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29 Apr 2008 : Column 168

Butler and Tanner

3.36 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 24, to debate a specific and important matter that requires specific and urgent attention, namely,

Over the weekend, 287 employees of Butler and Tanner were sent letters, informing them that they had been made redundant with immediate effect and that the company would go into liquidation. In a town the size of Frome, the loss of 300 jobs is a serious blow, and it is not the only factory closure in the west country in recent days. Butler and Tanner is a highly respected firm that is more than 150 years old. It does the highest quality colour book printing, was awarded the title “Book Printer of the Year” last year, and in recent years it has printed books by Delia Smith, Nigella Lawson and the BBC “Planet Earth” series. A year ago, it was taken over by a venture capital company, Media and Print Investments. Mr. Mike Dolan, the chairman of MPI, in an extraordinarily intemperate press release, blamed the closure entirely on the threat by the trade union Unite, which represents two thirds of the work force, to take strike action in response to new contracts.

We need a debate to ensure that, first, staff receive their due pay and pension entitlements. Mr. Dolan says that suppliers will be paid, but that workers

Secondly, we need a debate to ensure that all the appropriate agencies work together to find new opportunities for re-employment, and, thirdly, we need to investigate the circumstances of the closure. I do not know the details of the impasse between the management and the unions, but I know that ACAS talks were continuing in good faith. Meanwhile, Mr. Nolan was preparing to issue redundancy notices and, earlier in the week, he had already warned security staff that they would be needed over the weekend.

The staff of Butler and Tanner have been notably loyal for many years. They have made sacrifices: they took an 8 per cent. pay cut last year, and offered a 5 per cent. cut this year to keep the company going. They have been treated shabbily. I am also alarmed by the conjecture that, having closed the company, MPI might create a phoenix company using Butler and Tanner assets, but a non-unionised work force. That is more redolent of a Victorian mill owner than a modern industry, and I deplore the suggestion.

Mr. Speaker: I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I have to give my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider the matter that he has raised as appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24 and I cannot, therefore, submit the application to the House.

29 Apr 2008 : Column 169

Right to Roam (Mobile Phones)

3.39 pm

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): I beg to move,

Mr. Deputy Speaker, think back to the last time you went overseas. The chances are that you took your mobile phone. Think of the number of times you lost coverage as you went from one spot to another. That happens infrequently on the continent of Europe because one is transferred seamlessly from one network to another whenever the signal from the home network seems to falter. However, if you think of the last time you made a significant journey in the United Kingdom, whether by rail or road, how many times was a conversation cut off outside London?

In this country, mobile phone companies restrict people to their networks without transferring them to where signals are strongest and best. It is not as if we have blanket mobile phone coverage in this country—only 65 per cent. of the population is currently covered by all four 2G mobile phone companies. That figure drops to 28 per cent. in Wales, an area that several of my hon. Friends represent. Given that we do not have blanket coverage, it is worrying that we do not allow people to access the optimal coverage to which they should be entitled.

The Bill is simple and would achieve two things. First, it would allow mobile phone subscribers in this country the right to roam. If their home network did not offer a strong signal, they would be flipped automatically to the next strongest available signal. Secondly, it would encourage mobile phone operators to share masts throughout the country so that they had the same equipment.

The Bill’s benefits are firmly and unashamedly in the interests of consumers, and would transform mobile phone reception overnight. Gone would be the interrupted conversations, such as those that I experienced when travelling the 15 miles between Tunbridge Wells and the county town of Maidstone last Friday. Both towns are less than 40 miles from London and only 15 miles apart, yet I was cut off five times. There is no reason for the existence of five black spots. The Bill would correct that and we would move overnight from having 65 per cent. to 98 per cent. coverage of the population because 98 per cent. of the United Kingdom has at least one mobile phone company serving it.

The figures would be even more dramatic in rural areas. In Wales, the coverage would increase from 28 per cent. to 90 per cent. I daresay that coverage in Scotland, too, would increase. That would mean a transformation in the services enjoyed by rural communities throughout Britain.

The Bill would benefit people throughout the United Kingdom, especially those in rural areas, not only because of immediate uptake but because it would provide a strong return on the investment in new masts in areas of sparse population. If a mobile phone mast has to be erected to serve the subscribers of only one network, it may not be worth it. However, if all four network subscribers can benefit, the economics are transformed.

29 Apr 2008 : Column 170

The Bill also has advantages for urban and suburban areas because, rather than having four separate masts, often side by side, thus blighting the landscape of our towns, cities and suburbs, mast sharing and roaming would allow mobile phone operators to share a single mast and reduce the environmental impact.

Last but not least is the important effect on safety. It is important, in the event of an accident or if people feel vulnerable, especially if they are in remote areas, that they can make a call home or to a loved one if a signal is available. Scandalously, save for 999 calls—this shows that it is technologically possible—it is not possible for subscribers to one mobile phone company to use the signal of another, even when incidents occur that create insecurity. That is especially threatening to women, and we should give greater protection to women travelling in remote areas.

In the past 24 hours, I discovered that the problem can be even more significant. I have been contacted by someone with responsibility for disaster and emergency control who pointed out that, when incidents such as catastrophic storms occur, engineers and rescue teams can be reliant on a mobile phone network that has been put out of action. I have been told of a rescue team having to buy SIM cards from an overseas phone operator in order to get the roaming in this country that it would expect in order to have that degree of resilience. Indeed, the minutes of a West Sussex county council safety committee record that a

was that the

It is time to act before further tragedies are made worse by poor communications.

What are the arguments against my proposal? They cannot be technical arguments, because the fact that we can roam whenever we take our phones to the continent or make 999 calls shows that my suggestion is perfectly possible. It could be argued that companies want to compete on the basis of their extensive network coverage. However, 3G companies are obliged to offer at least 80 per cent. network coverage, so we have already made a public policy decision that broad coverage is in the interests of consumers. Why should rural communities be the only ones to lose out?

It could be argued that it is important that phone companies should make a return on their investment in masts. However, roaming and the use of masts would not be free of charge; rather, a fee would be paid for the use of competitors’ masts. Those companies that had invested most extensively in masts throughout the country would therefore enjoy the greatest returns.

The argument against my proposal is nothing to do with constraints in competition law, either. In fact, T-Mobile and O2 proposed precisely such a roaming agreement in 2003, to cover those parts of Wales that suffered reduced coverage. That was cleared as being pro-competitive by the European Commission. The arguments against my proposal therefore fall away.

29 Apr 2008 : Column 171

There is nothing to stop my proposal being taken up. In fact, there is already a precedent, in ATMs. It is no longer the case that someone who wants to use a Barclays ATM in a village needs to be a Barclays customer. NatWest customers can use it, too. We have interoperability of ATMs; we should have exactly the same for mobile phones.

My Bill would not compel mobile phone companies to operate in that way; it would encourage them to do so. Sometimes we need to stop immediately short of legislative solutions that rely on compulsion. However, if the Bill enjoys the support of the House today, I hope that it will send a signal to the mobile phone operators, the regulators and the Government that the House favours that direction.

A former Chancellor of the Exchequer once told the House that mobile phones were a scourge of modern life. I am not sure about that, but we can at least accept that they are a fact of modern life. Customers should not be prevented from having the best possible network coverage, and they should be allowed to move into the modern world.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Greg Clark, Mr. Stephen Crabb, Mrs. Maria Miller, Nick Herbert, Mark Pritchard, Gregory Barker, Mr. Robert Goodwill, Mr. Tobias Ellwood, Michael Fabricant, Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger, Mr. David Ruffley and Dr. Andrew Murrison.

Right to Roam (Mobile Phones)

Greg Clark accordingly presented a Bill to make provision about roaming by mobile phone users between telephone networks within the United Kingdom; to make provision about the sharing of transmission masts;
29 Apr 2008 : Column 172
and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 6 June, and to be printed [Bill 101].

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Yesterday, during Defence questions, Ministers were asked directly whether we would be deploying extra troops to Kosovo, and no clear answer was given to the House. Today, it has been announced through a written statement that 600 troops will be sent. It is inconceivable that Ministers did not know that when they came to the House yesterday, and it was a disgrace that they were not frank with the House, and with our armed forces and their families. We have questions to ask about how much this will cost, who will pay, and how we will find the strategic airlift capability to make the deployment possible without undermining our air bridge to Iraq and Afghanistan. While we do not oppose the deployment, it is unfortunate, to say the least, that our part-time Defence Secretary did not come to House to make the announcement, and that while Ministers deploy our brave servicemen and women abroad, they do not have the courage to tell us to our faces.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that despite his exasperation over this apparent sequence of events, it is up to Ministers to decide the method by which they inform the House of matters. I note that the Minister of State referred to the imminent conveyance of information. The Chair cannot be expected to comment on the adequacy of a response in a particular case. I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that he has put his strength of feeling on record and that there will, of course, be other opportunities for him to pursue the matter.

29 Apr 2008 : Column 173

Orders of the Day

Finance Bill

(Clauses Nos. 3, 5, 6, 15, 21, 49, 90 and 117 and new Clauses amending section 74 of the Finance Act 2003.)

Further c onsidered in Committee [P rogress, 28 April].

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Clause 49

Greater London Authority: severance payments

3.52 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 17, page 25, line 21, leave out ‘2008’ and insert ‘2009.’.

I suspect that the debate will be relatively short—the Committee has a heavy agenda—but it is timely. Hon. Members will agree that we could not let the opportunity pass of discussing something that touches on arrangements for the Mayor of London and the Greater London assembly when that is very much in the public eye.

There is much activity ahead of Thursday’s London mayoral election. One blog that I read this morning even reported that shredders working overtime in the basement of City Hall were responsible for blowing its electrical system and causing the basement to flood. Whatever is going on in City Hall—it will be interesting to discover just how many documents have been shredded and how many computer hard discs have been crushed—it is clear that as the Livingstone regime draws to an end, the Labour party is determined to look after the soon to be ex-Mayor, which is as clear a demonstration as we could ask for that it has written off his chances on Thursday.

Amendment No. 17 is probing. It gives us the opportunity to raise important issues and, hopefully, to gain an understanding of the Government’s thinking on this specific measure and, perhaps, slightly wider issues. Unless the Financial Secretary sorely provokes me when answering my questions, I do not expect that I will press it to a Division.

Essentially, four separate questions arise out of clause 49 and the amendment, the first of which is whether severance payments should be made to the outgoing Mayor of London. I understand that that is not the practice for other elected mayors. The Government have come under pressure from representatives of councillors throughout the country—I think that the body is called the Councillors Convention—to extend arrangements for severance payments to elected members of local authorities. Do the Government have any plans to extend the availability of such payments, or is this a Ken special and what Brian Paddick has referred to as

This House granted powers to the Greater London authority, in the Greater London Authority Act 2007, to set up a scheme for termination payments. In the spirit of devolution, therefore, we have to accept that the decision is no longer ours, but one for the assembly.
29 Apr 2008 : Column 174
The assembly must account for that decision to its electorate, who were promised, when the assembly was set up in 2000, that the cost of the Mayor and assembly together would be 3p a week to each council tax payer. Under the Livingstone regime, the spin doctors, publicity, staffing, jollies, jaunts and left-wing jamborees have spiralled out of control, so that the non-borough council tax element in London is now three times higher than it was in 1997-98. A £70,000 payment to the ex-Mayor on his departure will make his going entirely in keeping with the manner of his occupation of the office.

The second question to be addressed, which is more directly relevant to this Committee, is whether the payment should be given tax-privileged status. The measure brings the treatment of a severance payment to the Mayor into line with that of termination payments to Members of Parliament. However, I note that a Mayor aged between 55 and 64, with three years of service, will get rather more than twice as much as an MP of a similar age who has completed a similar length of service.

When I looked into the statute underlying this issue and the arrangements for Members of Parliament, I was surprised to discover that the resettlement grant is payable to Members whether or not they achieve office. As I understand it, a Member who retires is treated in the same way as one who offers himself for election but fails to be elected. I understand that a similar arrangement will be in place for the GLA. The payment is not so much the equivalent of a redundancy payment in the private sector, but a payment that will be made in all cases to a Mayor when standing down. If I am wrong, I am sure that the Minister will correct me, but that is what I have gleaned from the papers published by the House authorities and from my understanding of the GLA scheme.

The general rule is that redundancy payments of up to £30,000 are not taxable if they are ex gratia—if they are not provided under the terms of the contract of employment. Interestingly, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has been seeking to widen the definition of what is provided under a contract of employment to include not only what is provided for in the specific terms of a contract, but benefits that are provided on a routine or customary basis upon termination. Employees have long been able to argue at tribunal that something has been customary in their employment, so it is understandable that HMRC now seeks to extend that logic to attack payments that are non-contractual, but customary, on termination of employment. Given that the Treasury controls HMRC, it is unclear to me why, on the one hand, it seeks to limit the scope of the £30,000 exemption while, on the other, it proposes to extend it in this Bill.

I am certainly not arguing that Members of Parliament should have special treatment which should not then be available to others. Indeed, as I have said, I was surprised to discover that the practice of granting tax-free status extended to payments irrespective of whether the Member had suffered an involuntary redundancy, as it were. Why are payments like this given favourable statutory tax treatment when any other termination payment has to be defended on a case-by-case basis against the Revenue? It is not clear to me why Members of Parliament and Mayors of London should be offered statutory protection from such a challenge.

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