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Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): We were very sorry when the hon. Gentleman was moved from his post as Minister for Energy, but it seems today that we can welcome him straight back to his previous responsibilities. What are the Government’s plans for
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publishing new legislation to govern the planning procedures for onshore and offshore wind? When do they expect to publish it, will it be separate from the energy White Paper expected in March, and what criteria does he think will be the most important in determining where these wind turbines will be permitted?

Malcolm Wicks: I should start by saying that there is widespread concern that, although we need to pay proper regard to local community concerns, it takes far too long to reach a decision on the energy infrastructure that we need, whether it be a wind farm or a new power station of whatever kind. We all understand that we need massive investment in energy infrastructure over the coming five, 10 or 15 years. The Government are therefore looking very seriously at those planning issues, so that we may achieve a better balance between local concerns and our energy security needs. That will be reflected in the White Paper that the Secretary of State has said will be published in March.

Consumer Credit

4. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): What assessment he has made of the impact of interest rates for consumer credit on low income families. [106238]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): The university of Bristol personal finance research centre recently looked at what the effect of the equivalent of an increase of 0.5 per cent. on interest rates would be on consumers. They found that an additional 1 per cent. of households would be expected to struggle financially as a result of such an increase. The Government are committed to ensuring access to affordable credit and have allocated £36 million from the financial inclusion fund to promote the growth of credit unions. We are also committed to ensuring that those in financial difficulty have access to free debt advice, and are giving £45 million to fund new advisers in areas of high financial exclusion.

Mr. Goodwill: My constituent Mr. John Barrett of Scarborough was appalled to receive a letter offering him a loan of £7,500 at an annual percentage rate of 44.6 per cent. The suggestion was that he could use the money for a holiday. That generous rate is available only to those in full-time employment. Others, such as Farepak customers who may be on benefits or paid weekly, have to pay rates as high as 175 per cent. What more can be done to encourage credit unions, such as the one recently set up in Whitby, so that people can escape from the clutches of such predatory interest rates?

Mr. McCartney: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. We have put £36 million into developing a national network of credit unions. In addition, we are insisting that the European directive, which will be produced soon, includes opportunities for growth in that sector. Without being too partisan, I would remind the hon. Gentleman that when the Tories were in government, they provided not a single penny for the extension of that sector—

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Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Don’t spoil it!

Mr. McCartney: I am not spoiling it; that is a fact. The Tories cannot lecture us about issues that they did not deal with when they had the opportunity. I give an absolute assurance that we will continue the development of that sector when resources are available, and I hope that in doing so, we will receive the support of the Opposition, who have voted against it in the past.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on making available that additional funding for credit unions. Will he use the opportunity of next year’s 90th birthday of the Co-operative party—whose parliamentary group I chair—to promote the ideals of co-operation and mutuals, especially credit unions? For too long in England, credit unions have not been at the forefront of people’s thinking on our estates, as they have in Scotland and the United States. Will my right hon. Friend use that opportunity to drive home the message that credit unions are the right way forward?

Mr. McCartney: I am prepared to do that, and I will also have a meeting with the Co-op to see what else we can do. In areas where credit unions work, we have an endemic problem of illegal money lending. The Government have set up two pilot projects, in Scotland and the west midlands, which in recent months have secured significant prosecutions and taken out of the community a group of people who have been a scourge in it. It is important not only to assist credit unions, but to take other action to undermine the criminal element who prey on the most vulnerable.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s words about credit unions, but I agree with the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) about the need for more regulation of money lenders—because that is what the people who push glossy leaflets about loans with 100 per cent. interest rates through doors are. Should we consider tougher regulations in that area to protect the vulnerable?

Mr. McCartney: Next year, the Government will bring forward a directive in respect of unfair activity in that area. We will do that in a non-partisan way —[ Laughter. ] I cannot win. A few minutes ago I was accused of being too partisan. Now I make an offer to be non-partisan and the Tories burst out laughing. They just flip-flop everywhere. I reassure my hon. Friend that I will work with the whole House to ensure that legitimate operators remain in the market, but that we will deal with those who are not legitimate.


5. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): When he expects to complete his investigation into the collapse of Farepak. [106239]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): The speed of the investigation will be determined by the thoroughness of the investigators, who act
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independently of Ministers. The investigation is being carried out by the companies investigation branch under powers in section 447 of the Companies Act 1985. Reports of investigations under section 447 may not be published, nor may information about their findings be disclosed except to prosecutors and regulators named in the Act. There is a public interest reason for preserving the confidentiality of the investigation. Premature disclosure of information would prejudice any action that was merited, whether that involved prosecution, the disqualification of directors, or regulatory action.

Tom Brake: I thank the Minister for his response, although whether the inquiry will report before Christmas remains unclear, certainly to Farepak customers. Will he confirm that evidence of wrongdoing by directors will lead to criminal proceedings against them? The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland appears to have advocated a boycott of HBOS for its sad involvement in the affair. Does he support that?

Mr. McCartney: As a politician, the hon. Gentleman is entitled to make clever remarks. However, if he wants me to do the same in respect of HBOS, he must accept responsibility for the fact that that would mean that any culpability on HBOS’ part found by the investigation could not be taken to court by the prosecutor. My job is not about taking sides; it is about ensuring that there is a proper investigation and action is taken if illegality is found. By all means let the hon. Gentleman seek a headline, but my job is better than that. My job is to seek the truth of the matter, and to take action if that is necessary. After all, the Government sent the investigation branch in within hours of Farepak’s collapse. In normal circumstances, the investigation branch does not go into a collapsed company until after the administrator’s investigation. The fact that the Government took the unprecedented step of sending the investigation branch in so soon, by agreement with the administrator, shows how seriously we take this matter. I hope that hon. Members realise that, and that clever off-the-cuff remarks are not helpful.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): May I take this opportunity to thank my right hon. Friend and his private office for setting up the family fund, and for their tireless work in seeking justice for the Farepak victims? Does he agree that an early conclusion to the investigation would help to pave the way for early regulation for the Christmas savings sector, so that similar difficulties never arise again?

Mr. McCartney: My hon. Friend has played a tremendous role in this matter. The time scale does not allow me to make an oral statement today, but I will issue a written statement setting out the details of the fund as they stood at 7.30 this morning, and the arrangements for its distribution by 18 December.

I hope that you will allow me, Mr. Speaker, to give the House a flavour of my written statement. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) that the investigation will not be strung out, but I do not want it to conclude early as a result of pressure from politicians. I want a proper, full-scale,
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detailed and complex investigation that will involve many people and the inspection of large numbers of records. Indeed, we will have to reconstruct much of the company’s record base, because we need a constructive approach to finding the money trail. The investigation will be completed as soon as possible, but to a time scale that is commensurate with determining the truth and the action that must be taken.

As at 7.30 am today, more than £6.4 million had been placed in the fund, including more than £340,000 of public donations. Gift aid will contribute an additional £30,000. The resources are still being counted as I speak, and I assure the House that more money will be available later today. We have agreed in principle with the administrator that a large number of hampers, with a substantial market value, will be secured. We are in discussion with a logistics company and a large national retailer to determine whether the hampers can be distributed before 18 December.

Help in kind is being provided by the Park group, Findel plc and others, with logistics for the distribution of vouchers. An estimated £500,000 of gift aid will ensure that administrative expenses do not eat up every pound that people have put into the fund. In addition, we have agreed with the administrator that he will go back to court to cover the period from 11 to 13 October for repayments in excess of £300,000, which we hope will be made by Christmas.

Using the Consumer Credit Act 1974, we have secured—[ Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. In fairness to the House, I must stop the Minister; there will be a written statement.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): Does the Minister agree that compensation of 15p in the pound for Farepak customers is a national disgrace and will ruin many people’s Christmas? In my constituency, people have lost more than £100,000 and because of the poor rate of compensation, the Reading Chronicle has today launched a local appeal—[ Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the hon. Gentleman speak.

Mr. Wilson: In the investigation, will the Minister look into how many Farepak customers use debit cards to pay their bills, as they may be entitled to full compensation?

Mr. McCartney: The hon. Gentleman does the exercise down; it is not a compensation scheme, but a good-will gesture. After three weeks, from a standing start, more than £12 million in one form or another will go to people before Christmas. No legislation covers debit cards, but Visa has given a commitment to refund debit cards, as well as credit cards, in full. I hope that others will do the same, as that will result in a considerable sum of money. Other factors are involved, as the hon. Gentleman will realise from my statement. The investigation is widespread and will look into all aspects of the company’s collapse. More information will be available to the House at an appropriate time, but for now I think we should allow the investigators to continue their work. The priority between now and Christmas is to ensure that at least some people’s
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Christmas can be saved. If we had not taken the initiative, nothing would have been saved.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): The management of HBOS, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Farepak and European Home Retail have all come in for varying degrees of criticism throughout the crisis. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that the senior managers of each of those organisations will be interviewed in the DTI investigation to give the House a full and clear picture of what actually happened?

Mr. McCartney: Some of the managers of those companies and others involved with the banks and financial services that had a working relationship with Farepak have already co-operated fully and have made it clear that they will continue to do so, and I am pleased about that. Companies—financial services and others—that had financial dealings and arrangements with Farepak will be part of the investigation.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): We had spotted the fact that there was to be a written statement and the House is grateful to the Minister for giving us the gist of what will be in it when it is published later. Quite apart from the specific issues of the investigation, which we must respect, many of us find astonishing the background principle that savers’ deposits have been used to prop up a parent company as though they were cash flow from profits that would never need to be returned. What discussions has the Minister had about introducing immediate changes so that deferred purchase savings schemes such as Farepak are brought within the scope of the existing regulations that govern licensed deposits, so that in future vulnerable customers are protected and not abused as they have been in this case?

Mr. McCartney: I take the hon. Gentleman’s comments in the spirit in which they were made. I immediately had discussions with the Office of Fair Trading, which is now in discussion with the regulators on the point the hon. Gentleman raised and other matters. Within a reasonable period, I expect them to come forward with proposals for Ministers to consider. In addition, I have to ensure that when the investigation is complete any proposals meet the needs not only in this case but in other financial transactions of a similar nature. The House can rest assured that after this debacle I want to ensure that arrangements in the future meet the needs of consumers and the retail sector. I am very much in favour of co-operation in this matter; it is in all our interests that consumers are protected and that legitimate retail businesses can continue to operate effectively. When it is appropriate, I will put information in the public domain for consultation, and we shall take action on whatever proposals result, to ensure—we hope—that a Farepak case can never happen again.

Manufacturing Sector

6. Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to raise the level of skills in the manufacturing sector. [106240]

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The Minister for Industry and the Regions (Margaret Hodge): The Government are working with partners to improve skills levels across manufacturing. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently announced approval of the new national skills academy for manufacturing, thus fulfilling yet another manifesto commitment. The academy will develop a genuinely employer-driven training opportunity, with training and education programmes that will set national standards for delivery, helping employers to raise skill levels and meet the demands of global competition.

Kali Mountford: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I am particularly pleased about the element that involves partnerships with employers to ensure standards. In the centre of vocational excellence—in which I am a member of the steering committee—that is how we operate. I have recently been able to give awards from modern apprenticeship level right the way through to leadership and management level. We need a degree standard level in technical textiles. Will she help me to ensure that the regional development agency, which has promised £2 million for studies on technical textiles at degree level at Leeds university, fulfils that promise by March next year?

Margaret Hodge: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she has done in the textiles sector, arising from good provision in her constituency. The centres for vocational excellence ensure that provision exists. They are supply-side driven. We now have to ensure that the demand from manufacturers, employers and businesses matches that supply. I am happy to help her. I suggest that she should engage in discussions with the local learning and skills council, the supply agencies and the regional development agencies to ensure that the need in her constituency is met.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Last month, the deputy director of employment policy at the Engineering Employers Federation said:

What is the Department doing to lower tariffs to help British manufacturing?

Margaret Hodge: One of the things that we could all do within the House is start talking up the success of British manufacturing. Too often people decry it; too infrequently they commend the very good record. For example, manufacturing output over recent times has been increasing consistently. The Government have a comprehensive strategy in place to support manufacturing across the piece. From investment in new technology and innovation, to the support that we give through our manufacturing advisory service, the contribution of regional development agencies, and the research and development tax credit—there is a plethora of support. That is contributing to the success of British manufacturing across the board. The hon. Gentleman would do well to join me in celebrating the success of British manufacturing.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the restructuring of the Learning and Skills Council?

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