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National Economic Development Council

Volume 489: debated on Wednesday 21 October 1987

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3.16 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what are their reasons for restricting the activities of the National Economic Development Council.

My Lords, the activities of the National Economic Council (NEDC) continue essentially unchanged, though meetings are now held on a quarterly, rather than a monthly basis. The shift of emphasis to discussing the improved supply performance of the economy is expected to continue. Detailed work will be carried out in the 18 sector groups and working parties which the Government will continue to fund from 1st April 1988.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. He is of course aware that for 25 years the NEDC has done a great deal to expand co-operation between both sides of industry. Certain questions therefore remain. Despite the answer from his noble friend earlier, is he aware that both sides of industry are concerned that the Government in this country show less commitment to manufacturing than do Japan and Germany? There is a feeling that this is a restriction on the activities of the NEDC. Quarterly instead of monthly meetings is a second restriction, and the reduction in the number of EDCs is a further restriction. Is he aware that that view is held in many parts of industry? That leaves a question—

My Lords, perhaps I may ask one final question. Do the Conservative Government still value the principles of the NEDC which were established by a previous Conservative Government; namely, that our economic affairs should be a matter for consultation and that there should be an attempt to establish a consensus, or have they turned their back on that principle?

My Lords, I think that that is demonstrated by the Government's continuing view that tripartite discussions can have a beneficial effect. The NEDC meetings can serve a useful purpose. Four meetings per annum are surely enough to serve that purpose. I am pleased that the CBI and the TUC have pledged to make the new arrangements effective. A sensible streamlining has taken place which has been welcomed by a number of NEDC members.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a great danger of this country becoming a divided nation and that it would be wrong to diminish or dismantle in any way a forum which is designed to arrive at consensus industrial policies for this country's welfare.

My Lords, the good will that exists within the NEDC will continue as it did in the October quarterly meeting under my noble friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry's chairmanship. The CBI, the TUC and others have pledged to make these new arrangements effective.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that his right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in recent months has not disguised his extremely low opinion of any constructive work that the EDCs can do? Is he aware that for the NEDC to put forward views that do not necessarily conform to those of the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not a cardinal sin? It has been proved right many times. Is he aware that any savings on a cost-effective basis that have been achieved by the restriction of the meetings is far less in cost-effective terms than the publicity money that has been spent by the Government in the promotion of BP shares?

My Lords, that goes a little wide of the Question on the Order Paper. However, I believe that the NEDC's most important contribution has always been at the sectoral level. The record was uneven among the sectors. The present pattern had become rather too rigid. The Government therefore selected committees that justified continued public funding from 1st April 1988. In doing so the Government took account of past track records, recent performance and whether solid work remained to be done. This seemed to be a sensible course.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I was a member of the Printing Machinery EDC? It was the decision of that committee to disband itself because it considered that it had used up its usefulness. That was a decision by the committee itself.

My Lords, as I said, in looking at which committees should continue we took account of whether solid work remained to be done.

My Lords, is it not rather strange that at precisely the moment when this country has a manufacturing trade deficit for the first time in its modern history the Government choose to close down and limit the activities of a body which might make a major contribution to reversing that trend?

My Lords, we are trying to get the NEDC to contribute more by moving away from discussing macro-economic matters to supply side issues.

My Lords, has the noble Lord read the report, which was referred to by my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington earlier this afternoon, of the House of Lords' Select Committee on Overseas Trade? If so, has he noted that recommendation of that committee that in view of the much greater co-operation between government, trade unionists and management in our major competitors in West Germany, Japan and France, this Government should do more, not less, to further such co-operation in this country? Does he consider that the Government are following that recommendation when they reduce the number of meetings of NEDC from 12 to four?

My Lords, the report of the Select Committee to which the noble Lord refers has largely been discredited by events since then.

My Lords, perhaps I may ask one last question on this matter. Of course both sides of industry are working to make the current situation effective. If they did not that would mean the end of the NEDC, and they value it.

If I may, I shall come to the question at the end. If not, the NEDC would be abolished. The question is this. Does not the noble Lord understand that a body which the Chancellor of the Exchequer used to attend monthly but now attends only once a year and which has fewer EDCs connected with industry gives less opportunity for both sides of industry to put their pressing problems?

My Lords, most of the valuable work done by the NEDC has been done in those sectoral committees. The most valid ones are to continue and no doubt the quarterly meetings will look at these very valuable reports.

My Lords, does not the noble Lord feel that he went a little far when he said that the report of the Select Committee on Overseas Trade was largely discredited? As a member of that Select Committee I can recall—will not the noble Lord recall?—that the Government themselves in commenting on that report accepted a very large number of recommendations.

My Lords, that may be so, but I think that events since then have shown otherwise.