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Intellectual Property

8. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): What guidance he gives to businesses about protection of their intellectual property; and if he will make a statement. [144534]

The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr. Kim Howells): Advice on intellectual property matters is delivered by the Patent Office to a wide audience of inquirers, including business. The Patent Office produces a comprehensive range of literature and has a well established central inquiry unit. Guidance is also available in downloadable form via the internet--if the House can contemplate putting up with such a vile adjective as "downloadable".

Mr. Robertson: Intellectual property theft is estimated to cost industry and business about £8 billion a year,

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and there is also evidence of a link with organised crime. The Government consulted on this issue 12 months ago and said that they would introduce legislation to strengthen the legal position. Will the Minister say when he intends to do so?

Dr. Howells: We certainly have been trying to pull together all the enforcement agencies and have formed the Anti-counterfeiting Alliance, in which intellectual property rights play a big part. We shall certainly legislate when we have finished reviewing the situation, although views and perspectives on intellectual property rights in developing countries are different from those in the advanced and industrialised world. However, we are mindful of the dangers of not tightening up intellectual property safeguards as the scams multiply out there in the marketplace.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply because I want to ask about consideration of the new intellectual property rights legislation. Will he ensure that we re-examine the definition of what constitutes intellectual property and separate design from discovery? In particular, I should be grateful if United Kingdom legislation did not go further down the path that has led to the exploitation of the AIDS epidemic in South Africa, where intellectual property rights and patents are being used to deny access to medical care to the millions of HIV sufferers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr. Howells: We are very keen that intellectual property rights should accrue to people who have developed new products honestly and as a result of scientific endeavour and engineering expertise. We are certainly not in the business of allowing any multinational corporation to exploit any terrible situation, such as that which my hon. Friend describes, in Africa or anywhere else.


9. Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): What assessment he has made of the cost of regulations and directives emanating from the European Union on small business enterprise in the United Kingdom in each of the past three years. [144535]

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell): As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, all legislation has to undergo a regulatory impact assessment, which does not differentiate the sources of that legislation. Recently revised guidelines on RIAs emphasise the need to think small first in drawing up regulations. On the European aspect, the Government have been successful, through their policy of positive engagement in Europe and through the Lisbon economic summit, in developing the charter for small business, which puts considerable emphasis on the need to improve the regulatory environment not only in the United Kingdom, but throughout Europe.

Mr. Steen: Small businesses are the engine for economic growth in this country, but is the Minister aware of the on-cost to them of enforcing the myriad rules and regulations coming from Europe? That makes us much

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less competitive than many other European countries, which do not enforce the rules and regulations on their small businesses as efficiently and effectively as we do. Will she consider perhaps introducing a local appeal mechanism so that small firms that feel aggrieved by officialdom and the enforcement of regulations can appeal to the local magistrates court for a view as to whether rules and regulations from Europe are being over- zealously pursued?

Mrs. Liddell: The hon. Gentleman suggests yet another layer of bureaucracy and yet another on-cost for small firms. He seems to have failed to notice that employment in this country is at its highest, at just under 28 million. A million jobs have been created since May 1997 and nearly three quarters of people of working age are employed. The data on VAT registration suggest that business start-ups are at historically high levels. That is a consequence of the economic stability generated by Government policy and a consequence of the move towards completing the single market.

Single market legislation alone has created an environment whereby there is one set of rules instead of 15 different sets for 15 different countries. The Government are committed to reducing the regulatory impact on small firms and to ensuring that small firms in this country can benefit from the biggest domestic market in the world--the European Union, which has 350 million consumers.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): Will my right hon. Friend make it clear to Opposition Members and small firms that those who whine and bleat that regulations are wrong per se are themselves wrong? A lot of the regulations that we must insist on keeping protect health and safety and basic, fundamental employment rights. Will my right hon. Friend also make it clear that the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors and those who claim to represent small firms have got it wrong if they are prepared to sell the basic rights of ordinary workers?

Mrs. Liddell: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Conservative Members are anxious to concentrate on the costs of regulation; they never concentrate on the benefits. Every time a consumer picks up a can or packet in a supermarket and sees a sell-by date, it is a direct consequence of our membership of the European Union.

We should look objectively at the levels of regulation in this country--regulation that helps people to enjoy a much better standard of living. A regular Institute of Management development survey asks businesses to describe their perception of regulation in different countries. The latest results, for 1999-2000, show that the United Kingdom ranks second among G7 countries in terms of its regulatory environment, just behind Canada and ahead of the United States.

We impose sensible regulation, and it has benefits. Yes, there are costs, but we will reduce them, and we will certainly ensure that the people of this country enjoy the benefits.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): As I draw myself up to my full imperial height of five foot six, and

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a quarter, may I request from the Minister an answer that we failed to secure from her hon. Friend the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs?

The Minister's noble Friend Lord Haskel has said:

Was the Minister's colleague right? Without giving a judgment on the precise details of the Sunderland court case, will the Minister none the less agree that it results from an absurd and unnecessary prosecution? There was no consumer complaint, and the only victims in the case are freedom and common sense.

Mrs. Liddell: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should raise the matter, not least because it is still before the courts, but also because the regulation was introduced by the Government whom he supported.

I am happy to rise to my full height of 1.6 m, which is 5 ft 4 in--and as you will know, Mr. Speaker, "guid gear comes in wee bulk".

Energy Market

10. Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): What measures he is taking to ensure the liberalisation of the energy market. [144536]

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell): The Government have completed the passage of the Utilities Act 2000. We seek to secure full competition in the supply of gas and electricity and in the generation of electricity, with the benefits being passed on to consumers, while protecting disadvantaged customers and the environment.

Mrs. Gilroy: I know that, especially in cold weather like this, my right hon. Friend shares my anger about the millions of households left in fuel poverty by the Conservative Government's neglect of that important policy area. What steps is she taking to ensure that the liberalised energy market works as well as possible for the fuel poor?

Mrs. Liddell: My hon. Friend makes an important point. One of this Government's first moves was to reduce VAT on fuel, a particularly punitive tax that was imposed on the poorest members of society. There are 35,000

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excess deaths in winter that are attributable to the cold. That is why ending fuel poverty is a priority for the present Government.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the benefits of competition are not yet fairly shared by everyone. The Government are addressing that in a number of ways: there is Ofgem's social action plan, and several industry initiatives have been taken. I am pleased to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is today announcing a new initiative from the energy company Innogy--a £10 million programme called "health through warmth", which will potentially help more than 20,000 households in England and Wales to make their homes more energy-efficient so that they can stay warmer at lower cost. [Interruption.] You will observe, Mr. Speaker, that Conservative Members have no interest in these matters. They had no interest in them for 18 years. This Government have not just an interest, but a commitment.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): Many in the electricity and gas industries attribute the recent doubling of the wholesale gas price to the interconnector, and to the Government's failure to achieve a liberalisation of the gas market in Europe; but given the gas price increase, how helpful does the Minister think it is to British industry to make it suffer the additional costs of another new tax on its energy bills from 1 April this year, following the imposition of the climate change levy?

If the Minister really does care about the competitiveness of British industry--and she should note that employment has fallen this month, for the first time--should she not join us in calling on the Treasury to scrap this expensive and highly damaging new tax?

Mrs. Liddell: The Government have been keeping a close watch on the progress of gas prices in the past few months, and if there is any evidence of anti-competitive behaviour, we shall not hesitate to take action on it. As for the climate change levy, the hon. Gentleman seems to ignore completely the responsibilities that we have not only as a Government but as members of society to ensure the sensible and most efficient use of energy. For that reason, there has been extensive consultation with industry. My hon. Friends at the Treasury have received numerous representations from intensive energy users and others on the climate change levy.

The hon. Gentleman should be honest with the House on what actions Conservative Members are prepared to take to ensure that the environment is protected for the future and that we have a truly competitive environment, nationally and internationally, for all of our companies, not only those that are intensive energy users.

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