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Topical Questions

Volume 470: debated on Thursday 17 January 2008

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
(Mr. John Hutton)

The purpose of my Department is to help to ensure UK business success in an increasingly competitive world. We promote business growth and a strong enterprise economy, lead the better regulation agenda and champion free and fair markets. We are the shareholder in a number of Government-owned assets, such as Royal Mail Group, and we work to secure clean and competitively priced energy supplies.

It is now 100 days since the Government announced changes to capital taxation for business and individuals—plans described yesterday by the president of the CBI as being in “complete confusion”. We now have only 54 working days until the 5 April tax deadline. Yesterday, the Government were accused by a respected trade association of creating the conditions for a false market in stocks because of their indecision. When will Ministers stop dithering, accept that this shambles is damaging British business and make a decision at long last?

Order. Before we go any further this morning, I expect topical questions to be punchy; they should not have so many words in them.

The hon. Gentleman will know that tax matters are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor who, along with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, myself and other Ministers, has been listening to the concerns articulated by business. He will bring forward his proposals shortly, but it is not right for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the fundamentals of the British economy do not remain strong. They certainly do.

T2. The Secretary of State is well aware that Britain’s power-generating capacity is ageing. Many people will welcome the decision to replace the nuclear power stations, but many other power stations also need upgrading. Is he as dismayed as I am to hear that the Government are looking at imposing a windfall tax on power companies? Will he argue against that, and point out to the Treasury that it will do nothing but deprive the energy-generating sector of much-needed investment? Will he tell the Treasury to back off? (179512)

With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that he needs to do his homework a little more thoroughly. The Government have made no such proposals.

T3. May I stress to Ministers that huge increases in energy bills at the coldest time of the year have left my constituents worrying whether they can afford to keep themselves warm? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that he has ruled out legislation on social tariffs but, given the sudden and surprising double-digit increase in energy costs and the latest Energywatch research into inconsistent and inadequate social tariffs, will he not reconsider setting some sort of minimum standards to protect the most vulnerable citizens? (179513)

With great respect to my hon. Friend, I made the Government’s position clear a little earlier, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping). We have not ruled out the action that he has described, but we have not brought forward proposals at this time because the energy companies are working hard to address the concerns that my hon. Friend and others have raised. My basic sense is that we should work with the energy companies to reach a voluntary agreement about the best way forward. However, if we do not achieve that, and if proper and adequate measures are not put in place, we have not ruled out introducing further legislation at some point.

T4. On 20 November, the Post Office announced which sub-post offices in Northamptonshire would be closed. The consultation period closed on 10 January. Is it not a sham to hold a consultation over Christmas and the new year? Do the Government not feel embarrassed about that? (179514)

No, we do not. There is no easy way to undertake the process. The consultation schedule was set out last July, and the hon. Gentleman would have been informed about it. The overall process takes significantly longer than six weeks, as prior consultation is held with the relevant sub-postmasters. Post Office Ltd does its best to take all relevant factors into account in what is a difficult, and often locally unpopular, process.

T5. May I ask the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers to continue joining up the Department’s efforts in respect of manufacturing? The skills agenda from the Department for Children, Schools and Families is to be welcomed, and neighbourhood renewal funding is being changed to workless neighbourhood funding. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister for Competitiveness ensure that the new approach ties in tightly with the aim of the manufacturing sector so that people who have been reskilled have manufacturing jobs to go to? (179515)

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Manufacturing is a very important part of the UK economy, and it is changing into a high-value, technology-driven sector. New investment has been put in, and the manufacturing strategy has done a good job for us over the past five years. We need to make sure that it continues to do so and to provide manufacturing jobs in constituencies such as his. I am confident that the strategy, and the funding to which he referred, will continue to deliver for our constituents.

Petrol prices have now hit £5 a gallon. When the current round of 2,500 post office closures is complete, how much extra in transport costs do Ministers estimate that vulnerable people, people in rural communities and businesses will have to pay as they travel to their increasingly distant and remote post offices?

Even after the closure programme is over, the post office network will still be by far the largest retail network in the country—bigger than all the banks put together, and more than three times the size of all the major supermarket chains put together. It will have an unequalled footprint across the country in both urban and rural areas.

T6. I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I listened to and read carefully yesterday’s Adjournment debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster). I am pleased to hear that there is an opportunity for local authorities and third parties to consider saving some post offices, but does the Minister accept that six weeks is not long enough? Under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, we need to explore how to get community involvement. May I meet him to offer some proposals on sensible and rational ways to save that wonderful network? (179516)

I understand what my hon. Friend says about the length of the consultation process. We have received representations about that. We are, however, mindful of the uncertainty that has been hanging over the network for some time. From beginning to end, the whole process will take some 15 months. On his question whether I will meet him, I will of course be happy to meet him and to listen to any proposals that he makes.

T7. The Essex branch of the Federation of Small Businesses, which also serves the London borough of Havering, reports a nine-month delay in the issuing of VAT registration numbers, and I have a constituency case in which a local business man waited 11 months. What hope can the Minister offer that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will ever reach its published target of two weeks? (179517)

As the hon. Lady will be aware, that is a matter for my right hon. Friends in the Treasury, but I accept that those are genuine and proper concerns and I shall ensure that they are addressed to the appropriate Minister.

T8. As the title of the Secretary of State’s Department now includes regulatory reform, is he not somewhat embarrassed that in a four-year period only 27 deregulations took place, whereas at the same time the British Chambers of Commerce identified 600 new regulations? (179518)

I think the right hon. Gentleman is referring to regulatory reform orders, which are only one part of our approach to regulatory reform. If he looks in detail at the further plans that were published before Christmas—I am happy to send that very large volume to him—he will see examples of further measures that we are taking across the whole of government to reduce the administrative costs of red tape and bureaucracy. In that respect, we are beginning to make significant and promising progress.

In his statement last week on energy, my right hon. Friend said:

“the Government will need to be satisfied that effective arrangements exist, or will exist, to manage and dispose of the waste”.—[Official Report, 10 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 519.]

I can understand how a Government can be assured that effective arrangements do exist, but it is hard to see how they could be sure that a future Government can be satisfied that, at some indefinite stage in future, such arrangements will exist. Will he comment on that?

I think my hon. Friend is referring to a section of my statement that dealt with the subsequent granting of planning permission for new nuclear plant, should any proposals be made. My remarks were framed in the context of the time scale, particularly in relation to long-term geological disposal. As he will know, because he studies these matters carefully, there is now, I think, no dispute about the arrangements for disposal: interim storage coupled with long-term disposal is the right way forward. In that context, I hope that he will reflect further on my remarks and understand the point that I was trying to make.

T9. The Hawthorn road post office in Kettering is a busy, popular and profitable local branch, which is earmarked for closure. Will the Minister urge Post Office Ltd to reconsider its closure decision? Will he also persuade the Post Office to open up the branch’s accounts and share the information with Northamptonshire county council and Kettering borough council, to explore ways in which the branch could be saved? (179519)

As I said in response to an earlier question, I counsel the hon. Gentleman to be cautious about describing his local post office as “profitable” when both central support costs and payments to the agent running the sub-post office are taken into account. On his question about discussions with the local authorities, if they are serious about covering all the relevant costs for several years—if that is how they want to commit local council tax payers’ money—I would certainly encourage Post Office Ltd to talk to them.

Women-owned businesses comprise only 14 per cent. of UK businesses and, shamefully, only 8 per cent. of businesses in my own area, the west midlands, whereas the figure is 30 per cent. in America. Will the Government look seriously at the issue of supply-side diversity, which has become a cultural norm in America and which UK companies can and should be encouraged to promote for good business reasons?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. It is interesting to compare rates of entrepreneurship in the UK and US. Men in the UK are as likely as men in the US to start up a business; women in the UK are much less likely to do so than women in the US. That reflects a long-term policy focus over two or three decades in the United States on encouraging women’s entrepreneurship in the way that she described and in other ways. We will consider the matter carefully before the enterprise White Paper that we plan to publish in the spring.

T10. The Prime Minister is on his way to China today. By what amount do Members on the Treasury Bench expect UK exports to China to increase in the next three years, and what is the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform doing to assist UK companies to increase exports to China? (179520)

I am going with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, my plane leaves in about 20 minutes, so I had better keep my answer short. My right hon. Friend and I are going to China to make the case aggressively for open markets and free trade between the UK and China. We want significantly to support British companies to increase their share of business with China. I do not want to give a figure, for obvious reasons. I think that we should be as ambitious as we possibly can be. There is a very strong case now, as we have good relations with China economically, for building on that and looking forward to more business for British companies in that extraordinarily dynamic economy.