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Industry and Exports (Financial Support) Bill

Volume 491: debated on Tuesday 21 April 2009

Considered in Committee

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Clause 1

Increase in limit on selective financial assistance for industry

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

I welcome you to the Chair, Sir Alan, for the Committee stage of our proceedings.

Clause 1 amends the cumulative limit on the financial support for business under section 8 of the Industrial Development Act 1982. I accept that, as such, it does not authorise actual expenditure, but can the Minister confirm that authorisation for the orders involved, under the new wording, will be made by affirmative resolution? Furthermore, does he accept that it would be good practice that when each order is submitted for debate, it should be accompanied by a detailed update as to the range of schemes involved and their current funding levels?

At present, the Government publish only an annual report, which is often unrelated to the issuing of the orders in question. It would be more helpful if we in the House had the chance to consider the current schemes at the time when we debate the Government’s request to increase their funding limits. I would be grateful if the Minister would consider that carefully and make a specific response in his reply to the debate, should he catch the Chairman’s eye.

On Second Reading the Minister cited as one of the main reasons for moving to a higher limit of £12 billion the Government’s wish to switch away from grants and to increase the proportion of support in the form of loans and loan guarantees. Will he therefore tell us what proportion of the current £6 billion is in grants and what proportion is in loans and loan guarantees?

Overall, the Opposition agree that loans and loan guarantees are often a better form of business support than grants. After all, money for loans can be recycled, but loans are also treated differently by their recipients. When I ran my business a few years ago, I was also a mentor for the Prince’s Youth Business Trust, helping young people to start up businesses. I saw then how the provision of loans motivated a start-up firm far more than a grant did. It is not that surprising; one is far more likely to try to maximise the value of funding if one knows that the money has to be paid back, than if one knows that it has been gifted.

On the whole, therefore, the Opposition support a shift in the balance of financial support. However, it would be helpful, not least in considering the clause, to understand better the current balance. Indeed, of the future £12 billion, and the potential £16 billion that the Government expect the Bill to cover, what proportion do they expect to take the form of a loan over the next five years?

Further, the Minister on Second Reading failed to inform us of the balance of the schemes and their exact proportion of the total. He mentioned a list of different schemes, and we have debated them on numerous occasions, but he has not told us which are the most important. So, in reply to this debate, will he tell us the five most important schemes by value under the clause, their current value and by how much he expects their value to increase with the new total of £12 billion? That will enable us better to understand the direct impact not only on small, medium and large enterprises, but on different business sectors, which I know he is keen to be seen to support.

Finally, on clause 1, the Minister mentioned on Second Reading that the Bill’s remit includes funds for the post office network, and I am delighted to see the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs in the Chamber. Will the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the Minister responsible for the Bill, tell us how much has already been allocated to the scheme, and how much has been paid out to date?

I shall be brief, Sir Alan, as most of what I want to say will come towards the end of our proceedings.

On Second Reading, the Minister described a wide range of schemes that the legislation will cover, and the Liberal Democrats, too, welcome the emphasis moving from grants to loans and loan guarantees, because it creates a fairer playing field for industry generally and should constitute better value for money for the taxpayer. We welcome also the increase to £12 billion and the potential increase to £16 billion.

We appreciate that to elicit the loan guarantees, companies must undertake proper due diligence. However, hon. Members in all parts of the House have criticised the fact that the release of funds to companies, especially to small companies that are not seeking to borrow vast sums, is taking an inordinately long time. Will the Minister comment on the steps that are being taken to expedite the due diligence? The Government quite properly require it, but it can slow things up and is putting small businesses, in particular, which need help fast, beyond the reach of the schemes that were designed to help them.

Clause 1 is essential to enable the section 8 power of the Industrial Development Act 1982 to continue to be used to give financial assistance to industry for the purposes specified in that Act. It is necessary to continue to strengthen the provision of support for businesses so that they come through stronger from the current global economic downturn. The Bill seeks to amend the cumulative limit on financial assistance that may be provided under section 8 to an initial ceiling of £12 billion, which can be increased by four orders of up to £1 billion each to make an overall limit of £16 billion. We have proposed the £12 billion limit as it restores the ceiling to more or less the same proportion of GDP as was the case when the original Act came into force.

The business support that we now provide is often in the form of loan guarantees or loans. Those can offer better value for money for the taxpayer in the long term, as loans are repaid over time and only a proportion of guarantees will ultimately need to be met. The hon. Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) and for Solihull (Lorely Burt) recognised and welcomed that.

I want to be clear that when we offer loans or loan guarantees, the full amount secured against public funds will count towards the section 8 limit. That is one of the reasons why we need to increase the limit; we debated the issue on Second Reading. We think that £12 billion is a sensible limit at the current time, when it is vital that we maintain sufficient flexibility to respond to the challenges ahead. I want to say something more about flexibility in a moment, because it is relevant to the hon. Gentleman’s point about the balance of funds between grant schemes, loans and loan guarantee schemes.

However, I also want to be clear that the section 8 financial ceiling does not itself authorise any actual expenditure. The Bill retains the accountability to Parliament contained in the existing legislation, and I can confirm that that is through the need for affirmative orders of the Commons, which would replace the existing limits with new, higher ones, reflecting the need for continuing support for industry when necessary.

We have maintained the £10 million limit for the referral of single expenditure schemes back to the House. As the hon. Gentleman said, an annual report will continue to be published in the Commons Library, setting out how single projects are funded. Combined, the measures provide an appropriate balance between accountability and providing the Government with the legal power to respond to business need.

The annual report can be helpful, but as the Minister will understand and Members on both sides of the House will appreciate, when we are considering an order for an increase of the not insubstantial sums identified in clause 1, it will be helpful if we can see the current point when we debate the issue in Committee, rather than just having the annual report. That was what my point was about. Does the Minister not accept that that would improve the quality of scrutiny in the House?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and I undertake to consider it. If we lay affirmative resolutions, we want to be able to give the reason why they are necessary. Obviously, that would relate to the spend or potential liabilities as a result of Government commitments.

The hon. Gentleman asked specific questions about the top five schemes. He can see them in the annual report. They include the grant for business investment—previously called “selective financial assistance”—the enterprise finance guarantee scheme and the Post Office reinvention programme; those would account for the bulk of it. The hon. Gentleman specifically mentioned the Post Office reinvention programme and, as he will be aware, we have made a commitment to the programme of £1.7 billion over the years 2006 to 2011. At this point, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an actual expenditure figure, although I am sure that some of that information can be made available. However, it is clear that there is a programme of spending going on over a five-year period, and that that spending will take place at the appropriate time for the business.

The Minister tells us that the three principal schemes include the Post Office reinvention programme. Some Members will be surprised that that comes ahead of, for example, the automotive assistance package, which they might assume would be larger. Is he telling us that that package is not even one of the most important packages in the total number?

No, I am not saying that. I want to draw a distinction between schemes that have been in the annual report previously and new schemes that the Government have introduced. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the automotive assistance programme was launched as recently as on 27 January this year. It is a new scheme and, as with all new schemes, it had to go through a process of securing EU state aid approval, which was granted on 27 February. We are in detailed discussions with several automotive companies about the programme. He will be aware of the recent announcements made under the European Investment Bank element of the programme whereby Jaguar Land Rover and Nissan have been offered loans by the EIB. We will want to report to Parliament on the automotive assistance programme and on other programmes in due course, because we believe that there should be full accountability in this area.

The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, which replaced the small firms loan guarantee scheme, is now very much up and running. It is spending significant sums of money, to the tune of about £30 million in loans offered every week. The latest figures that I have seen show that well over 2,000 businesses have made applications to it.

I think that it is now time for the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Solihull to welcome the new scheme and to recognise that the Government have introduced it in a remarkably short period, and that it is providing valued support to companies and helping to make a difference to those that are receiving it.

I am sure that all Members welcome any funding that is finally trickling through to business. The Minister mentioned Jaguar Land Rover. Its assistance under the EIB element has not yet materialised, as it is still waiting for the Government’s due diligence to take place. It is obviously important that due diligence takes place, but it appears to be taking a long time. Why is that?

Let me clarify the situation. Jaguar Land Rover has successfully applied to the EIB for a loan to undertake a number of green projects, and it will be up to the Government to provide a guarantee for that loan. That is part of the package of support that Jaguar Land Rover will need to secure its long-term future. We are in discussions with the owners of JLR, as well as its management and its banks, about a package to ensure that it can continue to develop its model programme and have a secure future. The hon. Lady knows JLR well because of her constituency connections. She will be aware that as a west midlands MP, I am also fully aware of its strategic importance not only to the west midlands economy but more generally to the automotive industry in the United Kingdom. We need to continue the discussions that we are having. However, I emphasise the fact that JLR is a successful company that, as with all motor companies, is suffering from the severe economic downturn, which has affected its business just as other businesses in the automotive industry have been affected. However, it was making good profits in the period January to June 2008, and there is absolutely no reason why it cannot do so in future. We need to continue to consider what is the appropriate role for Government in providing support to JLR, and we are doing that in the discussions that we are taking forward with it at the moment.

The other point that I want to make about clause 1 is related to the request from the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford that we seek to break down how much has been provided in grants and how much will potentially be provided in loans and loan guarantees. I do not have those figures to hand, but clearly expenditure, whether in the form of grants, loans or loan guarantees, all contributes to the need for an authority to spend. We are seeking through the Bill an increase in the limits. However, I will reflect on whether we can provide more and better information, not just in the form of an annual report but on a slightly more regular basis. It would not be appropriate to have a running commentary every week or month, but I recognise that it is not unreasonable to want some more detail about spending progress.

I am grateful to the Minister, not least for being generous in giving way. I return to my original point. He highlighted the fact that the annual report, for example, showed a certain balance of schemes, and now events have changed. He is right, and we understand that that will continue to be the case. It seems to me that a logical pattern would be that when the Government need to come forward with a request for an additional increase over and above the existing limit, that is the obvious moment at which we in the House would benefit from being able to see the current snapshot of the balance.

I am slightly disappointed that the Minister does not have the figures on the balance between loans and grants, but I wonder whether he will ensure that at least some information can be provided to Members. We will not have the chance to consider this further, as this is the last day on which we will have the opportunity to discuss the Bill. Given the fact that Ministers cited the balance between grants and loans as the principal reason for change, it would be helpful if we could at least have the evidence of what the current balance is and what the Government’s expectation of change is. Does the Minister accept that, and will he undertake to provide it?

I certainly accept that the reason why we need to increase the limits is that a lot of the programmes that we have looked to introduce have been guarantee schemes. Whether the headline guarantee figure is £1.3 billion for the enterprise finance guarantee or £2.3 billion for the automotive assistance programme, it all contributes to the need for the authority to incur expenditure. In that sense, I have given the hon. Gentleman some of the key figures. I shall happily write to him and put a copy of the letter in the Library, explaining a further detailed breakdown of the schemes as far as I can. Obviously some of that will depend on future draw-down of loan guarantees, so inevitably figures cannot be precise, but we can certainly provide more information. I am happy to undertake that that will be done.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Assistance in connection with exports of goods or services

I beg to move amendment 1, in page 1, line 23, at end add—

‘(3) Arrangements falling within subsection (2) may be made only if the Secretary of State is properly satisfied that an adequate case impact assessment has been carried out in accordance with the principles established for the Export Credits Guarantee Department or such other body performing comparable functions as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.’.

First, I extend my thanks to the Jubilee Debt Campaign, Transparency International and the WWF for the help and advice that they have extended. Clause 2 will amend the Export and Investment Guarantees Act 1991, which governs the Export Credits Guarantee Department’s remit, so that the ECGD can provide financial backing for exports that are already under way. My concern is that that will allow for the possibility that the ECGD’s business principles governing environmental standards, sustainable development impacts and corruption will be circumvented.

It is important that the Government do what they can to support British business in a time of recession. However, there is widespread agreement that such support needs to be sustainable and as green as possible, and that it does not do more harm than good. The worry is that the ECGD could, if it supports exports that have already been supplied without the usual due diligence, inadvertently support projects that have a negative impact on developing countries and add to their unjust and unpayable debt burdens. Civil society groups already have serious concerns about the role of the ECGD in supporting investments that have been linked to human rights violations, corruption, environmental damage and increased debt in poor countries. There needs to be an improvement in the ECGD’s involvement rather than a reduction of the existing standards.

Transparency International UK says that there is no evidence that the Government have consulted interested civil society organisations or the Export Guarantees Advisory Council. Given the speed with which the amendment to the 1991 Act has been drafted and the lack of consultation, the consequences are potentially serious and need to be tackled. We are concerned that there is no safeguard for applying the business principles and anti-bribery provisions. To satisfy the ECGD’s business partners’ need for certainty and ensure speed of decision making, the business principles and due diligence procedures may be watered down. Many sectors with which the ECGD has the greatest involvement are historical hotbeds of corruption.

The ECGD currently carries out a case impact analysis to ensure that the principles will not be breached. We simply ask that the Secretary of State certificate that in some way. The ECGD, not the supplier, should undertake the due diligence. That is basically an on-the-record assurance that the case impact analysis has been done.

I am not trying to delay matters, but we must make provisions to ensure that, when the Government exercise discretion and award guarantees when the export process has already begun, at least the same principles are used to approve guarantees as those that apply when companies wait for approval before going ahead.

I want to make several points about clause 2, which are very much in line with the comments of the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt).

I greatly welcome the general powers in the Bill, especially in clause 1, to support industry. My hon. Friend the Minister knows that I represent a steel constituency, and support for manufacturing, when justified, is important, especially in the current circumstances. I appreciate that he, too, represents a manufacturing area. I strongly welcome the powers to provide support for manufacturing.

The hon. Lady made some important points about clause 2. My hon. Friend knows that there have been several meetings about the powers that the ECGD should have to ensure that supported projects fulfil high standards of sustainable development, and have good environmental and social standards. He also knows that new guidelines have been drawn up for the ECGD. A debate is continuing with organisations such as WWF about whether the guidelines are adequate and meet the standards.

There is a worry that because of the wording of clause 2 some existing arrangements do not meet the ECGD’s guidelines on sustainability and environmental standards. I would certainly welcome some assurances on that, because the issue might be one that my hon. Friend the Minister’s Department could address by ensuring that even if there is some element of retrospection, as provided for in clause 2, an assessment could still be made of any potential scheme. That is important to the non-governmental organisation community, as well as many hon. Members in all parts of the House, including me, and I would welcome some assurances on it.

I would also appreciate perhaps just a comment about the wording of clause 2(1), which gives the Secretary of State clear powers to

“make arrangements under this section in connection with supplies by persons carrying on business in the United Kingdom of goods or services to persons carrying on business outside the United Kingdom.”

That seems quite a broad definition, so I wonder whether my hon. Friend could clarify whether it gives the Department some flexibility in the potential standards that it might apply in relation to any loan guarantee.

I commend the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) for tabling amendment 1, not least because I hope that it will enable the Minister to put on record the Government’s full position.

At the heart of clause 2 is the Minister’s stated wish to update the facilitating role of the Export Credits Guarantee Department, notably, as we have heard from hon. Members on both sides, with more challenging export and overseas projects. The Government are right to say that the way in which high-value capital goods are transacted today has changed considerably since the original Export and Investment Guarantees Act 1991 was passed. Conversely, the scope for social, ethical and environmental due diligence by the Government has, for all the best reasons, increased over that period quite significantly. The net result can be, although not in all cases, to slow the ability of the ECGD to keep up with modern business timetables. There is therefore a case for trying to enable British exporters to trade, while not reducing our national approach towards ethical and environmental standards.

That is why clause 2 has the support of the CBI and, quite rightly, the British Exporters Association. It is also why we support the Government’s aims in making such a change. After all, it is vital, as the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) rightly pointed out, that we ensure that businesses can compete in a modern economy, now more than ever. However, there are reasonable questions about the effect of the clause, especially in the minority of cases where projects may have an important ethical or environmental consideration. As the hon. Member for Solihull rightly pointed out, the World Wildlife Fund has rightly set out questions about how projects might be underwritten retrospectively and about how the Government will ensure that they have not breached human rights or created unacceptable environmental damage. Other people are also concerned about the potential problem of bribery in those areas where corruption is rife.

Large-scale infrastructure projects would be especially challenging to police or to audit retrospectively. Equally, if a substantial contract—perhaps for a new dam or a bridge—is commenced, what is the likelihood of the ECGD subsequently withholding support, given the likely economic, employment or political difficulties in such a case? Those are reasonable questions.

Furthermore, as I understand it, the ECGD currently conforms to the standards set by the World Bank. I have tried to consider those and, as I see it, the standards clearly require assessments to be completed before financing is agreed. If that is true, does clause 2 not breach World Bank standards? It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm or clarify that.

For both those reasons we support amendment 1, which has been tabled by the hon. Member for Solihull. I hope that, in his response, the Minister will clearly set out the Government’s policy and assure us that their standards will not be diluted as a result of clause 2.

I can indeed assure the Committee that there is nothing in clause 2 that dilutes the high environmental standards or the policies against bribery and corruption that are adopted by the Government. Let me respond to the debate by saying some words about the reason for clause 2. I apologise if I go slightly broader than amendment 1, but other hon. Members have done so, and it seems appropriate for me to do so, too.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) rightly raised the issue of the problem of using the word “facilitating” when it comes to the supplies of goods or services. That has created difficulties for British exporters, because the Export Credits Guarantee Department cannot facilitate exports if they have already been supplied. As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, and as I did on Second Reading, there are two main reasons why the problems occurred and why this amendment to the ECGD’s current powers was proposed.

The first reason is the way in which the high-value capital goods market now works, which often means that requests for ECGD support are made later in the process of export. Buyers or overseas project sponsors rather than the exporters often approach the ECGD for support and buyers seek support only after the exports have been procured and some of the relevant goods or services have been supplied. In many cases with these products, a process of supply takes place.

Secondly, the ECGD’s decision-making processes have evolved in recent years to implement wider Government policy on corruption and on environmental and social impacts. I think that all Members will very much welcome that fact. These are directed by the ECGD’s business principles and involve rigorous due diligence. Of course, that can take time and can delay the ECGD’s ability to make a decision until the supply has been completed. The amendment would allow the ECGD to support exports that have already been made by the time the ECGD has completed its due diligence, but I want to assure this Committee of the whole House that clause 2 does not in any way detract from the rigorous standards that we want to apply to any export that the ECGD is considering exporting.

Amendment 1 concerns the application of the ECGD’s environmental policies, I re-emphasise the fact that the clause does not alter the ECGD’s business principles or the triggers for their application to cases. If there were to be a change to the ECGD’s practices in that regard, ECGD’s business principles themselves state that the ECGD will consult.

I also report to the Committee that, as my noble Friend Lord Mandelson announced yesterday in the White Paper “New Industry, New Jobs”, the ECGD will in the weeks ahead consult on ways of further supporting levels of credit for UK exporters. The Government will ensure that the support offered by the ECGD plays a significant role in supporting UK exporters when demand picks up. It is right to consider at this time a wider role for the ECGD in providing support, but we will consult on that.

I invite the Committee to reject the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), for three reasons. I do not believe that it is necessary, appropriate or workable, so let me try to explain why. The amendment is based on the assumption that clause 2 will somehow weaken the ECGD’s application of its business principles. As I have been at pains to make out, that is not the case. The assumption is mistaken. Clause 2 allows the ECGD to provide support for British supplies that have been made by the time assessments have been completed. It makes no change whatever to the business principles. The only difference is that the circumstances in which the ECGD may consider giving support have been extended to include supplies already being made. It is thus the Government’s strongly held view that the amendment is simply unnecessary.

I believe that the amendment is also loosely drafted. It is not clear whether the requirement to carry out a case impact assessment is intended to apply to all exports supported by the ECGD or just to a sub-set of them, such as exports completed before it makes the decision to provide support or exports completed before the Bill comes into force and before the ECGD makes the decision to provide support. One interpretation of the amendment might be that a case impact assessment is required only in relation to exports completed prior to the Bill’s coming into force and/or to exports completed prior to the ECGD making a decision to provide support. It seems odd to require a case impact assessment for a sub-set of the ECGD’s business only.

The amendment could also be interpreted more widely to apply to all exports supported by the ECGD. A statutory obligation would be imposed on the ECGD to conduct a case impact assessment before entering into any arrangements in connection with exports under section 1 of the ECGD’s governing Act. That would represent a change in the ECGD’s policy in a way that is not within the scope of the Bill, and it would not be appropriate to change the ECGD’s environmental policy by statute.

I assume—although it is not made clear—that the amendment is intended to enshrine in statute the ECGD’s case impact assessment as it exists today, and to give statutory force to the assessment. I believe that that would be largely unworkable. The ECGD’s application of its business principles, including those that govern when a case impact assessment must be carried out, is a matter of publicly stated policy.

Maintaining the business principles as a policy allows them to be adapted to take account of changes in international standards: for example, to reflect new recommendations and common approaches issued by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on bribery and corruption, sustainable development or the environment. If the business principles or any aspect of them were enshrined in statute, it would be much more difficult for the ECGD to comply with its international undertakings, as primary legislation would be required on each occasion to allow it to adapt the relevant business principles to reflect changes in international agreements.

Similarly, primary legislation would be required for any increase in the rigour of the business principles, and I do not think that some of the groups mentioned by the hon. Lady would want that to happen. We want the ECGD to maintain high standards, but I do not think that enshrining the business principles in statute and having to pass primary legislation every time we wanted to change them represents a good use of parliamentary time. Given that—as Members will know—the OECD is currently discussing changes in some of these areas, I do not think that that would be workable in practice.

My main point, however, it that the amendment is unnecessary. I can give the hon. Lady the assurance that she seeks: no watering down is taking place. The ECGD’s business principles will continue to apply—on bribery and corruption, sustainable development and the environment—and the ECGD will continue to apply them as rigorously as it does today. I hope that, given those assurances, she will seek leave to withdraw her amendment.

I am grateful to the Minister for his thorough explanation, and for all his technical explanations of why the amendment is not entirely appropriate. I think that it has achieved what it set out to achieve: to have placed on the record assurances from the Government that there will be no watering down and no circumvention of the business principles. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This is a small Bill with just three clauses, but as the House agreed when we considered it at an earlier stage, it is vital that we continue to help businesses as much as we can in these exceptional economic times. The Bill proposes two amendments to the Industrial Development and the Export and Investment Guarantees Acts.

The first clause is essential to enable the section 8 power of the Industrial Development Act 1982 to continue to be used to give financial assistance to industry for the purposes specified in that Act. That is necessary to continue to strengthen the provision of support for businesses so that they can come through the global economic downturn stronger. As has previously been explained, the Bill seeks to amend the cumulative limit on financial assistance that may be provided under section 8 to an initial ceiling of £12 billion increasable by four orders of £1 billion each to an overall limit of £16 billion. We have previously discussed this measure, and I think there is widespread support for it.

The new forms of support that the Government have been seeking to provide for industry have principally been loan guarantees or loans, and I think there has been acceptance on both sides of the House that that is an appropriate policy intervention. That is why we propose today to increase the limits. Let me offer the example of the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, which has been providing real help to viable businesses.

Since the launch of the scheme in January, almost £270 million-worth of eligible applications have been granted or processed or assessed from more than 2,300 firms. On 31 March, we announced the solutions for business portfolio, which makes it simpler for businesses to access the support they need. For the first time, all Government help for business, including section 8 support schemes, now share an easy, identifiable banner and can be accessed through Business Link. That has been welcomed by a wide range of business organisations, including the British Chambers of Commerce and the CBI, but without the introduction of the new limits, the legislative basis for those proposals under section 8 would be exceeded on reaching the limit of £6.1 billion allowed by the Industrial Development (Financial Assistance) Act 2003. We therefore need the new powers to ensure that viable businesses continue to receive the support they need.

Clause 2 has also been welcomed by the CBI, and I hope that environmental groups and groups that are active in the field of ensuring that the UK has high standards in combating bribery and corruption understand the points I was making in response to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) about the Government intending to continue to maintain high standards and their business principles when looking at large capital goods exports. The Export and Investment Guarantees Act 1991 governs the work of the Export Credits Guarantee Department, a Government Department that reports to the Secretary of State. As I have said, we have had difficulties with the facilitating of supplies and clause 2 seeks to address that. The high-value capital goods market works very differently now from the way in which it did a number of years ago, and the measure essentially clarifies and legitimises ECGD support, rather than in anyway diluting the standards that would apply when assessing individual applications for high-value capital goods; I am happy to confirm that.

If that amendment were not made, British exporters would continue to risk discrimination from overseas project sponsors, because ECGD would not be able to give the type of support that sponsors want. Other export credit agencies in competitor nations are not restricted in the same way in supporting exports that have already taken place, and without this change ECGD support would be reduced as a result of the increasing number of applications that are made to it at too late a stage in the project for its support to be given. That, of course, would be the position in any circumstances, but in the current economic circumstances support for British exports is particularly important. Over recent months, interest in ECDG support and applications for its assistance have, unsurprisingly, increased significantly. The export industry has made it clear that it feels that the problems that we are addressing through clause 2 are serious for it, which is why it has welcomed the amendment.

As I have made clear, the special interest groups that are concerned about this amendment can be reassured by the fact that the criteria applied to projects where the export has been completed will not be altered or made less stringent. The business principles, whether they relate to the environment or to bribery and corruption, are not weakened as a result of the amendment—indeed, it meets a recommendation of the Environmental Audit Committee that would, in the EAC’s view, strengthen the ECDG’s environmental scrutiny. A report on the ECDG and sustainable development that the Committee published last year recommended the following:

“No offer of support should be made, whether actual or provisional, until ECDG’s Business Principles Unit has completed its assessment”

of the project for which the exports are destined. Although I do not agree that the ECDG’s environmental scrutiny might be compromised by provisional offers of support, the Bill allows the ECGD to implement the EAC’s recommendation. Its environmental scrutiny can now be completed, and a final offer of support made thereafter, without regard to the timing of the delivery of the export.

We face a unique set of economic challenges. I am pleased that hon. Members from all parts of the House have recognised the need for these additional powers and have been supportive of the main aims of the Bill, and I am grateful for the constructive approach that Opposition Members have taken. This Bill may not have had a lengthy passage—it has indeed been a short one—but there has been a proper opportunity for scrutiny on Second Reading and in Committee. These important measures will help to deliver the real assistance and support that business needs at these difficult times, and I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank the Minister for the courteous way in which he deals with my many and often detailed questions. I hope that they keep him and his office busy, but my intention is to ensure that the House’s scrutiny is thorough. He is always courteous in how he handles it, despite being on a sticky wicket, and he defends his position with patience and a degree of calmness that I suspect others would not achieve; I appreciate that, as I am sure the House does. May I also take the opportunity at the beginning of Third Reading to thank the Clerks for their support, because the legislation of this House makes progress only with the aid of their efficiency and effectiveness? We rarely commend and thank them, but we should do so more often; I just wanted to put that on the record.

The Minister has alluded to the fact that the passage of this Bill has been brief, and that brevity belies the huge sums attached to it. After all, it is not every day that three clauses equate to £16 billion. Conservative Members support raising the upper limits, and we are satisfied that the House will have the appropriate opportunity to scrutinise the process. We also recognise the need to update the law on exports and for Government to help British business to remain competitive. We, along with other Members, have raised our concerns in respect of ensuring that ethical and environmental standards are maintained, and I accept the assurances that the Minister has given.

Our concern lies not so much with the legislation or the intentions that it will enact, but with the wide gap between Ministers’ rhetoric and the speed and effectiveness of their actions. As with the Chancellor’s Budget tomorrow, it will not be the words expressed from the Dispatch Box that will lead this country out of recession but how effective Ministers are in delivering real help. On that, this Government’s record has been at best slow, at worst inadequate and all too often incompetent. For the sake of hundreds of firms and thousands of workers, we need change and we need it now.

As the Minister said in his opening remarks, this is a small Bill of huge importance to industry and the future prosperity of this country. It is certainly big on cost, with financial assistance of £6 billion which could be increased to a total of £16 billion. It is also big on help for our exporters. In 2007-08, £1.8 billion in export loans was guaranteed. It is also big in its implications for Britain’s reputation overseas on the environment, human rights and sustainable development, as well as potential corruption and how we deal with it. So it is a big Bill, although it has not received great scrutiny.

We support the first clause, and we agree on the emphasis on a shift from grants to loans and to loan guarantees. Unlike the Conservatives, we believe that in times of great economic difficulty we should do all that we can to help companies, but it has to be real help in real time. Like the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk), I feel that the gap between Government announcements and the provision of real money is still too great. Earlier, I asked the Minister whether he could comment on why due diligence was taking such a long time, and whether other issues were hampering the provision of financial help to companies through the Government schemes that have already been announced.

The Minister was good enough to mention Jaguar Land Rover and the £350 million European Investment Bank funding under the clean transport facility loan. That brings me on to green issues and the assistance provided by Government loans and guarantees. JLR is the leading automobile research and development company in Britain, so any help is well merited. We welcome the announcement of the £5,000 to be given towards the purchase of electric cars from 2011, but why were electric vans not included? I have in mind LDV, which has electric vans ready to roll off the production line. If we are talking about reducing carbon emissions, it would be hugely beneficial to substitute many of the vans on the roads today with electric vehicles.

On Second Reading, the Minister did not answer three of my questions, so I shall give him the opportunity to respond to them now. I asked him about help for lease financing companies, which have not been included in the banking industry support schemes although those companies afford tremendous help to small businesses that are arguably the most vulnerable in these difficult economic times. On the issue of the small business automatic rate relief, I suspect that the Minister will tell me off and suggest that I wait until tomorrow. I hope that we will hear some good words from the Chancellor on that.

I also floated a minimal cost idea, which involved a register of administrations and the publication of whether a proposed customer has a history of liquidating companies. It would be relatively easy to see what sort of relative risk would be afforded if one went into business to supply a company whose directors had a history of liquidating companies.

We support the scheme in clause 2 in principle, with the provisos that the Minister has already given to us in amendment 1. However, it is worth looking at who benefits. I looked up the Export Credits Guarantee Department’s annual review and resources account for 2007-08. What did I find? Of the total business support of £1.8 billion, more than £500 million went to Airbus, whereas £750 million went to BAE Systems and was spent on defence—

Order. I have given the hon. Lady some leniency, but on Third Reading we are meant to be discussing the content of the Bill, rather than posing questions as the hon. Lady is doing.

I am grateful for your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was merely trying to talk about what the Bill will achieve in terms of supply and about where guarantees paid for out of taxpayers’ money are being directed. We have a worry—there was a conversation on this subject earlier in the debate—about the proportion of supply that went to smaller companies and to larger companies. My point was that the huge companies seem to be swallowing the guarantees while a relatively small amount of money goes to smaller exporters.

In conclusion, although we welcome the Bill overall, we have some reservations. We would be grateful if the Minister considered conducting a review after a year or so to allow the House to scrutinise whether the Bill is working as well as we all hope that it will.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.