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Small Businesses (North-West)

5. Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): What steps she has taken to increase the productivity of small businesses in the north-west region. [2035]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths): We have established the Small Business Service in the north-west region to help small businesses enhance their competitiveness and profitability. It works with key partners, such as the North West development agency, to champion entrepreneurship and minimise the burden of regulation.

Mr. Hoyle: I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for that reply. He will agree that the Small Business Service is very useful. However, could we not also help productivity by cutting some of the burden of red tape? That would assist, and allow small businesses to grow into the medium-sized and large enterprises that we want in the north-west.

Nigel Griffiths: I agree with my hon. Friend in hoping that the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 will make it far easier to tackle outdated, overlapping and overburdensome legislation. Patrick Carter, who has considerable business experience, has been asked to recommend simplifications to the payroll system to help all businesses, especially, I hope, the 3.7 million small businesses.

Mr. Richard Page (South–West Hertfordshire): Further to the sensible and caring question asked by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)—it was a good question—is the Minister aware that on Monday, the British Chambers of Commerce announced the result of a survey of the north-west, which painted a gloomy picture for small businesses, particularly those hit by foot and mouth? Is he aware that tens of thousands of people in the north-west have lost their jobs in the textile industry over the past four years and that that trend is continuing, mainly because of the high value of the pound? Is he further aware that the problems and cuts in companies such as BAE Systems, Marconi and Cammell Laird are resulting in further job losses for the small businesses that supply them? The list goes on and on.

In view of that catalogue of woe, will the Minister now recognise that his response was woefully inadequate? Will he listen to the hon. Member for Chorley and come forward with measures for the north-west that will give help and encouragement for the future? Otherwise the job losses that are taking place in small businesses and manufacturing will continue.

Nigel Griffiths: I do not want to take up more time in the House than I am due, but on two of the key issues the hon. Gentleman is simply wrong. The Government have given an additional £3.65 million to the north-west to ensure that small farmers directly affected by the foot and mouth epidemic have access to good business advice through business links and other help. We are doing as much as possible to support businesses in the north-west, which now employ 3.1 million people—119,000 more than in 1997.

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I am sure that what the hon. Gentleman says is not generally accepted by workers in the north-west, especially those in manufacturing, whose average hourly earnings went up from about £8 to more than £10.50 in the most recent five years for which we have figures.

Flexible Working

6. Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): What action she is taking to help employees obtain flexible working arrangements. [2036]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): Last month I appointed a new work and parents taskforce to consider how parents of young children and their employers can be encouraged to agree flexible hours that will suit them both. In addition, the Government's work-life balance campaign works with employers to introduce family-friendly working that meets the needs of both employees and business.

Judy Mallaber: I welcome the establishment of the working parents taskforce. Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the last Parliament the Select Committee on Education and Employment recommended that women returning to work after childbirth should be allowed to go part-time unless employers could show that that was impractical? Does she agree that, as a minimum, a code of guidance should be drawn up requiring employers to give reasons for rejecting any request for flexible working arrangements? Will she also highlight the areas of skilled employment, such as nursing, in which there are staff shortages and in which greater flexibility by employers could help them to deal with the shortages by making it easier for people to return to work?

Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. She makes an important point about the real advantages that businesses get by extending flexible working hours. I am also conscious of the Select Committee's excellent work on the subject in the previous Parliament. We consulted specifically on how we could help mothers with new babies and parents of young children to work part-time, and we were repeatedly told, especially by mothers and groups that work with mothers, that they did not want to be in a battleground of disputes and employment tribunals.

Parents want a sensible discussion with employers to arrive at a practical solution. They want their families' needs to be taken seriously. Our proposal ensures that parents have the right to be taken seriously, and the taskforce, under the chairmanship of Sir George Bain, will consider the practicalities of how we make that work for parents and businesses.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): In welcoming the establishment of the taskforce, may I remind the Secretary of State what the leader of the Transport and General Workers Union said about it? He commented:

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Ms Hewitt: As I made clear when I announced the establishment of the taskforce, the employee's right to make the request is accompanied by a duty for the employer to give that request proper and serious consideration. We are getting the issue on to the business agenda, so that employers and employees can produce solutions that suit them both. The approach has been welcomed by the TUC and the CBI, both of which are participating in the taskforce.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): Another group of workers who need flexible working arrangements are the disabled and sick. At the moment, employers are far too ready to pension off those people on the grounds of ill health. What is often required is a more flexible approach, such as a phased return to work, shorter working hours or a change in the working environment. Will the Secretary of State assure me that she will encourage employers to adopt those practices, and perhaps consider including groups such as disabled workers in legislation on flexible working for women?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. As more businesses consider flexible working and understand the benefits that it brings to them by making it easier to recruit and retain good workers, more employers will extend flexible working hours not only to parents with young children but to people with disabilities or some level of illness.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): That is all very well, but how will it improve flexible working practices for the Government to accept the European Union directive on national works councils, which will cost industry £260 million every year? Does the Secretary of State, as the voice of industry at the heart of the Government, accept that the No. 1 concern of British business is the increasing and intolerable burden of regulation? If she is serious about wanting to tackle the problems, she will find an Opposition who are keen to assist her. However, if she simply continues to add more costs for industry, she will find resistance on both sides of the House, and in the country as a whole, as British business becomes increasingly uncompetitive and people's jobs are put in jeopardy.

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman referred to the works councils directive, which applies to multinational companies that work across several EU member states. I have been struck by the number of business leaders from such companies who have said that in practice the creation of works councils has proved very useful. The hon. Gentleman may be thinking of the proposed draft directive on information and consultation. His bigotry about all matters European means that he has not bothered to check his facts. The information and consultation directive, on which we agreed a common position a few weeks ago, will not impose works councils on British companies. We have succeeded in making the directive more flexible to ensure that British businesses will be able to find solutions that suit them.

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I notice that the hon. Gentleman has neither told us whether he thinks it is a good idea for employees to be consulted and given information by their employers, nor said whether he thinks that it is good to help parents to balance work and family. We support hard-working families and employees; the Conservative party does not.

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