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17 Jan 2008 : Column 1070

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): A single medium-sized nuclear power station of 1.2 GW would provide around 2 per cent. of the UK’s electricity needs. This would be equivalent to about 0.8 per cent. of our total energy supplies. The White Paper on nuclear power published last week sets out why nuclear is the cheapest low-carbon option for electricity generation.

Norman Baker: What the Minister’s response actually demonstrates is how deeply flawed the policy is. The reality is that nuclear power is hopelessly uneconomic and, even on the Minister’s own figures, one station will meet only 0.8 per cent. of our energy needs. Is not the reality that it would be much better to invest in energy efficiency and renewables, which would have a much better response in terms of energy policy, and is not what he proposes a white elephant and a red herring?

Malcolm Wicks: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, what my reply demonstrated was that I was answering his question. I invite him to read the nuclear White Paper before forming a judgment. Yes, energy efficiency is crucial to energy strategy for climate change and, yes, renewables play a vital part—and will play a bigger part in the future. That is our policy, but we need other energy supply, too. If one day, heaven forbid, the Liberal Democrats were in power, it would be a dark, cold and gloomy place, with their Members huddled around, burning Nick Clegg leadership manifestos to keep warm.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): It is possible that zero-carbon nuclear energy might one day save the world from climate change; hot air from the Liberal Democrats certainly never will. After the proposals in the excellent energy White Paper are passed, nuclear power will have to internalise the cost of decommissioning power stations and waste, as it should. However, as I understand it, those rules will not apply to energy producers that produce energy using fossil fuels. Why not?

Malcolm Wicks: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the entire costs for the management and disposal of radioactive waste and spent fuel from any new nuclear power stations will have to be paid by the power companies. In terms of a wider strategy to reduce carbon emissions, we need to do many things. The EU emissions trading scheme is vital. Much will depend on a high price for carbon through the development of that scheme and we are pressing for that. Our Secretary of State has also announced a major demonstration project for carbon capture and storage, which surely also shows the way ahead.

Trade Liberalisation (Developing Countries)

8. Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for International Development on liberalising trade with developing countries. [179528]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. Gareth Thomas): All relevant Ministers discuss trade and development regularly, including in meetings of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on trade, during Cabinet and in the normal
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course of business. Recent discussions have focused, in particular, on the current round of world trade talks, economic partnership agreements and regional trade agreements.

Mr. Lilley: I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. When next he and his colleagues meet to discuss international trade matters, will they agree that the time has come to break the logjam in the Doha round and the economic partnership agreement negotiations by urging our partners in Europe and in other rich countries to take the unilateral step of opening our markets to all low-income countries as defined by the World Bank? If they do that, I am sure that they will have the support of those on these Benches and a great number of non-governmental organisations and other experts in the field. It could be a great measure that would unify the nation and help the world.

Mr. Thomas: With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, the least developed countries already have access to the EU market, including the UK market, under the “Everything but Arms” initiative. I agree that we need to see progress in the Doha development round. We expect to see revised negotiating drafts of documents, which could potentially lead to ministerial discussions to close the round towards the end of January, or perhaps at the beginning of February. All sides will need to give ground and to show additional flexibility. I hope that the key players—the G4 members and others—will help to ensure that progress is made.

Topical Questions

T1. [179511] Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): If he will make a statement on his Department’s responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): The purpose of my Department is to help to ensure UK business success in an increasingly competitive world. We promote business growth and a strong enterprise economy, lead the better regulation agenda and champion free and fair markets. We are the shareholder in a number of Government-owned assets, such as Royal Mail Group, and we work to secure clean and competitively priced energy supplies.

Mr. Dunne: It is now 100 days since the Government announced changes to capital taxation for business and individuals—plans described yesterday by the president of the CBI as being in “complete confusion”. We now have only 54 working days until the 5 April tax deadline. Yesterday, the Government were accused by a respected trade association of creating the conditions for a false market in stocks because of their indecision. When will Ministers stop dithering, accept that this shambles is damaging British business and make a decision at long last?

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before we go any further this morning, I expect topical questions to be punchy; they should not have so many words in them.

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Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman will know that tax matters are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor who, along with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, myself and other Ministers, has been listening to the concerns articulated by business. He will bring forward his proposals shortly, but it is not right for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the fundamentals of the British economy do not remain strong. They certainly do.

T2. [179512] Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): The Secretary of State is well aware that Britain’s power-generating capacity is ageing. Many people will welcome the decision to replace the nuclear power stations, but many other power stations also need upgrading. Is he as dismayed as I am to hear that the Government are looking at imposing a windfall tax on power companies? Will he argue against that, and point out to the Treasury that it will do nothing but deprive the energy-generating sector of much-needed investment? Will he tell the Treasury to back off?

Mr. Hutton: With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that he needs to do his homework a little more thoroughly. The Government have made no such proposals.

T3. [179513] Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): May I stress to Ministers that huge increases in energy bills at the coldest time of the year have left my constituents worrying whether they can afford to keep themselves warm? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that he has ruled out legislation on social tariffs but, given the sudden and surprising double-digit increase in energy costs and the latest Energywatch research into inconsistent and inadequate social tariffs, will he not reconsider setting some sort of minimum standards to protect the most vulnerable citizens?

Mr. Hutton: With great respect to my hon. Friend, I made the Government’s position clear a little earlier, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping). We have not ruled out the action that he has described, but we have not brought forward proposals at this time because the energy companies are working hard to address the concerns that my hon. Friend and others have raised. My basic sense is that we should work with the energy companies to reach a voluntary agreement about the best way forward. However, if we do not achieve that, and if proper and adequate measures are not put in place, we have not ruled out introducing further legislation at some point.

T4. [179514] Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On 20 November, the Post Office announced which sub-post offices in Northamptonshire would be closed. The consultation period closed on 10 January. Is it not a sham to hold a consultation over Christmas and the new year? Do the Government not feel embarrassed about that?

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): No, we do not. There is no easy way to undertake the process. The consultation schedule was set out last July, and the hon. Gentleman would have been informed about it. The overall process takes significantly longer than six weeks, as prior
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consultation is held with the relevant sub-postmasters. Post Office Ltd does its best to take all relevant factors into account in what is a difficult, and often locally unpopular, process.

T5. [179515] Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): May I ask the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers to continue joining up the Department’s efforts in respect of manufacturing? The skills agenda from the Department for Children, Schools and Families is to be welcomed, and neighbourhood renewal funding is being changed to workless neighbourhood funding. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister for Competitiveness ensure that the new approach ties in tightly with the aim of the manufacturing sector so that people who have been reskilled have manufacturing jobs to go to?

The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Stephen Timms): I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Manufacturing is a very important part of the UK economy, and it is changing into a high-value, technology-driven sector. New investment has been put in, and the manufacturing strategy has done a good job for us over the past five years. We need to make sure that it continues to do so and to provide manufacturing jobs in constituencies such as his. I am confident that the strategy, and the funding to which he referred, will continue to deliver for our constituents.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Petrol prices have now hit £5 a gallon. When the current round of 2,500 post office closures is complete, how much extra in transport costs do Ministers estimate that vulnerable people, people in rural communities and businesses will have to pay as they travel to their increasingly distant and remote post offices?

Mr. McFadden: Even after the closure programme is over, the post office network will still be by far the largest retail network in the country—bigger than all the banks put together, and more than three times the size of all the major supermarket chains put together. It will have an unequalled footprint across the country in both urban and rural areas.

T6. [179516] Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I listened to and read carefully yesterday’s Adjournment debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster). I am pleased to hear that there is an opportunity for local authorities and third parties to consider saving some post offices, but does the Minister accept that six weeks is not long enough? Under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, we need to explore how to get community involvement. May I meet him to offer some proposals on sensible and rational ways to save that wonderful network?

Mr. McFadden: I understand what my hon. Friend says about the length of the consultation process. We have received representations about that. We are, however, mindful of the uncertainty that has been hanging over the network for some time. From beginning to end, the whole process will take some 15
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months. On his question whether I will meet him, I will of course be happy to meet him and to listen to any proposals that he makes.

T7. [179517] Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): The Essex branch of the Federation of Small Businesses, which also serves the London borough of Havering, reports a nine-month delay in the issuing of VAT registration numbers, and I have a constituency case in which a local business man waited 11 months. What hope can the Minister offer that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will ever reach its published target of two weeks?

Mr. Hutton: As the hon. Lady will be aware, that is a matter for my right hon. Friends in the Treasury, but I accept that those are genuine and proper concerns and I shall ensure that they are addressed to the appropriate Minister.

T8. [179518] Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): As the title of the Secretary of State’s Department now includes regulatory reform, is he not somewhat embarrassed that in a four-year period only 27 deregulations took place, whereas at the same time the British Chambers of Commerce identified 600 new regulations?

Mr. Hutton: I think the right hon. Gentleman is referring to regulatory reform orders, which are only one part of our approach to regulatory reform. If he looks in detail at the further plans that were published before Christmas—I am happy to send that very large volume to him—he will see examples of further measures that we are taking across the whole of government to reduce the administrative costs of red tape and bureaucracy. In that respect, we are beginning to make significant and promising progress.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): In his statement last week on energy, my right hon. Friend said:

I can understand how a Government can be assured that effective arrangements do exist, but it is hard to see how they could be sure that a future Government can be satisfied that, at some indefinite stage in future, such arrangements will exist. Will he comment on that?

Mr. Hutton: I think my hon. Friend is referring to a section of my statement that dealt with the subsequent granting of planning permission for new nuclear plant, should any proposals be made. My remarks were framed in the context of the time scale, particularly in relation to long-term geological disposal. As he will know, because he studies these matters carefully, there is now, I think, no dispute about the arrangements for disposal: interim storage coupled with long-term disposal is the right way forward. In that context, I hope that he will reflect further on my remarks and understand the point that I was trying to make.

T9. [179519] Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The Hawthorn road post office in Kettering is a busy, popular and profitable local branch, which is earmarked
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for closure. Will the Minister urge Post Office Ltd to reconsider its closure decision? Will he also persuade the Post Office to open up the branch’s accounts and share the information with Northamptonshire county council and Kettering borough council, to explore ways in which the branch could be saved?

Mr. McFadden: As I said in response to an earlier question, I counsel the hon. Gentleman to be cautious about describing his local post office as “profitable” when both central support costs and payments to the agent running the sub-post office are taken into account. On his question about discussions with the local authorities, if they are serious about covering all the relevant costs for several years—if that is how they want to commit local council tax payers’ money—I would certainly encourage Post Office Ltd to talk to them.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Women-owned businesses comprise only 14 per cent. of UK businesses and, shamefully, only 8 per cent. of businesses in my own area, the west midlands, whereas the figure is 30 per cent. in America. Will the Government look seriously at the issue of supply-side diversity, which has become a cultural norm in America and which UK companies can and should be encouraged to promote for good business reasons?

Mr. Timms: The hon. Lady raises an important point. It is interesting to compare rates of entrepreneurship in the UK and US. Men in the UK are as likely as men
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in the US to start up a business; women in the UK are much less likely to do so than women in the US. That reflects a long-term policy focus over two or three decades in the United States on encouraging women’s entrepreneurship in the way that she described and in other ways. We will consider the matter carefully before the enterprise White Paper that we plan to publish in the spring.

T10. [179520] Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The Prime Minister is on his way to China today. By what amount do Members on the Treasury Bench expect UK exports to China to increase in the next three years, and what is the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform doing to assist UK companies to increase exports to China?

Mr. Hutton: I am going with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, my plane leaves in about 20 minutes, so I had better keep my answer short. My right hon. Friend and I are going to China to make the case aggressively for open markets and free trade between the UK and China. We want significantly to support British companies to increase their share of business with China. I do not want to give a figure, for obvious reasons. I think that we should be as ambitious as we possibly can be. There is a very strong case now, as we have good relations with China economically, for building on that and looking forward to more business for British companies in that extraordinarily dynamic economy.

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Business of the House

11.31 am

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

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): The business for the week commencing 21 January will be as follows:

Monday 21 January—Second Reading of the European Union (Amendment) Bill.

Tuesday 22 January—Second Reading of the Energy Bill.

Wednesday 23 January—Motion relating to the appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General, followed by remaining stages of the Student Loans Bill.

Thursday 24 January—Motions relating to the Senior Salaries Review Body report.

Friday 25 January—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 28 January will include:

Monday 28 January—Consideration of a procedure motion relating to the European Union (Amendment) Bill.

Tuesday 29 January—Consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill.

Wednesday 30 January—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill.

Thursday 31 January—Topical debate, subject to be announced, followed by remaining stages of the National Insurance Contributions Bill.

Friday 1 February—Private Members’ Bills.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business, although I ask her also to give us the business in Westminster Hall.

This week, the whole country has been appalled by the news that one of Garry Newlove’s murderers had been released on bail. I suggest youth crime as the subject for next week’s topical debate.

The Prime Minister has told The Sun that he wants to change the law on organ donations so that consent is assumed, even though his organ donation taskforce has yet to report and he voted against a measure to change the law four years ago. Will he or the Health Secretary come to the House to make a statement on exactly what is Government policy?

Yesterday, the Government finally published the Senior Salaries Review Body report. They have sat on the report since July and spun it to the media for the past month, and they gave it to Members only late yesterday afternoon. Will the Leader of the House ensure that that absurd situation never reoccurs?

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