HL Deb 15 December 1993 vol 550 cc1354-8

2.48 p.m.

Lord Benson asked Her Majesty's Government:

Having regard to the statement in the House on Thursday, 25th November 1993 by the Lord Privy Seal (H.L. Deb. col. 417) that he is not prepared to accept the charge that the Government have no policy for industry, whether, for the guidance of industry and the public, they are willing to divulge their existing policy for industry in a White Paper or other appropriate government publication.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Strathclyde)

My Lords, the Government demonstrate their commitment to promoting the competitiveness of industry across the full range of their policies.

Lord Benson

My Lords, that response did not answer the Question in any way. Perhaps I may put a further question in the hope that I shall receive a more conclusive answer. Manufacturing industry is the bedrock of the British economy. Relatively it has been declining as compared with other nations over a great many years. Do the Government regard it as their responsibility to reverse that trend? If so, when and how will they do so?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am saddened both by the noble Lord's response to my Answer and indeed his supplementary question. I was hoping that he would take the opportunity to congratulate the Government on following policies over the course of the past few years that have led to an immense recovery in the fortunes of the British economy, leading the European economy out of recession against a background of low interest rates, low inflation and a competitive exchange rate. That is what our industrial strategy has been and that is why it has been so successful.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, cannot the Government's policy for industry be stated in a single sentence: that it is so far as possible their policy to see that industry is privately owned and so far as possible under the rule of law to see that it is independently managed and conducted?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, my noble and learned friend puts it well and rather better than I did.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, did the Minister's answer mean that he planned a competitive exchange rate?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the exchange rate is at a competitive level, and that has been a great help to our exporting industries.

Baroness Elles

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Government have provided all the means for industry to make good and that it is up to industry itself to prove that it is capable of taking advantage of the opportunities?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, yes. We have provided the right economic framework and British industry is now taking advantage of that opportunity. Of course, we still have problems with competitiveness and in overcoming some difficulties overseas but, against the background that I mentioned earlier, we have every opportunity of overcoming any difficulties.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, why is it that the Government are so reticent about letting us have a discussion document on the subject of industrial policy? The noble Lord, Lord Benson, to whom we are all indebted, has repeatedly asked for that. We have had discussion documents on a variety of issues. We would all be very happy to participate in debating any document that the Government put forward. Why cannot that be done?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, it is not that the Government are against having White Papers. They can be very useful, but they are no substitute for ensuring that the overall thrust of government policy is aimed at promoting the interests of government. Only a couple of weeks ago we had the Budget. That was a good statement of industrial policy in itself.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the prime functions of Parliament is to review and pass judgment on the policies and plans of the executive? In view of that and of the fact that the Government do have a policy, would it not be helpful for them to give further details of their policies so that we can debate them more clearly than would be possible following his Answer?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the lack of a White Paper has never stopped either House of Parliament discussing the effects and policies of central government.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to a "competitive exchange rate". Does he agree that we now have a competitive exchange rate because we were forced out of the ERM with ignominy? As he appears to be in favour of competitive exchange rates, can he give the assurance that under no circumstances at any time in the future will we enter another fixed exchange rate regime?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord that assurance and nor would he expect me to. What we are discussing in this Question is industrial policy.

Lord Laing of Dunphail

My Lords, all relevant statistics still indicate that we have a continuing manufacturing problem. Does my noble friend accept that if that problem is not recognised openly, it will not be addressed and the country will continue to decline in the economic league tables in the way that it has declined for far too long for any of us to be comfortable with?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, my noble friend sounds a very fair warning not just to government but particularly to industry and the leaders of industry who make the investment decisions, particularly vis à vis manufacturing industry.

Lord Peston

My Lords, is the Minister aware of how excellent the questioning of some of his noble friends has been on this matter? If the noble Lord can leave Alice in Wonderland to one side for a moment, may I ask him why, if the British economy is doing as well as he says that it is, his right honourable friend the Secretary of State referred just two weeks ago to the low productivity of the British economy, the managerial incompetence of the leaders of manufacturing industry and similar things? If we are doing so well, why did he feel the need to make those remarks? Would it not be much more helpful if he were to give us a systematic statement of the Government's views so that we can debate them fully? Many of us would be very supportive of certain things that the Government might like to do. We would just like to know what they are.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, it really would have been Alice in Wonderland if the kind of economic background that we have today had existed under the last Labour Government. In making his statement about British industry, my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade was very much following the theme of the previous question from my noble friend Lord Laing, who talked about the challenges facing industry. There are challenges—and what the Government believe that they have done is to provide industry with the tools to finish the job.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, is it not clear that there is concern on all sides of the House about the fact that this country's industrial base is steadily contracting and has done so for many years? Whatever the Government's policies and whatever the policies of the Opposition, would it not be wise for the Government to set out their views in a White Paper so that the matter can be adequately discussed?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, we never fail to have opportunities to discuss these subjects, but surely actions speak louder than words and we have had a great deal of action over the course of the past few years.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, could the Minister confirm to the House that in reply to an earlier question he did not mean to say that government policy was to promote the Government but to promote industry? Do the Government agree that one of the purposes of issuing a White Paper is to inform not only Parliament but the public at large, and in this case British industrialists, about what the Government's policy is? Would not that be a beneficial thing to do?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, if I made a slip of the tongue earlier, I apologise. Naturally, government are there to promote industry and the needs of industry. We are particularly concerned to promote competitive industry. That has been the thrust of our policies and industry is in no doubt of it.

Lord Aldington

My Lords, as a second-to-none champion of the importance of manufacturing industry and as someone who greatly admires the noble Lord, Lord Benson, in his campaign, may I ask the Government to take note of the fact that there have been many admirable statements of their policy in speeches by my right honourable friends the President of the Board of Trade, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and others which have clearly set out a very good government policy towards industry? Why is insufficient notice taken of those admirable statements?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the Opposition would do well to read in closer detail many of the statements that are made and to recognise the success that they have produced.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one can only listen with a sense of incredulity to a Minister who, after his Government have been in office for 14 years, tries in some way to blame a Labour Government and then, when some of his noble friends criticise his Government, tries to shuffle off the responsibility onto industry and to claim implicitly that this Government have no responsibility when in point of fact it is this Government who have practically destroyed our industrial base and left millions of people unemployed? I do not know how Ministers have the brass neck to stand at the Dispatch Box and say, "Not me, guv; it's somebody else".

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am one of the Members of this House who has a great deal of difficulty remembering the last Labour Government—and I hope that that continues for a long time. The alternative to what the noble Lord proposes is to go back to the days when the Government not only controlled but owned British industry. That was a disastrous experiment. This surely is the better way.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does the Minister remember, or can he look up, the balance of payments at that time?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the noble Lord asks a question about the balance of payments. He should recognise that our exports are now at a record level.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, I wonder whether I might ask the Minister a helpful question just to get him off the hook. Why does he think that at the recent CBI conference the Leader of the Labour Party, John Smith, not only received a warm welcome but nearly got the only standing ovation of that week, yet when the Minister's right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment addressed the CBI, they all went out for a cup of tea? What happened?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am certain that if the CBI conference had taken place after the latest Budget the roles would have been reversed.