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Business Grants

11. Mr. Campbell-Savours: To ask the President of the Board of Trade what representations he has received from trading standards officers about the activities of companies selling advice on access by traders to business grants. [5790]

Mr. Greg Knight: The Department is actively working with the Office of Fair Trading and trading standards departments in cases of misrepresentation. Firms should be aware that their local business link can offer reliable advice free or at low cost.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: The Minister has obviously been briefed on the activities of European Business Services in the north-west of England, which is ripping off small business men in my constituency. Cannot the law in this area be reviewed, the more so as it is proving extremely difficult to prosecute companies such as EBS even when it is clear that they have been involved in forms of criminal conspiracy?

Mr. Knight: I have been briefed to the extent that a similar scam has been operating in my constituency and I take the same view of such practices. We already have in place certain safeguards: the Sale of Goods Acts, the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 and the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977. Those pieces of legislation can be used by trading standards officers to prosecute when an offence has clearly been committed.

Singapore Summit

12. Mr. Jacques Arnold: To ask the President of the Board of Trade what his priorities are for the World Trade Organisation summit in Singapore in December. [5792]

Mr. Lang: I have three priorities: first, the substantial work programme to carry forward trade liberalisation in the WTO; secondly, the completion at least in outline of

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an information technology agreement aimed at the progressive elimination of tariffs on products with the widest possible participation by WTO member countries; thirdly, real progress on negotiations to liberalise basic telecommunications, which are scheduled to conclude by February 1997.

Mr. Arnold: I am very encouraged by my right hon. Friend's reply, which shows that Britain is a leading campaigner for free world trade. When my right hon. Friend goes to the summit meeting, will he strongly oppose the Helms-Burton Act passed by the United States, which has the effect not just of preventing Americans from trading with Cuba but of imposing restrictions on third countries? I am sure that this House condemns the Cuban regime as the last remaining undemocratic country in Latin America, but the Helms-Burton Act is not the way to go about it: the way to deal with the problem is in political forums, not by damaging world free trade.

Mr. Lang: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that the matter was debated in Standing Committee recently and I agree with him. We have made it clear to the Americans in robust terms that we disapprove of that extra-territorial action on their part. As my hon. Friend will know, President Clinton has suspended title III for a six-month period, but that does not remove the uncertainty or the continuing threat of title III, and title IV continues to apply. I hope that the Helms-Burton Act will not remain in place and that the matter will be disposed of. On the broader issue of support for free trade and trade liberalisation, I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend of the Government's strong commitment to pursuing that agenda.

Mr. Foulkes: Why does the Secretary of State not support the social chapter of the World Trade Organisation, which is being promoted by a number of countries, including the United States, and would outlaw such appalling practices as child labour? Why is the Secretary of State so dogmatic that anything called a social chapter, however good it is, must automatically be opposed by the Government?

Mr. Lang: This Government defer to no other Government in our condemnation of child labour. We are signatories of the United Nations convention on human rights and we believe that such matters should be pursued through the appropriate organisations. The World Trade Organisation, however, is a body concerned with trade. The best way in which we can help to improve working conditions in other countries is to open trade with them, to increase that trade and to help prosperity to spread.

Mr. Rathbone: As my right hon. Friend pursues the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and other matters, will he remind the House how beneficial it will be for us to speak as part of the membership of the European Union?

Mr. Lang: My hon. Friend is right. Membership of the European Union enables the United Kingdom to participate in a major trading bloc. Nevertheless, it is also important that we promote the free trade agenda to which we subscribe, which is not so robustly supported by some of our partners in the EU.

Mr. Bell: May I tell the President of the Board of Trade and the House that, in relation to the Helms-Burton Act,

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the Opposition give their full support to the Government? We did so in Committee this morning and will continue to give our full support on that issue.

On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), why does the Secretary of State want to build world trade on the back of human rights? Why is he not prepared to accept a working party at the WTO next week to deal with forced labour, exploitative child labour and the lack of trade union rights and collective bargaining at the workplace in the third world? Why does he not support the United States, the French Government and the rest of our European partners on that?

Mr. Lang: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support on the Helms-Burton issue. On working conditions in other countries, we have seen evidence of how the Labour party would like to intervene and control working conditions in this country and to encourage the European Community to intervene and control them, thus adding to the burdens on business in Britain. The hon. Gentleman seeks to carry that interventionism to every other country around the world. Does he not recognise that imposing such burdens--imposing rigidities on the liberalisation of trade--would reduce economic activity, employment opportunities and the quality of working conditions in those countries? That epitomises perfectly the Opposition's protectionism and interventionism and shows that they do not support the free trade agenda.

Mr. Fabricant: Is not Britain the fifth largest exporter in the world, and does not a quarter of our gross domestic product come from exports? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to promote exports is not through trading blocs such as the North American Free Trade Area or the European Union, but through global free trade? Is not global free trade jeopardised by the sort of nonsense being promoted by the Opposition with their international social chapter--another barmy proposal from the barmy Opposition?

Mr. Lang: I agree with the statistics that my hon. Friend mentioned. He is right to emphasise the importance of promoting the multilateral free trade agenda. Free trading blocs can have their place, so long as they are not exclusive and do not confine their benefits to their members. We want the free trade agenda to be spread widely. If a bloc such as my hon. Friend describes contributes to that, it can form an acceptable part of the multilateral agenda. But the globalisation of trade liberalisation is our main objective.

"Industrial Action and Trade Unions"

13. Mr. Canavan: To ask the President of the Board of Trade what responses he has received to the White Paper, "Industrial Action and Trade Unions". [5793]

17. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the President of the Board of Trade what representations he has received on his recent Green Paper, "Industrial Action and Trade Unions"; and if he will make a statement. [5797]

Mr. Lang: The Green Paper, "Industrial Action and Trade Unions", was published on 19 November and the consultation period will last until the end of February next year. To date, I have received no written responses.

Mr. Canavan: Has ever a Green Paper on industrial relations so united the Trades Union Congress, the

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Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors, the Institute of Management and the Engineering Employers Federation, all of which have expressed their opposition to the ill-conceived legislative proposals which are widely perceived to be a simple pre-election gimmick and, thankfully, will never see the light of day as the Tories will be kicked out at the general election?

Mr. Lang: I have received no written responses yet, so the hon. Gentleman cannot possibly know what they will say. I cannot remember a trade union or industrial relations Green Paper that the Labour party has not opposed tooth and nail. By implementing the proposals in those Green Papers, the Government have succeeded in reducing the number of industrial disputes in this country so dramatically that we are now highly competitive, with vastly improved productivity. The number of days lost through strikes is currently about one twentieth the level under the last Labour Government.

Mr. Greenway: Will my right hon. Friend go further and confirm that 29 million days were lost through strikes under the last Labour Government? According to the latest figures, that figure has fallen to 437,000. Most of those strikes--some 70 per cent.--occur in the public utilities and in the public sector where there is no alternative service. Does that not show that the unions, encouraged by the Labour party, exploit the public when they are in a position to do so and that their power must therefore be curbed?

Mr. Lang: My hon. Friend's figures are correct. He is also right to identify the purpose of our Green Paper: it will ensure that the interests of the public, who depend on those monopoly services, are taken fully into account. Clearly, the Opposition do not care about the public. They do not care about the commuters left freezing on the platform, or the companies that depend upon the postal service delivering the mail on time. The Government do care, and we intend to ensure that people's rights are taken into account in future industrial disputes.

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