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House of Commons

Thursday 3 April 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Broads Authority Bill (By Order)

Order for Third Reading read.

To be read a Third time on Thursday 24 April.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

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

Manchester City Council Bill [ Lords ] (By Order)

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 24 April.

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

The Secretary of State was asked—

Anglo-French Nuclear Co-operation

1. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): If he will make a statement on the Anglo-French agreement on nuclear co-operation. [198411]

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): At the Anglo-French summit last week, in order to improve the speed and effectiveness of nuclear development projects, our national regulators agreed to establish a joint project approach to the regulation of the European pressurised water reactor should it proceed to the next stage of generic design assessment. The project will include ways of dividing up assessment work on specific aspects of the design, sharing experience and technical findings from their safety and security assessments, and looking for opportunities for further staff exchanges.

Mr. Jack: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for providing that level of detail. It has been difficult to obtain a copy of what was agreed, so will he lay a copy of that and any other details in the Library of the House for further study? May I seek his reassurance
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that, welcome as co-operation with the French is in advancing the cause of new nuclear reactors in this country, the agreement in no way rules out others, such as Toshiba Westinghouse, playing their part in expanding new nuclear capacity, both in the reactor design and the provision of fuel manufactured in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Hutton: I will certainly ensure that there is a proper statement for the right hon. Gentleman and others who are interested to peruse. He is perfectly right to say that the UK Government are giving active consideration to other technologies and designs for new nuclear reactors. The agreement that we have made in relation to regulatory co-operation with the French authorities is a perfectly sensible one and I hope that it will shorten the time required for the important reactor assessment work, but we are also looking at other designs, and the agreement does not exclude proper consideration of other technologies.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): In this brave new world that our Prime Minister and the French President have been fashioning, have they taken account of the full commercial cost of decommissioning and nuclear waste disposal? A report published by Ian Jackson just a few days ago estimated that unless the charges to the new nuclear station operators are kept at about 10 per cent. or less of the full commercial cost being charged to external and foreign disposers now, the whole project will be imperilled and we shall be adding yet further to the £73 billion national cost of cleaning up existing waste. That is not a very impressive equation, is it?

Mr. Hutton: The Government are looking at and taking advice on a variety of different sources, as one would imagine, but it is important, as we have always made clear both in the White Paper and other ministerial statements, that we expect the operators of any new nuclear plants to meet the full commercial costs of decommissioning and waste disposal. Dr. Tim Stone, my principal adviser on the matter, is in consultation with the potential developers as we speak, a document has been published and the process is full, transparent and open. We are building a proper margin into the fixed price for waste disposal and decommissioning to ensure that the taxpayer does not meet any residual liabilities, and it is important that we are all clear that we should proceed with new nuclear development in the UK on that basis.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): The Government claim 100,000 new jobs from new nuclear, presumably some of them British. Will the Secretary of State place in the Library a copy of the detailed analysis on which he bases that number, and will he undertake a similar analysis of quite how many more new jobs could be created from a credible renewables and energy efficiency strategy?

Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman and others want to present the argument as a choice between nuclear and renewables. My firm belief is that we should do both. Doing both will create significant economic and energy gains for the United Kingdom. I am happy to explain to the hon. Gentleman in more detail the numbers that he cited. However, in relation to renewables, there is a
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significant opportunity for significant engineering jobs as well. We should proceed along both tracks, not just one. If we can do that sensibly—and I think that we can—our people can look forward to a new generation of green-collar jobs that will provide an important opportunity for hundreds of thousands of British workers and their families to enjoy a prosperous future. We should embrace that.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Whatever the Secretary of State’s plans for a new generation of Anglo-French nuclear plants, he will be aware that a majority in the Scottish Parliament, including many from his own party, are thoroughly opposed to new nuclear plants. Will he take this opportunity to deny weekend reports that he is seeking to remove the Scottish Parliament’s planning powers in respect of nuclear stations?

Mr. Hutton: I am not going to comment on inaccurate and ridiculous press comment. In relation to nuclear power, we have to think seriously about energy interdependence within the United Kingdom. My concern about the stance taken by the hon. Gentleman and his party is that there is a real danger that that interdependence will be compromised. It is one thing for Scottish National party politicians to strut around with their rhetoric about nuclear, but another for them to continue, at the same time, to rely on nuclear power generated in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Further to the Secretary of State’s answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), why has it taken until now for the Government suddenly to wake up to the fact that we should be co-operating with France over nuclear power? In 2005, for example, the Italians took a 12.5 per cent. stake in a major nuclear power plant right on the Normandy coast, our nearest geographical point in France. Is it not the case that over 10 years, the Government have been very indolent in planning for our nuclear power decommissioning and left the UK very exposed, given the length of time that it will take to build a new nuclear power station?

Mr. Hutton: There has been significant co-operation for many years between French and UK regulatory authorities. What I announced today, and what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agreed with the President of France, Monsieur Sarkozy, was an acceleration of that programme, not its beginning.

On the hon. Gentleman’s wider point on nuclear matters, I must say that it is pretty tongue-in-cheek of him to come here and complain about dilatoriness in relation to nuclear power; I have counted four different policy changes on nuclear from the Conservative party in the past six months.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I like to give the Secretary of State a little leeway, but we should now get back to ministerial replies.

Construction Industry

2. Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): If he will allocate responsibility for policy on the construction industry to a Minister with sole responsibility for that matter. [198412]

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The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): My noble Friend Baroness Vadera, the Minister with responsibility for business and competitiveness in my Department, already has responsibility for the construction sector.

Mr. Williams: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Construction is such an important factor, not only in the local economies but in the national economy, that many of the industry’s stakeholders despair at the fact that no single Minister is responsible for construction. The responsibility is spread between a number of Ministers and Departments. Indeed, the Federation of Master Builders is very concerned about skills in case the workers do not continue to operate in this country, and there is a question of design as well. The construction industry deserves a single Minister. When will the Secretary of State deliver on that?

Mr. Hutton: As I just said, there is a Minister in the Government with overall responsibility for the construction sector. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the prospects for the sector look incredibly positive. Major investment is going into Britain’s infrastructure developments for the future, including Crossrail and the M25 extension. There are major opportunities for the sector. I hope that he agrees that the construction industry has prospered in the past 10 years and that it looks set to prosper in the next 10 years.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Is my right hon. Friend aware that this week we have been celebrating much in respect of “Constructing Excellence” and the training around it? Most people in the industry are pleased with the current arrangements. However, does he agree that one thing that we should look at carefully is the sustainability of construction, in terms of using the supply chain to draw through good training and apprenticeships and using our trading and subcontracting system to get more measures for sustainable construction and a low-carbon footprint?

Mr. Hutton: I strongly agree. As my hon. Friend will know, the Government are pursuing a number of initiatives in that area, including the zero-carbon housing initiative and others. In the next few years, I hope that we can make significant progress in shifting towards a more sustainable agenda, as he has suggested that we should.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to the work done by the national construction college and CITB-ConstructionSkills, both of which have their headquarters and their main training establishments in west Norfolk in my constituency? They employ a large number of people and play a vital role in nurturing our construction and skills base. Can he give a pledge that the levy will stay in place?

Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman asks me to answer a very tough question. I am happy to express my appreciation and respect for the work that is done in his constituency by the CITB, which does an excellent job in sustaining the skills of the construction sector. As he will know, questions to do with the levy are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Universities, Innovation and Skills.

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National Minimum Wage

3. Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the national minimum wage. [198413]

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): The national minimum wage is just one of a number of issues that I discuss with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the national minimum wage for adult workers will increase from £5.52 to £5.73 an hour from this October—around 37 per cent. higher in real terms than at its introduction in 1999.

Jim Sheridan: There is no doubt that the minimum wage legislation has enhanced the life of millions of our constituents, but elements of it need to be reviewed. In my right hon. Friend’s discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will he highlight the case of workers who are given tips by the public that are then put towards the minimum wage, so that the consumer in effect subsidises unscrupulous employers? Given that America has now decided to challenge such legislation, will he do likewise and perhaps meet a small delegation of like-minded colleagues?

Mr. Hutton: I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and others who are interested in what is becoming accepted as a very important issue, and I pay tribute to the work that he has done in highlighting it. The Government are looking seriously at the points that he and others have raised, and I look forward to discussing them with him in more detail.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): How widespread is the problem of employers undermining the national minimum wage by making their employees, often foreign employees, pay through the nose for substandard accommodation, and what does the Secretary of State intend to do about it?

Mr. Hutton: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s conversion to the merits of the national minimum wage. We welcome all the sinners who repent on the Conservative Benches. There is a problem—that is why we are reinforcing the work that we are doing on enforcing the national minimum wage. Legislation currently in another place that is shortly to come here will improve the enforcement measures and strengthen the penalties. It is wrong for legislation that has been passed in this House to be flouted, and particularly unfair and inappropriate for employers to try to take advantage of migrant workers in the way that the hon. Gentleman mentions. We are determined to crack down on the problem. The law passed by this House must be properly enforced, and we are determined to do that.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Further to my right hon. Friend’s reply to the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), can I take this a bit further and ask what plans his Department has to bring into the excellent minimum wage legislation workers who are involved in temporary and agency
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work? May I also ask about those, mainly women, who are involved in home working and who are paid peanuts much of the time?

Mr. Hutton: The national minimum wage legislation deals with the issue of home workers through the provisions on piece rates, and temporary and agency workers are covered by the legislation itself. We are in discussion with a variety of interested groups about how we can take forward discussions in Europe on the agency workers directive. I believe that progress is being made on that, and I hope that a further statement will be made in due course.

Post Office Closures

4. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the impact of post office closures on local economies. [198414]

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): The local economy is one of a number of factors taken into account by Post Office Ltd in developing its proposals. In the London area, which covers the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, there will be no change to the post office currently used by some 89 per cent. of people, and more than 99 per cent. will see no change or be within 1 mile of an alternative branch.

Simon Hughes: In my area, four post offices have been proposed for closure, and the closure of three of them will threaten a parade of shops and the local economy in that part of Southwark. Can the Minister assure me at the Dispatch Box that the Post Office will take into account the effect on the whole business community of each of those closures, and in each case, before any decision, will it talk to the local authority about any alternative that might keep open post offices that are crucial and central to a business, trading and social community?

Mr. McFadden: As I said, Post Office Ltd does take the local economy into account. We have encouraged it to talk to local authorities, and although it takes all such matters into account, I have to remind the hon. Gentleman that this process is happening because the Post Office is losing £500,000 a day, and those losses have to be addressed.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): In the case of a post office such as the one in Burnham lane in Slough, which is threatened with closure, one of the difficulties that local businesses have pointed out to me is that the alternatives offered are difficult to get to and a relatively long way away. People will have to queue for a long time with parcels, and those who run businesses that require them to send things from home will have their costs added to by a formula that means long queues in alternative post offices. Will the Minister think about that in his decisions?

Mr. McFadden: Another factor that has to be taken into account is the capacity of alternative branches to absorb custom. My hon. Friend is quite right to raise
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that point, and it is one of the factors that Post Office Ltd will have to look at in making what are difficult decisions.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): With 30 post offices in Shropshire due for closure, and three in my constituency—Sambrook, King Street Wellington and Church Aston—does the Minister share the concern of local residents and the many local businesses that have to use those post offices? If he does share the concern of my constituents, and of six of his Cabinet colleagues, will he it put on the record that if a business case is made that those post offices are viable and needed in the community, he will intervene with the Post Office and stop the closures?

Mr. McFadden: With regard to viability, the hon. Gentleman will know that the fact that the Government are putting in up to £1.7 billion in support of the post office network keeps viable thousands of post office branches that would otherwise be threatened with closure. I remind him that his own Front Bench spokesman said during a recent debate:

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