HC Deb 02 November 2000 vol 355 cc826-7
7. Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

What recent consultations he has held with small business representatives on administrative and compliance burdens. [133893]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers)

I meet with small business representatives on a regular basis.

Mr. Boswell

Although there may be some legitimate room for disagreement between us as to the appropriateness and even the cost of the additional regulatory burdens imposed by the Government across the whole of business, does the Secretary of State agree that, at least in relation to the smaller business, whatever administrative burdens affect the bigger business are magnified many times over, and therefore have an entirely disproportionate administrative effect? Has he noticed, for example, the recent alarming escalation in the number of unfair dismissal claims, and is he not a little concerned about that and all the other problems that small employers and small businesses feel that they are facing?

Mr. Byers

I broadly agree with the general direction of the hon. Gentleman's question. There is no doubt that successive Governments have not done enough to realise the impact of regulations introduced by Government on business in general, and more particularly on small business. Particular demands made on the small business community need to be reflected in our approach. I was pleased that we adopted a different approach, for example, in relation to stakeholder pensions for businesses employing fewer than five people. That will make a real difference. Increasingly, we will need to reflect that more generally in our approach to regulation and related matters.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

Will my right hon. Friend give his assessment of the likely burden on business, especially small businesses, if the so-called fuel protesters attempt to repeat the reckless behaviour that they visited on the country in September?

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The House should recognise the consequences of the fuel disruption that took place during the second week of September. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who chairs the fuel taskforce, will make a detailed statement on the matter in a few minutes' time: The House should be aware that many businesses, including many small businesses, were in grave financial difficulties and close to going under as a result of the action taken in September.

Whatever the merits of the argument in one direction or the other, it is simply unacceptable that innocent business people trying to create wealth in our country have to risk going out of business because of protests such as those that we saw in September. I hope that all Members will recognise that we can have a genuine debate about the levels of fuel duty and taxation generally, without that leading to support for the disruption that took place earlier in the year.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

Can the Secretary of State tell us which of the 23 proposed directives listed in the European social agenda document that the Government endorsed yesterday will reduce burdens on business?

Mr. Byers

Some of them will reduce burdens on business. [HON. MEMBERS: "Which ones?"] The right hon. Gentleman needs to be aware that there is a clear distinction between the Conservative party and the Government. [Interruption.] I hope that Opposition Members will listen to this, because the distinction is important. In the Conservative party, "cutting red tape" is code for cutting basic standards in the workplace. When the Tories talk about cutting red tape, they are talking about attacking the national minimum wage. They are talking about attacking better maternity provisions and the right to paid holidays. They are talking about attacking working parents who are trying to balance holding down a job with being a good parent.

We will lift the bureaucratic burden on business, but we will not compromise our commitment to decent standards in the workplace.