HC Deb 20 July 1994 vol 247 cc306-8
9. Mr. Amess

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what further responses he has had from companies to his White Paper on competitiveness.

Mr. Heseltine

British businesses have been very positive about the White Paper on competitiveness. Its analysis has been accepted and its new initiatives welcomed.

Mr. Amess

Does my right hon. Friend agree that only by companies continuing to improve their competitiveness, as set out in the White Paper, will the United Kingdom economy continue to enjoy growth, will living standards continue to improve and will unemployment fall—as is happening throughout the country and in my constituency in particular? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the politics of envy and unfairness as espoused by the socialists on the Opposition Benches would destroy the competitiveness of UK companies?

Mr. Heseltine

I heard what my hon. Friend said. I wholly agree with the thrust of his observations, which is why one takes such satisfaction from the most favourable set of economic statistics that we have enjoyed for many a long year.

Mr. Caborn

I welcome the White Paper, but it is unfortunate that there was an absence of Treasury involvement. Will the President of the Board of Trade make representations to his colleagues on the Treasury Bench for time to be made available for a full debate on the competitiveness of British industry, the backcloth being both the White Paper and the Select Committee report on the same subject?

Mr. Heseltine

I welcome the opportunity to debate the competitiveness White Paper, and the Government ensured that such a debate took place the other day. Conspicuously absent from that debate was any Labour Member.

Mr. Oppenheim

Has my right hon. Friend seen the recent report by the Institute of Economic and Social Research? It showed that whereas UK manufacturing productivity lagged badly behind Germany in the 1970s, we out-performed Germany's growth in the 1980s; and that whereas we lagged behind other G7 members in the 1960s and 1970s, we were ahead of most of them in the 1980s. Does not that show that our supply side reforms in the 1980s helped to close the gap with our competitors? The period that we were in real danger of becoming a skivvy economy with Mickey Mouse jobs was not under this Government but under Labour.

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the lesson that, in productivity, we significantly caught up our European competitors during the 1980s, as a direct consequence of the supply side reforms that the Government introduced. My hon. Friend is also right to refer to the fact that we still have not yet achieved the productivity levels of some of our European competitors, and we must achieve that if we are to be truly competitive.

Mr. Dalyell

Do Ministers approve of the predatory pricing policies of Rupert Murdoch and The Times?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman will know that we do not approve of predatory pricing policies, and if they offend the law, we are under a responsibility to examine them, but he would not expect me to make specific comments about the matters to which he referred unless they had been properly considered and reflected on.

Mr. Butcher

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the depth and, indeed, the width of his White Paper on competitiveness, which has been warmly welcomed by broad sectors of industry, but might not a bit be missing? The White Paper is silent on the supply and price of capital to the capital-intensive small and medium-sized manufacturing sector. Given the growing worldwide shortage of risk capital, making Britain the most attractive place for mobile international risk capital would in turn help our manufacturing and small firms sector. Will he make representations to the Treasury on that so that we may be competitive in that regard as well?

Mr. Heseltine

I know of the interest that my hon. Friend takes in the matter. He will know that the White Paper referred to those issues—indeed, specifically to inquiries that are now being conducted in the Treasury as part of its normal responsibilities and budget-forming judgment. The White Paper did not avoid the issues. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry referred to page 99 and following pages. Perhaps my hon. Friend will have a glance at that important part of the White Paper when he has a moment during the long recess.

Mr. Barry Jones

Would it run counter to the White Paper if Railtrack were allowed to push up the costs of transporting by rail the coil and the raw materials for British Rail plc? Will he look at that matter? Does he agree that, unless Railtrack holds back, British Steel plc may find it hard to keep open some of its smaller plants?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman will know that the prime responsibility for Railtrack falls to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. My Department is always interested in matters of competitiveness, but not, however, in those that are hypothetical and put in a scare technique method, long in advance of the risks having materialised.

Mrs. Gorman

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the competitive Ford workers in my constituency who yesterday helped to secure Ford's investment decision to place its largest industrial research plant at Dunton? Ford UK placed it there because of the Ford workers in my constituency and because labour relations in Britain are now so attractive that we are the most competitive country in the whole of the Ford spectrum for that massive investment.

Mr. Heseltine

I am delighted to support my hon. Friend's welcome for that important decision. I had the pleasure, just this week, of discussing with the chief executive officer of Ford the long-term plans for his company. He stressed to me that there were considerable opportunities for the United Kingdom, provided that we can achieve the competitive standards that would then attract his board to back the United Kingdom as a base in Europe.

Mr. Robin Cook

Is the President aware that yesterday's report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development put Britain bottom in Europe for rights at work, with a mark of zero out of 10? If he is aware of that, will he confirm that that report could find no evidence that the social chapter had destroyed jobs in any of the countries that applied it? But it did find that Britain spent less on training than any other major European country. In the light of that report, will not even this Government now recognise that the key to competitiveness is a secure, skilled work force, and that we will not build the best work force in Europe on the basis of the worst rights in Europe and the poorest training in Europe?

Mr. Heseltine

The key to competitiveness is running an economy that enables our companies to win and attract people to base their investment here. The hon. Gentleman would do far better to recognise that the most important aspect of the job market is the fact that this country's economy is generating jobs faster than are the economies of most of its European competitors, because its climate is working economically and helping it to lead Europe out of recession. That is the Government's important achievement, and nothing that the hon. Gentleman says by way of selective quotation will undermine it.