HC Deb 14 February 2002 vol 380 cc293-5
1. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

If she will make a statement on proposals to assist small businesses in the north-west. [33789]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths)

In the north-west, business link operators have assisted 23,557 businesses since 1 April 2001, administered 98 offers of smart grants worth £4.8 million, guaranteed nearly 300 business loans worth £17 million, and helped more than 1,500 exporters in small and medium-sized enterprises. The present business plans of business link operators in the region aim to continue to drive up the quality of the service given.

Mr. Chapman

Companies in the Wirral are grateful for all that assistance, and we have done particularly well in terms of regional selective assistance. It is, however, the medium and larger firms that tend to benefit from that. The small firms—the seed bed of future growth—have traditionally faced a somewhat confusing plethora of sources of advice and assistance. Is the Minister content that he is simplifying access, rather than complicating it, by transferring smart and enterprise grants from the Government office to the Small Business Service, for example, and by making other changes such as moving regional selective assistance to the regional development agency?

Nigel Griffiths

My hon. Friend highlights the pressing need to streamline the process. We are doing so by strengthening the Small Business Service and the regional development agencies to ensure that effective help goes to small businesses, which are, after all, the driving force behind our economic prosperity. That is why these moves have been widely welcomed.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

Will the Minister explain to small businesses in the north-west, and to others around the country, precisely what they have to do, and how much they have to pay to whom, to secure the personal services of the Prime Minister in connection with their export ambitions?

Nigel Griffiths

That is unworthy of the hon. Gentleman. He should speak to the many small and medium-sized enterprises in his constituency that have benefited from the services of the Small Business Service and from the regional development agency. He should join me in praising them for their drive in exports—

Mr. Gale


Mr. Speaker

Order. That is not a term that I wish to hear in the Chamber. Who was the hon. Gentleman referring to when he said "Corrupt"?

Mr. Gale

I was referring to the overall practice that appears to have been taking place, Mr. Speaker. If you feel that that is out of order, I will, of course, withdraw it.

Nigel Griffiths

The hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Members should speak for their constituencies and for the firms that need help. We are having to speak for them, because those hon. Members are dwelling on trivia.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

Is it not rather strange that my hon. Friend the Minister, in referring to north-west businesses, has not yet referred to the extraordinary success of business in the city of Lancaster, where £1 million of extra grant from the Government has brought in £10 million of private sector finance and created 1,000 jobs; where we have economic development zones; and where the University of Lancaster is at the cutting edge of broadband technology? The city is truly at the heart of the north-west and of future science-based enterprise. Surely the answer to the question of how to help small businesses in the north-west is, "Come to Lancaster".

Nigel Griffiths

I could not agree more, and I cannot wait to join my hon. Friend.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

Small businesses in the north-west and elsewhere are struggling to cope with a continuing deluge of regulation from the Government. I am sure that the Minister is an avid reader of the New Statesman, and that he will have read the interview in which Lord Haskins—the head of the Government's better regulation task force—revealed that 16 of the 23 members of the Cabinet are wedded to regulation as the only way to achieve results. Does not that show that there is no hope for small businesses under the Labour Government?

Nigel Griffiths

Perhaps I can commend another publication to the hon. Gentleman. He clearly has not seen a copy of the report that the Commission issued this week on the EU charter for small enterprises, which singles out the United Kingdom's Europe office of the Small Business Service as an effective voice against Brussels bureaucracy. The report commended the office to all other states. I would also be interested to know how the Conservatives defend the 10,000 regulations on business that they introduced between 1994 and 1997.