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3 July 2008 : Column 1009

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Is it not the case that we would not be in this sorry mess and having to close about a third of the network if the Government did two things? First, they should allow a much greater range of Government services to be provided through post offices, and secondly they should allow and indeed encourage the Post Office to be far more entrepreneurial in the range of services that it provides.

Mr. McFadden: I quite agree that the Post Office needs to be entrepreneurial in the range of services that it provides. It has successfully expanded into foreign currency and insurance, for example. In terms of Government work, I know that the Post Office is highly interested in biometric identity management for passports and driving licences and, possibly in the future, identity cards. Of course, if the hon. Gentleman’s party has its way, the Post Office will not even get the chance to bid for that Government work.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): A moment ago, the Minister said that this process was very difficult, and he will know from the Adjournment debate that I had last week that I understand that. However, may I commend for his further consideration the point that I set before him then? When we have a Devon cluster that includes one of the most sparsely populated counties in the country together with an urban area with some of the most deep-seated poverty, perverse proposals emerge, such as the closures of Pennycomequick, Beaumont road and St. Leven’s valley post offices. Does he really think that he is getting value for money from the £1.7 billion when it produces such perverse proposals to close busy post offices?

Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend has made her point, and it is clear that she believes that it is wrong for her city to be in the same closure plan as a major rural area such as the county of Devon. Of course, that has happened in several places around the country where urban and rural areas have been combined for this purpose. It is difficult, but the access criteria are intended to ensure that we have a stable network for the future in both rural and urban areas.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May I make a plea to the Minister to have a further discussion with the Post Office about these closures, bearing in mind the representations that he is receiving from both sides of the House? This is not a party issue: we are talking about an important public service. In my constituency, six post offices face closure and that is under consultation now, but they are profitable enterprises. Why should profitable enterprises be closed, and why should rural areas be put at a further disadvantage by the access criteria? I am deeply concerned: will he not have further talks with the Post Office about its proposals?

Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) thinks that urban areas are being put at a disadvantage; the hon. Gentleman thinks that rural areas are being put at a disadvantage. He should perhaps be cautious about saying that the post offices that are closing are profitable. The post office network is losing £0.5 million a day. When we take into account not just the costs to sub-postmasters but the central costs borne by Post Office Ltd for
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services such as cash handling, IT and so on, we see that three out of four post offices in the country run at a cost to Post Office Ltd. That is why it is so important that we have stepped in with a large-scale public subsidy, which did not exist under the last Government.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): May I confirm that my hon. Friend is aware of my concern about the way in which the consultation has been done in deprived urban areas? Let me also tell him that the closure programme that we have seen so far will be as of nothing if something is not done about the Department for Work and Pensions issuing the Post Office card account to the Post Office. Will he do all that he can to ensure that the Post Office retains that card account?

Mr. McFadden: I fully understand the importance of the Post Office card account to the future of the network. The National Federation of SubPostmasters has made its views on that matter very clear to me and to right hon. and hon. Members from all parties. My hon. Friend will understand, too, that this is a commercial tendering process and the DWP will consider bids from around the country. I am sure that the Post Office has put in a very strong bid, but the decision will be announced later this year.

Fuel Poverty

5. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): What plans he has to tackle fuel poverty among users of fuel heating oil. [215945]

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): The Government have a range of measures to help with fuel bills, including grants to improve energy efficiency and the winter fuel payment scheme. The Government are also exploring the role that alternative technologies can play in alleviating fuel poverty—I think that that will be directly relevant to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—and we are looking to provide connections to deprived communities off the gas network, as gas remains the cheapest form of heating.

Danny Alexander: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. He will know that in constituencies such as mine, fuel heating oil is the principal source of heating in most communities. It is also used in older houses in remote areas, which are more expensive to make energy-efficient. Huge oil price rises and an already expensive source of heating have conspired to put fuel oil users even more into fuel poverty than they were before. Will the Minister ensure that in his fuel poverty strategy heating oil users have top priority? Will he ensure that energy companies are encouraged to take the fuel poverty measures that they are being asked to take by the Government, with specific reference to fuel heating oil users—although, of course, they will not be customers of gas companies, in particular?

Malcolm Wicks: I understand the difficulties faced by those who are heavily reliant on oil for their heating, for example in rural and island communities. Of course, the price of a barrel of oil worldwide has doubled in just one year. I think that some of the work that we can do to connect people to the gas system, where appropriate, is helpful. The development of our microgeneration
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strategy is very relevant, because technologies such as ground source heat pumps can offer some relief in future. That is why we have earmarked £3 million from the low-carbon building programme as a pilot to see how microgeneration can help to tackle fuel poverty.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): As a former heating oil user in a rural area, I am aware of some of its advantages. At the moment, a typical 1,000-litre tank, when full, can contain oil that is valued at well over £600 and is quite attractive to would-be thieves. The loss of such oil, of course, would push rural people even further into poverty. What discussions might the Minister have with his fellow Ministers to alert people, and the police in particular, in such areas to the risks that are being run?

Malcolm Wicks: I certainly do understand the risk and, sadly, there have been well-reported cases in recent days, as the price of fuel has increased. Obviously, the police will take whatever action they can. If I feel it helpful to discuss the matter with Home Office colleagues, I will certainly do so.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): I do not for a second dismiss the issue of poverty, but is not the problem the price of fuel oil? Will the Minister tell the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries producers that they are killing the goose that lays the golden egg, and will he tell the House what research the Government are conducting and encouraging on alternative fuel sources, such as hydrogen, to replace oil?

Malcolm Wicks: I am happy to say to my MP—the ballot is always secret—that the Prime Minister is leading from the front on the issue. He attended the Jeddah meeting called by the King of Saudi Arabia, and a process is under way that will lead to a high-level London summit later this year. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are active on many fronts on this difficult issue, but things are not easy. The Saudis have announced a significant increase in supply, but other countries do not have the capacity easily to do the same. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are looking into the issue. Given that we published our renewable energy strategy consultation document last week, and given the announcement about nuclear, he knows that we are active on the issue of finding alternative energy sources to play a part in the diverse energy strategy that Britain requires.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): It is not only heating oil but liquefied petroleum gas that poses a significant financial problem for households in rural areas, although I accept that LPG is a much lesser cost. I applaud everything that my hon. Friend has said so far this morning, but there is deep concern in many households in remote rural areas. In particular, there are pensioner households that do not qualify for any support through, say, pension credit, but have to spend between 18 and 22 per cent. of their income on heating oil. That is not acceptable in 2008.

Malcolm Wicks: I do understand that concern, and of course all of us are concerned about the most vulnerable, elderly households. All pensioner households receive the winter fuel payment, which for the over-80s will be £400 this year. For the over-60s it will be £250—a
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significant increase. Insulating the homes of Britain’s elderly, and improving the energy efficiency of those homes, is crucial. We are spending record amounts of money, through Warm Front and the carbon emissions reduction target, on energy efficiency programmes. That could be of particular relevance to my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): How many households does the Minister think will be helped by the £1 million grant recently given to the east of England under the low-carbon buildings programme, given that 1 million people in the region are thought to be in fuel poverty, and more than 50 per cent. of households in my constituency of South-West Norfolk have no access to mains gas?

Malcolm Wicks: I said that the programme is a pilot study. It is a new initiative from our low-carbon buildings programme. The number of households affected will be in the hundreds; I will give the hon. Gentleman the exact figure in writing. I would have thought that he might welcome the fact that we are trying to use new technologies to tackle the old social evils of fuel poverty, an issue that we are determined to pursue. We are spending record amounts of money on CERT and Warm Front; there is some misunderstanding about that. In the current spending period, the figures will increase by £680 million, compared with the previous spending period, and will reach about £2.3 billion. There is a lot of scope for improving the thermal efficiency of our housing, and as we move forward we need to, and will, complement our energy strategy with a strong energy efficiency programme. Our colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are working on that.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): What role does my hon. Friend think that speculators are playing in talking up the price of oil, and has he given any consideration to the paper that Dr. Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, published in Petroleum Review? It puts the proposition that oil companies have double the reserves that they claim to have.

Malcolm Wicks: I promise my hon. Friend that I will read the article. My copy has not yet arrived—it has obviously been delayed at Petroleum News—but I will read it. The important point is that a great debate is going on about what lies behind the rise in the price of a barrel of oil, which has doubled. We would emphasise the fundamentals: China, India and other countries are fuelling their growing economies with energy, and there is a mismatch between supply and demand, hence the earlier dialogue about the need to increase supply, which the Saudis are doing. Many OPEC nations emphasise speculation, and we would not entirely dismiss the speculative element. We are working with OPEC and the international energy bodies to try to produce a shared analysis of what lies behind that very grave problem, and I do promise to look at the article.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): The Minister mentioned connecting households to the gas mains, but he will know that in many areas the capital cost of doing so is enormous. Are the Government planning any assistance schemes to help fuel-poor households that do not have gas connections simply to get connected?

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Malcolm Wicks: Yes. In the Department earlier this week we were discussing with the relevant bodies plans to increase the numbers of households that are connected to the gas grid. There is significant scope for it, but I do not want to exaggerate the situation, because many such households will never be connected to the mainstream gas grid. We need to work hard at providing other options for those people, so that they have some of the choices that many of us in urban areas take for granted, hence my emphasis, in reply to the earlier question from the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), on using microgeneration imaginatively to try to provide choices for some households in isolated communities.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): Every 1 per cent. rise in fuel prices pushes another 40,000 people into fuel poverty and if, as forecast, the cost of heating our homes rises by 40 per cent. this winter, that will mean another 1.6 million such people. What specifically will the Government do to help those people? Will the Minister confirm that the Government are still absolutely committed to their own target of eradicating fuel poverty which is now within less than two years?

Malcolm Wicks: We are going to do our utmost to tackle the problems of fuel poverty, but the hon. Gentleman is aware of the fundamentals. We are faced with extraordinary increases in prices—global prices. I have mentioned oil, but the wholesale prices of gas and of coal are going up to astronomical levels, and it is very difficult territory for business and for all our constituents. So since 2000, we have spent £20 billion on fuel poverty benefits and programmes—I know that the hon. Gentleman will not dismiss that figure; I have said already that the Chancellor has agreed to increase winter fuel payments quite significantly; we are increasing the amounts of money spent on energy efficiency payments through CERT and through Warm Front; and the Secretary of State has brokered an agreement with the six major supply companies to increase their social tariffs from £50 million now to £150 million in a year or two’s time. That is a significant programme, but we are not complacent. We are worried about the situation’s impact on vulnerable people, and we will do everything possible to protect those decent citizens of ours.


6. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with his United States counterpart on the position of UK firms which trade with Cuba. [215946]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. Gareth Thomas): My Department has not received any formal complaint from UK-based firms affected by US trade sanctions against Cuba. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office makes the Government’s position clear every year by voting against the US trade embargo on Cuba—including aspects of its extraterritorial legislation—at the United Nations General Assembly. The last such vote was on 30 October 2007.

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Mr. Chaytor: Each year, thousands of British people visit Cuba as tourists, and the liberalisation process that has started in that country means that there are huge opportunities for British firms to do business. I welcome last month’s decision by European Union Foreign Ministers to lift political sanctions against Cuba, but does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that more could be done to explain to British businesses the opportunities that there will be to expand their operations in Cuba in the years ahead?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend may be interested to know that UK Trade and Investment has the equivalent of almost three full-time staff working on trade activities in Havana precisely to increase awareness of the trading opportunities with Cuba, as my hon. Friend suggests we should. We want those staff to continue to engage with the business community both in the UK and Cuba and to go on promoting increased trade between our two countries.


7. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): When he expects the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to make its recommendation to him for the preferred bidder for the new parent body organisation for the Sellafield Site Licence Company. [215948]

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is running a competition to select a new parent body organisation for the Sellafield Site Licence Company. Ownership will enhance the company’s performance. The NDA is evaluating the four bids received for this competition against agreed evaluation criteria. The results of the evaluation are expected later this month.

Mr. Prentice: It is a little known fact that only one nuclear power station anywhere in the world has been wholly dismantled; I am thinking of Three Mile Island. Even decommissioned structures are still hazardous. My question for the Minister is this: what factors will he take into account when deciding which company will be responsible for the clean-up of Sellafield, or is he simply going to rubber-stamp the recommendation of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority?

Malcolm Wicks: I am pleased about—indeed, rather proud of—the fact that after several decades in which no action was taken, it is this Government who now have a clear strategy on decommissioning our existing nuclear sites. Whatever the arguments and controversies about future nuclear, we have an ethical duty to ensure adequate decommissioning and clean-up. We are looking to the competition to get companies to bring world-class management to the task so that we can spread best practice and innovation and drive forward efficiency. We have four strong bidders and that is what we need to do. We cannot duck this task. We may wish that we did not have to do it, but we are doing it and we will do it in the most competent and cost-effective way.

Agency Workers

8. Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): What plans he has to bring forward legislative proposals on employment rights for agency workers. [215949]

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