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16 Jan 2003 : Column 806—continued

Universal Parcel Postal Service

5. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): If she will make a statement on the future of the universal parcel postal service. [90936]

The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness (Mr. Stephen Timms): The primary duty of the regulator set out in legislation is to ensure maintenance of the universal postal service at an affordable, uniform tariff. The Royal Mail operating division of the Royal Mail group now carries out the universal service obligation for parcels.

Mr. Carmichael : I thank the Minister for that answer and welcome his basic assurance. It will, however, have a hollow ring in my constituency, where people have found that, since the effective demise of Parcelforce last year, they are now excluded from the same standards of service as people in the rest of the country. Many mail order companies will deliver to island communities only at a significant surcharge, and many will not deliver to them at all. Will the Minister meet me and other MPs from the highlands and islands to discuss the matter and find some way of protecting those who rely most on services from mail order companies from the worst effects of the demise of Parcelforce?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am keen to get through the Order Paper, which means that we must have more precise questions and precise replies. It is only fair to those Members who have put down questions that I try to reach them.

Mr. Timms: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

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I should be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the position. Parcelforce was losing #15 million a month, and is now a competitor with others in the express parcels business, but the universal service obligation is operated by Royal Mail. Sending a standard parcel to anywhere in the United Kingdom—three to five days' delivery, up to 1 kg—costs #3.15. That is the case whether one is sending a parcel to another part of London or to the Orkneys, but, of course, I will be happy to discuss the position with him.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the ideas that we might like to progress relates to how we could create much better links with the sub-post offices? One of the problems these days is that parcels are delivered to people who are not at home; the parcels are then returned to the local sorting office, which may be some distance away from the home. Surely we could have a better co-ordinated approach whereby parcels are delivered to the local sub-post office. If we did that, both sides would gain.

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend makes a very interesting suggestion, which I am happy to take up with Post Office Ltd. There will be increasing possibilities for the Post Office to provide other services, including delivering the goods that people buy not to their homes but to a point from which they can collect them. He is absolutely right.

Construction Industry

6. Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): If she will make a statement on the Government's policy on the construction industry. [90937]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths): The construction industry makes a significant contribution to our economy, comprising 8 per cent. of gross domestic product worth #83 billion, and it employs more than 2 million people. It secures some of the most prestigious contracts worldwide. We are working closely with the industry through the strategic forum for construction to improve industry productivity. I know that the hon. Gentleman will join me in congratulating Mid-Devon, which is the only district council listed for beacon status in the rethinking construction category.

Mr. Swire : I most certainly wish to join the Minister in congratulating Mid-Devon council on anything that it does. However, it does not fall within my constituency.

When it comes to formulating construction policy, will the Minister bear in mind the very real problems faced by many smaller companies in the construction industry as they seek to obtain employee and public liability insurance? When those companies can obtain insurance, they are often faced with premiums that have risen by anything between 100 and 400 per cent. To date, the Government have promised an inquiry, but the construction industry requires action. When can it expect it?

Nigel Griffiths: The hon. Gentleman is slightly out of date. I have had discussions with the Federation of Small Businesses, the CBI's council for small and

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medium-sized enterprises and others. We at the Department of Trade and Industry are working with our Treasury colleagues and are being led by the Department for Work and Pensions to help companies to resolve the problem. The Office of Fair Trading will also report on part of this matter in the spring.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): My hon. Friend will know that a subset of the construction industry is the chemical engineering construction industry, which brings in several million pounds to the Exchequer from the work that it does overseas. Does he share the concern of the employers and the British Chemical Engineering Contractors Association that there is a substantial skills shortage in the industry? The fact that the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board has been abolished means that there will be a further problem. What efforts will be made to put in place a system to encourage employers in the construction industry to train people for the future of the industry?

Nigel Griffiths: I want to make it clear—I know that my hon. Friend will accept this—that there is not a proposal to abolish that board. The Construction Industry Training Board is a separate body and, according to its latest figures, 40,000 people are now starting construction courses. That is an increase of 14 per cent. over the decade. The board received more than #30 million last year to fund modern apprenticeships. We accept that this is a serious issue and serious measures are being taken to address it.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): A crisis is obviously facing smaller firms. What does the Minister say to a small specialist construction firm on the south coast that requires cover of #5 million to secure contracts from its regular customers? This year, that business was able to secure cover of only #1 million at a cost of #8,000 whereas, last year, #12,000 bought cover of #10 million. Such firms do not want reports in the spring; they want action now. Can he guarantee that the reports will be acted upon?

Nigel Griffiths: The House will note that there is not one suggestion from the Conservative party on how to resolve the problem. That is why the industry, representatives of small business and others in business have welcomed the fact that the Government are addressing the issue, both through the Office of Fair Trading and in working with the Association of British Insurers and the British Insurance Brokers Association to find a solution to a problem that is caused not by the Government but by long-term structural changes in the insurance industry and the propensity of lawyers to litigate more readily than in the past. All those factors are causing problems and forcing up premiums. We recognise that this is a serious issue and are addressing it in the most serious manner.

Mr. Gareth Thomas (Harrow, West): Does my hon. Friend accept that the British construction industry would benefit enormously from the Olympic games

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being staged in Britain? If he does, may I encourage him to lobby the Secretary of State vigorously to support a London Olympic bid?

Nigel Griffiths: Of course we welcome anything that helps the construction industry and is affordable. I know that discussions are taking place with the London mayor who has a scheme that he believes is low-cost—my Treasury colleagues will be interested to have the details. We know that the construction industry played a tremendous part in revitalising and showcasing Manchester. That is a great lesson, and I hope that the Olympic bid committee will learn from it.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): Since the Minister quite rightly accepts the importance of the construction industry to our economy, will he have discussions with his Treasury colleagues about removing some of the taxes that are holding some of the industry back, such as the construction industry tax, IR35, the aggregates levy and the landfill tax?

Nigel Griffiths: That is not what I heard from representatives of the construction industry in Nottingham yesterday when I presented an Investors in People award to TBL Construction. Obviously the construction industry has benefited from one of the best tax regimes in the world, with corporation tax at lower rates. It also benefits from the fastest growing economy in the world, which is perhaps why last year's output in construction marked the biggest annual increase in 12 years and why there are strong order figures this year too. We have addressed the industry's concerns—that is why it is thriving.


8. Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): What steps her Department is taking to reduce the number of days lost to strikes. [90939]

The Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions (Alan Johnson): Although days lost through industrial action have increased over the past year, the number of disputes remains near the lowest ever recorded. The Government fully support the expert work of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service in helping parties improve their employment relations and have increased its funding by more than 80 per cent. since coming to power.

Mr. Wiggin : I cannot accept that the Minister's answer was particularly helpful when the number of days lost to strikes has increased from 235,000 in 1997 to more than 1 million in the past 12 months. How can the Government do more to cut the number of days lost and make Britain a better place in which to do business?

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman was asking about levels of industrial action. The figures for days lost through industrial action are notoriously lumpy, for example, a one-day dispute by local government workers contributes 500,000 days lost to the figures.

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However, when we get the final month's figures, the actual number of disputes this year will be shown to be the lowest ever recorded.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): What about the Post Office?

Alan Johnson: As for the Post Office, the level is the lowest for 25 years. If we define good government by days lost through industrial action, the figure under this Government is 36 per cent. lower than under the Major Government. Using that definition, we are a very good Government.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): Will the Minister confirm that industry is not only plagued with strikes—in fact it has had its worst year since 1990, with more days lost than at any time over the past 12 years—but that manufacturing productivity is rising at only half the rate that it was when the Government were elected; business investment has just recorded its worst fall since 1996; the trade balance is worse than at any time since—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman's question is too wide and relates to a question that was not called because the Member was absent.

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