HC Deb 17 June 1999 vol 333 cc551-3
9. Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

What financial and other assistance his Department makes available to assist the assessment and commercial evaluation of inventions by British nationals. [86499]

The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr. Kim Howells)

A large part of the Department of Trade and Industry's work is to create an environment in which good ideas can be converted into innovative products and services. We have worked closely with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to develop the national endowment for science, technology and the arts, known by its unglamorous acronym NESTA. One of its programmes is designed to promote invention and innovation.

Mr. Corbett

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and commend the fresh emphasis on encouraging inventors. Will he focus particularly on the local lone inventor, often working in his garden shed, who feels isolated? I am not making this up, because I have two examples in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend encourage chambers of commerce, industry and trade to offer initial mentoring services to such inventors, perhaps even before they have applied for patents, to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of inventions that are patented every year, on which people have spent a lot of time working, are given proper assessment? We do not want to let things out of the front door only to have to buy them later through the back door.

Dr. Howells

My hon. Friend is right. Now that Business Links can deal with sole traders through its personal business advisers and innovation and technology counsellors, we have an opportunity to take up some of my hon. Friend's proposals. The NESTA programme will capture those people, and not before time.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

I am a little disappointed that the Minister made no reference in his reply to the Government's backing for the idea of an academy of inventors—which has been proposed for the purpose that he has mentioned—led by my constituent Trevor Baylis, the inventor of the clockwork radio. Is the Department investigating the role of invention promoters, which are mainly American companies that are here to take cheaply—in effect, to steal—the ideas of British inventors? Some of them are under investigation in the United States for possible criminal charges.

Dr. Howells

Mr. Baylis, the hon. Gentleman's constituent, has met my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Industry several times. His proposals are being encompassed in the NESTA arrangements. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about American companies making incursions into this country looking for innovations. The problem is not just Government quangos. It has to do with private enterprise, banks and the way in which venture capital works in this country. We are not entrepreneurial or innovative enough and our financial back-up arrangements are not designed to promote start-ups as they should be.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

My question has been partly answered, because I intended to ask about Trevor Baylis and the academy of inventors. Trevor Baylis's idea is that patenting, intellectual property rights and very expensive matters of which inventors have no experience could be provided free by the academy. Will my hon. Friend elaborate on how NESTA could help to develop that capital?

Dr. Howells

My hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Industry is meeting the organisation of inventors as well as Mr. Trevor Baylis to try to bring some cohesion and co-ordination to the issue. I am keen that we should begin to advertise the recent price reductions of the Patent Office in Newport. We have reduced costs for inventors and new patents by more than 18 per cent. We now have one of the most robust and least expensive patent systems anywhere in the world, and that is a great boon for British science and invention. I will ensure that the progress that has been made continues.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

The question asks about assessment and commercial evaluation. The Minister will know that when all the other questions have been asked in the evaluation of a product the last test is whether that product can be brought to market profitably. In the light of the comments in the press today about the Competition Commission, will the Minister assist me—as a new member of the Conservative Front-Bench team—and outline the Government's attitude to profitability in certain sectors? If today's reports are correct, and we are to have companies dissected in open session, will the Government eventually determine what is an acceptable profit level within business sectors? Nothing will kill innovation quicker than such a policy.

Dr. Howells

I heard the news about the Competition Commission's proposals and I asked what they would mean. They will not mean that companies have to give up commercial information, but they will affect transparency of prices—something in which I am very interested. I would like to know why certain branded goods are sold in this country at much higher prices than those at which they are sold in comparable markets in America or the European Union. British consumers have a right to know how much the mark-up is and how much more they are paying than if they bought those products in France, Germany or America. The best companies will be glad to tell consumers why that is.

Mrs. Browning

Depending on whether the questions are asked in open session—I do not challenge whether the questions should be asked—the consequence of the proposals must be that eventually the Government will make some public announcement about what they deem to be an acceptable profit level in an industry or sector and what they deem to be excessive. Suppose that someone has made a real breakthrough in innovation. That has happened throughout our history and it is how big moves forward happen in the introduction of products to the market: some new technology suddenly allows a new company, sometimes a very small one, to make a product that allows it to make what might be termed a big profit. Will we have benchmarks for profits? That would stifle innovation and would mean that people would go abroad to make products that should be made in this country. The Government must have some idea how they intend to handle the information when it is available.

Dr. Howells

There is no intention to set benchmarks for prices. I recognise the need for companies to have flexibility and targets which cannot be judged by civil servants in Whitehall, still less by politicians in this Chamber. The Competition Commission's proposals, as I understand them, will relate only—in the first instance—to its inquiry into car prices. That is a sufficiently big and controversial subject to allow such tactics to be used if the commission is to arrive at something like the truth. It will want to know about a wide range of variables in that pricing equation. The open sessions will not be mandatory and companies will not have to give up confidential, commercially sensitive information, but they will have an opportunity to put the record straight publicly. That cannot be bad for anyone.

Forward to