HC Deb 11 May 1988 vol 133 cc317-8
17. Mr. Turner

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what measures his Department is planning to improve the competitiveness of British industry.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

Improving competitiveness is primarily a matter for industry itself. Through the enterprise initiative my Department already offers a comprehensive range of practical advice and assistance on which firms can draw. This will be revised from time to time as the needs of business change.

Mr. Turner

Is the Minister aware of the damage that the rising exchange rate can do to Britain's industrial competitiveness? As the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that he does not believe that the rate can be sustained, will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster tell us when he thinks it will begin to fall? Will the Minister tell the House when he will support industry instead of the City speculators?

Mr. Clarke

I do not intend to make any predictions about future exchange rates, and I advise the hon. Gentleman to seek the no doubt expensive advice of those who study the currency markets, who might try to guide him. These matters are not completely under the control of the Finance Minister of any single country. We play our part in seeking to achieve reasonably stable exchange rates and to eliminate unnecessary speculative short-term changes, but in the end it is the markets that determine the level of exchange rates. It is up to British industry to respond by improving its competitiveness in the face of whatever pressures it faces in the market place.

Mr. Hayward

Will my right hon. and learned Friend disregard any strictures from the Opposition Benches about competitiveness, since the Opposition have the most heavily over-manned Front Bench that has ever been seen in this Chamber, to the extent that their own workers and slaves on the Back Benches cannot even make contributions?

Mr. Clarke

I think that it is the first manifestation of the new industrial strategy that this large Front Bench team is meant to be working on. No doubt it will wish to apply to British industry principles that are similar to the ones that it applied in the past.

Mr. Hoyle

How will the competitiveness of British industry be improved if Rowntree is taken over by Nestle? Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster ensure that this matter is referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission?

Mr. Clarke

I can make no more comments on this bid than I have made in the last two days. Heaven forbid that I should ever be repetitive in this Chamber, so the hon. Gentleman knows what I said to him yesterday. To expose the management of companies to all the competitive pressures of the market place, which include vulnerability to acquisition by those who believe that they can improve the performance of a company, helps to raise the performance of the economy as a whole. We have to determine whether that is the major factor in this case, where the public interest lies and whether there is any case for referring it to the MMC. We shall do this once we have received the advice of the director general upon it.

Mr. Hind

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, due to the success of the Government's policies, there is a shortage of factory space in the north of England? What efforts is he making with the private sector to encourage factory building, which is bound to increase, and thereby improve, the competitiveness of British industry?

Mr. Clarke

We have ensured that English Estates has more resources available to it this year to help the assisted areas. I agree with my hon. Friend that we are now looking to the private sector to meet that demand. One aspect of the improvement of the economy in the north-west is that rents for accommodation are likely to rise because more profitable firms can afford to pay higher rents. That, in turn, will stimulate further development. We must do everything that we can to encourage that development, and the Government will take whatever steps they can towards that end.