HC Deb 25 March 1996 vol 274 cc697-9
7. Ms Church

To ask the Deputy Prime Minister what steps the Government have taken in the last 12 months in respect of the relative competitiveness of the United Kingdom and other major states within the EU. [20682]

Mr. Freeman

The Government's plans for improving the competitiveness of the United Kingdom were set out in last year's White Paper on competitiveness. Progress on those plans will be reported in a third competitiveness White Paper in the summer.

Ms Church

I thank the Minister for his answer. I would be grateful if he would explain to the country how the splits and competition between members of the Cabinet—especially the Deputy Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Secretary of State for Defence and the Chancellor of the Exchequer over Europe—are assisting Britain's competitiveness in Europe.

Mr. Freeman

There are no divisions in the Cabinet. The Cabinet, unlike the Labour party, speaks with a united voice. To answer the underlying serious part of the hon. Lady's question, we have enhanced the competitiveness of the United Kingdom by not acceding to the social chapter or to the minimum wage advanced on us by the Labour party. That is why British industry, at the moment, is extremely competitive and will stay so with a new Tory Government.

Mr. Sykes

Will my right hon. Friend promise not to take any lectures from Opposition Members, especially from the hon. Member for Dagenham (Ms Church), who sits on the Deregulation Committee? Will my right hon. Friend remind the House and the country that the reason why companies of international status are queuing up to invest in Britain is that we have a Conservative Government and there is no prospect of a Labour Government?

Mr. Freeman

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is interesting to speculate about the attitude of those investors who are investing in the United Kingdom some 40 per cent. of all inward direct investment in the European Union and about why they come here and what their attitude would be if we ever had a Labour Government.

Mr. Janner

Does the Minister agree that the current awful beef crisis has destroyed the competitiveness of our agriculture industry to a large extent? What will the Government do about that?

Mr. Freeman

As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has said, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be in his place to hear them, two statements will follow immediately.

8. Mr. Hanson

To ask the Deputy Prime Minister what steps he is taking to improve the competitiveness of the small business sector. [20685]

Mr. Willetts

We are taking a range of measures to boost the competitiveness of small businesses. For example, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a fortnight ago that new businesses will no longer have to register separately with Customs and Excise, the Inland Revenue and the Contributions Agency. The benefits of our measures to boost competitiveness are coming through. Sixty-five per cent. of UK businesses expect to increase turnover this year, compared with less than 50 per cent. on the continent.

Mr. Hanson

Is the Minister aware of the recent survey of business opinion in Wales that has shown that the overwhelming majority of businesses there feel that the best way to improve their competitiveness would be to have statutory interest on late payments? Is the Deputy Prime Minister now the only living Welshman who does not support that policy?

Mr. Willetts

This is a subject on which we are consulting further. Whenever we have consulted on it in the past, we have found that many representatives of small business do not want a statutory right to interest, because they are afraid that such legislation would be used against them by larger businesses—precisely the point that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has been trying to make.

Mr. Steen

I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware of the effect on competitiveness of the Merchant Shipping and Fishing Vessels (Medical Stores) Regulations 1995? They increase the cost of medical stores on small ships from £47 to about £900. Is he further aware that on boats taking day trippers out to sea the first aid stores have to include tablets used for the treatment of worm infestation? All this stems from a European directive. I cannot believe that the Government want our small boats sent out to sea on such anti-competitive terms.

Mr. Willetts

I am not sure that there is anything in my briefing on that point. My hon. Friend has a formidable reputation as an advocate of deregulation, and I shall ensure that our Department considers his point.

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