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House of Commons

Thursday 23 March 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


The unavoidable absence of Mr. Speaker having been announced, The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): What powers and responsibilities the Office of Fair Trading has in respect of supermarkets; and if he will make a statement. [60671]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): The OFT has responsibilities for enforcing UK competition and consumer protection regimes, which include supermarkets. The OFT has announced its decision to consult on a proposed referral of the grocery market to the Competition Commission for a market investigation. The statutory consultation, as required be section 169 of the Enterprise Act 2002, will close on 6 April, and I trust that hon. Members will take part. The OFT is also responsible for monitoring compliance by certain supermarkets with the supermarket code of practice, which was put in place after an earlier investigation by the Competition Commission.

Bob Russell: I thank the Minister for that reply. He will be aware of the recent report by the all-party small shops group, of which I am secretary, which refers to the growing dominance and near-monopoly powers of the four big supermarkets, which mean that there is not so much an un-level playing field as a huge slope. Will the Government take any measures to protect community stores, especially if they believe in sustainable communities?

Mr. Sutcliffe: First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the all-party small shops group on the report, which has highlighted the issues and helped the debate along. It is clear that competition issues must be dealt with through the procedures of the Competition Commission and the OFT, and we look forward to that process. However, the Government will continue to monitor and consider issues relating to consumer policy. We have regular
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meetings with the British Retail Consortium and small shops groups, and are concerned about what is going on in that sector.

Mr. John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister will know that the powers and responsibilities of the OFT extend to credit cards. The latest report indicates that the late payment ruling is an important landmark. Will he engage with the OFT to ensure that late payment charges are reduced so that the consumer feels the benefit?

Mr. Sutcliffe: My right hon. Friend chairs the Treasury Committee, I have had the pleasure of appearing before him, and I am sure that I will have the pleasure again soon. He is right that the issue is causing a great deal of concern, and we are considering the matter with the OFT. All party spokespeople on these issues have met APACS representatives to consider how the banking code applies to those matters.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Do the Government have a view as to the share of the grocery market that supermarkets might reach? Does the Minister have a view on how many convenience stores can be owned by supermarkets in a particular town without affecting competition significantly?

Mr. Sutcliffe: That is why it is important that politicians and politics are taken out of this matter. The competition authorities must consider it in great detail, which is one of the reasons for the referral. When the OFT completes its consultation process, it will decide whether to refer the matter to the Competition Commission. The share of the grocery market will be one of the issues considered.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend ensure that the work done by the Competition Commission on this matter is tied up with his review of Sunday trading liberalisation. If Sunday trading is extended for large superstores, small stores will suffer a further impact. Will he ensure that those two matters are dealt with together?

Mr. Sutcliffe: Co-ordination is important, but the two matters are separate. The OFT is considering supermarkets' share of the grocery market. On Sunday trading liberalisation, the Department of Trade and Industry is going through the process of asking stakeholders for their view. A cost-benefit analysis has been undertaken, the detail of which will be fully transparent. We hope to have a stakeholder event in May, and I am already receiving requests for meetings from bodies with a view on the matter.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): Further to that point, we welcome the OFT's investigation. As the excellent campaign by the Evening Standard has shown, however, small independent shops are facing multiple threats—certainly from supermarkets, but also from over-regulation, rising crime and the internet. Given the limits of the OFT's powers, will the Minister accept his responsibility and organise a national debate on the future of retailing, and particularly on the future of small independent shops?

Mr. Sutcliffe: As I said, we have that discussion with retail bodies, whether it is the Association of
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Convenience Stores or the Rural Shops Alliance. I am pleased about the Evening Standard campaign, which is a step in the right direction. What it says to consumers is, "If you value your small shop, spend money in it." That is the basis of the campaign. We should not get into supermarket-bashing. Clearly, consumers will vote with their feet—if they feel that they will get a better deal from supermarkets, they will do so. The whole purpose of the OFT investigation will be to consider the future, such as how to deal with planning matters, and to set the scene for what consumer policy should look like in the next 10 to 15 years.

Mr. Prisk: I note the Minister's cautious words, but he knows as I do that the OFT's inquiry will take place in two years. Small shops cannot wait that long. Given that, and the excellent evidence produced by the all-party group, will the Minister—as I said—accept his responsibility, and not follow the discussion but lead it? Will he turn his words into actions?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am already doing that. It is clear that there must be a division of the process. The competition issues need to be dealt with by the OFT and the Competition Commission, as provided in the Enterprise Act. However, I have already been meeting representatives of the supermarkets and the Association of Convenience Stores, and I am happy to meet officers of the all-party small shops group to keep the issues under review. The referrals are about specific matters; we need to examine the overall issues relating to the future of shops, and I am continuing to do that.

Nuclear Power

2. Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the nuclear industry on preparations for new nuclear power plants. [60672]

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): There have been many discussions with a wide range of stakeholders, including the nuclear industry, as part of the energy review consultation process, which runs until 14 April. Responses to the consultation will be available imminently on the DTI website.

Dr. Kumar: What discussions has the Minister had with the nuclear industry, and do they suggest that once the review has been completed and if the Government decide to go further down the nuclear route, we shall have the nuclear scientists and nuclear engineers who can design, build, commission and operate plants for the future, given that since the 1980s there has been a great drop in nuclear research and given the fragmentation of the skills base?

Malcolm Wicks: I have had many discussions with the energy industry, including the nuclear industry, about skills and the scientific base. The United Kingdom is a centre of excellence in terms of nuclear science. I recently visited colleagues at Manchester university, for example. There are ideas about establishing a national nuclear laboratory. That is an interesting issue, which is under active consideration.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Is not the Chancellor's announcement yesterday that he
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hopes to raise £2 billion by selling shares in British Energy yet another clear indication that Ministers have already made up their minds to build more nuclear power stations? Rather than attacking those who are suggesting credible non-nuclear energy strategies, why are the Government closing their mind to all the other alternatives?

Malcolm Wicks: The Chancellor did not give a figure.

Mr. Davey: It was in the Financial Times.

Malcolm Wicks: I regard the Chancellor of the Exchequer, not the pink pages, as my authority figure when it comes to these matters.

The energy review is considering the advantages and the disadvantages of a new generation of nuclear reactors. They are finely balanced: some issues weigh on one side, and some on the other. The Chancellor's announcement yesterday has no relevance to the decision that we will make in the summer, whether it be yes or no.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Can my hon. Friend confirm that the building of nuclear power stations is already totally permitted, and any company could apply to build one tomorrow? Fears that have been expressed that following the energy review the Government will somehow go nuclear are misplaced, because the regime is already in place. However, it is not financially viable to build nuclear power stations, and that is the problem with them.

Malcolm Wicks: My hon. Friend is right. There is nothing to stop someone from applying to build a nuclear power station—but people do not do so. I think that that is because, in practice, the Government need to give a green or a red light. I believe that that has been the case in all nations. As for the economics of nuclear power, we hear different opinions. We ourselves are conducting a cost-benefit analysis of different technologies as part of the review.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The Minister must know that we have made absolutely no progress over the past 20 years in disposing of nuclear waste. We are no further forward on the question of how we dispose of it than we were when I was doing the job that the Minister is doing today. The Government abandoned the recommendations of the Nirex public inquiry at Sellafield. Can the Minister explain to the House and the country how the Government intend to dispose of nuclear waste? Until they have an answer to that question, any suggestion of future nuclear power stations is simply irresponsible.

Malcolm Wicks: Until recently, over several decades, the record of Government and Parliament on the issue was very poor indeed. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it was irresponsible. I do not know whether that included the hon. Gentleman's term in office. Under this Government, however, we have a two-part strategy. Part 1 involves the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, with a substantial budget and a remit to clear up the waste on the various nuclear sites. It has begun its work. Part 2 will follow the recommendations of the
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expert Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, which will publish its work by the summer. That will involve making a judgment about a repository—a long-term or medium-term one—in which to put nuclear waste. So we have a strategy in place—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman shrugs, but being the Government who find a solution to this very difficult problem is a key test for this Government.

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