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Small Businesses

10. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): How many Government schemes are in place to support small businesses. [116328]

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The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): The House is lucky this morning, as we are now hearing from another classic cockney.

On the latest available figures—those for 2005—there are 4.3 million small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK, a rise of 8.5 per cent. since 2003. They employ 13 million people and have a combined turnover of £1.2 billion. We estimate that government—national, local and the regional development agencies—spend £2.5 billion per year on about 3,000 schemes to support business in England, many aimed at SMEs. The Department of Trade and Industry is leading a pan-government programme to promote shared schemes and to rationalise them so that there are 100 by 2010, having also rationalised its own support.

Andrew Rosindell: I thank the Minister for that reply, but does he agree that the current system for small business support is incoherent, ineffective and hinders the development of the entrepreneurial economy? What assurances can he give that there will be genuine root-and-branch reform of Government business support schemes and quangos?

Mr. McCartney: I do not agree at all. Yes, we need to rationalise, but let us be absolutely clear about what lies behind the hon. Gentleman’ question. At the last general election, his party wanted to cut £500 million from the core business support budget and to close down entirely the Small Business Service, whereas Labour is committed to investing in the small business sector and we will continue to do so. However, we also want to rationalise that to make it more effective; that is entirely different from the cut-and-run strategy that the hon. Gentleman supports.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): As I put my house at risk in the dark days of high interest rates and mass unemployment to establish a small family business, I ask the Minister whether he agrees that the key thing that small businesses need in order to establish and prosper is a stable economy and low interest rates.

Mr. McCartney: It was a beautiful house to put at risk; I have been in it on a number of occasions. My hon. Friend is right. We have had the longest period of a stable economy, and that is why under this Government small businesses are being created every day, whereas under the previous Government small businesses closed down in their hundreds every day.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Following on from the question of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), does the Minister accept that energy prices are one of the major costs for smaller businesses? Energy prices have risen dramatically in recent times, but the price at which the distributors and energy companies sell energy to smaller businesses does not drop in accordance with different market conditions. Will the Minister take an interest in that and ensure that those companies not only experience rapid rises in their profits and offer attractive packages to their executives, but offer competitive prices to small businesses?

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Mr. McCartney: That is a fair point. Wholesale prices will fall dramatically and that decrease should be passed on. We have taken action to build capacity in the North sea; my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made an announcement on that some time ago, and we have also taken action in the European Commission. We very much agree that such savings should be directly passed on to small businesses.

Gas Production (Shetland)

11. Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): What steps his Department is taking to encourage gas production west of Shetland. [116329]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alistair Darling): The lack of gas infrastructure west of Shetland is a key constraint on development. We have established a group from industry and Government to work together on that. In addition, we changed the licensing scheme to encourage development; about 60 blocks have been licensed and activity is under way.

Sir Robert Smith: With news this week of further discussions on the decommissioning of the Brent field, it is becoming ever more important that we find new production to keep the North sea industry going. Does the Secretary of State recognise that if fields were brought together with an imaginative solution, that would provide 6 per cent. of the UK’s needs by 2016? Will he emphasise to the Treasury the importance of coming up with a regime that encourages a gas-gathering pipeline to make sure that we unlock that potential, because any gas left in the ground will pay no tax, provide no jobs and not contribute to this country’s energy needs?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman is right—it is believed that there is very substantial potential in that regard, if we can commercially extract oil from the west of Shetland. The difficulty is that it is some 600 km away from the nearest pipe that could take that oil ashore, and the other difficultly is that no one single field would be big enough on its own to act as a collecting point for smaller satellite fields. We are discussing with the industry the possibility of pooling resources in order to get a network to bring that oil ashore. The hon. Gentleman is also right in saying that, if we can get to the oil west of Shetland, that will make a very substantial difference by enabling us to get more oil. At this time, especially when North sea oil is in a long but inevitable decline, it would be an extremely useful addition to this country’s oil stocks.


12. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with the Office of Fair Trading on the practices of supermarkets. [116330]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): Neither I nor my officials have discussed the practices of supermarkets with the Office of Fair Trading. The OFT has asked the Competition Commission to investigate whether any features of this market prevent, restrict or distort competition, and, if so, what action
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might be taken to remedy them. The commission is required to publish its final report by 8 May 2008, but it is aiming to do so by October 2007. It expects to publish its emerging thinking for further consultation on 23 January.

Norman Baker: I thank the Minister for that reply and for the action that has been taken, but does he accept that the supermarkets have managed to corral the market in an anti-competitive way? The price that they are paying farmers for milk, for example, is going down, which is in stark contrast with the price that consumers are being charged, which is going up. Under those circumstances, we need some action from the Government and from the Competition Commission to rein in the supermarkets, which, frankly, are out of control.

Mr. McCartney: That is a nice try by the hon. Gentleman, but that is precisely why the Competition Commission is making its inquiry. Let us await its outcome on 23 January and then take part in the consultation. At that point, if the hon. Gentleman wants to discuss the matter further, I am happy to do so.

Minister for Women

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Private Sports Clubs

20. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): If she will make a statement on the status of women in private sports clubs where they are members. [116354]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Meg Munn): I am aware that sex discrimination persists in some private sports clubs, where women members are treated less favourably in accessing facilities and services, or regarding their right to play a part in club management. We are considering how to address such discrimination through the discrimination law review.

David Taylor: The glorious game of golf is a 15th-century gift from Scotland to the modern world, but there are still some clubs in our land whose attitudes to women members are stuck in the social bunker of that bygone era, in that they discriminate on the ground of sex so far as playing and voting rights and access to facilities are concerned. Will the Minister be up for the tussle with the antediluvian tendency in this sport when she drafts the regulations necessary to eradicate discrimination on the greens and in the clubhouse, so that, at last, women and men can be on a par?

Meg Munn: I entirely agree with the sentiment expressed by my hon. Friend. Where clubs have members of both genders, they should be treated equally, and we will seek to address that matter.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): The Minister specifically says that where clubs have members of both sexes, they should be treated equally. Does she have any plans under the review that she
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mentioned to look at clubs of which women are not allowed to be members, such as the Royal & Ancient golf club, which is actually golf’s governing body?

Meg Munn: The Government’s position on single-sex organisations is that they should be allowed to exist. There are situations in which both men and women choose to have an organisation that is for just one gender, and we will not seek to change that. However, where both men and women are members of a given club, they should be treated equally.

Sex Industry (Drugs)

21. John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): What estimate the Government have made of the percentage of women involved in the sex industry who are addicted to class A drugs. [116355]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Meg Munn): A 2004 Home Office study profiled 228 women involved in street-based prostitution and found that 87 per cent. used heroin and 64 per cent. used crack cocaine. Anecdotal evidence from a subsequent Government consultation paper suggested that a high proportion—in many areas, practically all—of those involved in street prostitution used class A drugs.

John Mann: Does not that suggest that the key intervention in relation to prostitution, especially street prostitution, is the provision by the NHS of effective drug treatment across the country?

Meg Munn: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The prostitution strategy that was produced by the Government recognises the enormous importance of providing appropriate drug treatment and he will be aware that we have invested £600 million in drug treatment provision in the recent past.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) a speedy recovery to full mobility.

The Minister will know that many of those involved in prostitution are the victims of trafficking. Can she enlighten us as to when the Government will come to the end of their period of reflection on the UN convention on trafficking and sign up to it?

Meg Munn: I welcome the hon. Lady to women’s questions, although I hope that her participation will be temporary because we would like to see the hon. Member for Epping Forest back in her place as soon as possible. She raises an enormously important issue. Significant numbers of women are trafficked into prostitution in this country. The Government are committed to all the aims of the European Union convention and we are looking carefully at when we will be able to sign up to it.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): A few years ago, Wigan and Bolton health authority carried out a survey of the sex industry, which showed that 98 per cent. of the women on-street were addicted to heroin, whereas very few of the women off-street were addicted to any drug at all. Therefore, would it not
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make sense to protect the safety of those on-street prostitutes by prescribing heroin in clinics, at least for a limited period while they are weaned off the drug?

Meg Munn: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. On-street prostitution is the main focus of the prostitution strategy, because of the many different concerns that it provokes. However, decisions about the treatment of the women need to be taken on the basis of careful consideration of their individual circumstances. We have also stressed the importance of considering not only drug treatment, but every other circumstance that affects them, so that we can deal with the issues that have driven them into prostitution and not just one aspect of their situation.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): The Minister referred to the co-ordinated prostitution strategy, which was a watered-down response to a consultation document called “Paying the Price”. That involved a change of rules to allow prostitutes to work together, a crackdown on kerb crawlers and, vitally, new ways of helping women addicted to class A drugs. Why have even those mild measures not been enacted nearly a year later? When will the Government bite the bullet, risk unpopularity and some tabloid press, and do the right thing by those women?

Meg Munn: I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s characterisation of what the Government are doing. Significant amounts of money are being invested in drug treatment and the issue of street prostitution is being given priority in many areas. We are taking forward co-ordinated activity on prevention and developing routes out of prostitution. Importantly, we are also tackling demand.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Both Front Benchers might like to know that the treaty is neither a UN nor an EU convention, but a Council of Europe treaty. If nine out of 10 prostitutes are slaves to drug dealers as well as their pimps, are we not talking about victims, not sex workers or the sex industry, let alone the ludicrous idea from the Liberal Democrats of increasing such activity by legalising it? Is it not men who have to be put in the spotlight? They create the demand and until we cut off the demand, the supply will unfortunately continue.

Meg Munn: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. The women are victims and we need to take that seriously. I am pleased that he raises the issue of demand and I would like to see more hon. Members taking on that issue and raising that important matter.

Gender Pay Gap

22. John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): What steps the Government are taking to close the gender pay gap in the public and private sectors. [116356]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Ruth Kelly): The Government action plan implementing the women and work commission’s recommendations includes measures ranging from the
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exemplar employer initiative to the forthcoming public sector duty on gender equality. I will be hosting an event with the CBI later this month to share best practice with both public and private sector employers.

John Barrett: According to last week’s report by the Equal Opportunities Commission, women are still painfully under-represented in so-called “power jobs” across the country. Thirty years on from the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, does the right hon. Lady agree that many of the largest institutions in both the public and private sectors need to make a renewed effort to remove the hidden barriers to women’s career advancement that distort the work place?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. The gender pay gap has been closing over the past 10 years or so, but we need to make further progress. As part of the exemplar initiative, we work with private sector employers to overcome the barriers to promotion that women face and to open up part-time work opportunities, not just at the lower-paid end of the market, but in respect of higher-quality and higher-paid jobs. That initiative is a really important element in taking the matter forward.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): How does the right hon. Lady explain the disturbing fact that the gender pay gap among part-time employees is higher in the public sector than in the private? What does she intend to do about it?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman is very well informed, but he must know that the total pay gap in the public sector is lower than in the private sector, partly because wage differentials are compressed. Local authorities, Government Departments and other public sector bodies are taking action on this matter. The gender duty to be introduced in April will require public sector organisations to take further steps towards closing the gender pay gap.

Electoral Politics

23. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What steps she is taking to encourage greater participation in electoral politics among those groups of people with lower than average levels of participation. [116357]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Meg Munn): The Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 allowed positive measures to be taken to increase women’s participation. For instance, it enabled the use of quotas in local elections to increase the level of female representation. Currently, women make up 29 per cent. of councillors in England, and 19.5 per cent. of MPs. Additionally, the local government White Paper set out a commitment to review the barriers and incentives to becoming a councillor. That review will also consider the challenges facing under-represented groups.

Tony Lloyd: The introduction of the 2002 Act was a major step forward, but the Labour party is the only major political party to use it to allow positive
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discrimination in favour of women candidates. Does my hon. Friend believe that the voluntary mechanism preferred by other parties is successful, given the composition of the Opposition Benches?

Meg Munn: I have been a member of the Labour party for many years, and have always been interested
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in this matter. The Labour party tried the voluntary route for a number of years, but it did not work. Now, 28 per cent. of members of the parliamentary Labour party are female. Parties that are serious about getting more female members must be prepared to take the difficult measures necessary to secure all-women shortlists.

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