HC Deb 04 November 1999 vol 337 cc467-9
6. Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

What programmes he has developed to assist people running small businesses in acquiring new skills. [95827]

The Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce (Ms Patricia Hewitt)

My Department helps managers of small businesses to develop their skills through the network of Business Links, which provide companies with information and advice on management development and other training issues. The new Small Business Service that we are establishing will strengthen that work on skills by ensuring that we have first-class business support centres in every part of the United Kingdom. In particular, they will give very high priority to developing skills in e-commerce, so that all our small businesses are able to exploit fully the potential of the new information and communication technology.

Mr. Quinn

May I echo the congratulations to my hon. Friend on her new position? As she will know, the composition of many seaside economies is built on the bedrock of small businesses. May I have some assurances that constituencies such as my own will benefit from the regeneration opportunities available from developing the ideas that she has been describing?

Ms Hewitt

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. There is no doubt at all that small businesses, self-employment and small and growing enterprises play an enormously important part in regenerating disadvantaged areas. Two days ago, my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary and I published the report of the social exclusion unit's policy action team on enterprise in disadvantaged areas. I can assure my hon. Friend that the new Small Business Service, through the new franchised network of Business Links, will ensure that business support services are available to entrepreneurs and self-employed people in every part of the country, including disadvantaged areas such as his own.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

First, may I welcome to the Government Front Bench the new Ministers, many of whom appear to have moved from the Treasury? I hope that they will use that experience to stiffen the resolve of the Secretary of State—also a former Treasury Minister—as the DTI needs to take up a few issues with the Treasury on behalf of British business. The 13th report of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry on small business condemned the Secretary of State's regrettable habit of issuing potentially misleading information, and said: Much of the funding of the Small Business Service —as referred to by the Minister— described in March 1999 as 'new money' has been subject to multiple announcement. What is the exact figure of new funding for the SBS?

Ms Hewitt

We will respond fully to the Select Committee Report, and we are finalising the budget for the Small Business Service. We will be investing significantly more in small businesses across the country through the SBS than is currently invested through Business Links. Although the Business Links network that we inherited from the Conservatives was a significant improvement on what went before, it is not good enough for our small businesses. I hear repeatedly from small businesses and entrepreneurs that there is too much inconsistency and variation in quality across that network. We are determined to put that right with the creation of the new Small Business Service.

Mrs. Browning

No business person asked to give an account of the financial position of their business would be unable to answer a specific question such as the one I just asked the Minister, particularly as much of what the Secretary of State has said—which has been analysed by the Select Committee—is on the public record. If the Minister cannot give me an answer today, will she agree to write to me and give that figure? She will be aware that the report said that the Department had failed to publish clear figures relating to the small firms merit award for research and technology—the SMART fund—which, given her responsibilities within the Department, must be close to her heart. Exactly how much new money is in the SMART fund?

Ms Hewitt

I had the great pleasure recently of opening the business park at Nottingham-Trent university, where three of the four companies incubated by the university are recipients of SMART fund awards. It is an excellent programme, and its evaluation has shown that it contributes significantly to high knowledge-based start-ups in this country. [HON. MEMBERS: "How much money?"] We will be responding in due course to the Select Committee report, and I will announce to the House the full details of the budget for the Small Business Service and the Business Links franchises.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil)

Will my hon. Friend take account of the fact that probably the biggest single barrier to small businesses getting into e-commerce is the cost of getting on-line, and then the cost of local telephone calls? Will she pressurise the Director General of Oftel and the telecoms companies to put together packages to free small businesses from their fear that the meter will be running for 24 hours a day if they have e-commerce and proper links with the rest of the world?

Ms Hewitt

My hon. Friend raises an important point. There are a number of barriers preventing small businesses from going on-line, including the lack of skills and confidence. We are addressing that lack through the new local support centres which we are creating as part of the Business Links franchises. However, there is a problem with charges. Although internet access charges at weekends and evenings in this country are among the lowest in the world, the problem of metered charges for daytime, peak-hour access is undoubtedly a barrier, particularly to the small business user.

I recently met the Director General of Office of the Telecommunications, who confirmed that there is no regulatory barrier to BT introducing new tariff packages to provide cheap or completely unmetered local phone calls to heavy internet users in return for a flat-rate subscription. I am delighted to say that on Tuesday, the Prime Minister announced a new agreement with BT and several other telecommunications companies to provide such a package to further education colleges, citizens advice bureaux and libraries. I very much hope that BT will soon introduce a similar tariff package for other heavy internet users.