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Mr. Hutton: Yes, I am happy to do that, and to discuss the issues with my hon. Friend. I agree that among the most important assets of the industry are the people, and the skills they represent. If we are going to confirm the preliminary decision, we must make the right decisions to ensure that the industry, going forward, has the right array of skills to do its job properly.

Renewable Energy (Public Buildings)

6. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): If he will hold discussions with ministerial colleagues on the installation in all new public buildings of low-carbon electricity and heat generators powered from renewable energy sources. [166787]

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): I regularly meet Ministers in other Departments, in particular the Department for Communities and Local Government, to determine how to improve the overall sustainability of both new and existing non-domestic buildings, including those owned or occupied by the public sector. The hon. Gentleman is right: new public buildings should be exemplars of energy efficiency, renewable technologies and sustainable development.

Bob Russell: I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful response. May I encourage him to develop incentives across central Government and, in particular, local government, so that what he has been discussing with ministerial colleagues can be delivered? For example, two major public buildings—a new art gallery and a new football stadium—are currently being constructed in my constituency, neither of which have any energy-producing mechanisms. Had the incentives been there, those would have been included.

Malcolm Wicks: At the moment, the picture is mixed, and that is not good enough. There is good news in Croydon: the Ashburton learning village, which includes a new school, has a fantastic array of photovoltaics. It is good example of how—through both the low-carbon buildings programme and the work of the Department for Children, Schools and Families—a lot more money is going into renewable technologies in our schools. That has not only an environmental impact, but an educational one, because when children learn about their relationship to energy and energy’s relationship to global warming, we begin to win the minds, as well as the hearts, of the next generation. I recognise that we need to do more.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Has my hon. Friend had a chance to see the report from the Renewables Advisory Board, which was published yesterday? Apparently, the RAB says that the market for equipping zero-carbon homes with energy from renewables could amount to almost £2 billion a year, but that under current projections, there will not be enough firms supplying biomass boilers or solar panels to meet the increase in zero-carbon housing. What is he doing to help meet the Government’s admirable targets in this area, which were set out by the Prime Minister earlier this week?

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Malcolm Wicks: The key text is Sir Nicholas Stern’s report. I think that we all recognise that although we have a challenge in terms of global warming, we also have an economic and commercial opportunity. There will be an array of new business opportunities and new businesses as we grapple—it is a challenge—with concepts such as zero-carbon dwellings, renewable technologies and the decommissioning of various plants. These are new opportunities for British business, and the Secretary of State is absolutely determined that our Department will lead the way in greening Britain’s industry to rise to the environmental challenge and the immense commercial opportunity.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): The Minister will know that, irrespective of how one accesses the energy, investment in conservation is far more economically effective. Will he therefore give an assurance that for all public buildings—particularly those being refurbished—the Government will look again at how to ensure that conservation is built in at the very heart of the design of new construction and refurbishment?

Malcolm Wicks: Yes, that is vital. I assure the hon. Gentleman that in central Government, every Department has targets to reduce its own emissions and to become more sustainable. There are major challenges in relation to new building. However, on housing construction, I am impressed that the Minister for Housing now has a taskforce, of which I am a part, working with the construction industry on these issues. I understand, however, that we are talking about not just house building, but buildings in general.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Minister’s comments about the economic potential of new industries in this area. May I bring to his attention the vast potential of geothermal energy, which is often overlooked? Not only does it involve the lowest carbon consumption, but it offers enormous potential to companies, such as Forkers in my constituency, that are pioneering developments in it. Will he undertake to look at building regulations on public buildings to see how geothermal energy can be promoted?

Malcolm Wicks: Yes, and work is under way on that. Geothermal energy is an important technology. It is one of an array of renewable technologies that we need to consider. We need to find ways of incentivising some of the newer technologies more than, say, onshore wind farms, and we are looking closely at how that can be done. It is important that those involved with zero-carbon housing and other buildings come together with the energy world, which is concerned with microgeneration and local energy systems, so that we join those two important pieces of the puzzle. I assure my hon. Friend that we are doing just that, together with the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Nuclear Decommissioning Authority

7. Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): What the effects of the comprehensive spending review are for funding of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. [166788]

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The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): The comprehensive spending review provided the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority with funding to deliver a full programme of nuclear decommissioning and clean-up, in line with the NDA’s strategy and business plans.

Annette Brooke: Does the Secretary of State share my concern about the loss of skilled jobs at Winfrith and other sites commencing in January, and about the deferment of decommissioning, which I believe is at variance with previous plans? At the end of the day, who is accountable and responsible for those actions, particularly if safety were to be compromised?

Mr. Hutton: Ultimately, I am responsible to the House for those matters, and that is how it should be. I am aware of the Winfrith issue. I recently met the chairman of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, and she raised those concerns with me. I am looking into the issues that she and the hon. Lady have raised.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s enthusiasm, if I might call it that, for the new nuclear build programme, but he will perhaps be aware that from the public’s perspective, issues surrounding nuclear decommissioning and nuclear waste remain the principal cause for concern about that future new build. Can he offer the House and the public any enlightenment or encouragement that a solution will be found for that difficult issue?

Mr. Hutton: I think that the NDA has made its position clear, and I agree with it that it must prioritise the high safety risks that are part of the legacy of nuclear power in the UK, particularly at Sellafield and Dounreay; that is the right thing to do. I am sure that everyone in the industry, from the head of the NDA right the way through the employment base of nuclear in this country, wants to make sure that we never compromise on safety; so, too, do I.

Regional Economies

8. Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): What steps he is taking to strengthen regional economies. [166789]

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): My Department is investing £2.3 billion this year to strengthen regional economies through the regional development agencies. Since 2002 the less prosperous regions’ growth rates have caught up with those of London and the south-east. We are currently consulting business on the details of a new enterprise strategy, which will further address the issue of regional disparities in economic performance.

Gordon Banks: Does my right hon. Friend agree that regional economies can be international drivers? I draw his attention to the Scotch whisky industry. In my constituency, I am lucky to have a cooperage, distilleries, coppersmiths and a blending plant. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the industry provides a real opportunity to blend traditional skills with a modern economic industry, and that those traditional skills are vital to the preservation of a modern economic base?

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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Did you write that question for him, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Hutton: Given your interest, Mr. Speaker, I obviously need to answer the question in the right way. I am a great fan of blends, so I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) about the importance of the Scotch whisky industry. It is a significant employer, and there is much technology and innovation in the industry. I can assure him, and the House, that the UK Government are doing all they can on issues such as ensuring that Scotch whisky can be sold freely and fairly around the world, without unnecessary high tariffs. I have just come back from Korea, and I can assure my hon. Friend that I raised that point directly with that country’s Trade Minister.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): Over the last 10 years the Government have talked a great deal about the north-south regional divide, and indeed they have spent some £13 billion through the RDAs, yet the prosperity gap between the regions has widened since 1997, with the north and the midlands falling further behind the national average. Having spent £13 billion in that period, will the Secretary of State explain why the north-south gap in prosperity has actually grown? Is it a deliberate Government policy, or just ministerial incompetence?

Mr. Hutton: The tone of these exchanges has suddenly lowered dramatically. I pointed out— [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman wants an answer and I am trying to give it to him. I pointed out to him in my answer the progress that is being made. It is important to remember that the problems that we are discussing did not arise in 1997, and it is worth reminding ourselves— [Interruption.] No, these problems go back 80, 90 or 100 years. If we are to succeed in sustaining the progress that we are making, that will call for investment and support for the work of the regional development agencies, which I have never heard a Conservative Member signal since we established the RDAs. One thing that always emerges from our exchanges is the sniff of hypocrisy and humbug. The hon. Gentleman never showed any interest at all—

Mr. Speaker: As long as the right hon. Gentleman is describing a party and not an individual Member, I am quite happy with that remark.

Mr. Hutton: Of course I am talking about the Conservative party, Mr. Speaker. Thank you for that helpful clarification. If the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) had any record to campaign on that would allow us to believe that he was serious in the concerns that he expressed today, we would take him more seriously. Sadly, there is no evidence to support his view.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government recently announced that she wishes to set up a cross-departmental group to look at the special needs of some of our coastal towns? Will he actively engage in that group so that the economy of a town like Blackpool can be regenerated and help to strengthen the whole of the regional economy?

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Mr. Hutton: Yes. I want to praise the work that my hon. Friend does in representing her constituents in the matter. My Department will do all we can to support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in the work that she is doing to rejuvenate our coastal towns.

Postal Services

9. Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): If he will make a statement on Government policy on the future of postal services in the UK. [166790]

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): Post Office Ltd has put out to local public consultation its proposals for post office closures and new outreach locations in 10 area plans, including the plan for east Essex and Suffolk, which covers the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The process will continue over the next year or so. It has ended in four areas, including east Essex and Suffolk, and final decisions on the area covering his constituency are planned to be announced next month.

Mr. Baron: The Minister will be aware that profitable post offices in Billericay and Wickford in my constituency are set for closure under the Government’s closure programme. Given that the population in that part of the world is expanding, not shrinking, as evidenced by the Boundary Commission creating an extra constituency, and given that the closures will hurt many people, particularly the elderly and the disabled, can the Minister honestly explain to the House why those closures are taking place, in view of the profitability of those post offices and the level of population growth? Will he meet me and other Essex MPs to discuss the matter?

Mr. McFadden: I will happily meet the hon. Gentleman and colleagues, if he wishes. As I explained earlier, the closures are happening because the Post Office is losing several million pounds a week and because several million fewer people are going through the doors of our post offices than was the case a couple of years ago. He mentioned profitable post offices, and there are two factors to remember in that regard. First, there is the amount that will be raised and spent within the post office branch. Secondly, the central support cost from the post office network to post office branches must be taken into account. Calculated in that way, some three out of four sub-post offices around the country are unprofitable to Post Office Ltd. That is why the Government have put forward a subsidy of £150 million a year for the post office network. That is a subsidy that did not exist when the Conservatives were in power.

Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned the macro-economic factors behind the closure of post offices. However, will he pressurise Post Office managers over the fact that the two post offices in my constituency—Trafalgar Road in Portslade and Richardson Road in Hove—are the centre of tight-knit, old and established shopping areas? Will he meet the local traders, who are filled with alarm at the closures and are worried that they will have an extremely negative effect on their businesses?

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Mr. McFadden: I will happily meet my hon. Friend about those issues. However, as I said to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), the closures are happening because of the declining use of post offices and the losses that post offices are sustaining. The decision was announced some months ago. I understand that it is difficult and unpopular in local communities; it is the kind of difficult decision that parties in government have to take.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does the Minister not accept that given that sub-post offices are closing, fewer collections are taking place and morale in the postal services is at an all-time low, the only things that are increasing are the salary and bonus of the chief executive? Bearing in mind that the Government are providing a subsidy to the Post Office, does the Minister not think that we should get rid of Mr. Crozier, who is doing such a bloody awful job?

Mr. Speaker: Order. Remember that some weeks ago I said that we should have temperate language.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I got a little carried away, Mr. Speaker. I do believe that Mr. Crozier should go, but I withdraw the word “bloody”.

Mr. McFadden: Right hon. and hon. Members can speak freely, as we have just seen. I do not share the opinion expressed by the hon. Gentleman. The Post Office is a service and business facing a significant challenge and it is having to go through difficult change. That process is difficult to manage and requires the commitment of both the senior management and the excellent people who work in our post offices and for Royal Mail.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Bolsover is in the bottom 50 in terms of deprivation, mainly because of all the pits that were closed under the Tories. But does the Minister accept that when we heard the news that 10 post offices—10—were going to be closed in Bolsover, that was a real body blow to all the affected communities? Will he therefore speak to people at Bolsover district council, which has launched a campaign against those 10 closures?

Whatever the Minister does about this Crozier fellow, who I think is a waste of space, he should not send him back to the Football Association.

Mr. McFadden: I have said to other hon. Members that I will meet them, and I am happy to meet my hon. Friend about those issues. I understand that the situation is difficult and that a large number of closures are proposed in his constituency. The issue is difficult for local communities; the closures are happening because of the losses being made across the Post Office network. That is why we have committed to providing a subsidy—one that did not exist under the Conservative party—of £150 million a year. In fact, that subsidy is part of a total package of support for the Post Office of £1.7 billion until 2011.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): Does the Minister understand why communities feel so betrayed at the consultation exercise, which will make no difference whatever to the number of post offices that will be
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closed? Why has he ordered the Post Office to stop all closure announcements in the run-up to the local elections in May? Is not the decision to change the date for announcing the closure of one in six of the capital’s post offices from just three weeks before the mayoral election more connected with saving Ken Livingstone than with genuine consultation? Will Londoners not see the elections as their final chance to have their say on the future of the post offices? What is bad news for the postbox will be bad news for Labour at the ballot box.

Mr. McFadden: The suspension of announcements during local elections is part of the normal purdah procedures that have existed for years in this House and have been observed by Governments of both parties. If it is the opinion of the Conservatives that purdah should be suspended, that would be an interesting constitutional innovation. If that is not their opinion, I suggest that they stop criticising us for applying the normal rules that have applied to Governments of both parties for many years.

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