HC Deb 24 November 1993 vol 233 cc448-9
16. Mr. Thomason

To ask the President of the Board of Trade when he last met the Institute of Directors to discuss small businesses.

Mr. Heseltine

I met representatives of the Institute of Directors last night when I spoke at their annual dinner on a number of issues, including small businesses.

Mr. Thomason

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many small businesses continue to require assistance in management and marketing? Will his Department continue to ensure that support is provided to them in various ways? Does he agree that that should be seen as part of the extension of an enterprise culture, which is so derided by the Opposition?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I very much accept the thrust of his questions. I am considering the basis of the services that we provide, especially the more intense back-up for small and medium-sized firms that the Business Link organisation will provide. I hope to be able to say something about that shortly.

Mr. Turner

Has the President of the Board of Trade received representations from companies in the west midlands regarding the inordinate delays in receiving appraisals through the regional selective assistance policy? That is causing some concern in the west midlands. It is taking more than four weeks for the initial appraisal to be made, which is causing consternation to companies, and I believe that the delay is being caused by staffing problems. We need more staff in that department. Also, market testing is creating great problems in that area.

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Member is asking two questions. About £700 million of Government expenditure was market tested last year, as a result of which we have achieved an ongoing annual saving of £100 million. As to his first question, I do not believe that the service that we provide in dealing with those grants is the subject of widespread criticism. If it were, I or my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry would have heard about it many times. However, if the hon. Member knows of a case that may not have received prompt attention I hope that he will bring it to my attention.

Mr. Nicholls

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many small businesses in the tourist sector are concerned about over-regulation, especially the package holiday directive? Can he give us any hint as to whether that might be one of the regulations that could be considered for review?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend will know that the essence of the exercise that we are carrying out is to study all aspects of laws, regulations and practices, whether from Whitehall, European directives, or the practices of local authorities. In essence, my hon. Friend will find that we have looked at, and will continue to look at, the area that he has drawn to our attention.

Mr. Robin Cook

If the President of the Board of Trade is serious about helping small businesses, will he acknowledge that, in survey after survey, they cite late payment as their biggest problem? Is he aware that small businesses have to pay their bills, on average, 10 days before they get paid by big businesses? So why does the Conservative party, alone among the major parties, refuse to accept the case for a statutory right to interest on late payments? If interest on late payment works for the Inland Revenue, why not for small businesses? Or does the Conservative party's interest in small businesses stop short of offending its friends in big business?

Mr. Heseltine

No, that is not our position. This is a matter on which we have made many statements and conducted a great deal of consultation. We realise that it is a matter of concern to small businesses, and we are actively considering it.