Previous SectionIndexHome Page

20 Mar 2003 : Column 1079—continued

Christmas Day Working

9. Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport): What steps she is taking to improve protection for employees against retail employers who force their staff to work on Christmas day. [103888]

The Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions (Alan Johnson): The Government wish to maintain the special nature of Christmas day. I expect to launch a consultation on possible new regulation of opening by large stores a little later this year.

Ms Coffey : I thank the Minister for his reply and I welcome his announcement about a consultation. However, does he agree that it cannot be right that there are no trading restrictions on Christmas day when it

20 Mar 2003 : Column 1080

falls on any day other than a Sunday? It cannot be right that shop workers have to rely on the goodwill of their employers. Surely the only real protection for shop workers is legislation.

Alan Johnson: It is an anomaly that the terms of the Sunday Trading Act 1994 protect shop workers and others working in the retail sector when Christmas day falls on a Sunday. The basis of that Act was that Sunday is a special day, and everyone agrees that Christmas day is also a special day. We are minded to introduce legislation. Our view is that we need to consult fully beforehand, but we feel that the time to legislate is when there is not a problem. All the retailers say, "We have no wish to open on a Sunday, but if any of our competitors do, we will." It is important to act before we get on to that slippery slope.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Notwithstanding the fact that many people, myself included, agree with the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) that it seems both unfair and mean-spirited to coerce people into working on Christmas day when they would otherwise not choose to do so, does the Minister accept that when contemplating legislation, it is essential to be sure that legislation and regulation are necessary, and that the form that they take is proportionate to the size of the problem and the level of the protest about it?

Alan Johnson: I fully accept that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to retailers last year to see whether there was an alternative to regulation. If there was an agreement between the major retailers, none of whom was interested in opening on Christmas day, that would probably breach fair trading rules, so that option has been ruled out. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. If there were any sensible alternatives to regulation, we would pursue them. My view at present—that is the reason for the consultation document—is that there is no alternative, and it will be beneficial regulation, not least because many retailers have said to us, "Look, we agree with you, but either put up or shut up. We will open if our competitors open, and the best way you can deal with this", many retailers tell us, "is through regulation."

Energy White Paper

10. Mr. Gareth Thomas (Harrow, West): What discussions she has had with Ofgem about the Energy White Paper. [103889]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): Ministers and officials have held a number of discussions with Ofgem about the energy White Paper, both before and after its publication. The White Paper includes a number of commitments relating to Ofgem, which we are pursuing with the regulator.

Mr. Thomas : Is my right hon. Friend aware of comments by the head of Ofgem that the Government's environmental and social guidance to Ofgem is not yet strong enough? In the light of those comments, will she

20 Mar 2003 : Column 1081

undertake to revisit the guidance, and will she consider further whether Ofgem requires additional sustainable energy expertise on its board of directors?

Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree that the environmental guidance needs to be strengthened in the light of our White Paper objectives and commitments. We have that work in hand. We have also, as we state in the White Paper, agreed with Ofgem that it will produce regulatory impact assessments, including environmental impact assessments, on all new policies. I am delighted to say that a new non-executive board member with strong environmental credentials has been selected, and we will make an announcement about that shortly.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): In a written answer, the Energy Minister stated that increasing the renewables obligation from 10 per cent. to 20 per cent. will add £1 billion to the annual cost of electricity generation. On the assumption of a 3p buyer price, does the right hon. Lady believe that she will achieve 20 per cent., and if not, what price does she envisage, and what effect will that new price have on the cost of electricity to consumers?

Ms Hewitt: As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, we have published on the DTI website the extensive economic modelling work that underpins the analysis and the conclusions of the White Paper. As I said earlier to the House, the renewables obligation by 2010 will deliver a £1 billion boost to investment in the renewables sector. Energy prices at present, with the sole exception of industrial gas, are lower than they have been for about 20 years. A striking aspect of the consultation that we did with the public was that cheap electricity was seen as rather less important than meeting our carbon obligations. I therefore believe that we will be right to continue with the renewables obligation in order to ensure that we meet not only the 2010 targets but our 2020 objectives as well.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): Has my right hon. Friend taken into consideration the views of the regulator about what will happen when we become a net importer of gas, and the fact that we could become more reliant on gas over the next 10 years? As has been proved in relation to oil in the last few weeks, an unstable situation in regard to gas supply could have a traumatic effect on domestic and industrial energy supplies if we do not take action now. Will my right hon. Friend tell us which way she intends to go on the issue of the net import of gas?

Ms Hewitt: The issue that my hon. Friend has raised is one of the reasons why we need a new energy policy. Over the next five years or so, we will indeed become a net importer of oil and gas. We already import about half the coal that we use. This will change the energy position in the United Kingdom. We will have to pay even greater attention to possible threats to the security of supply that could result from international events. Let me stress, however, that we have been importing oil from Russia for the last 37 years or so without any interruption, and that much of our gas supply will come

20 Mar 2003 : Column 1082

from Norway, a close colleague and partner. We are already putting in place a new treaty with Norway to ensure that we will be able to secure those supplies.


The Minister was asked—


20. Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly): What measures she is taking to encourage more women to become business entrepreneurs. [103900]

The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): A national strategic framework for business support for women's enterprise is in the final stages of development by the Small Business Service, in conjunction with Prowess—the nationwide network of women entrepreneurs—and a cross-government policy group. This strategy will enable us to support far more women in moving into self-employment and setting up their own businesses.

Mr. David : Is the Minister aware of studies that have taken place in the United States that show that black women, especially, make excellent entrepreneurs when sufficient support is given? Does she believe that the issue could be considered in that context in this country?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Unfortunately, we are not doing nearly as well as other countries, including the United States, at encouraging women, including black women, into business start-ups. If women in the United Kingdom were starting up businesses at the same rate as men are, we would have about 100,000 more businesses in the United Kingdom every year. That is why we are giving such priority to this issue, and ensuring—both through Prowess and the work of the phoenix fund—that we support women from all our different communities who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): What is the Minister doing to encourage women to become sub-postmistresses? Have the Government implemented recommendation 18 of the performance and innovation unit report that was mentioned earlier? It states:

At a time when Haylands, Horsebridge Hill and Parkhurst post offices in my constituency are under threat of closure, the Government appear to have nothing to say on this matter—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is far too wide of the mark.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Does the Minister recognise that women entrepreneurs have been greatly assisted by the innovation that was a key feature of the existing European structural funds, which has helped women in Merseyside and the north-west by supporting investment funds and training, and by giving encouragement to women to become involved in

20 Mar 2003 : Column 1083

business? Will she ensure that, in any changes to structural funds, the innovation that allowed women to be supported in this way will be continued?

Ms Hewitt: When I was in Merseyside just last week, I saw an example of precisely that kind of entrepreneurial spirit at Blackburn House—in this case, a social enterprise created and led by women for women. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and the consultation document that the Chancellor and I recently published on the future of the structural funds and regional policy sets out a sensible way forward to ensure that the work already being done under the structural funds and under the regional development agencies will continue, following enlargement, in what we believe will be an even more effective and efficient way.

Next Section

IndexHome Page