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7. Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): How many regulations affecting business have been revoked by his Department since May 1997. [65197]

The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr. Kim Howells): Between 1 May 1997 and 31 December 1998, my Department revoked 16 statutory instruments affecting business and also simplified a further 16 statutory instruments affecting business.

Mr. Page: That is an appallingly low figure, and the Minister should be suitably ashamed of presenting it to the House. Is he aware that, when in opposition, his colleague--who has recently become a Treasury Minister, because of an unexplained and unexpected vacancy--berated my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) when he achieved more than 1,000 deregulations? The Minister now offers an appallingly low figure. Will he now go back to his officials and tell them: "I do not wish the Government to be so humiliated again. Get working on deregulation, so that when that hon. Member asks me that question again in a year--which he will do--I can give a really super answer, helping to take the burdens off the back of small business men and women"?

Before he answers that, I have a further question: how many regulations has his Department put on to the backs of small businesses?

Dr. Howells: I was going to ask how the hon. Gentleman--whose friendship I greatly value--could say that with a straight face, but he did not. The list of regulations passed by the Conservative Government between 1979 and 1996 reads like "War and Peace". I have not even got past the first chapter. They passed 45,000 regulations during that period. In the three years before they lost power in May 1997, they passed 10,000 new regulations. Since we came to office, we have introduced 2,700 new regulations. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's question.

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I am not one of nature's regulators. I should like regulation to decline significantly in this country, but, by God, we have a mountain to climb to get there, because the Conservatives left an enormous avalanche of legislation for us to tackle.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): I thank my hon. Friend for his reply and welcome him as the representative of the anarchist-libertarian wing of new Labour. Has he noticed that the number of regulations that the Labour Government have repealed corresponds exactly with the 16 Tory Back Benchers who have turned up on this historic day, when Question Time is taking place in the morning? Does that reflect their lack of interest in the subject or the fact that more than 200 of them have second jobs, directorships and consultancies and are out lining their pockets instead of being here doing their parliamentary business?

Dr. Howells: I can answer only a small part of that. I suspect that there is great confusion among the Conservatives about regulations because, clinically, they are still in denial about them.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): The Minister has spoken about the need to simplify regulations. Will he undertake to simplify the working time regulations, which are the most complex and burdensome regulations imposed on British business in a generation? They have been much criticised by the chambers of commerce and are proving difficult to implement. Will he look at them again and come back with simpler regulations? Will he guarantee that, in future, he will always follow the advice of the better regulation task force, which also criticised those regulations? The Government prided themselves on setting up the unit, but was that not just a lot of rhetoric? Is not the reality that the regulations coming from this Government are more burdensome and complex than ever?

Dr. Howells: I have every confidence that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry will ensure that every regulation introduced by his unit will be good, necessary and relevant.

Post Office

8. Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North): When the Government intend to publish their White Paper on the future of the Post Office. [65198]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers): My right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) said in his statement to the House on 7 December on the future of the Post Office that a White Paper would be published early in the new year. Work is proceeding with the intention of publishing the White Paper as soon as possible.

Mr. Laxton: I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new job. The Post Office is a little disappointed that the White Paper has not already been published. The Dutch and German post offices have been gobbling up companies in Europe pretty rapidly. I very much welcome the Post Office's decision to buy into German Parcels. That will greatly assist its future in Europe. To be specific,

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will the White Paper allow the Post Office the greatest possible commercial freedom? Will the new regulator have sufficient powers to ensure that the Post Office improves on its excellent service to businesses and the community?

Mr. Byers: I thank my hon. Friend for his words of welcome. The Post Office is not disappointed with the time scale in the White Paper. It is closely involved in discussions about the White Paper and is fully aware of the issues that we wish to address. On 7 December, my predecessor made it very clear that we want a new future for the Post Office. We want to lift the cloud of uncertainty that was created by the previous Government and ensure that it is no longer starved of investment. We are in the process of doing that and the Post Office is already using its new freedoms. For example, it acquired German Parcels at the beginning of this year. The consumer will also benefit from the proposed cut in the price of a second-class stamp--the first cut in many years--which will be welcomed by tens of thousands of people who use second-class mail. This is the future for the Post Office. We are delivering on our promise and supporting the Post Office, instead of neglecting it as the Conservatives did.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood): I welcome the Secretary of State to his new responsibilities. Will he explain why he thinks that taxpayers should continue to be involuntary risk-bearing shareholders in the Post Office? Will he also explain why he thinks it is in the interests of the Post Office that it should be denied access to the capital markets to allow it to participate in the consolidation of postal services around Europe to which the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) referred?

Mr. Byers: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words of welcome. As a former Treasury Minister, he will know very well that the financial regime under which the Post Office operated under the previous Government was--

Mr. Dorrell: Not as good as it could have been.

Mr. Byers: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are now tackling those deficiencies. That is why we have restricted the external financing limits which ensured that the bulk of the profits made by the Post Office went back to the Treasury. We are now allowing the Post Office to keep a far bigger proportion of its profits so that it can invest in the future. Taxpayers have an interest because they are the consumers. We want a Post Office offering high-quality services at affordable prices and we now have a regime to achieve those objectives.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil): I welcome my right hon. Friend to the Front Bench and congratulate him on his involvement in negotiations regarding the Post Office in his previous role. Can he confirm that the recent acquisition of German Parcels and the circumstances surrounding it necessitated a degree of commercial confidentiality that is consistent with commercial freedom? Opposition Members must realise that the new Post Office will behave in a different way, but, at the

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same time, there will be processes involving the regulator, which will entail a degree of accountability and transparency consistent with its new freedoms.

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes an important point, with which I agree. We need to put in place a proper system of liberalisation and tough regulation for the new Post Office. The White Paper will address those issues, but Opposition Members must acknowledge that, because we are in a new relationship with the Post Office, we shall need to respect commercial confidentiality; otherwise, we shall make the Post Office vulnerable to foreign competition. Opposition Members may want that, but we certainly do not. We want a Post Office that will be a partner in change, not the victim of change. That is what we want and we have now put in place the regime to ensure that it happens.

Energy Policy

9. Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): If he will make a statement on the Government's energy policy. [65199]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers): The Government are committed to competition, and to an energy policy based on secure, diverse and sustainable energy supplies at competitive prices.

Mr. Paterson: The Secretary of State did not mention that the Government are committed to raising 10 per cent. of energy from renewable resources by 2010. If half that energy were to come from wind, 10,000 to 20,000 turbines would have to be built. The 800 that have been built--in areas such as the Shropshire-Wales border--are an environmental disaster and bitterly resented by locals. Contrary to the Secretary of State's statement, they generate energy at three to five times the cost of other sources. They are extraordinarily unreliable. They have to be closed down in freezing weather, when demand is at its peak--

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask a question; otherwise, I will refer him to an Adjournment debate, as that sounds like a very good subject for such a debate.

Mr. Paterson: Will the Government abandon this foolish policy?

Mr. Byers: A long question deserves a short reply. A paper on renewables will be published by the Government shortly.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): In the review of energy policy, will my right hon. Friend consider the activities of the Coal Authority, particularly in regard to abandoned and disused mine shafts? Is he aware that the Coal Authority's records in this regard are notoriously unreliable? Will he therefore consider urgently what action the Coal Authority should take to make sure that its records are accurate and clearly show not only the siting, but the status and condition of the abandoned mine shafts?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which affects many communities up and down

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the country. The Government take the matter seriously and, as a matter of urgency, we will be asking the Coal Authority to review its procedures to ensure that accurate information is available, so it can plan accordingly.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): In congratulating the Secretary of State on his appointment, may I ask him to confirm that the motto of his Department will from henceforth be, "Let Byers beware"? Why have the Government sought on environmental grounds successively to increase the tax on fuel duty for motor vehicles, while simultaneously reducing the tax on domestic fuel, which pollutes the atmosphere as much as, or even more than, vehicle fuel?

Mr. Byers: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome. As far as fuel is concerned, we know that the Conservative Government sought to dramatically increase the rate of VAT.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Do not split infinitives.

Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman must be careful, otherwise someone will split his infinitives for him. There are many Labour Members who would gladly volunteer to do so. The hon. Gentleman is trying to divert me from the important political point that I was making. The previous Conservative Government put VAT on domestic fuel at 17 per cent. Even in opposition, we managed to defeat that and, in government, we were able to reduce VAT to 5 per cent. That has been welcomed by consumers, and we are looking at how we can ensure that, in terms of a proper, sustainable environmental policy, we can have fuel that is not costly--the right hon. Gentleman would like that--and within a safe and secure environmental policy.

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