HC Deb 12 May 1983 vol 42 cc396-400W
Mr. Murphy

asked the Minister for Trade if he will set out the principal achievements of Her Majesty's Government within his Department's responsibilities since May 1979.

Mr. Peter Rees

In each year of this Government, Department of Trade Ministers have undertaken a very substantial programme of overseas visits to promote our export trade and support the efforts of British industrialists. Ministers, in some cases with a group of industrialists, visited over 30 countries during 1982 alone.

There are encouraging signs of an increased uptake of our services to exporters. The Department's work in assisting exporters, under the guidance of the British Overseas Trade Board, has settled down well under the new organisation of the five overseas trade divisions. The organisation provides an extensive range of assistance and services covering information and advice on world markets, practical help in entering new markets and establishing a sales operation, and a continuing flow of selling opportunities from overseas. As a result of reorganisation, some careful management planning, and the greater use of data processing, we have been able to maintain and expand the level of our services while achieving a significant reduction in manpower consistent with the Government's plans to reduce the size of the civil service overall.

A particularly important area has been our support for companies seeking overseas project business. Our projects and export policy division focuses the whole range of Government services, including ECGD support and the aid and trade provision, in support of our firms pursuing overseas projects. Taking only projects valued at £50 million or more, the Department was last year associated with successes worth about £1.4 billion to the United Kingdom which will generate over 55,000 man years of work for contractors, subcontractors and equipment suppliers throughout the country.

Our export competitiveness has been helped by the significant increase in productivity of industry in the past few years, accompanied by much more realistic pay settlements. The recent record has been a good one with a growth in the volume of our exports of 2 per cent. last year at a time when world trade probably declined by 2 per cent. With some of our major markets beginning to show signs of expansion and the improvement in cost competitiveness we are now well poised to take further advantage of opportunities overseas.

The Department supported the European Commission in the successful conclusion of the Tokyo round of multilateral trade agreements in 1979 which updated and reinforced the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade. The Department has, with the Commission, subsequently participated fully in the various GATT committees implementing the GATT agreements resulting from the Tokyo round.

The Department participated fully in the European Community's preparations of the ministerial meeting of the GATT in November 1982. This meeting saw realistic commitments in the ministerial declaration to support the open trading system and the setting up of a useful work programme to build on and supplement the results of the Tokyo round, including the work in GATT on the service industries of great importance in United Kingdom employment and overseas earnings.

We have participated fully in the renegotiation of the European Community's instruments for the protection of our industries from increases in imports from third country sources.

The Department, with the Department of Industry, has ensured the tightest possible protection for the United Kingdom clothing and textile industries in the renegotiation of the GATT multi-fibre arrangement. It has put forward United Kingdom interests in the renegotiation of the Community's bilateral agreements with supplying countries under the arrangement, and in the complementary arrangements with the Mediterranean countries.

We have continued to help British industry pursue complaints against injury by dumped or subsidised imports and to claim the benefits of duty relief and duty suspension available under Community legislation. In January 1983 the Department set up an anti-counterfeiting unit.

The Department had a leading role in the agreement reached in 1980 to establish a common fund for commodities, which the United Kingdom ratified on 31 December 1981.

The Department contributed to the exercise resulting in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's announcement about new facilities for free ports in the United Kingdom.

The Department has continued to pursue maximum benefits for United Kingdom interests under our treaty rights and obligations as members of the European Community and under its preferential trade agreements, particularly with EFTA and Spain. It has played its full part in pressing for the strengthening of the internal market of the Community, including in the field of services.

In July 1982 the Department published the White Paper on standards quality and international competitiveness— Cmnd. 8621—setting out the Government's proposals for strengthening our national standards system as a means of improving the international competitiveness of British Industry. The proposals were well received and the Department is co-ordinating action within Government to put them into effect. This includes the national quality campaign launched last month, as well as other measures of support for the whole standards initiative.

The Department has pursued matters of concern to consumers.

The Department has given financial support for organisations representing the consumer interest and published a strategy for reform of nationalised industry consumer councils. It has developed and refined the law relating to the sale and supply of goods and services and to weights and measures, arranged implementation of the average system of quantity control over packaged goods and enhanced its service for the design approval of weighing and measuring equipment. Liaison with the Director General of Fair Trading has been maintained on a wide range of subjects including the development of voluntary codes of practice. New safety regulations and prohibition orders have helped to reduce the sale of dangerous goods to the public.

The Competition Act 1980 abolished the Price Commission and instituted new methods for efficiency audits of nationalised industries and other bodies. Six reports have been published; a further three are in train.

The Department has taken steps to encourage a healthy and competitive civil aviation industry. The Civil Aviation Act 1980 paved the way for privatisation of British Airways and other steps have been taken to restore the airline to profitability. The Act also redefined the statutory framework of the licensing of air transport. The Secretary of State on appeal has directed the Civil Aviation Authority to license additional carriers on some important routes: this offers a wider choice to the traveller. He has also authorised a large programme of capital expenditure at many of our major airports, and has terminated the aviation security fund.

In international discussions we have carried forward our commitment to the liberalisation of air services, particularly within Europe, with the aim of giving our airlines greater freedom to follow their own commercial judgment. We have secured routes from London to several major European destinations for a second United Kingdom carrier and have opened up the Hong Kong route to British Caledonian and Cathay Pacific in addition to the existing British Airways service. Within the European Community we have maintained our attempts to make progress in securing liberalising measures on regional services, air fares and competition to secure an approach that is in better harmony with the spirit of the Treaty of Rome.

The Department was heavily involved in the part the Merchant Navy played in the operations in the south Atlantic last year. Planning with our NATO allies on the use of merchant shipping in time of emergency and war has been developed. The Merchant Shipping (Liner Conference) Act 1982 will enable the United Kingdom to implement the United Nations convention on a code of conduct for liner conferences, which will come into force in October 1983. In the field of maritime safety and the prevention of pollution the Department has played a leading role in the work of the International Maritime Organisation on adequate international standards, and in negotiating a European understanding on a common system of enforcement of those standards on ships visiting our ports, in order to eliminate the threat of substandard ships. Measures have been introduced to protect the health and safety of merchant seamen at work. More effective provisions have been made for dealing with maritime pollution incidents.

In tourism, one of our leading service industries, we have made a start on removing duplication between the British Tourist Authority and English Tourist Board, increased the budget for section 4 project assistance and made it available to the whole of England.

A wide-ranging review of policy towards the film industry has been started. In companies legislation, the Department has promoted two major measures: the Companies Act 1980 and 1981. The 1980 Act included provisions making insider dealing illegal, required fuller disclosure of directors' interests and gave better protection for minority shareholders. The 1981 Act provided a facility for companies to purchase their own shares; strengthened the law on disclosure of interests in shares; improved the companies inspection system; and extended the powers for the courts to disqualify directors. Since the relevant provisions were brought into force 10 months ago over 100 companies have bought their own shares and the Inland Revenue has approved in principle over 450 applications. In addition, the Department took advantage of these two measures to implement the second European company law directive on the distinction between private and public companies and the capital of public companies; and the fourth European company law directive on company accounts.

In the field of securities trading, Professor L. C. B. Gower was commissioned in July 1981 to review the legal protection of the investor. The Department has just issued new regulations governing licensed dealers in securities and has brought to a satisfactory conclusion negotiations on the European directives dealing respectively with the particulars to be published when securities are submitted to official stock exchange listing; and to be published subsequently on a regular basis.

In respect of insurance, the Department has promoted substantial legislative measures, the Insurance Companies Acts 1980, 1981 and 1982. The first extended aspects of supervisory provisions to Northern Ireland, the second implemented the European life establishment directive, as well as containing useful improvements in domestic law; the third was a consolidation measure.

The Department has continued to develop the supervision of insurance, particularly by the issue of new regulations covering increased reporting to the Department by insurance companies; the most recent extended substantially the reporting of reinsurance and the controls on advertising by offshore insurers.

The Department has continued to negotiate actively on a European directive on freedom of services, and on other European matters of concern to British insurers.

In 1981 the Department published a comprehensive Green Paper—Cmnd. 8302—on the reform of the law on copyright, designs, and performers' protection; a wide range of response is now being analysed. The Department has continued to advance the British interest in patents, trade marks and copyright in international negotiations.

The Department published in 1982 the report of the insolvency law review committee—Cmnd. 8558—and initiated public consultation on the recommendations on comprehensive proposals to produce a modern and reformed body of insolvency law.

The Department has, since May 1979, reduced the number of its staff by just over 11 per cent.