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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 476: debated on Thursday 22 May 2008

Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

The Secretary of State was asked—

Miners’ Awards

2. If he will consider the merits of providing an award for those miners who worked in the mines during the second world war equivalent to a Bevin Boys badge; and if he will make a statement. (206979)

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

The purpose of the Bevin Boys badge is to recognise those who, through conscription, served in the pits during the war. Miners who were already employed in the pits made an enormous contribution to our successful war effort, but were not conscripted, as their role was that of a reserved occupation. On that basis, we have no plans to introduce such an award.

I understand my right hon. Friend’s reply, but does he agree that wars are won first by the heroism of our troops and our service people, but also on the home front? The Government have clearly acknowledged that in awarding the Bevin badge to people conscripted into the mines. However, many people already in the mines were prevented from joining the services as they might have wanted because they were in a reserved occupation. As a consequence, there is an anomaly. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the men who worked alongside the Bevin boys but have not been recognised regard the situation as an anomaly? Will he or one of his ministerial team meet us to discuss the matter further?

I agree very strongly with what my hon. Friend has said. We were successful in that titanic conflict because the whole resources of the nation were mobilised to defeat the fascist enemy that we were confronting. The miners in the pits made an heroic contribution to the success of that overall war effort and no one should question that. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and others who represent mining constituencies to discuss that important issue further.

I am delighted that the Secretary of State has said that he will meet a delegation. He has just recognised the importance of the miners during the war, so why is there so much intransigence from the Government about giving proper recognition to those miners? We know that they played a valuable role. If everybody had left the mines to join the armed forces, the whole country would have ground to a halt. What is holding the Government back from giving proper recognition to the miners?

I do not accept that this is intransigence on the part of the Government and it should be borne in mind that since the second world war all Governments—Conservative as well as Labour—have taken the same view. There are obvious practical difficulties, of which I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, including—we should not underestimate this—the issue of accurate records to confirm employment in the pre-nationalised mining industry. As I said, I am happy to have discussions, and if there is a way forward, we should find one.

I thank my right hon. Friend for agreeing to meet a delegation and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) will invite me along. May I remind hon. Members that 5,000 miners gave their lives and 20,000 lost their lungs during that war? My constituent Mr. Abe Moffatt, son of Alex Moffatt, was one of hundreds who tried to get into the armed forces, including the RAF, but could not get in and were dragged back to work in the pits. I believe that their contribution should be recognised in some fashion or other.

As I said, I do not think any Member would be wise to call into question the record of service and sacrifice of our miners in the second world war. I am certainly not doing that; as I have said, they made an heroic contribution. I can only repeat what I said earlier: I am very happy to have further discussions with Members on both sides of the House.

I find myself in a very embarrassing position, because my father was a Bevin boy, as he happened to be the right age at the call-up time and was sent to the mines in his home village. He of course worked alongside many others who did not have the opportunity to be called Bevin boys. That is why I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) for raising the issue. It is an embarrassment to me that my father should be entitled to the badge when so many others in his village and my constituency who did exactly the same work have not been recognised.

My hon. Friend has made a very powerful point, which we need to reflect on. I hope that there is consensus in the House about the importance of recognising the service of the Bevin boys. I had the great privilege of attending the reception in No. 10 Downing street when the Prime Minister made the presentation of the badges to the Bevin boys. There was no question but that there were men in that room who had made history. They decided the outcome of a huge conflict and we have all benefited from that successful outcome. If there is a way forward, we should try to find it; and we should do so in a way that is consistent with the service given not just by the miners, but by those in other reserved occupations, too.

Oil Prices

At the moment, of course, it is difficult to estimate what the price of a barrel of oil will be next week, let alone in 2020, as the hon. Gentleman seeks to persuade me to do. Obviously, our Department, while not forecasting oil prices, does publish future price assumptions going forward to 2030. We obviously regularly review these and consult on them, but he will appreciate that the huge increase in the price of a barrel of oil has caught the whole world by surprise and we are in, frankly, difficult and uncharted waters.

It certainly caught the Minister’s Department by surprise, because a parliamentary written answer that he gave me last week showed that his Department thinks it will be $70 a barrel in 2020, so perhaps I can help him with his own figures, which suggest that he may be rather out of touch. Oil consumption is increasing dramatically, not least with China, India and other countries coming on fast. We have more difficulty in getting oil out of the ground—

Order. It is not for the hon. Gentleman to make a speech at this stage; it is a supplementary question. Does he wish to put a supplementary question?

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The question is this: given the ludicrous forward projection that I referred to, will the Minister revise his figures, because otherwise his foreign policy, his energy policy and his transport policy will be completely skewed?

We make a number of assumptions—we have a number of scenarios—going forward. The hon. Gentleman has quoted one. The day that I have to rely on him for statistics is the day that I go somewhere else for my entertainment.

Notwithstanding that question, there are serious issues to consider, and serious people in the House want to address them. Oil prices are going up for a whole range of global factors—difficulties in Africa, Iraq and so on—and we need to think long and hard about them. We are discussing them with oil producers, as I did recently at the International Energy Forum. These are not easy issues. Frankly, simple questions do not help a serious debate.

My hon. Friend must realise that he can estimate just how much profit the oil companies are making. How much do we expect them to put on to the price of a gallon at the pumps for diesel or petrol when we know that they are exploiting the situation from the cartel position that they have got themselves into? When will we deal with that?

Obviously, considerable revenues go to Her Majesty’s Treasury as a result of those oil prices. I repeat that we are dealing with very difficult global circumstances, and the situation is not peculiar to the United Kingdom or Europe. We are discussing the matter with oil producers. Also, of course, moving forward, it will be an incentive to introduce new cleaner and greener car technologies, which are less reliant on traditional fuels. In a sense, that will be a useful side effect of this difficult situation.

The people of Northampton in particular have been caught by surprise by increasing fuel prices. When we look around the midlands, we find that they are by far the most expensive—more expensive than Nottingham, Leicester, Milton Keynes and Peterborough on average. Indeed, a number of MPs, led by the MEP Chris Heaton-Harris, wrote to the Office of Fair Trading to ask whether it could do anything. I ask the same of the Minister, because Northamptonshire in particular suffers from sizeably high prices. Will he help us to ensure that we can compete fairly on that basis?

If specific issues are affecting Northamptonshire, and it sounds as though they are, I shall be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to understand them better.

My hon. Friend will be aware that oil prices reached $130 a barrel this week. The projection is that by the end of the year they could be $150 a barrel. Given that there is an irrational indexation between oil contracts and gas, so that gas prices are pulled in train behind oil prices, does he agree that it is time to look at how we decouple gas prices from oil prices? There is no rationality for that indexation. All that it does is make huge profits for the energy companies.

I rather agree with my hon. Friend that the whole issue in the gas industry—gas production and gas fields—is often, although not always, different from that in the oil industry. That linkage is not rational, but as he knows, because he has great expertise in this area, it is global and is not peculiar to the United Kingdom or Europe. However, we need to work hard to understand that linkage and to see whether there are ways of decoupling it. At a time of huge increases in wholesale prices for fossil fuels—coal, of course, as well as oil and gas—irrational linkages do not help us.

Yesterday an independent industry expert predicted that the price of oil could reach $200 a barrel over a 10-year period. Will the Minister explain how the Government intend to help businesses that will be severely affected in the short term, while also providing a long-term strategy?

Obviously matters involving tax, which is a factor here, are for the Treasury rather than for our Department, so I will not trespass on that territory.

Globally, we do need increased production, and many of us have had talks about that with some of the key players. Bodies such as the International Energy Forum enable producers and consuming countries to meet. An estimated 80 per cent. of oil resources worldwide are now in the hands of the national oil companies rather than the independent players, and, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, that involves a good deal of difficult geopolitics.

In the long term, we need increased production, and yes, the price of a barrel of oil being sky-high will encourage that. As for short-term and medium-term measures, we must all put more emphasis on energy efficiency in business, in industry generally, and indeed in our own households. We need to work harder to build on the good programme that we have to increase the number of new technologies, so that we can constrain energy demand or even reduce it in the future.

Consumer Protection

4. What policy options he has considered in relation to protection of consumers from unscrupulous lending and debt collection practices. (206982)

The Government are committed to tackling unscrupulous lenders, including loan sharks who exploit vulnerable people in our poorest communities. In 2004, we established two pilot enforcement teams in Birmingham and Glasgow to track down and prosecute illegal moneylenders. Following evaluation of those pilots, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the provision of some £2.8 million in September for a national crackdown on illegal lending, and to that end there is now a team in every region of Britain.

My hon. Friend is right: the crackdown has helped, and the Consumer Credit Act 2006 does its bit. However, some startling things are happening nowadays. For instance, sell and rent back seems to be gaining popularity with some people. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is probably another example of unscrupulous lending? Does he also agree that Parliament should examine the issue, and that we should not leave it to the Office of Fair Trading to determine whether such loans are right or wrong?

As my hon. Friend says, we must keep in view the way in which the consumer credit market works, both as a Government and as a Parliament. When we know of the existence of unscrupulous lending, we should take the relevant action to deal with it. We need to ensure that the law is effective and is working. To that end, at a consumers’ conference last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a fundamental review of the consumer regime with the aim of introducing further measures, in the first instance to help vulnerable consumers.

Does the Minister think that high street banks are doing enough to help people on low incomes to gain access to mainstream financial services? What measures are the Government taking to encourage the banks to do more than they are currently doing?

We would always encourage high street banks to keep under close review what more they can do to help low-income consumers and those who are in trouble. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Treasury has embarked on various kinds of work with the banks, and, through a growth fund for third sector lenders such as credit unions and community development financial institutions, has provided some £38 million to expand that work. More than 76,000 loans have already been made to financially excluded consumers through growth-funded credit unions, and we seek to invest even more through additional funds that have been provided.

My hon. Friend will recall the Adjournment debate that I led on the tragic death of Mrs. Brazier in my constituency following the actions of debt collection agencies seeking repayment of debt that was not hers. Does he share my alarm that practices including the collection of money by an agency from a person unrelated to a debt who is clearly in distress continue and are, apparently, robustly defended in the industry?

I pay tribute to the way in which my hon. Friend has pursued the case of Beryl Brazier. He will know from the Adjournment debate that he initiated just before Christmas of the steps we have taken and the conversations that have taken place both with the Information Commissioner and the Office of Fair Trading. He may be aware, too, that as part of a recently completed investigation the OFT has issued warnings to some 13 companies involved in this area of work, telling them how they need to take steps to improve their work.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) raises an important point, particularly at a time when there is increasing consumer debt, which is likely to continue in the period ahead. Does the Minister agree that what is needed is not simply more legislation or even more initiatives, all of which are welcome, but his Department working closely with the police to ensure that some of the very worst practices are stamped out?

I agree absolutely that there has to be effective joint working across a range of agencies. In the case of the illegal moneylending teams of which we are seeing the roll-out, there is effective collaboration not only with the police but, on occasion, with housing associations and housing authorities to help crack down on certain areas. It is frequently the most vulnerable people in our communities who are exploited and targeted by loan sharks. The two teams in Birmingham and Glasgow have had a series of successful prosecutions of often very violent people, helping to get better protection for people in vulnerable communities and to lock away some particularly unpleasant individuals.

It is now three years since consumer credit legislation covering this area was introduced, and it does not sound as if it is working well enough. Does the Minister agree that if there is one area where many people would support the most swingeing powers for Government, it is in cracking down on these dreadful people?

The tools are there, through both the reforms that we have introduced to consumer credit through the Consumer Credit Act 2006 and the illegal moneylending teams that we have established. The successes of the two pilot teams in identifying some 250 illegal lenders in Glasgow and Birmingham have benefited some 2,000 victims and helped to save them an estimated £3.3 million in payments that they would otherwise have had to make. The fact that they have also led to successful prosecutions should give Members confidence that the roll-out across the country of illegal moneylending teams will enable us to continue to bear down on such terrible practices.

Fuel Poverty

5. What his most recent estimate is of the number of (a) households and (b) individuals living in fuel poverty. (206984)

The most recent figures show that approximately 2.5 million UK households were in fuel poverty in 2005. Fuel poverty is not measured at individual level. UK figures for 2006 will not be finalised until later this year, when the results of efficiency programmes will be known. I am conscious that there is a time lag in the data because of the methodology required. I am also conscious that fuel poverty is now moving in the wrong direction, partly for the macro level reasons of global energy prices that we were discussing. The Government are committed to doing their utmost to protect the most vulnerable in winter from rising fuel prices.

I am grateful for those estimates. As the Minister’s answer indicates, two or three years ago perhaps 5 million or 6 million men, women and children were living in fuel poverty and the numbers have soared since then. Can he estimate what proportion of them the Budget measures will have taken out of fuel poverty, and given that vast numbers will remain in it, what is his strategy for abolishing fuel poverty, which is his stated policy?

It is our stated policy because it has to be intolerable that vulnerable people, particularly the very elderly who often live in the most energy-inefficient dwellings, can be cold in winter. As the hon. Gentleman knows, in the Budget the Chancellor increased winter fuel payments by £50 for the over-60s and by £100 for the over-80s. Since 2000, the Government have spent some £20 billion on fuel poverty benefits and programmes. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has reached agreement with the six largest energy supply companies to increase their collective level of spend on social tariffs and programmes from £50 million to about £150 million a year by 2010-11. We are also working very hard on other measures.

The Minister will be well aware that the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee is conducting an investigation of energy prices. He has mentioned the social tariffs from the big six companies, but many people rely on home fuel oil and bottled gas, especially in rural areas, and they are not subject to any social tariffs. When the Committee asked Ofgem and Energywatch about regulation of that sector, it became apparent that there is none. Will the Minister look into that and will he ask the National Consumer Council, which will take over from Energywatch, to ensure that those people who do not have any protection are included in the energy section for future investigation?

Obviously we are looking into that, and we need to ensure that we have fair trading wherever possible. I have received many letters from Members of Parliament on behalf of concerned constituents about this very question. We have had a programme to connect people to mainstream gas supplies and have made some progress with that, although it is not always possible. We also need to look hard at the contribution that can be made by microgeneration, such as heat pumps, to tackle some of the difficult and important questions that arise in many constituencies.

Is the Minister aware of and sympathetic to the real concerns of pensioners in my constituency about the rising cost of fuel? Is he aware of the Age Concern report that says that more than 150,000 people aged over 65 died in the past six winters? What is his assessment of the current situation?

This Government have taken unprecedented action on energy efficiency and winter fuel payments compared with other Governments—I recall pressing another Government to take action 30 years ago, but only this Government have done so. My assessment of the situation is that, after years of progress because of our action, it is now much more difficult because of rising energy costs. We are therefore redoubling our efforts to ensure that we can tackle that evil problem through better targeting—although there are data protection issues—energy efficiency programmes, enhanced social tariffs and winter fuel payments.

Is the Minister aware that yesterday gas was trading at 57p a therm, but that the forward price for next winter is 94p a therm, an increase of more than 80 per cent. and twice the level at which it was trading last winter? Is he also aware that other European countries are seeing increases in their domestic energy prices of some 40 per cent. and experts here predict that we too may see increases of that shocking magnitude? Does he understand the pressure that that will have on all consumers, but especially the devastating effect that it will have on the increasing numbers in fuel poverty? What steps can the Minister take now to prepare for what will be a very tough winter and ensure that his commitment to remove vulnerable people from fuel poverty by 2010 is met?

We only recently had a meeting, hosted by Ofgem, with all the key Departments, and some announcements of new measures will be made soon. I have mentioned the recognition by the Chancellor in winter fuel payments and the recognition by the energy supply companies, encouraged by us, in trebling the amount that they offer through social tariffs. I am aware of the issues and I am even more interested in practical recommendations, so I would be happy to talk about that with the hon. Gentleman. We need to target our resources better, not least the energy efficiency programmes, and to examine whether new technologies such as microgeneration can make a contribution.

Minimum Wage

The start and finish dates of the national minimum wage bus campaign, which was part of a wider publicity campaign for the minimum wage, were 9 January and 9 March 2008. During this time, the bus visited 64 locations and received extensive media coverage. The Government also organised poster campaigns, radio advertising and online advertising about the minimum wage.

If we publicise the minimum wage, as we ought to, we must also enforce it. The more we publicise it, the more people want to see it enforced. A constituent who contacted me went to the national minimum wage unit for assistance, and it investigated the complaint, but she reported that it was heavily overworked and that there was a massive backlog of cases. Will my hon. Friend look at ways to strengthen the enforcement team to ensure that people who are entitled to the national minimum wage get it, too?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that the national minimum wage must be properly enforced. Over the past year, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which carries out the enforcement work, helped some 19,000 people recover about £3.8 million in arrears. The Government have put extra resources into enforcement and the Employment Bill, which is being discussed in the other place, will strengthen the system of penalties for that small minority of unscrupulous employers who refuse to pay the minimum wage. It will also strengthen the arrears system for people such as my hon. Friend’s constituent.

Postal Services

7. What progress has been made on the Hooper review on liberalisation of postal services; and if he will make a statement. (206987)

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

The review’s first report was published on 6 May. It described the current state of the Royal Mail business and changes taking place in the market. I have asked the review team to come forward with proposals later in the year to improve the efficiency of the service and to ensure that the universal postal service is maintained.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. The interim report concludes that only a handful of the big mail companies have benefited from liberalisation and that

“There have been no significant benefits for smaller businesses and domestic consumers.”

Will he use the interim report as the basis for starting the work in his Department on how a levy might be placed on those operating in the liberalised market that do not provide a universal service in order to support the universal service? If we wait for further conclusions, it might simply be too late.

I will not pre-empt the review team’s conclusions. We should all wait until we see the final recommendations from Richard Hooper’s team. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the principal beneficiaries of the liberalised postal services market have been the big-volume large corporations that have significant amounts of addressed letters going through. His constituents and mine have not seen a significantly improved service at all. We have to consider that very carefully.

Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), the fact is that liberalisation has meant that many companies can cherry-pick the most lucrative parts of the mail system. That is creating the problem for Royal Mail. Since in order to survive businesses rely on Royal Mail’s ability to deliver the last mile, it is essential that they be forced to pay towards maintaining that universal service. Otherwise, it will fall on the public purse to maintain the service so that we can supply mail across the country, and even to areas such as Orkney and Shetland.

We need a competitive regime for postal services that encourages innovation, new investment and so on, and that does so at a price that ordinary consumers can sustain. As I said, I shall not pre-empt the outcome of the report and I certainly shall not commit myself today to taking specific measures. We need to see the outcome of the wider study in which the review team are engaged to which our manifesto committed us.

As one who has always supported the Royal Mail and did not welcome the liberalisation, I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he agrees that my constituents, and his, have received a continually deteriorating service. It would be appalling if, having lost the second delivery, we lost the delivery on a Saturday. Will he do everything in his power to ensure that the people of this country get a decent service from the Royal Mail?

Yes, I will. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comment about the importance of a delivery on Saturday, too. I do not think that we will build confidence in the need for the taxpayer to continue to invest significant amounts of money in the Royal Mail—we are putting nearly £2 billion in to sustain the Royal Mail network and to modernise it to meet the challenges of the future—if the price is a constantly deteriorating service to consumers. We cannot build consensus on that basis and on those terms.

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the universal service obligation will not be watered down in any way?

Our commitment is to sustain the universal service obligation, and we have made that very clear. As the hon. Gentleman will know, sustaining the universal service is Postcomm’s principal responsibility, according to legislation that this House has passed. We believe strongly in the universal service obligation: it is an essential feature of our country and our civic, economic society that there should be a universal service, accessible across the country at a standard universal rate.

Given that the National Federation of SubPostmasters believes that the failure to keep the Post Office card account will result in a further 3,000 post offices closing, will the Secretary of State now listen to residents up and down the country? They are fed up with post office closures, as he will know from his own constituency, where he is trying to stop a closure. Will he give a firm undertaking that the decision on the card account will be announced in a statement to the House before the summer recess?

The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged from the Opposition Front Bench that there is a consensus in the House that the sub-post office network will need to be smaller. The shadow Secretary of State has made that commitment clear in this House, so I do not know quite what the hon. Gentleman’s point is. He will know that the Post Office card account is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, but I hope that an announcement can be made as soon as possible.

Open-cast Mining

I think that I am grateful for that reply. It was one of the shortest I have ever heard from the Minister, but I hope that he will have contact with UK Coal because, as he may be aware, the company plans to mine 900,000 tonnes of coal in my constituency. My constituents are reasonable people, and I hope that I am a reasonable person, too. We accept that coal has a part to play in Britain’s future energy mix, but does he accept that open-cast mining must take place in appropriate locations, and not in areas of outstanding natural beauty?

The hon. Gentleman has a great reputation for being a reasonable man, and that is why I gave him an accurate and reasonable answer, in plain English. I live in dread of Mr. Speaker reprimanding me for giving answers that are too long. However, I know that the issues to do with open-cast mining are controversial and I discuss them generally with the Coal Authority, although not specifically in relation to his county. We see coal as part of the mix, and that includes open-cast mining, although it needs to be undertaken in the most sustainable ways.

Pharmaceutical Sector

The UK is one of the world’s leading locations for pharmaceutical research and development, and the Government are committed to maintaining and strengthening that position.

I thank that Minister for his reply, as employment in the pharmaceutical sector remains a very important part of the business base in my constituency of Basingstoke. However, one of those employers, the Shire Pharmaceuticals Group, has decided to move its tax base from the UK to Ireland. Does he think that that decision was influenced by the fact that corporate tax in Ireland is less than half what the company has to pay in the UK? Does he share the CBI’s concern that the UK’s uncompetitive corporate tax system is spoiling this country’s attractiveness as a place to do business? As the company says, other firms that are internationally mobile—

I am slightly surprised that the hon. Lady did not note in her question that Shire has said that its UK employees will not face job losses or relocation. I recognise the concerns that she says Shire has about its tax position, but the UK has one of the lowest rates of corporation tax in the EU. She will know that the Chancellor has set up a group that will continue to look at tax competitiveness. There is a representative of the pharmaceutical industry in that group.

The Minister said that the UK is a world leader in pharmaceuticals, but my constituency of Slough is a national leader in biopharmaceuticals. However, if residents of Slough are to benefit from jobs in the knowledge economy, we need to have the appropriate skills in the local community. Will the Minister discuss with his colleagues in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills how we can prepare young people better for such high-value jobs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the reasons the pharmaceutical industry continues to see the UK as such a good place to be based is the quality of talent available to work in the sector. As she rightly acknowledges, we cannot afford to be complacent about that skills base, and we do need to put in place a series of further steps. That is one of the reasons, for example, that modern apprenticeships are being brought back. I am of course very happy to ensure that further discussions take place across government—not just with DIUS, but with the Department for Children, Schools and Families—to look at what else we can do in future to ensure that we have the skills that the pharmaceutical industry and other manufacturing industries need to continue to thrive.

Will the Minister accept that it is self-evident that a thriving pharmaceutical sector manufacturing drugs is reliant on a vigorous and successful retail sector? As a result, will he have input into the Department of Health’s current review of pharmacy services, to ensure that the unfair practice whereby supermarkets can force out small, family run pharmacies is put to an end immediately?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Competition Commission published a report on the retail sector. The Government are considering our response to it, which we hope to publish before the summer.

Renewable Energy

11. What the change in the amount of electricity generated from renewable sources in the UK has been over the last 10 years. (206991)

The amount of electricity generated from renewable sources increased by 12,500 GWh between 1996 and 2006, to be more than three times the level it was 10 years earlier. It now represents about 5 per cent. of our electricity. The Government will consult over the summer on what more we should do to increase renewable energy use to meet the UK’s share of the European Union 2020 renewable energy target.

Almost everybody wants to see more energy produced from renewable sources, but whenever an application is made for a wind turbine, there are objections and delays and, more often than not, a rejection of a proposal. Last week, I went with the International Development Committee to Germany and Denmark, and both are far ahead of where we are. Does my hon. Friend agree that the planning laws are resulting in millions of tonnes of carbon unnecessarily being pumped into the atmosphere? In fact, they are an ecological and environmental disaster. Will the Government do something about it?

Order. When supplementaries are too long, it is unfair to other hon. Members in the Chamber.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) never talks rubbish; it is a perfectly proper question. We are of course reforming the planning laws with the independent planning commission. Although it is perfectly right and proper that we safeguard the right of local communities to voice their concerns, we do need faster access to infrastructure because of climate change. There are a number of projects in the pipeline—renewables that will be built—and various reforms, including planning, will ease our progress.

Empty Property Relief

12. What discussions he has had with the Department for Communities and Local Government on the effect on small and medium-sized businesses of the abolition of empty property relief. (206992)

The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has regular discussions with other Government Departments on matters affecting business. The reform of empty property relief follows the recommendations of Kate Barker’s independent review of land use planning and Sir Michael Lyons’ independent inquiry into local government. The aim is to promote the supply of commercial property by providing a strong incentive for owners to re-use, re-let or redevelop their properties. This will improve competitiveness for all businesses that rent premises, including, of course, small and medium-sized enterprises.

Is the Minister aware that the proposals will have the opposite effect? Small property businesses in Kettering are telling me that they will not invest in property unless they have a client ready to move in on day one. Will that not reduce flexibility for business relocation and actually hinder economic growth?

It surely cannot be right that, as a perverse consequence of business rating, people had no real incentive to let properties, when many small businesses want them. It is not surprising that the Federation of Small Businesses called for empty property rates to be reformed in its submission to the Lyons inquiry. I would have thought that the approach that we are taking is good for business. If people cannot let because rents are too high, they should lower them. We are in favour of competition for small businesses.

Grocery Sector

13. What assessment he has made of the Competition Commission’s report on the grocery sector. (206993)

As I have said, the Government very much welcome the Competition Commission’s report on the UK grocery market. It is a detailed and thorough piece of work. My colleagues and I are considering the report and its recommendations and will provide an agreed Government response before the summer recess.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. In a debate last week, the Minister acknowledged that, if the major retailers failed to reach a voluntary conclusion on the supermarket code of practice and the establishment of an ombudsman,

“the Government will be asked to step in and legislate.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 13 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 372WH.]

Can the Minister envisage circumstances in which his Department would dismiss the findings and fail to step in?

With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I will not try to speculate about a range of different scenarios. The Competition Commission will engage with the retailers next week, as he knows, in the way that we discussed. We want agreed conclusions between the industry and the Competition Commission. If conclusions cannot be agreed between the two sides, we will have to look at the situation on its merits at the time. My understanding is that those conversations are taking place, that they are positive and that both sides are approaching them constructively, and I welcome that.

Topical Questions

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

The central purpose of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is to help to ensure the success of UK businesses 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, and we work to secure clean and competitively priced energy supplies.

I thank the Secretary of State, but when he goes back to his civil servants he should say that they left out the important words “protecting the consumer” from what he just said. Will he consider legislation to protect the consumer against abuse by mail order businesses, particularly some high-performing, big names in the retail market—Sainsbury’s, AOL and computer firms—so that instead of having to listen to Vivaldi six or seven times, or 100 times, we can get through to a live person for a swift remedy? Particularly disadvantaged are the poorest and most disadvantaged and inarticulate people who want swift remedies from those rogue but big-named retail outfits. Get my drift?

In my answer, I made it very clear that the central purpose of the Department is to support fair markets, and implicit in that is that we look after the needs of consumers. Fair markets do not exist unless there are proper consumer safeguard standards. On the point that my hon. Friend made, we have put in additional resources and strengthened the law to deal with the abuses that he and others have brought to our attention in the House. I reject absolutely his suggestion that we are not bothered about the needs of consumers. We put a very high premium indeed on protecting consumers from unfair trading practices.

T3. Having closed a swathe of post offices under the so-called urban network reinvention programme between 2002 and 2004 and now closing another swathe of post offices across the country, presumably as part of a grand plan to whittle down the Post Office to about one, will the Secretary of State tell me about the consultation process? Frankly, most people in my constituency and I think across the country, believe that the entire consultation process is a complete sham. (207005)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, successive Governments have had to deal with the reality of facing the change in postal services. Several thousand post offices closed under the Conservative Government. We have to deal with the fact that consumers are using the Post Office less. We have new technology in the digital age. In fact, people can now download stamps online without needing to go to a post office to buy them. That is the economic reality that we must deal with, so it is an extremely difficult situation.

We understand and acknowledge the importance of local sub-post offices and the support for them that has been expressed up and down the country. We have tried to design a consultation process that extends the maximum opportunity for people to be involved in making what at the end of the day the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have to understand are important decisions that must be made if the post office network is to have a secure long-term future. We are providing nearly £2 billion-worth of subsidy for the Post Office to support a significantly larger network of sub-post offices than would be the case if we were approaching the issue solely on a strictly commercial basis. We are doing our very best to ensure that the changes are made in the most fair and sensible way possible.

Salmon farming is a big employer in my constituency. There are concerns that the minimum import price for salmon might be under threat. What efforts are being made to maintain the minimum import price for salmon, particularly at a European level?

The hon. Gentleman may know that anti-dumping duties have been imposed. A review of anti-dumping duties is currently being undertaken. We have made clear our concerns about continued dumping affecting the Scottish salmon industry. We have had discussions directly with the Scottish Executive and, crucially, made joint representations to the European Commission, in particular to the Trade Commissioner.

T2. My hon. Friend issued a written statement following the conclusion of the Farepak inquiry and said that regulation would be considered in the light of action taken by surviving Christmas savings schemes. However, in the past few years other retailers outside that group have also gone bust, which has had a disproportionate effect on people who can least afford it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke earlier about the need to look after consumers. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is time that we looked at consumers and the prepayment industry in general? (207004)

My hon. Friend is right to acknowledge the considerable concerns in many communities across the UK about the collapse of Farepak and what that means for the prepayments industry in general. He may not be aware that we are in conversation with the industry about the case for regulation, looking at it in the light of the work done by the companies investigation branch. He will know, as a result of the written ministerial statement, that we are taking legal advice following the completion of that report, and we are considering whether further regulation of the industry is needed.

This week an international conference began in Dublin to negotiate a ban on cluster bombs. Given his Department’s review of the Export Control Act 2002, will the Minister commit to a ban on the trade in all such weapons, and will he extend that control to UK persons trading from anywhere in the world?

We are engaged in a major review of export control. We have already announced a number of extra controls, including the extraterritorial role of British citizens in relation to small arms, for example, and MANPADS—man-portable air defence systems. The review is continuing and we are examining that important aspect.

T4. The Secretary of State must accept that the consultation on post offices was flawed, and he must take responsibility for that. North Yorkshire county council wrote to him in January this year, saying that one of the fundamental criteria on which the consultation was based—namely, that no resident would be further than 3 miles from a post office—simply cannot be met in rural parts of north Yorkshire. What reply has he given to North Yorkshire county council in that point? (207007)

I do not accept the hon. Lady’s allegation that the consultation process was flawed. She will know that the work that was done in defining the terms of the national access criteria included the provision of suitable outreach and mobile postal services. As I said earlier, we are doing our level best to find the most sensible way of resolving the fundamental economic issue that has to be addressed about the future viability of the post office network, and it does no one—the hon. Lady or anyone else—any good to bury their head in the sand when it comes to the fundamental economics that must be addressed.

T5. Will the Minister, working with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, tackle the issue of the travel industry vastly inflating the cost of family holidays during school holidays, especially when we are urging parents not to take their children out of school in term time? (207009)

A former consumer affairs Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), held a series of discussions with the travel industry and the Department for Children, Schools and Families to consider that issue. I am happy to re-examine the effectiveness of the measures that were agreed with the travel industry, because there are ongoing concerns about the travel industry raising prices outside term time.

When considering how best to encourage inward investment into this country, is it not the case that having nine regional development agencies and three devolved Assemblies, all of which are opening offices abroad—often in the same city, let alone the same country—dilutes the UK plc brand and does not effectively deal with our balance of payments deficit?

Last year was a record year for attracting foreign direct investment into the UK, and we are set for another record year this year. If the hon. Gentleman’s argument is that we are not doing enough to attract foreign direct investment, he has got his sums, his maths and his analysis totally wrong.

I say to the Secretary of State that that is exactly what I am arguing. Over the past three years, Germany has more than tripled its balance of payments trade surplus, but the UK has quadrupled its balance of trade deficit. Why have the British Government not introduced a proper policy to deal with that problem?

The hon. Gentleman is confusing a number of different issues. The fundamental issue that he has raised is the efficiency and effectiveness of the UK in attracting investment. I repeat that last year was a record year for attracting new investment into the UK and that we will have another record year this year.

T6. When a business takes its social responsibilities seriously, it enhances the community in which it is situated and does good for those working within it. There are fantastic examples of that in Crawley, where BAA has helped to build centres— (207010)

I am sure that businesses in Crawley and elsewhere—great British companies—take corporate responsibility very seriously and do excellent work around the country. The Department encourages that practice both internationally, through UK Trade and Investment, and domestically, through the corporate social responsibility website, which provides good advice on such matters.

T7. The energy charter treaty is an important legal instrument that supposedly provides legal protection for international energy companies that invest in places such as Russia. Does the Minister for Energy share my concern that the Russian Government do not appear to respect the letter or spirit of that treaty? (207011)

Yes, I do. At all meetings at ministerial and other levels, we urge Russia to sign the charter for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, and we will continue to press that case. We need a good, business-like, professional relationship with Russia, given its energy importance and given the importance of Europe to Russia as a principal customer.

We all know that the public will always oppose post office closures. I want to put on record my thanks to Allan Leighton, the chairman of the Post Office, who considered an application to abandon the proposed closure of Micklegate post office in York. That closure had been approved at three levels of appeal by Post Office managers, but Allan Leighton considered the facts, which members of the public and I sent him, and turned down the closure, and I thank him for that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I will certainly draw his comments to Allan Leighton’s attention.

T8. In his earlier response, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), said how important the pharmaceutical sector was to the UK economy. Does he share my concern that the actions of his colleagues in the Department of Health in renegotiating the pharmaceutical price regulation scheme halfway through its five-year agreement do little to foster a sense of stability in the UK’s pharmaceutical sector and do much to say that the Government do not support the sector as much as they should? (207012)

No, I do not share the hon. Lady’s view. I welcome the fact that the industry is engaging as effectively as it is with the Department of Health. Those commercially sensitive negotiations are taking place, and we need to allow them to reach their conclusion, so that we can achieve better value for money for the health service and continue to secure the future of the pharmaceutical industry in the UK.

May I ask the Secretary of State whether he will have discussions with the Secretary of State for Health to assess the effect on the nation’s blood pressure of the increase in automated phone calls, to which the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) referred? There is nothing more excruciating than being put on hold by a series of Dalek voices.

I shall examine the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, although I am not going to promise that I can take forward that review. Perhaps this holds out the prospect that the Conservative party will do less phone canvassing in Crewe.

Yesterday, the Government got a Second Reading for their plans to create the local better regulation office, which will be staffed by bureaucrats. It will cost £73 million a year, in order to look after other regulators, and will be imposed on local government. If it is such a good idea, could we not have such an office for national Government, and may I suggest that it be called the department of administrative affairs and that the Secretary of State head it?

I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s estimate of the costs, but I know that the Bill passed unopposed by his party yesterday. [Interruption.]

Order. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), he was on the Front Bench this morning and he cannot now go to the Back Bench. If someone is going to be a journeyman on the Front Bench, they cannot be an apprentice on the Back Bench.