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Small Firms (Inner City Areas)

Volume 958: debated on Monday 20 November 1978

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asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster whether, in his study of the problems of small firms, he has come to any conclusions about the special problems of small firms, including producer co-operatives, which try to start up in inner city areas.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Questions have been tabled to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. May we be told why he is not here to answer them, because this situation is totally unacceptable?

Perhaps it might help the House if I mention that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked at short notice to lead a delegation to a conference being held in Madrid. He is speaking on the subject of London as an international finance centre and the services which the City has to offer. He will have an exchange of views at the conference with members of the Spanish Government, among others.

I have been asked to reply to the Question.

Further to my point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is, surely, responsible to this House, not to the Spanish Government. If he has an engagement to answer Questions in the House, should he not be here to do so? If the right hon. Gentleman were ill or indisposed, the House would be the first to forgive him. But it is surely in contempt of the traditions of this House for the right hon. Gentleman to take on another engagement when he is scheduled to answer Questions in the House.

I usually take points of order at the end of Question Time. I really have nothing to say in reply to the hon. Gentleman, because I am not responsible for Ministers.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster representing the Government at Madrid? That was not made clear.

Certainly. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is doing what many of us consider to be a valuable task in asserting the role of our invisible exports, on which we are dependent. I should have thought that Conservative Members would be the first to realise the task which my right hon. Friend has taken upon himself, as well as his ability to undertake these tasks. Perhaps I may now reply to Question No. 40.

Order. Question Time will be ruined. However, I call the hon. Member to raise his point of order.

Surely if the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is not here Question Time is ruined. Would it not have been more tactful if he had sent the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Dell), who appears to know a little bit more about banking? He could have represented the Government very well and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster could have remained here.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely this is even more unacceptable, bearing in mind that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been invited to answer Questions only once this Session before Christmas—and that is today. He normally appears only every five or six weeks under the ordinary timetable, and that probably gives him only four or five occasions throughout the whole of a Parliamentary year on which to answer Questions. Surely it is totally unacceptable that he should have accepted an engagement in Spain on the one occasion when he ought to be here.

I have no doubt that the protests which have been made by hon. Members under the guise of points of order will he taken notice of.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In order to help things along, may we have an assurance from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury that when the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster returns to this country he will come to the House and make an apology for his behaviour?

I have been asked to reply to Question No. 40. The Government's Inner Urban Areas Act gives local authorities a range of new powers to help small and new businesses in inner city areas, and it contains specific provisions enabling local authorities to give grants and loans for the establishment of common ownership and co-operative enterprises. If my hon. Friend has any suggestions for further help in this area, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will be happy to consider them.

I am grateful for that answer, but I am sorry that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is concerned elsewhere with London as a centre of finance. I am concerned with London as a centre of employment. May I ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to press his colleagues in the Government —including the Financial Secretary to the Treasury—who share responsibility for small firms to ensure that a substantial proportion of the funds which are available for helping small firms are earmarked for workers' co-operatives, which experience has shown are particularly suited to the needs and conditions of inner city areas such as London? I hope that that message will be noted.

I have no doubt that the tasks which can be undertaken by cooperatives in this area are very considerable. As my hon. Friend will know, because he had a part to play in it, the Co-operative Development Agency Act has some part to play in this matter and is able to offer some assistance. Under the Inner Urban Areas Act, specific help for co-operatives can be made available by the district and county authorities which make use of this source of assistance.

Will the Minister convey to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster the feeling in some quarters that there is too much of a doll's house atmosphere about these proposals for the inner cities, in that the most dynamic business men are asking "What will happen when our small concerns grow big?" At the moment their big fear is that they will lose these concessions once they flourish and develop.

I am happy to learn that the hon. Gentleman considers that the actions that we have taken will lead to small firms becoming large ones. Clearly, when such firms increase in size the assistance that they require is less. Our task is to help firms to start and to grow. Thereafter, the assistance which may be available to them will be provided in conjunction with the assistance which is made to industry generally.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Co-operative Development Agency has power to monitor and assist in the development of local schemes, which will help in this regard? Will he undertake to write to my hon. Friend, myself and other hon. Members who are interested to make quite clear the difference between the grant which he has mentioned and urban aid, because most of us are receiving applications under the two names?

I shall certainly write to my hon. Friend. There are these two sources of finance and assistance and I hope that use will be made of both of them.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we welcome the role that producer co-operatives can have in recreating the employment base for the inner city areas? In that context, will he join me in welcoming the private initiative which has led to the creation of job ownership, with access to private bank finance? Will he accept that the episode of the Kirkby Manufacturing and Engineering Workers' Co-operative, which was inspired by the zeal of the Secretary of State for Energy when he was at the Department of Industry, is precisely the wrong way of setting about promoting industrial co-operatives and that that particular episode gives the idea a bad name?

While offering my good wishes to the hon. Gentleman on his return to the Opposition Front Bench, I must say that he is not starting off in the best possible way. The Kirkby manufacturing enterprise hardly qualifies as a small firm. If the hon. Gentleman is to deal with the problems of small firms he will have to pinpoint the particular areas of his responsibility rather more closely than that.