Enterprise Initiative

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 12:10 pm on 4th March 1988.

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Photo of Mr Christopher Butler Mr Christopher Butler , Warrington South 12:10 pm, 4th March 1988

I very much welcome the enterprise initiative and its thrust towards further deregulation of our economy. It is an excellent move. However, I wonder whether it will affect the book trade. I have had several complaints from constituents about the possible imposition of VAT on books. The kind of thing that they say to me is, "Isn't that a tax on something special? Wouldn't it penalise schools and libraries and be a tax on knowledge?" To a large extent, I agree with them.

However, behind those criticisms, I believe that there is an impulse from the book trade itself, which is being rather hypocritical because of the existence of the net book agreement. Through the procedures of that agreement, which is probably the sole remaining instance of resale price maintenance, books have a price greater than the market would bear. Schools, libraries and ordinary people suffer because they are paying higher prices for books than they should. I hope that the Government will consider that distortion of the free market in their enterprise initiative.

I welcome the proposals that teachers should have experience of business world. In the House, we try to achieve the same objective—at least some of us do—through the Industry and Parliament Trust. We go out from these green Benches into the real world outside. I am not asking somebody else to do what I would not be prepared to do myself.

I regret that in the election not all teachers voted Conservative. When I was canvassing, some who were against us harangued me on the doorstep. It was rather like being back in school and being told off for being naughty. It struck me that that may be something to do with the fact that teachers go to school, then to teacher training college or perhaps to university, and then back to school, so they are thoroughly imbued in the school culture, rather than in the culture of the world outside schools and universities. I hope that through the enterprise initiative teachers will gain greater experience of the wider world, just as we do through the Industry and Parliament Trust.

I noted the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) on the qualifications of counsellors and whether they would have had enough experience of the real world. I should be surprised if they were civil servants. They should be people who have been in business or marketing. Interestingly, although when I was special adviser to the Minister for the Civil Service I was very much in favour of increasing the secondment of civil servants to the world outside, I nevertheless believe that counsellors should come from the business world.

I am glad to report the success of enterprise in the north-west. As one local paper put it: The march toward Warrington/Runcorn by North American companies goes on … There are now some 75 North American companies in Warrington/Runcorn". That is an example of the confidence that the United States has in our economy and in our continuing membership of the European Community.

In October last year the Warrington Guardian reported the intention of Enterprize North West to: build upon the area's booming business success". Mr. Andre Winter of 3i said Warrington really does seem to be thriving and we are giving new and established companies the opportunity to grow further … People in the area certainly seem special".

I certainly agree with that. He said: They have entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to start up new businesses. In January, the Warrington Midweek Guardian reported that Booming Warrington New Town continues to break records for attracting new companies … Half year statistics show that 120 companies signed leases to move into Warrington sites, bringing 1,042 jobs. I have never met Eileen Bilton who is very much associated with the advertising for Warrington new town, but she certainly weaves some magic for the area. The general manager of the new town commented that Warrington-Runcorn was meeting greater success than ever before. We are particularly pleased at the number of jobs created and the high percentage of expansions. In February, the Warrington Guardian reported an investment of £43 million in the town, bringing a further 1,500 jobs. The president of the Manchester chamber of commerce and industry, Mr. Lester George, said that the North-West had talked itself into despair and it was only recently that the region had recognised its economic strength … The North-West is poised for expansion and nothing will stop it … The only question is whether business will be permitted to grow to its maximum capability. I draw great inspiration from that new-found confidence in the north-west. The north-west has realised that retailing stories of doom and gloom will not increase takings. It has also realised that the difference between north and south is not a handicap, but an advantage. After all, in the past, it was enterprise that threw up the great cities of Liverpool and Manchester and beat the south-east into a cocked hat. I am sure that it could do so again. We even have some yuppies in Altrincham.

I think that Mr. George's question whether the northwest would be permitted to go up to its maximum capacity was a sage question. We are already meeting problems of the availability and mobility of skills. In Manchester, surveys show that a quarter of all manufacturers and those in service industries lack skilled labour and find it hard to recruit. That shows the importance of training for jobs and of the enterprise initiative.

I hope that the enterprise initiative will push hard against bureaucracy, as it promises. I know that we have abolished 500 quangos and reduced the number of Government forms to the height of Big Ben, but, small business men, repeatedly tell me that there are still too many chiefs and not enough Indians in our bureaucracy, and that there is still too much red tape.

I have been contacted by a company called Econoloft, which is the largest loft installation company in the United Kingdom. Sadly, it has met the kind of obstructionism about which I am complaining. Its success has been built upon its product of space-saver stairs, which provide access to lofts that would not be possible through the use of traditional stairs. The company has gone through a lengthy process of obtaining 40 determinations from the Department of the Environment on its safety and specifications and has had personal ratification from the Secretary of State for the Environment. However, because of some quirk of the law, individual building control officers can still take objection to that product and say that, in their opinion — only their opinion appears to count—the specifications conflict with the 1985 building regulations.

Some local authorities now have the bit between their teeth and have engaged in criminal prosecutions of that company with all the bad publicity that attaches to such a criminal prosecution. For example, there was a prosecution in Chippenham. I am glad to say that it was dismissed, but, undeterred after the case was heard, the local authority in Saffron Walden has now given notice to the company that it intends to prosecute it for its product. That is expensive, vexatious, time-consuming and harassing for a company that is ambitious to do its best for itself, its region and the United Kingdom. If given its head, it could install its own manufacturing capability for the space-saver stairs, and bring extra employment to the region.

It is precisely that kind of nonsense that the enterprise initiative should snuff out, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider the matter with despatch.

Whether the north-west will be permitted to develop to its full capacity will also depend to some extent on what happens in the run-up to, and after the winding-up of Warrington-Runcorn new town. I hope that the Government will take a flexible approach to the receipts of the new town prior to its wind-up, and that those receipts will not simply disappear into the maw of the Exchequer. Those assets are considerable, and are being realised with some despatch. I hope that some of them will be reinvested, so that the industrial parks in the north-west can be completed. That would chime in well with the Government's general policy of building in incentives for all.