Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 474: debated on Thursday 3 April 2008

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.