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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 474: debated on Thursday 3 April 2008

Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

The Secretary of State was asked—

Anglo-French Nuclear Co-operation

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

At the Anglo-French summit last week, in order to improve the speed and effectiveness of nuclear development projects, our national regulators agreed to establish a joint project approach to the regulation of the European pressurised water reactor should it proceed to the next stage of generic design assessment. The project will include ways of dividing up assessment work on specific aspects of the design, sharing experience and technical findings from their safety and security assessments, and looking for opportunities for further staff exchanges.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for providing that level of detail. It has been difficult to obtain a copy of what was agreed, so will he lay a copy of that and any other details in the Library of the House for further study? May I seek his reassurance that, welcome as co-operation with the French is in advancing the cause of new nuclear reactors in this country, the agreement in no way rules out others, such as Toshiba Westinghouse, playing their part in expanding new nuclear capacity, both in the reactor design and the provision of fuel manufactured in the United Kingdom?

I will certainly ensure that there is a proper statement for the right hon. Gentleman and others who are interested to peruse. He is perfectly right to say that the UK Government are giving active consideration to other technologies and designs for new nuclear reactors. The agreement that we have made in relation to regulatory co-operation with the French authorities is a perfectly sensible one and I hope that it will shorten the time required for the important reactor assessment work, but we are also looking at other designs, and the agreement does not exclude proper consideration of other technologies.

In this brave new world that our Prime Minister and the French President have been fashioning, have they taken account of the full commercial cost of decommissioning and nuclear waste disposal? A report published by Ian Jackson just a few days ago estimated that unless the charges to the new nuclear station operators are kept at about 10 per cent. or less of the full commercial cost being charged to external and foreign disposers now, the whole project will be imperilled and we shall be adding yet further to the £73 billion national cost of cleaning up existing waste. That is not a very impressive equation, is it?

The Government are looking at and taking advice on a variety of different sources, as one would imagine, but it is important, as we have always made clear both in the White Paper and other ministerial statements, that we expect the operators of any new nuclear plants to meet the full commercial costs of decommissioning and waste disposal. Dr. Tim Stone, my principal adviser on the matter, is in consultation with the potential developers as we speak, a document has been published and the process is full, transparent and open. We are building a proper margin into the fixed price for waste disposal and decommissioning to ensure that the taxpayer does not meet any residual liabilities, and it is important that we are all clear that we should proceed with new nuclear development in the UK on that basis.

The Government claim 100,000 new jobs from new nuclear, presumably some of them British. Will the Secretary of State place in the Library a copy of the detailed analysis on which he bases that number, and will he undertake a similar analysis of quite how many more new jobs could be created from a credible renewables and energy efficiency strategy?

The hon. Gentleman and others want to present the argument as a choice between nuclear and renewables. My firm belief is that we should do both. Doing both will create significant economic and energy gains for the United Kingdom. I am happy to explain to the hon. Gentleman in more detail the numbers that he cited. However, in relation to renewables, there is a significant opportunity for significant engineering jobs as well. We should proceed along both tracks, not just one. If we can do that sensibly—and I think that we can—our people can look forward to a new generation of green-collar jobs that will provide an important opportunity for hundreds of thousands of British workers and their families to enjoy a prosperous future. We should embrace that.

Whatever the Secretary of State’s plans for a new generation of Anglo-French nuclear plants, he will be aware that a majority in the Scottish Parliament, including many from his own party, are thoroughly opposed to new nuclear plants. Will he take this opportunity to deny weekend reports that he is seeking to remove the Scottish Parliament’s planning powers in respect of nuclear stations?

I am not going to comment on inaccurate and ridiculous press comment. In relation to nuclear power, we have to think seriously about energy interdependence within the United Kingdom. My concern about the stance taken by the hon. Gentleman and his party is that there is a real danger that that interdependence will be compromised. It is one thing for Scottish National party politicians to strut around with their rhetoric about nuclear, but another for them to continue, at the same time, to rely on nuclear power generated in the United Kingdom.

Further to the Secretary of State’s answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), why has it taken until now for the Government suddenly to wake up to the fact that we should be co-operating with France over nuclear power? In 2005, for example, the Italians took a 12.5 per cent. stake in a major nuclear power plant right on the Normandy coast, our nearest geographical point in France. Is it not the case that over 10 years, the Government have been very indolent in planning for our nuclear power decommissioning and left the UK very exposed, given the length of time that it will take to build a new nuclear power station?

There has been significant co-operation for many years between French and UK regulatory authorities. What I announced today, and what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agreed with the President of France, Monsieur Sarkozy, was an acceleration of that programme, not its beginning.

On the hon. Gentleman’s wider point on nuclear matters, I must say that it is pretty tongue-in-cheek of him to come here and complain about dilatoriness in relation to nuclear power; I have counted four different policy changes on nuclear from the Conservative party in the past six months.

Order. I like to give the Secretary of State a little leeway, but we should now get back to ministerial replies.

Construction Industry

2. If he will allocate responsibility for policy on the construction industry to a Minister with sole responsibility for that matter. (198412)

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

My noble Friend Baroness Vadera, the Minister with responsibility for business and competitiveness in my Department, already has responsibility for the construction sector.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Construction is such an important factor, not only in the local economies but in the national economy, that many of the industry’s stakeholders despair at the fact that no single Minister is responsible for construction. The responsibility is spread between a number of Ministers and Departments. Indeed, the Federation of Master Builders is very concerned about skills in case the workers do not continue to operate in this country, and there is a question of design as well. The construction industry deserves a single Minister. When will the Secretary of State deliver on that?

As I just said, there is a Minister in the Government with overall responsibility for the construction sector. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the prospects for the sector look incredibly positive. Major investment is going into Britain’s infrastructure developments for the future, including Crossrail and the M25 extension. There are major opportunities for the sector. I hope that he agrees that the construction industry has prospered in the past 10 years and that it looks set to prosper in the next 10 years.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this week we have been celebrating much in respect of “Constructing Excellence” and the training around it? Most people in the industry are pleased with the current arrangements. However, does he agree that one thing that we should look at carefully is the sustainability of construction, in terms of using the supply chain to draw through good training and apprenticeships and using our trading and subcontracting system to get more measures for sustainable construction and a low-carbon footprint?

I strongly agree. As my hon. Friend will know, the Government are pursuing a number of initiatives in that area, including the zero-carbon housing initiative and others. In the next few years, I hope that we can make significant progress in shifting towards a more sustainable agenda, as he has suggested that we should.

Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to the work done by the national construction college and CITB-ConstructionSkills, both of which have their headquarters and their main training establishments in west Norfolk in my constituency? They employ a large number of people and play a vital role in nurturing our construction and skills base. Can he give a pledge that the levy will stay in place?

The hon. Gentleman asks me to answer a very tough question. I am happy to express my appreciation and respect for the work that is done in his constituency by the CITB, which does an excellent job in sustaining the skills of the construction sector. As he will know, questions to do with the levy are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Universities, Innovation and Skills.

National Minimum Wage

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

The national minimum wage is just one of a number of issues that I discuss with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the national minimum wage for adult workers will increase from £5.52 to £5.73 an hour from this October—around 37 per cent. higher in real terms than at its introduction in 1999.

There is no doubt that the minimum wage legislation has enhanced the life of millions of our constituents, but elements of it need to be reviewed. In my right hon. Friend’s discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will he highlight the case of workers who are given tips by the public that are then put towards the minimum wage, so that the consumer in effect subsidises unscrupulous employers? Given that America has now decided to challenge such legislation, will he do likewise and perhaps meet a small delegation of like-minded colleagues?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and others who are interested in what is becoming accepted as a very important issue, and I pay tribute to the work that he has done in highlighting it. The Government are looking seriously at the points that he and others have raised, and I look forward to discussing them with him in more detail.

How widespread is the problem of employers undermining the national minimum wage by making their employees, often foreign employees, pay through the nose for substandard accommodation, and what does the Secretary of State intend to do about it?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s conversion to the merits of the national minimum wage. We welcome all the sinners who repent on the Conservative Benches. There is a problem—that is why we are reinforcing the work that we are doing on enforcing the national minimum wage. Legislation currently in another place that is shortly to come here will improve the enforcement measures and strengthen the penalties. It is wrong for legislation that has been passed in this House to be flouted, and particularly unfair and inappropriate for employers to try to take advantage of migrant workers in the way that the hon. Gentleman mentions. We are determined to crack down on the problem. The law passed by this House must be properly enforced, and we are determined to do that.

Further to my right hon. Friend’s reply to the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), can I take this a bit further and ask what plans his Department has to bring into the excellent minimum wage legislation workers who are involved in temporary and agency work? May I also ask about those, mainly women, who are involved in home working and who are paid peanuts much of the time?

The national minimum wage legislation deals with the issue of home workers through the provisions on piece rates, and temporary and agency workers are covered by the legislation itself. We are in discussion with a variety of interested groups about how we can take forward discussions in Europe on the agency workers directive. I believe that progress is being made on that, and I hope that a further statement will be made in due course.

Post Office Closures

The local economy is one of a number of factors taken into account by Post Office Ltd in developing its proposals. In the London area, which covers the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, there will be no change to the post office currently used by some 89 per cent. of people, and more than 99 per cent. will see no change or be within 1 mile of an alternative branch.

In my area, four post offices have been proposed for closure, and the closure of three of them will threaten a parade of shops and the local economy in that part of Southwark. Can the Minister assure me at the Dispatch Box that the Post Office will take into account the effect on the whole business community of each of those closures, and in each case, before any decision, will it talk to the local authority about any alternative that might keep open post offices that are crucial and central to a business, trading and social community?

As I said, Post Office Ltd does take the local economy into account. We have encouraged it to talk to local authorities, and although it takes all such matters into account, I have to remind the hon. Gentleman that this process is happening because the Post Office is losing £500,000 a day, and those losses have to be addressed.

In the case of a post office such as the one in Burnham lane in Slough, which is threatened with closure, one of the difficulties that local businesses have pointed out to me is that the alternatives offered are difficult to get to and a relatively long way away. People will have to queue for a long time with parcels, and those who run businesses that require them to send things from home will have their costs added to by a formula that means long queues in alternative post offices. Will the Minister think about that in his decisions?

Another factor that has to be taken into account is the capacity of alternative branches to absorb custom. My hon. Friend is quite right to raise that point, and it is one of the factors that Post Office Ltd will have to look at in making what are difficult decisions.

With 30 post offices in Shropshire due for closure, and three in my constituency—Sambrook, King Street Wellington and Church Aston—does the Minister share the concern of local residents and the many local businesses that have to use those post offices? If he does share the concern of my constituents, and of six of his Cabinet colleagues, will he it put on the record that if a business case is made that those post offices are viable and needed in the community, he will intervene with the Post Office and stop the closures?

With regard to viability, the hon. Gentleman will know that the fact that the Government are putting in up to £1.7 billion in support of the post office network keeps viable thousands of post office branches that would otherwise be threatened with closure. I remind him that his own Front Bench spokesman said during a recent debate:

“we fully expect the network to shrink in size.”—[Official Report, 19 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 947.]

His own party, therefore, accepts the need for closures, too.

May I inform my hon. Friend the Minister that on Monday I met a Post Office representative at the start of the consultation period? He told me that 2,500 post offices were to close. I said, “I think you’ve got that wrong. It might finish up being 1,983, but every post office should be considered on its merits.” What is the point of having a consultation period when I, like many of my colleagues in the House, have been given a figure of three that will shut in our constituencies? Is it because there are three non-viable post offices in everyone’s constituency, or are we just sharing the misery out? While going through the consultation period with my constituents, I have recognised that one or two post offices might be non-viable, but not three. What chance of success—

Of the 14,000 branches currently in the network, some 4,000 would run as a commercial network. We do not believe that the network should be reduced to that size, which is why we subsidise it to the extent that we do. As the Post Office made clear last summer, the consultation concerns the detail of how the change is to be implemented, and the overall figures were announced to Parliament in May of last year.

May I offer to the Minister as a working example the post office in Levenwick in the south end of Shetland, which is due for closure? It operates as part of the shop there, and if the post office closes, the community fears that the shop will not be far behind. If the shop closes, not many people will want to use the campsite in the summer months, and the campsite subsidises the village hall. When he was setting up this whole process in the first place, what instructions did he give to the Post Office about considering such a domino effect on local economies?

The Post Office considered the special and specific circumstances of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. As matters stand, there are more than 70 post offices—I believe that the figure is 73—there, and I understand that six are to go. The access criteria are specifically designed to protect rural and sparsely populated parts of the United Kingdom such as that that the hon. Gentleman represents.

National Minimum Wage

5. How many cities were visited by the Government’s campaign bus promoting the national minimum wage in the last six months; and how many people used its services. (198415)

The national minimum wage bus visited 64 locations during a nine-week tour this year. The team spoke directly to approximately 90,000 people and distributed around 130,000 leaflets. The bus campaign also received extensive media coverage, which reached many more people. That is only one element of the minimum wage information campaign, which also includes posters, online information and radio advertising.

The minimum wage guidelines have always recognised the special role of volunteers. Can the Minister do more to remove the barriers to volunteering that some voluntary organisations believe exist under the current minimum wage regime, without leaving the door open to the abuse of voluntary workers?

My hon. Friend asks an important question, which many leading voluntary organisations have also raised with us. I am glad to tell her that the Government have tabled an amendment to the Employment Bill, which is currently being discussed in Parliament, to broaden the range of expenses that can be paid to volunteers without unintentionally triggering entitlement to the minimum wage. That will remove a hurdle to volunteering and assist volunteers, who may need help with, for example, child care costs. It is an important step to boost volunteering in the country.

Small Business Regulation

In December 2007, the Government announced that we had delivered £800 million of annual savings for business by reducing red tape. For example, from this Sunday, private companies will no longer need to have a company secretary, saving each of them an estimated £50 to £100.

Indeed, we have several other measures. For example, private companies no longer need to hold an annual general meeting, firms will have to apply for small business rate relief only once every five years rather than every year, and heavy goods vehicle operators can carry out their licensing transactions online. Those are examples of several measures that we have taken because, although the World Bank ranks Britain as the sixth best economy in the world to do business, we are not complacent. We want to ensure that Britain remains one of the best places in the world to do business.

The Minister knows that a batty European directive has been quietly pushed through the House without a vote. It places pub landlords in jeopardy if customers call the staff “love” or “darling”; I personally use “angel”.

More seriously, the directive places a further burden of some £10 million on small business to enforce and monitor it. What steps did the Minister take to stop that farcical additional burden on small businesses? When will the Government start saying no to stupid European regulations, which are unenforceable, encourage troublemakers and generally bring the law into disrepute?

There are certain rules about language in the House, but outwith those, the hon. Gentleman is entitled to call me anything he wishes and I assure him that I will not take offence.

This country has led the way in making the European Union alive to the need to ensure that regulation is proportionate and not over-burdensome. We have pushed hard for the European Commission to adopt a similar position to the one in this country, where we have a target of reducing the administrative burdens from the European proposals by 25 per cent. We intend to continue to push that with the Commission and other member states.

In his Budget speech, the Chancellor announced that there would be

“radical new proposals to impose a limit on the amount of regulation that can be imposed by Whitehall Departments.”—[Official Report, 12 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 292.]

Given that regulation is six times more burdensome on small business than on large business, can the Minister throw any light on when those radical new proposals will be brought forward?

The hon. Lady will also have seen the enterprise strategy that was published alongside the Budget, which precisely discussed consulting on, for example, the introduction of regulatory budgets. She raises the burden of regulation, but let me remind her to look at her party’s policy programme, where she may find extensive proposals for additional regulation. Perhaps we should bear that in mind, as well as the Government’s record.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) is absolutely right. The burden of regulation and bureaucracy falls far more heavily on small business than on large business, which can afford to employ the staff to deal with it. Does the Minister agree that regulation is damaging for smaller business because it takes the attention of the sole proprietor—or perhaps he and a co-partner—away from the purpose of their business, thereby causing the business to suffer and the Government’s tax take to fall?

I outlined several measures that are a specific help to small businesses, such as the requirements on AGMs and the lightening of the requirements on company secretaries. We are alive to the burdens on small businesses. That is why we have brought forward those measures and why we have introduced commencement dates, so that people know when any regulations will be introduced. We published the enterprise strategy alongside the Budget precisely to work with business to ensure that any regulatory burden is not over-burdensome.

Since 1997, the total burden of regulation has risen by £65 billion, according to the British Chambers of Commerce. Of that total, more than £32 billion has come from one Department—the one represented by those sitting opposite on the Treasury Bench. So despite the Minister’s earlier claims and offers for future action, his record shows that his Department is responsible for nearly half the total regulatory burden on small businesses. Given that, will he now stand at the Dispatch Box and tell us exactly how much of his £32 billion he will cut in the next 12 months?

The Department has a commitment to reduce its burden by £700 million. However, I take issue with the allegation that business burdens have risen by £66 billion, because that includes a number of measures that I would not classify as a burden, but which the hon. Gentleman might, such as access to transport for the disabled. Does he think that that is a burden? Those measures also include controls over asbestos. Does he think that health and safety measures such as those are a burden? Some of those measures are not burdens on business, but appropriate regulations, which are a mark of a decent and civilised society.

Post Office Closures

7. What recent discussions he has had with the managing director of Post Office Ltd on the process of consultation on the closure of sub-post offices. (198417)

I regularly meet and discuss issues relating to the post office network with the managing director of Post Office Ltd, which of course include the current consultation process, which we are in the middle of, and the proposed new outreach services.

There is a widespread and increasingly desperate view that every conceivable question on post offices has already been asked, with not a single acceptable answer given, but let me try this. Of the nine closures in my constituency, at least two—Bayford and Charlton Horethorne—are close to the border with Dorset, which has a different consultation process. Many communities in Dorset will be affected by those closures, but their views are not being sought. Do people not count if they live the wrong side of a line?

Of course they count, but any proposal based on a geographical area will involve people on either side of a line. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman has made, and I am sure that the Post Office will do its best to take local views into account in what is a difficult process. I say again, however, that without the extensive subsidy that the Government are putting in, thousands more branches could be under threat. We have given financial certainty to the network over the next few years, which is something that it did not always enjoy in the past.

In its report of 8 February, the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee expressed concerns about certain aspects of the consultation process, many of which could be addressed quite quickly. Despite the significant funding that the Government are putting into the network, we are concerned that there is apparently no policy in place to prevent the further shrinkage of the network from 11,500 to the 7,500 figure that meets the access criteria. Does the Minister therefore understand my disappointment that despite the early indications that the Department would expedite its response to the report, it so far looks unlikely even to meet the informal deadline, which is normally two months?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the serious work that the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Select Committee has done on this issue. It has now issued three reports, and we will respond very soon to the report that he mentioned. I note the Committee’s specific proposal to make it clearer that the basis of the consultation was the implementation of the programme rather than it simply being a referendum on whether there should be closures. As we now know, both parties accept the need for closures. The Conservative Front-Bench spokesperson made that clear in the debate on the subject a couple of weeks ago. The hon. Gentleman’s Committee made a very good point on that subject, and I hope that Post Office Ltd will take it up.

Eight post offices in my constituency are threatened with closure. Two in particular—at Primrose Hill in Lydney and at Ruspidge—have a strong case for remaining open. Will the Minister confirm what the Prime Minister is reported—in one of our excellent local newspapers, The Citizen—to have said, namely that, if people had a strong case against the planned closure of their local post office, they could appeal and take the matter right to the top and to the chairman of Royal Mail, Allan Leighton, if necessary? If those two post offices are told in early May that they must close, will the Minister confirm that Allan Leighton will meet me, and any other Member of Parliament who wishes to meet him, to discuss in person the case for keeping those post offices open, as the Prime Minister promised?

The Prime Minister was absolutely right to say that a review process is built into this procedure. As I have said before, it is triggered by Postwatch and begins at local level. He was also right to say that the process can ultimately go right up to Allan Leighton, the chairman of the Royal Mail Group, if need be. The question of Mr. Leighton’s diary commitments will have to be answered by him, rather than by me, however.

The Minister will be aware that Essex county council has committed £1.5 million to keep certain post offices open, including two profitable branches at Billericay and Wickford in my constituency. Despite assurances from the Minister—which I do not doubt—that he would get in touch with Post Office Ltd, and despite the Secretary of State’s letter of 19 March, Post Office Ltd is still dragging its feet in its negotiations with Essex county council by not releasing essential financial information. Will the Minister now personally ensure that Post Office Ltd does not drag its feet further, and that it engages in full and frank conversation with Essex county council? Will he also ensure that Post Office Ltd does not decommission branches that are set for closure until those negotiations are complete?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have encouraged Post Office Ltd to talk to Essex county council. I have spoken to the chief executive personally about this on two occasions, and I hope that those discussions will take place.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the decommissioning of equipment, he will understand that post offices are normally private businesses owned by their sub-postmasters. The Post Office has said that it will extend the period of notice, at no cost to the sub-postmaster, when there is a local authority expression of interest. On some occasions, however, the sub-postmaster might want the equipment removed so that the rest of the retail premises can be made use of. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but we need to take into account the fact that these businesses are privately owned in most cases.

I am sure the Minister is aware that many other councils share Essex county council’s frustration at the slow progress of their attempts to save some of their local post offices from closure. First, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), they are finding it very difficult to obtain the realistic costings that they need to decide whether to proceed. Secondly, there is a complete lack of clarity from the Department on whether such support would fall foul of European Union state aid rules. Thirdly, in some cases, equipment is removed from post offices while the discussions are still taking place. That is not happening only in post offices that the postmasters wish to close. Will the Minister get a grip on the situation, and ensure that councils receive immediately from his Department any information that they need to proceed? Will he also ensure that no post offices are closed if they have a realistic prospect of being saved?

It is for Post Office Ltd and individual councils to negotiate the details of the process. As I told the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained in his letter of 19 March the basis on which the discussions should take place to both the Post Office and the Local Government Association. That letter refers to the state aid rules. That is the Government’s position, as set out by my right hon. Friend.

Street Trading

8. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the regulatory framework for street trading. (198418)

No recent assessment has been undertaken of the regulatory framework on street trading. However, the Government are aware that my hon. Friend has tabled a Bill that seeks to extend local authority powers. Our Department is in the process of undertaking research to establish more firmly the evidence about the effectiveness of the current legislation. That will help us to make decisions about how to proceed in a way that balances the interests of business, consumers and, indeed, pedlars.

There have been seven local authority-promoted private Acts of Parliament to control the street trading activities of pedlars. As we have heard this morning, six almost identical Bills are before the House at present, with the possibility of up to 50 more in the queue. Will my hon. Friend consider allowing my Bill to proceed on the grounds that clause 2 would allow councils wishing to adopt it to do so? That would overcome any human rights-based objections that might apply to a blanket Bill.

I know that my colleague Baroness Vadera is prepared to discuss the matter further with my hon. Friend. He has persevered on this important matter. We are aware of a number of local authorities with an interest in it, which is why we wish to establish the evidence base. We need to understand the issue more clearly.

Mobile Ringtones

9. What recent discussions he has had with mobile telephone network operators on regulation of the trade in mobile ringtones. (198419)

There has been no recent discussion with the five mobile network operators on the regulation of the trade in mobile ringtones. A code of practice was introduced in the autumn of 2005 by the Mobile Entertainment Forum, which required information providers and aggregators who trade mobile ringtones to be more explicit about cost, terms and conditions. In particular, mobile network operators have made it easier for customers to cancel subscriptions: they simply need to send a message consisting of the word “STOP”. I understand that that has resulted in a reported 62 per cent. fall in the number of complaints.

T-Mobile is the only mobile network operator in the United Kingdom that bans third parties from having direct access to customers’ phone credit for goods and services. A 13-year-old constituent of mine found that out the hard way when she was repeatedly conned out of money for ringtones that never arrived by a company that was trading illegally. Will the Minister look into how the regulator ICSTIS, the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services, could act more effectively to stop this unscrupulous practice?

I agree that many people have had to pay very large sums as a result of being misinformed or misled. The regulator formerly known as ICSTIS—now, I understand, known as PhonepayPlus—is examining the position carefully. It has a close relationship with the major regulator, Ofcom, and I will ensure that the hon. Lady’s concerns are brought to the regulator’s attention.

Balance of Trade

11. What assessment he has made of recent trends in the UK’s balance of trade; and if he will make a statement. (198421)

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

The deficit in trade in goods and services remained at 3.6 per cent. of GDP in 2007, unchanged from the previous two years.

The Government have estimated that, for the whole of 2007, our total deficit in trade was £51 billion. What estimate has the Secretary of State made of the effect of a possible flight of non-doms, perhaps taking their businesses with them, on the trade figures for this year and next year?

The issue of non-doms and their tax status has been addressed and resolved by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is right that people who are non-domiciled for tax purposes should make a fair and reasonable contribution; we all accept that, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not, as those on the Opposition Front-Bench first proposed it. I have just two points to make about the trade deficit: it was much higher at some point in the 1980s than it is now, and, more importantly, UK competitiveness depends more on productivity, so I am glad to be able to say that on that we are narrowing the gap between the UK and our principal economic competitors.

Does my right hon. Friend accept, however, that a worrying long-term trend in terms of our balance of payments is the decline in manufacturing? The balance of payments in manufacturing has deteriorated: the deficit for last year was about £60 billion, which is enormous and, arguably, unsustainable. Given the current pressure in financial services and other sectors, is it not time for manufacturing to be given a strong lead, so that our manufacturers can make inroads into the manufacturing balance of payments deficit?

I strongly agree that we must always look to do what we can to support Britain’s manufacturing industries. It is worth reminding ourselves of something, however: there is a lot of talk about Britain being a post-industrial economy, but that is rubbish. It is not a post-industrial economy at all; Britain is the sixth largest manufacturing economy in the world, and we work very closely with manufacturing companies in the UK to ensure that our performance continues to improve. It is worth reminding ourselves of another important fact: export-led growth has been very strong in the past few years. The total value of the exported trade in goods rose by almost 8 per cent. this year, so we should not pay too much credence to the ne’er-do-wells and gloom-and-doom merchants on the Opposition Benches who predict the decline of Britain’s manufacturing industry.

Topical Questions

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

My Department promotes business growth and a strong enterprise economy, leads the better regulation agenda and champions the case for free and fair markets.

Is it a departmental responsibility to keep the Government’s promises? Does the Secretary of State recognise the following promise made in the rural White Paper:

“we will…retain and renew the rural Post Office network and make banking, internet, pensions, benefits, prescriptions, health and other services available from rural post offices”?

That was a promise to renew and retain, not to cut, and also to make new services available through rural post offices. When will the Government keep the promise that they made?

Obviously, we are always looking at ways to support the rural post office network with new business opportunities, and I know that Alan Cook, the chief executive, is fully committed to doing that. I should also make another point, of which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is aware. The Government are heavily subsidising the rural post office network. My hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs has made clear in questions today the extent of that support and what would happen if it were not available. Post offices in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and in many other rural constituencies, would find it impossible to operate if it were not for that subsidy. So the size of the network is being sustained, and it is being significantly built on compared with what it would be if we were just relying on an ability to run a commercial service. That is the right and proper thing for us to do, because we recognise the important role that post offices play in every constituency in Britain, including our rural areas.

T5. The Secretary of State will be aware that foreign workers are still working on ferries out of British ports for wages of only £1.50 to £2 per hour. Is he considering making changes to the national minimum wage legislation to deal with that loophole? (198405)

I would like my hon. Friend to give me the specific details of that case, because the national minimum wage regulations apply to temporary and agency workers. If she has evidence of those regulations not applying, I would very much like to see it.

Do not worry, Mr. Speaker, I assure you that I am sober. What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the number of company directors and entrepreneurs who are choosing to bail out of their shareholdings before the Government’s entirely destructive changes to capital gains tax start on 6 April, and of the consequences of those people’s actions?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has nothing in common with Alan Clark—that is obvious.

With the entrepreneurs’ relief that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has introduced there has been a significant improvement on the previous retirement provisions of capital gains tax. The system is now tailored much more specifically to the needs of serial entrepreneurs, who now have a significant allowance that they can roll over into new businesses without paying any CGT. I hope that that is a way of addressing the real and legitimate concerns that the small business community, in particular, raised in the light of the pre-Budget report. We now have a highly competitive CGT regime that will boost entrepreneurship and enterprise, and will benefit the economy as a result.

On the issue of company directors, we are told that more than 1,500 directors who are disqualified from running a company in the UK are still doing so. The Secretary of State is responsible for overseeing this area. Why is he failing to enforce this properly? What does he intend to do about it?

It is obviously important that the rules on company directors are properly enforced by Companies House. I have regular discussions with that body and this is an issue of ongoing concern. The law must be properly applied. I am not aware of the details of every one of the cases that the hon. Gentleman raised, but if he would like to discuss the details, I would be happy to do so.

T6. Bletchley Park innovation centre in my constituency has, in three years, created 77 jobs and attracted 25 high-tech industries, one of which, Ceravision, has secured a manufacturing deal on a highly energy-efficient microwave-based lighting system. What is the Department doing to support innovation centres, such as that one, further in creating jobs and wealth for this country? (198406)

We work very closely with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills on this issue. Together, or just through that Department, we would like to discuss these matters with my hon. Friend. We start from a good base, because we have some of the best science in the world—I believe that we are second only to the United States on the widely referred to “refereed science papers”—our research councils are well funded and we are making great progress on innovation through establishments such as the Technology Strategy Board. I applaud the work being done in her constituency, and am happy to discuss it with her further.

T2. Given the obvious concern expressed today about the abortive nature of post office closure consultations and the deep public cynicism about them, would the Minister object to the National Audit Office conducting a review of the process and its outcome? (198402)

Obviously that is a matter for the NAO to decide. The process is, of course, difficult, but it is necessary for the reasons that we have set out—the network faces losses of £500,000 a day and has lost the custom of some 4 million people a week in recent years. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary and State and I have said, the Post Office would be facing a much greater challenge in responding to that situation were it not for the extensive Government support and public subsidy that goes into the network.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the OECD anti-corruption team is in town this week. Will he give an undertaking that his Government will co-operate fully with the United Systems Department of Justice investigation into allegations of corruption involving BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia?

Of course, the UK law enforcement authorities always fully comply with requests for information or details about specific cases. That is obviously a matter for the law offices of the Crown.

Farepak collapsed in October 2006. We were promised a report by Christmas, and then by Easter. Both have now passed. I understand that if there is not a criminal prosecution, the report will not be made public. I have to tell my right hon. Friend that that is unacceptable to Members on both sides of the House. Like many others, I believe that the report should be in the public domain.

I think that both sides of the House understand the deep concerns that hon. Members have about Farepak customers and the experience that they went through. The investigation is highly complex because of the number of people involved. I understand what my hon. Friend has said about the delay, but I have to tell him that, in the event of non-prosecution, the position on publication is firmly set down in law and is not simply a matter for ministerial decision.

T3. I handed in a 2,000 signature post office petition to the Department on Monday and I hope that the Minister has received it and will reply to those 2,000 constituents. Will the Minister call on the Post Office to review its plans to close four post offices in Carshalton and Wallington and, in particular, the Seymour Road post office where there are plans to develop housing in the next couple of years? (198403)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is not for me as a Minister to decide which post office stays open and which closes. If he feels that there is a case for review, that process is triggered by Postwatch, which is the consumer body, not by Ministers.

T4. Essex is one of the most enterprising counties in the country, with small companies across Basildon district contributing much to the local community. However, at a recent business breakfast it emerged that three quarters of all eligible businesses were failing to claim £6 million in small business rate relief owing to bureaucratic complexity. Will the Secretary of State make it easier for small businesses to claim that relief, particularly by making it last for the lifetime of the valuation list and by granting it to all those who are eligible in the way that the Federation of Small Businesses wants? (198404)

We will certainly look at what the hon. Gentleman has said. However, those are primarily matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Will my right hon. Friend have a look at the Kirklees Enterprise Foundation, which is based in Huddersfield and has succeeded in its first year of operation in starting 54 new enterprises? Will he have a look at that success, come and visit the centre and see whether we can roll it out to other parts of the country?

I pay tribute to all the excellent work that is done in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Encouraging more people to start and grow businesses is fundamental as we prepare the ground for Britain’s future economic success. If there is an opportunity open to me in the next few weeks and months to visit his constituency and see at first hand the excellent work that is being done there, I will welcome that.

Having ordered the closure of 2,500 post offices, the Government emasculated Postwatch to stop it being an effective voice for the consumer. Not content with that, they now plan to abolish Postwatch. Will the Minister assure us today that the consumer voice will be restored when new arrangements are put in place?

I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about Postwatch; I do not believe that that is the case. Postwatch is the consumer body and has an important role to play, as I have said, in the review process. In terms of the future, I believe that all hon. Members would pay tribute to the National Consumer Council, of which Postwatch will become a part, rather than saying that that body did not pay an important role in speaking strongly and forthrightly on behalf of consumers.

T7. Many Members welcomed last month’s announcement that the minimum wage rates will rise again in October, but over 21-year-olds earn £2 more an hour than 16 or 17-year-olds. That means that to earn the same amount of money as would be earned for a typical eight-hour shift, a younger employee must work for 13 hours. That is clearly unfair. When are the Government going to end that unfair age discrimination? (198407)

We always look very carefully at the impact of this regulation to ensure that it is proportionate and reasonable. The Low Pay Commission has looked at the matter from time to time, and I am sure that it will continue to focus its thoughts and opinions on it. Ministers will obviously act on its recommendations in due course.

T8. In my constituency, there are proposals for significant and swingeing cuts to the post office network such that Lewes district council, my local authority, has been trying to engage with the Post Office to make financial arrangements to keep the post offices open. The Post Office has been obstructive of that process and will not provide figures to the district council. Will the Minister agree to meet me and a small delegation from Lewes district council to examine how to engage with the Post Office constructively? (198408)

I am not sure that I should take the advice that my hon. Friend gives from a sedentary position. I am happy to tell the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) that I am very willing, as I have been throughout this process, to hold a meeting with him about post office closures.

T9. At a recent meeting with businessmen in Scarborough, I asked them for examples of regulations that could be either simplified or scrapped. They pointed out that, whereas an HGV driver who takes his test at 21 can drive for his entire career, drivers of forklift trucks and excavators must take tests repeatedly. In fact, if one wants to drive a small, medium and large excavator, one has to take three separate tests. Will a Minister volunteer to examine the matter and see whether it could be simplified in some way? (198410)

We are always happy to look at sensible ideas of how we can lift the burden of regulation. I shall refer the hon. Gentleman’s points to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Will my right hon. Friend look to use his powers to impose minimum pricing on the alcohol that is sold cheaply in our retail outlets? Will he also consider rating retail outlets that sell alcohol, on the part of the premises that is used for that purpose, in the same way as pubs are rated—on turnover rather than on a business rates system?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is of course possible to take action on alcohol pricing through the competition regime. That is not something to be done lightly, although I appreciate the seriousness of his point. It is something that is open to us if we decide to do it, but it is certainly not a decision that has been made at this point.