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Working Parents' Rights

5. Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries) (Lab): What steps she will take to ensure that the recently introduced rights for working parents will be fully implemented in small and medium-sized enterprises. [149735]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths): The Government have consulted small and medium-sized enterprises fully on these important rights, and are running an awareness campaign that includes the direct mailing of SMEs with full details of the benefits. ACAS has been running employer training seminars.

Mr. Brown: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Maternity and paternity leave can occasionally cause small businesses cash flow problems. Can he offer them any help with that aspect of the new support that we want to give to working parents?

Nigel Griffiths: Yes. To tackle cash-flow problems, small businesses can claim money up front from the Inland Revenue for maternity and paternity pay, and the Chancellor is increasing the threshold for small employers' relief to £45,000 from 6 April.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): Does the Minister recognise that implementing working parents' rights is not a problem for large wealthy corporations—they might not want to do it, but they can certainly afford it—but that, unless the arrangements are implemented flexibly, it could be the difference between a small business surviving and going under? Will he give us an assurance that there will be flexibility for small businesses, which do so much to create new jobs?

Nigel Griffiths: Yes.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Small businesses in my constituency tell me that one of their problems when introducing new rights or responding to new regulations is that, although information may be provided initially, they do not have the benefit of large personnel departments to provide the information subsequently. What are the Government doing to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises have ready access to advice and information on these rights and on other regulations?

Nigel Griffiths: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Minister for Employment Rights, Competition and Consumers, the Secretary of State and the Department have been at pains to ensure that proper advisory services and guidance notes are available. I have seen the guidance note pack that is being sent out, and it is excellent. It was drawn up in full consultation with the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and others. I know that the Minister for Employment Rights, Competition and Consumers is grateful for their input and takes the point made by my hon. Friend very much to heart.

Large Combustion Plant Directive

6. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): What research she has undertaken into the effect that the implementation of the large combustion plant directive will have on the UK coal industry. [149736]

The Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services (Mr. Stephen Timms): In June, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published a

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consultation on the implementation of the directive informed by analysis commissioned by external consultants. We continue to assess the directive's potential impact on the coal industry and its major customers, the coal-fired electricity generators. That assessment includes external research, and we are in detailed discussion with the industries themselves.

Paddy Tipping : I am grateful for that reply and for the personal interest that the Minister has taken in this matter. Does he accept the figures that come from the coal industry and the generators showing that if the national plan, which appears to be the Government's favoured option, is pursued, 15,000 jobs will be at risk, at a cost to the economy of £700 million?

Mr. Timms: I have seen those figures, and I want to emphasise that no final decision has been taken on how to implement the directive in the UK. It is certainly the case that the coal industry and most, but not all, coal-fired electricity generators prefer the alternative emission-limit values approach. I shall meet industry representatives of both viewpoints in the next few weeks, to help us to finalise our decision. There are very different views about how the national plan approach would affect the coal industry, and the analysis so far indicates that it would impose a lower cost overall on the economy, but we need to look carefully at all the issues to ensure that we make the right decision.


7. Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): When she expects that the UK will become a net importer of gas. [149737]

The Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services (Mr. Stephen Timms): In about 2006.

Mr. Djanogly : For the first time in a generation Britain needs to face up to the prospect of becoming a net gas importer. Knowing that, why do the Government continue to shirk their responsibilities and duck the hard decisions required, including those on nuclear and coal power, to ensure the security of supply and a viable platform for promoting renewable energy sources?

Mr. Timms: We are certainly not shirking any responsibilities, and, as the hon. Gentleman must know, we have done a great deal to encourage and promote the big investment in renewable electricity generation that we need. Every G7 country except for Canada and the UK is a net energy importer, so the position in which we will find ourselves is by no means unusual. The security of UK gas supply will require sufficient infrastructure and gas of the right specification available for import, and there is a great deal of activity to make sure that we have security of supply; for example, in October I reached agreement with my Norwegian counterpart on the principles for a treaty on a new gas pipeline from Norway to the UK. We are taking all the necessary steps to ensure future UK energy security.

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Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend consider the situation whereby at present we are exporting gas to the European Union, owing to the complete failure of the European Commission to open up the gas market in the EU? That is having serious adverse effects on energy-dependent industries, such as the ceramics industry in Stoke-on-Trent, and forcing up gas prices in this country because of the artificial gas market in the EU. Will my hon. Friend take the matter seriously and treat it as a priority, and will he see what he can do to ensure that the EU opens up its gas market, as it has pledged to do, without any further undue delay?

Mr. Timms: I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of an open market for gas in the European Union. We are making progress, but certainly in the past it was not as rapid as we might have hoped. However, we are now making headway. I talked about the importance of infrastructure in ensuring that industries in my hon. Friend's constituency as well as gas users around the country have the security of supply that they need, which is why we are looking at doubling the capacity of the UK/Belgium interconnector. There is also a proposal for a new interconnector from the Netherlands. Using all those methods, we can secure the gas that industries and household users will need in future; but I agree that it is important to have open markets across the EU.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The workers at British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. in my constituency will be concerned by the Minister's exchanges with my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly). They are aware that the Government are putting significant resources into research into nuclear fusion by funding projects at JET—the Joint European Torus—and CERN, but they are worried that similar support is not being provided for research into nuclear fission to develop new forms of conventional nuclear power station so that we can increase our energy security in future. Will the Minister look again at the balance of that research funding?

Mr. Timms: We made it clear in the energy White Paper that it is important that the nuclear option remain open, which has implications for future research funding. We are looking at how much funding there should be and where it should be directed in the work leading up to the spending review next summer. The issue raised with the right hon. Gentleman has been raised with me as well.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Does the Minister recall that a few weeks ago we met him and the Prime Minister in a room behind the Speaker's Chair to discuss why we were going to become a net importer of gas? The reason is that after the pit strike in 1984–85, 170 coal mines were left, and the Tories closed 153 of them in the run-up to the 1997 election. To ensure that we keep that handful of pits open, and to prevent the importing of too much gas, will my hon. Friend keep in mind the solution that we gave him and which he promised to look at? Coalfields such as Selby and

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Hatfield in Yorkshire and many more will benefit from the European directive, and if he takes up our proposals, he will help to stave off more gas imports.

Mr. Timms: I vividly recall the meeting that my hon. Friend refers to. We had a good discussion about the large combustion plant directive and alternative ways of implementing it. I assure my hon. Friend that, bearing that meeting in mind, I am looking extremely carefully at these issues.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC): Is the Minister aware of the major explosion on Monday night in the Algerian town of Skikda, where the main complex for the export of liquefied natural gas to the European Union is situated? Does not the fact that almost a third of Algeria's gas export capacity was wiped out overnight give rise to concerns about the Government's policy on security of supply?

Mr. Timms: Yes, I am aware of that event, and I believe that the whole House would want to join me in expressing sadness about the loss of life. The LNG industry has a very good safety record, despite that tragic event in the past few days. I understand that that particular facility does not currently export gas to the UK, but exports it elsewhere. However, it is important that that the highest standards of safety should apply in the industry, as they should in other energy industries. That is a clear requirement in the UK, and we are happy to work with other suppliers around the world to ensure that equally high standards apply elsewhere.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): Is it not the case that whether we use our own or imported gas, gas will continue to be the main source of our power generation for many years to come? Does my hon. Friend agree that we could get near-zero CO2 emissions from gas-fired power generation if we captured the carbon dioxide and stored it by injecting it into underground oil reservoirs, at the same time maximising the recovery of our oil reserves, and oil revenues? Will he undertake more research into that? Is it not a win-win solution?

Mr. Timms: I am aware of my hon. Friend's interest in that idea, and I pay tribute to him for all his work on behalf of the offshore oil and gas industry, which is greatly appreciated in the industry and in Government. We have conducted research—we have sponsored research jointly with industry since the mid-1980s—on the use of carbon dioxide injection into mature fields to recover more hydrocarbons. We are currently investigating the feasibility of demonstrating the use of CO2 for enhanced recovery in the North sea, and we expect to publish the findings of that investigation in March.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), are the Government concerned that the renewables target of only 3 per cent. is not being met? There are environmental pressures on the coal industry, as we heard. The nuclear industry does not know whether it has a future. The situation was not helped by the comments of the Minister's noble Friend Lord Davies, who said of the nuclear industry:

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Is the Minister not concerned that because of that situation, we will become over-reliant on imported gas? Is he concerned that the Government have not investigated the possibilities of gas from Russia and other countries, as they might have done? Is there not a greater urgency to see whether we can bring gas all the way from Russia safely? There is a big question about the security of supply, and we on the Opposition Benches are worried that the Government are rather complacent about the medium-term energy supply.

Mr. Timms: We are certainly not complacent. There are clearly big changes going on in the energy market and we are working hard and carefully to make sure that we secure our future supplies. The hon. Gentleman suggested that we had not done much about Russia. In fact, last summer I signed with the Russian Energy Minister a memorandum of understanding on the proposed north European gas pipeline, so we are vigorously pursuing that option.

There are three major proposals for liquefied natural gas import projects, two at Milford Haven and one on the Isle of Grain. Centrica has put in place long-term gas supply contracts with Gasunie of Holland and Statoil of Norway. I have spoken about the interconnectors and the agreement with Norway. There is a great deal of activity, as there needs to be, in order for us to be confident of our future supplies of gas.

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