Mr. Michael Foster: Will the Minister have a word with his colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to see whether they will introduce a post-planning permission audit of decisions on Tesco Express versus convenience stores? That would allow us to learn from real data, which would help to inform us on future decisions.
Malcolm Wicks: I will bring that point to the attention of colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I will also mention the specific story of what allegedly happened in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East.
Keith Vaz: Petrol is a subject that is closer to the Minister's hearthe is the Minister for Energy. Has he seen for himself in Croydon the growth of mini-supermarkets situated next to petrol stations? It is no longer the case that people go into petrol stations and buy a few goods. If the Minister passes a Tesco Express attached to an Esso filling station when he returns to his constituency on Friday, he will see people come out with bags and bags of shopping, which even happens after 5 o'clock on a Sunday.
Malcolm Wicks: I am lucky. I was reflecting on my luck when I was given the opportunity, in addition to my energy responsibilities, to address the House on this important subject. I shall have another word with my ministerial colleague about my good fortune.
Big is not necessarily bad. OFT data indicate that in the five years to 2005, product lines in groceries increased by nearly 40 per cent. on average. According
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to the Office for National Statistics, retail food prices fell between December 1999 and May 2005 by 4.1 per cent. in real terms, which is surely good for consumers and the economy. Furthermore, the four biggest supermarket chainsTesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Morrisonemploy more than 675,000 people. Additionally, the Co-op's stores make it a significant player.
We need to get the balance right. Many of my constituents are concerned that Morrison's in Upper Norwood has decided to close down. In all honesty, they do not flood to my advice surgery to say, "What a wonderful opportunity for the small entrepreneur"; they say, "Who else will take over this superstore"? Our constituents like visiting supermarkets, just as they value flourishing and entrepreneurial small shops.
There must be no whiff of hypocrisy in this debate. My hon. Friend was honest enough to come out as a Tesco shopper, which he described as an enjoyable experience. I am bound to say that when I am on my own at a checkout and there is suddenly a rush of goods to put in bags, I find it more of a terrifying than an enjoyable experience. Let us not get into a situation where we use the superstores as well as the small shopsas do our constituents, many of whom are employed by themyet at the theoretical level see them as the devil incarnate.
I just want to set the record straight. I think that it is a wonderful experience being able to walk down Uppingham road, where my constituency office and home are, and meet people who have been trading there for years and years. This is about the integrity and character of our town centres. We do not want them disfigured with huge glass monoliths with the word "Express" written all over them. We want to ensure that the towns and cities of Britain have shops to give people choice. It is a wonderful experience going into
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supermarkets; it is an equally wonderful experience being able to go to the high street shops. My fear is that there will be no high street shops left.
Malcolm Wicks: Of course, I understand that. We all want that balance in our lives. However, I remember the debate about small post offices, which still rages. I heard a story from an hon. Gentleman who campaigned for a post office to be kept open and was told by the postmaster that some 6,000 people had signed the petition to keep it open. When he asked how many regular customers he had, the answer was 200. We must practise what we preach. There are many excellent small stores selling a range of goodsfor example, cheese shops, many of which, unlike the one in the John Cleese sketch, have cheese. We need to get the balance right between the small shops and a sensible approach to the Tesco's, Sainsbury's and Co-op's of this world.
It is not for Government Ministers to decide if action is necessary, given that a well-established, independent and rigorous competition framework is in place to consider the questions raised by my hon. Friends.
David Taylor: The Minister invited me to intervene on him should he not address a concern that I raised. It is all very well having an independent competition regulatory framework, but if it is not workingif it does not have teeth or feels disinclined to actwe need something of the type that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) suggests.
Malcolm Wicks: I understand that. Obviously colleagues will monitor carefully how the competition authorities consider the question that is before them. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will reflect on what my hon. Friends have said.
I am sure that all Members look forward to hearing the results from the competition authorities and that there will be further deliberations in this House and elsewhere on this very important subject, which my hon. Friend introduced so well.