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HMRC: Winding-up Petitions


3.30 pm

Asked By Baroness Noakes

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Lord Young of Norwood Green): My Lords, the proportion of winding-up petitions filed by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs in England and Wales between April and September 2009 is about 30 per cent. The proportion of petitions filed by other government departments over the same period amounted to less than 2 per cent.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that response. It is in fact at variance with the research findings of the accountants Hacker Young that were published earlier this week, which found that, in the last six months, HMRC accounted for 43 per cent-nearly half-of all petitions for insolvencies. This is at a time of recession, when insolvencies are increasing at a rate that is a great tragedy. Can the Minister assure the House that HMRC, and indeed any other government departments, are treating small businesses fairly in these difficult times, given the pressure that they are putting on banks and other lenders to treat their customers fairly?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I thank the noble Baroness for her supplementary question. I can assure her that departments are treating businesses fairly. HMRC's Business Payments Support Service has supported over 160,000 businesses collectively employing more than 1.2 million people, spread over £4 billion-worth of tax. Of this, more than £3 billion has already been repaid. HMRC will continue to offer this service as part of its time-to-pay arrangements. On company failures, I would say this. We currently have registered at Companies House double the number of companies registered in the early 1990s, when we had a failure rate of 2.6 per cent. Among the companies currently registered, we have a failure rate of only 0.9 per cent. So I think that the record of HMRC and the Government in assisting companies during a very difficult period of recession is exceedingly good.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: Is the Minister aware that this is a very serious situation? I think that we are all very concerned about some of the figures he has given. At a time of record levels of youth unemployment, will he extend the answer to cover winding-up petitions presented by companies in which the Government have a majority shareholding, such as banks?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I will have to come back to the noble Lord on that particular issue. We have the break-downs for the different government departments but not for that particular area. However, I stand by my previous statement. In the wider measures that the Government are taking to support businesses-whether in the reduction of VAT, the car scrappage scheme or the encouragement of enterprises-we are doing everything we can to ensure the maximum success of companies and to reduce the number of failures. As I said in my previous statement, compared to previous recessions, we are doing much better than expected in the level of failures.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, clearly it is good that businesses do not go into liquidation. However, is not one of the problems at the moment pre-packs? Organisations which have often been less careful in

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their management shed their debts, often get their capital equipment back for free and then undercut small and medium-sized businesses that have traded fairly and looked after their resources well.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, our view of pre-packs is that they have a role to play. In some cases they have managed to preserve value in a business, thereby retaining jobs and economic activity which otherwise would have been lost. There is no perfect solution, but we believe that in certain circumstances they have benefited the business concerned and thus enabled people to retain their jobs.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I declare a past interest as a former senior partner in Hacker Young in the Manchester branch. Will my noble friend have a word with HMRC about the interest charge it makes on small companies which delay payment of VAT or any other form of taxation? The rate it is charging seems to be even higher than that at which a company could borrow it from the bank.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I think that my noble friend is aware of the Government's attitude to prompt payments. I will do my best to take his point into account and recognise its validity.

Lord Newby: Does the Minister accept that one of the reasons why there is such a high level of company failures is that the banks are refusing to roll over facilities on terms that even vaguely reflect the previous facilities and are charging a lot more? Will the Government keep pressure on the banks to make sure that, particularly in the manufacturing sector, when companies with a good order book need a facility, they can renegotiate it with a level of fees and rate of interest that are not significantly worse than those under which they previously operated?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I can reassure the noble Lord that we will do everything we can. We have been working in this area. We have introduced a range of measures to help businesses survive the recession and come through it in a stronger shape, including action to ensure that businesses get the finance they need and securing legal commitments from RBS and Lloyds to lend an additional £27 billion to business between March 2009 and 2010.

Personal Care at Home Bill

First Reading

3.36 pm

The Bill was brought from the Commons, read a first time and ordered to be printed.

Haiti: Earthquake


3.37 pm

Lord Brett: My Lords, with permission, I will repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question given in another place about supporting the people of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake.

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"A series of major earthquakes struck Haiti last night in the area around the capital, Port-au-Prince. The strongest of these was reported at 7.2 on the Richter scale and up to 13 aftershocks have taken place. Information on the scale of damage and the number of people killed or injured is slowly emerging. We estimate that some 6 million people live in the affected area and 1 million people in the worst affected area. Early press reports and limited information from the United States Government and the United Nations describe numerous collapsed buildings, including a hospital, many houses and the presidential palace. By any measure this is an awful disaster.

My department has a four-person field assessment team en route to Port-au-Prince in order to determine the priorities for urgent assistance. We have mobilised a UK fire and rescue service search and rescue team of 64 people with dogs and heavy rescue equipment. The team and its 10 tonnes of equipment are at present assembling at Gatwick and are ready to deploy as soon as the airport reopens following heavy snow. We are urgently looking at all options to ensure that the search and rescue team can deploy as quickly as possible, including the possibility of an RAF flight.

I have been informed that the United States currently has two search and rescue teams mobilising and ready to depart from Miami. The Iceland search and rescue team is also mobilising. A further complication facing all teams is that the Port-au-Prince airport is believed to be unusable. We are urgently assessing alternatives. Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. The need in the aftermath of this tragedy is likely to be very great. The United Kingdom is ready to provide whatever humanitarian assistance is required".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.39 pm

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, we are deeply grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in another place. Throughout the country there will be concern for the people of Haiti at this awful time. Haiti, as the Minister said, is one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere and is the least well equipped to cope with this catastrophe. As all evidence shows, the actions that are taken in the immediate aftermath of this disaster are vital. In this case, the whole international community should make a swift and effective response, although clearly the US is in the key position to provide help. Can the Minister give further detail about the composition of the UK assessment team that has been dispatched to the region? When will it arrive and when will we know what further support the UK Government can offer?

After the earthquake and flooding in east Asia last year, there were worrying reports of problems with the co-ordination of the British response effort and difficulties in arranging transport to the region, not least in facilitating the arrival of British NGOs which had a contribution to make. What discussions has the Minister had with his counterpart at the DCLG, given that UK fire and rescue services now take the lead on international search and rescue? Can he assure the House that the whole Whitehall machinery, as well as just DfID, is firmly joined up at this point? Can the Minister provide

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us with any information about the number of British nationals currently in Haiti, their situation, and steps that are being taken to look after them?

The United States will no doubt have the leading role in the international response. What recent conversations has the Minister had with his counterparts in the US to make certain that the international response is properly co-ordinated? Many members of the British public will want to do all they can to support the people of Haiti at this time. What guidance can the Minister give as to how their efforts should best be directed? Can the Minister update the House on how the neighbouring Dominican Republic has been affected?

In 2007 the shadow Minister for International Development became the first senior British politician for some time to visit Haiti and spent some time with the UN forces there. We hear that the UN forces have been severely hit by the earthquake. Can the Minister update the House on the impact of the earthquake on the UN mission in Haiti and what discussions he has had with colleagues at UNDPKO in New York about this? Our total focus at the moment must be on saving lives and getting help for those who need it. As the Chinese say, every crisis is an opportunity. Will the Minister accept that, in due course and when the time is right, we will need a full review of Britain's emergency response process?

3.43 pm

Baroness Northover: My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord for repeating this Statement and I associate myself and these Benches with the condolences that have already been expressed for those who have suffered in this devastating earthquake.

The picture is not clear. For example, the noble Lord says that the airport is damaged, hampering relief, but the BBC reports that the Haiti ambassador in the US says that it is open. I wondered if he could clarify that. Our own team is going out of Gatwick, which, as I understand it, is closed because of snow until 4 pm this afternoon. What is being done to try to get our own teams out, given the pressure of time? This earthquake has hit the poorest country in the western hemisphere. It is very badly prepared for such an event. Its buildings are weak; many are made of concrete and are very vulnerable in such a situation because of dire poverty. Haiti was hit last year by hurricanes and other storms. It has a very fragile society and the earthquake struck in areas of dense population. We know that when hurricanes hit Haiti and Cuba recently there was much greater loss of life in Haiti, because of an inability to organise there, than in Cuba, where things were organised well. Does the noble Lord see this as a problem?

This earthquake was followed by two significant aftershocks. What tends to happen is that people run out of their homes after the first shake, only to have masonry fall on them in the aftershocks. Is that what seems to have happened here? There are numerous NGOs as well as the UN on the ground which may help in the coming days, but they themselves have been caught up in this, as we have heard. UN peacekeepers were in Haiti, and we have heard of casualties; for example, the head of the UN mission himself and

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Chinese peacekeepers. Can the Minister confirm these reports? Does he think that there are UK citizens among the casualties? The NGOs with which I have been in touch cannot yet account for all their people. I realise that Haiti has not been a priority for DfID, but could he spell out more precisely what DfID's own contribution will be? My noble friend Lord McNally points out that the Royal Navy is patrolling in the Caribbean as part of our operation to counter the drugs trade. Is it able to reach Haiti? Is there something that it can do to help?

What help is being accorded to the NGOs that are there? Many of them are moving in: I have heard from the Red Cross, Oxfam and UNICEF this morning and all are mobilising. Plan International, Save the Children and others have expressed extreme worry about children in this disaster, which is a very common problem. Children are extremely vulnerable. What can the noble Lord tell us about their protection? We heard in the Kashmiri earthquake, for example, not only of the death of children but also of their lack of protection and even their being abducted by people traffickers. What is being done internationally in the light of what happened in Kashmir to try to reduce this risk in this very vulnerable society?

We have already heard of looting, so it is clear that things are breaking down in Haiti more than they already were. Can the Minister tell us more about what is being done to try to establish order there? Oxfam has emphasised the need for emergency shelter, water supply and sanitation, which are absolutely critical in this next phase. What is being done multilaterally?

Given the international action in Haiti, what can be done to ensure that basic infrastructure such as hospitals, government buildings and schools is more earthquake-proof? I note that the hospital has been very badly damaged. It is surprising, given the risk of an earthquake in this part of the world, that those buildings were not more earthquake-proof. Earthquakes of a higher level in developed countries do not cause mass casualties because of the way in which the buildings are constructed. Surely buildings that were constructed after the hurricanes should at the very least have been more earthquake-proof, given that Haiti is on a fault line and that pressure on it meant a high likelihood of an earthquake? What can be said about Commonwealth countries in the region? Are they at further risk of earthquakes as a result of what has happened on that same fault line?

This is a terrible situation in a very poor country, and emergency and medical treatment must be got in as soon as possible and the situation stabilised. I hope that DfID will make a contribution to rebuilding based on the enormous knowledge that we have about how best to construct buildings so that they are earthquake-proof, and that one does not have the mass casualties that appear to be the case in this instance.

3.48 pm

Lord Brett: My Lords, I appreciate the comments of both noble Baronesses. I am sure that they speak not only for this House but for the whole of Britain in expressing their commiserations for the misery that has been visited on this poorest of western-hemisphere

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countries. Both noble Baronesses asked a number of apposite questions, but they will not be amazed to find that not all the answers are available, which is in the main due to the fact that we are still at the point of not knowing what is happening in much of Port-au-Prince and the areas around it. I shall try to tell the noble Baronesses what we are doing. My colleague the Minister in the other place said in responding to the Urgent Question that there would be a further Statement to Parliament as knowledge of the scale of the disaster, and the assessment of what is needed and what part Britain can play, unfolded.

As we all agree, search and rescue is the first and most immediate requirement, followed by a whole series of actions to put right the difficulties and then a learning of lessons for the future. We set up the operations room in DfID immediately after becoming aware of the disaster. We have seen efficiency and effectiveness in the speed with which we have moved to put together the voluntary team of 64 firefighters, with some 10 tonnes of equipment and dogs, and got it to Gatwick Airport, with a chartered flight to take it out to Port-au-Prince. Unfortunately, as we know, the weather is holding us up. We have arranged priority for that flight to depart as soon as runway space and airspace are available and weather conditions allow. At present, this would still be the quickest way to get those firefighters out. It is crucial to get to those people who require rescue within 72 hours, so that is our first priority.

The assessment team is four people who are expert in this area, including a colleague based in the West Indies who is coming via Barbados and is aware of the region. They will begin reporting back as soon as they start to collect information. They are en route, flying via Santo Domingo where they will have a briefing with our ambassador and staff. This will start to give us a picture that will answer the noble Baroness's question about the impact within the other country on the island of Hispaniola, and will begin to give us a view on some of the problems that might be faced going into Haiti.

If I can jump towards the end of the noble Baroness's questions and answer on security, yes, there have been looting attempts in the UN compound, which has collapsed. There are 9,000 UN peacekeeping troops within Haiti-3,000 deployed and 6,000 not yet deployed-and the UN has offered their services to provide protection for rescue groups going in. That protection can be extended to buildings and food supplies and to assist the Haitian civil authorities.

The amount of information available to us, though, is very sparse and the news media updates us with information more quickly, although not necessarily accurately so we have to check. We know, for example, that two high-level officials within the UN team based there are missing but we cannot confirm their deaths or their identities. Those details will, unfortunately, emerge in time.

There is an international effort. There have been very generous offers of assistance made by the United States and Germany, and we will press our colleagues in the European Union to be as generous as possible. However, we know from previous experiences, as the

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noble Baroness referred to in terms of east Asia, that it is not only a question of generosity of spirit or money-it is a question of efficiency and co-ordination and we are anxious to ensure that we have the best co-ordination possible, hence our looking at the assessment of needs first. One need have no doubt that the UK is more than ready to play its part, as was made very clear by the Prime Minister at PMQs when he said that we stand ready to provide whatever humanitarian assistance is required. That information will start to flow back and action will flow from it across government in the next few days.

A very important part of rescue and rehabilitation during disasters, not only in this country but across the world, is carried out by British NGOs, British faith groups and British-based charities. They play a valuable part in raising funding and in helping countries. There are teams from British NGOs already in Haiti. My colleague the Minister Douglas Alexander is co-coordinating a meeting of British NGOs as soon as possible-this afternoon or more likely tomorrow-to look at precisely what problems they have, what they are doing to fundraise and how best we can together carry forward what has been, on previous occasions, a great generosity of spirit by the British people. We need to harness this to ensure we have the best response to help the people of Haiti.

We have no information from Santo Domingo of any serious effect on the Dominican Republic but this will be clarified when we have a more detailed report.

We are in touch with the Ministry of Defence about the possible use of Royal Naval vessels in the vicinity, and we will co-ordinate with the United States, which has a much more active presence in the country. Two years ago, when four hurricanes hit the country in one month, they were able to send four hospital ships to help, which would be vital on this occasion, when we know that there have been casualties in hospitals.

The information available to us will become available to our international colleagues, whether in the United Nations specialised agencies or other member states. It is the intention of the British Government to work closely in co-ordination with them, which I hope will give us the ability to move very quickly and effectively. There will be a further Statement to Parliament in the next few days to carry forward and answer more fully the apposite questions put by colleagues from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benches.

3.55 pm

Baroness Sharples: Can the noble Lord tell us whether the dogs involved in search and rescue will have to go into quarantine when they return?

Lord Brett: The noble Baroness will not be tremendously surprised to know that that has not been central to my thoughts in the past couple of hours on Haiti, and I do not have the answer to that question. However, I shall certainly check it and write to her.

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