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Energy Prices

16. Ms Joan Ryan (Enfield, North): What assessment he has made of the effect of current energy prices on the least affluent sections of society. [82376]

The Minister for Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle): Tackling fuel poverty is a key priority of the Government. Although energy markets are being opened up, we are keen to ensure that the highest price is not paid

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by the poorest. With the new tariff structures, we are taking measures to ensure that the fuel-poor are not priced out.

Ms Ryan: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. While I fully accept our environmental obligations, I urge my hon. Friend and the Government to ensure that, in meeting those commitments, we do not hit hardest those least able to pay. Will my hon. Friend confirm that Labour's proposals are about a revenue-neutral energy tax levied on polluting businesses and are not, as was the case with the previous Government, about increasing VAT on domestic fuel and deliberately hitting hardest those on the lowest incomes?

Mr. Battle: I agree with my hon. Friend. The lowering of prices should be coupled with the reduction of VAT to 5 per cent. We said that we would do that and many people have benefited from it. It is fair to say that there has been a reduction of some 10 per cent. in the price of gas and electricity, but it has not been spread evenly among all consumers. Those on direct debits benefit more. We have told the regulator to look at a social action plan to examine tariff structures to ensure that the poorest do not pay the most. The market will work when all benefit, not just the better-off.

On the environmental question, it is important to ensure that we blend the reduction in prices with proper energy efficiency, including in people's homes, so that the energy that they buy does not go out through the gaps between the doors and windows. We are taking appropriate measures to insulate homes and make them energy efficient. We are doing that under other schemes, supported by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Parental and Family Leave

17. Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham): If he will make a statement on parental and family leave. [82377]

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Mr. Ian McCartney): We are committed to bringing about a more family-friendly culture in the workplace and the Government will be launching a promotional campaign to help achieve that. The Employment Relations Bill provides for rights to parental leave and time off to deal with domestic incidents. We will be consulting on the detail in the next couple of months, and will take account of the views that we receive before finalising the arrangements.

Ms Harman: I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. Is he aware of the evidence from the United States Family Leave Commission which shows that low-income workers who need time off when their children are sick either do not take that leave because they cannot afford it or, take it, borrow money and get into debt? Will my right hon. Friend join me in urging our right hon. Friend the Chancellor to see whether there is some way that we can use the working families tax credit and extend it when people lose their pay on parental leave to ensure that low-income families do not lose out when taking advantage of those important new rights?

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Mr. McCartney: The most important thing is to bed down the new culture as soon as possible, getting involvement and agreement from employers and employer organisations about the best way forward. The directive gives us that opportunity. For example, more than 2 million employees will benefit from taking time off for domestic incidents, 85,000 women will benefit each year from the maternity changes and over 61,500 employees will benefit from the parental leave changes. The Government are building up a process of involving industry in best practice, underpinned by a regulatory framework to ensure that no worker is given the sack or has any other action taken against him by his employer him when seeking to take advantage of the new rights. The Government believe that the balance is right, and so do employers. In the consultations, nine out of 10 employers supported what we are doing, and there was overwhelming support from trade unions.

Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurs

18. Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East): What plans he has to increase the number of entrepreneurs from ethnic minorities. [82378]

The Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry (Mr. Michael Wills): Ethnic minority business make an important contribution to the economy and the Government recognise that. The Department of Trade and Industry is working to reduce the barriers faced by people from all sections of the community in starting and growing successful businesses. The Department has recently joined Business in the Community's race for opportunity campaign, and one of our aims in joining this campaign will be to target support for ethnic minority-owned businesses more effectively. I also expect the Small Business Service to take account of the special needs of minority-owned businesses.

Mr. McNulty: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he join me in congratulating the dynamic contribution made, particularly by Asian entrepreneurs, to British business in general and to my constituency in particular? Will he ensure that policies such as those that he outlined will continue to facilitate the growth of entrepreneurs from ethnic minorities? Asian entrepreneurs in my constituency were severely clobbered by the woeful economic mismanagement of the Tories and will never again support their lunatic, wide-eyed policies.

Mr. Wills: I recognise the force of the last point, particularly, and am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the success of entrepreneurs in his own constituency. I look forward to meeting them when I visit Harrow this summer. I am happy to give him the assurances that he seeks.

European Structural Funds

19. Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): What account he proposes to take of the needs of upland and coastal areas in North Yorkshire in allocating objective 2 status for EU funding. [82379]

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The Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry (Mr. Michael Wills): The Government are consulting interested parties on the designation of eligible UK areas under objective 2. All areas will be considered equally for inclusion, on the basis of need.

Mr. Greenway: I thank the Minister for that reply--and you, Madam Speaker, for the opportunity to ask the question. Does the Minister agree that low per head GDP, low population density and low average earnings, and heavy reliance on seasonal part-time and casual employment--especially in the livestock, farming, fishing, tourism, and food processing industries--should

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be the essential criteria in deciding the rural strand of EU funding under objective 2? Although I realise that the Minister will not be able to give me an answer today, does he accept that, on those criteria, a formidable case can be made for retaining North Yorkshire's upland and coastal areas within the ambit of EU objective 2 funding, and that, without that funding, the economies of Ryedale and Scarborough will seriously struggle?

Mr. Wills: I assure the hon. Gentleman that his views, with all other views, will be taken carefully into consideration in the consultation period, which ends on 25 May.

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Business of the House

12.31 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): Will the Leader of the House tell us the business for next week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 10 May--Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill.

Tuesday 11 May--Opposition Day [11th Allotted Day].

Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate entitled "Labour's Pensions Failure", followed by a debate on implications of Scottish and Welsh devolution for the Westminster Parliament. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Wednesday 12 May--Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill.

Thursday 13 May--Opposition Day [12th Allotted Day].

Until about 4 o'clock, there will be a debate on effective parliamentary democracy, followed by a debate entitled "American Food Imperialism and European Trade Policy". Both motions will arise in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

Friday 14 May--Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

Monday 17 May--Remaining stages of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill.

Tuesday 18 May--There will be a debate on the European Union on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. It will be the pre-Cologne Council debate.

Wednesday 19 May--Until 12.30 pm, there will be a debate on the third report from the Health Committee on the welfare of former British child migrants, followed by a debate on the fifth report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee on regional Eurostar services, followed by debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Opposition Day [13th Allotted Day].

There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 20 May--There will be a debate on the White Paper on reforming the House of Lords on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 21 May--Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 19 May there will be a debate on assistance to new independent states and Mongolia in European Standing Committee B. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 19 May:

European Standing Committee B--Relevant European Union document: 5263/99, Assistance to NIS and Mongolia; Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 34-xi, HC 34-xiii (1998-99).]

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