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The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): I am glad to say that at the EU Employment Council on 9 June, agreement was reached on the terms of a proposed directive on temporary agency workers. The terms of the directive will provide new and important protections against unfair treatment and maintain essential flexibility to meet the needs of the UK labour market.

The timing of legislation in the United Kingdom will depend on agreement between Parliament and Council as this is a matter for co-decision, as my hon. Friend knows. I hope to bring forward the necessary domestic legislation as soon as possible.

Mr. Hepburn: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. One of the main proposals coming forward is to give agency workers the same protection as full-time workers after 12 weeks. What does he intend to do about employers who sidestep those protections by, say, employing somebody for 11 weeks and four days?

Mr. Hutton: The 12-week qualifying period to which my hon. Friend referred was recorded in the agreement reached between the Trades Union Congress and the CBI; that was the platform that allowed final agreement to be reached in the European Council. The directive also has strong anti-avoidance provisions. Obviously, the final details are still to be resolved in the process of co-decision making. However, the benchmark of proper protection has been established, and our view is that the directive must ensure that the obvious abuses to which my hon. Friend referred are dealt with fully and fairly.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): When he is drawing up these proposals, will the Secretary of State bear in mind the fact that after the end of the second world war, large numbers of people from eastern Europe—“displaced persons” they were called—came to Britain and other countries looking for jobs? Literally thousands of them started working in the pits. There were no middlemen and no agencies—nobody had ever heard of such things. Nobody was taking a cut of their wages; they were paid exactly the same as the others of us who were down the pits and they were affiliated to the appropriate trade union. If we could do that post-1945, why do we need these middlemen now? Let us get rid of them and get on with the job. Let us get back to giving the people who work for the money all the money, rather than there being a cut for somebody else.

Mr. Hutton: I recognise what my hon. Friend has said about the mines and the immediate post-war period, but I am sure he will know, as he is very much in touch with the modern world, that the labour market today is a very different thing. Many workers in many industries have chosen and prefer agency working to other forms of employment. That is true in many sectors—in health, in teaching, in many of the managerial professions and in computing and technology. It would be quite wrong to take away from workers the opportunity of working in that way. I hope that he and I agree that where there is agency working, there should be proper and fair protection for agency workers so that they are on an equal footing with regular, full-time employees. I hope that that is what the directive that we have agreed in Europe will ensure.

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Post Office Closures

9. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What assessment he has made of the effects of post office closures on local shopping centres. [215950]

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): The Government recognise the important social and economic role of post offices in the communities they serve. In developing the area plans that are going through at the moment, Post Office Ltd considers the impact on local communities among other factors such as the profitability of the branch, local demographics and the availability of public transport.

Simon Hughes: If Mr. Sale and his family, who ran the Ilderton Road post office in Rotherhithe for 30 years until it was closed yesterday afternoon against their will and that of the community, decide that they can no longer continue in business, and the effect of that is that the whole parade of shops goes downhill, what will the Government do to help?

Mr. McFadden: Mr. Sale, like all the sub-postmasters who are leaving the network as a result of this programme, will shortly receive, if he has not already received, the compensation that has been negotiated between the National Federation of SubPostmasters and Post Office Ltd in recognition of the important efforts that he and many others like him have made to the community over the years.

Mr. Speaker: I call Anne Begg.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I thought we were on topical questions, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: I will see what I can do for you.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Marston road in Stafford is a local shopping centre in that it is a collection of small shops, including a post office. On Tuesday, Post Office Ltd announced the closure of that post office, which serves the local population, including many elderly disabled people in sheltered housing. Obviously we cannot transfer the post office to another shop locally, but would there be the possibility of an outreach service to one of the sheltered housing schemes so that at least people can stay in their locality instead of having to go somewhere else for their post office?

Mr. McFadden: It is difficult to comment on the immediate circumstances that my hon. Friend raises. However, he should be aware that on 9 April Post Office Ltd announced that it was going to pilot the outreach concept, which had previously been geared towards rural areas, in urban areas as well. My advice to him would be to contact Post Office Ltd to see whether his constituency might have such a pilot, although I cannot guarantee that that will happen.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): May I press the Minister on a specific issue that the Government could implement to help the post office network? The National Federation of SubPostmasters has said it fears that a further 3,000 post offices will close if the post office network does not win the Post Office card account. In
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view of the Government’s handling of this issue so far, what representations is the Minister going to make in order to help it to win that vital account?

Mr. McFadden: I do not think anyone is in any doubt about my view on this issue, which will be decided in a proper and legal way by the Department for Work and Pensions. I am sure that the last thing the hon. Gentleman would want is for me or another Minister to do something that would place the proper tendering process in jeopardy so that if the result that he wants happens, it is then challenged in the courts. That is why it is important that this is carried out properly according to the legal tendering rules. As I have said, the post office network is in a strong position to bid, and I am sure that it will bid strongly, but this has to be decided in a proper way by my colleagues at the DWP and announced in the normal fashion later this year.

Topical Questions

T1. [215931] Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): 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 my Department is to help to ensure the success of UK business. We promote business growth and a strong enterprise economy, lead the better regulation agenda and champion free and fair markets, benefiting workers, consumers and companies. We are also the shareholder in a number of Government-owned assets, such as Royal Mail, and we work to secure clean and competitively priced energy supplies.

Simon Hughes: Given that answer, what is the Secretary of State’s Department going to do about the Financial Services Authority? I appreciate that it is a Treasury responsibility too, but it is also a matter of business regulation. In the last few months, we have learned that the outgoing chairman was paid more than £250,000 after he stopped working, that the new chairman got a pay rise of 37 per cent., which took him to a salary of £662,000 after a £114,000 bonus, and that the man who was effectively sacked because of the Northern Rock debacle got a £612,000 golden pay-off, plus a £30,000 performance-related bonus. What is a Labour Government going to do to stop such absolutely scandalous pay for people at the top end, when our constituents can hardly scrape enough together to pay the household bills?

Mr. Hutton: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but it is important that the FSA is able to recruit the right people and the best people. [ Interruption. ] That is a matter for the hon. Gentleman to reflect on. The one thing that I have learned from doing this job is that it is usually a good idea to leave matters to do with the Treasury to be dealt with by Treasury Ministers in this House.

T2. [215932] Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential for our economic future to make the UK the safest place to do business online? Does he also agree that preventing internet-related crime is crucial to public and business confidence? Will he
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support initiatives to get industry to take the lead on this matter, in partnership with Parliament, the Government and civil society, to make the internet the safest place to undertake activities, and to ensure that confidence?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, I agree strongly with my right hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to what he has done in the past year or so, leading on some important work, which I hope will come to fruition. I agree that we need to discuss such matters carefully and closely with the industry. He referred to the importance of self-regulation in this regard, and I agree about that, but the Government have the responsibility to ensure that people and businesses in the UK who use the internet and do business online can do so safely, free from the fear of crime. I assure my right hon. Friend that active discussion is taking place between Ministers in a number of Departments to address the concerns that he and others have raised.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I tell the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs that there is substantial and growing concern in the northern isles about the consequences for post offices if the post office network does not get the next generation of the Post Office card account? At present, just about every inhabited island in my constituency has a post office where people can use their card account. Will the Minister assure me that when the new contract is awarded, that will remain the case, and that questions of geography, as well as just bald population statistics, will be taken into account so that the matter is properly implemented?

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): There is not a lot I can add to what I have already said about the card account, other than to repeat that I understand how important it is to the post office network. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that his constituency, which is a special part of the country, has good post office provision. We want to maintain that, and the large amount of public subsidy that we put into the network is partly in recognition of the special circumstances of constituencies such as his. I am sure that the Department for Work and Pensions will take into account all relevant factors in deciding the future of the contract.

Mr. Speaker: I call Anne Begg.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Speaker.

In the debate about the negative effects of the high oil price, the crucial part that the North sea oil and gas industry plays in the UK’s economy sometimes gets lost. However, that contribution has been made at some cost to human life. This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, in which 169 men died. I would welcome my right hon. Friend’s reflections on the lessons that have been learned and need to continue to be learned as a result of the tragedy.

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Piper Alpha. All hon. Members know the scale of the tragedy on that day 20 years ago. Since then, significant improvements in health and safety have been made across the UK continental shelf, and
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that is a tribute to the trade unions and employers who worked together to achieve that better result to improve the safety and security of workers, on whom we all fundamentally depend for our long-term national self-interest. I pay tribute to that work. We all continue to regret the tragic loss of life on that terrible day, but we stand ready to work with both sides of the industry always to push forward the barrier of safety and do more to protect workers who work in incredibly dangerous situations. The UK Government remain committed to achieving that result.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): On the day that the price of crude oil has burst through $145 a barrel, and further to the earlier comments of the Minister for Energy, how much extra have the Saudis produced since the Prime Minister’s visit to Jeddah? Will the Secretary of State explain how any extra production of heavy oil, when the world needs, if anything, light oil, would have any beneficial impact on global prices?

Mr. Hutton: The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has indicated its willingness to provide an extra 500,000 barrels a day of crude oil, and that is welcome. I accept that most of that is heavy crude, and that there is an issue about the world’s refining capacity to use that. However, the short-term problem cannot be fixed with the flick of a switch. It is important to deal with supply issues in the way my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy stated. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is addressing that in a way that gives the UK global leadership, and that is welcome. However, we must do more on the demand side, and what the G8 Energy Ministers agreed in Japan is important and will, I think, be confirmed at the G8 summit in Japan next week.

We can do more about energy efficiency, developing new technologies, having an open view about trade and making it a win-win situation for oil-producing countries to invest in some of the new technologies. I hope the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge our work to try to get stability in oil prices—hopefully a climate in which they can come down—and that the Jeddah process and the work of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister are the right response to the problems that we face.

Alan Duncan: I hear what the Secretary of State says and he is right about the importance of the demand side, but is not the problem for Britain the fact that the Prime Minister simply does not understand global oil markets and that his so-called new deal, which was much vaunted when he visited Saudi Arabia, was in fact a deeply humiliating begging mission, which has led neither to any additional oil production that is of any use nor to any reduction in the pain that consumers face?

Mr. Hutton: It is easy to sneer and be cynical about such matters and it is regrettable that the hon. Gentleman has taken that approach. The exercise is far from humiliating, as he described it. There is now a process and a discussion, which has never happened before, between the producing and consuming nations. That will be an essential way to try to resolve and find a way through the problems. What is the alternative? Not to talk and not to have a dialogue? That is completely ridiculous.

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Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): The Minister for Energy and I both visited Bristol port authority a couple of weeks ago on Friday to discuss the potential impact of the Severn barrage on the port’s future business. Sadly, we did not quite meet on that occasion. Will either my right hon. Friend or the Minister for Energy tell the House whether the representations that were made to the Minister on that occasion about the potential impact of the barrage on the port’s future will be fed into the Severn barrage feasibility study?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, they certainly will. It is important to consider all the potential impacts, not only environmental but economic, of a barrage across the Severn. They must be taken into account in the consideration of all the various options. However, I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that, given the enormous potential of generating significant amounts of clean energy from such a barrage, we should proceed with the work, have everything on the table, be clear about the way forward and, when we are ready, make an informed, proper decision. However, as I said earlier, we must take into account both the economic and environmental impacts of such a proposal.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): Does the Secretary of State think it was wise for the Prime Minister to reappoint the chief executive of Anglo American as one of the Government’s most senior business advisers this week, in the light of recent controversies over the company’s investments in Zimbabwe? Did the Secretary of State discuss the appointment with the Foreign Secretary?

Mr. Hutton: It is a good and sensible appointment. All such matters are properly looked into before any such appointment is made.

T5. [215935] John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): The next wave of post office closures will be announced for Edinburgh in August. Is the Minister concerned about the precedent set in Greater Glasgow, where the post offices saved were in marginal Labour seats, given that Edinburgh, South and Edinburgh, North and Leith are highly marginal against the Liberal Democrats and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s seat is marginal against the Conservatives? Where does the Minister think the most marginal seats are in Edinburgh, and will the post offices be saved there?

Mr. McFadden: One of the beauties of topical questions is that we can do the whole thing twice. There is absolutely no political interference or consideration in the process at all. I therefore wholeheartedly and totally refute any inference that there is such.

T6. [215936] Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs for his answer to my written question concerning the future of the sorting office in Crewe. Although that closure is an operational matter for Royal Mail, he must surely have a view, as the Minister for Postal Affairs and a portfolio-holding representative of the sole shareholder in Royal Mail—that is, the Government—on whether the closure of that sorting office is bad for the people of Crewe and bad for those who work there, who have been both long serving and hard working.

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Mr. McFadden: Let me welcome the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson) on his first time at these questions—I do not know whether this is his first question in toto. My understanding is that no announcement has been made on the mail centre at Crewe. Royal Mail will of course be engaged in a process of modernisation and automation over the coming years, and it will have to take operational decisions about that. However, the hon. Gentleman’s party cannot say that decisions about Royal Mail, along with a number of other difficult decisions, including about transport infrastructure, nuclear power, planning and so on, must all be put into a box marked “too difficult to decide”.

T7. [215937] Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Does the Minister agree that one of the problems faced by those who are reliant on home fuel oil and propane gas is that there appears to be no regulator and no consumer body responsible for that market? Is he prepared to consider whether that market can be brought into the ambit of Ofgem, perhaps through the Energy Bill which is currently in the other place? That would at least allow the possibility of the same sort of help for that market, by way of social tariffs, for example, as for gas and electricity markets.

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): The Office of Fair Trading has responsibility if there is evidence of anti-competitive behaviour. If the hon. Gentleman has such evidence, that is the authority to which it should go. I made it clear earlier that we need to find and develop the alternatives for those rural communities and rural households. Microgeneration—I have mentioned heat pumps as an example—has a great deal of scope in helping to bring more diversity and choice to some of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

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