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Malcolm Wicks: My hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) never talks rubbish; it is a perfectly proper question. We are of course reforming the planning laws with the independent planning commission. Although it is perfectly right and proper
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that we safeguard the right of local communities to voice their concerns, we do need faster access to infrastructure because of climate change. There are a number of projects in the pipeline—renewables that will be built—and various reforms, including planning, will ease our progress.

Empty Property Relief

12. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Department for Communities and Local Government on the effect on small and medium-sized businesses of the abolition of empty property relief. [206992]

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has regular discussions with other Government Departments on matters affecting business. The reform of empty property relief follows the recommendations of Kate Barker’s independent review of land use planning and Sir Michael Lyons’ independent inquiry into local government. The aim is to promote the supply of commercial property by providing a strong incentive for owners to re-use, re-let or redevelop their properties. This will improve competitiveness for all businesses that rent premises, including, of course, small and medium-sized enterprises.

Mr. Hollobone: Is the Minister aware that the proposals will have the opposite effect? Small property businesses in Kettering are telling me that they will not invest in property unless they have a client ready to move in on day one. Will that not reduce flexibility for business relocation and actually hinder economic growth?

Malcolm Wicks: It surely cannot be right that, as a perverse consequence of business rating, people had no real incentive to let properties, when many small businesses want them. It is not surprising that the Federation of Small Businesses called for empty property rates to be reformed in its submission to the Lyons inquiry. I would have thought that the approach that we are taking is good for business. If people cannot let because rents are too high, they should lower them. We are in favour of competition for small businesses.

Grocery Sector

13. Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): What assessment he has made of the Competition Commission’s report on the grocery sector. [206993]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. Gareth Thomas): As I have said, the Government very much welcome the Competition Commission’s report on the UK grocery market. It is a detailed and thorough piece of work. My colleagues and I are considering the report and its recommendations and will provide an agreed Government response before the summer recess.

Andrew George: I am grateful to the Minister for that response. In a debate last week, the Minister acknowledged that, if the major retailers failed to reach a voluntary
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conclusion on the supermarket code of practice and the establishment of an ombudsman,

Can the Minister envisage circumstances in which his Department would dismiss the findings and fail to step in?

Mr. Thomas: With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I will not try to speculate about a range of different scenarios. The Competition Commission will engage with the retailers next week, as he knows, in the way that we discussed. We want agreed conclusions between the industry and the Competition Commission. If conclusions cannot be agreed between the two sides, we will have to look at the situation on its merits at the time. My understanding is that those conversations are taking place, that they are positive and that both sides are approaching them constructively, and I welcome that.

Topical Questions

T1. [207003] Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): The central purpose of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is to help to ensure the success of UK businesses in an increasingly competitive world. We promote business growth and a strong enterprise economy, lead the better regulation agenda and champion free and fair markets. We are the shareholder in a number of Government-owned assets, such as Royal Mail, and we work to secure clean and competitively priced energy supplies.

Andrew Mackinlay: I thank the Secretary of State, but when he goes back to his civil servants he should say that they left out the important words “protecting the consumer” from what he just said. Will he consider legislation to protect the consumer against abuse by mail order businesses, particularly some high-performing, big names in the retail market—Sainsbury’s, AOL and computer firms—so that instead of having to listen to Vivaldi six or seven times, or 100 times, we can get through to a live person for a swift remedy? Particularly disadvantaged are the poorest and most disadvantaged and inarticulate people who want swift remedies from those rogue but big-named retail outfits. Get my drift?

Mr. Hutton: In my answer, I made it very clear that the central purpose of the Department is to support fair markets, and implicit in that is that we look after the needs of consumers. Fair markets do not exist unless there are proper consumer safeguard standards. On the point that my hon. Friend made, we have put in additional resources and strengthened the law to deal with the abuses that he and others have brought to our attention in the House. I reject absolutely his suggestion that we are not bothered about the needs of consumers. We put a very high premium indeed on protecting consumers from unfair trading practices.

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T3. [207005] Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Having closed a swathe of post offices under the so-called urban network reinvention programme between 2002 and 2004 and now closing another swathe of post offices across the country, presumably as part of a grand plan to whittle down the Post Office to about one, will the Secretary of State tell me about the consultation process? Frankly, most people in my constituency and I think across the country, believe that the entire consultation process is a complete sham.

Mr. Hutton: As the hon. Gentleman knows, successive Governments have had to deal with the reality of facing the change in postal services. Several thousand post offices closed under the Conservative Government. We have to deal with the fact that consumers are using the Post Office less. We have new technology in the digital age. In fact, people can now download stamps online without needing to go to a post office to buy them. That is the economic reality that we must deal with, so it is an extremely difficult situation.

We understand and acknowledge the importance of local sub-post offices and the support for them that has been expressed up and down the country. We have tried to design a consultation process that extends the maximum opportunity for people to be involved in making what at the end of the day the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have to understand are important decisions that must be made if the post office network is to have a secure long-term future. We are providing nearly £2 billion-worth of subsidy for the Post Office to support a significantly larger network of sub-post offices than would be the case if we were approaching the issue solely on a strictly commercial basis. We are doing our very best to ensure that the changes are made in the most fair and sensible way possible.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Salmon farming is a big employer in my constituency. There are concerns that the minimum import price for salmon might be under threat. What efforts are being made to maintain the minimum import price for salmon, particularly at a European level?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. Gareth Thomas): The hon. Gentleman may know that anti-dumping duties have been imposed. A review of anti-dumping duties is currently being undertaken. We have made clear our concerns about continued dumping affecting the Scottish salmon industry. We have had discussions directly with the Scottish Executive and, crucially, made joint representations to the European Commission, in particular to the Trade Commissioner.

T2. [207004] John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): My hon. Friend issued a written statement following the conclusion of the Farepak inquiry and said that regulation would be considered in the light of action taken by surviving Christmas savings schemes. However, in the past few years other retailers outside that group have also gone bust, which has had a disproportionate effect on people who can least afford it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke earlier about the need to look after consumers. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is time that we looked at consumers and the prepayment industry in general?

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Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend is right to acknowledge the considerable concerns in many communities across the UK about the collapse of Farepak and what that means for the prepayments industry in general. He may not be aware that we are in conversation with the industry about the case for regulation, looking at it in the light of the work done by the companies investigation branch. He will know, as a result of the written ministerial statement, that we are taking legal advice following the completion of that report, and we are considering whether further regulation of the industry is needed.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): This week an international conference began in Dublin to negotiate a ban on cluster bombs. Given his Department’s review of the Export Control Act 2002, will the Minister commit to a ban on the trade in all such weapons, and will he extend that control to UK persons trading from anywhere in the world?

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): We are engaged in a major review of export control. We have already announced a number of extra controls, including the extraterritorial role of British citizens in relation to small arms, for example, and MANPADS—man-portable air defence systems. The review is continuing and we are examining that important aspect.

T4. [207007] Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The Secretary of State must accept that the consultation on post offices was flawed, and he must take responsibility for that. North Yorkshire county council wrote to him in January this year, saying that one of the fundamental criteria on which the consultation was based—namely, that no resident would be further than 3 miles from a post office—simply cannot be met in rural parts of north Yorkshire. What reply has he given to North Yorkshire county council in that point?

Mr. Hutton: I do not accept the hon. Lady’s allegation that the consultation process was flawed. She will know that the work that was done in defining the terms of the national access criteria included the provision of suitable outreach and mobile postal services. As I said earlier, we are doing our level best to find the most sensible way of resolving the fundamental economic issue that has to be addressed about the future viability of the post office network, and it does no one—the hon. Lady or anyone else—any good to bury their head in the sand when it comes to the fundamental economics that must be addressed.

T5. [207009] Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): Will the Minister, working with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, tackle the issue of the travel industry vastly inflating the cost of family holidays during school holidays, especially when we are urging parents not to take their children out of school in term time?

Mr. Thomas: A former consumer affairs Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), held a series of discussions with the travel industry and the Department for Children, Schools and Families to consider that issue. I am happy to re-examine the effectiveness of the measures that were agreed with the travel industry, because there are ongoing concerns about the travel industry raising prices outside term time.

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Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): When considering how best to encourage inward investment into this country, is it not the case that having nine regional development agencies and three devolved Assemblies, all of which are opening offices abroad—often in the same city, let alone the same country—dilutes the UK plc brand and does not effectively deal with our balance of payments deficit?

Mr. Hutton: Last year was a record year for attracting foreign direct investment into the UK, and we are set for another record year this year. If the hon. Gentleman’s argument is that we are not doing enough to attract foreign direct investment, he has got his sums, his maths and his analysis totally wrong.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I say to the Secretary of State that that is exactly what I am arguing. Over the past three years, Germany has more than tripled its balance of payments trade surplus, but the UK has quadrupled its balance of trade deficit. Why have the British Government not introduced a proper policy to deal with that problem?

Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman is confusing a number of different issues. The fundamental issue that he has raised is the efficiency and effectiveness of the UK in attracting investment. I repeat that last year was a record year for attracting new investment into the UK and that we will have another record year this year.

T6. [207010] Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): When a business takes its social responsibilities seriously, it enhances the community in which it is situated and does good for those working within it. There are fantastic examples of that in Crawley, where BAA has helped to build centres—

Mr. Speaker: Order. This is just a supplementary question.

Laura Moffatt: How can we help small and medium-sized industries to get involved?

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): I am sure that businesses in Crawley and elsewhere—great British companies—take corporate responsibility very seriously and do excellent work around the country. The Department encourages that practice both internationally, through UK Trade and Investment, and domestically, through the corporate social responsibility website, which provides good advice on such matters.

T7. [207011] Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The energy charter treaty is an important legal instrument that supposedly provides legal protection for international energy companies that invest in places such as Russia. Does the Minister for Energy share my concern that the Russian Government do not appear to respect the letter or spirit of that treaty?

Malcolm Wicks: Yes, I do. At all meetings at ministerial and other levels, we urge Russia to sign the charter for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, and we will continue to press that case. We need a good, business-like, professional relationship with Russia, given its energy importance and given the importance of Europe to Russia as a principal customer.

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Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): We all know that the public will always oppose post office closures. I want to put on record my thanks to Allan Leighton, the chairman of the Post Office, who considered an application to abandon the proposed closure of Micklegate post office in York. That closure had been approved at three levels of appeal by Post Office managers, but Allan Leighton considered the facts, which members of the public and I sent him, and turned down the closure, and I thank him for that.

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I will certainly draw his comments to Allan Leighton’s attention.

T8. [207012] Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): In his earlier response, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), said how important the pharmaceutical sector was to the UK economy. Does he share my concern that the actions of his colleagues in the Department of Health in renegotiating the pharmaceutical price regulation scheme halfway through its five-year agreement do little to foster a sense of stability in the UK’s pharmaceutical sector and do much to say that the Government do not support the sector as much as they should?

Mr. Thomas: No, I do not share the hon. Lady’s view. I welcome the fact that the industry is engaging as effectively as it is with the Department of Health. Those commercially sensitive negotiations are taking place, and we need to allow them to reach their conclusion, so that we can achieve better value for money for the health service and continue to secure the future of the pharmaceutical industry in the UK.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): May I ask the Secretary of State whether he will have
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discussions with the Secretary of State for Health to assess the effect on the nation’s blood pressure of the increase in automated phone calls, to which the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) referred? There is nothing more excruciating than being put on hold by a series of Dalek voices.

Mr. Hutton: I shall examine the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, although I am not going to promise that I can take forward that review. Perhaps this holds out the prospect that the Conservative party will do less phone canvassing in Crewe.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Yesterday, the Government got a Second Reading for their plans to create the local better regulation office, which will be staffed by bureaucrats. It will cost £73 million a year, in order to look after other regulators, and will be imposed on local government. If it is such a good idea, could we not have such an office for national Government, and may I suggest that it be called the department of administrative affairs and that the Secretary of State head it?

Mr. McFadden: I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s estimate of the costs, but I know that the Bill passed unopposed by his party yesterday. [Interruption.]

Mr. Baron rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), he was on the Front Bench this morning and he cannot now go to the Back Bench. If someone is going to be a journeyman on the Front Bench, they cannot be an apprentice on the Back Bench.

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