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House of Commons

Thursday 28 February 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

Broads Authority Bill (By Order)

Order for Third Reading read.

To be read the Third time on Thursday 6 March.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 6 March.

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 6 March.

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 6 March.

London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 6 March.

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 6 March.

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 6 March.

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 6 March.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Regulatory Regimes

1. Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to improve his Department's communication of changes in regulatory regimes to businesses. [189938]

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The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): My Department is working closely with business to communicate the Government’s regulatory reform programme. The Government have introduced two common commencement dates for regulations. In October last year, 200,000 businesses received simple guidance to support the changes coming in on the common commencement date. On 6 April this year, we plan to reach 1 million businesses with user-friendly summaries.

Gordon Banks: With my business background, I share my hon. Friend’s aspirations in that field, but has he seen the recent press release from the Scottish Chambers of Commerce highlighting that the cost of regulation to business in Scotland has risen by £600 million to £4.2 billion in the past year, despite the Government’s better regulation agenda and the Department’s simplification plans? Does he agree that what we need is better regulation, not more regulation?

Mr. McFadden: We take the better regulation agenda very seriously. That is why we published the simplification plans, which detail some 700 measures across 19 Departments and agencies that will save some £3.5 billion by 2010. Some of the regulations detailed in the Chambers of Commerce burdens barometer report, from which I think he was reading, have significant benefits for the public, including the working time regulations as well as regulations on the child trust fund, disabled access to transport and so on. We take the business burden very seriously. That is why we produced the simplification plans and are acting in Europe on that agenda.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Low-tax, high-enterprise economies, particularly those in the far east, are powering ahead because the burden of Government regulation there is low and decreasing. What efforts has the Department taken to send civil servants to see how other nations do such things rather better than the United Kingdom?

Mr. McFadden: In a globalised economy, we keep a close eye on regulatory regimes around the world. That is why the UK Government are leading the debate in Europe on better regulation and have been instrumental in the European Union’s adoption of a target to reduce the administrative burdens on business resulting from EU legislation. We are conscious of the fact that it is not just a UK agenda but an international one.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): On improving communication within the Department, will my hon. Friend ensure that the appropriate Minister writes to me and other concerned MPs who were involved in the Farepak scandal? The report was due to be completed at the end of last month, and a briefing from the Department would be helpful.

Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are conscious of the impact of the Farepak affair on constituents throughout the country. The Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), leads on that issue, and I understand that the report should be published around Easter.

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Internet Fraud

2. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): What steps he is taking to prevent internet fraud originating overseas. [190060]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. Gareth Thomas): We are talking to internet service providers about harmful content, including about what work they are doing to prevent internet fraud. The Office of Fair Trading is providing advice to consumers on how better to protect themselves, and UK law enforcement authorities are collaborating with police forces overseas to try to cut the problem off at source.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Staffordshire trading standards has a brilliant scheme whereby it trains volunteer watchdogs to protect their local communities. One small sign of its success is that it was a volunteer who raised the following issue with me. Has the Department noticed the incidence of foreign fraudsters using website addresses that end in “.co.uk”, which misleads innocent dupes in the UK into thinking that they are trading with someone in this country, and are therefore protected by this country’s laws? When they have handed over their money, they find that it has disappeared somewhere overseas, and they have no recourse. Can anything be done about the use of “.co.uk”?

Mr. Thomas: A series of initiatives is in place to try to give consumers better protection and to raise their awareness of the scams that my hon. Friend describes. He is right to pay tribute to the work of trading standards. We have worked with trading standards teams through the scambusters initiative in three pilot areas. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform recently announced funding to roll out the work of scambusters across the country. That work will focus on local problems, but it will also help to tackle internet fraud of the type that my hon. Friend describes.

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): Part of the problem in dealing with international internet fraud is the need to promote closer international co-operation. The Government signed the cybercrime convention in 2001 to promote closer cross-border working on the issue, but seven years later they have not even started to ratify the treaty. Why not?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that stronger collaboration is needed, both across Europe and more generally, if we are to protect UK consumers from internet fraud. He may not be aware that there is now a network of consumer centres across the European Union, with which we work closely to help to tackle problems that our constituents face in their dealings overseas. Issues to do with internet fraud are being looked into under that regime, too.

Energy Tariffs

3. Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): What steps he is taking to introduce social tariffs for vulnerable energy consumers. [190081]

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The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): We have no plans at present to introduce mandatory social tariffs, but as the Secretary of State has said, we do not rule it out, should it become necessary. In our energy White Paper, we made it clear that energy suppliers should put in place social programmes to help the most vulnerable. Energy suppliers have responded by increasing the value of their programmes from £40 million to £56 million this winter, benefiting some 700,000 households and taking an estimated 70,000 out of fuel poverty. I recently had a meeting with all six major supply companies, which the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs attended because of his Department’s concern about fuel poverty.

Paul Rowen: Is the Minister aware that the criteria that Powergen uses for its “stay warm” social tariff have recently been changed, with the result that many consumers are paying increased prices? The company spends £4.4 million a year on that social tariff, yet it spends £32 million a year sponsoring the FA cup. Does the Minister think that that is a good use of priorities, and of the profits that the company makes?

Malcolm Wicks: I am not going to attack a great working-class game, and make comparisons with football. As we made clear at our recent meeting, we welcome the social programmes and tariffs that are in place. Given rising public and parliamentary concern about energy prices we feel that all the supply companies have an obligation to do more for the most vulnerable, but of course the Government also play their part. Indeed, since 2000, the Government have spent some £20 billion on fuel poverty measures, benefits and programmes of different kinds. However, there is a role for private companies, too.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): The measures that the Government have already taken are important, but if we are genuinely to protect vulnerable groups, perhaps the biggest single thing to do now is to stop the energy companies—the big six to which the Minister spoke, which have been accused directly of collusion and price fixing—effectively robbing the consumer. Is not reference to the competition authorities important, so that the public, and vulnerable groups in particular, know that they are not being ripped off and robbed by those energy companies?

Malcolm Wicks: All the independent analysis shows that we have the most competitive energy market in the European Union, and I can verify that through independent reports. However, I understand the public concern. Ofgem has announced that it will conduct an inquiry into the competitive market to make sure that it is functioning well. It is not complacent, and neither are we. If there is evidence of collusion, it should be presented to the regulator. The companies meet to discuss a range of issues, and I sometimes join those meetings, as does the Secretary of State. I do not feel that there is any evidence of collusion, but, if there is, it should be taken to the regulator.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The amount that energy companies spend on social tariffs differs vastly. Is the Minister aware that e.on and other companies
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recently announced that they are considering introducing guarantors or deposits for new customers before they will take them on? Will that not impact greatly on the most vulnerable groups and prevent people from switching suppliers?

Malcolm Wicks: All of us are concerned to protect the most vulnerable. The poor often end up paying more per unit of fuel because of prepayment meters, which is another matter that I have raised with the supply companies. My advice is that the hon. Gentleman should report his concerns to the regulator.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): As the Third Reading and Report stages of the Energy Bill approach, does my hon. Friend think there might be a majority in the House for an appropriately crafted amendment that put a statutory obligation on energy companies to provide a minimum level of social tariffs?

Malcolm Wicks: Having just come from the Committee considering the Energy Bill, I like the idea of the Report stage almost being upon us. I only wish that were the case, as I listen to my speeches in Committee. Of course I recognise that there is widespread support in the House for greater action on social tariffs. My concern is to persuade the supply companies to move forward voluntarily. We are making progress, but there is more to do. There is a concern that if we mandated social tariffs, that might be the end of the matter: the companies would do that but no more. There would be no grounds for innovation, and that could be the downside of a mandatory approach.

Postal Services

4. Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future of postal services. [190082]

10. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What his policy is on the future of postal services; and if he will make a statement. [190088]

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): The Government are committed to an open and competitive UK postal services market. However, the market conditions for all postal service operators are changing rapidly, and in December 2007 I announced an independent review of the postal sector under Richard Hooper. The review will assess the impacts to date of liberalisation of the UK postal services market, explore trends in future market development and consider how best to maintain the universal service obligation.

Mr. Lancaster: The consultation for post office closures in Milton Keynes is not due to start until July, but last November the Post Office inadvertently published on its website the five post offices that it has already earmarked for closure in Milton Keynes, clearly underlining the local view that any consultation is a sham—a view perhaps shared by some Ministers. Given that I have campaigned hard for I before E, or infrastructure before expansion, why, at a time when the Government are forcing Milton Keynes to expand, are they forcing our post office network to shrink?

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Mr. Hutton: I assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be a full and proper consultation process on closures. One inescapable fact must be addressed by all of us in the House—that the Post Office is losing business. It has lost 4 million customers a week, and we must recognise that. It has lost that business partly because of the internet and people doing their business online, and partly because the Post Office itself lost business—for example, in relation to TV licences from the BBC. We have a simple choice. Either we go on subsidising the Post Office at a cost to the taxpayer, or we address the losses now and make sure that the Post Office runs on a proper commercial basis for the future. I would have thought Conservative Members understood that.

Michael Fabricant: The Secretary of State will know that in the past 10 years there have been 3,200 closures. He knows that another 2,500 post offices are under threat. I join the Secretary of State for Justice, the Home Secretary and others in the Cabinet who have all said that the importance of post offices should not be underestimated, in particular post offices such as Longdon and Hammerwich in my constituency, which are the only shops in those small villages. If they close, it will have a devastating effect on the rural economy.

Mr. Hutton: One of the matters that must be considered in the closure programme is whether there are viable alternatives to closure for local sub-post offices. If the hon. Gentleman and his constituents want to make such proposals to the review team, I would strongly recommend that he do so, and that all my right hon. and hon. Friends take the same advantage of the consultation process to make such representations.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that Postwatch is seen as totally ineffective in representing the needs of residential and commercial customers of the Post Office, as it was in my constituency in the closure of Francis street and Walnut street post offices? Will he take steps to ensure that Postwatch is made truly independent and give it the teeth to make sure that it can represent the needs of customers effectively?

Mr. Hutton: Postwatch will shortly become part of the new National Consumer Council, and I very much hope that in that guise it will go on representing the consumers of postal services.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will remember that last time round in the south of Tamworth every single sub-postmaster took the money and ran, shutting six sub-post offices. The plan was no longer in the hands of the Post Office, but in those of the sub-postmasters. Will he give me an assurance that this time there will be more structure to the outcome?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance, because for the first time we will have new national access criteria, which will ensure that all our constituents have convenient and timely access to postal services.

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