HC Deb 14 July 1981 vol 8 cc361-4W
Mr. Latham

asked the Secretary of State for Trade whether he will make a statement on the results of his Department in achieving the Government's policy programme since his predecessor's reply to a similar question by the hon. Member for Melton on 11 June 1980.

Mr. John Biffen

Since my predecessor replied to a similar question from my hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) the two Bills then before the House, the Civil Aviation Bill and the Films Bill, have been enacted.

The Civil Aviation Bill completed its passage through Parliament and became law in November 1980. It is the Government's firm intention to use the Civil Aviation. Act 1980 to sell a substantial minority of shares in British Airways to the public as soon as the time is right. The power to give Ministerial guidance to the Civil Aviation Authority has been abolished and replaced by a statutory framework allowing more scope for the effects of competition to benefit the consumer. As required by the Act, the Civil Aviation Authority has published a statement of the policies it intends to adopt in performing its air transport licensing functions.

The Films Bill became law on 21 July 1980. As a result of the Act the funding of the National Film Finance Corporation has been restructured so that it is now independent of Government finance.

In addition, my Department has introduced three further Bills into Parliament:, of which two are now on the statute book. The Insurance Companies Act 1981 was largely concerned with the implementation of two EC directives dealing with insurance companies. It also included important independent improvements to the supervision of insurance companies within the United Kingdom.

The Merchant Shipping Act 1981 rationalised the definition of limits of liability of shipowners and others in certain statutes by reference to special drawing rights of the International Monetary Fund, therefore enabling the United Kingdom to ratify corresponding protocols to international conventions.

Finally, a Companies Bill has been introduced which will enable companies to purchase their own shares; strengthen the law on the disclosure of interests in shares; implement the EC fourth directive on company accounts; utilise administrative resources more effectively in the fields of company and business names; and make other important reforms of company law.

During the past year Department of Trade Ministers have continued to make overseas visits both to promote trade generally and to support the efforts of British exporters to secure particular contracts. The following countries have been visited: Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, China, Columbia, Czechoslovakia, Finland, France, Gabon, German Democratic Republic, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Israel, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, the United States of America and Yugoslavia. Industrialists have accompanied Ministers on a number of these visits.

The Department, under the guidance of the British Overseas Trade Board, has continued to provide a wide range of services to assist British exporters. In the last year, which saw a record trade surplus of £2¼ billion, the Department supported nearly 3,000 participants in over 200 business missions to overseas markets, helped over 6,000 individual visitors, supported participation by over 7,000 exhibitors at more than 300 fairs and exhibitions overseas and has dealt with over 100,000 enquiries from United Kingdom exporters. The Department has also recently initiated a campaign to stimulate exports to Western Europe.

Reorganisation of the Department's trade promotion work has continued an a new projects and export policy division has been created to act as the focal point within Government for supporting industry in the pursuit of large overseas projects. The Department has also created a new exports to Europe branch to provide a single focus for trade promotion in Western Europe and the stimulation of exports in selected product sectors.

The Export Credits Guarantee Department, for which I am also responsible, has continued to adopt its wide range of services as flexibly as possible to meet exporters' developing needs.

As regards general trade policy questions, the Department has been active, through the European Community and in other ways, in seeking to promote the maintenance and strengthening of the open world trading system while protecting British industry against damaging sudden surges in imports and against dumped or subsidised import competition. It has supported the Community's policy of seeking the full implementation of the agreements reached in 1979 in the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT) multilateral trade negotiations. It has secured action against a range of dumped or subsidised imports from a number of countries. It has sought to ensure the tightest possible application of the restraint arrangements for textiles associated with the GATT multi-fibre arrangement: and it has participated actively in the beginning of the preparation of the Community's position for the renegotiation of the arrangement and of the restraint arrangements with the Mediterranean countries. In the area of relations with developing countries for which the Department is responsible it has played a significant role in the final and successful attempts to secure agreement on a common fund for commodities. The Department has also played a full part in the United Nations conference on restrictive business practices which reached agreement on a voluntary code of conduct and has continued its active participation in negotiations in UNCTAD for a code on the transfer of technology.

We have been active in encouraging the elimination of technical barriers to trade within the Community. Largely as a result of a United Kingdom initiative a mechanism has been set up whereby problems facing manufacturers in meeting testing and certification requirements can be discussed on a bilateral basis through nominated contact points in each member State. We are also working closely with the Commission and other member States in developing a co-ordinated approach on standards and technical regulations to avoid the creation of new technical barriers to trade. Outside the Community we are fully supporting the GATT agreement on technical barriers to trade which has now been in operation for 18 months.

My Department has continued its work on administration, regulation and international negotiation in the fields of company law, insurance, insolvency, maritime affairs, civil aviation and patents, trade marks and copyright.

In July 1980 I presented a Green Paper on Bankruptcy, Cmnd. 7967, with proposals to withdraw the official receiver from bankruptcy work and for the introduction of a simplified bankruptcy system. Consideration is being given to the responses to this Green Paper.

A scrutiny team under Sir Derek Rayner has completed a fundamental examination of the functions and procedures of the Patent Office. Its report has contained many constructive suggestions, and a team has been set up to implement them.

Sections 2 to 10 of the Competition Act 1980 dealing with anti-competitive practices were brought into operation in August 1980. The Director General of Fair Trading is exercising his new powers to investigate alleged anti-competitive practices.

My Department continues to support and encourage the tourist industry mainly by providing financial aid to the British Tourist Authority and the English Tourist Board to promote the development of tourism. During the year tourism projects also have become eligible for loans from the European Investment Bank backed by Government exchange risk guarantees.

In civil aviation, we have continued to argue the case for the greater liberalisation of air services, particularly within the EEC.

Significant increases in the levels of grant available under the noise insulation grant schemes at Heathrow and Gatwick airports have been announced.

Finally, in the maritime field, my Department has actively participated in the work of the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation (IMCO). With the ratification of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1978 the United Kingdom has become the first country to ratify all the IMCO conventions concerned with safety and the prevention of pollution. In the course of 1980, the United Kingdom also ratified the convention concerning Minimum Standards in Merchant Ships 1976 (ILO Convention 147). The Department has brought into effect new safety regulations implementing the requirements of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea 1974 and its protocol of 1978. It is playing a constructive part in the developement of a new harmonised system of part State control for introduction in the European maritime region. The International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, 1979 has been ratified. The Departmnet's capability to deal with marine pollution incidents has been increased by the appointment of marine pollution control officers in the marine survey districts.