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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 447: debated on Thursday 8 June 2006

Trade and Industry

The Secretary of State was asked—

Postal Services

1. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the future of the Royal Mail and Post Office in Scotland. (75718)

Good morning, Mr. Speaker. DTI Ministers and officials have regular discussions with other Government Department colleagues on matters relating to Royal Mail and the Post Office network.

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), who was previously Under-Secretary at the DTI with responsibility for postal services, met Ross Finnie, Minister for Environment and Rural Development at the Scottish Executive, on 6 March to discuss a range of issues relating to post offices.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he and his ministerial colleagues encourage the chief executive of Postcomm to engage better with communities on the future of Royal Mail and the Post Office? I recently wrote to her inviting her to attend a function in my constituency to discuss the future of postal services, and she told me that she felt that she could learn all that she needed to know by holding seminars in Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee. We in the Isles have some difficulty with that attitude, because there is genuine concern about the issue and people want to engage in the debate. We need better responses from Postcomm than that.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I know that he will have a seminar in Orkney in due course. My understanding is that the head of the rural network in Scotland for Post Office Ltd will attend the Orkney seminar, and that it will also be represented at the Shetland event. The Department is keen to do what it can to maintain a sustainable network. We have committed £2 billion to Post Office Ltd, including £750 million up to 2008 to support the rural network in particular. We will be very interested in the outcome of his seminar.

The Minister may not know that the post office in Irvine in my constituency, which serves some 30,000 people, is to be franchised. One of my reservations about that proposal is that the franchise will include licensed premises. Many elderly people in the area are opposed to that concept and fear the whole idea. It is also almost bizarre that staff have only recently undergone a training programme to help to widen the scope of the business of the Crown post office, which will now be of no use whatsoever.

I can understand my hon. Friend’s concern, although I have to confess that I did not know about that initiative until he mentioned it to me earlier. The Post Office has to look at modern ways of working, and franchising works in other parts of the country. Having conducted a £25 million pilot to determine modern ways of providing services, we will examine closely anything that has a positive effect on the sustainability of the service. I am happy to hear more from my hon. Friend on the issue. If he drops me a line, I will look further into the initiative that he mentions.

Does the Minister understand the fear in rural areas of Scotland when Adam Crozier, the chief executive of Royal Mail, talks about a “radical transformation” of the network as a result of the collapse in Government work, such as benefits payments? In the recent deal between the Government and the Royal Mail, it was made clear that

“the level of any support after 2008 will depend on decisions on the future of the post office network”.

Who will take decisions on the future of the post office network? Will it be Royal Mail or the Government, depending on the amount of money that they put in?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the lack of Government support, and I hope that I have rebutted that by demonstrating the £750 million that we have committed to the rural network in particular. It is not the Government’s fault that people are not choosing to use the post office. Habits are changing and the internet is available: there are many reasons why people are not using the post offices—[Interruption.] Some 1,200 post offices have fewer than 60 customer visits a week and 800 have fewer than 20. The issue of sustainability has to be addressed, and I will be happy to engage with the hon. Gentleman in due course in respect of his local post offices.

Energy Review

The Government published a consultation document on 23 January this year inviting responses on energy policy issues. We expect to report to the House before the summer recess.

The Secretary of State is aware that energy supplies were very tight last winter and are likely to be even tighter over the next couple of years. What is he doing to ensure that the lights stay on next winter?

The right hon. Gentleman is right: energy supplies were tight last winter, and they are likely to be tight again this winter. We expect a pipeline bringing gas from Norway to come online, and that will help, as will an expansion of the capacity to bring gas across from Belgium. We will also have the Rough storage facility back, but there is no doubt that we will have to take various steps over the next few months to ensure that we can get through the coming winter. That is all the more reason why we should take realistic action to ensure that we safeguard the security of our energy supplies, this winter and in the years to come.

We urgently need investment in new generating capacity, but the single most important issue that the review must resolve is the development of a long-term mechanism for the pricing allocation of carbon. The current emissions trading scheme is welcome, but it does not give investors the confidence that they need to make very large investments. How confident is the Secretary of State that it will be possible to negotiate a mechanism that will apply for, say, 20 years? If that cannot be done internationally, what freedom of manoeuvre does he have domestically to develop a system that will bring forward that investment?

Again, the hon. Gentleman is right. The industry must have certainty, as many investment decisions will have to be taken over the next few years and the price of carbon will be one of the elements determining those decisions. As the House would expect, the Government have been actively engaged with our European partners. I attended a meeting in Brussels on Friday, at which we discussed the ETS and emphasised the need to fix a carbon price over a long period. That is very important, as the industry needs that certainty before it takes the decisions that we need it to take in respect of the provision of power supply in the future.

In all the discussions about the energy review, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will not get bogged down in the nuclear debate? The oil and gas industry still has a long-term future: Cogent, the sector skills council, has an oil and gas training arm called OPITO that is encouraging young people to go into the industry to fill existing skills shortages and gaps. It is seeking to convince them that the industry has a future and that they will still have jobs in 20, 30 or 40 years.

My hon. Friend is right that nuclear is only one element of our energy supply. It makes up 19 per cent. of our provision, and we need to consider the totality. I have said on many occasions—and I repeated the point when I was last in Aberdeen—that a lot of oil and gas remains in the North sea and that there is a lot of work there. The industry employs many people, and provides many highly skilled and good jobs. I certainly agree that we ought to be encouraging people, in the north-east of Scotland and across the whole country, to consider a career in the oil and gas industry. It has a very good future, and it is an industry that we want to encourage.

Obviously, one part of the energy review will consider measures to reduce demand. In an important speech earlier this week, my right hon. Friend floated the idea of changing the role of electricity producers to suppliers of total services. How quickly might that happen, and what impact will it have on reducing demand?

My hon. Friend is right that we must reduce the demand for energy. A central question in the energy review is how we as a nation can reduce the amount of energy that we consume, and a successful resolution of that question could mean that we would not need as many new power stations as might otherwise be the case. Earlier this week, I set out my belief that we need to consider how we can incentivise energy supply companies to deliver ways in which demand might be reduced—such as through the use of insulation, smart metering or other technology, for example. That approach is radically different from the way in which companies at present are incentivised to sell as much heat and light as they can, albeit in a way that causes prices to be driven down. The process will therefore take some time, but the industry is willing to discuss it and it will be a central part of the review when we report in a few weeks.

In his reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), the Secretary of State talked about gas distribution but failed to cover the price rises that were the real problem for people last winter. To a large extent, those rises were caused by the continued absence of the common gas market that Britain was supposed to pursue during our EU presidency. Will the right hon. Gentleman indicate whether we are going to go down that road, and whether it will be included in the energy review?

The right hon. Member for Bracknell asked me about distribution, which is why I answered the question as I did. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) is right that there is considerable concern about recent price rises. During the course of our presidency, we asked the Competition Commissioner to do everything possible to ensure a far more open and transparent market. The hon. Gentleman will doubtless have seen that over the past few weeks the Competition Commissioner has served notice that she will enforce the current rules and regulations. Recently, there have been raids on some electricity companies in different parts of Europe and I hope that, right across Europe, people are getting the message that if we believe in a genuine open market, everyone has to play by the rules so that we can see exactly what the prices are and exactly how much gas there is. That is essential if we are to bring down prices and we fully support everything that the Competition Commissioner is doing.

Will the energy review have anything to say about providing more information to energy consumers? If we buy a tin of beans and can see how many calories are in it and every other food product has similar labelling, why cannot we see from our fuel bills how much CO2 we are emitting as a result of our consumption?

I agree that we should provide far more information on our fuel bills—not just about how much CO2 is emitted. It would also be useful to make comparisons so that consumers can see how much electricity or gas they consumed this quarter as opposed to the previous quarter. Smart metering would mean that people could see exactly how much electricity they were consuming and how much they were paying for it at any time. A range of measures can be adopted to help reduce the demand for energy, which has to be a good thing.

Only last week, I visited three intensive gas users in Yorkshire and found that the price that they have to pay for their gas is far higher than they would pay for the same gas in France or Germany. The punitive and unfair premium on their costs is destroying some UK companies and is undermining UK competitiveness. Further to what my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) asked a few moments ago, when does the Secretary of State believe that the EU will have resolved its illiberal and selfish practices, which are currently protecting its own companies and severely disadvantaging ours?

As I said to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) a few moments ago, the Competition Commissioner is taking action. One problem is that, historically, companies in this country have bought electricity on a short-term basis whereas many of our European competitors have entered into long-term contracts. As I have said, it is important that markets operate openly, and part of the reason the price is so high is the uncertainty in the market, which needs to be resolved as quickly as possible.

One of the main ways of resolving the exposure that intensive gas users face is to see just such an increase in long-term pricing contracts, but Ministers have been foolish enough in the past to recommend that companies forsake such contracts and buy on the spot market instead, which is rather like the Chancellor selling our gold. What prospect does the Secretary of State see for the creation of new and better contracts that can alleviate the volatility that industrial users of gas face in Britain today?

It is not for the Government to tell energy consumers how they should conduct their business; it is for companies to use their own business judgment. It might be useful to remind the House, if hon. Members are not already aware of it, that we set up a joint forum between Government and business to discuss some of these issues, but the main thing is to ensure that the energy market actually works.

We heard on the radio this morning that there are large supplies of North sea oil and gas, and large supplies of coal sweeping out to the North sea and eastern England and large supplies in Scotland and Wales. The key to ensuring that we have more coal as part of the energy review is not to rely on foreign sources, but to ensure that we keep the continuity of the mining industry. That is vital if we are to exploit the reserves that still remain.

My hon. Friend is right that coal is a very important part of the energy mix in this country at the moment. Coal provides a significant degree of our security and supply. I can assure my hon. Friend that coal will be one of many aspects that will be covered in the energy review.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Chancellor’s latest estimate of the cost of nuclear decommissioning is about £90 billion—almost double the Government’s estimate fewer than 12 months ago? When he announces whether the Government are to opt for nuclear power, how confident is he that estimates of future decommissioning will be accurate in any shape or form?

We must do our best to ensure that whatever estimates we have are as accurate as possible. Of course, we have the question of waste to deal with now, no matter what we decide in relation to the future. That is something on which we will get the advice of the energy review that is due to report in the summer. The hon. Gentleman is right: nuclear waste is one aspect that needs to be looked at. Nuclear has provided us with a base load supply of electricity. It represents about 19 per cent. of electricity generation at the moment. If we do not do anything, that will go down to 6 or 7 per cent. in the next 20 years or so, so it needs to be considered. We cannot simply turn our back on it, as I think—I may be wrong on this—the Liberal Democrats believe we should.

In theory, open markets are meant to reduce prices, but according to the Heren report—the international report on electricity prices for the steel industry—the price for the UK steel industry is £52.58 per megawatt hour for this year compared with €52.70 for the same megawatt hour for the same period in Germany. In other words, British steel makers have to pay the same price in pounds as their German competitors pay in euros. Will the Secretary of State write to me so that I can pass his letter to steel makers in Rotherham and explain why British electricity for industry is so expensive?

I will certainly write to my right hon. Friend. For the past eight or nine years, British industry has benefited from lower electricity prices. In the past year or so, prices have gone up dramatically for the reasons that we have discussed in the past five or 10 minutes. There is no doubt that some of the uncertainty generated by the lack of transparency in European markets has added an extra element to that price. We will continue the work that we started last year, and additional capacity should be available to us. We will continue to support the European Commissioner in her efforts to achieve a more open and transparent market. All those things will help.

The other thing that we have to get right is the long-term solution. There are no easy solutions, but I hope that when we report to the House in July, we will have a constructive engagement with all parties in the House to achieve a long-term solution to this problem.

Ministerial Meetings

I am in regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on a range of issues. UK trade with major developing nations is an important way to lift millions out of poverty.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. As he knows, in this year’s Budget speech the Chancellor announced plans for expanding trade with major developing countries and specifically to set new targets for expanding trade with countries such as China and India. When are those targets likely to appear, and who is responsible for setting them? As he knows, there is significant concern in the export community that the UK has not been capturing anything like a large enough share of the huge increase in international trade that countries such as India have seen in recent years.

The targets will be announced in due course. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. We need to do more to encourage trade between British companies and China and India and Chinese and Indian companies trading here. We should not overlook the fact that there has been considerable success in the past, but we need to do a lot more. They are important markets to this country, and we want to do everything we can to encourage that trade. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor put in place various ways in which we can encourage that trade and explore things that we can perhaps do better than we have done in the past.

I recently took part in discussions through the parliamentary network of the Royal Bank of Scotland with parliamentarians from both the Asian subcontinent and Africa. They expressed their anger and frustration at the EU position in the current World Trade Organisation negotiations on agriculture. Given the Chancellor’s warnings yesterday about the dangers of protectionism, does my right hon. Friend agree that if it is right to liberalise agriculture markets, we should not make it conditional on concessions from developing countries at the WTO talks?

As my hon. Friend is aware, we believe that we need radically to reform the system of agriculture support in Europe. However, negotiations are taking place at the moment and they have to conclude, to be realistic, by the end of July. It is clear that there are three main problems: the perception of the EU offer; support for United States agriculture; and access to manufactured goods and other services in countries such as Brazil and India. Movement will be required from everyone if we are to reach an agreement. The prize of getting that agreement in the current round is extremely great and we want to encourage it, but if negotiation is to work all parties must show sufficient flexibility, and they need to do it soon.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the trade deficit with China has increased by more than 500 per cent. since 1997 and stands at a staggering almost £10 billion. When I asked how many trade deals the Prime Minister had signed in the last eight years, the reply was:

“The European Commission has competence for EU trade policy and conducts all trade negotiations on behalf of…EU member states.”—[Official Report, 15 May 2006; Vol. 446, c689W.]

So when did the Secretary of State last meet his friend Commissioner Mandelson? What was the outcome of those discussions, and what will he do about this disastrous and deteriorating situation?

As I said a few moments ago, we want to increase our trade with China. We are well aware of the situation and will do everything that we can. We also want to encourage the Commission to do what it can to increase trade and I am confident that the position will improve in years to come.

Company Directors' Responsibilities

5. What steps he expects company directors to take to ensure they have sufficient regard to the interests of employees and the impact of the company's operations on the community and the environment. (75722)

The Company Law Reform Bill, which we debated two days ago, will ensure that company directors must have regard to the effect of their company’s operations on the community and the environment in promoting the success of the company for the benefit of its members.

I am genuinely seeking guidance. Clause 158 of the Bill states that directors have a duty

“to promote the success of the company for the benefit of the members”,

but that in doing so they should have regard to other matters. How far should the company have such regard when there could be conflict for shareholders? For example, Tesco, South Africa, Shell—

The hon. Lady makes a good case to be a member of the Committee that will scrutinise the Bill’s 950 clauses. The Minister for Industry and the Regions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), is in Europe today, sadly—[Hon. Members: “Sadly?”] Well, I think she is happy to be in Europe, but sadly she is not in the Chamber. However, she will be keen to engage with the hon. Lady on her question. We discussed the matter at length a couple of days ago when we said that we believe it important that company directors should have regard to a variety of things, including environmental and social concerns, but at the end of the day they have to use their best judgment to come to a view about what is best for their company. Their loyalty has to be to the company and its members; it cannot be divided, as I said the other day.

Most people, including, I think, our party, welcome what we have done. I am sorry that the Conservatives are already showing signs of trying to undermine that. Despite what they say, the amendments they are tabling appear to be removing that environmental commitment.

Does the Secretary of State agree that principles such as those of fair trade and sustainable development can best be pursued in a spirit of partnership, making use of the principles of enlightened shareholder value set out in the legislation? Will my right hon. Friend encourage campaigners, whether on environmental or trade issues, to take advantage of that opportunity and be part of the consensus, which is good for business, good for the environment and good for people?

I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend. As I said on Tuesday, the Government have struck a sensible balance, making clear what directors are supposed to do. Members would do well to remember that in another place many people opposed the Bill and would dearly like us to return it in a way that would allow them to get back into it. It is obvious that no matter what the Conservative leader says about the environment, his Front-Bench Trade and Industry team are tabling amendments to remove the environmental commitment—[Interruption.] One can go only on the amendments that have been tabled so far. Perhaps there will be another change of heart, so I look forward to hearing the Conservatives’ renewed commitment if that is the case.

UK Trade (India)

Bilateral trade and investment with India continues to grow. In 2005 exports to India rose by just over 25 per cent., making the UK the second biggest exporter to India in the European Union. The UK remains the preferred investment location for Indian headquarter operations in Europe.

May I praise the Government for making a tremendous effort to try to strengthen our relationship with India as India emerges as a world power? [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] What progress has been made since the last joint declaration between India and ourselves in 2004, which was signed by our Prime Minister and the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, regarding trade issues?

It is obviously clear that the whole House agrees with my hon. Friend’s kind words about the Government’s record. His supplementary question was about developments since the joint prime ministerial meeting. That meeting reinforced or began initiatives, such as the second conference in January this year of the joint economic and trade committee. The United Kingdom trade and investment group has the second largest staff complement in India, compared with other countries around the world, with 72 staff and a £9 million commitment. There is an inward investment summit due in London this year in the autumn—again for both Prime Ministers.

Is the Minister aware that the area with probably the highest positive trade balance with India is the British higher education sector, which now faces increasing competition from other countries that would like to attract Indian students? What further measures does he think we should take to get more young people from India to study in the United Kingdom in the hope that one day, when they set up their own successful businesses, they might want to trade with the United Kingdom?

The hon. Lady makes a fair point. The Government committed £10 million extra to bursaries as a result of the prime ministerial meetings to which my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) referred a moment ago. As well as a variety of other measures, a high-level trade group was set up to look at where we can further develop relations with India and the Indian Government, including in education. I look forward to progress, as she obviously does.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware that one of the biggest exports to India is scrap metal, which I do not think should count. We ought to be seeing more manufactured goods. What can he do to ensure not only that British companies have a bigger presence in India, but that there is a good open market for finished British products?

I hear what my hon. Friend says. Clearly, we are committed to developing trade and economic contact with India. I know that the Trade and Industry Committee initiated its own inquiry in November last year and it is due to report next week. We are looking forward to that report and its recommendations, because obviously it will give us some directions on how the Committee thinks we should make further progress.

Manufacturing Industry

7. What assessment he has made of the impact of venture capital firms on employment in UK manufacturing industry. (75724)

Modern manufacturing is critically dependent on investment for successful performance, growth and employment generation. Venture capital plays a key role in providing that investment.

I thank the Minister for that response, but does he realise that venture capital firms are closing genuinely profitably factories in this country, such as the Chewits factory in my constituency, simply to relocate production to eastern Europe and maximise their returns? Does the Minister regard that as undesirable, or inevitable, or as representing a clash of interests between the manufacturing industry and the City?

I am aware of the sad news about Chewits, which could lead to the loss of 130 jobs in September. I am happy to discuss that matter, in terms of advice to those workers, with the hon. Gentleman if that would be helpful. However, the good news is that Southport has a buoyant labour market. Its claimant unemployment rate was just 1.9 per cent in April. That is well below the national average and the national average is historically low. However, as I said, I offer to discuss these particular matters with him.

May I caution my hon. Friend against putting too many of his eggs in the venture capitalist basket? He and his Department should continue to support manufacturing in the heartlands such as my area in the west midlands. All hon. Members will be aware of the difficulties that we have had with Rover and Peugeot. Will he tell me what steps the Government are taking to change the mood music on manufacturing? Manufacturing has not been as high on the Government’s list of priorities as it should have been in the last few years. It is now starting to come up. Will he tell me what further steps might be taken, such as a manufacturing summit, to show that the Government care and wish to increase investment?

Of course we are aware that there has been a long-term decline in manufacturing industry throughout much of the European Union, yet manufacturing remains a vital part of the British economy and, in many respects, is still buoyant. Indeed, I note that for the three months ending in April 2006, there were more than 50,000 unfilled vacancies in manufacturing industry. My hon. Friend is right to say that, as well as the further development of the service sector, manufacturing is vital to the economy.

Can the Minister tell us which regions of the United Kingdom have had the largest number of job losses in the manufacturing sector?

Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that information, but it is detailed, so I will not attempt to do so off the top of my head. I will be happy to write to him. Obviously, the overall picture is of the move back to full employment, with 2 million more jobs created since the spring of 1997—I pick out 1997 almost at random—but that nevertheless hides regional variations. I will be happy to supply the information, which is published, to the hon. Gentleman.

May I warmly support the views expressed by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris)? While venture capital firms can play a valuable part in the provision of investment for manufacturing, they too often dilute the ownership of a firm. The cost of venture capital is too high, because manufacturing industry needs long-term investment. What can the Government do to encourage long-term investment in manufacturing, which is the only way in which we will guarantee a manufacturing base in this country in the long term?

The best way is with the healthy and buoyant macro-economic environment that the Government and the Chancellor have provided, with low interest rates and inflation. Surely providing that is the role of the Government and the best thing that they can do, rather than making too many interventions and over-regulating. We are committed to manufacturing industry, which is a buoyant part of the British economy. Venture capital has a role to play, but that role is relatively small when put alongside other forms of investment. We share the view that is being expressed in the House about the importance of manufacturing industry. Our judgment is that the best way to stimulate and encourage the industry is through prudent—to coin a word—macro-economic management.

Postal Services

The Government are committed to supporting the rural post office network, as I briefly explained a few moments ago. That includes support for branches in Northamptonshire, with annual social network payments of £150 million for the next two years. The Government will set out future proposals for the network in due course and after consultation.

Following the Government’s savage assault on the sub-post office network in urban centres, is it not the case that, in the next five years, every rural sub-post office in Northamptonshire will face the threat of closure due to the end of the Government’s support mechanism for rural post offices and the abolition of the Post Office card account?

The Government invested £210 million in the urban reinvention programme to do all that they could to ensure that a sustainable post office network was maintained in the cities. We will do all that we can to do the same for rural areas. I cited earlier some of the figures that make life commercially difficult for the Post Office. However, we spent £500 million on the Horizon project, which modernised computer systems for all post offices so that new products could be provided. The Post Office is now the UK’s No. 1 provider of foreign exchange and the largest individual provider of travel insurance. It launched its new instant saver account in March 2006. The Post Office is doing all that it can to ensure that it provides business as well as possible.

Why has the policy failed so horribly in Northamptonshire, and especially in Rushden, where Avenue road, Bedford road, London road and Newton road post offices, which served the main town of Rushden, have closed? Clearly the Government’s policy has failed.

We do not believe that we have failed in our policy. The target for the urban network was to make sure that 95 per cent. of people were within a mile of a post office, but the figure is actually 99 per cent. We will look at the rural network in due course. The hon. Gentleman knows that, because of changing habits, the rural network is losing £3 million a week. We cannot force people to use rural post offices, but we will do all that we can to make sure that we maintain a sustainable network.

The Minister says that the customers have walked away. The Government forced them away. They made it very difficult for people to get card accounts, but now that people have finally struggled over all the hurdles to get one, the Government are moving the goalposts and taking the accounts away. The Government are playing their part in taking business away from rural post offices.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I said in a response to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) that the Government are doing what we can and will look to maintain the most sustainable network possible. The Department for Work and Pensions is in discussions with the Post Office about the future of the card account, which is due to close in 2010. I mentioned the £500 million Horizon project. We also have a £150 million subsidy for the next two years. The Government are clearly committed to doing what we can to maintain a sustainable post office network.

Corporate Social Responsibility

9. What steps his Department is taking to promote and implement the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development guidelines for multinational enterprises as part of the Government’s corporate social responsibility policy. (75726)

The UK national contact point—terrible jargon which refers to an individual official in the Department of Trade and Industry—works with business and non-governmental organisations to raise awareness of the OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises and to promote their use by companies in developing their own codes of conduct. The Government will shortly publish their response to a stakeholder consultation on possible improvements to the national contact point’s promotion and implementation of the guidelines.

The Minister for Industry and the Regions, who replied to Tuesday’s debate on company law reform, referred specifically to the guidelines as an important means of addressing concerns about international corporate social responsibility. What steps will the Government be taking to ensure that the guidelines are given teeth, both at the UK level and, perhaps more importantly, at a European and wider international level?

As I said, we will shortly publish our response. We gave more time for the consultation because the working group established under the aegis of the all-party group asked us for more time to submit further comments. I am not sure that we have received them yet. We are anxious to tackle these issues and to publish our response as soon as we can.

Has the Minister seen the excellent corporate social responsibility report of Tesco, showing how these guidelines are being applied to cut the carbon imprint, improve energy efficiency and undertake socially responsible actions with employees and in purchasing? When will his Department catch up with the best practice of companies such as Tesco, which seem to me to be streets ahead of many Departments?

It is true that, although carbon dioxide emissions from some sectors, including the energy sector and intensive energy users, are reducing, they are still increasing in the service sector, whether that is the superstore or the governmental system. When I visited the excellent Tesco branch in Thornton Heath, I was impressed that one staff official had responsibility for energy efficiency. That is a practice that we should adopt. Should Government do more? Yes, we should, and we are looking at that in the energy review.

The Conservative party welcomes the OECD guidelines and, on the basis that corporate social responsibility should be set in the context of wider corporate governance, we also welcome the lead that the OECD has given with its continental corporate governance panels. But the question remains: why do the Government give so little time to promoting corporate social responsibility, particularly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) pointed out, given the excellent, world-beating corporate responsibility practices that we find in so many British companies?

There will be joy in the heart of the OECD that the Conservatives support its work. That is welcome. I reject the notion that the Government do not pay due regard to corporate social responsibility. We pursue essentially a voluntary approach. We recognise that corporate social responsibility has many dimensions. There are the international ones that we are examining now. There are also the charitable efforts of many companies and how they treat customers and their employees. This is an issue to which we are committed as a Government.

Nuclear Decommissioning

10. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the restructuring of the UK Atomic Energy Authority on the safety of nuclear decommissioning; and if he will make a statement. (75727)

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency interest in this matter. UKAEA needs to restructure to enable the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to carry out its remit, under the Energy Act 2004, to complete the decommissioning of the sites for which it is responsible. We recognise that any changes on a nuclear site have the potential to affect safety and, for that reason, they are subject to scrutiny by the safety and environmental regulators. With that scrutiny, we are confident that the authority and the NDA will manage the forthcoming change in a way that will not adversely affect safety, and that the restructuring of the authority will not impact on its high standards of safety.

I have no problem in principle with the restructuring, but can the Minister help me with an inquiry that has been raised anonymously with me by a constituent, who makes the point that up to 300 senior managers will be part of the restructuring, and if the restructuring happens in that way and if the UKAEA does not win a contract, those senior managers will be removed from the site, which will compromise safety? My constituent contrasted that with the restructuring of the Atomic Weapons Establishment, which apparently involved only 40 or 50 senior managers. Is the Minister aware of that concern, and would he like to comment on it?

I was not aware of that. I do not receive the anonymous letters that the hon. Gentleman gets. I will examine the matter. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me and includes his signature so that I know from whom the letter is coming, I will take the matter up seriously with the authority, with which I have regular meetings. There is important work to be done, not least in nuclear decommissioning. While the process is resource-intensive, it needs to be as cost-effective as possible.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the key to safe decommissioning of nuclear plants is the supply of the specially trained staff who are necessary? Does he recognise that there is a shortage of such staff and will he therefore welcome the emergence of the Dalton institute at Manchester university?

I not only welcome it, but I had the privilege of visiting Manchester university only a few weeks ago. It is clearly a centre of excellence when it comes to nuclear energy and other aspects of energy. We discussed renewables there as well. It is a centre of excellence not only across the United Kingdom but internationally. It is a resource that we value and cherish.

Government Assistance (York)

The Government, through the Learning and Skills Council and the regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, together with additional European funding and resources from the city of York council, have helped to provide just over £3 million to the city of York for investment. A further £2.63 million of Government funding has been allocated through Yorkshire Forward from its “Northern Way” project to support the development of York as a science city.

The growth of science has turned round the York economy. When the Conservatives were in power, unemployment in York was twice the national average. It is now well below the national average. York is not only a science city for the local community, but a science leader throughout Yorkshire and the Humber and, indeed, the north of England. Will the Government’s commitment to York and funding for science in York be a long-term commitment?

My hon. Friend clearly outlines the success of science city York since 1998 and the ability of the city council and the university of York, with the private sector, to harness the world-class potential of business clusters in bioscience, health care, IT and digital creative industries. It is a model that the Government want to support. Three science cities were mentioned in the 2004 pre-Budget report and the 2005 Budget mentioned three more. I am sure that regional development agencies, as a result of the comprehensive spending review in 2007, will be looking to see what the Government intend to do then.

While we all applaud York science city and the contribution that it has made to the local economy in North Yorkshire, does the Minister share my concern about the erosion of the green belt as the science city and York university intrude ever further into the remaining green belt in York?

The protection of the green belt against the development of the university and York science city is something that the regional development agency, the city council and the authorities take very seriously. Those decisions are not taken lightly, and I am sure that everything has been done to protect the green belt. The Government’s record on green belt protection since 1997 is exemplary.

Summer Time

13. What recent representations he has received (a) in support of and (b) against the adoption of single/double summer time. (75730)

In the past 12 months, the Department has received 73 representations on the question of adopting single or double summer time throughout the year. The representations reflect the strong divergence of opinion on the issue, which suggests that the present situation is a satisfactory compromise between those who prefer lighter mornings and those who prefer lighter evenings.

Do those representations disclose the fact that lighter evenings would cut deaths on roads, reduce industrial accidents and provide a massive boost for the tourism industry in the United Kingdom? If the Department cannot bring itself to agree to change the clocks permanently, will it look at the trial in the 1960s and Lord Tanlaw’s Bill in the House of Lords, which I have taken up in the Commons?

I recognise my hon. Friend’s strong support for that change. I heard what he said about road traffic accident statistics, but I must point out that there has been a significant reduction since 1998 in such accidents in the UK. The experiment on British standard time between 1968 and 1971 was adopted to test public support, but after a vote in Parliament the experiment was abandoned. A 1989 Green Paper floated the issue, but it was not pursued, and a debate in 1996 on a private Member’s Bill failed to secure significant support, so I do not think that the issue is making progress.

Women and equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Gender Equality

19. What policies to reduce gender inequality in the workplace the Government will promote at the Council of Europe’s ministerial conference on gender equality. (75710)

My hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality will attend the conference later today, and will promote our implementation of the women and work commission’s recommendations tackling job segregation and the gender pay gap, as well as the measures that we have taken to deliver a better work-life balance.

I welcome that answer and I welcome my right hon. Friend to her new post. She will be aware that a substantial number of women in my constituency of Denton and Reddish balance family life with part-time jobs, but they are often low-paid, low-skilled jobs, with many women working far below their skill level. What have the Government done to promote greater opportunities for women to undertake quality part-time jobs? The problem makes a significant contribution to the pay gap and is a waste of skills.

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. He is right to draw attention to the issue. Indeed, the facts show that women who work part-time earn almost a third less than women who work full-time, which is largely because, on their return to work after looking after children or elderly relatives, they are forced to choose lower-paid occupations in which their skills are not properly utilised. The Government, through, for example, the right to request flexible working and the provision of child care places, have made a huge contribution to turning that around. It is something that was taken up by the women and work commission, which has made practical proposals to which we will respond in the next few months.

Will the Minister give any special coaching or hands-on mentoring to her right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) about inequality and diversity in the workplace?

Human Trafficking

20. What recent discussions she has had with other EU Governments on alerting girls and women to the dangers of trafficking. (75711)

During our EU presidency last year, the UK initiated the development of an EU action plan on human trafficking, which was adopted in December 2005. The action plan addresses the areas of prevention, investigation and prosecution of trafficking offences, as well as provision of support and care for victims.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as many of those young girls and women end up in prostitution in all parts of the United Kingdom, as well as in other parts of the European Union, we need to do much more to inform the men who use those services of the horrendous conditions that those women suffer and the state of virtual slavery under which they are held, very often with criminal force by criminal gangs? We must make sure that men are aware that, when they use those services, they are helping to perpetuate criminal gangs and slavery throughout Europe.

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She rightly highlights the fact that, wherever there is prostitution, there is also human trafficking. If there were no demand, women would not be trafficked into the United Kingdom. The inter-ministerial group that looks into prostitution and human trafficking takes the issue extremely seriously and we will be taking forward more initiatives. I welcome my hon. Friend raising the subject and hope that other hon. Members will take the opportunity to make people in their constituencies aware of what is happening in that regard.

Given that the Minister says that the Government are keen to remedy the dreadful problem of human trafficking, can she explain why they have not signed the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her responsibilities on these matters. The Government agree with all the aims of the convention. The reason that we have not signed is that we have concerns about automatic reflection periods, which are the subject of the next question. We are concerned that they might act as further pull factors in relation to asylum and immigration. However, we have held a consultation on a UK action plan and, as part of the response to that, the matter is under active consideration.

May I praise the outstanding work being done by Home Office staff, especially at Gatwick and Heathrow, with trafficked children and women? Having interviewed quite a number of trafficked children myself, may I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that there are proper protocols in place in social services and education departments and schools throughout the country, so that trafficked children can be identified, dealt with appropriately and provided with the right support?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and praise her for her work in that regard. She raises enormously important issues. We are becoming aware of even greater numbers of children being trafficked than we had previously known about. There are multi-agency protocols in place to deal with the matter, but I will take it back to the inter-ministerial working group to ensure that we do that even more effectively.

Human Trafficking

21. What assessment she has made of the merits of granting automatic reflection periods and residence permits to victims of trafficking. (75712)

The UK currently assesses cases on individual needs. However, in our response to the recent consultation paper on a proposed UK action plan on human trafficking, we will be further considering the merits of granting automatic reflection periods and residence permits.

My hon. Friend is aware that the Human Rights Committee is investigating the trafficking into the UK of women and girls for domestic and sexual exploitation. These women suffer multiple rapes over long periods of time and should be treated as victims rather than criminals by the authorities. Many of them exhibit the physical and psychological characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder. Can my hon. Friend use her influence to ensure that a reflection period is granted to those women so that they are protected by the laws of this country and can help to bring to justice the criminal gangs that bring them here?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and welcome the inquiry that the Joint Committee on Human Rights is conducting into this important matter. I reassure her that we do grant periods of reflection and that every help and support is offered to the women, both to help them deal with their experiences and to bring the criminals to justice.

In Northamptonshire, we have a serious problem with sex slaves. The one thing that the police would like the Government to do is to grant automatic reflection periods, as that is their biggest problem. I urge the Minister to be bold and to sign the Council of Europe convention.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his continued interest in this important matter, which we are considering in relation to the consultation that we had on the UK action plan. However, there are competing issues. I am interested to hear that his local police are raising reflection periods as a problem, because they are granted—it is just that they are not automatic. I will be happy to have further discussions with him outside the Chamber.

Home Working

The Government encourage all types of flexible working by providing guidance, promoting the benefits, and sharing best practice. Employers are already required to consider seriously requests to work flexibly, including home working for mothers of young children.

I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on her new position.

This week, I spoke to women entrepreneurs at the Hull business expo. Does my right hon. Friend agree that encouraging more women to take up businesses for themselves would allow them maximum flexibility in the place where they choose to work—from home or from an office?

I do. That is an option that should be seriously encouraged when women are looking for opportunities in wanting to go back to work having spent some time at home. If we could encourage women entrepreneurs so that the rate of female entrepreneurship increases to that of male entrepreneurship, there would be 500,000 new businesses, which would make a major contribution to economic growth and productivity.

I welcome the Minister to her new post. I am confident that she will show commitment to every aspect of the equality agenda. I am pleased by what she says about encouraging home working, which is an important part of flexibility in employment. However, does she agree that, in discussing these matters, we must consider not only women with small children but women with wider caring responsibilities for elderly, disabled or ill people, as well as—we are talking about equality here—men with family and caring responsibilities?

I agree with the hon. Lady and thank her for her kind words. She knows of my commitment to this agenda; I am certainly committed to all aspects of it. I draw her attention to the fact that, since we brought in the right to request flexible working in 2002, the number of fathers taking up that right has increased threefold. She is right that we have to extend that in stages to a greater range of the population. That has been considered during the passage of the Work and Families Bill, which is progressing through its stages in this House. From 2007, the right will extend to carers—a good next step that will be widely welcomed up and down the country.