HC Deb 26 February 2004 vol 418 cc403-6
6. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

What steps she has taken to reduce levels of regulatory requirements on small business enterprises. [156257]

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

We have taken a number of measures to cut form filling and red tape. I mentioned just now the introduction of the flat-rate VAT scheme to cut paperwork and burdens for up to 700,000 small and medium-sized enterprises. We are raising the audit requirement to save 219,000 businesses up to £275 million a year. Let me now add another measure. We have abolished automatic fines for late payment of VAT. In the financial year 1996, the Government took £99 million from small businesses in such fines. I shall be happy to give the House more examples of then and now.

Sir Nicholas Winterton

There are many small business enterprises in Macclesfield, generating many thousands of jobs. Despite what the Minister has just said, how does he respond to the fact that, according to the Library, there were 3,990 new regulations in 2003 alone, as HMSO confirms on its website? In the six full calendar years of the Minister's Government, new regulations total 23,322, 53 per cent. up on the number under the last Conservative Government. What will he do to reduce regulations in a meaningful way?

Mr. Griffiths

The vast majority of those regulations do not affect the hon. Gentleman's constituents. About 40 per cent. of the regulations that I looked at regard road closures and the like, which are necessary. We must strip those out of the statistics that the hon. Gentleman gave and focus on regulations that do burden business. I have given some examples of regulations that we have tackled, but I am far from complacent on this matter.

I would also refer to independent studies. The most recent from the World Bank, "Doing Business in 2004"—a survey of 130 countries—ranked Britain in the top 10 countries with the fewest regulations. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has found that Britain has almost the lowest administration costs of any EU country, as well as fewer regulations for entrepreneurs than any other EU country, and Government policies have contributed greatly to this.

That is the message I would want the hon. Gentleman forcefully to give his constituents, including the manufacturers in his constituency. I share the hon. Gentleman's passion for manufacturing.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend accept that some reality must be injected into the argument that regulation on small business is necessarily bad? For example, there was the conduct of the gangmasters whose callous disregard for human life led to the death of the Chinese cocklers in Morecambe bay, something the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) seemed to think was funny—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is out of order.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD)

The Government said in their White Paper that they felt that the new companies law would reduce the burden on small business by making it much clearer how company law operated by bringing it together in one Bill—a Bill that creates a minimum standard for small business. However, we have not yet seen that Bill; it has still not appeared. Can the Minister give small business some hope that the Government intend to produce it, and say when they will do so?

Mr. Griffiths

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the latest surveys from the Forum of Private Business or the Federation of Small Businesses about the concerns of their members, he will see that that concern does not rank among them. Therefore, other matters are receiving priority. The measure to which the hon. Gentleman refers is important and will be brought forward at the appropriate time.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con)

The House will recall that the Chancellor said in his pre-Budget report last year that in total the Government is announcing today 147 regulations for reform or removal". Rather than hearing the Minister smugly patting himself on the back, small businesses throughout the country are desperate to hear how many of those 147 regulations—the specific list of which was leaked by the Government only to the Financial Times, in order to secure a headline, and was not announced to the House—have today actually been reformed or removed.

Nigel Griffiths

About 50 per cent. of the 147 regulations are directly focused on business and are being tackled. The regulatory reform action plan contains not 147 measures but more than 650, which contrasts with the problems that so many businesses faced a decade ago. One of the successes of the way in which we have tackled red tape and the burdens on business is the current record number of people working in Britain. That too contrasts with the burden of regulation and other factors that brought about not record numbers of jobs, but record bankruptcies in the 1980s and 1990s.

Mr. O'Brien

It is no good relying on the figure of 650, because only 250 of those measures have been tackled to date, and few of those—about 25 per cent.—relate to tax or regulation. So the hon. Gentleman's answer will receive a massive raspberry from the UK's vital small businesses, not least because they are at the sharp end of this Government's relentless addiction to heaping on business regulatory burden upon regulatory burden at the rate of 15 regulations every working day, the cost of which hits small businesses disproportionately hard.

Let us consider another regulatory threat to our small businesses. Will the Minister state here and now that preserving the UK's opt-out from the EU working time directive is a red line issue, not another white flag issue, for this Government? And will he tell us whether he will be disciplining all his Labour MEP colleagues who just two weeks ago voted to remove that very same opt-out?

Nigel Griffiths

The measures that this Government have taken have achieved the successes in business that even the hon. Gentleman, I notice, does not rebut. But then, he cannot really do so, because the Leader of the Opposition said on 22 June: It's true that we still have less red tape and lower taxes just than most of our competitors in Europe, in the European Union". We also know what Digby Jones of the CBI has said about regulation in Britain compared with Europe. We have reversed two decades of Britain's being over-bureaucratic compared with Europe, which is why so many businesses are growing. It is also why ours is the only one of the advanced countries in Europe and the G7 with an economy with consistent levels of growth, and consistent levels of business and wealth building, in the past seven years. On visiting any other European country that numbers among the advanced economies, one would see decline and the problem of mass unemployment. That is why we know that the actions that I outlined earlier are making an important difference, and nothing that the hon. Gentleman says will deflect us from our drive to ensure that the appropriate regulations are in place to protect people, while ensuring that we have record business growth.