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12 Nov 2009 : Column 357

T2. [299517] David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Despite the UK blocking websites that deal in images of child abuse, recent court cases have shown that abusers are still distributing such material using private, peer-to-peer file sharing. Will the Minister assure me that the Government are aware of the need for an action plan to combat this foul trade and will use a digital economy Bill in the Queen's Speech to curb that practice?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Ian Lucas): My hon. Friend raises a serious and grave issue. It is my understanding that the type of foul behaviour to which he referred is unlawful under current legislation and that action is being taken under it to counter that behaviour. The digital economy Bill will address issues relating to the infringement of copyright.

T3. [299518] Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The beer tie is valuable and necessary in respect of small and family breweries, but damaging and unnecessary in respect of pub companies and larger breweries. Will the Minister ask the Office of Fair Trading to make a referral to the Competition Commission setting the bar far higher than in previous cases?

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): The OFT has made a decision on the super-complaint made by the Campaign for Real Ale about that issue. We are studying carefully the detail of the findings and are quite encouraged by some of the industry activity over the summer following the Business and Enterprise Committee's report on the matter. It is too early to decide whether the Government should intervene, but we are encouraging parties to work closely together and to deliver on their commitments. We will be monitoring the situation closely.

T4. [299519] Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to help people who get into debt through overspending on credit and store cards? Will he also congratulate citizens advice bureaux and the Consumer Credit Counselling Service on the work that they do to help individuals who run into such problems?

Kevin Brennan: Yes, I will congratulate them, as well as my right hon. Friend on the work that he has done with Citizens Advice and the voluntary sector over the years. We recently announced our consultation on changes in relation to credit cards, which opened on 27 October 2009 and will close on 19 January next year. The consultation is looking at how repayments are allocated to balances, whether mandatory higher minimum payments should be set, whether there should be a limit on unsolicited limit increases and whether re-pricing of existing debt should be banned or restricted. The consultation has been widely welcomed.

T6. [299523] Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): May I ask the Minister for further education about the National Star college, which he will know is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and on whose behalf he
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has been campaigning assiduously? The college has a national remit to help young disabled people, but its capital programme was not funded. It recognises the tough economic climate that we are in and has made proposals to the Minister to reduce the amount of public funding that it needs. What can he say to the House today to demonstrate that the Government are truly committed to helping young disabled people across the country?

Kevin Brennan: The Government are committed to helping disabled people, and have done more than any previous Government on that matter. I met the principal of the National Star college earlier this year and undertook to look further into the possible funding of its capital programme. The Learning and Skills Council is working with colleges on the next stage of the capital programme, but at this point that is all that I can say on the matter.

T5. [299522] Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): Will the Minister join me in congratulating the South Yorkshire Investment Fund, under the leadership of chief executive Mr. Tony Goulbourn, on investing in some 469 South Yorkshire businesses over the past few years? Does he agree that the fund is making a big difference in promoting entrepreneurship in South Yorkshire?

Mr. McFadden: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It sounds like the fund is doing a very good job, serving as another example of how we can get finance to small businesses during difficult economic times and help them to make the investments that are so vital for our economic future.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): Following on from the earlier exchanges on fair access to higher and tertiary education, do the Government accept that the cause of fairer access was hardly helped this autumn by the difficulties that the Student Loans Company ran into? Members from all parties in the House have been pressing for a proper inquiry arising therefrom. Can the Minister say what steps will be taken to ensure that students do not encounter the monumental backlogs that were experienced in England particularly, but which had knock-on effects elsewhere, not least in Scotland?

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): Well, for reasons known only to him, the right hon. Gentleman will have missed the fact that there is indeed an inquiry, which is being led by Sir Deian Hopkin, the former vice-chancellor of South Bank university. I have said that I am sorry for what has happened, and so has the chief executive of the Student Loans Company. We did that in the House a few weeks ago, so I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can have a look at Hansard.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): May I put on record the fact that I concur with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on the National Star college? May I also reinforce the point made earlier in Business, Innovation and Skills questions, in the exchange on the statutory code of practice for the grocery trade, about how important it is that the code should be
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reinforced by the introduction of an ombudsman? I hope that the Government will take that decision as a matter of urgency.

Kevin Brennan: The establishment of an ombudsman raises a number of complex issues. Obviously we will weigh up a number of factors-including possible costs or savings being passed on to consumers, the potential for a better deal for suppliers and the regulatory burdens on business-before we take our final decision.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): Students in my constituency are concerned by both the scope and the format of the fees review that was announced this week. Can the Minister tell me what steps he is taking both to ensure that the student voice will be properly heard and to assure students and parents in my constituency that the review is not simply an exercise for putting up student fees?

Mr. Lammy: I can indeed assure the hon. Gentleman, because he will have seen that one of the seven panel members is a former chair of the British Youth Council. Let me also assure his constituents that the Government are committed to a 50 per cent. participation rate and refer them to the statements of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). We believe that the issue is important and should not be downgraded in any manifesto, so let me also refer the hon. Gentleman's constituents to the statements made by his leader.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I have just come from a meeting with a group of former employees of a company called Dot2Dot, which ran a shuttle service between Heathrow and the local hotels. The company was sold by National Express Group and it has been passed through a series of owners. Its employees are not being paid their redundancy and holiday pay, or getting their legal entitlements. Will the Minister agree to meet me and other Members who represent former Dot2Dot employees, to ensure that they get their rights?

Mr. McFadden: I will happily accede to my hon. Friend's request for a meeting. As I have said-I was quoted earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller)-we do not want to see the recession and these difficult economic times used as an excuse to deny people the employment rights to which they are entitled. I will happily meet my hon. Friend to discuss this issue.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): In the coming weeks, many of my constituents will be using mail order companies and the internet to buy Christmas presents that are not locally obtainable in the isles. They will find, however, that mail order companies will either not deliver to island communities or do so only at an exceptionally high surcharge. Will the Government take this problem seriously, and take action to ensure that there is a meaningful universal service for parcels, which we do not have at the moment?

Mr. McFadden: Competition in the parcels industry has been far more developed than in the letters business for many years. This is a competitive market, and there
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is a lot of competition within it. My regret is that, in this area of future growth for Royal Mail-probably in contrast to the letters business-the recent industrial disputes could drive customers away from Royal Mail. It would be a great shame if that happened. I hope to see Royal Mail compete in this market, because it is genuinely the future growth area for mail.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): Has the Minister heard the same representations that I have heard concerning companies that believe that European regulatory steps could impede their ability to hedge on their currency-a vital activity for export-oriented businesses? South Derbyshire is dominated by just those kinds of companies.

Mr. McFadden: I have not received specific representations on that issue. However, if my hon. Friend wishes to speak to me about it further, I will happily look into it for him.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): May I raise with the Minister the subject of further education and the National Star college? The college provides some of the finest residential training anywhere in the world, and it has worked extremely hard to raise £2 million of its own money, which will be in jeopardy if it cannot access funding from the Government. It has also worked very hard at the Minister's behest to take 15 per cent. off the cost of the project. Will he redouble his efforts to see whether he can find that funding?

Kevin Brennan: I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the work of the National Star college, and I undertake to carry on my efforts to look into this matter. This particular proposal is part of the huge investment in further education that has covered more than 700 projects in 330 colleges in the past few years, at a cost of £2.7 billion.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): When will the Minister's Department own up to its responsibilities in relation to people with pleural plaques who have been denied compensation? Will he agree to work with other Ministers and Members of the House to ensure that we repeal the Law Lords' decision of two years ago and give those people the money that they are entitled to?

Mr. McFadden: I understand the strength of feeling in the House on this issue, but I believe that the Ministry of Justice is the lead Department on this matter.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What assistance can the Government's enterprise champion offer to people starting up new businesses, such as my constituent, Pam Randall, who has been told that she might have to wait up to nine months to register for VAT? Will the Minister have a discussion with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, to try to make HMRC more businesslike?

Mr. McFadden: We of course want to do everything we can to help people to start up businesses, and it is important to encourage young people into enterprise. We try to do that through a number of means, and we want the process to be quick and easy in this country, so that entrepreneurship can flourish and grow.

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First Capital Connect

11.35 am

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con) (Urgent Question): To ask the Minister of State, Department for Transport if he will make a statement on the deterioration in passenger services on the First Capital Connect route, including the route that passes through St. Albans into London.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to ask this urgent question, particularly on behalf of passengers in my constituency who have had an absolutely miserable journey to work this morning.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): The action by drivers on First Capital Connect appears to be co-ordinated, and given that talks are continuing, it is highly regrettable. Passengers are being seriously inconvenienced and we urge all parties to resolve this unacceptable situation as soon as possible. Concerted action to stop trains running is irresponsible, but train companies need to ensure that their staffing arrangements are robust, so that they cannot be held to ransom in this way. The franchise agreement with First Capital Connect requires the company to use reasonable endeavours to run a full service. We are reviewing the position on a daily basis, but the disruption should be halted immediately by an end to the current concerted action.

Anne Main: I thank the Minister for that answer; I noticed his reference to "robust" arrangements. Will he tell me whether First Capital Connect is in breach of its franchise by introducing today a new timetable with a 50 per cent. reduction in services? Was he aware that First Capital Connect was planning to introduce that new 50 per cent. timetable, which is causing absolute chaos? What engagement has he had with First Capital Connect in the lead-up to its introduction? For the sake of my constituents and other commuters, will he step in and meet First Capital Connect to bring this matter to a closure as a matter of urgency?

Chris Mole: As I said in my response to the hon. Lady's urgent question, the franchise agreement with First Capital Connect requires the company to use reasonable endeavours to run a full service. As I said, we are monitoring that situation daily. The change to the timetable requires agreement, which has been given on a day-by-day basis. First Capital Connect is being asked to justify the level of reduction in service that it is asking for in that reduced timetable on a day-by-day basis. I can assure the hon. Lady that officials from the Department for Transport have engaged with First Capital Connect on a regular basis, and the Secretary of State met the managing director this morning.

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): As well as today's massive disruption to Thameslink services, the same concerted action by drivers caused all First Capital Connect's Great Northern line services to be cancelled on Sunday. Does the Minister share my anger that drivers chose to disrupt services on a day when many, including my own constituents, would have wished to use the train to attend Remembrance day events? Does he agree that it is really not credible that the unions are not tacitly giving encouragement to drivers
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who are causing this disruption, and that they are acting in a deeply irresponsible way in using passenger misery as a bargaining chip in pay negotiations?

In the dying days of the last Labour Government, the unions brought this country to a halt. With more strike threats looming as the rain falls down on stranded passengers standing on grossly overcrowded platforms waiting for cancelled trains, what is the Minister doing to stand up to the unions and stop them winding back the clock to the 1970s and bringing our railways to a grinding halt?

Chris Mole: It was, of course, deeply regrettable that services were disrupted on Sunday when, as we know, a number of people wanted to travel in order to pay their respects on Remembrance day. I have to say that the questions raised by the hon. Lady are essentially matters for the company. We have a franchise system in which we place trust in the companies to deliver the service that we franchise to them. It is for them to get on with the discussions and negotiations with their employees to ensure that this matter is resolved as rapidly as possible.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): The Minister will share my dismay at the grotesque disruption caused to passengers from Brighton to Bedford and elsewhere on the network. The Secretary of State took strong action against London Midland in relation to events that occurred in September, and I welcomed the written statement about that. Can the Minister tell us what action, if any, he intends to take against First Capital Connect, and if the answer is "None", will he tell us what is the difference between those two events?

Will the Minister provide Members with an analysis by the train operating company showing what percentage of train services depend on voluntary shift working, which has been the cause of massive disruption and cancellations today? Is it not rather worrying that so many trains are dependent on that? Will he also urge the rail union ASLEF to call off the threat of a strike on which it is to hold a ballot whose result will be known on 9 December? Will he suggest that both sides sit down with ACAS, and with the Department for Transport if appropriate? If, as he suggested at the beginning of his statement, industrial action is indeed co-ordinated-I think that that was the word he used-by the rail union ASLEF, is that legal without a ballot?

Chris Mole: I asserted in my statement that the action appeared to be co-ordinated by employees, and I will not go beyond that assertion today.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the position on the use of voluntary and shift working was the same as that in other train companies. We are currently trying to determine the extent to which that arrangement is a problem, but it is clear that it is not universal, although it has been inherited by some franchises from former British Rail regions. We will continue to monitor the situation closely in order to be able to answer some of the questions that the hon. Gentleman has posed.

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