HC Deb 17 June 1999 vol 333 cc544-6
4. Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

What plans he has to increase the number of business advice services in rural areas. [86494]

The Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry (Mr. Michael Wills)

In March we announced the setting up of the Small Business Service, which will provide a strong voice for small businesses at the heart of Whitehall and help to improve the quality and coherence of the delivery of support.

The Small Business Service will be for all businesses, including those in rural areas. We envisage enhanced support for start-ups and for the self-employed, which will have a beneficial impact in rural areas. We will shortly be issuing a consultative document and I would welcome views from anyone on the special needs not currently addressed under existing provision. I would particularly welcome views from my hon. Friend, who is an authority on rural issues.

Mr. Drew

I welcome my hon. Friend's remarks and, like me, he will welcome the launch this afternoon of the rural audit conducted by the rural group of Labour Members of Parliament, which has been well-reviewed in today's press. Among the many issues that it highlights is the need for job creation in rural areas and, although we obviously congratulate the consortium of rural training and enterprise councils on the much good work that it has done, we emphasise the need for additional resources in rural areas and, in particular, more localised help and specific assistance with IT, planning and marketing. When the Minister visits my constituency tomorrow, would he perhaps make a statement on how that assistance could be brought to bear?

Mr. Wills

I am looking forward to my visit to Stroud tomorrow, and I welcome the findings of the report that my hon. Friend and his colleagues have put together, which I am sure will make a valuable contribution. We are deeply aware of the needs of rural areas, and we have made a specific commitment to rural regeneration. For example, there is an identified rural regeneration element in the single regeneration budget, and I am sure that we will not let down my hon. Friend and all our rural colleagues.

Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) on her new post on the Opposition Front Bench.

The Liberal Democrats are concerned not only about the rural delivery of business services, but about their delivery nationally. A lot of public money is already spent on the TECs, Business Links, regional development agencies and many other service delivery organisations. The Department of Trade and Industry could be about to add to the confusion with the Small Business Service. As part of the consultation about the SBS, will the Minister undertake to conduct a full review of all other business services?

Mr. Wills

Of course we will do that; it is part of the process on which we have been embarked since March, when we announced the establishment of the SBS. The hon. Gentleman obviously has certain views on that and we look forward to hearing about them in more detail.

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

It is our experience in Northern Ireland that the rural economy has suffered significantly, particularly because of the difficulties in agriculture. Will the Department give us a commitment that it will put pressure on planners throughout the United Kingdom to facilitate change-of-use applications for redundant farm buildings, which would make it easier to establish new businesses in the rural economy? It is our experience that people have great difficulty when applying for change of use to establish businesses and it would certainly help if the Department exerted such pressure on planners to help the rural economy.

Mr. Wills

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We know that planning can be a key issue, particularly for small businesses. We are setting up the SBS precisely because we want to make sure that the views of small businesses on that and other issues are heard clearly in Whitehall when policy is made. When the hon. Gentleman sees the consultation document he will realise how determined we are that those issues are discussed properly in Whitehall and that all policies think small first.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I thank both the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs and the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter) for their kind words. At least, I think they were kind words. I am disappointed that the Secretary of State is not present; I understand that he is in Japan, and I hope that he is securing some British business there.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

He is scared of the hon. Lady.

Mrs. Browning

I must say that, when I was shadowing the Secretary of State as an Education and Employment spokesman, we had one or two sparring matches; but if I had to come back and haunt any member of the Government, there is no one whom I would wish to haunt more than the right hon. Gentleman. I look forward to seeing him on future occasions.

Rural businesses are very dependent on the farming community, and on its prosperity. The Secretary of State has had the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on Milk Marque on his desk since 20 April. This does not just concern farmers; it concerns the many businesses and industries that rely on them, and desperately want to be able to process milk into viable products that we can sell in this country.

Will the Minister guarantee, on behalf of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that an announcement will be made before the next milk selling round, which will begin in July? I know that it is on record that a statement, or an announcement, will be made before the House rises for the recess, but the timing is critical for farmers. If the announcement is not made before the beginning of the selling round, many small dairy farmers will see that day on their calendars as the day when they must decide whether to stay in farming or get out.

Will the Minister also confirm—because it is so important to rural businesses—that the announcement will be made on the Floor of the House, rather than outside?

Mr. Wills

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new responsibilities. I am well aware of the issue that she has raised—I have received representations in my constituency from farmers who are clearly concerned about the outcome—and I can tell her that an announcement will be made shortly. As I am sure she will understand, I cannot go further at this stage, but I assure her that the Secretary of State considers the issue to be very important.