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House of Commons

Thursday 19 October 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Trade and Industry

The Secretary of State was asked—

Post Office

1. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet the chairman of the Post Office to discuss lost and stolen mail. [95028]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Royal Mail’s operational performance is just one of the issues that Ministers and officials discuss regularly with the company.

Mr. Bellingham: May I refer the Secretary of State to the experience of my constituent, Mr. Alan Sinclair, who received a medium-sized package through the post that had been tampered with and opened, it being perfectly obvious that it was not the result of machine damage? The Post Office did not want to know, Postwatch did not want to know, and the Department of Trade and Industry did not want to know. Everyone has told him to take a running jump. What can the Secretary of State say to my constituent about his very serious complaint about opened and tampered-with mail?

Mr. Darling: I agree that it is a serious matter. The primary responsibility is of course with the Royal Mail, but if the hon. Gentleman would care to let me have the details, I will look into it. It is worth bearing in mind, though, that well over 99 per cent. of mail is successfully delivered and that the Royal Mail overall does a good job.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): That is what the Post Office says, but most hon. Members would agree with the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham). I welcome the fact that the Minister will look into this. When he does so, will he reconsider the requirement that when sending a gift overseas one has to declare precisely what it is? The use of a bar code instead would at least disguise the nature of the contents from the casual thief. The problem is that declaring what one is sending is an open invitation for the package not to be delivered, which is what is happening.

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Mr. Darling: I do not agree with my hon. Friend. From time to time, things will go wrong and packages will not be delivered, or damaged or interfered with, but the vast majority of parcels and letters are delivered efficiently by the Royal Mail. If there are problems, we will look into them, but it is not right to give the impression that this problem is widespread, because that is not true.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I would say that the problem is far more widespread than the right hon. Gentleman suggests. In response to a recent survey, I received more than 1,000 complaints, an awful lot of which were about not only delivery times but lost and stolen mail. What is the Minister going to do to deal with the Royal Mail, which is not delivering for local people?

Mr. Darling: As I said to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, if the hon. Lady has specific complaints that she would like the Royal Mail to look into, I would be happy to ensure that it does so. Despite the fact that there will be problems from time to time, overall the Royal Mail does a good job in delivering mail.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that each week 1,100 car tax discs go missing in the post, as well as many more driving licences, causing great stress and anxiety to those who are waiting for those documents? Does he agree that urgent discussions are needed between the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Post Office and his Department?

Mr. Darling: I am aware that tax discs and licences go missing. Much of the mail that goes missing is the result of criminals targeting mail vans and the like. We take that seriously, as does the Royal Mail. Hon. Members will be aware that some 3 million licences were obtained online as a result of changes made by the DVLA last year, which helps to make their delivery more secure. However, people have a choice, and they have every right to expect that if something is posted to them, they will get it.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Is the Secretary of State aware that the Royal Mail is becoming increasingly secretive about the facts and figures relating to lost and stolen mail, claiming commercial sensitivities? Is not a mail company’s performance on lost and stolen mail a legitimate piece of information for consumers? If he agrees, what action will he take to ensure that we have full disclosure not only from the Royal Mail but from all mail operators on that important piece of information?

Mr. Darling: I agree. This year, Postcomm imposed a fine on the Royal Mail of about £9 million because of its failure to meet its licence obligations; that is what the regulator is for.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): As the Secretary of State said, the scale of this problem is shown by the size of the fine that Postcomm has imposed. Will he also consider whether the problems could partly be addressed by allowing sub-post offices to work with
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carriers other than the Royal Mail? Does he agree that such competition would force the Royal Mail to do more to tackle these failings, have the added advantage of increasing consumer choice, and bring desperately needed new business to the post office network?

Mr. Darling: As I have said in the past few weeks, we are ascertaining how we can help post offices expand their business, and I shall make a statement to the House in a few weeks. However, it is important that we do everything that we can to help those businesses develop in a manner that is consistent with the Government’s overall objectives for Royal Mail.

Oil Workers (Annual Leave)

2. Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to ensure that offshore oil workers receive their statutory annual leave entitlement. [95029]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Jim Fitzpatrick): In 1998, the Government introduced for the first time an entitlement to four weeks’ paid annual leave through the working time regulations, which came into force on 1 October this year.

We amended the regulations on 1 October 2006. That put beyond doubt the fact that the working time regulations apply to offshore workers on the UK part of the continental shelf. As my hon. Friend knows, that followed a dispute between employee representatives and employers over the jurisdiction of the original regulations.

Mr. McGovern: I thank my hon. Friend for that response. The recent amendment to the working time regulations is welcome and, as he says, puts beyond doubt the fact that they apply to all employees. However, Amicus has brought it to my attention that some offshore employers still try to prevent their employees from receiving full annual leave entitlement. They claim that onshore leave, which is effectively rest time, should be regarded as annual leave. That is as if an onshore employer claimed that weekends and bank holidays constituted annual leave. That is wrong and should be resisted. Will my hon. Friend take steps to ensure that offshore workers receive their full annual leave entitlement?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I do not disagree with the principle that my hon. Friend outlines of entitlement to appropriate annual leave. Indeed, we have just concluded consultation on ensuring that workers are entitled to their eight days of bank holidays as well as the four weeks for which we legislated in 1998. I know that some discussions are continuing between unions and the oil companies. We clarified the jurisdictional dispute that held up resolution to the disagreements and we hope that, as a result of doing that on 1 October, sensible discussions can take place between employee representatives, the oil companies and other companies that work offshore, so that they can arrive at satisfactory agreements for their staff.

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Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I draw the House’s attention to my entries on the oil and gas industry in the Register of Members’ Interests.

The Under-Secretary said that the Government have now clarified the jurisdiction, but both sides would welcome clarification of the way in which they envisage the directive applying offshore. What assurance can the Department give about the implications of the Jaeger judgment and whether it would apply to the situation?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The SiMAP/Jaeger European Court of Justice rulings have an impact on many businesses and services in the United Kingdom. We are examining them carefully to ascertain whether they apply in the case that we are considering. In November, we expect an outstanding tribunal decision, which should provide additional clarity. We do not believe that SiMAP or Jaeger applies to the North sea as matters stand, but we are keen to see the results of the judgment as well as those of the further discussions in Europe about the operation of the two European Court of Justice judgments on working time in the UK.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): The clarification of jurisdiction is welcome. However, my discussions with contractors in the summer show that they simply want the issue sorted out. They would like to know exactly how the regulations will work in practice and what they mean for their employees. In some cases, they would welcome the Government defining exactly what the regulations mean in practice. I appreciate that that is not necessarily the view of all the operators and others, but some were reaching it in the summer because of their frustration about the length of time that the issue is taking.

Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend ably describes the frustration of many involved in the industry about the inability to determine the nature of the agreement. We passed the amendment to the regulations on 1 October to clarify the jurisdictional difficulties that prevented proper negotiations. We do not believe that we have a role in negotiating what the leave arrangements should be but we felt that we had a role in clarifying the leave entitlements under law. Although it is early days yet, and we await the November employment tribunal judgment, we hope that, once it is out of the way, the employers and employee organisations can reach agreements that are satisfactory to both. We will not intervene in those negotiations but we are watching them carefully.

Personal Debt

3. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What steps the Department is taking to assist those with high levels of personal debt. [95030]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): Although most people use credit productively, some end up with huge problems. The Department is most concerned to help such people, and there is much that we are doing.

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We are giving grants totalling £45 million over the two years until April 2008 for advice agencies to hire and train 450 new debt advisers, who will help more than 100,000 of those with the highest levels of personal debt. That is part of a package to combat financial exclusion under the Treasury’s £120 million financial inclusion fund.

We are also giving more than £24 million to Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland to help support citizens advice bureaux, which, among other things, provide help and advice to those in debt.

We have recently funded loan shark pilots in Birmingham and Glasgow with a grant of £835,000 this year. We will assess the pilots, which have helped combat illegal activities.

We have given another grant of £l million this year to National Debtline, which will help tens of thousands of the indebted. We are doing as much as we can to try to help those with the highest levels of debt.

Simon Hughes: Let me say without qualification that the interest and initiatives of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury in this respect are welcome. Given that there is now a record £1.3 trillion of personal debt in this country, however, will the Minister ensure that his Department conducts a review of credit card charges? Two years ago, both the Trade and Industry Select Committee and the Treasury Select Committee, as well as the DTI, said that although good steps had been taken, much more needed to be done to protect people from being ripped off by small print that they do not understand or by charges that they have not been alerted to.

Mr. McCartney: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very fair comments. I will write to him on this matter, because I have taken up this issue with representatives of the industry and I am having discussions with them now. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman and the House with further information, following the conclusion of those discussions.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the voucher company Farepak, which is based in my constituency, collapsed this week, robbing thousands of people on low incomes of their Christmas savings. My constituents use Farepak to avoid falling into debt, and many have lost hundreds of pounds. As one Swindon mum said:

Does the Minister agree that this stinks, especially as Farepak made a £1.2 million profit 18 months ago? Will he meet the administrator, and get the Insolvency Service to look into the matter thoroughly and take action against the directors if needed?

Mr. McCartney: Like my hon. Friend, I understand why those people are hurt, angry and frightened about being fleeced and so badly let down. I have already discussed a way forward with the administrator earlier today. Furthermore, this morning my officials and I contacted the British Retail Consortium, which represents the retail sector. It has no legal obligations,
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but this is a very successful sector, and the overwhelming majority of the BRC members are socially responsible employers and companies. Its representatives immediately agreed to meet me this weekend at the DTI, with the administrator, to see what the industry can do. They cannot take on the legal obligations of this shocking company, but they will see what they can do in the lead-up to Christmas as a good-will gesture to help the most needy people who have lost out completely.

I have also asked the administrator to report as soon as he can, under the terms of the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986, on the fitness of the directors, on how they have run the company, and on the extent of their responsibility for any failure by the company to supply goods or services that have been paid for in full or in part. I have also asked my officials this morning to take full advice from the Insolvency Service. I have been in touch with the Hamper Industry Trade Association, and I shall be meeting its representatives in a few days’ time. I shall also be meeting the executive director of the Office of Fair Trading, Mr. John Fingleton, to discuss how we can take this issue forward to avoid such failures again.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): The Minister will be aware that a principal cause of personal debt is gambling, including, increasingly, online gambling. Will he therefore comment on recent press reports that the Government are seeking to turn this country into a world leader in the online gambling industry, to the extent of relaxing the regulatory and fiscal regimes? Does he really believe that this country should aspire to become a world leader in an activity that consigns so many of its citizens to misery?

Mr. McCartney: Despite my background as a politician, I am not much of a gambler myself. The industry employs tens of thousands of people in this country, and is well regulated. I recognise, however, that some individuals have gambling problems, and that the consequences for them and their families are indeed great. We will certainly keep a close eye on the industry, as the hon. Gentleman requests, to ensure that it not only operates effectively but provides services to give support and assistance to those who have gambling problems.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): To return to credit card debt, although I welcome the activities that the Minister has outlined as attempts to give people who are already in difficulty guidance to get out of it, does he agree that the way the different credit cards are advertised—often in a misleading manner—makes it much harder for consumers who are inexperienced in relation to the existing 30,000 credit cards to make rational decisions? They often get ripped off and end up paying high interest for borrowing small amounts of money. Will he outline his views on how that could be dealt with?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The supplementaries are too long.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Mine is very short.

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Mr. McCartney: There is no answer to that.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) that I am in discussions with APACS—the UK payments association—as are my officials, about the best-practice guidelines. Then we can take the matter forward. Indeed, in only the last few days I met the vice-chair of Barclays bank, who is, on behalf of the industry, keen to work with the Government to bring forward such proposals.

Those guidelines will give security through an understanding across the industry of what best practice is and ensure that competition does not lead to overly complex and difficult situations for the consumer of those products. Therefore, I am quite confident that, along with the industry itself, the best-practice guidelines can be amended in such a way that, for example, the appropriate checks on a customer’s ability to pay and checks between the industries will lead to us not having credit limits that are difficult to meet due to their complexity for the consumer who wants to have a credit card limit increased, or indeed wants to have a credit card in the first place.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): The debts of students and young people are especially concerning. Indeed, outstanding student loans are now at more than £19 billion. Given that, and the importance of data-sharing between lenders, why is the Student Loan Company not sharing its data? It is almost a year since Ministers promised us that they would resolve this issue. When can we expect action, not just yet another consultation paper?

Mr. McCartney: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about the promise and I can say that, as consumer Minister, I am actively engaged with the issue, so watch this space. We want to resolve the issue in an effective way, as my predecessors said. That will be done.

Mr. Skinner: What advice will my right hon. Friend give to the family sheltering under that green tree, who propose to get £21 billion in debt and do not have the money to finance it?

Mr. McCartney: My hon. Friend alludes to the shadow Chancellor’s banana republic report on public expenditure cuts and massive tax incentives for the very rich in society. Indeed it is a recipe for economic disaster, but what do you expect? This is just another Tory leader with the same old Tory policies.

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