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Employment Agencies

6. Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): What steps he is taking to enforce the regulation of employment agencies. [33380]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): The Department of Trade and Industry's employment agency standards inspectorate enforces the legislation regulating the activities of the private recruitment industry. Inspectors visit agencies' premises to examine their records. The inspectorate can prosecute an agency found to be in breach of the legislation, and the maximum fine is £5,000 for each offence. The inspectorate can also apply to an employment tribunal for an order prohibiting an individual from operating an agency or employment business for up to 10 years.

Mr. Blizzard: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware of an organisation called Placement UK HR Ltd., which, in a booklet entitled "Half price staff: Shhhh! It's the best kept secret . . . ", proudly boasts that it can supply "graduate calibre staff" for

Will he look into this as a matter of urgency, because the outfit is clearly intent on trying to make a mockery of every piece of employment legislation that we have ever passed in this place?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue. Obviously, we will look into the company, which is operating illegally by not paying the national minimum wage and in the other ways that he raises. There is a change of demography in the workplace, so it is important that we monitor what happens with such agencies. There is, quite rightly, an influx of legal migrant workers into the UK through agencies, so I am keen to hear of any instances of people being exploited. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House want to ensure that no one is exploited by any agency that does not operate properly.
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Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Is the Minister aware that there is a grey area of the law that applies to people based in this country who are recruited by employment agencies—particularly those based in Holland—to work on German construction sites, especially? They are not employed on the same terms and conditions as those working in Holland and Germany. Is the Minister prepared to examine the matter?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am happy to enter into correspondence with the hon. Lady about the case, or to see her. There is a change in demography and the way in which work operates throughout Europe, but we need to make sure that people are not exploited. I am happy to hear evidence from hon. Members about agencies that are not working properly.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The Minister referred to the exploitation that sometimes occurs when migrant workers are brought in by frankly corrupt and oppressive recruitment agencies in this country. One of the difficulties that we find when we try to regulate them is getting details from police forces in other European countries. Will he co-operate with the Home Office on pursuing the issue, to try to ensure that when the police in this country investigate such matters, they can get access to police records, especially Polish ones?

Mr. Sutcliffe: My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is a cross-departmental approach on workers coming from other member states. He will be aware that a great deal of work has been done with the Portuguese and Polish embassies to try to give information to workers who might come across from those countries about their rights, which should stop them being exploited. I am happy to work with all agencies to ensure that we continue to monitor the situation.

Rural Post Offices

7. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): If he will make a statement on the future funding of the rural post office network. [33381]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Barry Gardiner): The Government have committed up to £750 million, subject to state aid clearance, to 2008 to maintain the rural post office network.

Danny Alexander: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I am sure that he agrees that that funding represents only a fraction of the overall economic and social value of the post office network to our rural communities. I hope that he can assure the House that funding arrangements for 2008 onwards will be confirmed by the end of this financial year. Will he confirm that if they are not, the directors of Post Office Ltd. would be obliged to start the process that would lead to the closure of parts of the rural network?

Barry Gardiner: As ever, the Liberal Democrats proceed with all the economic foresight of a myopic fruit bat on these matters. Only they could see 800 rural post
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offices that serve fewer than five people a day, at an average loss of £6.50 a customer visit, and respond by proposing to create 500 more, as they did at their party conference. As usual, they were defeated, of course, but only because they wanted to pay for that by privatising the Royal Mail.

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester) (Lab): In recognising the role of rural post offices, may I urge the Minister not to lose sight of the real value of urban sub-post offices, especially in areas of greatest social need?

Barry Gardiner: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the urban deprived network is a critical aspect of delivering the Government's agenda on social inclusion. It is essential that people continue to have access to that network, which has been guaranteed through the programme of urban reinvention that the Government initiated.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Recognising the importance of the post office network to rural and urban communities, will the Minister indicate the impact thus far of the switch to the way in which people receive their benefit and pension payments from post offices to banks?

Barry Gardiner: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that important question, because 97 per cent. of benefit recipients now access their payments by direct payment into their bank account. It is often thought that the closures were precipitated by changes in the method of pension payments and the introduction of Post Office card accounts; in fact, they started long before the changes took place. Way back in 1999, a dramatic change had already started in the number of people who received their benefits by other means. Because of the new facilities available to them—internet banking and so on—our constituents have chosen different methods to access their own finances and the Government have responded to that. In 2000, about 70 per cent. of all benefits were paid by order book, but that proportion had already fallen to 57 per cent. by 2003, when the direct payment scheme was launched.


8. Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the website. [33382]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Barry Gardiner): Since its formal launch in May 2004, nearly 13 million user sessions to the site have been logged and the number of visitors is increasing monthly. There were 600,000 site visits in October, with a minimum of 160,000 coming from repeat visitors. More than 200,000 of those users downloaded material such as business publications, grant application forms and legislative guidance. The site receives a continual flow of positive feedback from the small business community and its significance has been recognised by a prestigious plaudit—it was named by the UN world summit awards as the UK's best business website for best e-content application.
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Gordon Banks: I commend the website for the advice it offers on pay-as-you-earn, value added tax, corporation tax, health and safety and the like, but as one who comes from a small business background I urge the Minister to ensure that organisations such as Revenue and Customs, local government environmental health departments and business advice centres do more to promote the site. What does he intend to do to make sure that small businesses throughout the country are aware of the site and encouraged to use it as a partner in their business development in years to come?

Barry Gardiner: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, not only for his interest in the site but for his efforts to improve e-governance generally—a subject on which he has recently made valuable contributions in the House. is at the forefront of our e-government initiative and user numbers are hugely encouraging. We have made great strides in making business aware of the site's potential, but I welcome his comments on ensuring that it is more widely known throughout the country.

My hon. Friend talked about the way in which there should be link-up with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and an integrated approach. He will be interested to know that we are introducing an integrated service to enable customers to register for and access e-filing services provided by Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and Companies House. That has required a major change in the way in which the departments provide those services. It is expected to lead the way in the development of further transactional services across government.

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