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Topical Questions

Volume 492: debated on Thursday 7 May 2009

Our Department is focused totally on working with businesses, and, of course, their employees, through the difficult economic times, as well as—importantly—working with businesses and their employees to prepare for the upturn, when it comes.

Recently, Halifax Bank of Scotland prevented a friendly takeover bid for Network Data Ltd, which could have safeguarded jobs at 500 mortgage brokers throughout the UK, including at KISS Financial Services on the Isle of Wight. The taxpayer largely owns HBOS and saving jobs should be a priority. Why did not the bank facilitate the friendly takeover rather than hoarding taxpayers’ money and putting jobs at risk?

The hon. Gentleman raises a specific case, which I am happy to consider and then write to him. However, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister and other Ministers have made clear, we expect players in the financial services community, who have received Government help, to continue to operate commercially, as they have done normally in the private sector. We do not, therefore, interfere in individual commercial decisions. The Government are taking a series of measures to help workers, support businesses and protect home owners. Indeed, one of the great differences between our party and the hon. Gentleman’s is that we offer “Real help now”, while the Conservative party continues to seek to do nothing—indeed, it tries to worsen matters by advocating cuts in public spending.

T2. My hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench know that, when the Sunday trading laws were passed, it was decided to protect Easter Sunday, when stores would not open. Part of the reason for that was to protect staff working in those stores so that, at least on that day and Christmas day, they would not be forced to work. B&Q closes its stores on Easter Sunday, but insists on staff working, thus breaking not the letter, but the spirit of the law. Will my right hon. Friend look into the matter? (273180)

We have no plans to change the Sunday trading laws, but I am happy to discuss my hon. Friend’s point about stores being open and people working. However, we do not plan to change the Sunday trading laws.

The Minister will have noticed that the Leader of the Opposition and I reconfirmed our support for the principle of part-privatisation of Royal Mail and committed ourselves to continuing the supportive and constructive role that our colleagues in the House of Lords played when they considered the Postal Services Bill. Has he noticed that he has not had the same ringing support from the Prime Minister? Does he believe that it is currently impossible to get any certain position from Downing street? Does that trouble him?

The Prime Minister fully supports and is committed to our plans for Royal Mail. That is clear. We will take the plans forward and not implement the policy, which I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman espoused on the radio the other day, to privatise Royal Mail. We will keep Royal Mail in the public sector, but transform it for the future.

When the Bill arrives, we will have a chance to examine the curious use of the English language, which enables the Minister to keep protesting that he is retaining Royal Mail in public ownership when, as we know, we are considering part-privatisation. I shall repeat my question. The Minister says that the Prime Minister still supports the policy, yet we read daily in briefings that Downing street is considering whether to go on with the Bill and press the policy. Can the Minister get the Prime Minister to say publicly what, as he has just said, he innocently believes to be the Prime Minister’s settled position?

The Prime Minister has said publicly on a number of occasions that he fully backs the policy that we have espoused. It is fair to point out that No. 10 was very quick to say that it was not considering some of the ideas that were floating about in the papers earlier this week.

Every Member who supports manufacturing industry will support the statements on the vehicle industry that the Prime Minister made yesterday in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), which can be found in column 169. The publication of the details of the scrappage scheme is imminent, and other changes are being introduced, so will the Minister assure the House that the Government will keep on the pressure and maximise the support for these successful industries, which deserve the support of the whole House?

I welcome what my hon. Friend says. The scrappage scheme will be operational on 18 May. It will provide further support on the demand side to encourage people to buy new automobiles—the industry has welcomed that—and will build on the £2.3 billion automotive assistance package that we announced some months ago. The car industry in the UK is of strategic importance to the UK economy, and he will know the importance of the facility at Ellesmere Port, in his constituency, to the region too. We want to do all that we sensibly can to ensure that discussions continue about the future of General Motors Europe, and we are working closely with the German Administration on these issues. We want to continue to ensure that we deliver for the automotive industry the packages of measures that we have announced.

T3. Many of my constituents work at the IBC van factory in Luton, which makes the outstandingly successful Vivaro van, or at Vauxhall’s headquarters in Luton. They are understandably concerned for the future of their jobs, given the merger talks that are being discussed. Given the Government’s support for the LDV factory earlier in the week, what assurances can the Minister give that the Government will do everything in their power to ensure the continuation of the plant and the headquarters? (273181)

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will do everything we can to support the restructuring of GM Europe as a viable business for the future. Through the Luton van plant, through the facility at Ellesmere Port and through the Millbrook testing ground, GM is important to the UK economy. I must point out that Vauxhall is important to Opel and GM Europe too, as it accounts for about 25 per cent. of the company’s sales. There is no doubt in my mind that we need to continue the discussions that we are having with GM at a variety of levels and with the German Government, who have been approached for funding too. I assure him that those discussions are continuing.

It will soon be three years since the collapse of Farepak, the Christmas hamper company, yet its directors still have not been brought to account. They were due to be in the civil courts earlier this year, but that did not happen. In recognition of how Farepak’s collapse destroyed the Christmases of tens of thousands of decent, hard-working families throughout the United Kingdom, will the Minister facilitate a meeting between the liquidators and MPs from all parts of the House who have concerns about this collapse?

My hon. Friend will know from previous conversations that he and I have had, as well as from exchanges on the Floor of the House, that the Government recognise the considerable anger of many of those who suffered as a result of the collapse of Farepak and the concern that has been articulated to Members of Parliament. I recognise, too, the strong campaigning work that he and a number of my hon. Friends have done on the issue. He will recognise that there are some things that I cannot say on the Floor of the House. He has asked me a specific question. I will reflect on the answer and come back to him.

T4. The economy is contracting at the fastest rate in 30 years, yet the Government say that in 2011 the economy will grow at the same accelerated rate as they say it is currently contracting. Does the Minister really believe that British business can rely on the Government’s growth figures, either now or going forward? (273182)

We published our growth forecasts in Budget ’09 and we stand by them. As with any forecasts, they are built on the best available evidence at the time. We believe that growth will start to return to the UK economy around the end of this year. I am sure that everybody will welcome that. As for the growth forecasts to 2011 and beyond, it is important to recognise that there is potential capacity in the UK economy as we move out of recession. Through the measures that we have introduced as a Government, such as the fiscal stimulus and the strategic investment fund, which is supporting industry directly, and our competitive exchange rate in the UK, I believe that there are strong opportunities for the UK to power out of the recession and achieve the growth rates that the hon. Gentleman talked about and that are in the Government’s forecasts.

T5. The Minister will have seen the reported comments of his ministerial colleague Lord Carter last month. He estimates that between 25 and 30 per cent. of the country will not be able to get next generation broadband if it is left to a purely economic case. I have a sneaking suspicion that if those figures are right, the communities in Orkney and Shetland will be in that 25 to 30 per cent. What actions does the Minister propose taking to ensure that we are not left playing catch-up yet again? (273183)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will commend the work that Lord Carter and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have been doing in looking at the issues in “Digital Britain”. The first piece of work looking at the issues has been published, but further work will be done. The hon. Gentleman’s comments about the needs of his constituency, given its remoteness, will of course be taken on board as part of that.

Although I strongly agree with what my hon. Friend said earlier about the importance of not trying to conduct detailed negotiations with Jaguar Land Rover through the media, will he reflect on some of the principles involved? The first is that if large amounts of taxpayers’ money is to be devoted to reducing the risks for other investors or giving them guarantees, it is reasonable to have mechanisms for monitoring the risk to that taxpayers’ money. However, the objective should be to enable that investment to go ahead, rather than getting in the way of it.

We want the talks with Jaguar Land Rover to be brought to a successful conclusion to ensure that the company’s short and medium-term financing needs are met. The company has said that it is unaware of any breakdown in talks, stating:

“This has not come from anyone and it is as much as a surprise to us as it is to you. We have always said the talks would be difficult, but they are ongoing.”

The talks certainly are ongoing. My hon. Friend is right to point out that we are talking about investing taxpayers’ money, whether that be through the guarantee to the European Investment Bank or other funding. It is right that we ensure the due diligence that one would expect to ensure value for money for the taxpayer.