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European Development Fund

Volume 959: debated on Monday 4 December 1978

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asked the Minister of Overseas Development what share of contracts arising out of expenditure from the European Development Fund has been won by British firms between 1976 and 1978; and if she will make a statement.

Figures produced by the Commission show that up to 31 st March 1978 British firms had won 7·5 per cent. of contracts awarded under the fourth EDF. If contracts awarded to ACP firms are not included, the figure becomes 10·3 per cent. Since we contribute 18·7 per cent. to the EDF, this is disappointing, although we do all that we can to encourage British firms to compete for EDF contracts.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that reply, but I believe that many of my hon. Friends feel that a great deal more could be done to encourage British firms to do better. Is she aware that many firms, particularly in the construction and civil engineering industries, believe that the Government support given to them in tendering for contracts is substantially less than that avail- able to firms in, for example, France, Germany and Italy? Will she get together with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade to work out an effective programme for supporting British firms in fighting for these contracts, particularly in the Francophone countries in Africa?

One of the problems has been that the fourth EDF came into operation only in 1976 and many of the early contracts were in Francophone countries where our firms had very little experience. I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. Much has already been done. The British Overseas Trade Board's intelligence service does all that it can. Commission officials come to London and there have been conferences, but one must accept that part of the problem is due to the degree of British competitiveness.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there may be grounds for thinking that the machinery is not particularly efficient? It is noticeable that Francophone firms and Francophone African companies seem to get more benefit out of the machinery than do the British. Is my right hon. Friend convinced that the machinery is working efficiently and that the Commission knows what it is doing?

I shall never be fully convinced that that is so. There is a need to explore the possibility of greater cooperation and better exchange of information between the Commission and ourselves. In terms of the normal arrangements for acquainting British firms of the contracts that might be awarded, a great deal is being done. Sometimes British firms do not adequately notice what information is made available to them. That is one problem.

Competitiveness in price and delivery dates are crucial, and that is so not just in terms of EDF contracts, but in relation to contracts all over the Third world. However, I am prepared to agree with my hon. Friend that more co-operation between ourselves and the Commission might be helpful.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler) has raised a most important question. As our share of the contracts of the EDF is most unsatisfactory, will the Minister have a proper look at the machinery and make sure that British industry is adequately warned, well in time, before contracts are put out?

I have already done that. A conference in London was attended by Commission officials and representatives of United Kingdom firms. Commission officials also took part in a conference organised by the CBI. Everyone at the top level of British industry knows what is happening. The difficulty—and here I step slightly outside my own field—is that it is not just a matter of the top people in industry knowing. We have to get the information down to the middle level of firms that might compete. That is not a matter for me.