about intervening in the market to help to stimulate it. We ought also to look at the finance companies, as the hon. Gentleman said.

Those are the kinds of things that are being examined, along with the training programme. We now need to see those things translated into action well before the summer, so that the companies are lined up, just as Vauxhall is lined up to launch the new vehicle in September with gusto and confidence. It is a great vehicle and I am sure that people in this place, as well as many people outside, will buy it, but I will leave it at that.

5.56 pm

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): I congratulate the Chairman of the Business and Enterprise Committee, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), on introducing today’s estimates debate so competently and on his neat summary of the work in which the Committee has been involved. It has been a privilege to serve on the Committee and I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate him on how he has chaired it through consideration of some complex issues over the past six months. It is an extremely successful Select Committee and I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being part of it.

I want to start with the Chairman’s end-point, which was about the accountability of the Department. As a member of the Committee, I am one of the fortunate 15 or 16 hon. Members who are able to cross-examine the Secretary of State. As the Chairman said, we have quite rightly been privileged in having the Secretary of State give evidence on a couple of occasions. However, other hon. Members have not been afforded that privilege.

When the Department has such an enormous work load and when there is such an enormous focus on its work, we need accountability in this Chamber. I am sure that I am not alone in having had constituents and businesses saying to me, “When you next see Peter Mandelson or one of the Ministers, will you ask them this?” I do not think that I have known businesses to be in contact as much as they are now with direct questions that they want taken up. It is extremely frustrating not to be able to do so on the Floor of the House.

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As the Chairman of the Committee said, we have some extremely hard-working and able Ministers coping with some extremely difficult circumstances. What I am saying is in no way a criticism of their ability; in fact, we are arguing that it would help them with their role and function if they could be more accountable. It is not acceptable to have so many Ministers in the Department in the House of Lords. In principle, I have no problem with Ministers coming from the House of the Lords; in fact, the appointment of Peter Mandelson was a good thing in many ways. It certainly raised the profile of business and he seems to have brought a lot of energy and vigour. One of the advantages of appointing from the Lords is being able to bring in such individuals. However, the one weakness in the system is the lack of accountability.

In considering that point, the Committee suggested a number of solutions, some of which the Chairman touched on. The most obvious solution is for Peter Mandelson to be at the Dispatch Box in this Chamber. I just cannot understand what is tied up in our history that does not allow a Member from the other side of the Palace to come and be answerable at the Dispatch Box. That would be the simplest thing to do. I am sure that there are all sorts of archaic reasons why we cannot do it, but now is not the time for old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy ideas; now is the time for the Government to demonstrate that they recognise and understand that there is a crisis. If that means more accountability by allowing a Member of the House of Lords to stand at the Dispatch Box in this Chamber, that is what we should do.

I cannot understand the arguments against that happening. It is not good enough to say that it has not happened before. That is never an argument for change; if we use that argument, there will never be any change. Even if we are prepared to accept that Lord Mandelson is unable to answer questions here at Question Time, surely he should at least be able to come to this House to make key statements. I feel disfranchised when important statements on business and the economy take place in the House of Lords and we are unable to put questions to the Cabinet Minister on the Floor of this House.

Peter Luff: I appreciate the work that the hon. Gentleman does in the Select Committee. I do not want to trivialise what he is saying, but what he is suggesting has been done before: the Duke of Wellington was here in 1815. [Interruption.] Also, we have Westminster Hall and Committee Room 14, so it really should not be difficult to achieve this. I endorse what the hon. Gentleman is saying.

Mr. Oaten: My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) says that he remembers that occasion; I do not. I do not really give a damn about whether there is a precedent or not. The point is that it is a good idea now, and we should adopt it now. Whether there is a precedent or not is irrelevant. If we are not prepared to do that, however, we might consider that there is a precedent for Members of the other place appearing before Grand Committees—albeit that the Scottish and Welsh Grand Committees would be pretty useless forums when it came to the matters that we are talking about. Why could the Secretary of State not come to Westminster Hall, for example, so that we could ask him questions there?

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There is also the matter of written questions, and of not being able to go through directly to the Secretary of State with them. It would be an incredible response from the Government if they were to recognise this unique situation and to create some kind of accountability. However, their response has not been helpful, as the Chairman of the Select Committee has said. I will not repeat all the various issues, but the one that I found the most ridiculous was the suggestion that, if we were to allow some such accountability, Peter Mandelson would not be able to meet his commitments in the other place. Peter Mandelson would be more than able to do all that at the same time, as he indicated when he appeared before the Select Committee, although he did say that he was beyond his comfort zone. However, he would probably appreciate being able to do so.

It is not good enough simply to allow Peter Mandelson to appear before the Select Committee on a few more occasions, as the Government have suggested. That would not create parliamentary accountability. It would hijack the work of the Select Committee, and genuine accountability would be provided to only about 11 Members. It is certainly not good enough to say that there are opportunities to have quick conversations with Ministers in corridors, because we want the ability to have their answers placed on record. People do not get on the record by talking in corridors.

I want to touch briefly on a few of the issues that the Select Committee has considered in relation to the present economic crisis, and to pick up on the theme of its impact on small businesses. Having talked to small businesses, my biggest concern is the mismatch between central Government announcements and reality. That is a constant theme from those who represent individual businesses. A number of examples spring to mind, the first of which is the small business finance scheme. The initiative sounds incredibly worth while, and it was welcomed by Members on both sides of the House. In the months since the scheme was announced, however, it has been extremely difficult to tie down the Government and find out what is actually happening.

I asked the Minister in a parliamentary question last December when he expected the first payments to be issued under the small business finance scheme. I asked further questions about access and about the resources being set aside for that purpose. That question was asked at the beginning of December, and it was due for answer on 15 December. I have checked with my office today, 9 March, and we have still not had a reply to that question about an important Government scheme. How quickly the Government respond to questions about how the schemes are working on the ground sends completely the wrong message.

Another issue that has been touched on by the Chairman of the Select Committee is the way in which banks are providing for implementation of the various schemes. Having spoken to business men and those working in the banks, I have discovered several problems. First, there is a lack of awareness at branch level about what the schemes are and how they work. Worse still, different banks are offering different interpretations of how the schemes operate. The same business could approach three or four banks and be told different things about how to apply for the schemes.

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