HC Deb 01 November 2001 vol 373 cc993-6
6. John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)

What plans she has to improve the quality of advice provided by her Department on manufacturing on a regional basis. [9553]

The Minister for Industry and Energy (Mr. Brian Wilson)

I am strengthening my assistance to manufacturing industry in the regions through increased support for the regional development agencies to raise innovation, enterprise and skills and by improving universities and industry links. We are taking forward our announced initiative to provide a manufacturing advisory service in England and Wales, based on provision on a regional basis. In Scotland, advice to manufacturing industry is provided through the enterprise network.

John Robertson

I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware of the high unemployment in my constituency of Glasgow, Anniesland: it is running at about 6.9 per cent., well above the national average. We are seeking to encourage investment, particularly in shipbuilding in the constituency, and unemployment has fallen significantly since the Labour Government came to office in 1997. That success has been brought about in the main recently by the excellent partnership between the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments. What plans does he have to broaden that partnership to the rest of the UK?

Mr. Wilson

The unemployment figure that my hon. Friend quotes is of course one of the higher figures in the country. I think it is worth bearing in mind that perhaps four or five years ago it would have been one of the lowest figures in the country for a constituency. That is how things have changed in the past four years.

I agree with what my hon. Friend says about co-operation. We have a very good model in Scotland—there has been a very good model in Wales for a long time—of how an economic development agency can function, work alongside industry, and be part of a team that not only is proactive in promoting investment, but in times of difficulty gets in there with everyone else and helps to save jobs and to promote investment for the future. I believe strongly that the role that Scottish Enterprise, and the Welsh and Northern Ireland development agencies have played for many years since being established by a Labour Government can now be repeated throughout England by the regional development agencies, also established by a Labour Government.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford)

Will the Minister tell the House how many jobs have been lost in manufacturing across the regions so far this year? Will he confirm that the recession affecting manufacturing industry started long before 11 September, although the events of that day will undoubtedly make the prospects for British business harder still? Will he explain why, when the Government claim to attach such importance to improving the competitiveness of British industry, the latest World Economic Forum league of international competitiveness shows that Britain has fallen still further: we are now in 12th place having been in fourth place just five years ago?

Mr. Wilson

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman look at the remarks of the IMF on that subject. He would find a very different picture. It seems to want to talk Britain up rather than to talk it down. Of course, manufacturing has difficulties and they pre-dated 11 September, but as the Secretary of State mentioned earlier, the decline of our manufacturing output is less than in comparable countries throughout the world. The point is not simply to say that manufacturing has difficulties. The real test of a Government is what they do about it. Instead of standing idly by saying that it is all to do with the market, in every situation we are working alongside companies and sectors that are in difficulty in order to defend as many jobs as possible and at the same time to ensure that investment takes place. That is what we are doing in the cases of Rolls-Royce and shipbuilding on the Clyde, it is what we did earlier this week with the mining industry, where there were some difficulties, and it is what we will continue to do. That is what people expect from a Labour Government and what they get from a Labour Government.

Mr. Whittingdale

The Minister is right to say that the test is what the Government do to affect competitiveness. Does he really believe that the competitiveness of British industry is helped by the fact that, according to the CBI's pre-Budget submission, business is having to pay an extra £6 billion in tax as a result of his Government's actions? Will he even now try to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to do away with the climate change levy, which, as the Engineering Employers Federation has said, is imposing an ever greater and disproportionate burden on manufacturing at a time when the industry is already in recession?

Mr. Wilson

We can all play the game of quoting from the bumper book of selective quotations, but by any standard if we ask manufacturing industry whether it has a better relationship with Government than it did in the past, the answer would positively be yes. Of course, fiscal issues are always raised by any sector of industry. They will be considered by a Treasury that is well aware of the implications of any measure, but we have responsibilities to the environment, to employment and to ensure the economic success of this country. Any Government working from a Labour perspective will put those together and take measures that are fiscally appropriate and will not damage manufacturing industry. Those are our priorities. We are doing pretty well. That is why the electorate gave us the vote of confidence that they did.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

What action has my hon. Friend's Department taken to encourage and assist regions to implement the national strategy for the textiles and clothing industry and particularly to allow it to move into new areas such as technical textiles? In order to show his support for the industry and the fact that it can have a positive future, will he consider visiting the wonderful millennium textiles banners exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall, which reflects the identity of the villages and towns in my community in Amber Valley and the honourable heritage of the textiles industry, which we hope to preserve into the future?

Mr. Wilson

I do not like to organise my diary on the hoof, but I could perhaps combine that invitation with my meeting with the Rolls-Royce taskforce and visit what I am told is an excellent exhibition in Amber Valley. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is upstairs."] Well, I like to go back to roots and see where it all comes from.

The textiles point is very relevant to a discussion on regional development agencies because, largely owing to the work done by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in her previous role, there is a strategy. I believe strongly that sections of the textiles industry, and niche companies within it, have a very bright future. Working through the RDAs, we will reinforce these sectors, which have real long-term prospects. That is a commitment that I am happy to put into effect in practice.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

The Minister may recall the advice given by his Department following the large number of redundancies in Marconi this June. Recently, that has culminated in a successful rapid response bid, for which I am most grateful. Unfortunately, there have been more manufacturing redundancies—just last week, a large number in an engineering company—and I hope that there will be further assistance. The matter goes beyond the redeployment package that might be offered. We have vacated sites in an area that has, in fact, a very low level of unemployment. I seek an assurance that the regional development agency, in its guidance and—

Mr. Speaker

Order. There has been no question so far. It is not the practice of the House that a question should be read out in this manner, but perhaps the Minister can pick up on what the hon. Lady has said so far.

Mr. Wilson

I welcome the hon. Lady's comments about the rapid response to the Marconi situation. Of course there will be more job losses in manufacturing. There is no doubt about that. The question is what we do in response. When companies have a future but there are short-term difficulties, government in all its forms, at local and national level, by working constructively with companies, can get good results, saving many jobs and laying the foundations for a better future. That is the approach that we are increasingly developing. There is to be a manufacturing summit later this year at which we will work up that approach further. It is not enough to stand by and express regret. We must be in there working and using all the tools of government to get the best result possible, often in difficult circumstances.

I am sure that the hon. Lady and others will welcome the fact that Government funding for RDAs will rise from £1.2 billion in 2001 to £1.7 billion in 2003—04: a substantial increase that will allow the RDAs to play the role that I described and that I am sure she wants.