HC Deb 01 March 1994 vol 238 cc622-3W
Sir Malcolm Thornton

To ask the President of the Board of Trade when he intends to publish the results of his Department's consultations into future United Kingdom resourcing of the preparation of standards; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Heseltine

On 10 June last year,Official Report, column 302, I announced that I was reviewing the need for Government financial assistance to the British Standards, Institution, BSI, and ways in which the BSI and standards contribute to improving competitiveness. A consultation document was issued to which over 400 replies were received. I am now able to announce my conclusions and the action which my Department and the BSI plan to take.

Our consultation has shown that the business community believes that standardisation makes an important contribution to competitiveness. Both through voluntary use in the marketplace and in the legislative field, especially in the single market harmonisation programme, standards contribute increasingly to a level playing field in Europe and world wide. The cost of the BSI's role in the standards-writing process, around £30 million per year, is borne largely by industry through subscriptions and purchases of standards. Industry accepts this as appropriate but also values the financial support of Government as a way of maintaining the neutrality and impartiality of the process; as a reflection of Government's own use of standards ill procurement and legislation, and on behalf of the wider public interest in standards.

I have listened carefully to the views of business and have concluded that my Department should continue to provide financial support but in the future such assistance should be more precisely targeted. For 1994–95 my Department will contribute £7.3 million to BSI and industry in respect of standards-writing. This will consist of £1.5 million grant in aid to the BSI; £2.5 million of targeted assistance to the BSI to be spent in areas of work to which industry attaches priority—including training of delegates and other support from BSI for overseas standards work—£2.45 million direct to industry through the assisted international travel scheme—an increase of £500,000 to reflect the higher proportion of standards committee work now taking place overseas—and a further £750,000 to industry under schemes to expedite the drafting of standards and £100,000 to consumers to cover the costs of their representation.

In the course of the Government review, concerns have also been expressed about BSI's relationship with its members and about other aspects of corporate governance. I am pleased that the BSI has responded to the concerns of its members and has already taken steps to sharpen up its internal efficiency. Now it will respond further by giving business a bigger say in determining programmes and resource allocation; by being more proactive in overseas standards meetings; and by providing more training for business delegates to overseas meetings. The BSI is also reviewing its relationship with, and its accountability to, its stakeholders in the course of changes to its royal charter and byelaws.

One particular standard which has generated much comment is BS5750, the standard for quality management systems. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Technology has already made an announcement to the House on 7 February, Official Report, column 2, about help for small businesses applying for BS5750. I have asked the BSI to consider how it can build on the success of BS5750 and to use its role in standards-making to work with British industry towards the improvement of the general quality of its products.

Concerns have also been expressed to Government about the hybrid role of the BSI as both the national standards organisation and a certification and testing body. My Department has discussed these issues with the BSI. In response to the concerns expressed, the BSI will be taking steps to reinforce the ring-fencing of the BSI standards within the overall organisation.

This is primarily a matter for the BSI and its membership. The BSI must continue to have the confidence of its members and I have asked my officials to keep me informed on developments.

I have placed in the Library of the House a copy of the report of the consultation which has been issued, together with a copy of the responses, other than those where respondents requested the information remain confidential.