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Small Firms Service

Volume 128: debated on Tuesday 1 March 1988

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To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the progress of the small firms service.

The small firms service, through its information and counselling arms, works to promote viable and profitable small businesses. In 1986–87, in England, it handled over 283,000 inquiries and gave 38,210 counselling sessions. With the development of the local enterprise agencies, it is increasingly developing its counselling activities with established business. Copies of the annual report on the service for 1986–87 were placed in the Library in July.

I am sure that my hon. Friend's support for small business is greatly welcome, but will he say, following his announcement that there will be direct access to the small firms computer database, how that will operate and what benefits there will be for the chambers of commerce and local enterprise agencies?

I intend as soon as possible to make this database, which the small firms service operates, available in computerised form or hard copy form to other organisations in the small business advice area. We are working out the detailed arrangements now and I shall announce them as soon as I am able to do so. The database is already consulted by organisations such as local enterprise agencies and chambers of commerce ringing up the small firms centres. I want them to have direct access so that questions can be answered quickly, authoritatively and easily.

Excellent though the small firms service is, is it not the local enterprise agencies that have contacts at grass root level, so that it is imperative that they work closely together? What specific steps will my hon. Friend take to encourage close integration between the two?

We encourage close integration. The database is a further step in that direction, and, for that matter, so is the integration of counsellors, on which we have been carrying out a pilot experiment in the Yorkshire and Humberside region, which we hope to develop further throughout Britain. Many of our small firms service counsellors operate from time to time in premises supplied, for example, by local enterprise agencies, and we are keen to encourage such co-operation.

Does the Minister agree that the small firms counselling service was started by the Labour Government? What progress has been made by the small firms service in general, against the blows produced by the Government's general economic policy, in stemming the loss of 2 million jobs in manufacturing industry since 1979 and providing jobs in small firms, for example, in engineering and machine tools? Is the small firms service making a positive contribution towards providing proper long-term jobs in the small firms sector?

I think that it makes its contribution. In the nature of things, it is very difficult to measure exactly what piece of advice led to the creation of an individual job, let alone to produce statistics overall. But certainly manufacturing, including engineering manufacturing, is well represented among the firms to which the small firms service gives advice.