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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is, of course, a divergence of views among Conservative Members. The right hon. Member for
Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) proposes a bonfire of regulations, apparently with the support of the shadow Chancellor, while the party leader calls for mandatory pay audits of companies.
Small firms are fed up with the loose words and empty promises of Ministers. Let me take the Minister back to six years ago, when the Government introduced regulatory reform orders. We were told then that they would reverse the regulatory tide, but what happened? In six years, Ministers have issued just 33 reform orders and enacted 18,000 more regulations. That is the truth about the effects of RROs.
Given the dismal record of Ministers and their colleagues, may I ask the Minister for regulatory reform one straightforward question? How many regulations has his department scrapped in the last 12 months?
Mr. Timms: Let me remind the hon. Gentleman of the point that I made earlier. There is clear evidence that the proportion of businesses citing regulation as an obstacle to success has fallen significantly, from 21 per cent. in 2002 to 13 per cent. in 2005. Concern on the part of small businesses has fallen very sharply, reflecting the progress that we have made. However, we undoubtedly need to do more, which is why we are committed to a 25 per cent. reduction by 2010. Further details will be published in December. We have made very good progress, but there is more to come.
The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): Following publication of the energy White Paper, we are working closely with Ofgem and energy suppliers to consider the right way forward.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the recent Ofgem report on social tariffs shows that energy suppliers take-up of social tariffs varies widely. As he knows, there is widespread consensus among non-governmental organisations working on fuel poverty issues that there needs to be much wider use of social tariffs by energy suppliers. He
may be aware that the all-party group that I chair recently produced a report on the issue. Will he agree to meet me and some of the organisations involved in the sector to discuss the way forward and to ensure that the consumer interest is represented in the discussions?
Mr. Hutton: I would, of course, be willing to meet my hon. Friend and all hon. Members who were involved in what I thought was a very useful report. It is worth reminding ourselves that there are 2.5 million fewer households in fuel poverty today than there were 10 years ago. I assure him that we are looking closely at how we can deal with the price gap between direct debit and pre-payment meters. We are also looking at easier ways to help pre-payment customers to switch to cheaper supplies. A number of Britains power companies are doing some excellent work in that area and we need to see how much more we can do.
The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): The Department is in regular contact with the small firms sector. The sector is represented on the employment law simplification practitioner panel, which will meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 31 October. The Department's ministerial challenge panel, chaired by the Minister with responsibility for better regulation, which critically appraises the Department's regulatory and policy proposals, also has representation from the Federation of Small Businesses and the Small Business Forum.
Mr. Bellingham: I am pleased to hear that, but does the Minister agree that the two biggest challenges facing small businesses are employment regulations and tax? Has he had a chance to look at yesterday's remarks by Lord Bilimoria, the founder of Cobra Beer and a key Labour supporter? He said that investment in small businesses and entrepreneurship has been penalised by the proposed 80 per cent. increase in capital gains tax, and that it sends all the wrong signals for Government support for small firms. What representations will the Minister make to the Chancellor about that anti-business measure?
Mr. McFadden: My advice to the Chancellor would be not to return to the days when the hon. Gentlemans party was in power and the tax was 40 per cent. Britain is still one of the best countries in the world in which to do business. That is backed up by the World Bank, and it is shown by our economic record over the past 10 years. I remind him that there are 500,000 more businesses in existence now than when his party was in power.
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD):
What consideration has been given to the risk management element with regard to removing regulations for small businesses: for example, no smoking signs that are required in ones
own home when it is used for business purposes, and even in ones own car when it is used for business purposes?
Mr. McFadden: The hon. Lady makes the good point that we must always be alive to making regulations as simple as possible. I remind her that the Government have a very active programme on that. That is why we set a target to reduce administration burdens on business by 25 per cent. by 2010. It is why, around a year ago, a list was published which set out 500 simplification measures, saving businesses some £2 billion in administrative burdens costs. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Competitiveness said, those simplification plans will be revisited shortly so that even more progress can be made on that agenda.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Could the Minister now answer the question that the Minister for Competitiveness failed to answer and tell the House how many regulations have been withdrawn in the past 12 months?
Mr. McFadden: I have just given the hon. Gentleman some numbers. We published last December a list of 500 measures that would reduce admin burdens by some £2 billion for business as part of meeting the target to reduce admin burdens by 25 per cent. by 2010.
The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Stephen Timms): The key to continued long-term improvements in UK competitiveness and productivity will be maintaining the remarkable new stability that has characterised the British economy over the past decade. We will need to continue to build on that foundation, for example, as the Chancellor announced on Tuesday, with continued investment in higher education and skills, in infrastructure and in the science base.
James Duddridge: That statement does not match the facts. The Institute of Management and Development, which ranks international competitiveness, ranked Britain ninth in 1997. It now ranks Britain as 20th in its index. Who is to blame?
Mr. Timms: The most recent ranking that I have seen is the one referred to by the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden), from the World Bank. It ranks the UK sixth out of 178 countries. The latest global competition review ranks the Competition Commission joint first in the world. The new stability that we have secured is the key to that. We used to be the least stable country in the G7 on the inflation measure. Since 1997, we have been the most stable. That is the key to Britains new prosperity and to the huge improvements in the economy over the past decadewe are determined to maintain that.
The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): The Government have looked carefully at the implications for both men and women when developing our pensions reform proposals. An extensive gender impact assessment was published late last year alongside the Pensions Bill, now the Pensions Act 2007, which mainly focused on state pension reforms. Later this year the Government will present a further Bill with an emphasis on private pension reforms. We will be conducting a gender impact assessment for these proposals, which will be published alongside that Bill.
Anne Snelgrove: I am particularly concerned about the many women in my constituency and across the country who have been carers for elderly relatives or for children for many years. They find it unfair that their pension is reduced through this service that they have given not just to their families, but to the whole country. What reassurance can she give these women that they will not face a retirement of poverty?
Ms Harman: It is a scandal that, despite the fact that women are caring for children and elderly relatives as well as going out to work, there is a 20 per cent. gap between their income in retirement and that of men. That is unfair, bearing in mind the fact that women are often older pensioners and live much longer. That is why we have taken action to deal with pensioner poverty, as most poor pensioners have been women. We are increasing access to the basic state pension and improving access to occupational pensions.
Miss McIntosh: I would welcome any proposals that would encourage more women to save for pensions. Does the right hon. and learned Lady think it is helpful for the Chancellor to do a smash and grab on the state second pension as this will discourage more women from investing in such a pension?
The important thing is for women to have the opportunity to work, as well as having enough time to care for their families. That is why the right to request flexible working and the right to maternity pay and leave have been important, allowing women to stay in the labour market and therefore still earn. When they are in the labour market, it is important that they have decent rates of pay, which is why we are determined to take further action to tackle unequal pay and the gender pay gap. We also need a pensions system that ensures that everybody has a decent income
in retirement. The hon. Lady will know that our pension reforms must not only be simple, affordable and sustainable, but fair. We must tackle unfairness against women in terms of their income in retirement.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): Has the right hon. and learned Lady assessed the impact on women of the latest £2 billion raid on pensions as a result of the Chancellors pre-Budget report? As she said, fair wages and equal pay are important factors if we are to overcome female pensioner poverty. When the Leader of the Opposition and I launched our policy to combat the gender pay gap, the right hon. and learned Lady said that it was very interesting. As that pay gap is widening, has not the time come for action rather than just warm words? Given that the Government have taken our lead on inheritance tax, aviation tax and non-doms, will she now take our lead in this area and adopt our policy on equal pay?
Ms Harman: As someone who has campaigned to push equal pay up the agenda for many yearsI have done so for decadesI think that it is important that we all work together to challenge the fact that women are not paid as much as men. The pay gap between women part-time workers and men full-time workers is 40 per cent. None of us can possibly accept that they are worth 40 per cent. less. I will look at any proposals the right hon. Lady brings forward. What is important is not whose idea a proposal is, but whether it is a good proposal that is fair and helps people.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): More than 500,000 women over the age of 60 are missing out on a state pension unnecessarily. Paying just a few hundred pounds to fill in the gaps in their national insurance record could entitle them to thousands of pounds in backdated pension payments. What have the Government done to make sure that such women are aware that they could claim that money, and what more will the right hon. and learned Lady undertake to do to ensure that they do not miss out?
Ms Harman: It is important that women who have not qualified for basic state pension contributions, either because they took time out of the world of work to care for their families or because they have been in low paid work below the national insurance threshold, know that if they have the money they can make up up to six years with additional voluntary contributions. We are concerned about the low take-up of that provision, and we intend to take further action on it. That provision is an attempt to remedy a past unfairness. What is important is that we have put in place structures that ensure that the unfairness that marked the old system is not in the current system. We need to make sure that people are rewarded for going out to work, but also that they are rewarded for staying at home and caring for their families.
21. Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on informing girls and women about the dangers of human trafficking. 
The Minister for Equality (Barbara Follett): I sit on the ministerial group that overseas the United Kingdoms action plan on human trafficking. That includes measures to inform women and girls about the dangers of this modern form of slavery. The messages contained in those measures have recently been reinforced by the public awareness campaign for Pentameter 2. As the problem also requires an international response, I raised it last week at a ministerial meeting with my European counterparts, and we will continue to support information projects in both source and transit countries.
Mrs. Hodgson: I am pleased that the Minister agrees that this is a form of modern-day slave trade, which often forces women into prostitution. Does she have any plans to reform the prostitution laws by placing the burden of criminality on the demand side of this vile trade?
Barbara Follett: It is necessary for us to look at the demand side. Our prostitution strategy challenges the attitude that this trade in human bodies is inevitable and here to stay. The growth in human trafficking is fuelling this market, so we must look at the demand side of the problem. Ministersincluding Home Office Ministersare committed to doing what we can to ensure that the law is right in this respect and to considering how to make further progress on whether, and how, to criminalise such exploitation of vulnerable people.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I welcome what the Minister said in her opening remarks, but does she agree that a more practical measure to stop this vile slavery would be to have better immigration controls for young women and children coming in from the European Union?
Barbara Follett: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the valuable work that he and his group do in this area, and I would welcome the chance to meet it to discuss the matter further. Identification is vital at this point, and we are working on that as part of the steps towards our ratification of the Council of Europe convention.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Will the Minister convene discussions before the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill completes its passage through the House to examine whether changes to it are necessary to tackle the extent to which prostitution is rife and is using trafficked women?
Barbara Follett: Although I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, we need to have a bit more debate and discussion. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister and I held a round-table discussion on human trafficking this month, where we discussed with stakeholders the problems that they are facing. After we have had the debate and discussion, we can look at amendments, but we cannot do so at this stage.
The Minister for Equality (Barbara Follett): Locally based primary care trusts are responsible for deciding what services best meet the needs of their communities. However the Government are investing in mental health helplines through a consortium of more than 50 organisations, many of them voluntary. These provide information and advice to all callers.
In addition, the Department of Healths gender equality programme is helping to develop mental health care that is better suited to the needs of women service users. Yesterday, as my hon. Friend knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health announced additional investment to build a new psychological therapy service, and a great deal of that will be targeted towards women.
Ms Barlow: I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. As she may know, Sussex has Threshold, a women-only counselling service and national information line. Unfortunately, it is due to close next month because of a lack of funds. This service for women with mental health problems is very popular, so how soon will Sussex see the benefits of this new Government investment?
Barbara Follett: I commend my hon. Friend on the hard work that she has done in this respect in her area. The Brighton and Hove City primary care trust assures me that it is very supportive of women-only mental health services. The issue in this case is not about the lack of national health service funding, but about how mental health services are delivered to women in the area. That is why the trust is now working in partnership with Threshold to find another organisation to deliver these services, including the helpline.
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