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Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): As the Secretary of State reflects on his response to the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee’s report, which I am glad to say he has agreed to expedite and which I welcome unreservedly, may I help him by suggesting that it has one main theme and one qualification? First, the consultation process is not working as it should do, because it is largely constructed for the benefit of the Government, Post Office Ltd and sub-postmasters, not for the community served by the sub-post offices. Secondly, is he aware of the growing concern being expressed to me by sub-postmasters that the report significantly underestimated the harassment and pressure that they were being put under by Post Office Ltd during the public consultation stage?

Mr. Hutton: I am not in favour of harassment and pressure. If the hon. Gentleman and his Committee have examples of that I am prepared to look into them. I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman and the work of his Committee, and I am sure that he will be glad to know that we will respond properly and fully to his Committee’s report in due course.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure that the Secretary of State is concerned about the impact on small businesses in the communities that are losing their post offices. They will have further to go, longer to queue, and fewer places to weigh and dispatch small packages in the eBay era. Is he concerned about that? Are we not seeing a Gadarene rush for deregulation and competition, showing every sign of damaging the small business sector and the universal service obligation as well?

Mr. Hutton: As I said in my answer, I want to see a competitive postal market with high-quality services, for both domestic and business users. I would say two things to my hon. Friend in particular. For the first time we are providing an underpinning payment of £150 million a year, which we have guaranteed for the next five years, to support the delivery of postal services in rural areas, and on top of that there will be new outreach services, serving the needs of my hon. Friend’s rural constituents and businesses. The Post Office provides an important service for small businesses, which I want to ensure continues in the future.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What kind of community consultation is it when Cherwell district council is told that however good a case is put to retain Grimsbury or Orchard Way post offices in Banbury, or Kings End in Bicester, regardless of what it does, come what may, four post offices will close? That is not fair consultation, that is fraudulent consultation, and people are getting increasingly angry as a consequence.

Mr. Hutton: We should look at all the alternatives. If there are local suggestions about how losses for the Post Office may be avoided, we should look at them. However, the Post Office has a responsibility to us and to the taxpayer to run the network of sub-post offices efficiently, effectively and to a profit for the taxpayer, not a whacking loss. That is a responsibility that, however much the hon. Gentleman might like to avoid
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it, Ministers cannot avoid. We have a responsibility to run the business properly, and we will discharge that responsibility.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): The 63 post offices in my constituency of Ceredigion are awaiting the outcome of their futures, which they will hear about next week. Is there not still a great inconsistency in timing? The legislation is completely against the spirit of the Sustainable Communities Bill.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his counterparts in the National Assembly for Wales? There will be a sledgehammer blow on our post offices next week, but it has been announced that next year there will be a re-enactment of the post office development fund in Wales. When that fund comes into effect, our post offices will have gone.

Mr. Hutton: The issues to be addressed in Wales are the same as those in any other part of the United Kingdom. The post office network has to stop making a loss and start making a proper return for the taxpayer. We have regular and proper discussions with our colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government, and we will continue to have them.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): Last year, bonuses awarded to the board of the Royal Mail Group totalled £4.7 million, more than 10 per cent. of the total savings that the Government want to make from closing 2,500 of our post offices. Given that the most vulnerable use our post offices most, does the Secretary of State think that that is an example of robbing the poor to pay the rich?

Mr. Hutton: No, I do not. There have to be proper incentives for the senior management team at the Post Office; ultimately, such matters are the responsibility of the Royal Mail board.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): Is the reality not that the closure programme has been forced on the Post Office by the Government? The Government have determined that 2,500 post offices will close; the Government have set the access criteria that will decide which ones are put forward for closure; the Government have forced through an unacceptable consultation programme against Cabinet Office guidelines; and, worst of all, the Government have insisted that if one post office is saved, another in the same location must close in its place. Yet Ministers are now arguing why their constituencies should be exempt.

The Secretary of State is a fair and decent man. Does he not understand why people will be so angry about a Government who decide to force through a massively unpopular closure programme, when members of that Government believe that only other people’s constituencies should be affected?

Mr. Hutton: No, I do not accept that. The one thing that I do accept is that the closure programme is unpopular—of course it is. It is a very significant change to push through at this moment in time, but it has to be made if the Post Office business is to enjoy a secure and proper future.

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It is right and proper, however, that individual Members of this House should, on behalf of their constituents, make representations to the Post Office about the closure programme. There are those who say that that is not responsible; that is patently ridiculous.

Civil Engineering Industry

5. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What assessment he has made of the contribution of the civil engineering industry to the development of UK infrastructure. [190083]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. Gareth Thomas): Civil engineering and the construction of highways and water projects account for nearly 13 per cent. of construction output, which stood at more than £113 billion in 2006. The total market value of UK financial and non-financial assets in the same year was £6.5 trillion. Of that, civil engineering works accounted for just over 11 per cent.

Mr. Robathan: I do not think that that reply was terribly helpful. Has the Minister seen the briefing from the Institution of Civil Engineers, “The State of the Nation”? I am sure that he was sent it. It states:

Is the ICE right or wrong?

Mr. Thomas: In his foreword to the report, the president of the ICE stated:

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman read the whole report.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): Given that, as the Minister has just mentioned, civil engineering and construction are so important, it is vital that the relationship between the Government and the industry should be close and trusting. Yet Baroness Vadera, the current ministerial incumbent, has a record on Metronet and on Network Rail that leads many people in the industry simply not to trust her. Given the industry’s importance, to which the Minister has just alluded, does it not deserve better than a Minister who is neither suitable for the job nor accountable to this House?

Mr. Thomas: With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, the line of people from industry queuing up to see Baroness Vadera and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, suggests that the industry continues to have considerable confidence in this Government. Perhaps that explains this further comment by the ICE:

civil engineering—

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Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Has the Minister seen the report that was published last year by the Royal Academy of Engineering, entitled “Educating Engineers for the 21st Century”? One of its main conclusions was that in 10 years’ time we will need far more high-calibre engineers than we are producing at the moment. Will the Minister meet me and members of the Royal Academy of Engineering to address those issues and to explore further what is in the report?

Mr. Thomas: I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend and anybody he wishes to bring with him to discuss that. Significant work is already being done to increase the opportunity for young people to go into civil engineering. I am sure that he will be aware of the establishment of the national skills academy for construction and of the programme that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has under way to invest in modern apprenticeships and a new diploma course. Of course we cannot be complacent about the skills that we need for this country’s economy in future; on that basis, I would be happy to meet him and those whom he wants to bring with him.

Temporary/Agency Workers

6. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): What assessment he has made of the contribution of temporary and agency workers to the economy. [190084]

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): Agency and temporary work is a relatively small but important part of our labour market, providing additional choices over working patterns for many workers. Companies have made clear to Ministers the importance that they attach to the flexibility that agency workers can often provide in handling peaks and troughs in work load. That flexibility can help to create extra jobs and provides a significant opportunity for people on benefits, in particular, to re-enter the labour market.

Richard Ottaway: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but why does he not admit that the British Government are blocking measures on this in the European Union? We can agree that temporary work provides flexible work options, helps people into permanent jobs and provides opportunities for the young, the over-55s and ethnic minorities, but the question is whether he has the guts to take on the Luddite, red-flag-singing comrades on his own Benches who argue otherwise.

Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman should not tempt me on those issues. I must say that I am not sure that I would get beyond the first line of the “Red Flag” myself. [ Interruption. ] I thank my hon. Friends for a bit of prompting from the back, but I think that I will resist the temptation to join in the singing.

On the agency workers directive, we have always accepted that abuses take place in relation to the employment of agency workers, and we want to deal with those, particularly in the context of “permatemps”, who are taken on almost as full-time workers but not given the same access to the employer’s terms and
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conditions as full-time staff. That is a genuine issue that should concern all Members of this House. However, we have not been able to agree the text of the current directive because it is not right for the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman asked me to acknowledge that, and I am happy to do so. The directive needs to be changed to provide greater flexibility for the UK, and that is what we are determined to achieve.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I am one of those red-flag-singing comrades, and if the House would like a rendition now, I will do my best.

On a serious note, one of my relatives was recently badly exploited by so-called agencies operating in the construction industry who, in my opinion, are nothing more than gangmasters operating under another name. Will my right hon. Friend do his best to root out those poor agencies, which are giving all the reputable agencies an extremely bad name?

Mr. Hutton: I am happy to ensure that the existing legislation is properly enforced, as it must be—that is why we have doubled the number of inspectors going in to support the regulation of employment agencies. A lot of the examples of abuse that Members on my side of the House— [ Interruption . ] I mean our side of the House—have been bringing forward are violations of existing health and safety or employment law, so we should focus our resources on dealing with that as a first priority. I very much hope that there is a way forward on the directive. We are working very hard to secure an agreement on it in Europe, because that is ultimately where we need to do so.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): In light of the Secretary of State’s comments, I am sure that he agrees that the practice of some employers of keeping agency and temporary workers on such contracts for years on end is a scandal. However, the Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill will damage the interests of most workers and businesses alike, so will the Government work urgently to eradicate this abuse, either in Committee—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must say to the hon. Lady, and I have mentioned this before, that reading off a supplementary question is not permissible. That was a bit too long.

Mr. Hutton: I repeat to the hon. Lady what I said earlier: we recognise that there are abuses in relation to permatemps. Those abuses should be addressed, and they can be if we get a sensible agreement on the agency workers directive. For those reasons, and others that I could go into, the Government are not supporting the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). We are hoping instead to reach proper agreement in the European Union.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Following more than 120 of his union-inspired hon. Friends rebelling against the Government last Friday, the Minister ran scared into announcing a commission to review laws on agency workers. Yet, in Europe, he still claims to stand firm against losing our competitive advantage on agency workers—

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Mr. Speaker: Order. I cannot very well tell off a Back Bencher, and then find that a Front Bencher has gone on to make a speech. The hon. Gentleman is putting a supplementary so that is what he should do.

Mr. Djanogly: Is there some hidden agenda here or is this another example of the Government dithering?

Mr. Hutton I think— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I see that the hon. Gentleman is protesting. Surely the Front Benchers know how to put a supplementary question. [ Interruption. ] Then do it. As to stepping up and starting to read off a speech, it has to be remembered that it is not only the Front Bench that gets privileges in this House, but every Back Bencher. If hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench cannot do it right, I have to intervene on them.

Mr. Hutton: All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that our proposals for a commission to try to resolve those issues were raised several weeks ago, and if we can reach an agreement on this issue, that is the right way forward. Decent employers recognise that there has been abuse and they want to work with us to tackle it. It does the UK no favours to be accused of not tackling such abuses. The simple choice for us is this: if we think that there is a problem, we should try to solve it. We think that there is a problem, but the directive has to be right before the UK can sign up to it.

Nuclear Power

7. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): How many expressions of interest in developing new nuclear power stations he has received from commercial entities since publication of the White Paper on energy policy; and if he will make a statement. [190085]

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): There has been a very encouraging response from industry to the nuclear White Paper. I have had several meetings with energy companies and potential manufacturers to discuss the opportunities to build new nuclear power stations in the UK. My Department will be organising a major nuclear investors conference in London later in the spring.

Andrew Rosindell: The Minister will know that the nuclear installations inspectorate has expressed great concern about the UK being able to maintain, train and gather the right sort of people in order to assess and approve future installations in this country. Bearing in mind that so many of our skilled workers in this area are seeking work abroad, how does he intend to reverse that worrying trend?

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