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9. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): What the implications are for businesses of replacing the pound by the single European currency. [159069]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers): Provided the five economic tests laid down by the Chancellor are met, and the Government, Parliament and the British people agree to join, we believe that there would be benefits for British business in membership of the single European currency, particularly in respect of trade, transparency of costs and currency stability.

Dr. Lewis: I congratulate the Secretary of State on reading out his mantra so fluently. If there are those benefits, how can he explain the discrepancy that, whereas British public opinion is against joining the single currency and scrapping the pound to the tune of two thirds of the entire population, British businesses are against joining the single currency and scrapping the pound to the tune of three quarters of British businesses? What do British businesses know that make them so much more opposed to new Labour's policy of scrapping the pound than even the vast majority of the electorate at large?

Mr. Byers: I do not know the source for the hon. Gentleman's view that three quarters of British businesses are opposed, but certainly the CBI and British Chambers of Commerce--[Laughter.] It is an interesting change in the political landscape when a mention of the CBI has Tory Members groaning. What a change we have seen! The reality is that the CBI knows that the Government's policy on the single currency is the right one--for the simple reason that we are putting the national interest first, not the interest of party. The issue divides the Conservative party from top to bottom--that is the reality. The Conservatives have therefore cobbled together a

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policy that really does not stand up to the tests. The Government's policy is clear. Our view is: why not simply let the British people decide?

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the particular pressures of our being outside the single currency for foreign companies making investment decisions in the UK? He is aware that the US-owned company British Timkin has closed in Northampton, with the loss of 950 jobs. People in Northampton appreciated the prompt response of the Government in setting up a taskforce. I wonder if my right hon. Friend could--[Interruption.] Opposition Members may laugh, but people in Northampton appreciated that response, which was in marked contrast to anything done about job losses by the Conservative Government.

Will my right hon. Friend give two assurances? First, while trying to attract inward investment, will there be a focus on bringing high quality engineering and manufacturing jobs to Northampton to replace those that were lost? Secondly, will my right hon. Friend say what the Government intend--

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Minister has enough to go on with.

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right to say that there are major international companies, such as British Timkin, that have taken decisions in relation to the weakness of the euro vis-a-vis the strength of sterling, and that, clearly, was one of the reasons behind the decision that British Timkin took. The Government will not walk away from the difficulties created by that decision, but will work with local people, local Members of Parliament and local businesses to see Northampton through those difficulties.

My hon. Friend is also right to say that there are major inward investors who have made it very clear that, if the Government had ruled out joining the single European currency for a fixed period, inward investment decisions would not have been made in favour of the United Kingdom. The head of Nissan, Carlo Ghosn, said very clearly when he announced the investment in Sunderland that it would not have been made if we had had a policy of refusing to join the single European currency during the next Parliament--and Conservative Members and those on their Front Bench need to answer those questions. What about the effects on inward investment?

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): If we were to join the euro, we would have not just a single currency, but a single interest rate, so the only variables left to take the strain of economic management would be taxation, transfer payments, wages and prices. Big companies could spread their activities across national boundaries, but smaller, United Kingdom-based companies would not be able to do so. For them, there would be the pain of the exchange rate mechanism all over again, with the European Union controlling taxes and grants and with domestic wages and prices taking all the pain. Will the Secretary of State explain exactly how he thinks that UK companies could, in any way, escape from that pressure?

Mr. Byers: Interestingly, there was no mention of the effects that the Conservative policy would have on inward investment. On the particulars of the question asked, the hon. Gentleman mentions the difficulties that arose from

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ERM--a creation of the then Conservative Government, especially the terms under which the United Kingdom entered it. The reason why the five economic tests laid down by the Chancellor are so important is that they will ensure that if joining the single European currency is an issue, it will be done on terms that are in the interests of British businesses, both large and small. The point is that we are not adopting a policy of ruling out joining just for political convenience; we are putting the national interest first and letting the British people decide.

Miners (Compensation)

10. Mr. Jon Trickett (Hemsworth): If he will make a statement on the progress made by IRISC in the settlement of compensation claims by former miners suffering from vibration white finger and respiratory diseases. [159070]

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mr. Peter Hain): As at 22 April, IRISC, the Department's claims handling agents, have paid out more than £406 million in compensation for respiratory and vibration related disease. It continues to pay more than £1 million a day, and we expect that to rise sharply during the coming months.

Mr. Trickett: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he recall that, for 18 years, the Conservative party did nothing for the miners in that respect, while closing the pits in a vindictive attack on mining communities? Is he aware that there are still on-going delays in the settlement of claims? Those delays, which often seem to derive from bureaucratic problems and paper chasing, can often lead to frustration and anger.

Will my hon. Friend continue to press IRISC to settle all claims as quickly as possible, while minimising bureaucracy? Will he consider informing claimants directly of the reasons for the delays, rather than doing so simply through their solicitors? The frustration often arises because the claimants are unaware of the reasons for the delays.

Mr. Hain: I reassure my hon. Friend that we will certainly take his comments on board. The procedure is laid down by the courts, and the claims handling agreement, negotiated thereafter, requires the solicitors to be the main conduit of communication with individual claimants. I pay tribute to the dedicated work that my hon. Friend does on behalf of retired miners, their widows and the working members of the National Union of Mineworkers. In his constituency, they have no better champion. I reassure him that more money will be paid during the next five months than has been paid during the past three years.

The whole compensation scheme is being speeded up. Widows are getting interim payments. We are prioritising the oldest and sickest miners so that they go to the top of the queue. Previously, they could find themselves way down it. We are making sure that all the problems that have beset the scheme are ironed out. It is the biggest

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compensation scheme in British history. This Labour Government are delivering it, unlike the Tories who denied miners their rights of justice for many years.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): The payment of compensation and individual claims is, of course, complicated. Did the Minister hear the Bishop of Wakefield yesterday saying how disappointed all the people in his diocese were who, after four years of the Labour Government's grandiose promises, expected some delivery but were still waiting?

Mr. Hain: That, coming from a Conservative Member, takes the biscuit. If the bishop wishes, he should by all means speak to me about this. If he had made those comments perhaps a year ago, there would have been a lot of validity in them. We have reformed the system, ironed out the problems and are driving it forward at the rate of more than £1 million a day. In Yorkshire we have paid out £115 million on the miners' compensation scheme. It is accelerating all the time and that figure will double within the next five months. That is a tribute to this Government's absolute commitment to bringing justice to the retired miners and their widows who were denied it for so long by the Tory Government.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil): There is a growing understanding in mining communities of the work being done and the scale of the problem. Let us not forget that week by week more and more miners are diagnosed with the condition, so are added to the books and the numbers that have to be dealt with. Many of us remember when the basis of a claim had to be made on a post mortem. Those hypocrites on the other side of the House--[Interruption]--did nothing to help mining communities when they faced these dreadful problems. The scale of the work and the sums involved require--

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman will wish to withdraw the term "hypocrite". There are no hypocrites in this House.

Mr. O'Neill: I withdraw the direct reference to hypocrites and substitute the word "hypocrisy" in the appropriate context.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I asked the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the word "hypocrite". I ask him to stand up and withdraw that remark.

Mr. O'Neill: I withdraw it, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend, who represents a coal mining area, is well aware of the anguish during so many years of Tory rule and of the fact that compensation is now being delivered. He makes the important point that 1,000 new claimants join the compensation scheme every week. We are grappling with that pressure as well as delivering on the scheme to existing claimants. In Scotland, we have delivered £28 million so far, and people in coal mining communities there appreciate that.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): As I represent a constituency in the diocese of Wakefield, may I inform my hon. Friend that I am extremely pleased with the Government's delivery both of compensation for

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respiratory diseases and vibration white finger and on equal value claims? As my hon. Friend knows, one of the problems in relation to vibration white finger is the refusal of RJB Mining to accept liability for certain claims applying to periods of service in the company after privatisation. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the Government, with the solicitors' claims group, are looking into that under the handling agreement, to see whether the problem can be resolved?

Mr. Hain: Yes, we are. My hon. Friend speaks with the authority of an ex-miner. Conservative Members would not recognise a mine if they fell down one. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, whether about equal value claims or about the decision which we recently announced that there will now be no claw-back of benefit deductions from compensation paid out to 99 per cent. of claimants. That is yet another move forward that we have made in recent months.

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