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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Lady is making a point of order.

Miss Widdecombe: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I have given notice of this point of order to you and also to the Home Secretary.

I do not want to make any further comment on matters concerning the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. However, there are issues surrounding what happened in the Home Office after his representation was made. There are also issues about what action was taken after that representation, whether the representation had any bearing on the seemingly extraordinary speed with which the application was then settled and what records exist in the Home Office of the various conversations that occurred. Have you received any request from the Home Secretary for the opportunity to make a statement to clear the matter up once and for all?

Mr. Speaker: I have received no requests from the Home Secretary.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Prime Minister, being a pretty straight kind of guy, informed the House that he has rightly set up an inquiry into the events surrounding the resignation of the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Has your office received any indication from his office about whether the report containing the

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results of that inquiry will be rendered to the House before, during or only after any election campaign that the Prime Minister is minded to initiate?

Mr. Speaker: No.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for not giving you notice of this point of order, which arises from Question Time. I think that the House applauds you for trying to ensure that questions and answers are shorter. One understands the position of new Members, but most hon. Members have now been in the House for two or three years. Would not it greatly help the House if hon. Members began by asking a question and not by providing a large roll call of events before they do so? Cannot we get questions and answers to be as they are meant to be: short and concise?

Mr. Speaker: I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has raised that matter, which, as he will know, I put to the House shortly before Christmas. It is not only the newer Members who are guilty of the actions to which he refers, but also some of the most senior, although I do not, of course, refer to him.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you know, it has occasionally been the practice that, when the Government announce an inquiry, Ministers use it as a reason not to give substantive answers to parliamentary questions about the subjects that the inquiry is investigating. Can you take steps to discover whether Ministers intend to use the inquiry to block answering any parliamentary questions until it reports? If that is their intention, can you take steps to protect the interests of all hon. Members?

Mr. Speaker: I shall not inquire into Ministers' intentions. I am bound by the rules of the House, which the hon. Gentleman has helped to create. As long as Ministers and hon. Members keep to those rules, I have nothing to say in such matters.

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Opposition Day

[2nd Allotted Day]

Manufacturing Industry

Mr. Speaker: Before I call the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), I announce that there is a 15-minute limit on speeches from Back Benchers, and that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.36 pm

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): I beg to move,

I declare the interests recorded in the Register of Members' Interests that are relevant to the debate.

We have called the debate to galvanise the Department of Trade and Industry and the Government generally into doing something about the plight of manufacturing industry. We want to shake them out of their inertia into dealing with the crisis in large sectors of manufacturing.

Since the general election in 1997, approximately 350,000 jobs have been lost in manufacturing. The cause is a fatal combination of complacency and failed policies. The Government are complacent because they inherited from us a golden economic legacy, which they have failed to maintain. Indeed, they have eroded the competitiveness that we achieved. Their policies have failed because they have not understood the challenges that manufacturing faces in the modern world. They have imposed layer upon layer of extra regulations and business taxes, which have attacked our competitiveness.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I will give way later.

The CBI has estimated that the total burden of taxes and regulations during this Parliament amounts to £32 billion. That is a ball and chain around the ankle of British manufacturing industry. There is a time lag in the effects of that burden, but they are now apparent in a clear loss of competitiveness.

The World Economic Forum reports that the United Kingdom has slipped down the competitiveness league from fourth place under the Conservative Government to ninth place now. That affects manufacturing jobs. Last year, more than 100,000 net jobs were lost in that sector. I contrast that with the figures for the last Parliament. From 1992-97, the number of manufacturing jobs increased by 69,000.

Today, firms and industries are threatened throughout the country. Ford and Vauxhall have announced the end of car making at several of their plants. We desperately hope that Nissan will retain its capacity to make the next Micra in Sunderland. However, that is in the balance. Last year, Corus, our largest steel manufacturer, shed 4,500

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jobs. This year, another 6,000 jobs are threatened, especially in important plants in Redcar and Llanwern. If Llanwern shuts, it will be a body blow to the entire south Wales economy, and the ripple effect will be felt much more widely. My constituency, which supplies limestone to Llanwern, will be affected. I therefore appreciate the seriousness of the matter.

Amid all that, the Department of Trade and Industry has become a mere spectator, although it has got bigger: the Secretary of State presides over a Department that has gained 1,000 more civil servants since the general election--but what are they all doing? The Department cannot even pay its own bills on time.

In a previous incarnation, the Secretary of State negotiated a public service agreement with the DTI. It states unambiguously that the DTI is

Shortly after the agreement, the right hon. Gentleman was in a position to deliver on it. He became Secretary of State for Trade and Industry--and what has happened? The performance has worsened: the DTI has broken its agreement.

Under the last Government, the Department was paying all its own bills 98 per cent. of the time. The percentage has now slipped to 93. The Department is very near the bottom of the Whitehall league table: it is 51st worst of a total of 57. It cannot even pay the money that it owes companies for goods supplied. So much for helping British industry.

Even more striking is the saga of the disappearing ministerial group on manufacturing job losses. The House will recall that at the end of last year there was a lot of adverse comment about manufacturing job losses. The Government announced to the press--not, of course, to the House--that a ministerial group would be set up. On 21 December last year, the Leader of the House confirmed the existence of the group, saying:

The Christmas and new year holiday went by, and the job losses were temporarily out of the news. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), however, tabled a parliamentary question to the Department asking what had happened to the ministerial group. He received the reply:

That is the story of the incredible shrinking ministerial group. It simply vanished into thin air.

The reason is that the DTI is driven entirely by media considerations. If something is in the news, it does something about it--or it says that it will do something about it. When the issue is no longer in the news, it gets forgotten.

We also remember the famous saga of rip-off Britain. At the 1997 Labour party conference, the Secretary of State intoned solemnly:

A year later, after the industry had had to spend £20 million explaining its case to the Competition

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Commission--which itself spent nearly £4 million of public money on one of its biggest inquiries ever--the result was the following statement:

That was the end of "rip-off Britain"--a soundbite at the time, huge public and private expense, and nothing at the end of it.

This is a Government, this is a Department, this is a Secretary of State obsessed with packaging and appearance rather than with substance and delivery. A worse charge, however, is that the Government and the DTI are weak in regard to industrial issues.

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