Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 485: debated on Thursday 11 December 2008

Our Department is concentrating fully on working with businesses through what is a difficult economic period, and ensuring that British business can emerge from the downturn in as strong a position as possible.

In the absence of the Secretary of State, I must rely on my right hon. Friend, as his political amanuensis, to interpret Lord Mandelson’s views as reported in The Sunday Times last week. He said that

“it was up to individual companies to sort out their own future if they ran into trouble… ‘We”

—the Government, that is—

“‘are not going to step in when banks and other lenders are capable of doing it themselves.’”

What does my right hon. Friend think Lord Mandelson meant by that, against a backdrop of potentially the worst economic situation for generations?

What that means is that the Government cannot and should not seek to replace the role of the banks as the main lenders to the economy. We have introduced a number of measures—which I have mentioned several times today— to give small businesses access to finance, but the main lenders must be the banks themselves, and that is precisely what my noble Friend Lord Mandelson meant.

T2. I have given the Minister notice of this question. An important manufacturing company in my constituency has had to lay off a third of its work force, and 40 people face redundancy as a result. It would like some practical help and advice on how it can afford to pay the redundancy costs, keep going and develop into a slimline company. Can the Minister offer any advice on how the company can both pay the redundancy money and continue to operate in a slimmed-down form? (242352)

The hon. Gentleman did give notice of the question. My understanding is that the company has laid off a number of people and is having difficulty meeting the redundancy payments that may be involved in doing so. There is a scheme: the financial difficulties scheme under the Insolvency Service. It is designed to avoid both stress and delay in employees applying under such a scheme. Under this scheme, the Redundancy Payments Office can pay employees the redundancy payments to which they are entitled against an agreement from the employer to reimburse the national insurance fund over time. I am happy to look further into that matter for the hon. Gentleman.

T8. Is my hon. Friend aware that some major companies, such as Rolls-Royce, are trying to assist their suppliers through helping them with credit? What are the Government doing to encourage other major companies to do the same thing? (242358)

My noble Friend the Secretary of State yesterday met major businesses and the Institute of Credit Management to agree a code of prompt payment from large businesses through their supply chains. The Government have said they will do their best to be a good and responsible customer during this period, and we understand the importance of prompt payment to small businesses. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that this is a job not just for Government, but for the many large businesses upon whom countless thousands of small businesses depend for prompt payment and their day-to-day business.

T3. One important area of British industry that is continually ignored by the Government is the pub industry. There is particular concern at this time of year about the income levels of publicans. May I bring to the Minister’s attention the Morgan Stanley report that revealed that between a fifth and a quarter of licensees make under £20,000 a year, which is deemed to be the minimum acceptable level? That equates to £3.30 an hour each for a couple, which is clearly below the minimum wage. Does the Minister therefore agree that the way in which the big pub companies operate the tie is not fair and that the Government should look at that again? (242353)

The hon. Gentleman might be aware that the Business and Enterprise Committee is currently looking at the issue. We are closely watching the different strands of evidence that are presented to it, and we will carefully consider any recommendations arising from the Committee’s work. As he alluded to in his question, pubs are crucial small businesses in many communities and, as he will be aware from the answers that my ministerial colleagues have already given, the Government are taking a series of initiatives to help small businesses, and pubs might be able to access them as well.

A written statement was issued this morning extending the compensation given to Icelandic waters fishermen to aggregate service not interrupted by 12-week breaks. That will be warmly welcomed in all the fishing ports, but will my right hon. Friend tell us what estimates he has of the number of fishermen affected? In terms of the unacceptable proposal to extend the conditions to requiring two years of service during the cod wars, will he bear it in mind that there were in fact three, if not four, cod wars, two of them in the 1970s?

I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome for the written ministerial statement tabled today, which is in response to the ombudsman’s recommendations on the Icelandic waters trawlermen’s compensation scheme issued last year. The statement says that we will run a new scheme based on aggregate service and not using the previous breaks rule. We estimate that that will benefit about 1,000 former trawlermen, who should receive additional payments. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and all Members representing port communities who campaigned so hard and effectively for their constituents on the issue, and I hope he is right that this news will be warmly welcomed in port communities that have been affected over the years.

T5. I tabled a question on 11 September relating to the numbers employed in the various sectors of the textile industry. It appeared on the Order Paper on the first day back after the summer recess. Despite numerous calls—and answers to the effect that it was currently with two Ministers—the question fell at Prorogation. How can Members do their work properly if Ministers and Departments take so long to reply to vital questions? (242355)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not knowing the specific details of what happened to that question, but I will investigate what happened and get back in touch with him by the end of the week.

May I add my warm congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs on the statement that he made this morning about opening up the cod war trawlermen’s compensation scheme and on finding an answer to a very difficult problem? He will be aware that many of the people who will qualify under the new scheme are elderly, and some have died and their widows are also elderly. Can he give us some idea of the programme for the introduction of the scheme, because it needs to be done quickly?

My hon. Friend makes a good point and I know that he has campaigned hard and effectively on that issue. We are aware that this has taken a long time. It is a complex scheme because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said, we are often dealing with fishing records going back for some decades. I can assure my hon. Friends and other Members with an interest in this area that we will implement the new scheme as quickly and efficiently as possible.

T7. When will the Hooper review on postal services be published? When it is, will the Minister ensure that he resists any attempt to reduce the scope of the universal service obligation? Will he also use it as an opportunity to put pressure on those many companies that charge excessive costs for deliveries to the highlands and islands and suggest that they use the universal rate for parcel delivery offered by the Post Office? (242357)

If I may quote the Secretary of State who, when asked about the timing of that report in the House of Lords a couple of weeks ago, said, “Not before too long.” I echo that. In terms of the USO, I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was this Government who enshrined the USO in primary legislation.