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Topical Questions

Oral Answers to Questions — Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 3rd July 2008.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 10:30 am, 3rd July 2008

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 my Department is to help to ensure the success of UK business. We promote business growth and a strong enterprise economy, lead the better regulation agenda and champion free and fair markets, benefiting workers, consumers and companies. We are also the shareholder in a number of Government-owned assets, such as Royal Mail, and we work to secure clean and competitively priced energy supplies.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

Given that answer, what is the Secretary of State's Department going to do about the Financial Services Authority? I appreciate that it is a Treasury responsibility too, but it is also a matter of business regulation. In the last few months, we have learned that the outgoing chairman was paid more than £250,000 after he stopped working, that the new chairman got a pay rise of 37 per cent., which took him to a salary of £662,000 after a £114,000 bonus, and that the man who was effectively sacked because of the Northern Rock debacle got a £612,000 golden pay-off, plus a £30,000 performance-related bonus. What is a Labour Government going to do to stop such absolutely scandalous pay for people at the top end, when our constituents can hardly scrape enough together to pay the household bills?

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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 hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but it is important that the FSA is able to recruit the right people and the best people. [ Interruption. ] That is a matter for the hon. Gentleman to reflect on. The one thing that I have learned from doing this job is that it is usually a good idea to leave matters to do with the Treasury to be dealt with by Treasury Ministers in this House.

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Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour, Cardiff South and Penarth

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential for our economic future to make the UK the safest place to do business online? Does he also agree that preventing internet-related crime is crucial to public and business confidence? Will he support initiatives to get industry to take the lead on this matter, in partnership with Parliament, the Government and civil society, to make the internet the safest place to undertake activities, and to ensure that confidence?

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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 agree strongly with my right hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to what he has done in the past year or so, leading on some important work, which I hope will come to fruition. I agree that we need to discuss such matters carefully and closely with the industry. He referred to the importance of self-regulation in this regard, and I agree about that, but the Government have the responsibility to ensure that people and businesses in the UK who use the internet and do business online can do so safely, free from the fear of crime. I assure my right hon. Friend that active discussion is taking place between Ministers in a number of Departments to address the concerns that he and others have raised.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

May I tell the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs that there is substantial and growing concern in the northern isles about the consequences for post offices if the post office network does not get the next generation of the Post Office card account? At present, just about every inhabited island in my constituency has a post office where people can use their card account. Will the Minister assure me that when the new contract is awarded, that will remain the case, and that questions of geography, as well as just bald population statistics, will be taken into account so that the matter is properly implemented?

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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

There is not a lot I can add to what I have already said about the card account, other than to repeat that I understand how important it is to the post office network. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that his constituency, which is a special part of the country, has good post office provision. We want to maintain that, and the large amount of public subsidy that we put into the network is partly in recognition of the special circumstances of constituencies such as his. I am sure that the Department for Work and Pensions will take into account all relevant factors in deciding the future of the contract.

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Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

I thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Speaker.

In the debate about the negative effects of the high oil price, the crucial part that the North sea oil and gas industry plays in the UK's economy sometimes gets lost. However, that contribution has been made at some cost to human life. This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, in which 169 men died. I would welcome my right hon. Friend's reflections on the lessons that have been learned and need to continue to be learned as a result of the tragedy.

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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 am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Piper Alpha. All hon. Members know the scale of the tragedy on that day 20 years ago. Since then, significant improvements in health and safety have been made across the UK continental shelf, and that is a tribute to the trade unions and employers who worked together to achieve that better result to improve the safety and security of workers, on whom we all fundamentally depend for our long-term national self-interest. I pay tribute to that work. We all continue to regret the tragic loss of life on that terrible day, but we stand ready to work with both sides of the industry always to push forward the barrier of safety and do more to protect workers who work in incredibly dangerous situations. The UK Government remain committed to achieving that result.

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State

On the day that the price of crude oil has burst through $145 a barrel, and further to the earlier comments of the Minister for Energy, how much extra have the Saudis produced since the Prime Minister's visit to Jeddah? Will the Secretary of State explain how any extra production of heavy oil, when the world needs, if anything, light oil, would have any beneficial impact on global prices?

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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 kingdom of Saudi Arabia has indicated its willingness to provide an extra 500,000 barrels a day of crude oil, and that is welcome. I accept that most of that is heavy crude, and that there is an issue about the world's refining capacity to use that. However, the short-term problem cannot be fixed with the flick of a switch. It is important to deal with supply issues in the way my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy stated. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is addressing that in a way that gives the UK global leadership, and that is welcome. However, we must do more on the demand side, and what the G8 Energy Ministers agreed in Japan is important and will, I think, be confirmed at the G8 summit in Japan next week.

We can do more about energy efficiency, developing new technologies, having an open view about trade and making it a win-win situation for oil-producing countries to invest in some of the new technologies. I hope the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge our work to try to get stability in oil prices—hopefully a climate in which they can come down—and that the Jeddah process and the work of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister are the right response to the problems that we face.

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State

I hear what the Secretary of State says and he is right about the importance of the demand side, but is not the problem for Britain the fact that the Prime Minister simply does not understand global oil markets and that his so-called new deal, which was much vaunted when he visited Saudi Arabia, was in fact a deeply humiliating begging mission, which has led neither to any additional oil production that is of any use nor to any reduction in the pain that consumers face?

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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 easy to sneer and be cynical about such matters and it is regrettable that the hon. Gentleman has taken that approach. The exercise is far from humiliating, as he described it. There is now a process and a discussion, which has never happened before, between the producing and consuming nations. That will be an essential way to try to resolve and find a way through the problems. What is the alternative? Not to talk and not to have a dialogue? That is completely ridiculous.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy PPS (Rt Hon Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

The Minister for Energy and I both visited Bristol port authority a couple of weeks ago on Friday to discuss the potential impact of the Severn barrage on the port's future business. Sadly, we did not quite meet on that occasion. Will either my right hon. Friend or the Minister for Energy tell the House whether the representations that were made to the Minister on that occasion about the potential impact of the barrage on the port's future will be fed into the Severn barrage feasibility study?

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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, they certainly will. It is important to consider all the potential impacts, not only environmental but economic, of a barrage across the Severn. They must be taken into account in the consideration of all the various options. However, I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that, given the enormous potential of generating significant amounts of clean energy from such a barrage, we should proceed with the work, have everything on the table, be clear about the way forward and, when we are ready, make an informed, proper decision. However, as I said earlier, we must take into account both the economic and environmental impacts of such a proposal.

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Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Shadow Secretary of State (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform)

Does the Secretary of State think it was wise for the Prime Minister to reappoint the chief executive of Anglo American as one of the Government's most senior business advisers this week, in the light of recent controversies over the company's investments in Zimbabwe? Did the Secretary of State discuss the appointment with the Foreign Secretary?

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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 a good and sensible appointment. All such matters are properly looked into before any such appointment is made.

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Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Minister, International Development, Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions

The next wave of post office closures will be announced for Edinburgh in August. Is the Minister concerned about the precedent set in Greater Glasgow, where the post offices saved were in marginal Labour seats, given that Edinburgh, South and Edinburgh, North and Leith are highly marginal against the Liberal Democrats and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer's seat is marginal against the Conservatives? Where does the Minister think the most marginal seats are in Edinburgh, and will the post offices be saved there?

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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

One of the beauties of topical questions is that we can do the whole thing twice. There is absolutely no political interference or consideration in the process at all. I therefore wholeheartedly and totally refute any inference that there is such.

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Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

I am grateful to the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs for his answer to my written question concerning the future of the sorting office in Crewe. Although that closure is an operational matter for Royal Mail, he must surely have a view, as the Minister for Postal Affairs and a portfolio-holding representative of the sole shareholder in Royal Mail—that is, the Government—on whether the closure of that sorting office is bad for the people of Crewe and bad for those who work there, who have been both long serving and hard working.

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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

Let me welcome Mr. Timpson on his first time at these questions—I do not know whether this is his first question in toto. My understanding is that no announcement has been made on the mail centre at Crewe. Royal Mail will of course be engaged in a process of modernisation and automation over the coming years, and it will have to take operational decisions about that. However, the hon. Gentleman's party cannot say that decisions about Royal Mail, along with a number of other difficult decisions, including about transport infrastructure, nuclear power, planning and so on, must all be put into a box marked "too difficult to decide".

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Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does the Minister agree that one of the problems faced by those who are reliant on home fuel oil and propane gas is that there appears to be no regulator and no consumer body responsible for that market? Is he prepared to consider whether that market can be brought into the ambit of Ofgem, perhaps through the Energy Bill which is currently in the other place? That would at least allow the possibility of the same sort of help for that market, by way of social tariffs, for example, as for gas and electricity markets.

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

The Office of Fair Trading has responsibility if there is evidence of anti-competitive behaviour. If the hon. Gentleman has such evidence, that is the authority to which it should go. I made it clear earlier that we need to find and develop the alternatives for those rural communities and rural households. Microgeneration—I have mentioned heat pumps as an example—has a great deal of scope in helping to bring more diversity and choice to some of the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

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

The Minister keeps perpetuating the myth that 99.7 per cent. of people living in North Yorkshire will remain within 1 mile by road of an alternative branch. However, I could take him to villages that will be 3, 5 or even 7 miles away from the nearest branch. When there are poor roads, when not everyone has a car and when there is insufficient public transport, because of the rural nature of the county, how does he propose that people will get to those branches?

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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 understand that anyone affected by post office closures is in a difficult position, because closures of course have consequences for post office customers. However, it is precisely because of that that we have put in place access criteria, in both urban and rural areas. In the face of losses of £500,000 a day, to which the hon. Lady did not refer, and a loss of custom amounting to 4 million customers a week in recent years, we have put in place the level of subsidy that will ensure a network of around 11,500 post offices, even after the closure programme is completed. Without the subsidy put in place by this Government, the Post Office would be in a much more difficult position than it is now.

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Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I am afraid that I want to take Ministers back to the Post Office card account. In 2003, I was the shadow Minister responsible for the Post Office, and I well remember the way the Government, using a list of 30 questions, tried to deter people from taking up a card account. It reached the position where they seemed to be saying, "Get your own bank account." What faith can we have in the Government's determination to keep the card account going, when in January 2006 they actually suggested that they did not wish to have another extension of the contract? Will the Minister assure me that the Government will definitely go for the best contract, not the cheapest contract, when the Post Office card account tender comes in?

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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 suggestion that the Government are somehow to blame for the changes in the way people choose to live their lives is one that I reject. Nine out of 10 new pensioners choose to have their pension paid directly into a bank account. I cannot add anything further on the decision on the contract. As I have said, that will be decided by the Department for Work and Pensions. I am sure that the Post Office is extremely keen to win it, and I am sure it has put in a strong bid, but that must be decided in a proper, legally robust manner.

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