HC Deb 11 December 1975 vol 902 cc647-9
Q4. Mr. Paul Dean

asked the Prime Minister whether he will now allocate to a senior Cabinet Minister special responsibility for the self-employed.

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. As my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council told the House on 24th July 1975, matters arising from the diversity of the activities and interests of the self-employed do not form a coherent whole, important though they are, and are better handled on the basis of existing ministerial responsibilities.

Mr. Dean

Is the Prime Minister aware that in answer to recent questions I have been told that there have been no meetings with the self-employed about the proposals in the Gracious Speech? As the self-employed and small businesses play a vital part in our economy, surely they are as entitled to be consulted as the big battalions, the TUC and the CBI?

The Prime Minister

I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has an important point here. However, it is not an argument for having a Minister with responsibility for the self-employed. For example, some of the self-employed are principally concerned—I am thinking particularly of those in the retail and wholesale trades—with the activities of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection and others are concerned with purely industrial questions. In my contacts with the CBI I have always felt that it was fully responsive to small businesses and it has made many representations on their behalf. At the CBI's quarterly councils small businesses predominate in the representation.

Mr. Thorpe

Even if we accept the Prime Minister's premise, is it not extraordinary that the Secretary of State for Social Services should use her powers to vary by order the national insurance contribution and put it up by 8 per cent. on gross profits of over £ 3,600 without reference to the self-employed and apparently without any idea of the increased number of bankruptcies that this might create? If he will not allocate a Minister, is there not at least a case for there being greater consultation or, to put it at its lowest, as much consultation as he is prepared to have with the TUC and the CBI?

The Prime Minister

There is the fullest consultation with the Ministers responsible. The House had a full debate on this matter on 4th November. All such questions as those in the right hon. Gentleman's mind were fully dealt with in that debate, which is better by far than to try to deal with them at Question Time.

Mr. Heffer

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many hon. Members on this side of the House are in full support of the fullest possible assistance being given to small business men? Is he aware that some people who are supposedly self-employed, particularly in the construction industry, have a record of avoiding tax and national insurance payments and are therefore a threat to the very structure of that industry? Will he make it clear that, although we support the genuine small business man, we cannot accept the bogus self-employed?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend has on a number of occasions pressed this point, which is fully accepted in the construction trade. He will recall that the House legislated on this matter in the previous Session. However, he is right to point out that there are many anxieties, outside the particular group of people to whom he referred, about the problems of small businesses.

My right hon. Friends and I have given a great deal of attention to this matter. We are trying to find some way—I cannot guarantee that it will be easy—to provide some kind of help for small businesses. A number of proposals have been sent to us from many quarters. I hope that the House will co-operate in this matter, too. We have been looking, for example, at the question of differential interest rates, and so on. It is an extremely difficult matter, but we are trying to find a way of helping small businesses.

They get help on exports. Some of them are remarkably sucessful and get the fullest possible help. I think that the whole House would wish us to do more if we could find a way of doing it which could not be abused.