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The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers): Will the right hon. Gentleman, on behalf of the Conservative party, give a firm commitment that his party would not introduce automated credit transfer for post offices from 2003?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: That is exactly the point. If the costs of the alternatives that the right hon. Gentleman has had to dream up exceed the amount of the Treasury saving, then yes, we certainly should remove the threat to post offices. First, however, the right hon. Gentleman must tell us what those costs are.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said that he did not know what the costs were, and had been unable to find out from the Government. Negotiations are being conducted in secret, but they involve large amounts of public money. The House has a right to know what the Government will spend on, for example, something called a universal bank. We know that the Department, through a mixture of bluster and veiled threat, is trying to extract as much as it can from the high street banks to subsidise the rival bank that is being set up in the post offices. We also know that that puts the Department in an invidious position--a point made by my right hon. Friend. If the banks refuse to give in to pressure and then come before the Department on some competition issue, the Department's position will be greatly compromised when it must make a judgment, in the knowledge that some banks may have given in and provided money, and others may have refused.
We want to know what is going on, and what the Government's contribution will be, in the absence of sufficient funding from the private sector. I am not just referring to the universal bank; we want to know what is happening to all the internet use that they propose. The rural White Paper contains all sorts of gimmicky
How are postmasters to be reimbursed for helping people to use the internet in a corner of the post office? Who will pay for the equipment? We need some answers now because a holocaust of closures is going on throughout the country. People want to know what the Government are doing to replace that revenue.
If the cost exceeds the eventual saving for the Treasury, why is the exercise being attempted at all? It is remarkable--only the present Department of Trade and Industry could have done it--that the DTI has threatened to spend more public money to try to repair commercial damage caused by the Treasury following the announced switch to ACT payment, so I give the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the following assurance. If he will give the answers in the debate, as I request now and as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden has requested, we will move forward to asserting, or not, whether we will call off the Treasury threat. First, however, we need some specific answers. I look forward to the Secretary of State's comments.
While we are on the subject of fiascoes, let me touch on another: the ban on tobacco advertising. That, too, was promised in the Labour manifesto. We know that it was all put on hold when Mr. Bernie Ecclestone went into No. 10 Downing street and demanded that it did not apply to Formula One. As we know, he had given £1 million to the Labour party. I am told that, in motor racing circles, £1 million is now known as a Bernie. In fact, I think that two Bernies were offered. He got one back and he cancelled the other one, but the overall effect was to postpone the ban on tobacco advertising until the closing months of the Parliament.
A ban is now promised, although I notice that the wording is that a Bill will be "brought forward", rather than introduced. Perhaps there is a subtlety there that the Secretary of State can inform us about. We shall be interested to see whether the Bill is introduced, debated and passed; the muddle is that that contradicts all the other policies.
There is an epidemic of smuggling into the country due to the Treasury's high tax policies. More than one in five cigarettes smoked in this country has been smuggled. The great majority of hand-rolling tobacco is smuggled, and, according to the Government's own figures, the problem is getting worse.
We have a failed health policy because the overall consumption of tobacco--if the illicit tobacco as well as legally sold tobacco is included--is going up. Young people are being induced to tobacco consumption because it is being sold in uncontrolled outlets. We have a law-and-order failure. The Treasury is losing £2.5 billion a year from that source. We make a contribution to the European Union budget, so that it can fund a 1 billion euro a year subsidy to southern Europe to grow tobacco, which then has to be burnt, destroyed or exported. We have a draft directive that will cost British jobs by forbidding the export outside the EU of legal cigarettes unless they comply with European tar standards. The whole tobacco policy is a shambles. All the Government can do is bring forward a measure to deal with the marginal problem of tobacco advertising in the United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers): The Queen's Speech addresses the needs and aspirations of the British people at the beginning of the 21st century. It offers a real vision of the future, unlike the Conservatives who want a return to all our yesterdays. They offer old, failed policies that their Government imposed on the British people during 18 years. As a result, in 1997, we began the process of rebuilding our country from the devastation that we inherited from those Conservative years.
That has been reflected in the debate. Conservative Members have tried to rewrite history--trying to portray themselves as people who can see the future and have the policies to deliver it. Labour Members have addressed the concerns of their constituents, reflecting the forward-looking programme in the Queen's Speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, raised some important issues. He noted the distinction that must be drawn--although it is never drawn by the Conservatives--between bureaucracy and red tape, which are real burdens on business that we must lift and reduce, and the provision of decent minimum standards for people in the workplace.
Mr. Byers: The right hon. Gentleman is right, but he is also aware that that figure includes the cost of paying the minimum wage--providing decent standards for people in work and taking them out of poverty pay. For him, that is red tape and bureaucracy, but for those people, it is a decent living standard at last--delivered by the Labour Government.
The figure also includes the right to four weeks paid holiday a year. Once again, the right hon. Gentleman considers that a burden--red tape and bureaucracy--but this Christmas, people will be entitled to time off work with pay; the Labour Government have delivered that, but the Opposition would take it away, because they regard it as bureaucracy and red tape.
Mr. Byers: I have a choice. I shall be delighted to give way to the hon. Lady, but I hope that she realises what her policy is. It is not to adopt the working time directive and that would deny paid holidays to working people.
Mrs. May: If the Secretary of State is so committed to the minimum wage, will he tell the House why, when cleaning contractors for the Ministry of Defence pointed out to the Ministry that it was paying less than the minimum wage to its employees, it refused to stump up the cash?
Mr. Byers: I am sure that if those individuals were employees, they would be entitled to the national minimum wage. I shall ensure that the Inland Revenue enforcement team know about the matter and those people will receive the national minimum wage
The reality is, however, that the absolute opposition of Conservative Members to the introduction of a national minimum wage is on the record. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) was a member of a Cabinet that resisted even the idea that a bottom figure should be included in the legislation for the jobseeker's allowance. During the Standing Committee debates on the Jobseekers Bill, we asked that it should be £1 an hour. The Conservative Government told us that that was absolutely outrageous and that it would distort the market; it would destroy jobs--not even £1 an hour, to provide a safety net below which no one should fall. In government, they did nothing.
In opposition, however, when the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) became shadow Chancellor a few weeks after he was elected, he decided unilaterally--no discussion with the shadow Cabinet at all--to change Conservative policy on the national minimum wage at his first Treasury Question Time. The first that the shadow Cabinet knew about it was when the right hon. Gentleman announced in the Chamber that the Conservatives would adopt the national minimum wage.
The right hon. Member for Wells is still against the national minimum wage in principle; he does not like the policy--as we all know. The time is right for those Conservative right hon. and hon Members who disagree with the policy--who were not consulted because there was no debate--to say so. They should say that the shadow Chancellor was on a frolic of his own, and that he does not represent the true thinking of many members of the Conservative party, who simply do not believe in the concept of a national minimum wage. The shadow Chancellor was trying to be inclusive, but we all know the problems that he faces as a result. The 1.5 million people who have benefited from the national minimum wage and who will benefit from an increase next year, when the Low Pay Commission recommends one, are under threat because of the Conservative party's policies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) made the important point that manufacturing is a touchstone and an important part of the United Kingdom's industrial base. There are difficulties in manufacturing. Some industries, such as aerospace and
The right hon. Member for Wells quoted the TUC glowingly--perhaps a first for him--but the serious point is that 200,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in the United Kingdom since the May 1997 general election. I accept that that is 200,000 too many, but let us consider the Conservative party's record.