Contracts must be won on merit, irrespective of company size. However, we recognise that small firms often face particular difficulties in seeking public sector business, and we shall continue our efforts to reduce these.
Is my hon. Friend aware that one major problem for small firms is obtaining the details of proceedings in tendering for Government contracts? Can he tell us whether he has taken any measures to improve that situation and what he can do to assist those small firms?
Only yesterday I published a new booklet entitled "Tendering for Government Contracts", aimed at helping small firms to sell to Government Departments. The booklet describes the types of goods and services that Government Departments buy, and explains how to apply and whom to approach in the major purchasing Departments. Obviously, I hope that it will be widely used.
Does not the existence of 10 major defence research establishments in the south and south-east of England have a major effect on procurement policy for small high technology companies in the south of England? Does it not put such companies in the south at an advantage? Why cannot we have the same advantages in the north? Why cannot some of those defence establishments be moved to the north of England, bearing in mind all the spin-offs that they have for the information technology industry?
It will probably interest the hon. Gentleman to hear that only this morning I was looking at the number of research establishments in both the public and the private sectors. It will perhaps come as a surprise to him, since he comes from the same region as I do, to discover that we in the north-west have a very fair share of the research establishments available north of Watford.
Although I welcome the booklet and the obvious benefit that it will bring to small businesses, may I ask my hon. Friend what effect it will have on public procurement generally?
The most important development to have arisen out of the Government purchasing lead that we have taken in the Department of Trade and Industry is that it will encourage the use of interdepartmentally approved lists. Certainly it will improve the standarised procedures affecting small firms. I announced last May that tenders for most Government contracts worth less than £10,000 would be exempt from the normal procedures. That should help small businesses to obtain a share of those business opportunities.
The Minister spoke about his researches this morning. Is he aware that the northern region of England has the highest unemployment in mainland Britain and is the only region of mainland Britain without a Government-backed research and development agency? Is it not high time that we had such an agency in the north?
The problems of the northern region were recognised in the legislation on regional policy approved by the House last year. In that we said that we-would concentrate—
The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) talks of cuts. I had better tell him that his hon. Friend was referring to the northern region and not the north-western region. Some 97 per cent, of the working population in the northern region were assisted before the changes in regional policy, and the same percentage of people are assisted. In the north-west the numbers of people living in assisted areas have increased as a result of the legislation to which I referred. I am aware of the problems identified by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), and recently we have received a report from Newcastle university entitled "The Location of R and D in Great Britain." We shall study that, and it will be taken into account in formulating future policy.