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Electricity Companies (Prosecutions)

8. Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): On how many occasions since electricity privatisation (a) Her Majesty's Government and (b) the regulator have brought a prosecution against an electricity company and on what grounds. [90016]

The Minister for Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle): There have been three prosecutions by the Department for breaches of the regulatory framework governing overhead lines and related equipment. Two of those were for breaches of the safety requirements for overhead lines and ancillary equipment, and one was for a breach of the overhead lines approvals regime under section 37 of the Electricity Act 1989. There have been none by the regulator.

Mr. Bradley: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, and for the personal interest that he has taken in the long-running saga of the Hadley pylon in my constituency. About 18 months ago, the Midlands electricity board erected the pylon, without seeking or receiving consent. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Hadley pylon action group--especially Mrs. Sandra Hodnett and Mrs. Ann West--on the sustained campaign that has been waged during the past 18 months? Does he share my concern about the utter contempt with which MEB approached the matter--in its dealings with the community, the local authority and, latterly, the DTI? Can he give me and the campaign group an undertaking that, in the absence of a complete, valid retrospective application for consent from MEB, he will institute legal proceedings against the company?

Mr. Battle: I compliment my hon. Friend on the tenacious and patient way in which he has raised the Hadley pylon case, both with the company and with the Department, on behalf of his constituents. I have urged the Department to investigate the case, to insist on the information that is required from the company, and to take the necessary steps to call the company to legal account.

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As my hon. Friend will understand, it is for solicitors to take counsel's advice with regard to prosecution, but I certainly intend to keep a close eye on the case. It is a saga that has gone on for far too long.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of questioning the hon. Gentleman; I very much hope that, despite press briefings to the contrary, it will not be the last.

On electricity privatisation, will the Minister explain why the announcement of the privatisation of BNFL was sneaked out through a written answer, rather than being made in a statement to the House that is subject to questioning and debate? Does the Minister believe that the taxpayer is receiving full value from the sale of 49 rather than 51 per cent. of the company?

Mr. Battle: I am not sure how that question connects to pylons. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the privatisation of electricity. We have spent two years in government sorting out the botched job that the Conservatives did on privatising the electricity industry. That is why we are now trying to sort out the wholesale market, and introducing proposals to improve regulation and put the consumer first--which the Conservatives manifestly failed to do.

With regard to the nuclear industry, I recall holding the same position as the hon. Gentleman when the last lot privatised that industry; they left the liabilities with the Government and sold off the income stream. We do not intend to take that route; we shall do it in a way that benefits the people, the taxpayers and the Government. The announcement was not sneaked out; it was well trailed in the media, it does not need primary legislation and, what is more, a full parliamentary answer was given on the matter. It is open for consultation; I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's further comments.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): In fact, it was my written question earlier in the week that provoked the statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, whom I congratulate on his interesting and skilful announcement on the future of BNFL.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Industry assure the House, given that this is a matter of major public importance with many billions of pounds' worth of public assets at stake, that there will be the fullest consultation on the detailed implementation of the proposals over the next few months? Will he assure the House that we have learned lessons from the previous Government's mistakes, whereby billions of pounds of public assets were sold at knockdown prices and the taxpayer lost out? Will he also assure the House that, whatever form the introduction of private sector investment in BNFL takes, we shall not find ourselves in a position in which the lucrative side of the business has gone to shareholders and the taxpayer has been left to pick up the bill for many decades to come for the cost of storing our mountains of plutonium?

Mr. Battle: I thank my hon. Friend for those questions, and I can reassure him on all three counts. Yes, there will be full consultation. There has already been full

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consultation with those who work at the plant and the trade unions, as my hon. Friend will be aware from their comments, and that consultation is now being widened. The lessons to be learned from the previous Administration have been spelt out in the comments of the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. They are as plain as day and we are not going down that route, which is why our proposals are innovative and different. I can give absolute assurances on health and safety at the plant. The changes will be good and beneficial.

BNFL has world-class technicians, technologists and scientists who can help to handle the legacy of the nuclear industry from the past 50 years. I have visited work that the company has won in America, where it is cleaning low-level waste from power stations and laboratories. BNFL has management strategies and methods that have been practised here in Britain, at Berkeley and other power stations. Its workers can restore sites so that in future they can be used as offices, perfectly clean and uncontaminated. It is a world-class business, and BNFL needs to be free to win the work and become a world leader in cleaning up and decommissioning the nuclear legacy of the past 50 years.

National Minimum Wage

9. Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): What action he is taking to ensure that employers comply with national minimum wage regulations. [90017]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers): The Inland Revenue is enforcing the national minimum wage with inspectors who respond to complaints from workers and employers. The inspectors have powers to inspect records and to issue enforcement and penalty notices. They can prosecute the worst offenders for the criminal offence of refusal or wilful neglect to pay the minimum wage, and for offences relating to record keeping and obstruction of officers.

Mr. Plaskitt: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. A strong enforcement mechanism is clearly welcome, but do not the figures so far tell an interesting story, namely that the vast majority of employers have fully and quickly embraced the national minimum wage, in clear contrast to the Conservative party?

Mr. Byers: I am delighted that the implementation of the minimum wage, which makes such a fundamental change, has gone through so smoothly. It will be interesting to learn how the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), now that she has responsibility for these matters, views the minimum wage and whether she now supports the principle. In the past, she was fundamentally opposed to its introduction--

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): We voted against it.

Mr. Byers: The hon. Lady is saying that she voted against it. I am sure that we have all noted that that remains the Conservatives' position.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) is right to say that the principle of the national minimum wage has won broad acceptance

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but that we need to have in place strong methods of enforcement. We have that framework in place through the Inland Revenue, whose officers will have new powers as a result of amendments made to the Employment Relations Bill as it passed through the House of Lords. It is clear that the minimum wage is here to stay under the Labour Government, and that it would be threatened by the policies that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton would pursue.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Does the Secretary of State agree that compliance will be greater the more reasonable the regulations are? Will he undertake to examine the regulations as they affect the provision of lodgings, for it is unlikely that he would be able to find lodgings anywhere in this country for less than £20 a week? Will he also examine the regulations as they affect the provision of full board, of which the minimum wage takes no account?

Mr. Byers: Both issues are currently being considered by the Low Pay Commission, which is due to report to me in December with its views on how those items are having an impact on the national minimum wage.

Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham): Does the Secretary of State share my view that one of the most important aspects of the national minimum wage is that, coupled with the working families tax credit, it means that parents with young children do not have to work all hours to make ends meet? What plans does he have to monitor another important aspect of the Government's family-friendly policies--the forthcoming rights to parental and family leave?

Mr. Byers: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We intend to ensure that there is compliance with the national minimum wage, which is why I can inform the House that we have received 1,900 complaints of underpayment since its introduction. Of those, 800 have been settled, and the remaining 1,100 are now being pursued; we shall ensure that there is compliance by the employers concerned. That is part of our family-friendly approach to employment provisions.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we shall be setting up important initiatives, which are a result of the measures in the Employment Relations Bill. We have to ensure that the unpaid parental leave regulations are introduced in a way that has support from employers and employees, and that parental leave is a right and entitlement that is taken up by mothers and fathers, discharging their joint responsibility in that important area. I assure my right hon. Friend that we shall want to monitor that closely to guarantee that the rights that we are providing are taken up effectively.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I presume that the Secretary of State will agree that the Government are the employer of all locally engaged staff in every British embassy and high commission throughout the world. Are all those staff paid above or at the national minimum wage?

Mr. Byers: They are employed in line with the normal civil service provisions.

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