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Bank Charges

8. Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): What recent assessment the Office of Fair Trading has made of the regulation of charges imposed by banks on their customers. [52003]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): The OFT wrote to eight major credit card companies in July 2005 to consult on its provisional conclusion that the default charges that they impose are excessive. The investigation is continuing.

Andrew George: I thank the Minister for that answer. Since the finding that some of those charges are unfair under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, however, the OFT has failed to act on its three-month deadline to demand that the banks either seek to justify or remove those charges. A large number of customers have challenged those and received out-of-court settlements, because the banks are not prepared to defend the cases. In view of the fact that the Government are keen to encourage low-income
 
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families and those in receipt of benefit to open bank accounts, can the Minister assure the House that they will do everything that they can to inject urgency into the inquiry and to make sure that customers are properly protected?

Mr. Sutcliffe: The hon. Gentleman knows that the OFT is an independent agency, and it would be wrong for the Government to interfere in its investigation. I know that he has had correspondence with the OFT. The Government are committed, however, to supporting low-income families in getting bank accounts, as we are to examining consumer credit, which is why we introduced the Consumer Credit Bill. I am sure that he will achieve what he wants in due course, but I will write to him as soon as I have any information from the OFT.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Will the Minister join me in welcoming the opening of hearings by the Competition Commissioner in Belfast today following a referral to the OFT by the consumer council of a super-complaint about high charging for customers in Northern Ireland? Does he agree that it is essential that customers, business and domestic consumers in Northern Ireland should have the same level of competition and charges as our counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter, which proves that the process works. Through the Enterprise Act 2002 and the Competition Act 1998, the opportunity to have the super-complaint means that disparities in the marketplace can be investigated and consumers can have a voice. I welcome his comments and the inquiry.

Rolls-Royce Contract

9. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the US Administration concerning the cancellation of the contract for the GE Rolls-Royce F136 engine. [52005]

The Minister for Industry and the Regions (Alun Michael): The issue of the F136 engine has been raised with the United States Government at all levels. Although it is not in the Administration's current budget proposals, we will keep pressing the case for the engine. That will not reach a conclusion until the US Congress has approved the budget.

John Robertson: I am sure that my right hon. Friend realises how important the engine is to GE and Rolls-Royce. Will he redouble his efforts to ensure that the project does not end up on the scrap heap, that we do our bit for the air fighters and their engines, and that the workers, particularly those in Rolls-Royce, are looked after?

Alun Michael: I am sure that the engagement of everyone up to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will reassure my hon. Friend about the efforts that are being made. It is worth pointing out that the F136 project is a joint project between the two companies, in which Rolls-Royce has a 40 per cent. share. A cancellation would therefore have serious
 
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implications for American business as well. We will certainly maintain our efforts to achieve a positive outcome.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): The consequences of the ITAR waiver, which is at the heart of the issue, have affected not only Rolls-Royce but other companies. What measures is the Minister taking, not just in regard to Rolls-Royce but in regard to the wider impact on the relationship between the United States and Britain, bearing in mind our close collaboration on both military and civil projects? If that breaks apart, and if we do not have the necessary guarantees, many more companies than Rolls-Royce will be affected.

Alun Michael: The relationship between British and American industry, as well as our relationships on defence issues, is extremely important, and the hon. Gentleman is right to refer to it. I refer him to the defence industrial strategy, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I supported along with our colleagues at the Ministry of Defence. The strategy document is very significant for the defence industry.

At the beginning of the week I visited Rolls-Royce in the Bristol area. I was particularly struck by the engagement down the supply chain in improving efficiency and competitiveness, and the involvement with our defence industry's real needs at every level.

MINISTER FOR WOMEN

The Minister for Women was asked—

Family-friendly Employment Rights

19. Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab) : What measures the Government are taking to secure family-friendly employment rights for parents and carers. [52015]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Meg Munn): The Work and Families Bill builds on the strong foundations of support that we have already introduced for working families. It proposes to extend maternity and adoption pay, give fathers a new right to additional paternity leave, and extend the flexible working law to carers for adults.

Mrs. Dean: I welcome the proposals, and the progress that has already been made with family-friendly policies. What analysis has my hon. Friend conducted of the impact of maternity and paternity rights on both industry and families?

Meg Munn: Companies that take account of the need for flexible working and recognise that they need to draw from the whole pool of talent, men and women, generally do better. Keeping an employee in work following maternity leave is often far less expensive than recruiting and training someone new.
 
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Let me take this opportunity to congratulate the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on the birth of his child. I note that he is taking paternity leave, which I am sure will benefit his family. He did not, of course, vote for that right; nor did his party.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What discussions has the Minister had recently with her ministerial colleagues about improving the provision of respite care for those who look after adults?

Meg Munn: We take the issue of carers' rights very seriously in the Work and Families Bill. We have issued a consultation document on the definition of carers. That is obviously connected with the issue of respite care, and discussions are ongoing. Respite care, along with flexible working, obviously helps those with caring responsibilities to go on working, which is often in their interests and those of the people for whom they care.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): I am currently advertising a post in my constituency office that I have opened up to job sharing, and I hope that lots of other Members do the same. What steps are being taken to encourage other employers to open jobs up to job sharing?

Meg Munn: We introduced three years ago the right for parents of children aged under six, and of disabled children aged under 18, to request flexible working. Flexible working covers a range of areas, including job sharing, and the right to request it has proved very successful for employers and employees. So the encouragement is there to look at all types of flexible working, including job sharing.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I recognise that family-friendly policies are very important in enabling people to continue in work. What measures has my hon. Friend put in place to help industry to implement such policies, and what financial support can she provide in that regard?

Meg Munn: We consulted widely on the issues with which the Work and Families Bill deals—it is being led by the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe)—and they were examined carefully to ensure that we proceed at the right rate. We have decided not to extend the right to request flexible working to families with children aged over six at this stage, but to consider introducing that right on a steady basis. The costs associated with introducing flexible working arrangements are minimal—much less than those arising from having to recruit new employees.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I am glad that the Minister recognises that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) will now discover that looking after a new baby is even more difficult than leading the Conservative party. [Hon. Members: "Oh no it is not."] Oh yes it is. She will also recognise that we Conservatives have supported the measures in the Work and Families Bill, but will she undertake, in considering the regulations following on from that Bill, to get the balance right and to make sure
 
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that unnecessary burdens are not placed on small businesses? If the balance is wrong and too many burdens are placed on them, that will be bad for such businesses, bad for their employees and bad for families.

Meg Munn: I agree with the hon. Lady that it is important to get the balance right, which is why we have proceeded at the rate that we have. We have not rushed into these matters, and we have consulted business. She will know that small businesses are often the best at introducing flexible working; indeed, they often adopt such practices so that they can ensure that their small number of employees can cover the work, and that they can get the right people in. There are skill shortages in many fields, and they are often the ones in which women are under-represented. So getting more women into the labour market in those fields will help such businesses, rather than preventing them from making progress.


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