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House of Commons

Thursday 22 May 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

private business

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 5 June.

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

The Secretary of State was asked—

Miners’ Awards

2. Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): If he will consider the merits of providing an award for those miners who worked in the mines during the second world war equivalent to a Bevin Boys badge; and if he will make a statement. [206979]

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): The purpose of the Bevin Boys badge is to recognise those who, through conscription, served in the pits during the war. Miners who were already employed in the pits made an enormous contribution to our successful war effort, but were not conscripted, as their role was that of a reserved occupation. On that basis, we have no plans to introduce such an award.

Jon Trickett: I understand my right hon. Friend’s reply, but does he agree that wars are won first by the heroism of our troops and our service people, but also on the home front? The Government have clearly acknowledged that in awarding the Bevin badge to people conscripted into the mines. However, many people already in the mines were prevented from joining the services as they might have wanted because they were in a reserved occupation. As a consequence, there is an anomaly. Does my right hon. Friend agree
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that the men who worked alongside the Bevin boys but have not been recognised regard the situation as an anomaly? Will he or one of his ministerial team meet us to discuss the matter further?

Mr. Hutton: I agree very strongly with what my hon. Friend has said. We were successful in that titanic conflict because the whole resources of the nation were mobilised to defeat the fascist enemy that we were confronting. The miners in the pits made an heroic contribution to the success of that overall war effort and no one should question that. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and others who represent mining constituencies to discuss that important issue further.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I am delighted that the Secretary of State has said that he will meet a delegation. He has just recognised the importance of the miners during the war, so why is there so much intransigence from the Government about giving proper recognition to those miners? We know that they played a valuable role. If everybody had left the mines to join the armed forces, the whole country would have ground to a halt. What is holding the Government back from giving proper recognition to the miners?

Mr. Hutton: I do not accept that this is intransigence on the part of the Government and it should be borne in mind that since the second world war all Governments—Conservative as well as Labour—have taken the same view. There are obvious practical difficulties, of which I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, including—we should not underestimate this—the issue of accurate records to confirm employment in the pre-nationalised mining industry. As I said, I am happy to have discussions, and if there is a way forward, we should find one.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for agreeing to meet a delegation and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) will invite me along. May I remind hon. Members that 5,000 miners gave their lives and 20,000 lost their lungs during that war? My constituent Mr. Abe Moffatt, son of Alex Moffatt, was one of hundreds who tried to get into the armed forces, including the RAF, but could not get in and were dragged back to work in the pits. I believe that their contribution should be recognised in some fashion or other.

Mr. Hutton: As I said, I do not think any Member would be wise to call into question the record of service and sacrifice of our miners in the second world war. I am certainly not doing that; as I have said, they made an heroic contribution. I can only repeat what I said earlier: I am very happy to have further discussions with Members on both sides of the House.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I find myself in a very embarrassing position, because my father was a Bevin boy, as he happened to be the right age at the call-up time and was sent to the mines in his home village. He of course worked alongside many others who did not have the opportunity to be called Bevin boys. That is why I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) for raising the issue. It is an embarrassment to me that my father should be entitled to the badge when so many others in his village and my constituency who did exactly the same work have not been recognised.

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Mr. Hutton: My hon. Friend has made a very powerful point, which we need to reflect on. I hope that there is consensus in the House about the importance of recognising the service of the Bevin boys. I had the great privilege of attending the reception in No. 10 Downing street when the Prime Minister made the presentation of the badges to the Bevin boys. There was no question but that there were men in that room who had made history. They decided the outcome of a huge conflict and we have all benefited from that successful outcome. If there is a way forward, we should try to find it; and we should do so in a way that is consistent with the service given not just by the miners, but by those in other reserved occupations, too.

Oil Prices

3. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What his Department estimates the price of oil will be in 2020. [206980]

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): At the moment, of course, it is difficult to estimate what the price of a barrel of oil will be next week, let alone in 2020, as the hon. Gentleman seeks to persuade me to do. Obviously, our Department, while not forecasting oil prices, does publish future price assumptions going forward to 2030. We obviously regularly review these and consult on them, but he will appreciate that the huge increase in the price of a barrel of oil has caught the whole world by surprise and we are in, frankly, difficult and uncharted waters.

Norman Baker: It certainly caught the Minister’s Department by surprise, because a parliamentary written answer that he gave me last week showed that his Department thinks it will be $70 a barrel in 2020, so perhaps I can help him with his own figures, which suggest that he may be rather out of touch. Oil consumption is increasing dramatically, not least with China, India and other countries coming on fast. We have more difficulty in getting oil out of the ground—

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is not for the hon. Gentleman to make a speech at this stage; it is a supplementary question. Does he wish to put a supplementary question?

Norman Baker: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The question is this: given the ludicrous forward projection that I referred to, will the Minister revise his figures, because otherwise his foreign policy, his energy policy and his transport policy will be completely skewed?

Malcolm Wicks: We make a number of assumptions—we have a number of scenarios—going forward. The hon. Gentleman has quoted one. The day that I have to rely on him for statistics is the day that I go somewhere else for my entertainment.

Notwithstanding that question, there are serious issues to consider, and serious people in the House want to address them. Oil prices are going up for a whole range of global factors—difficulties in Africa, Iraq and so on—and we need to think long and hard about them. We are discussing them with oil producers,
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as I did recently at the International Energy Forum. These are not easy issues. Frankly, simple questions do not help a serious debate.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My hon. Friend must realise that he can estimate just how much profit the oil companies are making. How much do we expect them to put on to the price of a gallon at the pumps for diesel or petrol when we know that they are exploiting the situation from the cartel position that they have got themselves into? When will we deal with that?

Malcolm Wicks: Obviously, considerable revenues go to Her Majesty’s Treasury as a result of those oil prices. I repeat that we are dealing with very difficult global circumstances, and the situation is not peculiar to the United Kingdom or Europe. We are discussing the matter with oil producers. Also, of course, moving forward, it will be an incentive to introduce new cleaner and greener car technologies, which are less reliant on traditional fuels. In a sense, that will be a useful side effect of this difficult situation.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): The people of Northampton in particular have been caught by surprise by increasing fuel prices. When we look around the midlands, we find that they are by far the most expensive—more expensive than Nottingham, Leicester, Milton Keynes and Peterborough on average. Indeed, a number of MPs, led by the MEP Chris Heaton-Harris, wrote to the Office of Fair Trading to ask whether it could do anything. I ask the same of the Minister, because Northamptonshire in particular suffers from sizeably high prices. Will he help us to ensure that we can compete fairly on that basis?

Malcolm Wicks: If specific issues are affecting Northamptonshire, and it sounds as though they are, I shall be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to understand them better.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that oil prices reached $130 a barrel this week. The projection is that by the end of the year they could be $150 a barrel. Given that there is an irrational indexation between oil contracts and gas, so that gas prices are pulled in train behind oil prices, does he agree that it is time to look at how we decouple gas prices from oil prices? There is no rationality for that indexation. All that it does is make huge profits for the energy companies.

Malcolm Wicks: I rather agree with my hon. Friend that the whole issue in the gas industry—gas production and gas fields—is often, although not always, different from that in the oil industry. That linkage is not rational, but as he knows, because he has great expertise in this area, it is global and is not peculiar to the United Kingdom or Europe. However, we need to work hard to understand that linkage and to see whether there are ways of decoupling it. At a time of huge increases in wholesale prices for fossil fuels—coal, of course, as well as oil and gas—irrational linkages do not help us.

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Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Yesterday an independent industry expert predicted that the price of oil could reach $200 a barrel over a 10-year period. Will the Minister explain how the Government intend to help businesses that will be severely affected in the short term, while also providing a long-term strategy?

Malcolm Wicks: Obviously matters involving tax, which is a factor here, are for the Treasury rather than for our Department, so I will not trespass on that territory.

Globally, we do need increased production, and many of us have had talks about that with some of the key players. Bodies such as the International Energy Forum enable producers and consuming countries to meet. An estimated 80 per cent. of oil resources worldwide are now in the hands of the national oil companies rather than the independent players, and, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, that involves a good deal of difficult geopolitics.

In the long term, we need increased production, and yes, the price of a barrel of oil being sky-high will encourage that. As for short-term and medium-term measures, we must all put more emphasis on energy efficiency in business, in industry generally, and indeed in our own households. We need to work harder to build on the good programme that we have to increase the number of new technologies, so that we can constrain energy demand or even reduce it in the future.

Consumer Protection

4. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What policy options he has considered in relation to protection of consumers from unscrupulous lending and debt collection practices. [206982]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. Gareth Thomas): The Government are committed to tackling unscrupulous lenders, including loan sharks who exploit vulnerable people in our poorest communities. In 2004, we established two pilot enforcement teams in Birmingham and Glasgow to track down and prosecute illegal moneylenders. Following evaluation of those pilots, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the provision of some £2.8 million in September for a national crackdown on illegal lending, and to that end there is now a team in every region of Britain.

John Robertson: My hon. Friend is right: the crackdown has helped, and the Consumer Credit Act 2006 does its bit. However, some startling things are happening nowadays. For instance, sell and rent back seems to be gaining popularity with some people. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is probably another example of unscrupulous lending? Does he also agree that Parliament should examine the issue, and that we should not leave it to the Office of Fair Trading to determine whether such loans are right or wrong?

Mr. Thomas: As my hon. Friend says, we must keep in view the way in which the consumer credit market works, both as a Government and as a Parliament. When we know of the existence of unscrupulous lending, we should take the relevant action to deal with
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it. We need to ensure that the law is effective and is working. To that end, at a consumers’ conference last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a fundamental review of the consumer regime with the aim of introducing further measures, in the first instance to help vulnerable consumers.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Does the Minister think that high street banks are doing enough to help people on low incomes to gain access to mainstream financial services? What measures are the Government taking to encourage the banks to do more than they are currently doing?

Mr. Thomas: We would always encourage high street banks to keep under close review what more they can do to help low-income consumers and those who are in trouble. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Treasury has embarked on various kinds of work with the banks, and, through a growth fund for third sector lenders such as credit unions and community development financial institutions, has provided some £38 million to expand that work. More than 76,000 loans have already been made to financially excluded consumers through growth-funded credit unions, and we seek to invest even more through additional funds that have been provided.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): My hon. Friend will recall the Adjournment debate that I led on the tragic death of Mrs. Brazier in my constituency following the actions of debt collection agencies seeking repayment of debt that was not hers. Does he share my alarm that practices including the collection of money by an agency from a person unrelated to a debt who is clearly in distress continue and are, apparently, robustly defended in the industry?

Mr. Thomas: I pay tribute to the way in which my hon. Friend has pursued the case of Beryl Brazier. He will know from the Adjournment debate that he initiated just before Christmas of the steps we have taken and the conversations that have taken place both with the Information Commissioner and the Office of Fair Trading. He may be aware, too, that as part of a recently completed investigation the OFT has issued warnings to some 13 companies involved in this area of work, telling them how they need to take steps to improve their work.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) raises an important point, particularly at a time when there is increasing consumer debt, which is likely to continue in the period ahead. Does the Minister agree that what is needed is not simply more legislation or even more initiatives, all of which are welcome, but his Department working closely with the police to ensure that some of the very worst practices are stamped out?

Mr. Thomas: I agree absolutely that there has to be effective joint working across a range of agencies. In the case of the illegal moneylending teams of which we are seeing the roll-out, there is effective collaboration not only with the police but, on occasion, with housing associations and housing authorities to help crack down
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on certain areas. It is frequently the most vulnerable people in our communities who are exploited and targeted by loan sharks. The two teams in Birmingham and Glasgow have had a series of successful prosecutions of often very violent people, helping to get better protection for people in vulnerable communities and to lock away some particularly unpleasant individuals.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): It is now three years since consumer credit legislation covering this area was introduced, and it does not sound as if it is working well enough. Does the Minister agree that if there is one area where many people would support the most swingeing powers for Government, it is in cracking down on these dreadful people?

Mr. Thomas: The tools are there, through both the reforms that we have introduced to consumer credit through the Consumer Credit Act 2006 and the illegal moneylending teams that we have established. The successes of the two pilot teams in identifying some 250 illegal lenders in Glasgow and Birmingham have benefited some 2,000 victims and helped to save them an estimated £3.3 million in payments that they would otherwise have had to make. The fact that they have also led to successful prosecutions should give Members confidence that the roll-out across the country of illegal moneylending teams will enable us to continue to bear down on such terrible practices.

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