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Trade And Industry

Volume 401: debated on Thursday 20 March 2003

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The Secretary of State was asked

Order. Questions to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I call Lynne Jones.

Now we know that Bush is lying to the American people—

Order. The Minister must reply. The hon. Lady has been here long enough to know that she should call Question 1.

Postal Services Commission

2.

Whether the appointment of the chairman of the Postal Services Commission will be renewed; and if she will make a statement. [103881]

The term of the current chairman of Postcomm, Graham Corbett, formally ends on 31 March. I am glad to be able to tell the House that he has agreed to an extension of his term of up to a year, to complete the current phase of Postcomm's work and allow time for the appointment of his successor. Having consulted Mr. Corbett on the future composition of Postcomm, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has agreed to begin the process now to recruit a new chairman. She has also agreed to reappoint Janet Lewis—Jones for a further three—year term.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I am concerned to know how his Department will ensure that the successor, the new chair and, indeed, members of the commission will be appointed with some relevant experience of the postal service. How can he ensure that?

The current commissioners have been successful in establishing Postcomm as a postal regulator with a strong, independent voice. That was no mean feat and I congratulate them on it. There is a case for the commission reflecting direct experience of postal markets. We have agreed with Graham Corbett on a balance of continuity and change as the work of Postcomm goes forward. We will seek to appoint a new commissioner with specific experience of postal markets to reflect my hon. Friend's point. We also need to reflect on the overall balance of Postcomm in considering candidates for the new chair.

Will the chairman of the Postal Services Commission look specifically at the Government's broken promises and ensure that elderly people can continue to collect benefits in the way that they have always wished to—from post offices? Postmasters and customers in my constituency are complaining bitterly that the Government have not kept their promise and that they are under huge pressure and influence to open new bank accounts. The Government made clear promises, but they have broken them. Will the new chairman look into that?

Those promises have been maintained and will be maintained as the new arrangements roll out from next month. In particular, it will be possible for anybody who so wishes to continue to receive their benefit in cash weekly at the post office without charge either through a basic bank account, an ordinary current account, where the bank has a contract with the post office, or through a Post Office card account. That requirement, which was set out three years ago, is fundamental to the way in which the automated credit transfer change has been implemented.

I am slightly disappointed that Mr. Corbett has an extension to his position. He has not been the force that we needed, although I may be in a minority of one on that. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Thank you. May we have an assurance that his successor will have ideas that are rooted in reality and not be obsessed by the market approach, down which Mr. Corbett seems to be leading the Post Office?

In my view Mr. Corbett has done a good job in establishing Postcomm with an independent voice. Nobody should be surprised that he has sometimes taken views at variance with those of the Royal Mail—that goes with this terrain. Maintenance of the universal service obligation is Postcomm's key aim. That will certainly be at the forefront of the aims of the new chairman, as it has been for Graham Corbett.

Animal Welfare

3.

What steps she is taking to prevent imports of products containing cat and dog fur. [103882]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
(Miss Melanie Johnson)

The Government are investigating the possibilities for the labelling of any products containing domestic cat or dog fur. This will give consumers the information they need about what they are buying and enable the Government better to determine levels of imports.

I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend is aware of the concerns of people such as Sarah O'Leary in Plymouth and of the Western Morning News. Does she share their revulsion at this vile trade, in which cats and dogs are beaten and clubbed to death for fur for toys and ornaments? Will she do everything she can to bring this awful trade to an end?

I would like to commend the campaign of the Western Morning News and the work that my hon. Friend and others are doing. The Government are serious about addressing cruelty to animals in third countries that do not have the same high welfare standards as the United Kingdom. My noble friend the Minister for Trade and Investment will meet interested non—governmental organisations and the relevant industry associations in the next month or so, to discuss their views on labelling. She has undertaken to report back on progress before the summer recess.

I welcome the Minister's initiatives on cat and dog fur, but there are many long—established and legitimate mink furrier industries in the UK, many of which are in my constituency. What discussions are taking place with the Home Office to ensure that such people can go about their legitimate business?

:I am sure that the Home Office is undertaking its duties in respect of these matters, as it always should.

Rural Post Offices

4.

If she will make a statement on the provision of Government services by rural post offices. [103883]

Every community is entitled to good access to postal and Government services. We will continue to ensure good access through the post office network, in particular through the rural network.

Does the Minister acknowledge that, with the imminent commencement of the universal bank and the withdrawal of 40 per cent. of rural post offices' business, many rural post offices will have to make staff redundant and, ultimately, close as the Government withdraw the lifeline that allows those post offices to continue in business? How will the Government replace that lost income stream? Is this not just another example of the Government's disdain for rural post offices and local small businesses?

Following the publication of the performance and innovation unit's report, we made a commitment to end avoidable closures of rural post offices. As a result, we have seen a dramatic reduction in the number of closures. The hon. Gentleman talks about withdrawing a lifeline, but it is quite the contrary. We have just announced £450 million to maintain the rural network up to 2006. We have invested £500 million to provide the platform for ACT from next month. That will allow post offices to provide modern services of the kind that people want, which will secure a successful future for the post office network. Over a long period, there has been a decline in the old—fashioned business of the Post Office. That is why we have had to make the changes that we have made, laying the foundations for the successful future of the whole network, including the part of the network that is in rural areas.

Would not rural post offices be assisted if the Post Office card account system was run on a decent and full basis? Why is it so difficult to obtain a Post Office card account, despite the issuing of new literature today? Why cannot an account simply be obtained from a post office by people who are known there, or why cannot people simply tick a box to get a Post Office card account, as they can if they want to get a bank account? That is what is wanted.

We are ensuring that those who wish to choose a Post Office card account can do so. However, it is important to take the opportunity of this change to address the problem of financial exclusion. Many people in rural and other areas are disadvantaged because they do not have a bank account. We want those people to have the opportunity to consider whether, given the change, they now want to open a bank account. That is the reasoning behind the helpline. However, if people decide that they would prefer to have a card account, they will get their card account.

Despite the gloss that the Minister puts on the situation, is it not a fact that—and this applies to urban as well as to rural post offices—post offices' income is dropping, the value of sub-post offices is dropping, the footfall is dropping, and the number of services to the elderly and vulnerable is dropping? Only 311 out of 3,000 sub—post offices that are facing compulsory closure know their fate. When will the Minister let those sub—post offices know whether they are going to have to close? He cannot keep them in limbo for ever.

It is true that custom at post offices has been declining. The Government that the hon. Gentleman supported did nothing; by contrast the Labour Government are addressing the problem and ensuring that there is a successful future for the Post Office. In 1996, 40 per cent. of benefit recipients received their benefit in cash at the post office, but today that proportion is down to just over a quarter, as a result of the choice that people have made. The Post Office has to reflect the changes in the wishes of its customers and provide services that meet their needs, so we have invested in technology for the post office network the very large sum that I mentioned. The Post Office will be able to use that as a platform to deliver modern services that people want.

May I return my hon. Friend to the issue of the Post Office card account and ask that he hold further discussions with our ministerial colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions? Some of my constituents have received forms from the DWP regarding their benefits after the changes take place, which have no reference whatever to the Post Office card account as an option. That is seen, rightly, as discrimination against the account and the matter ought to be put right.

If my hon. Friend looks at the leaflet that accompanies the form to which he refers, he will see that the position is clearly spelt out. However, the point that he made has been drawn to our attention and a change will be made to ensure that there is a reference to the Post Office card account on the form.

:Is not the truth that thousands of vulnerable people who have hitherto relied on receiving benefits in cash at post offices will find it harder to do so? Post offices will lose thousands of customers because the Government have made it almost impossible for them to open a Post Office card account. The Government's disastrous double whammy is more post office closures and more problems for pensioners, young mums, disabled people and other vulnerable people in the community.

No, the hon. Gentleman is wrong about that. He should not mislead and worry people, especially the elderly, who will be concerned about what he said. People who want to continue receiving their benefit in cash from their local post office will be able to do so through one of the means that I mentioned. We built that requirement into the process from the start and it will be delivered when the arrangements are put in place next month. Given our investment in technology and the fact that post office services will use modern technology in the future, as opposed to the old-fashioned systems left behind by the previous Government, there will be a much better future for the Post Office and the services that it provides for the benefit, especially, of elderly and vulnerable people in every part of the country.

Carbon Fuels

5.

What action she is taking to lessen use of carbon fuels. [103884]

On 24 February, we published a White Paper that puts climate change at the heart of our energy policy. We have accepted the recommendation of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050 and to be on a path to that by 2020. The White Paper sets out the measures needed to achieve that target.

Tragic events in the middle east have, once again, highlighted the fact that we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, such as oil, and even gas, as our major energy sources. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to invest significantly more in renewable energy sources, such as wind and tidal power, in order to secure energy resources for future generations, in addition to meeting our Kyoto commitments?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we need to do far more, not only on renewables but also on energy efficiency. We have set out in the White Paper exactly how we shall do that. In particular, we are investing a third of a billion pounds over four years in capital grants for new renewable projects, including wave and tidal power. I am pleased that the United Kingdom has the first—indeed, the only—commercial wave power station in the world. With that, and with the expertise that we have in wind power and offshore technologies, we will be able not only to achieve our CO2 targets, but to create a new renewables manufacturing industry that will deliver new jobs and new exports for Britain.

Given the fall in farm incomes by more than two thirds over the past six years, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with her counterpart in DEFRA about the possibility of producing fuel through alcohol? Is she aware that in Brazil more than two thirds of the fuel that is used is alcohol fuel, which is generated from crops? Why cannot we do that here in the United Kingdom?

There is no reason at all why we should not do that. Indeed, the White Paper to which I referred was a joint production by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural. Affairs, me, and the Secretary of State for Transport. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, we are investing substantially in helping farmers and other members of the rural community to diversify. There are clearly huge potential benefits to the farming community, as well as to the whole country, in helping to increase the production of fuel from biomass and bioethanol. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is assisting in that through differential fuel duties.

:Friend accept that although the ambitious measures in the White Paper in respect of renewables and energy efficiency are extremely welcome, they are not matched by the ambitious scale of investment that is needed? Does not energy efficiency provide the quickest and easiest way to cut carbon emissions, and will she assure the House that there will be increasing support for energy efficiency measures in the next few years?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We say in the White Paper that energy efficiency is by far the cheapest and simplest way of meeting all our policy goals in this area. If I may say so, however, he somewhat underestimates the scale of the investment that is being made. I have already referred to the third of a billion pounds over four years, and we shall have to see what we achieve in future spending reviews. By 2010, the renewables obligation, which is central to the policy, will deliver support to the renewables industry that is worth some £1 billion a year. On top of that, by 2005–06 we will have put in place a new carbon emissions trading scheme, which will create further strong incentives for much greater energy efficiency and more investment in renewables.

The Secretary of State will know David Green, who is a member of the Government's energy advisory panel, and who said:

"There is a complete absence in the White Paper of any significant new measures to reduce the damage done to Britain's green generators over the last three years by weak and inconsistent delivery of the Government's policies".
How on earth has he come to that conclusion?

The energy White Paper not only confirms the Government's commitment to the target of installing 10,000 MW of good quality combined heat and power by 2010, but sets out several new measures to support CHP. State aid approval for the exemption of CHP electricity from the climate change levy—a policy for which David Green strongly pressed—has now been given. It is frustrating that it took some time to get that state aid exemption, but it will undoubtedly help. Although I well understand the frustration of CHP producers—although not necessarily consumers—about falling electricity prices, we are on target to meet the 2010 target for good-quality CHP.

Pharmacies

6.

If she will make a statement on the Office of Fair Trading report on pharmacy services. [103885]

We received the OFT report on 17 January and we are considering our response across Government, in consultation, of course, with the devolved Administrations and relevant stakeholders. As part of that process, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), wrote to all hon. Members seeking their views.

May I tell my right hon. Friend that I have received objections from hundreds of constituents who are outraged by the OFT's proposals? They vigorously protest that their local pharmacies are convenient, that they know and trust the pharmacist, that they often have no transport to go elsewhere, and that they are not pushed into buying unnecessary products. Does my right hon. Friend agree that good health is supported by a trusting relationship between pharmacist and public, and can she assure me that the vital network of local pharmacies—which commands a high level of confidence and satisfaction from our communities, as is recognised in the OFT's report—will be protected and that nothing will be done that will prejudice the local pharmacy services that so many of our constituents value highly?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, I have had similar representations and discussions in my constituency. I welcome the OFT's report, which is a useful analysis of the competition aspects of the control of entry regulations, and of the benefits that greater competition can bring. I am also clear, however, that there are limits to markets, particularly in the delivery of health services. It is essential that pharmacists should be able to fulfil not only their present valued and trusted role but the wider role envisaged for them in the NHS plan: simply deregulating the market will not do that. We therefore need a balanced package of measures, and that is precisely what we will draw up, in consultation, as I have already indicated.

I welcome the Secretary of State's response to that question. I suggest that the OFT was simply wrong in believing that pharmacists are merely shops; in fact, they are a network of primary health care professionals who play a key role in preventive health and in distributing drugs to the elderly and the sick. The Government will not be forgiven lightly if she allows the pharmacists to go the same way as the post office network.

The OFT's remit is to look at the effect on competition, among other things, of Government regulation. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman—who, at least some of the time, is a supporter of competition policies—would welcome that role for the OFT. It is not part of the OFT's remit, however, to look at the much wider health service objectives or the role that community pharmacists can play—an even greater role, as I have indicated—in supporting modernisation and improvements in the national health service. That is our job in government, and, as I have indicated, we will come forward with a balanced package that will achieve those health and community aims.

The Secretary of State will know that in Scotland the situation is slightly different, because health is dissolved—[Interruption.] Health is devolved, but competition policy is not. She will also be aware that the Scottish Parliament is due to be dissolved at the end of next week for the forthcoming election. Will she give an assurance that no decision will be made on the OFT policy until there has been consultation with the new Scottish Parliament and new Scottish Executive following elections on 1 May?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that the NHS might be dissolved if the nationalists won the elections. Let me make it clear: of course we are already discussing this issue with our colleagues, not only in Scotland but in Wales and Northern Ireland. We will arrive at the decision in full consultation with the devolved Administration, who, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, are responsible for the health service in Scotland.

There are strong concerns about this issue in Cornwall, where many of our supermarkets are out of town, and I receive petitions almost daily opposing the proposals. I am glad to hear the Secretary of State say that nothing will be done that would hurt local pharmacies. May I reiterate, however, that real concerns exist, and we urgently need reassurance?

I entirely understand not only my hon. Friend's concerns but those of her constituents. Every Member has had similar representations. Let me stress that although competition can clearly bring benefits to consumers, the crucial issue is that pharmacists should be able to enhance their role within the NHS plan and meet the health care needs of all our constituents, particularly those living in poorer areas and rural areas.

Since the OFT's report confirms that community pharmacies do an excellent job, are trusted by their customers and are accessible to the vast majority of people, is it not clear that were the recommendations accepted it would show once more that this Labour Government care nothing either for those small and often family-run businesses that are the backbone of many communities, or for their customers, who rely on them as a valuable source of health advice?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not hear my earlier answers on precisely that point. I am glad that the Conservative party now recognises that there are limits to markets, especially in health care. I hope that Conservative Members will support the other policies that our Government have introduced to promote social inclusion and to ensure that markets work for everyone's benefit. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will soon tell us that he supports policies on the minimum wage, rights at work and improved health and safety in the workplace, which are other policies that set limits on uncontrolled markets.

Will my right hon. Friend take account of the phrase, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? In Scotland, there is no question that Labour will not lead the Administration after May, as it does at present, and the Scottish Pharmaceutical General Council, the professional body for pharmacists, is working with the Scottish Executive on an extremely ambitious programme for the expansion of community pharmacies, which goes far beyond anything envisaged in England at present. It would be highly dangerous for those ambitious plans to be frustrated by a cack-handed approach by the OFT to what is currently an excellent service for communities.

The service is indeed excellent in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom. It can be improved further, as my hon. Friend said, by the plans that are being developed in Scotland. As far as England is concerned, the NHS plan sets out a full vision of the greater role that pharmacists can play not only in helping to ensure that patients get the full benefit of medicines, but by undertaking some of the initial diagnosis and advice work. We value pharmacists' work and think that it can be improved and strengthened further in the NHS plan. However, let me stress that decisions will not be made by the OFT because its role in these matters is advisory. The Government will make the decisions in the full context of the NHS plan and equivalent developments in the devolved Administrations.

Will the Secretary of State be a little more open about when she expects the announcements to be made? Whether she likes it or not, the OFT's proposals have caused great unease among our constituents and communities. She said that the report was published on 17 January and that she is in discussions with the devolved Parliaments, but they are about to dissolve before elections. When will we get an answer to this particular problem?

Eu Regional Funds

7.

If she will make a statement on her Department's policy on the future of EU regional funds. [103886]

My right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry published a paper on 6 March that launched a joint consultation on the future of EU structural funds This set out the preferred approach, the EU framework for regional policy. It would focus EU regional assistance on the poorest member states. Richer member states such as the UK would finance their regional policy domestically and we would increase UK. Government spending to ensure that the UK nations and regions do not lose out financially as a result of reform.

I welcome the Government's commitment to ensuring that regions such as the northeast will not lose out, whatever the future of EU regional funding may be. I also encourage the Government to follow a policy of further economic decentralisation in the UK. What discussions have taken place with other European Union countries—especially the new countries that will be members by the time that the important decisions are made—and what support have they given to the proposals?

We have had a number of discussions. Commissioner Barnier kicked off a round of discussions last year but, as yet, not many EU member states have framed their objectives and policy. In fact, only the Netherlands, as far as I know, has said what it intends to do and what approach it intends to take. That approach is similar to our own. The document is a consultation document—now that other EU member states have seen it, we will, I am sure, get their reaction. As for the accession countries, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions and I have made a point of speaking to the accession countries about those issues. They will not be part of the decision, but they will certainly experience its effects.

The Minister will be aware that in the past North Yorkshire has benefited particularly from the old objectives 3 and 5. Is he aware that that there are now pockets of rural poverty in constituencies such as the Vale of York, where rural wages are 12 per cent. lower than urban wages? In the review, will the Department ensure that the moneys that come to regions such as Yorkshire and the Humber will be spread evenly between rural and urban areas?

We will ensure that our proposal is for a much more devolved and locally led allocation of European regional structural funds, which account for only a quarter of the money that we spend in the regions in this country. It is important to ensure that overarching principles govern the allocation of EU structural funds, and that they take into account the needs of rural areas.

However, to answer the hon. Lady's question, it is much more appropriate to look at the way in which regional development agencies and we allocate money domestically at the moment to ensure that rural areas get their fair share. We are doing so, and the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is an active participant in discussions with the RDAs. The hon. Lady has made an important point that needs to be looked at, quite apart from objectives 3 and 5, which she mentioned.

Can the Minister tell us when he will be able to publish his proposals on areas such as Merseyside, which enjoy objective 1 funding at present? Can he give an assurance that he will discuss his proposals with organisations such as the Alliance for Regional Aid?

I met a delegation led by my hon. Friend, so he knows that we are willing to discuss that. We published the consultation document on 6 March. It is important to point out that because the 10 accession countries are all poorer than the poorest EU member states, if we did not change the basis of European Union structural funds, the whole basis for allocating funds would change. Indeed, it is calculated that the total of 83 million people who receive objective funding in the European Union now would be reduced to 35 million, including my hon. Friend's constituents. To those people, of course, nothing material has changed in their plight or conditions. The only change would be in the calculation because of the accession countries. That is why we put that consultation document out, and why we think that we are taking the right approach to the problem.

Rural Post Offices

8.

How many rural post offices have closed within the last 12 months. [103887]

There were 97 net closures of rural post offices in the twelve months to December 2002. The number of net closures in the last quarter of that year, the most recent for which data are available, was zero.

St. Ives post office in my constituency—a rural post office serving 17,000 people—was recently closed, having been given three weeks' notice, which I find quite unacceptable. Thanks to a massive local effort and a receptive Post Office, St. Ives is to reopen. However, that raises some serious issues, such as the lack of closure notification procedures, the lack of sourcing of alternative sites, the Post Office's inability to recruit and retain sub-postmasters and the lack of attractive products, which are leading to the closure of scores of post offices around the country. What is the Minister going to do about it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing to the attention of the House the success of the Government's measures to ensure that where there is a proposed closure an alternative can be found. He has done the House a service by explaining how that works—it is exactly what the Government have done. The Post Office has put in place a team of rural transfer advisers to make sure that when the problems that he described arise alternatives can be found, as has been done successfully in his constituency. I made the point that in the most recent quarter for which data are available there were no closures at all. The number of net closures that I gave for the year was less than half the number in 2001–02, which, in turn, was half the number in the preceding year. We have committed £450 million to maintain the rural network up to 2006. We have therefore backed fully, with funding, our commitment that there should be no avoidable closures of rural post offices, and I am delighted that that is working in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Many of the rural post offices in my constituency have tried to meet the challenge facing them by diversifying into retail newsagency. They have just discovered that retail newsagents have to obtain newspapers from wholesale newsagents that are granted a monopoly by newspaper publishers—a monopoly that has been abused by increasing service charges by 650 per cent. Would we not help rural post offices generally and retail newsagents across the country by breaking the monopoly of wholesale newsagents?

Of course, these arrangements have been in place for a considerable time, but the Office of Fair Trading is looking at precisely the issue that my hon. Friend raises, and it will report back in due course.

In Northern Ireland, just as elsewhere in Great Britain, rural post offices, in addition to delivering pensions and benefits conveniently, contribute to local village life. Will the Minister acknowledge that there has been disproportionate encouragement to benefit recipients to have bank accounts, and will he use some of the £450 million that he has mentioned to indicate in simple terms that people may still choose, as he has announced this morning, to receive payments in cash at their local post offices? That might just help to avert some further closures.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of post offices in the life of a community, and he is right to draw attention to that point. However, in putting in place arrangements for the change to automated credit transfer, we have ensured that anyone who wishes to obtain their benefit in cash from a post office—either through a Post Office card account, or through any of the basic bank accounts that all banks will offer—can continue to do so. Those accounts will be fully accessible at the local post office. The great benefit is that people will be able to use the bank accounts and go to the post office, and post offices will be offering the services that people increasingly want. The old-fashioned giros did not offer a future for the post office, but our new arrangements will.

Given that rural post offices will lose some 40 per cent. of their income over the next two years with the introduction of universal banking, and given that the Government's largesse of £150 million a year will continue only to the end of 2005, taking us up to the next general election, will the Minister explain what happens then? The House, sub-postmasters and the public who use post offices will want to know whether this Government have a long-term, coherent plan for the future of rural post offices after the next general election.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the figures that I have given to the House on the falling number of post office closures in rural areas. His suggestion that 40 per cent. of income will be lost to the Post Office assumes, of course, that nobody who obtains their benefit at a post office at the moment will do so in future. However, very many of the benefit recipients who currently use post offices will use the Post Office card account, a basic bank account or an ordinary bank account and continue to obtain their benefit in cash at local post offices, thereby generating income for the post office network. The arrangements beyond 2006 will, of course, be a matter for the next spending review, but the Government's commitment to ensuring a successful future for the post office network in every part of the country will be maintained.

Christmas Day Working

9.

What steps she is taking to improve protection for employees against retail employers who force their staff to work on Christmas day. [103888]

The Government wish to maintain the special nature of Christmas day. I expect to launch a consultation on possible new regulation of opening by large stores a little later this year.

I thank the Minister for his reply and I welcome his announcement about a consultation. However, does he agree that it cannot be right that there are no trading restrictions on Christmas day when it falls on any day other than a Sunday? It cannot be right that shop workers have to rely on the goodwill of their employers. Surely the only real protection for shop workers is legislation.

It is an anomaly that the terms of the Sunday Trading Act 1994 protect shop workers and others working in the retail sector when Christmas day falls on a Sunday. The basis of that Act was that Sunday is a special day, and everyone agrees that Christmas day is also a special day. We are minded to introduce legislation. Our view is that we need to consult fully beforehand, but we feel that the time to legislate is when there is not a problem. All the retailers say, "We have no wish to open on a Sunday, but if any of our competitors do, we will." It is important to act before we get on to that slippery slope.

Notwithstanding the fact that many people, myself included, agree with the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) that it seems both unfair and mean-spirited to coerce people into working on Christmas day when they would otherwise not choose to do so, does the Minister accept that when contemplating legislation, it is essential to be sure that legislation and regulation are necessary, and that the form that they take is proportionate to the size of the problem and the level of the protest about it?

I fully accept that. My right hon Friend the Secretary of State wrote to retailers last year to see whether there was an alternative to regulation. If there was an agreement between the major retailers, none of whom was interested in opening on Christmas day, that would probably breach fair trading rules, so that option has been ruled out. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. If there were any sensible alternatives to regulation, we would pursue them. My view at present—that is the reason for the consultation document—is that there is no alternative, and it will be beneficial regulation, not least because many retailers have said to us, "Look, we agree with you, but either put up or shut up. We will open if our competitors open, and the best way you can deal with this", many retailers tell us, "is through regulation."

Energy White Paper

10.

What discussions she has had with Ofgem about the Energy White Paper. [103889]

Ministers and officials have held a number of discussions with Ofgem about the energy White Paper, both before and after its publication. The White Paper includes a number of commitments relating to Ofgem, which we are pursuing with the regulator.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of comments by the head of Ofgem that the Government's environmental and social guidance to Ofgem is not yet strong enough? In the light of those comments, will she undertake to revisit the guidance, and will she consider further whether Ofgem requires additional sustainable energy expertise on its board of directors?

I entirely agree that the environmental guidance needs to be strengthened in the light of our White Paper objectives and commitments. We have that work in hand. We have also, as we state in the White Paper, agreed with Ofgem that it will produce regulatory impact assessments, including environmental impact assessments, on all new policies. I am delighted to say that a new non-executive board member with strong environmental credentials has been selected, and we will make an announcement about that shortly.

In a written answer, the Energy Minister stated that increasing the renewables obligation from 10 per cent. to 20 per cent. will add £1 billion to the annual cost of electricity generation. On the assumption of a 3p buyer price, does the right hon. Lady believe that she will achieve 20 per cent., and if not, what price does she envisage, and what effect will that new price have on the cost of electricity to consumers?

As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, we have published on the DTI website the extensive economic modelling work that underpins the analysis and the conclusions of the White Paper. As I said earlier to the House, the renewables obligation by 2010 will deliver a £1 billion boost to investment in the renewables sector. Energy prices at present, with the sole exception of industrial gas, are lower than they have been for about 20 years. A striking aspect of the consultation that we did with the public was that cheap electricity was seen as rather less important than meeting our carbon obligations. I therefore believe that we will be right to continue with the renewables obligation in order to ensure that we meet not only the 2010 targets but our 2020 objectives as well.

Has my right hon. Friend taken into consideration the views of the regulator about what will happen when we become a net importer of gas, and the fact that we could become more reliant on gas over the next 10 years? As has been proved in relation to oil in the last few weeks, an unstable situation in regard to gas supply could have a traumatic effect on domestic and industrial energy supplies if we do not take action now. Will my right hon. Friend tell us which way she intends to go on the issue of the net import of gas?

The issue that my hon. Friend has raised is one of the reasons why we need a new energy policy. Over the next five years or so, we will indeed become a net importer of oil and gas. We already import about half the coal that we use. This will change the energy position in the United Kingdom. We will have to pay even greater attention to possible threats to the security of supply that could result from international events. Let me stress, however, that we have been importing oil from Russia for the last 37 years or so without any interruption, and that much of our gas supply will come from Norway, a close colleague and partner. We are already putting in place a new treaty with Norway to ensure that we will be able to secure those supplies.