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Electricity Trading Arrangements

8. Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): What has been the cost to consumers of the delay in implementing the new electricity trading arrangements. [149008]

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mr. Peter Hain): We have no evidence that consumers' contract or tariff rates for the period April 2000 to March 2001 have been revised upward since the delay to NETA was announced.

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Mr. Chope: This is a serious issue. Yesterday, Sir Brian Moffat told the Trade and Industry Committee that electricity prices in this country were 40 per cent. higher than on the continent. The Minister did not answer my question directly, but he knows jolly well what has happened. If he speaks to Dynergy, which has the authority and confidence of Ofgem, the regulator--I spoke to the company, as I anticipated that the hon. Gentleman would not give a straight answer to my question--he will find that the delay has cost consumers no less than £1,200 million. That is an average cost of £45 per electricity consumer. Is that not appalling, and why do the Government not admit the failure of their policies in that regard?

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman speaks of policy failure, but since we came to office, electricity prices have fallen by 14 per cent. in real terms for individual consumers and by 12 per cent. in real terms for industrial consumers. That is a policy of success, not of failure. In respect of NETA--[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] Hon. Members may indeed say "Ah!" As gas contracts are negotiated a year in advance for most consumers, let us compare the third quarter of last year with the third quarter of 1999. In that time, prices fell by 4.5 per cent. for industrial consumers and by 10 per cent. for individual consumers. That shows that the new trading arrangements that we are introducing have produced in anticipation circumstances in which there are lower prices. We intend that to be driven forward and we want ordinary consumers, whether in industry or in the home, to benefit as a result.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): My hon. Friend must know that for the steel industry, which depends so heavily on electricity, prices in Europe are significantly lower. The difference is not at the level mentioned yesterday by Sir Brian Moffat, whose figures are slightly out of date. In 10 days' time, I shall meet my hon. Friend with a delegation from the industry to discuss the matter. Will he consider it seriously between now and then? Will he put his officials in an electric chair and, if he cannot deliver, in 10 days' time, electricity prices that are equal to those of our competitors in Europe, let me pull the button on them?

Mr. Hain: I am not sure about the electric chair option, but I shall consider seriously and listen carefully to my hon. Friend's representations. As a result of NETA we expect prices to be at least 10 per cent. lower than they would otherwise have been. It is precisely because we were concerned about the relatively high electricity prices that we inherited from the Conservative Government under the pool system that we are introducing NETA, which will ensure a better deal for the steel industry, as well as industrial consumers and household consumers in general.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): I welcome the Minister to his new job and I hope that we will have some straighter answers from him than we did from the Secretary of State on gas prices. Will he confirm that the new electricity trading arrangements, with all their supposed benefits, have been delayed from last autumn and may well be delayed again, and that that breaks a

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specific promise given to the House on 31 January 2000? On Second Reading of the Utilities Bill, the Secretary of State said:

Since that has not happened, will the Minister now accept that the Secretary of State misled the House on that occasion? Is the hon. Gentleman happy to have joined a Department with such little influence on real events and with an energy policy which is an obvious shambles?

Mr. Hain: I am happy to have joined a Department which, unlike our Conservative predecessors, has a clear energy policy, and which is led by a Secretary of State who is presiding over a clear programme to bring down gas and electricity prices and to provide a decent energy supply throughout Britain.

The delay to the introduction of NETA was on the recommendation of Ofgem and its head, Callum McCarthy, with whom I am in weekly contact. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the pre-production phase, to trial the system before it is due to come in at the end of March, started a week ago last Monday, and I have been receiving daily reports on how it is going. Depending on how that eventually turns out, the button will be pressed on the full introduction of NETA as planned on 27 March. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman would want us to bring in new trading arrangements which were in any way flawed, as looked to be the case when the delay was announced last year.

Export Control Bill

9. Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): When the draft Export Control Bill will be published. [149009]

The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr. Kim Howells): Work is continuing to prepare the draft Export Control Bill for publication and the Government will publish the Bill as soon as it is ready. It is not possible at this stage to give a precise date, but we will be in a position to publish the Bill in the spring.

Mr. Browne: I recognise that the Government have done much to improve the transparency and accountability of arms export deals, and that there are potential practical difficulties, such as delay and commercial confidentiality, in their prior parliamentary scrutiny, but does my hon. Friend accept in principle that prior parliamentary scrutiny of arms export deals would improve accountability and transparency?

Dr. Howells: We continue to believe that the best way forward is to strengthen retrospective scrutiny of the Government's export licensing decisions. However, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said that he will look constructively at any further proposals from the quadripartite Committee on this issue.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): But is it not the case that the Foreign Secretary, when he was in opposition, continually attacked the Conservative Government over the Scott report? The Government have

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had four years to introduce this legislation. Is it not the case that, as with the electricity trading arrangements and the consumer White Paper, such things are trumpeted but nothing ever happens? There is more trumpeting than in Duke Ellington's orchestra. Is it not the case that the Department, like the rest of this shambles of a Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) would say, is all spin and no delivery?

Dr. Howells: Unlike the Conservative party, the Government are entirely in harmony.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Does my hon. Friend accept that there is real urgency about achieving parliamentary scrutiny of arms exports, and that the decisions of the quadripartite Committee are important in that regard? Is not the Government's decision to export arms to Morocco, which can only be used for internal repression against the Polisario front, just one more example of why there should be public parliamentary scrutiny of what happens to arms exported from Britain to countries that are under no threat of external aggression?

Dr. Howells: I do not agree with my hon. Friend. I know the process that resulted in the refurbishment of some guns in Morocco and I understand that that had permission from the United Nations in New York.

Post Office (New Technology)

10. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): What recent representations he has received on the introduction of new technology by the Post Office. [149010]

The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has received a small number of representations in recent weeks on the introduction of the Horizon computerised system at post offices, including correspondence from the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) and the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson)

Mr. Amess: Will the Minister confirm that the Horizon system, which was introduced at a cost of more than £1 billion, is already out of date and will not be able to meet the challenges that post offices will face in the future? Will he reassure worried postmasters and postmistresses in my constituency, a third of whom will have to close in July this year as a result of the introduction of automated credit transfer? When will this rotten Government stop attacking the most vulnerable people in our society--our senior citizens--who love to have a chat in the post office, and are not all that keen on communicating via e-mail or the internet?

Mr. Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is always at his most persuasive when he whispers to me so seductively. I should be interested in the views of those on the Conservative Front Bench, because Horizon is not outdated technology. We are wiring up 40,000 serving positions at 18,500 post offices at a rate of 300 a week. It has been extremely successful, and the work will be completed by the end of March. Number of post offices

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computerised under the previous Government--nil. Number of post office computerised under this Government so far--17,560.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): Mrs. Jennifer Hayden, the sub-postmistress in Houghton in my constituency, will have to resign her post because, given the overheads placed on her by the Post Office, her income is less than the minimum wage. Would the Minister please look into that matter to ensure that the Post Office is not exploiting sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, who do valuable work for our communities?

Mr. Johnson: My hon. Friend raised this matter with me last evening, and I have written the letter as promised during our conversation. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] Labour Members do converse. I am interested in hearing about examples from hon. Members on both sides of the House. We want to find out why sub-postmasters and sub- postmistresses resign, so that we can implement practical measures to do something about it. Now that the spotlight is on the network, we should consider issues such as that raised by my hon. Friend. I shall give it urgent attention, and I shall speak to her about it in due course.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): Mrs. Rimmer, the sub-mistress at Ashton post office in my constituency, and her family have suffered armed robbery twice in the past nine months. What new technology do the Government and the Post Office propose to provide to ensure that sub-post offices can be securely protected against the evident rise in violent crime? Sub-postmistresses in particular are vulnerable. We must do something about that, and we look to the Government to take the lead.

Mr. Johnson: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. In fact, attacks on sub-post offices are down. The Post Office has invested a great deal of money and time and has worked with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters to address the problem of security. However, there is more that we can do, and I would certainly be interested in the case that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. This is a crucial area. Sub-postmasters and their staff deserve to be safe from such attacks, and we will do everything we can to ensure that they are.

Gillian Merron (Lincoln): What progress has been made with setting up the technology in readiness for the universal bank? That will bring banking facilities to millions of people who have previously been denied such access. Will the Minister pay tribute to the likes of Mr. Paul Titcombe, the sub-postmaster at Horton Street post office in Lincoln, who put out his own leaflet to reassure his customers that they will continue to receive benefits and payments in cash despite the changes?

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Customers have been frightened by the campaign fuelled by the Conservative party, which has brought the changes that the Government are making into disrepute.

Mr. Johnson: The Post Office is currently out to tender for the technology that needs to be added to the Horizon system so that post offices can provide the full range of network banking. I can reaffirm what was in the leaflet put out by the sub-postmaster in my hon. Friend's constituency. Before and after the move to automated credit transfer, any pensioner or benefit recipient who wants to continue to get their money in cash in full across a post office counter, weekly if it is paid weekly at the moment, will be able to do so.

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): As the Minister sits there, presiding over the meltdown of our sub-post offices, forced closures are taking place at a rate of nearly two a day. There have been 434 in the first three quarters of the current financial year.

The Minister has made much of the fact that universal banking services will apparently plug the gap caused by the introduction of ACT. Does he not find it incredible that the new technology for sub-post offices, due to be installed by the end of March, is not yet equipped with a facility to provide any of those universal banking services? Will he bring some hope to our beleaguered and battered sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses by guaranteeing that ACT will not be introduced until the new facility is in, tested and tried? Conservative Members will give that guarantee: we will not introduce ACT until the new facility is in place.

Mr. Johnson: I seem to have been a long time in my service position, but I shall try to deal with the hon. Gentleman's request.

Those figures relating to closures are a cause for great concern. Let me make it clear that we are not, as it were, banking simply on universal banking services, Government general practitioner services and all the other initiatives that are in the pipeline in accordance with the report of the performance and innovation unit. Today we shall announce practical measures to attract new sub-postmasters into the network.

The problem is that over the past two years people have become convinced that the network is dying. We must restore confidence in it. We shall announce today that on 1 April we shall abolish the introductory payment, equivalent to 25 per cent. of salary, that new sub-postmasters must currently make. We have also created new management posts that will concentrate on rural areas, and we are providing £2 million to pay the capital costs of taking over the running of sub-post offices if local communities wish to do that. Those are important practical measures. [Interruption.]

A Conservative Member asked the question, but the Conservatives clearly do not want to hear my response. Their party would privatise the Post Office; we are making it plain that we will not go down that particular railtrack.

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