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9. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): What steps she is taking to help manufacturing industry. [52006]

The Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions (Alan Johnson): Fundamental to the success of our manufacturing industry is the establishment of a stable macro-economic framework, which this Government have successfully put in place since 1997. In addition, we have set in hand a range of specific measures that will improve industry's productivity and competitiveness. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State expects to set out the Government's strategy for manufacturing in a publication later this month.

Mr. Chapman: I welcome and look forward to that publication. However, what are the Government doing now to help manufacturing firms in my constituency? No matter what they do in terms of productivity or efficiency gains, ground-breaking agreements between management and unions, and investment, they still cannot compete because of the barrier of the pound-euro exchange rate.

Alan Johnson: From visiting the Wirral international business park with my hon. Friend in February, I know of the concern of local manufacturing businesses, particularly about the slowdown in the world economy and the weakness of the euro. We believe that artificial measures to reduce the level of sterling would risk a return to the economic instability that so damaged manufacturing in the past.

In this morning's newspaper, the chief executive of Siemens, Alan Wood, says:

We need to concentrate on skills, innovation and research and development so that we can add value to manufacturing products in this country and ensure the success of manufacturing in Wirral and throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford): I begin by congratulating the Minister on what we are told is his new appointment. If the Government are so keen to show their support for manufacturing industry, will he explain why neither he nor any of the other seven Department of Trade and Industry Ministers could find time in their diary to attend MACH 2002, the No.1 exhibition of manufacturing

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technology which is taking place in Birmingham for the whole of this week? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the equivalent event in Germany was attended by the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder? Does not the Government's failure even to turn up speak far more loudly about the priority that they attach to manufacturing than a change in the title at the top of the Minister's notepaper?

Alan Johnson: The suggestion is nonsense. The Machine Tool Technologies Association is a very important organisation which understands the importance that we attach to manufacturing industry. I understand that the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) attended the exhibition. In my new role, I will ensure that the MTTA never has to accept second best again.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): I welcome the many initiatives in the Budget to sustain manufacturing, help stimulate small and medium-sized manufacturing concerns and, importantly, assist in the start-up of new, smaller manufacturing concerns. Will the Minister give an undertaking to work closely with the Scottish Executive, Scottish Enterprise and local companies in Scotland to ensure that the new telephone helpline is widely advertised and that the new starter packs are widely available so that new manufacturing concerns can start up throughout the country?

Alan Johnson: I will certainly give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. It is important that we work closely with the Scottish Executive and with Scottish Enterprise to ensure that in the early days of what seems to be a better future for manufacturing—after a dreadful time—we all work together. In that way, the opportunities for business support are well understood and well known to companies and manufacturing.

Regional Development Agencies

12. Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): What actions she is taking to enable regional development agencies to best suit their activities to regional needs. [52009]

The Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions (Alan Johnson): From 1 April this year, the regional development agencies are getting their funding from the Government as a single budget. This will give them the flexibility to address the regional needs and opportunities that they have identified as key to developing their regional economies.

In return, we have agreed a set of targets with the RDAs. These sit within a common framework, but reflect each region's particular needs and priorities.

Mr. Borrow: My hon. Friend will be aware that the north-west of England is the leading aerospace region in the United Kingdom and, indeed, the world. The North West Development Agency is working with the North West Aerospace Alliance, the universities in the area, BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and the Airbus consortium to develop an aerospace innovation centre in the north-west. I have spoken to colleagues in the region, and it is clear that there is frustration at the delay in getting this project

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off the ground. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would look into the matter and see what support his Department can give to the project in the months ahead.

Alan Johnson: I am certainly aware of the enormous efforts made by the North West Development Agency to improve aerospace facilities and, indeed, by linking with the universities, to ensure that there is a constant supply of skills for that industry. I was not aware of the point that my hon. Friend makes, and I will undertake to intervene and to find out what is happening.


The Minister was asked—


28. Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): If she will make a statement on the recent report into pre-eclampsia. [52031]

The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): I understand that the study to which the hon. Gentleman refers suggests an association, but it does not find any direct link between working and pre-eclampsia, and that the lead researcher has commented that it would not be right to draw firm conclusions from this study. The Health and Safety Executive will undertake a detailed assessment of the report and will consider whether there is a need to provide additional guidance for employers, employees and health care providers.

Dr. Murrison: I thank the Minister for that response. In light of the fact that this is just one report, I wonder what discussions she is having with her colleagues in the Department of Health and the maternity working group to establish the need for further research to clarify the possibility of a link between working and pre-eclampsia. More generally, will she tell us a little about what she is doing to publicise this condition, which is poorly understood among women and health care workers?

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman raises an enormously important point. Eclampsia and pre-eclampsia are leading causes of maternal death and, as he says, the causes are not at all well understood. I understand that my colleagues in the Department of Health are already talking to the Health and Safety Executive, as I suggest. I am sure that they are considering the need for further research, although I will draw that point specifically to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. I would also stress to the hon. Gentleman that the Department of Health is already funding the voluntary group, Action on Pre-eclampsia, and that part of that funding is used to make information directly available to pregnant women. I believe that that information is found to be reassuring and practically very helpful.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): Yesterday's report that fewer than half the babies born in England have a completely natural delivery is shocking. The increasing medicalisation of maternity care is causing midwives to vote with their feet and the policy of creating ever-larger units undermines the kind of personal care that can guard

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against pre-eclampsia. Will the Minister for Women tell the House what will happen to the maternity units that, according to the birth-rate plus survey, cannot find enough midwives?

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Lady raises a very important point about ensuring that women can get the kind of care that they want in pregnancy and childbirth. For many women—I had a great experience with a midwife-assisted delivery—it is very desirable to have a midwife engaged in care throughout the pregnancy, as well as at the delivery itself. I will certainly draw the hon. Lady's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, and I will write to her further on this subject.

Parents (Employment)

29. Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside): What she is doing to encourage the employment of parents. [52032]

The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): We are doing a great deal to enable parents to balance work and family. I stress the improvements that we are making to maternity pay and leave, the creation of paternity and adoption leave and the new duty for employers seriously to consider requests for flexible working from the parents of young children—all of which come on top of the other measures that we have taken, particularly the increased investment in child care and the introduction of the highly successful working families tax credit and the child care tax credit.

Mark Tami: Does the Minister for Women agree that what parents want is the ability to work flexibly? Will she do all that she can to encourage employers down that road? Will she encourage them even more during the World cup so that they can enjoy the benefits of the goal-scoring talents of my constituent, Michael Owen?

Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Many fathers, mothers and others will want to make sure that they watch the games, and will be cheering on his constituent. I welcome the fact that many employers have already indicated that they will be flexible on this matter, and will ensure that employees can watch the key matches rather than perhaps taking unauthorised sick leave. We know from awards such as the 100 Best Companies to Work For—which is sponsored by my Department—that employers who offer flexible working, particularly to parents, are not only more popular with their employees but are more profitable than other companies, too.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Does the right hon. Lady agree that the single most damaging thing that this Government have done to prevent the increase in part-time women—particularly mothers of young families—is to announce the increase in national insurance contributions?

Ms Hewitt: I am not sure whether the hon. Lady wants to increase part-time women or part-time working. Let me say that the increase in the number of women in employment, particularly women with young children, has been faster in the last few years than in previous decades. I do not agree that the very modest increase in national

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insurance contributions that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget will damage that. I have no doubt that, by next year, when the increase in national insurance contributions comes into effect, and when we expect the economy to grow at well over 3 per cent. a year, the issue for job creation and for businesses will not be the national insurance contributions but whether they can get enough good skilled workers. Of course, we will continue to support the extension of part-time working so that women and men can have a greater choice of working hours, which we know that they want.

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