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25 July 2007 : Column 881

Points of Order

2.42 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. While the Secretary of State is still in the Chamber, may I ask for your guidance? There is great concern in the British defence industry—the subject of the statement today—about the future of the Defence Export Services Organisation. I have sought to obtain information from the Secretary of State but, unfortunately, all that I have been told is that matters of mutual interest are occasionally discussed between his Department and the Treasury. Can you advise me on how, in the last dying embers of this stage of the Parliament, I can obtain information about this matter? We now face two months of recess, during which the defence industry will be left in great uncertainty about the future of an organisation that contributes enormously to the success of British defence exports overseas. Can you assist me in this matter, Mr. Deputy Speaker?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Strictly speaking, on a point of order, I cannot. However, I suspect that the Secretary of State might wish to stretch the point of order to make a short response.

Des Browne: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am quite happy to respond to any questions that the hon. Gentleman might wish to ask. My expectation is that the Government will be making a written ministerial statement in relation to that very matter. I thought that that would happen today, but I have not had the chance to check, as it is a machinery of government statement, rather than an issue for the MOD. I will talk to the hon. Gentleman about it, however, and it will be done before the recess.

Mr. Howarth: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I say to the hon. Gentleman that we must not stretch this too far. I have been indulgent in allowing him to get his point on the record, and we have had an answer. I think that that is probably as far as the matter should be taken.

Des Browne: I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to undermine your ruling, but I think that the hon. Gentleman will find the answer that he seeks in a written ministerial statement made today by the Prime Minister. It is No. 30 on the Order Paper.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: No doubt the Secretary of State will hear from the hon. Gentleman if that is not what he is expecting.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The House will be aware that the MOD’s annual report, which was published on 23 July, revealed important weaknesses in the preparedness of our armed forces, and the strain that they are now experiencing on operations. May I have your guidance on the importance of the MOD giving accurate information to the Vote Office on when such reports are to be published? The Vote Office was
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informed—and informed the shadow Defence team—that this important report would be released at 2 o’clock, but, in the event, it was finally released at 4 o’clock. A similar thing happened the previous year, when a similarly important and revealing report was snuck out at the end of a day and the House did not have an adequate opportunity to consider it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s frustration if information is not available as promptly as he, as a Front-Bench spokesman, would wish. Obviously, he must not draw me into this argument, however. He has put his point on the record, and I hope that attention will be given to it. Mr. Speaker has spoken on more than one occasion of the importance that he attaches to information being provided to Members of the House in a timely manner.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. For the second time now, the people of the southern half of Bedfordshire find themselves totally unsure about what form of local government they are going to face, given the written statement that we have had today. Given that there is now no further opportunity for oral questions to Ministers from the Department for Communities and Local Government, how would you advise me to find some certainty on this issue? It is important to the local people of Bedfordshire and, in particular, to the staff of the councils concerned.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that there are ways for Members of the House to continue to press the relevant Department. The fact that the House rises does not prevent questioning by correspondence or by other means. There is still a signal opportunity for hon. Members to raise matters that they feel should receive attention before Parliament rises for the summer recess. I can only commend that option to the hon. Gentleman.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am not sure what more I can add on that same point of order.

Daniel Kawczynski: On that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We were assured by the Government that the statement on the local government review would be in the Vote Office at 12.30. I and many others went to try to find it, but it did not appear until after 2 o’clock. I had to be informed that Shropshire is to have a unitary authority by my secretary, who telephoned me from Shrewsbury. That is an absolute disgrace. We have campaigned on this issue for so long, and the socialists promised that they would listen to my constituents on this matter, yet this is being announced on the last day of the parliamentary Session and I have had to find out about it from my secretary. This is a gross abuse of Parliament.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The response that I have to give to the hon. Gentleman is a hybrid of the two that I have already given. Yes, of course it is important that Members should get information as swiftly as it
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becomes available to be disseminated. At the same time, there may yet be an opportunity before the House goes into recess for the hon. Gentleman to pursue this subject further on behalf of his constituents. Governments have faced this perennial problem over the years in trying to produce information: an awful lot of it comes out at the last minute. That is an occupational hazard for the legislature and the Executive. There is still an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to pursue the matter, however.

25 July 2007 : Column 884

Milk (Pricing)

2.49 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I beg to move,

I am still reeling over the issue of unitary authorities, but I shall endeavour to calm myself and introduce my ten-minute Bill on milk pricing. It is an appropriate time to do so, as the front page of The Daily Telegraph says that the price of milk and food is set to soar over the summer—and not just because of the flooding, but on account of the tremendous crisis in the dairy industry. It is so bad that many of our dairy farmers are going out of business, which will ultimately affect the consumer.

At the moment, many of my Shropshire farmers are paid as little as 16p a litre for the milk that goes to supermarkets. Today, I spoke to Tesco and found that it charges 58p a litre to its customers. I would like Parliament to think for a moment about the huge margin between 16p and 58p a litre. Any hon. Member representing a rural constituency will know how hard dairy farmers work. They face an unsustainable price for their milk: 16p a litre is simply not enough. That is why hundreds of dairy farmers have gone out of business and lost their livelihoods. In addition, dairy farmers face huge levels of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs red tape and bureaucracy. To cap it all, there is the tremendous crisis of bovine tuberculosis.

I asked the relevant Minister about the number of cases of bovine TB in Shropshire in the year 2000 and was given the figure of 39. In 2006, however, the number had increased to 147. We have seen a massive increase in the number of cases of bovine TB in Shropshire and, in my estimation, the Government are doing very little to tackle it. When I first became an MP, I was lobbied by my Shrewsbury farmers on many occasions to do something about the problem and to take up their cause.

I started to speak out on these issues two years ago as an individual MP. I had extensive meetings with various chief executives from various supermarkets. The first one I met was the chief executive of ASDA—and it got me absolutely nowhere. People like him were simply not prepared to acknowledge that there was a problem. They simply refused to consider the long-term ramifications for the indigenous production of milk in this country. They simply were not prepared to acknowledge the crisis.

That explains why I decided to set up the all-party group for dairy farmers—and I am very pleased to see some of its members in their places here today. In fact, we have become one of the largest such groups in Parliament. As of today, we number 157 Members from all parties. That shows the extent of feeling on this issue among all political parties; we all want to do something to ensure that the UK continues to have a dairy industry.

One group that has greatly helped me and the all-party group is the women’s institute, which had adopted this issue as one of its main areas of campaigning. It organised a major petition up and
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down the country, securing hundreds of thousands of signatures, which was presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). The WI also had a series of national debates throughout the country, where it brought supermarket chief executives together with farmers and other interested parties. I participated in two of those national debates: one in the West Mid show in my constituency of Shrewsbury, the other close to Parliament, where I debated with Mr. Justin King, the Sainsbury chief executive.

The greatest publicity came not just from us politicians, but from a single individual WI member from Gloucestershire who came on a very cold January morning wearing nothing but a bikini. People were pouring bottles of milk all over her as she sat in a bath just outside the House of Commons. That went down very well, I have to say, and got us a great deal of publicity. I applaud her for doing that on such a cold day and for being prepared to be photographed in a bikini with all that milk being poured all over her.

The all-party group listened to hundreds and hundreds of hours of evidence. We have had many meetings with various interested parties. We met the Office of Fair Trading and many farming organisations, including the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers. Supermarket bosses were called as well as many consumer organisations. We have even led a cross-party delegation to Brussels to lobby the Commissioner for Agriculture, Mrs. Fischer Boel. For an arch Eurosceptic like myself, the idea of going to Brussels to ask the EU to intervene to help save the British dairy industry was quite difficult. However, I had to do so, in desperation at the lack of action by the Labour Government.

That activity and the national campaign had some results, as the supermarkets have started to feel embarrassed about this issue. I know that Tesco is leading the way in increasing the prices paid to farmers. On some occasions, it pays 22p a litre, but that affects only 450 local farmers, so we need to increase that number significantly.

I shall place the all-party dairy farmers group report in the Library. It may not be a very Conservative thing to do, but I desperately wanted to call for a regulator for supermarkets. Regrettably, there was no consensus in the group about that matter. As a Conservative, I usually do not like to interfere in market forces; it is
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quite an unusual thing for a Conservative to want to regulate in that way, yet we have regulators in all our major industries. On my way to Parliament earlier today, I passed the offices of Ofgem, and then there is Ofwat and Ofgas, for example. Everything is regulated apart from the supermarkets.

I would like a regulator, but I cannot get the support of my group on this issue. What we can achieve, what my Bill sets out to achieve and what we can agree upon, I believe, is more powers for the Office of Fair Trading to investigate what supermarkets pay for milk. When the OFT came before the all-party group, it said—this is set out in all our notes—that it would very much like to be able to investigate supermarkets and shine more of a spotlight on them, but that regrettably its hands were tied and it did not have the power to do so. The Bill will enable the OFT to scrutinise the supermarkets in a much better way.

Tesco has announced an extra £25 million of investment to increase the price for milk. It is also getting local brands and offering its customers the opportunity to pay more for local milk such as Dorset milk in supermarkets in Dorset. I am negotiating with Tesco to try to get Shropshire milk to be sold in Shropshire supermarkets. I urge all MPs to negotiate and lobby with Tesco to get local milk in their supermarkets from their own counties. This is a very good first step and I applaud Tesco for this measure. I will not rest until I can go to Tesco and buy Shropshire milk from my local Shropshire dairy farmers.

This Bill will place some extra pressure on the supermarkets. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Daniel Kawczynski, Tim Farron, Mr. Stephen Crabb, Ann Winterton, Sir Nicholas Winterton, Lembit Opik, Mr. Roger Williams, Mr. Christopher Fraser, David T.C. Davies, Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger and Mr. Soames.

Milk (Pricing)

Daniel Kawczynski accordingly presented a Bill to confer further powers on the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission to investigate the prices of milk paid by retailers to producers; and for connected purposes. And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 151].

25 July 2007 : Column 887

Orders of the Day

Pensions Bill

New Clause

Temporary restriction on the purchase of annuiities

Lords amendment s : No. 22B. 22C and 22D

2.59 pm

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendments.

We agree with the Lords amendments. We have only a short time for the debate, so my opening remarks will be brief. I hope that I will secure the consent of the House to respond to the points raised and that we can discuss post-legislative scrutiny in the time allotted.

The House disagreed with Lords amendment No. 22 on annuitisation because the draft would have had undesirable effects. Subsequently, the other place did not insist on it. However, the Government had some sympathy with the aim of the amendment and accepted amendment No. 22B from the Opposition in its place. We were persuaded by the arguments.

The background is that in this House last week I announced that the cost of extending the financial assistance scheme to give pensioners more might be met by better use of the assets remaining in pension schemes, in accordance with the recommendations of Andrew Young, along with a matching contribution from the Government. I am sure that hon. Members will welcome my noble Friend Lord McKenzie’s announcement yesterday that we have decided to accept the Young review’s recommendation that we should not enforce a cut-off date for employer insolvency. The cut-off date of 31 August 2007, announced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), now Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, will not be enforced. We will consult on whether there should be any cut-off date and introduce regulations in due course.

As I said last week, we wrote to trustees to urge them to consider very carefully whether purchasing annuities is in the best interests of their members. That might well have been enough, but we accept that reinforcing that message in law has some merit. Therefore, we will take powers to prevent annuitisation by FAS qualifying schemes to ensure the greatest benefit to the greatest number of pension scheme members.

Amendment No. 22B has the same broad objective as amendment No. 22, but achieves it without the difficulties of the previous version. Amendment No. 22B puts a hold on annuitisation for the benefit of members of qualifying pension schemes hoping to see the extra funds raised by the assets within schemes matched by the Government. However, it also allows trustees to buy annuities, where appropriate, if they have the approval of the FAS scheme manager, who in law is the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. That is a sensible and flexible approach, although
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clearly we will need to give careful thought to the circumstances in which it might happen and how scheme managers exercise their discretion.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for his concise introduction to the amendments.

As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker—this is probably about as much as I can say on the matter—the debate on many of the amendments concerning the lifeboat fund has been ended by the invocation of the Parliament Acts. In short, I believe that the Government realised they were losing the arguments and decided to shut down the debate. That is a blatant affront, not only to this House but to the victims who have lost their pensions. This is probably our last opportunity to debate this Pensions Bill, although the joy of my job and the Minister’s is that another Pensions Bill is always just around the corner.

Only recently, our new Prime Minister told the nation that he believed in

He said:

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