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If I had accepted the advice that we should go for a commercial network, there would be only about 4,000 branches, and that would be ridiculous, because a large number of people, for one reason or another, cannot use banking services. That is why I want to maintain a
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national network. However, it is completely misleading for people to suggest that the present situation does not need change, and that we can carry on with mounting losses, which would have to be borne. It would be very nice if we could get consensus, but I suspect that on this issue, as with so many others, it is unlikely.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): The Secretary of State rightly recognised that the best way to support local post offices is to encourage people to use them. Will he admit that before the Government started actively discouraging pensioners and others from drawing their pensions from the post offices, post offices benefited not just from the remuneration that they received from the Department for Work and Pensions for handling those transactions, but from increased use by pensioners and others? Consequently, it will cost the Government more to preserve the post office network by subsiding it than it would have done if the Government had continued to use them.

Mr. Darling: No, I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. He may recall that in the last year of the Conservative Government, when he was Secretary of State for Social Security, his Department was already considering how it could encourage more people to put money into their bank accounts. It was doing so partly because that would cost the Department less, but it was also concerned about the fact that the old giros were open to fraud—as he will recall, because he made lots of conference speeches about that. The only reason why he can say, “Well, that didn’t happen very much under my regime” is because he left office a few months later, but the process started when he was Secretary of State, and indeed before that, in relation to child benefit—so I do not agree with what he is saying.

All Conservative Members of Parliament must recall that they stood for election on the basis of a manifesto that endorsed the David James report, which called for an even greater transfer of money directly to people’s bank accounts. The right hon. Gentleman may not want to admit it publicly, but there is recognition that there have been profound changes to the way in which people do business and choose to receive their pensions or benefits. We need to respond to that, and we are prepared to back the Post Office financially, as well as in other ways.

UK Trade Balance

14. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What the UK trade balance is; and if he will make a statement. [135443]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): The UK deficit on trade in goods and services was £54.1 billion in 2006. Total UK exports, including goods and services, were £370 billion in 2006, up by more than 13 per cent. on 2005. The UK’s exports of services were £126 billion in 2006, up 10 per cent. on the previous year, and the UK’s surplus on trade in services increased by almost 22 per cent. between 2005 and 2006 to £29.6 billion. In 2005, the UK was second only to the United States in terms of both its inward and its outward foreign direct investment stocks, despite the fact that the UK accounts for only about 1 per cent. of the global population.

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Ann Winterton: The Minister has given figures that show things being turned around, but has he noticed a trend, in that the UK trade deficit widened in 2007? In fact, in February, it stood at £4.3 billion. Furthermore, our trade deficit with the EU widened further to £2.7 billion, with exports falling by £100 million, and imports rising by £300 million. That is of extreme concern to the United Kingdom. Will the Minister tell us what the Government propose to do about that?

Mr. McCartney: Actually, investment in manufacturing has increased. In terms of international comparisons, we stabilised this year at about 2.7 per cent. of gross domestic product; trade figures in the United States are over 6 per cent. of gross domestic product; in Spain, they are 8.8 per cent.; in Portugal, 9.4 per cent.; and in Greece, 9.6 per cent. Throughout the whole period of Conservative government, the deficit was over 5 per cent. of GDP, so we have brought that deficit down, turned it around, and we have the most successful economy in the G8.

Minister for Women

The Minister for Women was asked—

Trafficked Women

15. Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on the provision of identity documents to female victims of trafficking. [135444]

The Deputy Minister for Women and Equality (Meg Munn): Cross-government action on human trafficking is co-ordinated through the inter-ministerial group, of which I am a member. The issue of the provision of identity documents to victims of trafficking is dealt with by the Home Office, which is also a member of the group.

Mr. Steen: In view of the fact that so few women who have been trafficked come forward to give evidence against their traffickers—only 30 traffickers have been convicted in the past four years in this country for the trafficking of women, because women are terrified of coming forward as they think they are going to be sent back to their country of origin immediately—and bearing in mind the fact that 4,000 women come into Britain and are trafficked every year, does the Minister agree that the Government should now implement the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, which the Prime Minister trumpeted in January as something that we were going to sign, and which we did sign in March? However, it has not been implemented, and what needs to be implemented is that part of the convention that provides renewable residence permits to women who are trafficked. That allows them to stay here and feel secure, and thus allows them to come forward and give evidence against—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I know that this is a quiet day in the House, but the hon. Gentleman cannot go on too long.

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Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that alongside the signing of the Council of Europe convention against human trafficking we produced the UK action plan on tackling human trafficking, which sets out in significant detail the way in which we will tackle precisely the issues that he mentioned, not just the specific issue of identity documents, but new guidance about how to work with victims, which will ensure both that front-line staff from a range of services can recognise the problem and provide support to victims and, crucially, that every police force deals with the issue as a mainstream issue, and not something that is separate. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman look in detail at the UK action plan, and we would be very happy to have further discussions with him.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I, too, welcome the signing of the convention and what the Minister said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). However, does she not agree that the measure goes very wide indeed in dealing with vulnerable people, giving them reassurance and access to services such as health and education? Will she particularly bear in mind in discussions with her colleagues the need to ensure that the full range of services are available to people who need them, and that public officials, whatever their department, are adequately trained to handle the sensitivities of the individual concerned?

Meg Munn: I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance, as that precise approach is what we want, so that the issue is not just dealt with by a few people and a much wider range of front-line services understand the issues. He will know that last October we launched the UK human trafficking centre, which brings together a whole range of services that deal with trafficking in a way that has not been done by any other European country. We believe that that approach will enable us not only to develop our services but to learn better how to continue to improve them.

Mr. Speaker: I call Mr. Jim Cunningham to ask Question 17.

Hon. Members: What about Question 16?


16. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): What plans she has to encourage female entrepreneurs. [135445]

The Minister for Women (Ruth Kelly): Women’s entrepreneurship is a key element in the UK’s productivity and competitiveness. Each year, businesses owned by women contribute about £60 billion to the UK economy which is why, for example, we set up the taskforce on women’s enterprise. A national network of 1,000 female entrepreneur ambassadors is being recruited to support women setting up their own businesses.

Mr. Bellingham: I know that I have had a go already, Mr. Speaker, but I am due for another go.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does she share the concern expressed by the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses that the recent Budget proposals to
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increase the small firms corporation tax rate is very damaging for entrepreneurs and definitely will not encourage female entrepreneurs? Does she agree that the majority of female entrepreneurs run non-capital-intensive businesses, and so obviously will not benefit from any increase in capital allowances? This is proving to be a very damaging and short-sighted Budget measure. Given her influence in the Cabinet, will she speak to the Chancellor before it is too late?

Ruth Kelly: I am afraid that I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, the main rate of corporation tax was cut quite dramatically in the Budget, for a very good reason, which is to maintain the competitiveness of the UK economy. At the same time, there were changes to the UK small business rate, with the intention of trying to encourage investment in small businesses. That is the right environment in which small businesses should be operating to incentivise investments within what is still a very competitive tax regime. The important thing is to get our rate of female entrepreneurship up closer to the rates in the US, for example. We have a huge challenge in trying to close that gap, but I am delighted to report to the House that we are making very good progress.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): The Minister will be aware that one of the reasons why many fewer women are becoming entrepreneurs in the UK than in the US is their difficulty in accessing financing. She will know that women start with only about one third of the capital that men get and that they are charged higher interest rates; indeed, many are forced to resort to their credit cards. What strategy is she pursuing with the banking industry in order to change that fundamentally?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. It is sometimes more difficult for women to set up their own businesses than it is for men. One of the factors that could be involved is that they are getting a less good deal when they walk into a bank compared with a man in a similar situation. If that occurs, it is completely unacceptable. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and the Regions is already conducting talks and is involved in negotiations with the British Bankers Association to find out whether there is a penalty involved in being a woman and to see what measures the banking industry might take to overcome that.

Equal Pay

17. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): What mechanisms the Government are using to achieve equal pay for men and women in the private sector. [135446]

The Deputy Minister for Women and Equality (Meg Munn): Last month, the Government detailed a comprehensive programme of action being taken forward to tackle the gender pay gap in a report one year on from the Women and Work Commission recommendations. Key actions include the “exemplar employer” initiative, which covers a wide range of best practice on gender equality, including developing more part-time work at higher paid levels.

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Mr. Cunningham: I thank the Minister for that answer. I am sure that she would agree that the issue of equal pay has been around for a very long time. Does she agree that it is a public scandal that there is still a 40 per cent. pay difference between men and women, and what is she going to do about it?

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend is right. The 40 per cent. difference particularly affects part-time work, which is why it has been extremely important for us to focus on that issue. It is often difficult for women who want to reduce their hours to remain in a job at the same level owing to rigid working practices. I am pleased to report that the exemplar employers, of whom we now have more than 100 from a wide range of organisations, both private and public, are setting the pace on that issue and developing schemes that ensure that women can work fewer hours at higher paid levels. That is one important step to reducing the part-time pay gap.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I am pleased that the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) highlighted the plight of part-time lower paid women, because we see in the media far too much of the high-profile, celebrity-type cases, and that is not really the problem. I appreciate what the Minister says about exemplar employers and entirely support that initiative. However, is she not rather disappointed that, although she can tell us what the Government have been doing in the past year since the Women and Work Commission report, after 10 years in power they have failed to put right a fundamental wrong in the British workplace and are still not making enough progress on it?

Meg Munn: The hon. Lady conveniently forgets that the pay gap has been closing over that time. Of course, I am disappointed that it is not closing fast enough—that is why we set up the Women and Work Commission and have a range of actions to tackle the problem. The hon. Lady also forgets that it is important to demonstrate that there is a genuine business case for doing that. We have demonstrated that, which is why so many companies now recognise the benefits of tackling the issue and why we are making such good progress. I would have thought that she would welcome that a little more.

Equality Act 2006 (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007

18. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What recent representations she received on the Equality Act 2006 (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007; and if she will make a statement. [135447]

The Minister for Women (Ruth Kelly): Since Parliament passed the regulations, we have continued to receive many written representations from a wide variety of individuals and organisations. The regulations came into force on Monday 30 April, extending vital protections against discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation, which are on a par with the protections already provided against discrimination on the grounds of race and sex, as well as new measures that prohibit discrimination on the ground of religion or belief.

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Miss McIntosh: I thank the right hon. Lady for that reply. Does she realise that that consultation is perhaps an example of how not to conduct a public consultation, as shown by the amount of correspondence that all hon. Members have received? In a recent Adjournment debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), promised that the position, especially with regard to adoption through the Catholic Children’s Society, would be reopened in Scotland. Will the Minister confirm that, if any such review takes place, the same procedure will be followed in England?

Ruth Kelly: I am sure that the hon. Lady, alongside many hon. Members, has received a huge volume of correspondence. As she knows, strong views are held on each side of the argument. No one can question our
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commitment to scrutiny, debate and consultation. Indeed, I extended the time for consultation on that complex issue for five months, and I believe that we have ended up with a reasonable balance between ensuring that gays and lesbians in this country are free from discrimination and able to go about their daily lives free from discrimination, and freedom to hold and manifest a religious belief.

The hon. Lady knows that we have discussed the issue that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary raised in Westminster Hall. I understand that he has responded to a parliamentary question from her. She knows that negotiations and discussions with the Scottish Executive are a natural part of the deliberations of Government. Indeed, we take into account the views of all interested parties.

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Royal Assent

Mr. Speaker: I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Welfare Reform Act 2007

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Business of the House

11.32 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to tell us the forthcoming business?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): The business for the week commencing 7 May will be:

Monday 7 May—The House will not be sitting because of the bank holiday.

Tuesday 8 May—Opposition day [10th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Action on Climate Change Begins at Home”, followed by a debate entitled “Mental Health Services”. Both debates arise on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

Wednesday 9 May—Remaining stages of the UK Borders Bill. A statement on Northern Ireland is expected before that.

Thursday 10 May—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill, followed by consideration of a resolution on the rating of empty properties.

Friday 11 May—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 14 May will be:

Monday 14 May—Second Reading of the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill [ Lords].

Tuesday 15 May—Opposition day [11th allotted day]. There will be a debate or debates on Opposition motions on subjects to be announced.

Wednesday 16 May—Motion relating to the home information pack regulations, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill.

Thursday 17 May—The first day of remaining stages of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill.

Friday 18 May—Private Members’ Bills.

The House will wish to know that the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, has been invited to address Members of both Houses of Parliament on Tuesday 8 May at 12 noon.

Colleagues will also wish to know that the Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, has been invited to address Members of both Houses of Parliament on Tuesday 15 May 2007 at 12 noon, to mark the restoration of devolution to Northern Ireland on 8 May 2007.

Both occasions will take place in the Royal Gallery.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall on Government motions will be:

Thursday 10 May—A debate on the report from the Health Committee on independent sector treatment centres.

Thursday 17 May—A debate on the report from the Work and Pensions Committee on the Government’s employment strategy.

Thursday 24 May—A debate on the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights on human trafficking.

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