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Regional Responsibilities

9. Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): If she will make a statement on her responsibilities for the regions. [9557]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): We want every region to enjoy strong and sustainable economic growth. In pursuit of that goal, my Department sponsors the regional development agencies; we provide regional selective assistance and enterprise grants; we ensure that European structural funds support our policy goals; and we provide services to small firms through the Small Business Service and our network of business links.

Mr. Fallon: All good stuff. However, can the Secretary of State explain why she and a junior Minister are responsible for the regional development agencies while, over at the Cabinet Office, the Deputy Prime Minister and another junior Minister are responsible for the Government offices of the regions and the regional co-ordination unit? A third Department of State—the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—has three more Ministers responsible directly for the regions. Does she not accept that having three Departments of State and seven Ministers with direct responsibility for the regions looks much more like jammed-up government than joined-up government?

Ms Hewitt: Regional policy goes considerably wider than the economic responsibilities that I have at the Department of Trade and Industry. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is leading the work that we are doing on the White Paper on regional governance and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is responsible for regional policy overall. The position is quite clear.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): Given that economic development is such an important part of the Government's regional decentralisation programme, can my right hon. Friend assure me that she will work closely with the other relevant Departments to promote regional government in those areas that want it through a referendum, and that she will back up that process by continuing with a very active regional policy at national level in her Department?

Ms Hewitt: Yes, I can. I share my right hon. Friend's enthusiasm for devolving decisions as far as possible to the people whose lives they affect. I am pleased that, since the election, regional development agencies are now among the responsibilities of the Department of Trade and Industry. We are working closely with those agencies and with colleagues to ensure that we have the strong effective regional policy that we need throughout the country.

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10. John Barrett (Edinburgh, West): What steps the Government are taking to improve the competitiveness of British business. [9558]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths): Improving the competitiveness of British business must be a partnership between all those involved in business and the Government. For the Government's part, we have created a stable economic environment in which business can prosper. We have low inflation and the lowest long-term interest rates for 35 years.

John Barrett: I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he not agree that there have been a number of redundancies in our constituencies as a direct result of the economic impact of the terrorist attack on 11 September? For example, Grampian Foods in my constituency has laid off employees in the airline food industry. The Governments of other countries, such as the United States, have taken positive steps to support their airlines, so what action will this Government take to ensure that our industry can continue to compete on a level playing field?

Nigel Griffiths: No one should underestimate the events of 11 September, but no one should be in any doubt that, because of our economic policies, Britain is in a better position than other countries to weather any downturn. Steps have been taken to give us a business environment that has the lowest-ever corporation tax for small companies and the lowest starting rate in any major industrialised country. We have also reduced capital gains tax and introduced a host of other measures. Those steps have helped us to ensure that British businesses are in a better position than those in other countries to weather any downturn, to grow again and to compete in the world.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood): I am sure that my hon. Friend shares my view that price fixing and cartels are bad for competition in British business. However, does he share my suspicion that there is still a degree of price fixing in the British airline industry? That fact was confirmed to me only this week when I inquired about the standard fare between Heathrow and Glasgow and was told by British Airways that it was £162. When I phoned British Midland, its answer was somewhere between £161 and £163. Both airlines charge the exact same fare, so I encourage my hon. Friend in future legislation to strengthen competitiveness and to ensure that there is a proper investigation into what I believe to be price fixing in our domestic airline industry.

Nigel Griffiths: Of course, any price fixing is to be deplored. I hope that my hon. Friend will refer any evidence that he has to the Director General of Fair Trading.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): When my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) reminded the House that we had fallen from fourth place to 12th place in the competitiveness league, the Minister for Industry and Energy said that my hon. Friend was talking Britain down. The Minister added

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that he thought that we were doing pretty well. Can I tempt the Under-Secretary to agree with me that many in industry would say that that is a pretty complacent view?

Nigel Griffiths: My hon. Friend gave a robust and effective response. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has come back for more, but let me give it to him. Competitive rankings are by their nature very volatile. [Interruption.] I note that Opposition Members laugh at the fact that the United Kingdom is ahead of Germany, France, Italy and Denmark on the growth competitiveness index. If the hon. Gentleman examines The Economist intelligence unit report, he will see that we have made the UK the most attractive business location in the world. Those are the facts, and I am surprised that he should be so brave as to raise such an embarrassing subject for the Conservative party.

Employment Rights

11. Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): What action is being taken by her Department to improve employment rights in the workplace. [9559]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Miss Melanie Johnson): The Government have shown their commitment to minimum standards and fairness in the workplace with the introduction of the national minimum wage, paid holidays and many other measures. New rights to paid paternity and adoption leave, and enhancements to maternity rights, come in from 2003.

Mr. Luke: I know that my hon. Friend is very much aware of the great concern and uncertainty that is felt by many public sector workers about the arbitrary changes in working conditions before initial guarantee is given and the possible loss of pension rights in the transfer of an undertaking. Will my hon. Friend give an undertaking that following the consultation period the Department will welcome the proposals made at the TUC conference to strengthen the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981? Will she implement the recommendations as soon as possible once the consultation period ends in December?

Miss Johnson rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. I should say to the House before the Minister replies that Members should not read from notes.

Miss Johnson: I know that my hon. Friend has a considerable and relevant background on these issues. I am grateful to him for bringing his expertise to the House, even though Opposition Members are mocking it. As he knows, the Government are consulting on reforms of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981. These reforms are designed to help the smooth management of any change by ensuring that employees know where they stand when a business changes hands.

We are proposing options for extending TUPE to occupational pensions, which my hon. Friend has mentioned. That would help to ensure that more employees have a basic minimum pension provision.

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We want to ensure, too, that the liabilities in respect of employees are honoured by requiring transferrers to notify transferees of such liabilities. We want to clarify the position on when dismissals or changes to terms and

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conditions of employees who are involved in a transfer can be made. As my hon. Friend is aware, consultation ends on 15 December, so we are still awaiting the full consultation response.

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Business of the House

12.31 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Will the Leader of the House give the business for next week?

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