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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 481: debated on Thursday 23 October 2008

Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

The Minister of State was asked—

National Minimum Wage

1. What representations he has received on the effects on the observance of the national minimum wage of employers who overcharge migrant workers for accommodation. (229212)

Within the minimum wage there is an allowable accommodation offset, currently set at £4.46 a day. It is considered every year by the Low Pay Commission, and representations on its level are normally directed at the commission.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that although foreign workers, particularly from the EU countries, are an essential part of our economy, it is not acceptable for employers to undercut local employment by abusing the minimum wage, accommodation charges and charges to transport workers to and from their place of work? That has been a problem in Lincolnshire in relation to rogue gangmasters, but it is not confined to them. Can he assure me that such issues will be cracked down on, and that the people responsible will be punished?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. The minimum wage has been in place for a decade now, and there is no excuse for the practices that he sets out. With that in mind, the Government have allocated extra support to enforcement of the minimum wage—some £3 million more a year—but we are also changing the law through the Employment Bill, which is currently before the House. It will increase the arrears for any employee who is not paid the minimum wage and stiffen the penalty regime against the employer who does not pay it. Those measures are absolutely right and in the interests of both low-paid workers and the vast majority of good businesses that obey the law and treat their workers decently.

How many prosecutions have there been of employers who have abused the minimum wage and exploited workers in this way?

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which recovers arrears on the minimum wage, has up to now placed its emphasis on that and recovers several million pounds a year, so there have been relatively few prosecutions. One change that we are making in the Employment Bill is to give the enforcement officers extra powers. The Opposition did table some amendments on the matter, but I am glad that they did not press them to the vote.

When I was undertaking research for my private Member’s Bill on temporary and agency workers I came across such scams day in, day out. Some of them are covered by current legislation and some will need fresh regulation. Can my hon. Friend assure me that now that the agency workers directive is in force—it came into force this week—the Government will implement the necessary changes to enforce it?

The agency workers directive is not yet in force, but it has been agreed. Of course, that agreement was made possible in part by an agreement reached in this country between business and employee representatives on how to take it forward. That has been reflected in the directive, which represents a much better deal for the United Kingdom than previous drafts of the directive that have been discussed in recent years.

But does the Minister agree that the biggest influence on wage levels is the supply of labour? Under the circumstances, does he agree with the immigration Minister that immigrant labour should not replace indigenous labour?

I think that migrant workers from other countries have made a very significant contribution to economic growth in this country in recent years. When it comes to the future, we have the new points-based system. The idea behind that is precisely to match the demands of the labour market with migrants coming from other countries.

What steps is my hon. Friend’s Department taking to promote employment rights to the low-paid and increase their awareness of the minimum wage?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We will spend some £850,000 on minimum wage awareness over the next year, which will include advertising on radio and efforts to communicate with migrant workers who, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) said, can sometimes be subject to exploitation in this area. It will also include direct mail to employers to ensure that they are aware of the rates, which were increased on 1 October.

Post Office Network

When he next expects to meet the National Federation of SubPostmasters to discuss the future of the post office network. (229215)

The Secretary of State met the general secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters on 15 October to discuss a range of matters relating to the future of the post office network. I have had regular contact with the federation since I came into the job 16 months or so ago, and I will continue to do so.

The Minister will be aware that the branch network in East Anglia, and west Norfolk in particular, has been devastated. The one crystal clear message we hear from the remaining sub-post offices is that they are determined to keep the Post Office card account. I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), about that yesterday. Although he was sympathetic, he basically said, “Not me, guv. It is down to Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions.” Will the Minister of State and the newly ennobled Business Secretary get a grip of this matter, and give a clear guarantee that the Post Office card account will be kept?

I understand the value of the Post Office card account to the post office network; the general secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters has made his views on that clear. I stress what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said to the House on Monday—this decision is subject to competitive tendering, no decision has yet been made and it will be made in the proper way.

My hon. Friend will be aware that many MPs in Wales have been trying to work with the federation and local government to sign an accord providing for more council services to go through the post office network. Can he tell the House what progress has been made on that, given that he hosted the first meeting? Does he agree that if we are to have a sustainable network, we need local authorities to invest in local communities through the post office network?

Local authorities will always want to consider the outlets for their services, and that will include post offices. For example, most local authorities offer people a range of ways in which to pay bills and the option of paying council tax online. That reflects the changes that people are making in their lives and the decline of business in the post offices in recent years. Of course, even after the current closure process is completed, the Post Office will still have an unmatchable reach in urban and rural communities, involving many more than 11,000 branches. That is a valuable asset to anyone interested in delivering services and reaching local communities.

If, in the next few days, Post Office Ltd confirms its initial proposal to close Bengeworth post office in my constituency, it will entirely forfeit my confidence in its common sense and commercial judgment. However, if the Post Office card account is not awarded to Post Office Ltd, many more post offices in my constituency and around the country will face closure. In the context of the Government’s understandable concern about small businesses, may I remind the Minister of the crucial role that rural sub-post offices play for many struggling small businesses?

The Chairman of the Select Committee on Business and Enterprise makes a good point about the value of post offices to small businesses. He again mentioned the Post Office card account, but I cannot go any further than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who told the House on Monday that this decision would be taken in a proper way, and that when there is an announcement to be made, we will make it.

I return to the impact of the possible loss of the Post Office card account. The Post Office has a poor record of tendering competitively for these sorts of services. I hope that the Minister has ensured that those in the Post Office who are preparing its tender have emphasised the network’s strength, not in terms of its numbers, because PayPoint outnumbers it now, but in terms of its proximity to the communities that it seeks to serve with the benefits that would be distributed through the card account.

I am sure that all the bidders for this work, including the Post Office, will have tried to maximise the strengths of their bid by pointing out the strengths of their network. As I say, I appreciate the value of the card account to the post office network. When we have an announcement to make on this matter, it will be made.

The Minister has recognised that the Post Office has an unmatchable reach. If that is the case and if the card account contract is not given to the Post Office, our constituents will get a poorer service from whatever the replacement is. His Department has said that it wants to make life easier for small business and that it wants to speed up payments and everything else. Surely it needs to speed up decision making, because small businesses need to make investment decisions. If people do not know whether they are going to get the card account contract, how can they plan for the future of their local sub-post office?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s impatience and I know that the House is keen to hear the results of the tendering process. When we have made a decision on this, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it will be announced in the normal and proper way.

I hear what my hon. Friend says and it was interesting to hear what his colleagues at the DWP have said. Does he realise that the Post Office has wonderful opportunities in these times of financial crisis? In particular, an opportunity is presented by the credit union movement. Will he go back to the federation and to the Post Office to see what opportunities there are for launching the credit union movement nationally by using post offices so that our constituents have safe ways to save and borrow?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Post Office has seen increasing success in offering financial services over the past couple of years, and not only in the area he mentions: the Post Office is now the leading retailer of foreign currency in the country, is expanding in insurance and offers deposit savings that I understand have been quite popular in recent months.

I hope that we can all agree on the importance of the Post Office network to all communities, particularly rural communities. As has been mentioned, the renewal of the Post Office card account will be vital to maintaining footfall. In that regard, is the Minister aware of the recent press speculation that the contract is to be split between Post Office Ltd and a number of other suppliers? Is he also aware that most sub-postmasters would regard that as the final nail in their coffin? Will he take the opportunity to reassure them?

I am aware of all sorts of speculation; whether it is wise to comment on it is another matter. I am certainly aware of the value of the card account to the post office network, but as I have said, the decision will be taken in the proper way by the Department for Work and Pensions. When a decision is reached, it will be announced in the normal way.

In Loughborough, we have already gone through the closure programme, having lost four post offices. I would like to press the Minister on the level of compensation that is paid and whether there is any flexibility. A constituent of mine who had a post office and a Chinese food business that served the Chinese community at Loughborough university in particular feels that the amount of compensation in relation to the length of his lease is not adequate. Is there any flexibility in the scheme? Is there any hope that my hon. Friend can give to me as I go back to that constituent next week to try to sort the matter out?

The compensation for sub-postmasters leaving the network as a result of the closures over the past year was negotiated with the National Federation of SubPostmasters. On the whole, the system of compensation is generous, which is quite right; it is paid in recognition of the very valuable contribution that those sub-postmasters have made to local communities over the years.

Given that there are some 4 million users of the Post Office card account, equating to some 10 per cent. of sub-postmasters’ net income, are not the Government slightly ashamed that they continue to delay the tender process for POCA’s replacement? Will the Minister explain why the delays continue, and tell us when the announcement will be made and certainty given to customers and staff of the Post Office?

We are certainly not ashamed. We have put large financial sums into supporting the Post Office network: some £150 million a year. Without that level of subsidy, thousands more branches would be under threat because the Post Office is losing £500,000 a day and has lost 4 million customers a week in recent years. The decision on the card account will be taken in the proper way by colleagues at the DWP and, when we are ready, it will be announced in the normal and proper way.

In terms of his admiration for the private sector, the last Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was known to be on our party’s right wing, but the present one seems to be off the pitch and somewhere in the directors’ box. Can my hon. Friend tell me whether he thinks that Lord Mandelson’s inclination towards part-privatisation will go down well with the National Federation of SubPostmasters when next he meets it?

I think that the Secretary of State will do a great job on the pitch. It is always good for a team to have its best players on the pitch. He has been on loan to another team, but I am glad that he is back playing a proper role. My hon. Friend’s question refers more to the Hooper review, which will report shortly.

Construction Industry

The global credit crunch is affecting all economies, including the UK. Overall, the construction industry is experiencing a significant downturn in activity, but some sectors are faring better than others. The housing and commercial sectors are being hit hardest. However, the outlook for other parts of the industry is more positive due to major programmes of work such as Crossrail, the Olympics and the Building Schools for the Future programme.

The Minister mentions the Chancellor’s solution to the problem, which is to bring forward major infrastructure and construction projects—a massive spending splurge paid for by a borrowing splurge. But does he really think that that will address the problems facing small construction companies, especially in the housing sector, that are facing problems this week and this month?

As I said, the housing and commercial sectors are among the hardest hit at the moment. We announced a package of measures on 2 September, some of which will help the housing sector. I would have thought that the Opposition would want to welcome the bringing forward of infrastructure investment, because such investment is important for the UK’s long-term future and, if we can speed up the investment process, it will create new jobs for prime contractors and down through the construction supply chain. That will be valuable at this difficult economic time and will be welcomed by those who work in the construction industry.

I am sure that the Minister is concerned about the fate of house builders across the UK. In that context, is he aware that house builders in Scotland face particular problems from rule changes introduced by the Scottish Government, which require housing associations to borrow a greater proportion of money for new affordable housing developments from the private sector? That is reducing the scope for such developments and making matters worse for the house building sector. Will he raise that with Ministers in the Scottish Government to ensure that the entire UK house building industry is given the boost that it needs?

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. As he will be aware, that is a devolved matter, but I hope that the Scottish Government would recognise, as the UK Government do, that the housing sector is an important part of the UK economy, and regulation needs to be proportionate and appropriate. We do not want regulation that gets in the way of construction projects that need to continue at this point in time.

My hon. Friend mentions the need for regulation to be proportionate and appropriate. Even in the good times, the construction industry makes use of false self-employment, which often leaves people unprotected and uninsured. Construction also suffers from high levels of health and safety risks. Now there is a downturn and competition is tight, those problems will increase, so can he make the regulatory agencies aware of the need for extra vigilance to protect people employed in that industry?

My hon. Friend makes a good point about health and safety issues in the construction sector. As he will be aware, we already have rigorous inspection regimes and it is important that we continue to be vigilant in regulating the construction sector. It is done through a risk-assessment methodology, and that is the right approach.

The broader point is that during these difficult economic times, it is right for the Government to want to invest in major construction projects that will bring long-term benefits to the UK economy, and that is what we will continue to do with programmes such as Building Schools for the Future and the new hospitals project. Only this week, we saw the 100th new hospital build implemented. Those programmes are important for the UK economy and we need to continue to make progress with them.

Many construction firms are facing a double whammy with projects being cancelled on the one hand and credit being withdrawn on the other. What they need, investment plans notwithstanding, is help with their cash flow. Given that, and given the potential appalling impact on jobs in that sector and in those sectors that rely on it, why are the Government refusing to let small firms defer their VAT payments? After all, they did it for farmers in 2001. Why will they not help builders now?

I would be very interested if the hon. Gentleman could give us the cost of his VAT deferral proposal—

I do not accept that suggestion from a sedentary position.

Obviously, we will consider all representations, but the Conservative party’s policy, as I understand it, is to say that it wants a 1 per cent. cut on national insurance and it wants a VAT payment holiday. It will pay for that by cutting tax reliefs, but those reliefs are important to businesses and to their long-term investments, so I do not think that that is a responsible strategy. The simple fact of the matter is that the Government have taken action to recapitalise banks and to ensure that banks will continue to make available competitive lending to small businesses. I would like to think that that would be widely welcomed.

May I reinforce the Minister’s point? In constituencies such as mine, many jobs are dependent on the Government’s sustaining their public sector investment. Will the Minister assure me that he will do everything within his power to press the appropriate ministries to sustain that investment in the coming years?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The public sector construction market is hugely important given that it counts for about 40 per cent. of the industry’s total output. At this point in time it would be grossly irresponsible to do anything other than to continue to seek strong investment in our national infrastructure. The public sector can lead the way in continuing to ensure that there is strong demand and that there are jobs in the construction sector. That is the responsible thing to do in difficult economic times. To suggest that we should cut that investment, which is what the Opposition seem to want to do, or to reject our proposals to do more, would not be welcomed by the public, who are concerned about construction jobs and about jobs more generally in our economy.

Small Businesses

4. What steps his Department is taking to help small businesses in town centres and ensure that shop premises do not remain vacant. (229219)

The Government are committed to supporting small businesses, including shops, which play an important part in local communities. Yesterday, we announced a cross-Government package of support that focuses on the things businesses have identified as top priorities: cash flow, access to finance and training for staff. We will also continue to promote policies to support vibrant town centres.

There are about 500 empty businesses in my local authority area and that number is rising. It is customers with money in their pockets who keep shops open and the best way to that end is to have decently paid jobs and good inward investment, but the biggest barrier to investment in my area is transport links. The Government have said that they want to bring forward infrastructure projects. Will the Minister give his support to bringing forward the Kingskerswell bypass linking Torbay to the motorway and dual carriageway network? The absence of that link is the biggest barrier to investment that my constituents face.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to raise that transport issue at an appropriate point in Transport Question Time. His general point, however, is important, and it is about what we can do to help people and businesses during difficult economic times. The best thing that we can do is to continue to provide a package of support for small businesses that are going through difficult times. That is why we made the announcement that we did yesterday. In this difficult macro-economic climate, we need to take some fairly fundamental decisions about borrowing, too, and that is what the Government are doing.

In his answer, the Minister rightly pointed out that cash flow is a big issue for small businesses. However, although there may have been argument in favour of empty property taxes in the boom times, does he accept that they compound the problem in the down times? Will he reconsider the matter, to help small businesses and others to get through this difficult period?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, both the Barker and Lyons reviews suggested that we should end vacant property relief, and that is what happened in April. That relief was regarded as a £1.3 billion subsidy for owners of commercial property, and not for the small and medium-sized businesses that are the backbone of this country’s economy. We need to help small and medium-sized businesses, and that is the focus of the package that the Government announced this week. That package has been welcomed by the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Chambers of Commerce. I hope that the Opposition will welcome it too.

Barker and Lyons reported before the recession. What we need from the Government is specific action now, not mere generalities and platitudes. One specific thing that is within the Government’s power is to suspend the rates on empty properties. Will the Minister do that, and do it now?

I can understand that the hon. Gentleman feels passionate about this issue. We are going through challenging economic circumstances: it looks as though we have tougher times ahead, and the best thing that I can say is that we need a Government who are on the side of hard-working people. We are providing help for small businesses with health checks, training support and business advice. In addition, the Government are a huge purchaser and we have said that we will ensure that we will pay our bills promptly. We are introducing all those measures at the moment, and a range of other measures is already available through the Business Link programme. The Government are committed to ensuring that support for business continues to be delivered effectively.

This may be the first occasion on which a Minister of Cabinet rank is not available to answer questions in this House. Many consider that to be a complete insult to the democratic process.

Small shops need rate relief and credit lines, but there is an enormous gap between the Government’s words about banks being prepared to lend to small businesses and the reality on the ground. Even now, banks are cancelling overdraft facilities left, right and centre, often at just two days’ notice. Does the Minister accept that that is already driving many businesses to the wall?

I am certainly very aware that there is anecdotal evidence of the practices that the hon. Gentleman describes. It is one of the reasons why the Chancellor and my noble Friend Lord Mandelson are meeting the banks today. It is clearly right at this time that banks should continue to make lending available to small businesses. One of the conditions of the bank recapitalisation fund that we announced two weeks ago is that banks must continue to make competitively priced loans available to small businesses. We are discussing that with the banks and will continue to do so, because we want to make sure that small businesses are helped through this difficult time. We do not want the banks to turn off the tap and cause good businesses to face huge financial problems.

The Government say that there should be more lending, but they then add—understandably, I suppose—that financial conditions will have to be met. In a recession, are not those conditions bound to stop the lending that is promised? Whatever propaganda we get from the Government about what they want to happen, there will in fact be a further serious contraction in lending by banks to business, and not much of the promised expansion in lending.

It is not the role of Government to make decisions on lending between individual banks and companies, and it is right and proper that that business be conducted in the normal way. However, the Government can talk to the banks about the principles that underpin their lending—the instructions that go from head office to branches and the managers who make decisions with companies on a day-to-day basis. It is right that the Government should show a strong interest in that, and right that when talking to banks about the bank recapitalisation package, we insist that they do all that they can to support small businesses and home owners with mortgages in these difficult economic times, and we are committed to doing just that. The hon. Gentleman should welcome that, not criticise it.

Grocery Sector Ombudsman

5. What recent assessment he has made of the progress made by the Competition Commission in establishing a grocery sector ombudsman. (229220)

The Competition Commission is undertaking an informal consultation on how to establish an ombudsman and is arranging a series of meetings with interested parties. Subject to responses, the commission plans to publish shortly, for wider consultation, a final order on the groceries supply code of practice and undertakings in relation to the ombudsman.

I am sure that the Minister will congratulate the Competition Commission on a thorough, balanced report, which draws conclusions and makes recommendations. Crucially, the commission found that

“the transfer of unexpected costs and excessive risk”

by supermarkets would impede investment and innovation, and would ultimately affect consumer interests, too. In what circumstances would the Government contradict the commission’s carefully considered conclusions and recommendations, particularly with regard to the establishment of the ombudsman?

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for pointing out to him that the Competition Commission published its report at the end of April. I acknowledge that it did a thorough piece of work. I hope that he acknowledges that the Government, who published their response to that document some three months later, after we had had the chance to talk to a number of interested parties about the commission’s recommendations, also did a thorough job of work in thinking about how to respond to the commission. I hope that he will forgive us if, rather than speculate on what might happen and what might be in the order that the commission publishes, we wait to see what happens in the forthcoming consultation. We will allow the commission to do its work, and we will review our position at the end of the process.

Topical Questions

Our Secretary of State has the Department firmly focused on working with business in this difficult economic period and on making sure that business comes out the other side of this period with the entrepreneurial strength and creativity for which British business is renowned across the world.

The best thing that the Government could do to help small businesses is get off their backs. If the Government do not do something to ease the taxation, regulatory and employment cost burdens on small businesses, many thousands of them will go to the wall and many thousands of people will lose their jobs. May I therefore suggest that one of the first things he should look to do is exempt small businesses from huge swathes of regulation that some bigger businesses might be able to afford, but many small businesses certainly cannot?

I agree that regulation can be a cost to businesses. We need some regulation because we operate in a society and a labour market with rules, but the Government make a significant effort to reduce administrative burdens. We have identified some £800 million of administrative burdens to be cut—for example, many small businesses no longer have to appoint a company secretary or have an annual general meeting, which saves costs, and we have made a number of other changes. The general point that the hon. Gentleman raises about regulation is fair, and the matter is one that the Government take seriously. We make a significant effort across Government to make sure that regulatory burdens are no greater than they need to be.

T5. On the need to look at regulation across Government, in a time of great economic uncertainty, the glass industry has begun to suffer. It is a multinational industry, but Ardagh Glass has already closed a furnace in Worksop, and United Glass is closing a plant in Harlow. All those factories are affected by climate change legislation, including the integrated pollution prevention and control directive and the climate change levy, which has been increased even before its first term has run out. They are also affected by huge gas prices and by the emissions trading regulations. All those pieces of legislation or regulatory burdens are dealt with by other Departments—either the Department of Energy and Climate Change or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—but will my hon. Friend get together with colleagues across Government, as he has mentioned, to consider how to relieve that environmental taxation burden on industries such as the glass industry? (229236)

I know that the glass industry is important in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Overall, it is worth about £1.2 billion annually and provides about 28,000 jobs. He is right that climate change agreements and the EU emissions trading scheme cover the glass sector. We are obviously not going to reduce our commitment to climate change agreements, which are beneficial, or to the EU emissions trading scheme, which we strongly support, but he is right to point out the burden of some regulations, and I am certainly happy to meet him and talk to colleagues in the new Department for Energy and Climate Change about those issues.

T2. Is the £350 million that has been announced to help to train staff in small and medium-sized enterprises new money or warmed-up old money? (229233)

It is money that is part of the budget of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to the period 2010-11. We decided to give priority to small businesses, which I would have thought all parties in the House would welcome. We have also announced that we will remove some restrictions on how that money is spent. We have refocused measures, so that there will be less regulation on how the money is spent and so that it can be used to help to provide bite-sized chunks of training for companies. Companies that face having to go on to short-time working can take the opportunity to retrain staff, rather than lay them off. That is a sensible thing to do during difficult economic times, and it will be welcomed by business.

T3. Since the Department is responsible for regional development agencies, will a Minister—any Minister—tell the House what exactly regional Ministers do? What is the point of them, apart from their acting as regional cheerleaders for the Labour party? (229234)

Regional Ministers play an important role in working with businesses in their local area in difficult economic times, as do RDAs. The other night, we debated in the House measures to help small businesses. RDAs are an important part of that work, because they can always move more quickly on information on the ground in local areas, and respond in a timely and appropriate matter.

As my hon. Friends are aware, it is just over two years since the collapse of Farepak and people are still looking for answers to what happened to their money. Two weeks ago in business questions, I asked about the report commissioned by the Government, and I was given an assurance by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House, who said:

“The fact that they are still waiting for the report is not acceptable. I thank him for raising the issue…We really do need to get the matter sorted out. I will work with the Deputy Leader of the House to make sure that we get some answers fast.”—[Official Report, 9 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 419.]

When are those people going to get answers?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I know that he and a number of other Members have continued to pursue the matter extremely closely. He will be aware that the companies investigation branch of the Department has been investigating what went wrong in that case and has completed its investigation. As my hon. Friend may know, legal advice is being sought to decide whether there are grounds for prosecution or disqualification.

T4. On the subject of the part-privatisation of Royal Mail, we were told a few minutes ago that Richard Hooper’s report on independent mail services was due to be published soon. When the Secretary of State appeared before the Select Committee on Tuesday this week, he said that he was contemplating giving additional work to that review team. Can the Minister say what additional work is planned and what impact that will have on the publication timetable? (229235)

The Hooper review is considering the changed context in which Royal Mail operates in terms of competition not only from other mail providers, but from other technologies. That competition has seen the volume of mail decline by 2 or 3 per cent. a year in recent years in this country and in others. The Hooper review must take all these changes into account in compiling its report, and that is exactly what the review team is doing.

T6. Further to the Minister’s statement yesterday on small businesses, does he agree that a consensus is emerging that the public sector could make a real difference to small and medium-sized enterprises if the entire public sector paid its invoices on time? Will the Minister confirm that central Government, local government, quangos and agencies will all pay SMEs’ invoices within 10 days? (229237)

The Government’s commitment to make payments within 10 days is an important one and we already monitor that through Department annual plans. The majority of Government payments are made within 10 days, but we want to do better. The regional development agencies, which each spend £750 million a year, have also committed to pay within 10 days. We are spending public money, and in matters of the public purse we need to ensure that we do so in a proper way. We must make sure that invoices are correct and that goods and services of the right quality have been delivered. Once those assurances have been provided, we need to get cracking and ensure that we pay promptly. That is important for small businesses facing cash flow problems. We are doing all we can to deliver that through the Government system.

I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that the creation of the Internet Governance Forum with a five-year mandate from the United Nations was a British diplomatic triumph, and that the creation of the UK Internet Governance Forum is a good example of co-operation between Government, industry and Parliament. Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to promote international co-operation in the long term is to use the UK IGF to make the UK the safest place in the world to do business online?

I agree with my right hon. Friend, who makes some important points. I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done on the matter over many years. We are committed to ensuring the success of the multi-stakeholder Internet Governance Forum. It is largely due to his actions that the UK has taken such a leadership role in this area, and we will endeavour to continue to do that in the future. I am happy to work with him. As he knows, our noble Friend Lord Carter will meet him shortly to discuss these issues.

T7. The Minister will know that my constituency, Romford, has a wide variety of small and independent local businesses that serve our community, one of which is the Havering Christian bookshop. Many such organisations are struggling to survive in the present economic climate. What will the Government do to nurture and protect small businesses such as that? (229238)

In addition to the series of measures mentioned by my fellow Ministers, the hon. Gentleman may wish to check that the small business he mentions has sought to claim small business rate relief, a measure that is helping to reduce the administrative burdens on small businesses. It was opposed by his party but we have introduced it none the less, and it makes a real difference. If the business does not know how to claim, it should check the local council’s website, where the form should be shown.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

NAO Corporate Plan

1. What the procedure is for the Public Accounts Commission’s consideration of the National Audit Office’s corporate plan. (229204)

The National Audit Office normally prepares a corporate plan in July each year. The Public Accounts Commission then questions the Comptroller and Auditor General, and if it is content, it approves the plan.

What support is the National Audit Office providing to Select Committees of the House, and does it have any plans to extend it?

The National Audit Office has plans to extend the support it gives, but that work is growing rapidly anyway. The NAO provides support within its areas of expertise, such as analysis of financial statements, value for money, performance evaluation and financial management and reporting. In addition, it provides staff on short-term secondments to Select Committees and to the Committee Office scrutiny unit. As I have said, the support has been increasing. In 2007-08, the NAO assisted 17 parliamentary Select Committees in addition to the Public Accounts Committee.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that one of the new roles that the Government have given the National Audit Office is to audit the figures in the Red Book following the pre-Budget statement. An increasing task in that Red Book work will be on the alarming increase in debt, which has to be repaid and serviced. Can he give the House an assurance that there will be sufficient resources in the National Audit Office’s corporate plan to deal with that increasing task?

At the moment, the corporate plan has an increase of 3 per cent. a year for the next three years. I have received no representations for any extra resources as yet. Obviously, if there were a request, we would consider it.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Financial Stability

2. What recent assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the impact of recent economic events on the financial stability of the Church of England. (229205)

If I might differ slightly from the Church of England by way of assessment, I should say that the Church Commissioners manage their investments proactively and are able to move swiftly when economic circumstances change. Even before the credit crunch began, they sensed that times were changing and acted accordingly. Between 2005 and early 2007, they sold more than £400 million of residential property at prices near the top of the market, and they made £250 million from commercial property sales during the same period. However, in the Church of England we must not overlook the role of individual churchgoers in funding the Church’s vital contribution to the spiritual life of this country.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York were enthusiastically applauded by the public for their recent broadsides against the financial yobs in the City, yet the Church Commissioners’ investment practices, including sales of mortgage portfolios and depositing many millions of pounds in hedge funds, seem to undermine the authority of the archbishops’ acerbic articles. What discussions has the Church’s ethical investment advisory group had to ensure that that sort of investment is proscribed, not least because it risks the spiritual as well as the financial stability of our Church?

The statements of the archbishops added a moral dimension to the current global financial crisis. The commissioners are in regular touch with the ethical investment advisory group, and are in contact with it again in the light of the archbishops’ comments. I assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to our ethical investment policy, which is of long standing, and that all the commissioners’ investment decisions are informed by the work of the ethical investment advisory group.

Can the hon. Gentleman assure me that the financial pressures facing the Church Commissioners will not lead them to any precipitate action in relation to Hartlebury castle, the historic home of the Bishops of Worcester? He will know that discussions are taking place in Worcestershire to ensure that public access to the castle remains and to ensure the continuity of the Hurd library in its historic location. I hope that the Church Commissioners will continue those very constructive discussions.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has taken a strong interest in the castle, as have we, over a period of time. He is aware that my door is always open to any representations that he might wish to make.

To return to the broader question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) about the financial stability of the Church, we invest for the long term and distribute the returns with a view to the long term, thereby aiming to maintain the value of the funds in real terms over time. In other words, we do not allow our support for today’s beneficiaries to disadvantage tomorrow’s beneficiaries.

Further to the answer that my hon. Friend gave earlier, will he assure us that during these difficult times the ethical dimension of funding and investment will not be lost? There is always great pressure at such times to get the greatest returns, but if archbishops are going to talk about moral imperatives, the Church of England and the commissioners must daily live those out in their investment decisions.

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I refer again to the ethical investment advisory group, but we should not overlook the role that local churches play. They depend on individuals giving, and that is true for the Church of England. As for the Church Commissioners, we will continue to work closely with the ethical investment advisory group.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

NAO Overseas Investments

I am grateful for that answer. However, does the right hon. Gentleman not think it strange that the commission responsible for overseeing local government, the Audit Commission, had £10 million invested in Icelandic banks?

That is—thankfully—outside my remit, but I point out that, as the Audit Commission is audited externally by the NAO, it is a matter for the Public Accounts Committee.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Lottery Grants

4. If the Church Commissioners will provide guidance to churches and cathedrals on applications for lottery grants for the upkeep of church buildings and the provision of visitor facilities. (229207)

I advise the hon. Gentleman that the Church already provides such advice via its “Church Care” and “Parish Resources” websites. In addition, the lottery providers give specific advice on their own schemes via their websites. I applaud the cathedrals that do so much to welcome tourists. They see that work as part of their ministry, and we should recognise the boost that they give to the wider economy through tourist income. Cathedrals such as Lichfield’s are a major draw.

May I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the commissioners need to be a little more proactive than he describes? Lichfield cathedral recently applied for many millions of pounds for the Inspire project to improve the fabric and visitor facilities, but it was refused. Such applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund cost thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of pounds. Do not the commissioners need to give much better advice on what sort of lottery applications are likely to be successful?

I am aware that Lichfield cathedral applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for funding for a scheme to improve visitor and interpretation facilities. I congratulate the cathedral and the hon. Gentleman on their sterling efforts to engage with visitors. My colleagues at Church house supported the cathedral’s application, but unfortunately the Heritage Lottery Fund could not fund all the applications that were before it; it held a ballot in which Lichfield cathedral was unsuccessful. I hope that the cathedral will find an alternative funding source, but I will take his comments back to the Church Commissioners.

As one who was associated with the appeal for our diocesan cathedral in Lichfield, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to examine this with a little more care and in greater detail? The diversion of lottery resources to the Olympics has caused enormous distortion and created a very great problem for all our cathedrals. It is shameful to think that there has to be the sort of ballot to which he refers. Will he do his best to influence the powers that be?

I raised that question with the Heritage Lottery Fund after the subject was brought up on the Floor of the House, and it told me that lottery funding for the Church would not be affected by the Olympic games. We should welcome the help that the Heritage Lottery Fund gives us with the challenge of keeping cathedrals and churches in a good state of repair. We all acknowledge the need for continuing Government support and the constant pressure that this House exerts through questions such as those put by the hon. Gentlemen, which are always welcome.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Party Funding

5. How many investigations the Electoral Commission has carried out into political party funding in the last 12 months. (229208)

The Electoral Commission informs me that it has carried out formal investigations into three cases relating to political party funding in the past 12 months.

My hon. Friend will know that the Government intend to rush through new rules on what is known as “triggering” before the Electoral Commission has issued its guidance on the matter. Does he agree that that is a recipe for confusion, which will fatally undermine the confidence in any new rules?

My hon. Friend is on to an important point. If the House passes the measure in the Political Parties and Elections Bill that introduces a new triggering mechanism, the Electoral Commission will consult as soon as possible after the parliamentary process and before Royal Assent. It will then issue its guidelines on the new triggering mechanism as soon as it can. Of course, the guidelines will not be definitive because the law on the triggering mechanism will stand to be decided by the courts, and because the matter falls under the Representation of the People Acts, it will be for the police, not the commission, to decide whether or not to prosecute.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is illegal either to receive or to solicit in any way foreign donations for political parties? In view of the allegations made about the shadow Chancellor, would it not be appropriate for the Electoral Commission to investigate accordingly?

Order. The shadow Chancellor is not in the Chamber. Did the hon. Gentleman approach the shadow Chancellor to say that he was going to ask this question?

Well, he should have. The hon. Gentleman knows the courtesies of the House—he has been here long enough. I instruct the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) not to answer.

During Second Reading of the Bill on Monday, it was noted that the Electoral Commission remains opposed to the provisions dealing with new political donor notification. Does that remain the case?

Mr. Speaker, you will know that the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission does not get involved in individual cases, but the commission has made a statement that no facts have been reported to it that would cause it to make any inquiry.