HC Deb 23 November 1994 vol 250 cc581-2
2. Mr. Salmond

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what measures he is taking to ensure that businesses are able to compete effectively within the single European market; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Technology (Mr. Ian Taylor)

We have established a single market compliance unit which, alongside the trade barriers strategy, helps industry to tackle single market problems and conducts sectoral studies. We are assisting the Commission in its efforts to improve complaints procedures and are pushing successfully for closer co-operation between enforcement officials in the Community.

Mr. Salmond

Can the Minister identify the precise mechanism by which having a part-time chairman at £450,000 and a 75 per cent. salary increase for a chief executive will enable British Gas to compete more effectively in the single market? Is there not a contrast between the President of the Board of Trade's specific support for the company and the Prime Minister's general condemnation of excessive salary increases, or is the common connection that neither of them intends to do anything about it, presumably on the ground that the Tory party helps those who have already helped themselves?

Mr. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman's bile has obscured his judgment of the success of the policy and the way in which British Gas has helped its customers over the past few years. The salaries of chairmen of such companies on the stock exchange is a matter for the directors involved, as the chief executive himself has said. We are concerned to improve the quality of service to customers. In many privatised utilities, that is exactly what happens. In the sphere for which I am directly responsible, we must look at the tremendous success of British Telecom since privatisation and the at improvement in services to customers. Prices have fallen by 35 per cent. Why does the hon. Gentleman not talk about those successes rather than ranting and raving?

Mr. Quentin Davies

May I congratulate my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade on their remarkable success in persuading our European partners finally to open the telecommunications market in the single market by 1998, which is a great success about which, needless to say, the media have said almost nothing? May I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to build on that success by now pushing for a single market in energy and forcing the monopolistic owners of pipelines and electricity grids elsewhere in the single market to open those networks to competition as soon as possible?

Mr. Taylor

My hon. Friend has noticed the Government's tremendous success in the Telecommunications Council on Thursday evening, when we persuaded recalcitrant Community colleagues to agree to liberalising infrastructure as well as services by 1 January 1998. I should point out to Opposition Members that the problem for several of those countries was that they were not sufficiently committed to liberalisation. A party that is not committed to liberalisation cannot envisage the true merits of the information superhighway.

On my hon. Friend's second point, we are very much in favour of a single market in energy, and it is overdue. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Energy is working hard to obtain agreement on this across the Community.

Mr. MacShane

Is the Minister aware that one of the greatest single hindrances for British companies seeking to operate in Europe is the high cost of electricity for large-scale industrial users in this country? Electricity prices for that group of users have risen by more than 50 per cent. in the past five years, while they have fallen in comparable European countries; in pence per kilowatt the cost is higher in the United Kingdom than in France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. Will the Minister tell the chairmen of the privatised companies to stop lining their pockets and to produce electricity at prices which will allow British firms—particularly those in the steel and chemical industries—to compete effectively in Europe?

Mr. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman's comparative figures are not entirely correct, but if he persists in his view perhaps he will write to me about the details.

The point is that larger users in particular are capable of negotiating contracts. British industry is competitive in the European Union, regardless of the price levels that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, specifically because we have the right competitive background for British industry to flourish. That is why it is doing well in the European single market, and why our partners in the European Union regularly view the Government's policies as those that they should follow.

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