The Government faces a major challenge to help small businesses raise their competitiveness amid the intensifying pressures of the Internet age, warns a British minister. 'A lot of small businesses, particularly in the more established, more traditional sectors, are finding it very hard to cope with intense global competition. I sense exactly the same is true in Hong Kong,' said Patricia Hewitt, British Minister for E-commerce and Small Business. 'It is therefore a big strategic challenge for government [as to] how we help those small businesses to improve their productivity, raise their competitiveness, move up the value-added chain.' Ms Hewitt, Britain's first e-minister, last week led a delegation of Britain's leading Internet businessmen on a visit to Hong Kong. The delegation included executives of Lastminute.com, Freeserve and Baltimore Technologies. Ms Hewitt was appointed to her post in September with a brief to speedily raise the stature of digital business by giving it access to the existing governmental infrastructure for small business. Small and medium-sized companies are in need of help to develop their e-commerce capabilities. New technologies allow them to reduce costs and enter foreign markets but also put them at greater risk from competitors who can enter their traditional markets. Ms Hewitt has first-hand knowledge of how globalisation plays out in traditional industries, particularly those populated by small players. The textile industry in her Leicester West constituency has for years suffered from foreign competition and job losses. Last year, retailer Marks & Spencer decided to expand its overseas clothing-supply chain at the expense of British producers. Richard Roberts, a Leicester-based knitwear producer, was hit heavily, as was William Baird, a Scottish clothing maker which claims a loss of GBP103 million (about HK$1.21 billion) from Marks & Spencer's action. Not everyone is happy with the way the British Government has handled the challenges facing the nation's textile industry. The industry complains that, although millions of pounds in public aid were offered to the Rover car-making group last year, nothing similar has been forthcoming for textiles. Ms Hewitt said the government's strategy included both technical help to move textile companies into high-technology fabrics and training assistance to move workers out of the sector. The industry needed to move into the high-value-added areas of 'technical textiles' - fibres strong enough to serve as the underlay for roads, smart enough to become warmer or cooler depending on the ambient temperature, or connected enough to transmit the wearer's heartbeat to a hospital-based monitor. 'But we also have to move people out of that industry, because clearly with the scale of redundancies we are getting in textiles, there will be people who have worked in that trade for 20 or 30 years who are not going to get new jobs in that same sector.' It is a familiar story in Hong Kong, where textile manufacturers have moved over the border, leaving thousands of unemployed workers behind. Ms Hewitt says Britain's Department of Education and Employment is pioneering mobile rapid-response units able to visit the many small textile factories dotted around the East Midlands, making arrangements for retraining and redeployment even before redundancies occur. Experience has shown that workers used to one kind of complex machinery can easily be retrained to work with other kinds of complex machinery, she said. Add to that abundant vacancies and skills shortages in the information and communications-technology industries, and the digital revolution might breathe new life into the careers of many workers in Britain's small and medium-sized companies.