That there be laid before this House, Accounts of the Contingencies Fund, 2007-08, showing
(1) a balance sheet;
(2) a cashflow statement; and
(3) notes to the account; together with the Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General thereon. [Alison Seabeck.]
The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): Last year, the Government ran a major advertising and awareness campaign to highlight entitlement to the national minimum wage. The campaign produced some very positive results, including a 400 per cent. increase in calls to our language and help lines, more than 170,000 hits on the online guidance, and an increased number of enforcement requests to Her Majestys Revenue and Customs.
Mr. Cunningham: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but further to it, what is he doing to enforce the minimum wage, in particular in respect of employers who exploit migrant workers by paying them below the minimum wage and apportioning unrealistic costs on them?
Mr. Hutton: We are taking two steps to address those concerns. First, the Employment Bill, which is currently going through the other place, will significantly change the way in which we recover arrears of unpaid wages and make it clear that it is the will of this House that every worker should be entitled to a proper national minimum wage that is properly enforced, and that there will be a consequence for employers who do not pay it. Secondly, we have provided significant additional resources to help enforcement of the national minimum wage. I hope that that addresses the concerns that my hon. Friend and many others have expressed to Ministers in recent weeks.
Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): The national minimum wage has increased by 53.3 per cent., while average earnings have increased by only 39.9 per cent. The British Retail Consortium has stated that members costs increased by £1.7 billion in 2006, which was 13 per cent. more than they expected. The strain on small businesses is ever growing and increasingly causing problems. Recognising the Chancellors call for inflation-related pay increases, will the Government now ensure that the minimum wage will no longer increase at levels above inflation?
Mr. Hutton: As the hon. Gentleman will know, the latter point is a matter for the Low Pay Commission, which will make recommendations to Ministers. I know that he is a fair-minded man, and I would have thought that he would welcome the fact that the wages of the poorest workers in Britain have been rising at a faster rate than those of others; I would have thought that that would be welcomed in all parts of the House. On the point about small businesses, let me rehearse the following argument with him. Almost 0.75 million more small businesses are now trading in the United Kingdom than 10 years ago, so he cannot portray the national minimum wage as in any way inhibiting the growth of small businesses. That would be unreasonable, and it is not borne out by the evidence, which it is always important for us to keep in mind. Also, 3 million more people are now in work, going to work every day, than in 1997. If we had listened to the advice of the many Opposition Members who argued that the national minimum wage would destroy jobs, we would not have seen the progress that we have seen so far.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab):
My right hon. Friend may be aware of a case in Nottingham in which an immigrant worker was paid
£8.80 after a weeks work. That is total abuse. Is he also aware that 42 per cent. of the construction labour force in London is immigrant labour? That labour needs protecting. I hear what he says about the Employment Bill that is currently in the other place, but does he agree that further protection is needed, and will he consider working with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions in order to extend the gangmasters regulation to construction?
Mr. Hutton: Obviously, we look at a number of these issues, because it is important that proper protections are in place. I hear what my hon. Friend says about the Nottingham case and his concerns about what is happening in the construction industry. We have enacted legislation to protect workers and to ensure that they are entitled to a proper national minimum wage. It is our responsibility as Ministers to make sure that that legislation is properly and fully enforced. Our current focus is on improving enforcement. We are willing to listen to, and consider carefully, any further requests for additional legislation, but the case for such legislation has to be fully and squarely met.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): In a recent debate that I secured in Westminster Hall on the national minimum wage, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), who has some knowledge of these matters, suggested that the legislation now going through Parliament could require wage slips to include details of the national minimum wage currently in force and of the national minimum wage hotline number. That simple measure could provide greater awareness of the minimum wage and of enforcement. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State consider making such provision as that legislation goes through Parliament?
Mr. Hutton: I am a great admirer of my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), who did a sterling job in introducing the legislation. We will obviously look seriously at any such proposal, and I am happy to discuss in more detail later with my hon. Friend this and any other concerns that he has.
The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): The Department receives representations on a wide range of issues relating to the post office network, including, of course, its future in rural areas. The access criteria for the post office network ensure that 95 per cent. of the total rural population across the UK are within 3 miles of their nearest post office outlet.
Miss McIntosh: More than 300 people from the Vale of York alone took the opportunity to respond to the consultation. Twenty-three branches have been earmarked for the outreach programme, which constitutes nothing less than post office branch closures. For sometimes only two hours each week, a man in a van is going to present himself at these villages. Does the Minister not accept that he is being less than honest with the public? People in the Vale of York feel that they are being taken for a complete ride. They have not been listened to, branches are closing, village shopswhere they do existare even being threatened, and the level of service is being reduced to virtually nothing. Will he apologise to the people of the Vale of York?
Mr. McFadden: I accept that this is a difficult process, but I am afraid that I do not accept that I have been less than honest throughout it. The hon. Lady referred to outreach, which is not the same as a post office closing. She will in future find, I believe, that outreach can provide a very valuable service to her constituents. My understanding is that the number of outreach facilities planned for her constituency is six, not 23, as she stated.
Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know that with the growth in the number of outreach branches, some sub-postmasters are taking on several branches. One sub-postmaster in my constituency is running three outreach facilities and another is running four, yet they get only the one piece of portable kit to enable them to go around the villages delivering this service. That reduces the number of hours that they can do and the flexibility of the service. Can my hon. Friend therefore make representations to the Post Office so that, where sub-postmasters are running several outreach branches, they have more than one piece of portable kit to enable them to offer a more extensive and flexible service?
Mr. McFadden: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. He is right that the provision of outreach is dependent on a core sub-postmaster providing that service in two or three villages. I am very happy to convey to the Post Office his point about the equipment.
Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Two of the rural post offices in my constituency, Inverkeilor and Carmyllie, along with Arbroaths Cairnie street post office, are scheduled to close. The rationale, apparently, is that the business will transfer to the main Arbroath post office. However, in the middle of the consultation period the Post Office suddenly announced that the franchisee of the main Arbroath post office did not wish to renew their franchise in the early part of next year. I contacted the Post Office, and although it confirmed that the main office would have be relocated, it could not tell me who would run it, or where or what size it would be. Does the Minister not accept that even under this inadequate consultation process, such a material change in circumstances must mean that the proposed closures are put on hold, at the very least, until the future of the main post office is clarified?
Mr. McFadden: I certainly accept that where closures take place and there is an assumption of migration to a different branch, that branch should be capable of dealing with that business. I am very clear that that should happen in the hon. Gentlemans constituency and in others.
Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): Many hon. Members have raised the question of post offices in the House, but is my hon. Friend aware that the Post Office proposes to start the consultation in my area on the day after the parliamentary recess begins? Dozens of MPs are in the same situation, and their constituencies contain about 5.5 million people. Will he reflect on that situation and discourage the Post Office from beginning and finishing the consultation during recess? Otherwise, millions of people will be disfranchised because Members of all parties will be unable to express their views.
Mr. McFadden: I do believe that the consultation can proceed during a parliamentary recess. I believe that our constituents can still take part even if Parliament is not meeting. The timetable was set out in some detail about a year ago, so we would not recommend its suspension for a few months during the parliamentary recess.
How can the Minister tolerate the restrictive practices being imposed by the Post Office on rural and other shops where post offices are being forced to close? Is he aware that sub-postmasters, who were not allowed to have a national lottery terminal, be a PayPoint outlet or work with carriers other than the Royal Mail simply because they had a post office are now being told that they may not offer those services simply because they no longer have a post office? Does he understand how angry postmasters are that they face losing compensation simply because they want to help what is left of their business to survive? Does he not think that it is utterly wrong that the policies of Post Office Ltd should lead to the closure not just of post offices but of many of the private businesses that house them?
Mr. McFadden: The compensation arrangements for sub-postmasters leaving the network were negotiated by Post Office Ltd and the National Federation of SubPostmasters. They are fair in relative terms, and quite rightly so. They amount to some 28 months compensation for sub-postmasters leaving the network. People will not be banned from having a lottery terminal or entering into an arrangement that would put them into competition with the post office down the road, but their compensation will be adjusted. That was defended by the general secretary of the NFSP when he spoke to the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
Let me make it clear that we fully expect the network to shrink in size. We have never given a guarantee that no post offices will close.[ Official Report, 19 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 947.]
The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): Again, the Department regularly receives representations on a wide range of issues in relation to the network, including the current closure programme and the establishment of new outreach outlets under the Post Offices network change programme. To date, the Post Office has published and put out to local public consultation 34 of the 41 area plans in the current programme.
John Barrett: I thank the Minister for that answer. Previous post office closure plans decimated the post office network in Edinburgh, under both the previous Conservative Government and the present Labour Government. All the post office closureswe are expecting the next wave in Augusthave been done without any strategy or any plan in mind for the entire city. Why should it be any different this time, and what reassurances can he give the residents of Edinburgh that that will not happen again?
Mr. McFadden: One of the differences between the programme that we are in the middle of and previous programmes is that the previous one, for example, was entirely voluntary for sub-postmasters leaving the network. Perhaps that caused less local protest, but as a strategy to plan the network it may not have been the best option; such an approach could leave holes in the network in the hon. Gentlemans city. This time, access criteria will broadly mean that people in urban areas should be within a mile of a post office and people in rural areas within 3 miles. That will help with planning the future shape of the network. It means that some sub-postmasters who do not want to leave the network are being asked to leave, and I understand that that is difficult for them, but it also means that the network is being planned in both urban and rural areas.
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that a worrying aspect of the last closure programme was that, no doubt for business reasons, a disproportionate number of the closures were in working class areas, often in major cities and near former council schemes, some of which had a high proportion of elderly people? As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) said, we do not have the Edinburgh proposals yet, but is there any prospect that that will not happen this time around? We had quite a hammering last time, not least in Edinburgh, East.
Mr. McFadden: My right hon. Friend makes a fair point about the importance of the post office network to people on lower incomes, and that is why this Government have put so much public funding into supporting it. The network faces major changes in how people do business, but we are supporting it with up to £1.7 billion over the next few years. Without that public support and strong commitment from the Government, thousands more branches would be under threat. We have put that support in place precisely because we appreciate the value of the network to the constituents whom my right hon. Friend mentions.
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