HC Deb 19 May 1993 vol 225 cc228-30
6. Mr. Gordon Prentice

To ask the President of the Board of Trade how many applications have been received by his Department for use of the European Community Retex funds for development of textile regions; and when the result of these applications will be announced.

The Minister for Industry (Mr. Tim Sainsbury)

Sixty-seven applications have been received. The projects will be selected by the Retex programme monitoring committee after the programme has finally been approved by the Commission. The results will be announced shortly thereafter.

Mr. Prentice

I thank the Minister for his reply, but can he tell the House why the British Government insist on the submission of 12-month schemes, whereas elsewhere in Europe five-year rolling schemes are the order of the day? Can he assure the House that there will be no foot-dragging by the Department of Trade and Industry, which would imperil the bids from my own area, submitted by Lancashire Enterprises on behalf of the six north-east Lancashire district councils, which come to £750,000 and which would help 200 struggling firms in this area?

Mr. Sainsbury

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, at the Edinburgh Council, the United Kingdom was not alone in expressing serious reservations about the benefits of these Commission schemes, which merely draw funds away from the general structural programmes. We do not know at this stage whether there will be another Retex scheme. The Edinburgh Council suggested that these schemes should concentrate on cross-border activities, but I do not think that Retex would naturally feature as such an activity. There is no foot-dragging by my Department. If there is a delay, it is because of the great length of time taken by the Commission—it took more than four months to respond to our proposals.

Mr. Dickens

Has my right hon. Friend stressed to the Commission the importance of Retex money for the regeneration of textile areas and the importance of an early decision? When does he expect the decision? Let us have no beating about the bush—are we talking about July, August or September? People need to know because it is a matter of job creation.

Mr. Sainsbury

I am happy to say that, if anyone is beating about the bush, it is up to us to try to get answers from the Commission. So far, the Commission has not approved proposals from any Community country. It took four months to respond to our proposals, and we are still negotiating a final agreement. As soon as we have that agreement, a programme committee can be constituted. There will be no delay from my Department.

Mr. Purchase

It is no use the Minister claiming that he is not dragging his feet. Is he aware that 1,000 redundancies were declared every month in the textile industry last year? That is a tragedy for British industry. The Minister seems to be bobbing when he should be getting weaving.

Mr. Sainsbury

I note the web and the weft of the hon. Gentleman's question. I draw his attention to one of the serious drawbacks of the Retex scheme, which is one of the reasons why the United Kingdom, in common with a majority of European Community states, voted against it. Only European Commission areas in objective 2 and 5b are eligible for help under the Retex scheme. Many of the parts of Britain that have the largest concentration of textile employees are outside those areas. The scheme is meant to help textiles, but can do so only in certain areas, and perhaps not the most important.

Mr. Tredinnick

Now that so many companies in Hinckley in my constituency have taken steps to improve their competitiveness, has my right hon. Friend any initiatives, that in addition to the Retex scheme, could further assist the reconstruction of the industry? Can he say anything about the potential for the hosiery and knitwear industry of a successful GATT round?

Mr. Sainsbury

My hon. Friend is right to draw the House's attention to the great strides that the textile industry has made in improving its productivity, which is vital if it is to retain its competitiveness in a very competitive market and if it is to build on its achievements in exporting about £5 billion-worth of textiles last year.

The textile industry, like all other industries, is, of course, eligible for help under the whole range of my Department's schemes. Many of them are especially structured to help smaller businesses of which there are many in the textile industry. I entirely agree that a satisfactory outcome to the Uruguay round of GATT, which would lower tariff peaks, especially in one or two of our most important export markets, would be very helpful to the industry.

Mr. Fatchett

Does not the Minister understand the importance and relevance of the Retex scheme to an industry that has lost 400,000 jobs in the past 10 years? Has he not let the cat out of the bag by making it abundantly clear in previous answers that the Government are opposed to the Retex scheme and to helping those in the textile industry who have lost their jobs? Is he not asking the House to believe in a myth when he says that he as Minister will go to Brussels to rattle the cage of the European Commission? Are not we in fact dealing with an insensitive, indifferent and inefficient Minister, who will not be able to apply pressure in Brussels?

Mr. Sainsbury

I do not know how the hon. Gentleman thinks that he is furthering the cause of the textile industry by what he says, but perhaps he should be reminded of what I just said to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase). The Retex scheme can help the textile industry only in areas that fall within the objective 2 and 5b map, which excludes many areas in Britain with a high concentration of textile employees. The funds for the Retex scheme are drawn from the general structural funds of the Community; they are not under the control of the Council of Ministers. It is a bureaucratic scheme, under the control of the Commission, it is costly and I do not think that it is very effective. That is the view of most EC countries.