Topical Questions

Oral Answers to Questions — Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 22nd November 2007.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North 10:30 am, 22nd November 2007

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

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Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

The central purpose of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is to help to ensure business success in an increasingly competitive world. We promote the creation and growth of business 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 for secure, clean and competitively priced energy supplies.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I welcome the Secretary of State's written statement this morning on manufacturing. He will know that in Nottingham we have suffered through the closure of the mines and textile industries and the run-down in people's employment at Boots, Players and Raleigh. Will he ensure that manufacturing still stays at the heart of the Government's economic policies? Will he also, linking back to his previous job, ensure that it ties into the welfare-to-work strategies that are now being deployed around the country?

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Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

Yes, I will certainly look to do that. It is sometimes worth reminding ourselves about the UK's record in manufacturing. We are the sixth biggest manufacturer in the world and we have the same proportion of gross domestic product in manufacturing as the United States. We should be looking to develop our manufacturing sectors as aggressively and positively as we can. I do not believe the myth that Britain is now living in a post-industrial world; that is completely wrong. We should be supporting our manufacturers in the most effective and intelligent way that we can. I agree too about the importance of manufacturing as regards employment. It is worth reminding ourselves that hundreds of thousands of people work in industrial sectors that did not exist 20 years ago. We have a responsibility, we intend to discharge it, and I look forward to support from my hon. Friend.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Minister without Portfolio, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (without Portfolio)

Do the Minister's responsibilities include ensuring that international trade by British companies meets the highest standards? Is he concerned that yesterday Britain was singled out at the international conference on anti-corruption as the one major country that has been backsliding on its international treaty commitments?

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Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

I do not know what that conference was, and I reject absolutely any suggestion that the United Kingdom does not take seriously its obligations to tackle corruption. We have an excellent record and I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not going to start undermining it.

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Photo of Chris McCafferty Chris McCafferty Labour, Calder Valley

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with Ofcom about the growing, very unethical practice of "slamming"—changing a subscriber's account from one service provider to another?

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Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

I agree with my hon. Friend that that is a serious problem. I understand that Ofcom has taken action against that practice in the fixed telephony market and complaints have started to come down as a result, which is welcome. I will be meeting the head of Ofcom next week and I will relay to him my hon. Friend's concerns, and mine, about that practice.

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State

There is growing concern that this rather, I have to say, embarrassingly named Department is beginning to lose its grip. It was we who had to tell people that the Secretary of State's Department had published its mission statement when its own press office did not know anything about it.

As part of that mission, the Secretary of State is responsible for enterprise. Will he confirm to the House that he was consulted in advance on the Chancellor's new tax on enterprise, and explain what subsequent changes he would now like to make to those proposals?

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Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

It is very nice to have the hon. Gentleman's support for what we are trying to do on enterprise, and I welcome that. I hope that he will support the measures we set out in the new year to ensure that we sustain the progress we are making on that. We are closing the gap between ourselves and the United States, and doing better than any other country in the European Union on enterprise, which I know is his particular concern.

Yes, I was consulted by the Chancellor in advance, and the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to go into the detail of the correspondence and exchange of views that I had with the Chancellor. I support absolutely what he is doing in relation to the simplification of our tax regime and in making sure that Britain's international competitiveness in relation to capital gains tax remains obvious.

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State

The right hon. Gentleman should talk to some of his ministerial colleagues, who clearly do not agree with him, including the one who resigned—perhaps the only time he said anything constructive about enterprise was when he joined the Conservatives at Oxford. Business start-ups are falling and business support schemes are in disarray. There are continued complaints about UK Trade and Investment, a rising regulatory burden and, I would argue, a sidelined Secretary of State. To which Department should business now turn if it wants to have its interests effectively represented in Whitehall?

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Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

The business community welcomed the creation of the Department, and continues to give it strong support. I am grateful to the business community for that. If that really is the best the hon. Gentleman can do after having a whole hour to prepare for his question, he needs to go back and do his homework again.

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Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry PPS (Rt Hon Geoff Hoon, Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury), HM Treasury

The future of manufacturing industry in my constituency is in the high-tech, high-skilled industries. Would my right hon. Friend assure me that he will continue to work with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to do all we can to support such industries? Does he agree that any proposals to cut the research and development tax credit, as proposed by the Conservatives, would only damage those industries?

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Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

We will certainly be doing that, and we have a programme of support for innovation and high technology that is among the best in the world. We certainly will not be taking any advice on tax from the Conservatives.

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Photo of John Mann John Mann PPS (Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Minister of State), Cabinet Office

Having paid my car tax from the luxury of my own home on the internet, should I be pleased that I am embracing the new digital era, or worried that I am undermining local post offices?

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Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Minister of State (Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) (Employment Relations and Postal Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I think that my hon. Friend is making his own choice, which is an increasingly popular one. Since the service was established, the capacity for people to renew car tax online has become very popular. Last year, it was used by about half a million people every month. The figures for the first half of this year show that that use has increased to about 1 million people per month. Interestingly, almost half of those who use the service do so outside the normal office hours of 9 to 5, which shows the demand for public services outside traditional office hours, and it lays down a challenge for the Government as to how we respond. It is right that the Government offer people the chance to carry out such transactions at a time of their own choosing, and this—

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Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire

Does the Minister agree that as the UK becomes steadily more reliant on imported natural gas, we will need substantially more gas storage facilities to provide a buffer against the risk of supply interruption? If he agrees, how does he think that that strategic storage will be provided? Will it be through the marketplace, through price signals, or will the UK have a stocking obligation imposed on it by the EU?

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Hon. Members:

What a good question.

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Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister of State (Energy), Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform

It was a good question. As we move at a relatively rapid rate from being a net exporter of gas to being a major importer—by 2020, we could be importing 80 per cent. of our gas—we will need more storage capacity. We recognised that in our White Paper. The new planning Bill will help us realise that aim before too many years have passed. That kind of infrastructure needs speedy implementation. That was an important question, and I believe that we have the answer to it.

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

The Secretary of State claims to be the champion of wealth creation and initiative, but does he agree that any reward must reflect the risk? Does he feel that it is right that the QinetiQ chairman, the former civil servant Sir John Chisholm, should have netted £22 million from an investment of £129,000? Surely it is less to do with the ratio between risk and reward and more to do with incompetence and sleaze.

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Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

If the hon. Gentleman has allegations of sleaze or criminality, he needs to bring them to the appropriate authorities and action will be taken.

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Photo of Colin Burgon Colin Burgon Labour, Elmet

Although the recent rise in the minimum wage is welcome, is the Minister aware that 24,000 workers in the Yorkshire and Humber region are not paid the minimum wage? Does he agree that we should have an active policy of finding and fining employers who break the law? Can he tell me how many enforcement officers are allocated to the Yorkshire and Humberside region to do that work?

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Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Minister of State (Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) (Employment Relations and Postal Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Earlier this year, the Budget announcements contained an increase in the funds available for enforcement of the minimum wage. That will enable HMRC to hire some 20 extra enforcement officers. Over the past year, some £3 million has been recovered for people who should have been paid the minimum wage but were not. That has helped some 14,000 workers. My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue. The minimum wage was legislated for by Parliament for a reason and we want to see it properly enforced.

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Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Given that small sub-post offices in rural areas operate effectively as small businesses and were operating at a profit until the Government removed many services from them, such as the ability to renew TV licences, what reassurance can the Secretary of State give that there will be a profitable, effective rural post office network that does not require people to travel more than three miles from any village?

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Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Minister of State (Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) (Employment Relations and Postal Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The hon. Lady referred to the TV licence. That was not the Government's decision, and reflects the competitive environment in which the Post Office now operates. Does she believe that the Government should—

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Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Minister of State (Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) (Employment Relations and Postal Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

If the hon. Lady believes that the Government should withdraw the means to deal with car tax online, I would have to disagree. We are working closely with Post Office management to develop new services, such as those that they offer on car insurance, foreign currency and broadband. That will ensure that, in future, post offices remain an attractive place where people will go to access services.

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Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretary To the Leader of the Opposition

Is the Minister aware of the extraordinary situation whereby workers who are here perfectly legally are seeking to persuade employers that they are here illegally so that they can compete on what they regard as the relatively advantageous terms of being able to offer their services at less than the minimum wage?

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Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Minister of State (Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) (Employment Relations and Postal Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

All workers who are here legally are entitled to the minimum wage. That should be properly enforced, whether the workers come from the UK or not. If people are working here illegally, the hon. Gentleman should report that to the proper authorities.

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Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a growing consensus, especially judging by the recent successful north-east economic forum, that, to encourage further enterprise in the north-east, we must ensure that the region is not isolated from the major north-south and east-west road links, as I am afraid that it currently is?

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Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

Obviously, we will work closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to ensure that the right economic infrastructure is in place in the north-east to support enterprise and a growing wealth creation economy in the region.

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Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Liberal Democrat, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

Earlier, the Minister for Energy talked about the problems of fuel poverty. He mentioned social tariffs, which obviously apply to people on the gas and electricity networks. What assessment has he made of the impact of the dramatic increase in oil prices on those in rural areas who cannot get on to the gas network? What is his strategy for tackling fuel poverty in rural areas that are off the gas main?

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Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister of State (Energy), Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform

Our strategy, wherever possible—it is not always possible economically —is to try to connect more people to the gas grid system. I acknowledge the problem; I think we need renewable technologies in particular to aid some of those often quite poor people. We are keeping the matter under review and I would welcome an opportunity of drawing on the hon. Gentleman's experience.

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Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

The Minister knows that millions have benefited through the national minimum wage regulations. However, many who work on Britain's ferries are currently exempt. Is my hon. Friend willing to meet me and other interested Members of Parliament to discuss that anomaly and whether it is possible to give that sector, too, the benefit of the regulations?

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