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House of Commons

Thursday 4 May 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Artists and Entertainers (Fees)

2. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet the relevant unions and trade bodies to discuss up-front fees charged to artists, actors and models. [67723]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I am very concerned about the number of people who are still charged up-front fees on the promise of work that never materialises by employment agencies that operate in the entertainment business. We revised the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Business Regulations in 2004 to address this issue, but allowed agencies in some special sectors to continue to charge a justifiable fee where this could be shown to be necessary for the promotion of the artist.

It is clear, however, that abuses are occurring. In our employment strategy paper "Success at Work", we have said that we will look at the issues affecting agency workers, and that includes hard-sell tactics resulting in people paying high fees up front. My officials have already been in contact with the relevant trade bodies and unions, and I will be having discussions with them as we move to address this problem.

Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. He is obviously taking this issue seriously. Is he aware, however, that a recent survey by The Stage magazine shows that many young artists are being charged as much as £2,000 for either book fees or photographic services before the agency in question has found them any work? Also, a vigorous campaign by Clive Hurst has revealed that three quarters of the artists paying these fees receive no work at all in the following 12 months. Action is obviously needed, and I hope that the Minister will build on the action that he has already taken.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, because it is causing some concern. Between 18 and 20 agencies that have operated in this way have already been prosecuted. The exemptions were
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there to enable agencies to promote artists and to recover the costs of the publications involved, but, as the review by The Stage has shown, this practice is on the increase, and we need to do something about it. We are determined to stamp it out, and I shall be taking action.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP):In any discussions that the Minister has with the BBC, will he raise the issue of regional drama programmes made by BBC Northern Ireland? Many of them are going outside Northern Ireland, and even outside the United Kingdom, to give work to actors in other nations, even at the further reaches of the EU. Will the Minister ensure that pressure is brought to bear on the BBC to ensure that drama that represents part of the United Kingdom is based and shot in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I do not think that that is my responsibility, but I will be happy to work with the agencies involved—and to speak to the hon. Gentleman outside Question Time—to look into the details of the issue. I shall also refer the matter to my colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Ethical Trading Initiative

3. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for International Development on the ethical trading initiative; and what his policy is on the creation of an ethical scorecard for the benchmarking of companies. [67724]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Meg Munn): Officials from the Department for International Development and the Department of Trade and Industry work closely together on the Government's corporate social responsibility agenda, including the ethical trading initiative. The Government are a strong supporter of the ethical trading initiative, and, through DFID, have provided core funding of more than £2 million since 1998. We are delighted that an increasing number of companies see the value of this scheme, demonstrated by their joining the organisation, and we encourage others to do so. We do not at present have plans to create an ethical scorecard.

Malcolm Bruce: I thank the Minister for her detailed reply. Will she acknowledge that the surest way to get poor countries out of poverty is to create quality jobs, and that the ethical trading initiative provides a significant way to do that? Is she also aware, however, of the evidence given by the director of the ethical trading initiative, Dan Rees, to the International Development Committee last week? He said that the Government

Will the Minister and her Department do even more to encourage British companies to join up and to practise ethical trading? Will she also consider whether some kind of benchmark or scorecard illustrating the achievements of British companies in this area might encourage more companies to take part?
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Meg Munn: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman's Committee is looking into this issue, because it is enormously important. I have read the evidence that was taken last week. We are not in favour of the ethical scorecard approach because it would be very difficult to implement, and we do not want to increase the burdens on business. Different businesses have a different make-up: large corporations, for example, might have hundreds of thousands of suppliers, compared with the number supplying small and medium-sized enterprises. However, many benchmarking tools already exist, including the FTSE4Good, which deals with a range of issues. Companies are increasingly recognising the importance not only of having an ethical policy but of demonstrating that that is the case.

The DTI is keen on the whole range of corporate social responsibility—we have a corporate responsibility academy, which is developing and which is a success—so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's view that the DTI is not doing a great deal on this.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): While I welcome the Minister's response and support for ethical trading, can she give an indication of how the Government are considering the issue of public procurement at national Government and local government levels, so that we can continue to discuss corporate responsibility not only in the private sector, but in the public sector?

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend raises an enormously important point. Increasingly, the Government, and indeed other organisations, are recognising the real procurement opportunities that exist in relation to not only ethical issues, but a range of issues involving equality, equal pay and those aspects that she knows are very much part of my brief. We are continuing to look at the issue and to develop our thinking in that area. We welcome her comments and those of the Committee.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): As champions of corporate social responsibility, Conservatives recognise the good work of the ethical trading initiative and we recommend that consumers consider the ethical status of companies when making their purchasing decisions. However, does the Minister agree that this is an area where the Government must be cautious of using the blunt instrument of regulation rather than information and transparency, allowing for consumer choice?

Meg Munn: Well, Mr. Speaker, a cautious champion. I am not sure that we have heard that before.

Mr. Djanogly: A wise champion.

Meg Munn: I hear the hon. Gentleman's comment.

I know that you are aware, Mr. Speaker, that I am a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament, as is my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and the Regions. We have long championed corporate social responsibility, so we welcome the Opposition to that point of view and would like them to be a little less cautious in this area.
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4. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): When he last met the liquidators of BCCI; and if he will make a statement. [67725]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I have not met the liquidators of BCCI. Officials from the Insolvency Service last met with the liquidators in 2004. The liquidators sent the annual report of their administration of the company, made up to January 2006, in March. My hon. Friend knows that the Secretary of State is unable to intervene in the administration of any liquidation. The control of liquidation proceedings is a matter for the creditors committee and the court.

Keith Vaz: Has my hon. Friend had the chance to read the judgment of Mr. Justice Tomlinson, in which he condemned the liquidators of BCCI for bringing a flawed case against the Bank of England, which cost millions of pounds of creditors' money and lasted 256 days? Does he not agree that a liquidation that has lasted 15 years has lasted far too long? Will he therefore call the liquidators to a meeting at the DTI to try to bring the liquidation to a conclusion? He could be the first DTI Minister in the last 15 years to bring matters to an end. Is he ready for his place in history?

Mr. Sutcliffe: May I first commend my hon. Friend for the work he has done on behalf of the creditors of BCCI over many years in trying to restore their funds? To date, 81 per cent. of funds have been restored.

My hon. Friend makes a legitimate point about the position of the liquidators. The Secretary of State and I have no powers to intervene, but I am prepared to facilitate a meeting with the liquidators to see whether we can make any progress.

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