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6.58 pm

Andy Burnham (Leigh): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page), who, although he is a distinguished commentator on such matters, confirmed an impression that I have formed while listening to Conservative Members—that they are trying desperately hard to find fault with the Bill, but are in fact embarrassed that they did not introduce it themselves when they had the opportunity to do so in government all those years ago.

The hon. Gentleman picked on a tried and tested piece of advice from the Conservative central office handbook—when in doubt, attack spin. He may find it worthwhile to quibble with the title of the Bill, but it is very relevant to my constituents.

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Leythers have a history of enterprise and inventiveness. Indeed, Leigh has a strong claim to being the cradle of the industrial revolution. The spinning Jenny was invented there by a poor mill worker called Thomas Highs, but the design was pinched and patented by a wealthy mill owner from Blackburn. Some would say that that was the story of Leigh. We never got our rightful place in the history books.

Leigh was one of England's—if not Britain's—most enterprising towns throughout the Victorian period and until the 1960s and 1970s. It had a thriving economy with thousands of jobs in mining, the textile industry and manufacturing. However, like other economies based on traditional industries, it has fallen on hard times in recent years. Since I was elected, we have undergone the pain of two large-scale redundancies in manufacturing. Two hundred and fifty jobs were lost at Ingersoll-Rand, which manufactures portable compressors, in Hindley Green. A month ago, a further 220 jobs were lost at Volex Power Cords, which manufactures household plugs and cords—long a staple of the Leigh economy.

Beyond the headline redundancy figures, we have also lost jobs in countless smaller businesses that grew up around the companies and acted as suppliers to them. Such losses would be difficult to absorb anywhere, but they are devastating in a former coalfield area. I have set out the context because it leads to my main point: the Bill is most needed not in the City of London, but in our deprived communities.

Communities such as Leigh need help to rekindle enterprise and revive the economy, especially in the new sectors of industry. It is fair to say that people in such areas are acutely aware of the need to foster greater competitiveness and productivity in the UK economy and to help businesses survive when they hit financial difficulties. They should not be allowed simply to go to the wall; that has happened too often in the past.

The Bill will be welcomed by companies and employees in my constituency. Sadly, it will come too late for those who have already lost their jobs. However, I still believe that I can confidently say to them that since we came to government, Labour has made a huge difference through boosting our local economy and productivity. I am proud that the Government are introducing the measure.

The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) criticised the Government's economic and employment records. I simply do not recognise those criticisms. Despite the large-scale redundancies and the obvious problems in manufacturing, we have hard evidence of strong economic growth and increasing employment since 1997.

Yesterday, I was sent the latest labour market report for Leigh. Other hon. Members will receive such reports for their constituencies. The Leigh report shows that 1,602 people are unemployed—661 fewer than in May 1997 and a 29 per cent. decrease. The number of long-term unemployed people has fallen by 458—a cut of 69 per cent. since May 1997, and more than 500 people have been helped into work through the new deal.

Such achievements cannot be belittled in an area such as Leigh, which has struggled over the years under Conservative party policies. The Conservative

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Government closed down the mines and hit the textile industry. The Labour Government's achievements have a genuine impact on people in my constituency. That is testimony to the Government's measures to boost competitiveness and employment.

Our local economy is slowly transforming itself from one based on traditional primary and secondary industries. The Bill can only help us through that difficult process. At the end of March, I attended a reunion of former miners from the Parsonage colliery, which closed, coincidentally, almost 10 years ago to the day, on the eve of the 1992 general election. That move did not help the Conservative party's attempts to win votes in Leigh.

A manufacturing facility for Patak's—the Indian foods company—stands on the Parsonage site. Patak's is a startling British success story and I am proud that it is now based in my constituency. The fact that it is located on the site of a former pit embodies the transformation that the Leigh economy is undergoing. Although there is a long way to go, it points to a more hopeful future for our town.

On Monday, I met representatives of Barlo Engineering, the UK's leading radiator manufacturer, which has a plant in the centre of Leigh. It wants to modernise, increase employment at the plant and invest in new equipment that will enable it to produce leading edge radiators in Europe. It is another example of a company that is sufficiently confident in the UK competitive environment to invest and bring more jobs to our local economy. The company is looking for help to invest through the regional selective assistance grants. I make a plea to Ministers to continue to consider seriously using such grants to regenerate deprived communities, especially former coalfield areas. I have an eye on the comprehensive spending review, which will be concluded shortly.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman should relate his remarks to the contents of the Bill.

Andy Burnham: I shall do my best. I was trying to make the point that the provisions to boost productivity and competitiveness need to be complemented by resources to help companies expand and become more productive.

I want to consider the consumer protection provisions, and especially stop now orders. In recent weeks, some of the sharp practices that are used to sell gas and electricity to consumers have been brought to my attention. I am sure that that is true of hon. Members of all parties. This week, a constituent told me about a new policy that TXU Energi, which is trying to market its services in my constituency, has adopted. My constituent received a bill and an accompanying letter, which stated:

I readily own up to not paying all my bills within 14 days. The company is clearly attempting to get people on low incomes to use direct debit.

People could be in hospital or on holiday. There are several reasons why those on low incomes simply cannot pay a bill in 14 days and do not want to use direct debit.

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Such company policy is a licence to add charges willy nilly to consumers' bills and continue to fleece them. I am not 100 per cent. sure whether such a case is in the scope of the measure, but it suggests a need to be ever vigilant against sharp practice. Stop now orders and the ability to introduce them quickly show that companies are making rapid decisions that have a direct impact on consumers in weeks. We therefore need measures that can be implemented with great speed to prevent companies from doing that and acting directly against consumers' interests.

Mr. Page: Does not the hon. Gentleman believe that the unfair contracts terms cover his point? Would not more funds for trading standards officers enable them to investigate such cases with more alacrity and thus prevent them?

Andy Burnham: I am grateful for that intervention. I agreed with the hon. Gentleman's comments about the valuable role of trading standards officers. I should like them to be able to increase their activities and the work load that they are able to take on. Whether that is principally because of lack of resources or lack of legislative power, I am not in a position to say. However, I would support the hon. Gentleman in saying that there is a need to boost the role of trading standards officers.

That brings me to the impact that the Bill may have on sport. That was touched on briefly by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley). I must declare a relevant interest in this respect: I am the chairman of Supporters Direct, a publicly funded organisation set up to promote greater supporter and community ownership of football clubs through the establishment of mutual trusts or industrial and provident societies. The Bill is relevant in the context of the issues facing the football industry at the moment. I remind the House that the administration of ITV Digital has real consequences for football league clubs up and down the country. I am no expert in these matters, and I would be interested to hear how the measures in the Bill would have impacted on the ITV Digital administration and how creditors would perhaps have been better protected than under administration as currently constructed. It leaves football league clubs very vulnerable to loss of revenue, for which they had clearly budgeted. However, the measures on administration in this Bill are extremely interesting, as we are about to see football clubs across the country falling into administration. Indeed, several football clubs are already in administration—Swindon and York, to name just a couple.

Bad business practice or the asset stripping of clubs has endangered the very existence of football clubs in this country, many of which have a proud history and heritage. That is not at all the fault of football supporters, who simply want their clubs to survive and who want to keep them in trust for future generations to enjoy. Some would argue that the problems that football is currently facing are self-inflicted, and that high wages and bad business planning are largely to blame. I sympathise with those arguments, but that is not the fault of football supporters who face the prospect of their club going into administration, and who clearly want to do their best to guide the club through that process and enable it to survive and to thrive.

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Two measures in the Bill are directly relevant to football clubs, because they are small, community- oriented businesses, and it is crucial that they be kept afloat for the well-being of the towns that we represent. Football supporters everywhere—particularly those of Brighton and Doncaster—will welcome the tougher sanctions against rogue directors introduced by the Bill, as they have suffered at first hand the effects of corrupt practice in the boardroom.

The second measure that will be warmly welcomed is the Bill's key aim to facilitate the rescue of companies when reasonable and practicable and not to drive them to the wall unnecessarily. The Bill seeks to do that through streamlining the administration procedures and restricting the use of administrative receivership. If that gives a company or a sporting institution the breathing space to get back on its feet and sort out the bad debts that are often bequeathed by bad boards, that is all to the good, and should be wholeheartedly welcomed by all.

I want to conclude on a note of concern, to which I should be interested to hear the Minister's response. That concern relates to how the powers and measures in the Bill can be used to impact on sport more generally, and how competition law might be used against the best interests of sport. I feel strongly that the competition authorities have been itching to get their hands on sport for many years. There has long been talk of cartels in premier league football—in a famous case, the Office of Fair Trading took the premier league to the restrictive trade practices court in 1999.

I would not like the issue of the collective sale of sports rights to be reopened by a challenge from competition law or a suggestion that sports cartels need to be broken. At the time, I was working as an adviser to the Government's football taskforce. Our report, "Investing in the Community", which was published just before the court case, argued strongly for an exemption for football and sport in general from the regulations covering restrictive practices on two public interest grounds.

The first of those is that collective bargaining, and the sharing of the revenue collected from it, is crucial to enable sports to maintain balance throughout their competitions. That is crucial to the television product—if leagues are well balanced and competitive, the uncertainty of the outcome remains and the television viewer remains interested and engaged in the product.

The second issue is that the collective selling of rights for sport can generate income that can be top-sliced and reinvested in the grass roots of every sport. The Lawn Tennis Association is well renowned for investing money in inner city communities from the proceeds of rights sold on a collective basis, as are the Football Association and the premier league. The case was won, and the special public interest attached to sport when faced with competition law was accepted when the judge quoted at length from the taskforce report. Currently, Wigan council is about to bid for £1 million of the proceeds of the premier league contract to invest money directly in public football facilities in our area.

In introducing tougher measures in the Bill, especially against cartels, I urge Ministers to consider building in safeguards to recognise the special nature of sport and to consider wider issues than pure competition. Sport is unique for the simple reason that companies in the sector

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need each other. Without each other, they cannot carry on playing—they need competitors, which is not true of every other industry.

Several hon. Members have referred to the experience in the United States, and we should note that although the US has the strictest pro-competition and anti-trust legislation in the world, it exempts sport and sports franchises from those provisions because it recognises the special nature of sport.

I would support an amendment to the treaty of Rome to protect sport. In the knowledge that that will take some time, I hope that, in practice, the competition authorities will bear those points in mind when exercising their new powers under the Bill. With those provisos, I give my full support to the Bill.

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