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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 408: debated on Thursday 3 July 2003

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Trade And Industry

The Secretary of State was asked

World Trade Organisation


What action she is taking to make the Doha trade round benefit developing countries. [123219]

May I begin by wishing you a very happy birthday, Mr. Speaker? It is an especially good week to celebrate being fifty-something.

We are determined to make the Doha round work, especially in the interests of developing countries. That is why I visited Thailand, India and South Africa in the past year for discussions with other Trade Ministers. I shall visit central America with Christian Aid in September on my way to Cancun. If we could halve protectionism and trade barriers globally, we could cut the number of people in the developing world who live in poverty by more than 300 million by 2015. That would be a significant contribution towards achieving the millennium development goals.

May I add my congratulations to those of my right hon. Friend to you on your birthday, Mr. Speaker, and perhaps dare to draw hon. Members' attention to the fact that it is also my birthday today? That is a happy congruence, which my parents arranged as a tribute to you, with great prescience.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. Has she assessed last week's statement on common agricultural policy reform, especially its implications for the new trade round?

I am delighted by the big step forward that we took in the European Agriculture Council last week. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Our initial assessment of last week's agreement shows that it will enable the European Union to accept—indeed, to better—the proposal in Stuart Harbinson's paper for reductions in agricultural subsidies. There is much else to be done, not least by the United States, but last week's deal in the Agriculture Council removes one of the biggest barriers on the road to Cancun.

But is not the reality that, although the CAP improvements are welcome, they will not happen until 2013? They do not include any changes to the sugar regime. Does the Secretary of State accept that subsidies are a menace, not only through the CAP but through the United States, which she mentioned? Will she use her best endeavours tomorrow, the next day and the day after that to speak to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and persuade the Department to ensure the removal of all such subsidies?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box. I know that, before he became a Member of Parliament, he spent considerable time working in eastern and southern Africa and that he is committed to the agenda that I described.

The British Government have led the way and argued successfully for reform of the CAP. We have made considerably more progress than the Conservatives when they were in government. We are leading the charge against the sugar subsidies, which will be discussed in Europe later this year, because they are disastrous for some of the poorest countries, including Mozambique.

The Conservative party, especially its leader, has experienced a welcome conversion to the cause of free and fair trade. However, let me remind Opposition Members of their record when they were in government and could have done something about the matter. They were behind the intellectual property agreement that did nothing—

Order. The Secretary of State has been very nice to me this morning, but I have to stop her.

Last week, like many other hon. Members, I participated in the lobbies of the Trade Justice Movement. My constituents raised their anxieties that a World Trade Organisation agreement on investment might harm developing countries. Does my right hon. Friend share those concerns? If so, what does she intend to do about it?

The new issues we are discussing—which include investment, but also such matters as trade facilitation and Government procurement—are on the agenda because it is clear that developing countries need more investment, and that a multilateral agreement on investment could help to remove some of the barriers that result in those countries' receiving no foreign direct investment. As I made clear last week, no decisions have yet been made on the structure or content of an agreement. We will review progress in Cancun in September, and we in the United Kingdom Government will not sign up to anything that is not in the interests of the developing countries overall.

Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning the complacent and arrogant attitude of the European Union's trade negotiators, Mr. Lamy and Mr. Fischler, who have dismissed the possibility of any early move to improve market access to, for instance, sugar as "unilateral disarmament"? Does that not either represent the most primitive kind of protectionist economic thinking, or suggest that the negotiators are being unduly influenced by agricultural lobbies in Europe? In either event, should they not be fired?

I normally find myself agreeing with the hon. Gentleman about trade issues, but I think that he is quite wrong in this instance. Pascal Lamy played a crucial role in securing the launch of the Doha development round, and Commissioner Fischler has played an outstanding role. Had it not been for his persistence, I do not think that we would have secured agreement on the reforms in the Agriculture Council last week. In the European Union—again, on the initiative of Commissioner Lamy—we agreed the everything but arms initiative specifically to help the least developed countries.

There is a huge job to be done in dismantling our sugar subsidies. That must be discussed and agreed in the European Union later this year; but I think that the agreement that we reached in the Agriculture Council last week makes agreement on dismantling these absurd subsidies more likely.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many developing countries share the anxieties of the Trade Justice Movement about any extension of the agenda to include investment? What action will she take to ensure that they have their say in the negotiations?

The developing countries constitute the majority of the membership of the World Trade Organisation, and nothing can be agreed in the round unless everyone is signed up to the package. Let me make it clear, however, that neither for the developing countries nor for us and the other developed countries are these new issues the first priority. The first priority is to obtain an agreement with the United States Government on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights—TRIPS—and access to medicines. The second priority is to secure agreement on the appalling, trade-distorting agricultural subsidies; we helped enormously with that last week. We must then proceed to secure other forms of market access that will, above all, be good for developing countries.


What action she is taking to meet the obligations agreed by the Government at Doha in 2001. [123220]

Trade rules must be reformed to benefit the poor. The Government have worked hard to ensure that the changes in WTO rules being negotiated in the Doha round will benefit developing countries. The recent very positive outcome of the discussions on CAP reform in the EU Agriculture Council should now act as a catalyst for other WTO members, like the US, to liberalise their markets.

Like the hon. Member for Watford (Claire Ward), I had meetings with the Trade Justice Movement last week in Ewell and Ashtead in my constituency. The movement is hugely frustrated by the fact that while a process is under way to require the opening of markets in the developing world, the process of opening markets properly in the developed world is progressing at a snail's pace. The movement wants action. When can the Minister deliver that action, on a short time scale?

Obviously those issues must be negotiated at Cancun. That is why we are having a meeting in September; they are part of the wider Doha round. The whole process of the negotiation is aimed at securing changes that will benefit not only the developing countries but the developed world. If we can reduce our trade barriers by 50 per cent., we will benefit world trade by creating $150 billion of extra trade in the world. That will have to happen over time, but happen it must.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position on the Front Bench. I also welcome the Government's attitude to the WTO round, as did my constituents when they came to see me at the lobby last week. Does he agree that besides pressing for good governance for developing countries, we should also press for companies that provide international investment to take on board the best guidelines for corporate social responsibility, which I know the Secretary of State has been especially keen on?

I certainly agree that corporate social responsibility is vital. We need to ensure that our own companies in this country, in particular, recognise that when they invest in developing countries we expect them to adopt the highest standards in their treatment of both their workers and the environment.

Community Pharmacies


When she expects to bring forward proposals in response to the Office of Fair Trading report on community pharmacies; and if she will make a statement. [123221]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
(Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe)

First, I wish you, Mr. Speaker, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), a happy birthday.

In respect of the OFT report as it relates to England, the Government have stated clearly that we will introduce a balanced package of proposals before the summer recess that will promote change to open up the market and improve quality and access without diminishing the crucial role that pharmacies play, especially in poorer and rural areas. In coming to conclusions, we are considering not only consumer and competition issues in pharmacy but wider health policy objectives, such as the role of pharmacists in delivering NHS objectives, and how we can improve access for patients to high-quality pharmaceutical services.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position. It gives me great pleasure, as I consider him a decent, honourable and thoughtful man. We had many dealings together as Treasury Whips, and I hope that the same spirit of cordiality will characterise our exchange today—but I have two words of advice for him as a new Minister. First, he should take his time. These petitions that we are all getting—such as the ones from the Moss pharmacy in Droitwich and Badhams pharmacy in Evesham—show how seriously the general public take this matter. Secondly, he should be wary of full-blooded competition. I bear the scars of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on the supply of beer from when I was a special adviser at the Department of Trade and Industry. Be very, very wary.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. As I have emerged from the dark arts of the Whips Office, I pay tribute to the wonderful job that Whips of all parties do in the House. I know where my bread is buttered.

We have had the opportunity to debate all the issues openly. Nobody is attacking the work of community pharmacies, which do a tremendous amount for our constituencies, but the OFT report has shown that there may be some gaps. Our response will be measured and sensitive to all the issues that have been raised, not only in petitions but in all the correspondence that the Department has received. This is a cross-departmental matter, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and others will appreciate our response when we publish it.

I echo the congratulations to the Minister, as well as the urging of caution in responding to the OFT report. In particular, has he given attention to the fact that the report did not examine the competition that exists between community pharmacies in the additional services that they provide, especially for nursing homes, such as prescription audits, prescription packs for the homes' residents, and home delivery services?

I thank my hon. Friend for her welcome. She raises an interesting point that will be taken into consideration in our deliberations. I do not want to be drawn too far on this question, because the process is still going on, but we will make the announcement before the summer recess.

I, too, welcome the Minister to his post and wish him well in it. He will be aware of the great worry and uncertainty among pensioners. I received a petition the other days from Stockleys pharmacy, signed by 500 people in my constituency. Can he guarantee that there will be an oral statement before the recess, and will he take the opportunity to make it clear today that he will not give in to the wishes of the large retailers—many of which fund the Labour party—but stand up as a champion of small businesses?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. Clearly, we do not want the community pharmacies, which we acknowledge are doing a wonderful job, to be threatened by any outside sources. We will ensure that we have a balanced and sensitive package that meets everybody's needs.

The hon. Gentleman's remarks about organisations that support the Labour party, however, do not become him. The format of the announcement is still under consideration and we will inform him in due course.

What weight does my hon. Friend—my good friend—give to the very persuasive Health Committee report, which suggests that if the OFT recommendations are accepted there is a great likelihood of closures, and that little in the way of savings would be made to the public purse?

I thank my hon. Friend for that. We are looking at all aspects of the situation, and the Health Committee report was very helpful in that regard. It expressed some concern about the OFT report, but it did accept the need for some competition in the marketplace. The points that he raised will be considered, as will the Health Committee report.

World Trade Organisation


If she will make a statement on her objectives for the forthcoming WTO meeting in Cancun. [123222]

Our immediate objectives are to secure agreement on affordable access to medicines, and on a framework for an agreement on agriculture. We shall also press for agreeing special and differential treatment for developing countries, reducing non-agricultural tariffs and increasing private services liberalisation.

On that last point, will the Secretary of State give an undertaking that in Cancun, she will not take a position that prevents developing countries from controlling their own economies or deciding on their own period of trade liberalisation and timetable for free trade? Will she ensure that the trade emerging from Cancun is fair trade, and not just free trade?

As I have said repeatedly, what we want to do within the WTO is to create a framework of trade rules that is indeed fair, as well as free. That means sorting out rules on special and differential treatment, so that developing countries can indeed pace liberalisation with particular reference to products and sectors that are of great importance and sensitivity to their own economies. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not falling into the trap of believing that the way in which developing countries should cope with agricultural subsidies in Europe and America, for instance, is by trying to match them with their own subsidies. The answer is for us to dismantle our subsidies and open up our markets to their products.

Surely one of the most important things that could come out of Cancun would be an enhanced reputation for the WTO, because it represents a rules-based trading system, which is the most effective way of reducing tariffs. In some respects, that is more effective than the granting of vast sums of aid, which can often be dissipated by all manner of incompetence and corruption in the recipient countries.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. It is very clear that if we can create a system of free and fair world trade, we will deliver far bigger benefits to the developing countries than aid budgets ever will. We need both, but trade is crucial. I also agree about the importance of the WTO and, indeed, of the growing capacity of developing countries, which are now using WTO rules to try to enforce access, on fair terms, to the markets of developed countries. The reality is that if we do not succeed in Cancun, we will destroy the possibility of a rules-based trading system. That understanding is growing and people are redoubling their efforts to ensure that we do indeed succeed in this Doha development round.

I fully support the Secretary of State's commitment to fair and free trade. Poorer people in developing countries would like to help themselves, and if we can give them a hand up, rather than a handout, that is a better way forward. Does she accept that our own farming community is very concerned about what the future holds, and that it is important that the Government should, at the earliest possible date, actively spell out how the proposals will affect family farms and their other impacts?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks on the negotiations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has already set out the principles through which we will approach agricultural policy reform in the United Kingdom. The agreement that we reached last week was broadly welcomed within farming communities. It will enable them to receive support from taxpayers for sustaining the rural environment, but it will no longer give them ridiculous incentives to over-produce and over-farm land, which is damaging to our own environment, as well as to that of developing countries. I think that the complete transformation of the common agricultural policy will be good for our farmers and good for our rural environment, as well as for some of the poorest people in the world.

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. That may have been an anticipation of your birthday celebrations. May I offer generic congratulations to you, Mr. Speaker, to the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), to anyone else born on 3 July and to all the distinguished new arrivals on the Front Bench on both sides of the House? I particularly endorse the remarks of the Minister for Employment Relations, Competition and Consumers when he paid a warm and fully justified tribute to the integrity, conscientiousness and distinction of the Whips on both sides of the House—especially my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff). I am heading for an evening off one day next week.

Given that controversies over genetically modified crops may well surface at Cancun, will the Secretary of State join me in rejecting President Bush's criticism that European anxieties over the environmental impact of GM crops are not scientifically based? Will the British Government give unqualified support to proposals for a rigorous, robust and transparent labelling regime for all foods containing genetically modified ingredients, so that consumers in Britain and other countries know exactly what they are eating?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the American Administration does not sufficiently understand the depth of public concern on food safety issues, particularly GM food, in the European Union. That forms an important part of the background to our negotiations within the WTO. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made clear, we strongly support a proper and practicable labelling regime for GM ingredients. We think that there should be a full public debate on that issue and we are facilitating that, but we need to proceed on the basis of rigorous scientific evidence. That is what we are doing and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support us.

Steel Industry


If she will make a statement on the prospects for the steel industry. [123224]

Recent restructuring in the steel industry, together with some signs of recovery in the steel market and exchange rate improvements, provide this important sector with the opportunity to build for a sustainable future. UK macro-economic stability, low inflation and interest rates at their lowest for 50 years also provide a sound foundation.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her new post. She was outstanding in the Department of Health and I am sure that she will be in her new role.

It was a disaster last year when, despite the best efforts of the Department and the National Assembly for Wales, Allied Steel and Wire in Cardiff closed down, largely on account of the short-sightedness of the banks. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the news that the Spanish steel company, Celsa, is reopening the steel plant in Cardiff, re-creating many of the jobs that existed before, and has pledged to produce even more steel than was produced before ASW closed?

Yes, I share my hon. Friend's concern and disappointment about the regrettable demise of ASW, and I join him in welcoming the Celsa Group's plans to resume steel making at Cardiff. That is good news for many of the communities in the area, whose interests my hon. Friend has ably championed. I hope and believe that many former ASW—and, indeed, Corus—workers and former contractors will be reemployed by Celsa, thereby making use of the considerable skills and productivity of UK steelworkers. They are part of the strength of that industry.

I welcome my hon. Friend to the Front Bench. I thank the Secretary of State for her recent visit to Teesside steelworks, which was greatly appreciated by many of my constituents and across Teesside; she was the first Secretary of State ever to visit Redcar steelworks. Has the Minister seen the Trade and Industry Committee report on the future of the steel industry? It made many recommendations, one of which was for the Government to set up a national steel forum. I urge her to give strong support to that recommendation, because such a forum could help to ensure that we continue to have a successful steel industry in the future.

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. I know that the visit by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was welcomed on Teesside, and that she was impressed with relations locally. She was also impressed by the commitment shown by my hon. Friend himself, and by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) to ensuring the future of steel in their communities.

I have had the opportunity to look at the Select Committee on Trade and Industry report, and I welcome many of its recommendations. We will look carefully at the specific recommendation about the steel forum. We have already taken action by giving Government support in respect of lean manufacturing and some of the metal technologies, for example. The intention with the steel forum is to bring together stakeholders such as businesses, employees and trade unions, who will play such an important part by working together to ensure that the steel industry has a future. We will respond to the Select Committee report, and I assure my hon. Friend that I will give his representations very serious consideration.

Atypical Workers


If she will make a statement on the consultation on employment rights for atypical workers. [123225]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
(Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe)

Responses to the consultation are currently being analysed, and the Government hope to publish a response to the consultation later this year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response and welcome him to his post. Last year, I visited the Department with a large delegation of clergy and ministers of religion who feel that they have no redress against discrimination and unfair dismissal. The delegation included members of the Anglican, United Reform, Greek Orthodox and other faiths. Given the Government's commitment to ending social exclusion, will my hon. Friend end the exclusion of the clerical profession from the employment rights enjoyed by all other professions?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I am well aware of his work in this area. The issues that he raised are sensitive and cause great concern to all involved. The consultation on this matter is progressing. I think that, in the near future, I should meet my hon. Friend and the people whom he represents to talk through the issues in more detail. I too am very concerned about employment rights, on which the Government have a proud record. I should like to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment, and wish him well in the fulfilment of his responsibilities. Agency workers are atypical workers, and Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands accounted for 80 per cent. of such staff in the EU. Both the Confederation of British Industry and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development are concerned that the agency workers directive could threaten to destroy up to 160,000 jobs. Will the Minister undertake to press, inside the EU, for a sunset clause in any such directive? That would allow us to look again, in due course, at whether the directive has been damaging or beneficial.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point about the agency workers directive. Clearly, a balance has to be struck. The UK position remains unchanged, in the sense that we want to make sure that agency workers' minimum rights are protected, but also that jobs remain for them to do. There is no immediate reason to believe that the European directive will change matters, but we will monitor the situation and make our opinion known in due course and in light of circumstances in the UK.

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Speaker, even though it is not my birthday and I have not been appointed to anything recently. However, does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that the most atypical workers in this country—if they can be called workers—are the ones who get paid for failure? I am talking about the directors who reward themselves with hundreds of thousands of pounds even when they produce huge losses instead of profits. Surely it is about time that the Government took some firm action to ensure that such gross rewards for failure are not given out in future.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, and I am sure that he will be in the sunlight again in the near future. He makes a good point. The Government have already acted an unfair rewards and rewards for failure, and we will look again at the matter and try to do more. Clearly, it is difficult to tell low-paid workers to be more productive when others give themselves such large awards—23 per cent. is one figure that I have heard in that connection. It is important that we strike the right balance, and the Government will continue to monitor the situation.

School Leavers


What plans she has to provide financial assistance to firms in the small and medium sectors to enable them to engage further workers, with particular reference to school leavers. [123226]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and industry
(Nigel Griffiths)

Since 1997, more than 2 million small businesses have been established creating 2.3 million more jobs, which is why no direct financial assistance is given. The House will be keen to learn what Plaid Cymru's precise budget is for that.

I congratulate everybody on both sides of the House, in case I leave somebody out.

I am not going to talk about budgets, as I am actually questioning the Minister; I do not think that he is supposed to be questioning me. He will realise that more than 90 per cent. of employees in Wales are engaged in the small and medium sectors, which are a very large part of the Welsh economy—I am sure that the same is true of England and Scotland. What incentives are there to assist those hard-pressed businesses which complain that they are under continued pressure, day in day out, from red tape, paperwork and so on? We need to alleviate the problems experienced in that sector while encouraging those businesses to take on more employees. That was the point of my question and I should like the Minister to answer it.

The hon. Gentleman has shifted from budgets—I think that financial assistance is budgets—to the wider question, which I am happy to answer. When I met the Federation of Small Businesses in Swansea recently, its representatives told me how much they appreciated the raising of the VAT threshold, which has benefited 700,000 small businesses in Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. A lot more work can be done, however, and I welcome constructive comments from anyone in the House that will help us to achieve that goal. I pay tribute to the small businesses in Wales.

In order to help small businesses expand and employ more people, will my hon. Friend look again at the threshold for accessing level 2 regional selective assistance funding? At present, a business has to invest £500,000 to qualify, which is beyond many small businesses. On the other hand, if they go for level 3 assistance, the pot is small and not worth much. Will my hon. Friend look again at how those funds operate?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been engaged in one of the most extensive reviews of business support. The aim is to ensure that businesses of all sizes can access both the appropriate financial expertise and mentoring. Of course, we shall take on board what my hon. Friend said; we are keen to ensure that the thresholds are appropriate, but they must also be consistent with European legislation.

As we learned only this morning that the higher national insurance contributions and extra regulations imposed by the Government have destroyed 1,400 jobs at Britain's biggest bank, does the Minister agree that giving financial assistance to small and medium-sized enterprises to encourage them to create jobs will be a complete waste of taxpayers' money unless it is preceded by a cut in the huge burden of extra tax, national insurance contributions, climate change levy and pensions tax and a reversal in the ever-increasing tide of regulation? Unless it was preceded by those moves, we should simply be throwing away good money.

Responsible employers—I understand that they made several billion pounds in profit in the past year, so they are not doing so badly—should appreciate that labour costs in Europe are far higher in the round, as the CBI unreservedly accepts, even after the increase in national insurance. They should also accept that our drive is to invest in the health service to ensure that people who are off work sick or waiting for operations can return to work and play a productive part in the work force. People benefit from the relief of pain—not a moment too soon—and employers also benefit from getting workers back to work more quickly, so it is only fair that both should pay.

I declare an interest as chairman of Solihull Business Enterprise. I invite the Minister to agree that, if in doubt, one of the most benign things that the Government can do to small businesses is to leave them alone.

I could not agree more—except some small businesses ask me for considerable help.

Post Office Card Accounts


How many Post Office card accounts have been opened. [123227]

I understand from Post Office Ltd. that, by 20 June 2003, 57,000 Post Office card accounts had been opened. By that date, 430,000 people had indicated that they wanted to open a card account, so the number of accounts opened will grow rapidly in the period ahead.

I thank the Minister for those, in fact, disappointing figures. May I say, because he is a nice chap, how much I regret the fact that he has been unable to unload the role and responsibility for the Post Office on to some other unfortunate Minister, as it really is a disaster and an absolute black hole? Can he explain to the House how his colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions have estimated that there will be 3 million Post Office card accounts, but the Post Office has calculated that there will be 5 million? As the Post Office has done the 5 million calculation to ensure the viability of those sub-post offices that survive the present savage cull, what will happen to them if Ministers at the Department for Works and Pensions are right with their 3 million figure? What will the Minister do to ensure a 5 million take-up of Post Office card accounts to make sure that our sub-post offices—those that are left—survive?

The Post Office is progressing extremely well. Large numbers of Post Office card accounts are being opened, as I have said, and they are proving particularly popular among pensioners. Everyone who wants a card account will get one. My hon. Friends at the Department for Work and Pensions have indicated that they now expect the number to be above the 3 million figure, which was the initial working assumption.

It is very important not to miss the bigger opportunity. From this week, Lloyds TSB current account holders can use their cashpoint cards to obtain cash at any post office in the country. I tried that on my way in at the Members' Post Office, and I am pleased to say that it worked extremely well. With Alliance and Leicester and Barclays already offering that service, that brings to 19 million the number of current accounts now accessible at every post office in the country. That is a huge commercial opportunity for the post office network. It is half as many again, for example, as the total number of state benefit and pension recipients, and the Post Office can now make a success of that opportunity.

Does my hon. Friend accept that, because of the difficulties that some people still have in gaining access to the Post Office card account, there should be a clear understanding—obviously, he will have to talk to those at the Department for Work and Pensions about this—that, if people choose not to open a bank account, the Post Office card account should be the failsafe system, so that post offices would be guaranteed that anyone who chose not to have a bank account should have a Post Office card account?

I agree that all those who do not want a bank account will be given a Post Office card account if they decide that they want one. That has been built into the process, so I can give absolutely that assurance to my hon. Friend.



If she will make a statement on her strategy for enabling residential customers to benefit from the provision of broadband internet access in publicly-funded organisations. [123228]

The public services between them expect to invest £1 billion in broadband connectivity over the next three years. Our intention is to aggregate demand to maximise the chance to extend broadband availability to users outside the public services, as well as to obtain the best value for the public services themselves.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but will he be more precise on timing and process? A school in the village where I happen to live will get wireless broadband because it is too far away from the BT exchange. Lots of people live near the school, and they are asking me when they can benefit from the school's broadband. The Minister has set up a task group and is spending £1 billion, but when and how?

I am delighted to hear that broadband is being extended to the hon. Gentleman's local school. Every school in the country—primary and secondary— will benefit from broadband over the next three years. I am not able to tell him precisely when the service will be extended to others in his local community, but he makes a very important point. Of course, particularly with wireless broadband, once that facility is available to the school I can see no reason why others should not benefit from it as well. In fact, there are examples of schools around the country that have become the hub for community-based wireless broadband services, and I very much welcome that development.

Can the Minister help with villages in my constituency that are also bereft of schools, and in which broadband provision is therefore an important way of helping them to retain liveliness? Can he give us some hope that we will be able to help specifically the very remote areas that many of us represent?

Yes, I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the importance of that. We can be optimistic about the prospects. He will know that the East of England Development Agency has been active in supporting broadband, and a number of rural communities in Suffolk and elsewhere in the east of England are benefiting as a result. We recently completed successfully an auction of wireless spectrum, which will be available for wireless broadband, and I expect that that will be advantageous to rural communities, too. We can therefore be hopeful about the prospects in the months ahead.

Smaller Enterprises (State Promotion)


What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of state-funded promotion of smaller enterprises. [123229]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
(Nigel Griffiths)

The best assessment of the effectiveness of our DTI small business support programmes is contained in the reports of the Small Business Council, whose 24 members are all successful entrepreneurs. I know from my ministerial visits to the north-east that there are many success stories, and I want to work with my hon. Friend to achieve even more.

I very much welcome Labour's new economic policy for small businesses, and I am extremely disturbed to learn that the Conservative party would want to scrap it completely. That support, however, must be clear and effective. Is my hon. Friend the Minister as concerned as I am by the statement of the chair of the regional development agency in the northeast that there are no less than 200 different organisations trying to support small business within fives miles of the centre of Newcastle? Does he have any proposals to rationalise that, to get some clarity and to establish robust, clear support that new and small businesses can understand and with which they can work?

Indeed. One NorthEast, the regional development agency, has conducted its own review of business support to ensure that all funds for the purpose are held in one pot, to get a strong focus on start-ups and to meet the needs of SME customers who choose the service that they want. I also pay tribute to the £13 million being spent in Tyne and Wear on business support, which is being co-ordinated by Business Link Tyne and Wear. Those two important agencies are cooperating, and I am sure that they will take the advice of my hon. Friend on board.

I declare an interest as an unpaid director of Ormeau enterprise park. Does the Minister accept that small businesses need help when they start up? Unfortunately, those who may fund some of those businesses may have a mindset that, when they have failures, they cannot be relied on to go forward in the future. Do we not need to change that mindset, bearing in mind that even large firms with enterprising inventions have had to repeat their experiments to succeed?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When I was in Belfast a couple of weeks ago discussing this issue with Bill Jeffrey of the Federation of Small Businesses, I stressed to him that the changes in the insolvency provisions that we have already made, which take the focus away from the honest failures and allow us to concentrate on the small minority of dishonest failures, will help to introduce a culture into Britain that to start up in business, to run a business, and to fail because the wrong product or service is being offered at the wrong time is not something of which to be ashamed. I encourage all Members of the House and the press to take that approach and to ensure that people are given encouragement to start business again. In the United States of America, people are not a success in business unless they have had at least one failure.

Objective 1


Whether she has made a recent assessment of the effectiveness of objective 1 programmes in the UK. [123230]

The DTI and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister are co-financing an evaluation of the added value and costs of EU structural funds in the UK, including in the objective 1 regions. That is expected to be completed before the end of 2003.

In addition, as required by the EU regulations, managing authorities and programme secretariats are currently carrying out mid-term evaluations of all structural funds programmes for the current programming period. Those will feed into the mid-term reviews, which will provide a basis for adapting the programming documents if necessary.

I thank the Minister for her reply. She will know that the largest objective 1 programme in the country is in west Wales and the valleys. That programme is proving to be effective for the regeneration of communities and the creation of jobs. Does she agree that there is a strong case to be made for simplifying the grant application process for the structural funds?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I understand that the specific objective 1 programme to which he refers is on target to deliver its important improvements for jobs in west Wales and the areas that it covers. I agree that we need to ensure that while getting the best out of the funds, we eliminate bureaucracy and reduce burdens whenever possible. It was, of course, during the 1999 renegotiations on the current programme of structural funds that the Government were able to push for, and make, improvements to the bureaucracy surrounding the administration of the structural funds. That will certainly have a significant bearing on our current work on improvements for the next tranche.

Minister For Women

The Minister was asked

Women Clergy


What representations she has received about amending the law to give women clergy protection against discrimination. [123239]

I know that this is an area that my hon. Friend has actively pursued, not least earlier in this Question Time. Although we have received no specific representations about amending the law to give women clergy protection against discrimination, we are obviously pleased, as a Government who are keen to promote equality for women, that 2,000 women have been ordained in the Church of England since the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993 was introduced.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the two women who were ordained into the Church in Wales by the Bishop of Monmouth last Saturday? Does she agree that although an increasing number of women have been ordained in the Anglican Church and other denominations, many face discrimination when seeking appointments? I urge her to ensure that women clergy get the same rights as other women in other occupations. They should be included in anti-discrimination and equal opportunities legislation.

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the recently ordained women to whom he referred. I was pleased that a woman priest presided in the House of Commons during our own Prayer session before Question Time. It is an important step forward for the Church. I recognise my hon. Friend's concerns about particular restrictions, such as those in section 19 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Although we have no plans to reform that, we will continue to keep the law as it applies to religious bodies under review in the light of developments in EU law.

Mr. Speaker, I wish you and the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) many happy returns of the day. If anyone wants an additional birthday, I volunteer mine—I am in the mood to give them away.

I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. I welcome her to the Dispatch Box in her new role and wish her all the best. I bring to her attention a worrying report entitled, "They shoot children don't they?", which focuses on child victims of paramilitary punishments in Northern Ireland. Will she speak to her colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that women clergy in Northern Ireland who have condemned, and voiced their abhorrence of, paramilitary intimidation in their communities and congregations will not be discriminated against? I would appreciate that very much.

I have no doubt that the fact that the hon. Lady raised the issue in the House will have been important enough to highlight it. I undertake to ensure that the report to which she referred is brought to the attention of my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office.

May I put on record my support for the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards)? Is the Minister aware of an organisation called the group for the rescinding of the Act of Synod? It organised a meeting two weeks ago at which I spoke, and many of the women in the group are angry because of the discrimination from which they still suffer 10 years on from the date when women were ordained into the Church of England.

I know that my hon. Friend also pays close attention to the issue. I am not aware of the group to which she refers, although I am certainly willing to consider its concerns if she passes them on to me. However, the very fact that she mentions the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993, passed by the Synod of the Church of England, gives an idea of where the responsibility lies. I reiterate that I welcome the progress made by the Church of England. Despite the possibility contained in the measure of opting out of the welcome ability to ordain women, fewer than 1,000 parishes out of more than 13,000 have chosen to do that, although I do understand my hon. Friend's concerns.

Women's Pensions


What recent discussions she has had with (a) the Treasury and (b) the Department for Work and Pensions on women's pensions. [123240]

The Department is in regular contact, at both ministerial and official level, with colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions about women's pensions. I welcome the commitment of the Department for Work and Pensions to consider this issue further in the light of the responses it received to its pensions Green Paper.

Given that pensioner poverty is highest among women, with almost three quarters of pensioners on income support being female, what action will the right hon. Lady take with other Departments to ensure that that does not get worse? Some 1.5 million women in their 40s and 50s are about to receive derisory pensions as low as 7p per week because they followed the Government's advice and paid the lower national insurance rate for married women.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the poverty of many women in retirement. We, of course, have made a great difference to those women with the minimum income guarantee, the pension credit and the increase in the basic retirement pension.

On the issue of the married women's stamp, the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. When that option was available to them, women made their own decision whether to pay full contributions or the reduced rate. If they paid the reduced rate, they still receive 60 per cent. of their husband's pension. In today's terms, the husband gets a pension of £77 a week; the wife, having paid no contributions of her own, receives a pension of £46 a week. It would grossly unfair to give someone who had paid no contributions—[Interruption.]—who had paid the reduced married women's stamp, which was not designed to pay for a pension, the full single person's retirement pension. That would give her the same pension as a married woman who had chosen to pay the full stamp, thereby reducing her earnings when she was in work. That would be grossly unfair and I am astonished that it is the position of the Liberals.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one reason why women are poor in retirement is that they have caring responsibilities and take time off to look after children or elderly parents? What does she intend to do to address that issue?

My hon. Friend is right. I know that she, like me, will welcome the fact that the second state pension, which we are introducing, will for the first time allow women and men who have taken time out of employment for caring responsibilities to build up a proper second pension on top of their basic pension. Over time, that will benefit millions of carers, the vast majority of whom are women.

Will the Minister confirm that women with broken national insurance records will not benefit in full from the Government's new pension credit? Will the Government follow the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) that those women should be able to buy back the missing years?

I think that the hon. Lady is wrong about the pension credit, although I will check that with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and write to her. It has always been possible for people to make additional contributions to fill broken records or missed contributions. Indeed, the Department for Work and Pensions and its predecessor have, on several occasions, written directly to married women who had chosen to pay the reduced contribution to draw their attention to the consequences that that would have for their pension provision.

National Insurance (Married Women)


What discussions she has had with women's groups concerning the operation of the married women's national insurance stamp. [123241]

I have discussed the issue of women and pensions with a number of women's organisations, including the Women's Budget Group, the Women's National Commission, the National Black Women's Network and the National Federation of Women's Institutes. Of course, that included the operation of the married women's national insurance stamp.

Is the Minister familiar with the Support Women Against Poverty network, which we helped to establish, which brings together women throughout Britain who have a variety of concerns about the way in which the pension system works to the disadvantage of women? Would the right hon. Lady be willing to meet me and a group of these women from around Britain who have a range of concerns about the way that pensions are bad news for women, and listen to what they have to say?

Of course. However, I stress that in the steps that we have already taken on the state pension scheme, we have made a real difference for women pensioners in particular, including the proposals recently announced, for instance, to simplify pension splitting in divorce and to enable people to take the full pension value out of their occupational pension scheme, even if they have less than two years' service. We are taking further steps to improve pensions provision for women.

In the meetings, will my right hon. Friend include representations from those women who believe that their title of common law wife affords them legal protection, but who discover on the death of their invariably long-term partner that that is most certainly not the case in terms of pensions and the sharing of pensions?

My hon. Friend draws attention to an important point. Like her, some of my constituents discovered too late that being a common law wife has no status in law. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality has agreed that my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs will consider how we can better inform women in this position about the legal risks that they are running should their relationship break up.