Local MP speaks out against the Bedroom Tax

John Robertson has spoken out against the damaging effects of the Bedroom Tax, which came into force in 2013.

You can see his speech here:

This is a tax, by any other name.

It is a horrendous and pernicious tax, which targets some of the most vulnerable people living in our communities. It attacks the elderly, it attacks the disabled, it attacks families of all sizes, and above all else it attacks those who are already struggling to get by, day after day.

I am incredibly saddened to say that my city of Glasgow is one of the worst City’s affected throughout the whole of the UK.

Currently, 12,079 people have had a reduction applied. And in my constituency alone, more than 60% of people have lost more than £10 a week. For people who don’t have much to live on in the first place, the bedroom tax has a crippling effect.

More than half of the people affected in Glasgow are over 50, and more than 40% are not in work.

But, Madame Deputy Speaker, it’s too easy for us to forget the people that lie behind the statistics. It’s too easy to forget the Grandparents and the single parents that are hurt by these numbers.

One constituent of mine, Christina, wrote to me and explained her situation. A self-employed 60 year old who has lived in her house for 19 years with her son, who recently had moved out. She just gets by in life, but gives all the time she can to voluntary work in her community, and suffers from mental health issues.
She feels safe in her home, and in her community.

She’s not opposed to downsizing, and she understands that another family may need the two bedrooms more than she, but she cannot afford to move.

She can’t afford to buy the new white goods she’ll need in a new home, she can’t afford to furnish and decorate a new home and she can’t afford a removal van to take her possessions with her.

Most importantly, she can’t afford the £41 a month she’ll need to make up the difference. For people like Christina, it literally is a choice between rent and food.

The shocking thing, Madame Deputy Speaker?

She’s not alone.

She joins thousands of people across the city. Just like another constituent of mine, John.

John is a disabled man who lives on his own. He has two teenage kids at school. He wants to keep in touch with his family, he wants them to be a part of his life, and he wants to be a part of theirs too.

He keeps a bedroom ready for them, so they have the freedom to come and visit, at weekends, stop in on a week day – to just come and go as they please. He desperately wants to keep his family together.

Moving to a one bedroom house would end that freedom for him and his children. I can’t imagine the hurt and anger that I would feel, as a father of three, if I had to tell my children or my grandchildren what John now has to tell his kids; that they weren’t able to come and stay if they wanted to, or needed to, because of this Tory government.

This is the tip of the iceberg of suffering that those affected by the bedroom tax have to go through.

People like John and Christina are told that they should just move to a one-bedroom flat, as though it’s easy. The truth of the matter is that it isn’t easy. The number of people who have to make up the 14% reduction far outweighs the number of single bedroom properties. People are locked into the homes they are in at the moment.

And why should people be punished for having grown up children who live at University during term time, and return for the summer? Why should disabled people suffer because they require vast amounts of equipment to survive?

But most of all, why should people – hardworking people, who volunteer in their communities, who have provided for their family, but who struggle to get by day, after day, after day – be forced by this Tory Government to make the choice between paying their rent, paying for their electricity or putting food on the table?

That is why, Madam Deputy Speaker, I call this an evil tax on those that Government should stand up for and defend. That’s why I am so proud to vote to axe this tax today.

Post Office Services Debate

On Thursday, I led a debate in the Commons Chamber on post offices and the services they offer. Here is the text of the debate:

Post Office Services

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Karen Bradley.)

4.51 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): I thank the speakers in the previous debate for giving me some extra time for this important debate. We have had many debates on post office services, and there will continue to be more unless we manage to solve the problems of the Post Office.

Post offices play a significant role in all our communities—80% of people in Scotland say that post offices play an important role in the local community. They act as a vital service and should be seen as community hubs. Sadly, rather than nurturing those community beacons, the Government have done a lot to undermine the network and decrease the services that it provides.

There are about 11,800 post offices in the UK and customers rely heavily on them, especially the most vulnerable in our society—the elderly, those on low incomes and the disabled. The universal service obligation and other services are so ingrained in our society that I fear the loss of them. For example, 43% of elderly people use a post office to access cash. People take it for granted that they can walk into a post office and deliver items within the UK and across the world. We need to act now to keep the Post Office thriving, otherwise we might be at risk of losing that vital institution.

The announcement by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) in November that additional funding had been allocated to complete the network transformation programme was a vote of no confidence. If the Government had delivered on the front office for Government work that had been promised, which I shall speak more about later, that £640 million would not be needed.

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the transformation programme is working against many small post offices? In particular, the Post Office appears to be targeting some offices and persuading the postmaster to retire so that it can move into a local shop and downgrade the service.

John Robertson: The hon. Gentleman is right, and I shall come on to some of those points as we move on. There is no doubt that larger post offices—and even sub-post offices, for that matter—are shutting. When I spoke at a conference for sub-postmasters from Glasgow and Ayrshire, they let me know exactly how they felt about the Government’s position, and, for that matter, that of the previous Government. At least they were there to help and they offered some examples that I will mention later.

Although the Government will have spent around £2 billion on network transformation, we still will not have an attractive model for current or future operators. The money will have been used to subsidise exit from the network, as the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) said, rather than to make the network sustainable in the long term. That is of great concern to the many people who rely on post offices. We should be looking at making the Post Office better, rather than, as I suspect, making it ready for privatisation.

The sale of Royal Mail was of course resisted by the Opposition. Last week’s news that its share price was £5.67—£2.37 above the Government’s offer price, which raised just £3.3 billion—was disappointing. It was an ideological move, not a financially sensible or thought-through one. The separation of the Post Office and Royal Mail has added millions of pounds in costs to the Post Office due to loss of synergies. No other postal administration in a developed economy has separate letters and retail businesses.

The sale has now been done, but we must still consider Royal Mail in our strategy for the future of the Post Office. Just under 40% of Post Office revenues come from mail, so it is a significant part of the business. I was glad that, in January 2012, the Government caved into pressure and signed the 10-year inter-business agreement between Royal Mail and the Post Office, but there is no guarantee beyond 2022. The position is also not secure for the next 10 years, as the Minister’s own Department has said that the contract allows for changes in commercial circumstances and contains provision for a review of the agreement terms after five years. The 10-year agreement would therefore appear to be for only five years, but hopefully the next Government will be of a different colour and will put right some of these short-term ideological decisions.

It is a real concern that Royal Mail might not continue to support the post office network. The loss of that contract would seriously undermine the Post Office’s integrity as a mail delivery service. Were that to happen, people would lose confidence in the institution and the future of many post offices would be at risk, especially the largely loss-making ones in rural areas, such as the one represented by the hon. Member for Angus. Privatisation is a risk to Post Office services and we need more guarantees for the decades to come.

A post office is a place where people can go to fill in Government forms or to pay for Government services. It is important for both customers and employees that the Government continue to give the Post Office sufficient work. This Government announced in 2010 that post offices would become the “Front Office for Government”, but actions speak louder than words. They promised to give post offices £466 million of Government work, but post offices are currently gaining only £130 million from Government business.

I am sure that the Minister will say that the Post Office has won all the Government contracts it has bid for, but those were contracts it already had, not new ones. No new major services have been awarded to post offices, and the National Federation of SubPostmasters has stated that the few that have been introduced are for one-off transactions that are available in only a small number of post offices. Dangerous precedents have been set by not awarding Government contracts, and the future of the Post Office is in jeopardy as a result.

Linked to that, we need to ensure that post offices are not disadvantaged compared with other methods of using Government services. For example, if I wanted to pay my road tax online, I could bring up all the details—whether my car had its MOT and insurance, for example—via an online portal. I would not need to go looking for documents, as the information would already be on the system. However, until very recently, post offices could check only a car’s MOT, so people would have to bring in their insurance documents. It is clear that those who could choose to use the internet over having that inconvenience would do so. After all, who wants to have to carry around their documentation to ensure that they get their road tax? Thankfully, in this case, somebody has seen sense, so post offices can now check insurance as well, but the internet was well ahead on that, and that should be lesson for future online services. Post offices do not need to have an advantage—in fact, sub-postmasters tell me that they do not want it—but they should have at least a level playing field. People should be able to use the post office to access Government services with the same ease as on the internet. The decision not to award the green giro contract to the Post Office was another example of how the future of the institution—

5 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but we have reached the moment for a procedural motion, after which I shall ask him to resume his speech.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Karen Bradley.)

Madam Deputy Speaker: I am sorry to have interrupted you mid-flow, Mr Robertson.

John Robertson: That is quite all right, Madam Deputy Speaker; you are in charge, after all.

The decision not to award the green giro contract to the Post Office was another key example of how the importance and value to people of the institution’s future was not even considered. The move was widely condemned by charities, which highlighted the fact that it would affect the elderly and vulnerable the hardest. Andy Burrows of Consumer Focus said:

“research suggests that people, particularly those on a low income, value the security and privacy that post offices provide.”

There is a real necessity for post offices that cannot be measured by numbers. When we think about the use of post offices, such matters should be considered, but it seems that in this case they were not.

Such a thing is also relevant when we talk about the Post Office’s announcement last year that it is to franchise several Crown post offices. There is a lot of concern, particularly among the vulnerable people I have mentioned, that certain services will no longer be easily available to local people, leading to an inferior service for our constituents and the loss of one-to-one help from specially trained and committed post office staff. We must also bear in mind the livelihoods of hard-working staff in Crown post offices. Post Office Ltd appears to have handled this very badly through a lack of consultation with staff, unions and key stakeholders, which resulted in a strike. About 800 jobs are at risk due to franchising, but that does not seem to have been considered during the decision-making process. Have the Government learned from this and how will the Minister proceed with franchising? Can she explain why the Crown branch section of the network should receive no public funding at all and yet hit break-even by April 2015 when other sections of the network will continue to receive public funding after this date? Many Crown branches are in the poorest and most disadvantaged parts of the country. A more realistic timetable would balance the need to protect services and jobs with financial sustainability.

We should be thinking about how we could increase the number of Government services available in post offices. Many people prefer to carry out transactions with the UK Government, devolved Administrations and local authorities online. Crucially, however, those who do not have the internet are the most vulnerable. Some 53% of people who have never used the internet have a disability. Around 37,000 people on low incomes in Scotland have never used the internet, while only 33% of adults over 65 have the internet in their home. These people need another option, and post offices are a clear choice: 43% of over-65s use a post office at least once a week, as well as 37% of people with disabilities and 31% of those in the D and E socio-economic groups.

It is also much more difficult for such people to move on to other ways of accessing services. The post office could act as a one-stop shop for people to sort out all these services in one go. Post offices are the natural home for local government services, and that approach could save money, improve public services and increase post offices’ footfall, although it would require co-ordinated work between local authorities and devolved Administrations. If the Government are so committed to making the Post Office the front line of Government, what is the Minister going to do to encourage councils and devolved Administrations to transfer their contracts over?

We should also look at widening the range of services provided by post offices. We were hugely disappointed that our plans for a people’s bank were abandoned in 2010. Post offices provide local access to cash and banking services, and that is particularly important in rural areas and areas such as those in my constituency with high levels of elderly people. The potential of such services is not being realised. Post offices should have full access to all high street bank accounts, but some banks have not been forthcoming.

In the long term, the possibility of a state-backed bank at the post office should be explored. There is evidence that that could be of great benefit to the Post Office, as New Zealand Post has seen its profits surge by nearly 70% thanks to its financial services arm, Kiwibank. Such a bank could also be massively beneficial in combating payday loan companies and high-cost doorstep lending by being linked to credit unions and providing affordable credit directly to the communities that our post offices serve.

The post offices of our communities need to be saved. They provide vital services, the reduction of which is of great concern to workers and the vulnerable people who rely on their post office. Action on the idea of a front office for Government is lacking when we need it most, and there has been no initiative from this Government to widen the impact of post offices. We need action, and we need it fast if we want to save this national institution, rather than let it be sold off for a quick buck like Royal Mail.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): In calling Minister Jenny Willott to reply, may I put on record my congratulations to her, because I believe that this is the first time that she has spoken from the Dispatch Box? I welcome her.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jenny Willott): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Having not been allowed to speak in this Chamber for two years as a Government Whip, it is a little surreal to be at the Dispatch Box.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) on securing this debate on an important subject. Despite the lack of Members present, the issue comes up regularly, and on most occasions a significant number of Members want to discuss the critical role that post offices play in all our local communities. The post office is much more than just a commercial entity. As the hon. Gentleman has said, it is important to hundreds of thousands of small businesses, which rely on it every day, as well as to the millions of customers who use the network for a range of services. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that post offices are particularly crucial to elderly residents, those on low incomes and the disabled, who make particularly good use of them in our communities.

In November 2010, we announced a funding package of the historic amount of £1.34 billion to guarantee the size of the network until 2015 and to end the closure programmes run by the hon. Gentleman’s Government, which led to the closure of 7,000 branches under the previous Administration. In November 2013, we announced our continued support of the network with a further £640 million to secure and continue its modernisation until 2018. That makes clear the Government’s commitment to the post office and its future success. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman has said, that recent investment is a vote of confidence in the post office network and it is helping to move it to a more sustainable and secure long-term future.

Mr Weir: I understand what the Minister is saying and I think we all appreciate the money going into the transformation programme, but many small sub-postmasters in my constituency are concerned because they feel that they are being pressurised by the Post Office to give up their businesses, take extra redundancy or move to a local model that they feel is unsustainable. That does not seem to be a sensible way to pressurise people who have run post offices successfully for many years.

Jenny Willott: I cannot comment on the operational procedures of the Post Office, which is a separate entity, but the Government are very clear that we want to maintain 11,500 branches in the post office network across the country. That means ensuring that we maintain a branch in all communities that currently have branches, and the level of knowledge and expertise that exists among many sub-postmasters, who are extremely well embedded in their communities and extremely well known and trusted by members of their local community. That is one of the elements that make the post office so important in many of our communities, especially in rural or more deprived areas, where many people depend heavily on the local sub-postmaster and the post office branch.

Mr Weir: I do not want to labour the point, but experienced postmasters are being encouraged to give up and businesses are going to a local shop, on the post office local model, that generally offers fewer services than existing post offices. I appreciate that the Minister has said that the Post Office is independent, but Government money—taxpayers’ money—is being used to achieve the changes.

Jenny Willott: We are trying to ensure that the post office network is sustainable into the future. We cannot subsidise at historical levels. The previous Government’s way to tackle the problem was just to close post office branches, with significant losses. There were many losses in my constituency, as I am sure there were in those of other hon. Members in the Chamber.

This Government have taken a different decision, which is to look at different models to ensure that we can maintain post office services in all communities across the country. Services delivered in particular communities may have to change to ensure that they are viable, but it is incredibly important that we have post office outreach in communities across the country, and that we do not see any repetition of the previous Labour Government’s closure programme.

John Robertson: The point that the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) and I are trying to make to the Government is that post offices supply a service to people who need that service. We do not need a downgrading of the existing service, but it appears likely that the Government’s project will downgrade post offices to such an extent that people will wonder what the point is of having them in the first place.

Jenny Willott: I could not disagree more with the hon. Gentleman. The vast majority of services available in post office branches across our communities will still be available. I cannot remember the exact figures—I hope that he will forgive me—but well over 90%, perhaps even 95%, of the services that people can currently access in their branches will still be available under the new models. There will still be every reason for people to carry on using their post offices, which will serve their communities in exactly the same way: the model will be slightly different, but they will provide just as vital a service to members of our communities as they currently do.

The £2 billion of funding that has now been approved by the Government will allow post offices to invest in transforming and modernising the network and helping to ensure the long-term sustainability that we all agree is absolutely critical. Despite what the hon. Gentleman said in his speech, the new models are attractive. I understand that he and the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) both have concerns, but the models are attractive to those running post office branches. Some 2,500 sub-postmasters have already converted, or have signed contracts to convert, their branches to one of the new operating models. They have received investment to modernise and improve their branches, which will bring benefits not just to them in running their businesses, but to the consumers they serve and the communities in which they are based, including much longer operating hours, shorter queues and more attractive branch layouts.

John Robertson: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister again, but perhaps we can solve the whole problem. Why does she not come up to Glasgow and meet the same sub-postmasters that I have spoken to? Let me assure her that what she says is not what they are telling me. She can come and see for herself.

Jenny Willott: I have met the National Federation of SubPostmasters. I represent Cardiff Central, and I have spoken to my local sub-postmasters. I appreciate that this is clearly a period of change that will be very unnerving for many sub-postmasters, particularly for those who have to change how they operate their business, but a significant amount of investment is available for those who want to carry on and to sign contracts to change to a new form of business. They are getting a lot of support from the Government. Others might want to leave the network or to retire, including those who have run businesses for a long time, and there is support for them as well, but it is important to recognise that many sub-postmasters are happy to alter their properties and to change to the new model.

Customers are getting significant benefits from the new models. Across the network, there are an additional 34,000 opening hours a week, which is equivalent to 700 more traditional post offices. The programme of investment will see the modernisation and protection of all branches by 2018, ensuring that every community and customer that relies on access to a post office today will continue to have access to post office services in the future.

The Government have ensured that all sub-postmasters can benefit from the investment. For the first time, a dedicated fund has been set up for post office branches that are important to the communities they serve, but where one of the new models would not be viable. That is an issue in large, remote rural areas, such as those in Scotland, where the post office is often the last shop in the village, as it were. The community fund to ensure that those post offices are kept open is a real departure. It will protect those branches well into the future and ensure that people have access to post office services. That is particularly important in areas where the post office provides an important service to more vulnerable consumers.

Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for giving way yet again; I do not want to push my luck too far. I remember taking this matter up with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) when she announced the fund. The fund is for doing work on the post office to make it better, but that is not the difficulty in many of these very small post offices. The difficulty is that the postmaster’s income is simply insufficient. Postmasters want to keep going, but there is nothing in the fund to give them an uplift in their income to help the post office survive. The fund is for physical changes to the post office, which is not the issue at most of the post offices we are discussing.

Jenny Willott: I will come on to talk about income and the services that we are supporting in post offices to ensure that they are viable.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West spoke about Crown post offices. As he mentioned, the funding package that was set out in 2010 required the Post Office to eliminate its substantial losses. In 2012-13, £37 million of losses were incurred by the 373 branches that made up the Crown segment of the network. It is a key part of the Post Office’s strategy to make the network sustainable in the long term. The Government support the business in delivering that strategy. The current losses of the Crown network contribute a third of the losses incurred by the network as a whole. That is clearly unsustainable. No business, including the Post Office, can maintain a situation in which its high street branches cost substantially more to run than they bring in.

As part of its strategy to eliminate the unsustainable losses, the Post Office identified about 70 branches where there is no prospect of eliminating the losses at a local level under the current structure. In those locations, it is seeking a suitable retail partner to take on the operation of the branch under a franchise arrangement. The Post Office has made it clear that under each franchise proposal, the full range of current post office services, including the more complex transactions such as passport applications and identity services, will continue to be available in close proximity to the existing Crown branch. In the event that a suitable retail partner cannot be found, Post Office Ltd has given a commitment that a post office service will be retained in the area. I hope that what I have said reassures the hon. Gentleman that communities will not lose these vital local services.

John Robertson: The hon. Lady has not reassured me at all, I am afraid. Some of the Crown post offices that are closing are in areas where people simply cannot get about. There is no transport to get to where the new post office is because the bus services have been cut. How are those people supposed to get to the facilities that they need? They cannot go online because they do not have a computer and they cannot afford one.

Jenny Willott: The Post Office operates to the strict criteria that 90% of the population must live within a mile of a post office and 95% within three miles. Although there may be some changes to the exact buildings in which branches are provided, as I said, services including the more complex ones available at Crown branches will still be available in the area. We are maintaining the access criteria so that more than nine out of 10 people will live within a mile of a post office. We recognise that more vulnerable members of the community in particular will find it hard to travel longer distances to access services, so we are ensuring that they are maintained locally.

The investment that is being made is helping to ensure that an independent Post Office will remain a strong and long-term partner for Royal Mail—that is another issue that the hon. Gentleman raised. A transformed network will offer Royal Mail and the many companies, Government Departments and agencies with which the Post Office works better access to customers than ever before, which is crucial to winning new contracts and retaining existing ones.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the decision to separate the Post Office from Royal Mail. Far from being a mistake, it has allowed the Post Office to focus on its own priorities and needs. It is important to recognise that the two companies are very different. Royal Mail is a logistics company whose business is collecting, sorting and delivering mail. Although we can access Royal Mail services at post offices, the Post Office is different. In addition to mail services, it provides access to a wide range of Government services, from pension and benefit payments to passport check and send services and Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency motoring services, all the way down to fishing rod licences. It also provides access to a wide range of financial services products, from savings accounts to mortgages, insurance and foreign exchange. It is now piloting a range of current accounts. Separation is allowing the Post Office to focus on its business and make the right decisions in the long-term interests of its staff, sub-postmasters and customers.

I recognise, as I think we all do, the importance of the Post Office’s relationship with Royal Mail. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, prior to separation the two companies negotiated and signed a long-term commercial agreement. It was a 10-year agreement, the longest permissible at the time, and ensured that Royal Mail services would continue to be offered at post offices until 2020. That cemented the long-term relationship between the two businesses. As the post office network modernises and the parcels market continues to grow, the relationship will only get stronger. Indeed, Royal Mail’s chief executive has said that it is “unthinkable” that the two companies will not always have a close relationship. I am reassured that the relationship will be maintained long into the future.

It is important to remember that the relationship is equally important for both businesses. The Post Office benefits from a continuing commercial relationship with the largest postal operator in the UK, and Royal Mail benefits from exclusive access to the largest retail network in the UK and the millions of customers who use post offices every week.

Alongside its work for the Royal Mail, the Post Office is making good progress on its ambition to become a front office for government. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out—slightly dismissively, if I may say so—the Post Office has won every Government contract that it has bid for in the past two and a half years. That is a notable achievement that should not be underestimated. The contracts have been secured in highly competitive markets against fierce competition, and the Post Office’s success represents a vote of confidence in the business, in the Government’s funding and, more importantly, in the thousands of highly skilled postmasters and post office staff who deliver the services every day. That shows the regard in which they are held.

The contracts that have been won include the vital cross-government front office framework contract, which was led by the DVLA and won by the Post Office in 2012. It has extended the Post Office’s contract with the DVLA and broadened it into new areas. Because it is a framework contract, it also means that other Government agencies can contract more easily with the Post Office and deliver value for money to the taxpayer. The contract is already in use by Her Majesty’s Passport Office, which sees in it an opportunity to modernise the passport check and send service. With a stable and modernising network, the Post Office is well placed to build on those successes.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman and all other Members who are in the Chamber will support me in encouraging Government Departments and agencies, local government bodies and, as he said, the devolved Administrations to seek out new opportunities to work with the Post Office. That includes new and emerging digital and identity markets, but also counter services. As he has said, branch security is important to so many Post Office and Government customers.

The Post Office has shown time and again the benefits it can bring to the Government in driving value for money for the taxpayer and in improving the accessibility of Government services, including to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups across the UK. That has brought many benefits to the Post Office. Additional new work will be crucial in helping to ensure the network’s long-term future.

However, I want to be clear that, in accordance with EU procurement regulations, the Government cannot simply award contracts to the Post Office or, for that matter, to any other company. We must secure suppliers through an open and competitive tender process. That ensures fairness, drives innovation and delivers value for money for taxpayers, which is important in these times. That the Post Office is winning contracts in such circumstances shows that it meets those competitive criteria and does an excellent job.

There is more to the Post Office than mail and Government services—the hon. Gentleman highlighted that. The company has been growing well in new areas in recent years and is now one of the leading providers of financial and telephony services in the UK. Growth in the Post Office’s award-winning financial services business under this Government has made it one of the leading challengers to the high street banks. Post Office’s 3 million customers have deposited more than £17 billion in a variety of savings products. Customers rely on the Post Office for insuring their homes and holidays. It also helps them to get on or move up the property ladder with the range of mortgages it has available. Recently, the Post Office’s current account pilot was extended and is now available in more than 100 branches.

The Post Office acknowledges the important role its network plays in local communities. The business is already in conversation with the Association of British Credit Unions and the credit union sector to explore how they can work together to reach more families and give access to credit union services in more communities. I am sure hon. Members welcome that.

The Post Office remains committed to ensuring that communities continue to be able to access cash and banking services—the hon. Gentleman highlighted that important issue. Ninety-five per cent. of UK current accounts are available over the post office counter. With the support of the Government, the Post Office is continuing to work with the one remaining high street bank—Santander—that does not offer this service. Those services are important in ensuring local convenient access to cash, particularly, as he said, for the communities that have been left with no high street branch. Unfortunately, that is many of our communities in the UK.

In conclusion, I am confident that the hon. Gentleman can see that the Government believe strongly in the future of the Post Office and that we are working hard to ensure its future success. We are investing in modernising the network. Under this Government, the Post Office is flourishing. Customers are benefiting from longer opening hours at improved branches. The company is winning new contracts and providing its customers with an increased range of services. The Government are laying the foundations for the long-term, sustainable and successful future of the Post Office. Hon. Members agree that it is essential for our communities that the Post Office continues to thrive in the years to come.

POST OFFICES MAY CLOSE WITHOUT SUPPORT

Government must support the institution through giving more public contracts, says Glasgow MP.

John Robertson MP will today call on the Government to make post offices a ‘one-stop-shop’ for government services and other facilities, such as a post bank. He will lead a debate in the Commons, highlighting that elderly and disabled people rely on the Post Office and will struggle to move towards online government services.

Ahead of the debate, Mr Robertson said: “Almost half of the over 65s go to the Post Office at least once a week and many people depend on being able to go there to pay their council tax or their road tax, pick up their pensions, or send post all over the world. Instead of supporting these people by giving the post office contracts, our Tory and SNP-led governments are risking the closure of post offices across the country, who rely on contracts for around a fifth of their business.”

“Royal Mail privatisation has not helped, as 40% of Post Office business is from mail. We need to be pushing the newly private company to take on the contract with the Post Office for decades to come – or look to re-nationalise this profitable business.”

Energy policy and preparing for winter

Here is an article I wrote just before my Westminster Hall debate on 9th October on ‘Energy policy and preparing for winter’. It first appeared on Central Lobby on the PoliticsHome website and can be seen here.

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It can be difficult, on an unseasonably warm day in October, to think about the challenge that lies ahead over the coming months for millions of people across the country: having to choose between heating and eating in winter.

Every year, Government needs to think about how it will prepare for this and how we can prevent the thousands of people who die from the cold each year. But I believe this year, and in the years to come, we have a greater challenge. Energy bills have risen by £300 under this Government alone, we have multiple warnings of ‘Blackout Britain’ and the energy market appears to be becoming less and less predictable. We need short term and long term action.

Earlier this year, Ofgem warned of blackouts and we see even this week that National Grid is giving a bleak outlook for this winter. In these periods we must make sure we can keep the lights on, and that we are not paying more than we can afford to do so. We import gas from countries that could become particularly volatile and I know my constituents cannot afford to pay for bad energy planning by this Government.

Energy bills are soaring and even if we can secure the supply, this Government cannot guarantee it will be affordable. I think we will have to wait for a Labour Government in 2015 before we see the short term price freeze that is needed to sort the market out.

But this Government could at least commit to helping to improve the support system for vulnerable people. I was shocked to find out that nobody in my constituency received a cold weather payment this year or last. In a period when we saw record low temperatures of up to -8C, this is extremely worrying and we need to look urgently at how these payments are triggered.

We also need to get the information out there that support is available. There are so many different pots of money, but people either do not know they exist or struggle to apply for them. Perhaps instead of spending the advertising budget on a marketing company that was fined £45,000 for nuisance calls, DECC Ministers could look at providing more accessible advice for the most vulnerable in society.

There is simply not enough joined up thinking in terms of protecting vulnerable people from blackouts or soaring energy costs. We really need a Poverty Champion to bring all these measures together – to give me confidence they are being looked after. Confidence that I can pass onto thousands of my constituents who are elderly, disabled, have young children or who are alone, and who are worrying about how they will heat their home this winter.

Energy policy and preparing for winter

This week I led a debate in Westminster Hall. I was very disappointed with the response by the Minister as I had given him a copy of the speech beforehand so I could get some proper answers to how the Government is trying to prevent the 7,800 deaths that occur each year because people cannot afford to heat their homes. This debate was not about political point scoring, but I think the lack of care that the Minister put into his response shows how little this Government cares about ordinary people, who are struggling to pay their bills.

The full text from the debate can be read here:

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): Mr Caton, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair during this important, but short, debate.

Every year the Government need to think about how they will prepare for winter and the challenges that lie ahead, including how we can prevent thousands of people from dying from cold each winter. However, we have a greater challenge this year and in the years to come. Energy bills have risen by more than £300 under this Government; Ofgem is warning of blackouts; and the energy market appears to be becoming less and less predictable. We need short-term and long-term action and I want to be confident that the Government are taking that action. I want to be confident about that, so I can pass it on to thousands of my constituents who are elderly, disabled, have young children or who are alone and are worrying about how they will heat their homes this winter. I may get silly answers, as one official told my office staff yesterday, but I am sure the Minister has more sense than that and will give these issues proper consideration.

First, I want to speak about the worrying headlines about blackout Britain. Before anybody tries to intervene—unfortunately, there are no hon. Members here to do that—I am talking about actual blackouts due to lack of energy, not energy companies scaremongering about what they might do if a Labour Government froze energy prices. Ofgem announced in the summer that we are facing a crisis, with our safety margin of spare capacity for electricity about to shrink from a healthy margin of around 15%, to less than 4% within three years. This winter, the estimated de-rated capacity margin is 6.3% and, only this week, National Grid announced that it was keeping a “close watching brief” on supplies. I do not want to be alarmist, because we will probably be all right, but if the chief executive of Ofgem felt it necessary to warn of a “near crisis”, I think we need to take that seriously. Do the Government take it seriously? I know that provisions have been included in the Energy Bill for this, and we support the principle of a capacity mechanism, even if we have not been given many details. As an aside, I would like to know when we can expect details on this. Hopefully, we will have them before 2018.

Crucially, the first capacity market auction for 2014 is for delivery of capacity from 2018-19. What provisions are in place for this winter and those leading up to 2018? Will we be reliant upon the small diesel generators available under the short-term operating reserve in these years? What assessment has the Minister done of the necessity to use those during this period? In such cases, we could become further reliant on gas, particularly liquefied natural gas. Demand for that is increasing from countries such as China, so I have concerns about the price we will have to pay for this commodity. External shocks might dramatically increase the price of gas, just as Fukushima increased Japan’s demand for gas and therefore increased prices across the world. Gas storage in the UK is equivalent to 14 days’ worth of supply, compared with between 59 and 87 days’ worth in Italy, Germany and France.

DECC acknowledges that the UK has returned to levels of import dependency not seen since the 1970s. We must consider the countries from which we are importing gas—Qatar and Russia are key suppliers. According to Peter Hughes, a former vice-president of BP, importing from such countries means we are more vulnerable to short-term price increases, and we are therefore vulnerable to political volatility. I recognise that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change recently published a statement saying that he will press ahead with interventions already in hand, but I do not think we will see the immediate effects here.

I also hope that DECC officials are planning how to use any excess gas. Were we to buy too much gas and have a warmer winter, will energy prices be lowered? I would have thought so, as energy companies blame higher profits on the cold winter, but knowing what I know, I think we will have to work hard to ensure that we see the financial effects of a warm winter. Is Ofgem capable of forcing companies to do that?

In a recent BBC survey, 25% of people said that they are living in an unacceptably cold home. That is unbelievable in the 21st century. The Government have committed to ensuring that half of all households have at least one insulation measure by 2022, but the Minister will be only too aware that we are nowhere near meeting that target. In the middle of last month only 12 households—not 12,000, nor 1,200 but 12—had some sort of measure installed under the green deal, with 372 households waiting. What assessment have the Government made of that? Why is uptake so low?

The green deal is not a good deal for the public; it offers high interest rates of some 8%, which I have been told can be undercut by other sources of finance. The only incentive is the cashback payments, which will soon dry up. Predatory door-to-door and nuisance call selling tactics are also not encouraging concerned people to take up the deal. Perhaps the Minister needs to give some sleeping pills to his colleague the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), who said that he would not be sleeping unless 10,000 had signed up to the green deal by the end of the year—he must have had a lot of sleepless nights.

That is based on those households that can even apply for insulation. I have a good number of tenement blocks in my constituency that are home to some of the people who we really need to be helping in the winter months: the elderly and the poor. The green deal is not a bad deal for them; it is an impossible deal. Glasgow city council has been trying to upgrade some of its stock through retrofit schemes, but there are so many types of building that are unfit for insulation measures and are leaking heat at an alarming rate. What are the Government’s plans for them? For those people who are waiting on the green deal to bear fruit, January 2014 is not good enough. People need warm houses at the start of the winter, not at the end.

Many people do not turn on their heating because of the cost. In fact, almost seven in 10 households did not do so at some point last winter. The revised figures in the Hills report show that 7,800 people die in winter because they cannot afford to heat their home properly. Of course, rising energy bills are not helping. Energy barons are simply profiteering from their customers, with profits going up each year from what are already eye-watering figures. The big six doubled their profit margins in the last year alone. The Government have totally failed to act on this, claiming that the market is competitive, which it simply is not.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he accept that fuel bills may be rising, but there are things that individual constituents can do? In my area of Northumberland, for example, 13 groups have formed oil-buying clubs, which have seen reductions of between 10% and 20% in heating oil prices for thousands of people across the region.

John Robertson: There are a lot of people doing a lot of good things, and they know how to manipulate the market. They can take up contracts, use the internet and work things out, but I am talking about people who cannot do those things. I am talking about the poorest in society, who do not get the help they need. Unfortunately, my constituency is one of the poorest in the country. There are many such constituencies in my area and in other areas, and I am talking about those people, not the others.

Guy Opperman: I totally accept that we should be looking after those people who are least able to look after themselves. There are areas of tremendous social deprivation in the north-east, but those groups, supported by local churches, credit unions, parish councils and community action groups, are the ones being helped in such circumstances.

John Robertson: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says to a certain extent, but they cannot do enough. The Government have to take a lead. Perhaps he will agree with my final points, because I am a great believer in giving solutions as well as criticism.

As I have said, many people do not turn on the heating because of the cost. The Government’s report shows that 7,800 people die because of the winter cold. The energy barons are profiteering as far as I am concerned. The big six doubled their profit margins last year alone, and the Government have totally failed to act, claiming that the market is competitive, which it simply is not. I am pleased to say that in 2015, if Labour is elected, as I am sure we will be, energy bills will be frozen.

The energy companies are scaremongering, saying that they will turn the lights off and that investment will stop. They could manipulate a black-out, so a real hard-nosed regulator is needed now, just in case. A family in my constituency will save £112 a year under Labour’s idea, but that is not enough on its own. Energy prices have been rising far too much for far too long, but it would be a start. The fact that Co-operative Energy backs the move shows that bills do not need to rise. All the companies could give contracts lasting for two years. Saying there would be a black-out due to the price freeze is absolutely spurious. There is no way they can justify saying that.

Despite having 98% of the market, the big six provide only 47% of investment. So where exactly is the money from successive price rises going? The Government, as the previous Conservative Government did with BT, need to support new companies in the sector and ensure that at least 25% of provision is in the hands of companies other than the big six. That was a Conservative policy in the 1980s. I spoke against it back then, but I can see the need for it now, particularly for the energy companies.

The big question today is: what are the Government going to do this winter and next? Will my constituents be left helpless for another year, watching their bills go up by an expected 10% this year and probably twice again before the general election? We want people to have a better life, and this Tory-led Government want big business to make the difference. That is not happening in the energy sector. The Government are unwilling to sort out energy prices. We will have to wait until 2015 for a Labour Government to do that, but perhaps the Minister could consider cold weather payments. I was shocked to find that nobody in my constituency received a cold weather payment last year or the year before. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb) has acknowledged that that might be due to unclaimed pension credit, although saying that is different from acting on it. More can be done to get pensioners on to that benefit. What is actually being done?

The key reason is that the conditions on these payments are much too strict. The £25 is automatically allocated if the weather has been, or is forecast to be, an average of 0° C over a seven-day period. That is extremely cold and for an extremely long time. Last winter was bitter. In the weeks leading up to other parts of the country being given the payment in March this year, there was a seven-day period in my constituency when the average temperature was 1.57° C. During that time, the thermometer recorded much lower temperatures—minus 3° C, minus 4° C and even minus 8° C one day. I am talking about record low temperatures, but no payment was made.

It is estimated that there are about 8,000 extra deaths for every 1° C drop in the average temperature. We need to have a good look at how the system works. How many people have to die before anything is done? Perhaps we could look at raising the temperature threshold or, as the Institution of Gas Engineers and Managers suggests, basing it on heating degree days. In my constituency, winters are long. The weather was particularly cold in April last year, but cold weather payments go up only to 31 March. Why? Will the Minister do an impact assessment on the effects of those cut-off points?

What is the Minister actually doing to save lives? The Government’s Hills report told us of the thousands of people dying due to fuel poverty. How long will it be until Ministers take notice? How many lives will be lost? These payments are important because, as a recent study showed, poorer households reduce their food expenditure by 7.2% in cold weather shocks. I commend the Prime Minister for making the £25 payment permanent, but I believe it should be higher. The website energyhelpline.com estimates that, on cold days, families could be spending as much as £20 a day on energy. With energy bills rising, that is certain to increase. We have been told the payment will be set at £25 for the whole Parliament. Clearly, that is not enough.

My last point assumes that people will turn on their heating in cold weather. Elderly people, in particular, worry about turning on their heating, because of the cost. However, the winter fuel payment not only provides the financial support pensioners need to turn the heating on, but gives them confidence that they can afford to keep it on for as long as they need to.

Guy Opperman: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

John Robertson: I will carry on, if that is all right with the hon. Gentleman. I want to give the Minister a lot of time to answer a lot of questions.

I am proud that the Labour Government brought these payments in and consistently looked to increase them. I am pleased the coalition Government honoured our 2010 Budget for that winter, making one-off £100 or £50 payments to various people, but that was not continued. Those payments were crucial to helping pensioners afford to keep warm. Expenditure on them is likely to decrease from £2.2 billion to £2 billion by 2017-18. I am confident we could ensure that those who receive the payments get enough to cover the prices we are likely to see in the years ahead.

How are the Government publicising these and other support measures? I fear the emphasis in terms of spending may be misplaced. Considering that the firm used to advertise the green deal was fined £45,000 for nuisance calls, the advertising budget could surely be spent better. Perhaps it could be spent on advertising offline to reach all vulnerable people and to highlight the different support measures available: winter fuel payments, cold weather payments, the warm home discount, Warm Front, Nest, the energy assistance package and the priority services register—the list goes on. I worry that those who really need help do not know what options are available to them, whether they are eligible or how to apply for them.

I realise that some of those support measures fall outside the Minister’s Department, but that is part of the problem. Do Departments actually talk to each other? Do the Government talk to the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government, the Northern Ireland Assembly or even Glasgow city council, which looks after my area, because some of these measures are their responsibility? Perhaps there is not enough joined-up work. We need real leadership, but I fear we will not get it from this incompetent Department.

We have seen this new Energy Minister saying different things from the Department, such as on Ofgem’s warning about power cuts. Our Energy Secretary also does not get on with his staff, making huge severance payments as a result. We really need someone to take the lead on this issue—a Government poverty champion. They could bring together the different issues from all Departments that go towards tackling poverty, and they could make sure those issues got the attention they deserve. If the Minister is unable to find anybody in the Government, let me put myself forward for the job, because I am sure I could do better than some of his colleagues.

I hope this winter is not a cold one, but we prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I am here today to make sure our energy supply is secure over this winter and the next. I am here to make sure my constituents and others have all the access they can get to financial help. Sadly, we cannot rely on the energy companies helping their vulnerable customers, who are struggling more and more with the cost of living. We also cannot rely on this incompetent Government to stand up to these bullies. I look forward to the Minister’s answers.

11.16 am

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): I must congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) on securing this important debate on energy policy and preparing for the winter.

We all recognise that we need to be reassured, and that we need our constituents to be reassured, as the chilly winter months approach. It is obviously difficult to predict what kind of winter this will be, but I assure the hon. Gentleman and others attending that the Government are confident in our energy capacity, that policies are in place to protect the most vulnerable and that we are promoting long-term energy-efficiency solutions for the winters to come. I think the hon. Gentleman said that prices had risen by £300 under this Government, but I remind him that they have risen more slowly in the first three years of this Government than they did in the last five years of the previous Labour Government.

Let me turn to the hon. Gentleman’s first point, on margin and capacity. He will have studied the assessments made by the National Grid and Ofgem. Those assessments say that the margin would tighten if nothing were done, but things are, of course, being done. Things are being done in the short term better to balance the system. Ofgem is consulting on a number of measures to ensure that there is better balance on the demand and the supply side. As the hon. Gentleman himself said, the Government plan to run the first capacity market—the reserve supply. We are ready to run the auction next year, so that supply can be available in 2018. He asked when further details of the capacity market would be made available; that will be in the next few weeks, before the legislation leaves the House of Lords.

On the outlook, the National Grid assessment is that the demand for energy this winter will be broadly similar to last year’s. We are not immune to the impacts of prolonged severe weather. A combination of a diverse range of import capacity and a mixture of storage types has performed well over the past few years, and we expect it to do so again this year. We expect electricity demand this winter to remain flat at current levels, and we have significant spare gas capacity, as the Holford and Aldbrough storage sites increase their delivery networks. Last winter, gas demand was around 290 million cubic metres a day. Our gas supply infrastructure can deliver more than twice that amount with high levels of secure flow from Norway and the continent.

John Robertson: It is good to hear what the Minister says, but the fact is that all we have heard of late is people saying that we will have black-outs. Are those companies playing politics because they do not like the Government’s policy? I agree with what the Minister has said, so why are we suddenly in black-out territory?

Michael Fallon: We are hearing about black-outs because of the totally irresponsible pledge of the Labour party to freeze prices artificially. The pledge, if it is credible, would have the immediate effect of discouraging precisely the investment in energy infrastructure that the hon. Gentleman and I want. That is why we read about black-outs, but it is a matter for his party to clarify. It needs to reassure us on how there could be a freeze without bringing to a halt the investment that there has been so far.

John Robertson rose—

Guy Opperman rose—

Michael Fallon: I think I had better make some progress, because the hon. Member for Glasgow North West raised several points that he wants answered.

I will deal first with the green deal, the energy efficiency programme. I will not comment on the sleeping patterns of the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), although I note what he said. We encourage people to think not just about keeping warm this winter, but about winter-proofing their homes for the future through a range of policies—not simply the green deal, but also the energy companies obligation.

The green deal is the Government’s most ambitious energy efficiency programme, and is designed to deliver improvements to homes and businesses throughout the country on an unprecedented scale and over a much longer time frame than a particular Parliament or public spending period. It is an ambitious 20 to 30-year programme. So far, there are more than 100 green deal providers and more than 2,000 individuals authorised to carry out assessments. Some 70,000 assessments have been done. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West asked specifically whether the interest rate was too high. Only 8% of households that have decided not to install green deal measures have said that it was because the finance package was unattractive.

Guy Opperman: Does the Minister agree that the energy policy is being affected by green deal funding and the domestic renewable heat incentive programme, which, certainly in Northumberland, has had tremendous take-up? Businesses such as the Centre for Green Energy in my constituency are expanding because of that policy.

Michael Fallon: I am glad to hear the good news from Hexham, because it is important to understand that those programmes are now up and running, and helping homes and businesses.

Alongside the green deal, there is the energy companies obligation, which has the twin objectives of reducing carbon emissions and tackling fuel poverty. Nearly 200,000 measures under the ECO have already been installed, with more than 60% delivered in low-income households in England, Scotland, and Wales. Alongside the green deal, the ECO carbon saving obligation supports the installation of measures for hard-to-treat situations—cavity or solid walls, and so on—which would otherwise be difficult to finance, but which are long-term energy efficient solutions. That is worth some £700 million a year.

The affordable warmth obligation—another part of the ECO—which provides targeted assistance to low-income, vulnerable people in private tenure households, through investment incentives to landlords, is worth about £350 million a year. That has already resulted in about 40,000 boilers being installed. In July we were already delivering 70% more heating measures through the affordable warmth obligation than were being delivered under the average rate of delivery for Warm Front, its predecessor policy. Finally, the carbon-saving community obligation, worth about £190 million a year, is supporting low-income communities, with at least 15% of funding

delivering energy efficiency, particularly in rural areas. As of the end of July, we had already delivered more than 60,000 energy efficiency measures.

In addition, energy suppliers are supporting low-income and vulnerable households through our warm home discount scheme, which is worth £1.1 billion up to 2015 and is expected to support about 2 million households a year up to 2016. It is composed of four elements. The first is a core group, whose members automatically receive a £135 discount on their bills. Consumers who are either under 75 and not receiving the savings credit part of pension credit, or over 75 on the qualifying date and in receipt of a pension credit, are eligible. The discount rises to £140 in 2014-15. For older consumers who have less access to technology, that automatic payment is a big advantage. We expect this year’s automatic payments to be made by Christmas. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of payments will be made this month, giving people confidence that they can afford to turn their heating up when the cold weather sets in. The broader group also targets low-income and vulnerable consumers, but provides energy suppliers with the opportunity to set the eligibility criteria, which must be approved by Ofgem. The third element is a legacy spend group for suppliers to continue to provide support for customers who had previously been on discounted tariffs and rebates.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West raised the matter of winter fuel and cold weather payments. We are committed to supporting pensioners through the winter months, and we continue to provide winter fuel payments; £300 will be offered automatically this winter to Britons aged 80 and over, and £200 will be offered to households with a resident above the current state pension age for a woman. Last winter, more than 12.5 million pensioners received winter fuel payments, which delivered £2.15 billion in support. If the average temperature for a region is recorded or forecast to be 0° C or below for more than a week, pensioners and those receiving income-related benefits will receive a cold weather payment of £25 for each period. Payments are made on recorded and forecast temperatures, ensuring that those on prepayment meters are proactively supported. Last winter, 5.8 million cold weather payments were made, delivering more than £140 million in support.

Beyond basic financial concerns, cold weather is a major public health challenge. Any extra death because of cold weather is to be regretted. We believe that local authorities are best placed to address local public health issues, and £5.4 billion in funding has been made available from 2013 to 2015 in England. Public Health England will publish the third annual cold weather plan in the coming weeks, and will work in collaboration with other Departments, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. It will set out several levels of response, which will encourage year-round planning.

I have not had time to answer all the hon. Gentleman’s detailed questions. I hope that he will allow me to respond to those in writing. However, I assure him that the Government are committed to keeping the lights on. There is an investment programme, encouraging investment in new sources of home-grown energy, and a framework in place to ensure that those in the most need are protected during the colder months.

11.28 am

Sitting suspended.

POVERTY CHAMPION NEEDED IN GOVERNMENT

With 70% of households turning the heating off to save money, Energy committee MP calls on Government to “sort out the mess and stand up for the most vulnerable”.

In a Commons debate tomorrow morning, Labour’s John Robertson will warn that 7,800 people die each year because they cannot afford to heat their homes properly. He blames this on a lack of political will on tackling poverty, and in particular fuel poverty.

Ahead of the debate, Mr Robertson, who sits on the Energy and Climate Change select committee said: “How many people have to die before this incompetent government starts protecting people in winter? I was shocked to find that nobody in my constituency received a cold weather payment this winter or last and only twelve people have insulated their homes under the Government’s flagship Green Deal scheme.”

“There are lots of measures available to people struggling with soaring energy costs but it is confusing and does not always work for those who need it most. There is a lack of real political will to tackle poverty and we need a Government Poverty Champion to take a coordinated approach to measures on fuel poverty and poverty in general.”

While support measures for energy bills are under the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions, the Energy Department deals with insulation. Fuel poverty is dealt with separately by each of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

WHY ARE BIG LOBBYISTS EXEMPT FROM BILL?

Glasgow MP asks Minister why Lobbying Bill targets fringes of problem and does not tackle real issues in Government.

Speaking in the House of Commons, John Robertson MP demanded to know why only 1% of lobbyists would be covered under the Government’s proposals. Mr Robertson told MPs, “If we are going to do it, let’s do it right” and asked to include all lobbyists on a register.

He challenged the fact that a number of people have found employment in Government departments, who might be working in the interests of various clients, or who still have connections to big business.

Speaking about the Prime Minister’s controversial appointment of Lynton Crosby as his election strategist, Mr Robertson said: “There is somebody working for the Prime Minister and it is clear that if he is in there, he will probably speak to the Prime Minister on any number of subjects of the day. Is it credible to think otherwise?”

Lynton Crosby, as well as working in Number 10, is a lobbyist for tobacco and alcohol companies. His presence has been linked with the dropping of proposals to bring in the plain packaging of tobacco and minimum alcohol pricing.

The Bill, having its second reading in Parliament today, is proposing to create a statutory register for lobbyists; limit the amount of campaign spending in the year leading to an election; and introduce more regulations for trade unions. Labour is calling for the Bill to be scrapped.

Speech in the debate on the Transparency in Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) and for St Albans (Mrs Main). I do not necessarily agree with everything they said, but at least they have been thoughtful and have a good idea of what they are talking about. A number of my Opposition colleagues have also made very good speeches.

We have to agree that not all lobbyists are bad. As Members of Parliament, we get a lot of information from lobbyists that we use to our benefit. There is no way that I, as a member of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, could see every person who wants a meeting with me, but I try to meet those who will shed a light on whatever idea the Committee is talking about at the time. We use that information when we talk to Ministers and that is how it should be.

I do not believe that the Bill gives us transparency. It is very narrow and I think that an idea was formed somewhere along the line about how it could be used. Although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) that it is a bad Bill, I also think that there must be a reason why these things are being done. These people are not idiots—they know what they are doing and there must be a reason behind it. Although the Bill is a bad Bill, I believe that its purpose is to stop my party winning the next election. If last week’s vote on Syria had gone a different way—I am glad to say that it did not—would that have been because third parties had lobbied us to support the Government in what they were trying to do?

We suffered as a party in the 2005 election when the coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, picked up a lot of votes on the back of an anti-war vote. Their support slackened off, as we saw when we got to the 2010 election. I believe that the Bill would have stopped the third parties in 2005 saying, “Don’t vote for a Government who go to war.” I think that worked against us. The Government are not that stupid, and avoiding that is one reason why we have the Bill. We have talked about the rail network and its effect, and the same applies here. The Bill could be used against anything that is anti-Government.

What are we doing? We are talking about registers of interests. Only 1% of those who lobby will be put on a register and the rest would not be on it. Why would that be? Who are we highlighting—the small groups, the individuals and the third-party wee groups who get together occasionally? Why would we want to do that? There must be a reason. Therefore, why are we doing that when we are not tackling the big lobbyists whom we met regularly? Why are they exempt? I ask these questions—I hope that the Minister can answer them—because I have not for the life of me worked out why the Government would want to do this.

James Duddridge: For many years, this House has not done enough to tackle lobbying. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) produced a massive Bill that was perhaps more along the lines that the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) requires, but it was too difficult; it bit off too much to chew to be good legislation. One might argue that this Bill is narrow in the wrong places, but is there not an advantage in having a narrow and focused Bill?

John Robertson: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, and I believe that he believes what he says. I actually believe that, if we are going to do this, everyone should be included. No one should be exempt, or everyone should be exempt. There is no point in putting a small group on to a register when everyone else can do as they will. If we are going to do it, let us do it right and put everyone on the list, so that we can see who is lobbying and that they meet the criteria.

Previous speakers have said that Ministers will be the only ones who will be covered by this. It is funny that although Members of Parliament were exposed on television for doing something, every time that a Minister was exposed there were always rules governing the fact that they could get away with it. I mentioned that Deloitte has been paying for a member of a Minister’s staff—the Minister is not in his place at the moment—for a number of years, yet Deloitte gets billions of pounds-worth of business from this Government. That has got to be wrong, yet according to all the rules of Parliament, no rule was broken. There is something wrong with that.

The Prime Minister employs someone in No. 10 who is obviously having an effect, but he says, “I have not talked to him on this subject.” Well, he has to talk about something, and I dare say that, whatever was important in Parliament, he was getting advice from that person on it. Whether that person should be allowed to give him that advice and whether he should have been allowed through the doors of No. 10 is another matter—and we need not go back to the matter of the gentleman who was supposedly a journalist who did his bit to try to help the Government to get into power and has now ended up facing court charges.

These things have happened, but people keep getting away with it, and I want to know why. If we are going to have transparency in lobbying, transparency in campaigning and transparency on the trade unions, we must do it right. We should not go off half-cocked and try to attack people whom we do not like politically or whom we particularly disagree with. We should include everyone in a proper manner. We should have proper scrutiny. We should talk to the relevant Select Committees to help us with that scrutiny, and we should not ignore them. Unfortunately, what we see is a Government who want to ignore everything unless it suits them, so the question is why.

Another example is that Volker Beckers, who is the former chief executive officer of npower, has become the chairman of the scrutiny committee of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. During his time as the CEO of npower, it did not pay a penny in tax. How can this happen? Is there no scrutiny of these people? Is no one observing what is happening?

Why has this been allowed to happen? Lack of transparency and lack of knowing what is going on are the cause, and the Leader of the House—unfortunately, he is not in his place—must take responsibility for that. He is the man in charge. If he is not following up these things, they are his fault. He is the man who should fall on his sword, and we should get someone who is willing to do what is required.

We have a voluntary register at the moment. I have never been happy with anything voluntary that is to do with business. I have always believed that the register should be mandatory. Unless we make it mandatory and the process is done in a proper manner that we are happy with as a Parliament, we will end up with the same problems that we have today, and we will still have the same arguments.

Let me register an interest as a member of Unite, although I have not received any money off it for some time—certainly not in this Parliament. That might be because I am not doing a good job—who knows? I like to think I have always been a good trade unionist. I believe in trade unionism. I believe in what trade unions do. I believe that trade unions fight for those who do not have the power to fight for themselves, and I do not believe that unions should be attacked any more than anybody else. It is amazing that we have a register for them. We have members lists but why do we not have a register of members of the Minister’s party? Should we therefore take on the Conservative party and disband it because it does not meet the rules? If we had a mandatory register, that would be the case, and I would be all for it.

Energy Bill Debate

See below my contributions to the debate on the Energy Bill on Monday 3rd June:

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): On the rules governing what is considered sensitive, who will set the criteria: the companies themselves or the Government?

Michael Fallon: The judgment will be one for the Government, and I want to come on to a proposal on that. I also want to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry, in relation to amendment 164, that there will be public consultation on the draft regulations in autumn. On amendment 170, relative to what is currently required under the renewables obligation, we would remove only redundant information requirements under the fixed price certificate scheme. However, in answer to the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson), I am mindful of the points made in Committee on the need to maximise transparency.

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John Robertson: I thank the Minister for being generous in taking interventions.

Who will scrutinise the counterparties’ liabilities? We saw how everyone thought that the banks were safe and had plenty of money and that things were good, but it did not turn out that way, and even the Treasury’s own predictions over the last three years have not been met properly. What guarantee can the Minister give, therefore, that the counterparties will have sufficient finances to meet their liabilities?

Michael Fallon: I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman further written assurances on that. He might be on rather weak ground in discussing the regulatory framework put in place for the banks, given that we have had to take immediate and fairly radical steps to improve it, but if I can give him any further reassurances on his main point, I certainly will.

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John Robertson: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify something for me? Is he saying that we should not worry or think about our obligations on climate change? If he is not saying that, how does he expect his electorate to pay for what he is suggesting?

Mark Reckless: I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman not focusing on his constituents’ heritage. Climate reduction and the carbon issue should relate to cost. The coal price has collapsed globally largely because of the success of shale gas in the US and its export of coal, and that means that the cost of the proposals is now far larger than it was. Global temperatures rose until 1998 or 2000. Since then, projections of an exponential increase in temperature have not been borne out by recent data. We have cut our emissions by 24% since 1990, which I think is larger than any other country. What we are left with is a complete mess of policy in the Bill, with various subsidies interacting and greatly increasing bills for our consumers, and I am not sure what the effect will be on reducing carbon emissions compared with, say, the US, which has had a big decrease.

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that we have also not used the current rules properly? The fines that have been imposed of late do not even go back to the people who pay the bills. Does she agree that we should be looking to compensate the people who pay the bills, rather than give that money to the Treasury?

Luciana Berger: My hon. Friend raises an important point. Currently, the fines that are being raised are going into the Treasury, and many questions have been asked about where that money should go.

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John Robertson: Can my hon. Friend clarify what she means by turnover, as factors such as the central pot and whether generation is included as well make a big difference?

Luciana Berger: My hon. Friend raises a point we on the Opposition Benches have raised many times before about the challenges we face with our very opaque energy market, where we do not know the true cost of our energy and many of our generators are also our suppliers. We will wait for the secondary legislation to hear exactly what the Government mean by that term, but it is fair to say that we are dealing a lot in this Bill with a broken market, and it is a shame that the Government are not proposing legislation to fix it.

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John Robertson: I ask the Minister the same question I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger): what is classified as turnover? Does it just include retail or does it also include generation?

Gregory Barker: I will correct myself if I am wrong, but I believe we are talking about global turnover—we are talking about very significant sums. [Interruption.] This relates to the turnover of the company under investigation. [Interruption.] That was very helpful.

John Robertson: Just for clarification, is “the company under investigation” the mother company as well as the subsidiary company, or does it include all the companies that that company is part of?

Gregory Barker: The hon. Gentleman asks a fascinating and timely question, one which deserves a proper answer. He may have misheard me, because when I said “global turnover” what I actually meant was UK turnover. Nevertheless, that is clearly a very significant amount.

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John Robertson: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good argument and I had not thought of going down that road. Does he accept that those small companies could, through no fault of their own, follow what the large companies are doing and get themselves into bother that they did not really think about when they first started doing whatever it was that they did?

Mr Weir: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Whereas the big six would be able to take that financial hit, many of the smaller companies would not be able to do so. These proposals would take us down a road that could have serious repercussions. Many small companies are beginning to break into the market. Many of them are particularly strong in renewables, for example, and that is one way in which much of our renewables investment might be generated in the future.

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John Robertson: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir). He was an excellent member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee when it was first put together and I am very sorry that he is not still a part of it—but there is time for him yet, as they say.

I agree with a lot of what the Minister said—I do not pick holes in things just for the sake of it—but it is not my place to worry about whether the big six have financial difficulties or whatever else. Personally, I could not give one jot about any of those companies. They are big enough to look after themselves and they certainly know the rules, because they know how to break them and get away with it.

I support every one of the amendments tabled by my colleagues on the Front Bench. I have no problems with them whatsoever. The only thing I have to say to the Minister is that I was slightly disappointed by his speech. He talked about hard-working families and, yes, I believe that hard-working families should always be looked at and looked after as best we can. My constituency has more than its fair share of elderly people and it has the highest percentage of single women in any constituency in the country, which probably means that most of them will be elderly. That means that they might have some difficulties that other people do not have. There are also quite a number of people who are disabled. We have found over the years that those are the people who do not complain, because they are frightened to, and who do not get the help they probably should get. Once again, we are getting to a stage when people think that their biggest bill is their electricity bill, their gas bill or both. According to some newspaper articles, people will be more worried about how they will pay their fuel bills than how they will pay their mortgage.

I do not worry about the big six, because they are making plenty of money, but we have to nail down what we mean by profit and turnover. Let us take EDF, a large multinational company that is to build a new nuclear power station, from which it will make a lot of money. It also has other power stations in the United Kingdom on which it makes money, and of course it is involved in retail as well, where it says it makes 2% profit. It makes some 17% to 19% profit from generation.

It puts that 19% alongside the 2% when it comes to giving shareholders a dividend, but it tells Government that it is making only 2% profit. The company may therefore put up its prices—SSE did so only last October—yet these same companies are making enormous profits. They are telling people, “Invest in our company because you can get a return for your money.” That is not right.

That brings me to the point that I really want to make about being in default. The Bill is the end or start of a process. The Minister said that 19 cases are going on. Some of them will continue beyond the introduction of the Bill. Will they be judged under the old system, or will there be a “get out of jail free” card as the new Bill takes over? Will there be two different kinds of penalties running side by side?

Gregory Barker: I absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be no “get out of jail free” card.

John Robertson: That is a very good answer, but the Minister gave an answer earlier that was found to be wrong, so I will wait for a note to come over to him.

Barry Gardiner: I have listened carefully to the debate. Is there not in my hon. Friend’s mind, as there is in mine, a concern that we are putting on companies a financial penalty that will ultimately be borne by consumers? Should we not instead address the real problem, which is directors’ liability? It was noticeable in the recent SSE case that no criminal prosecution for fraud was brought, even though the maximum penalty was imposed. Would it not be better to impose a strict liability on the directors of the companies, so that it is not the consumer who ends up paying the fines?

John Robertson: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which brings me to the next issue that I wanted to raise: what happens to the money? If we get £1 billion off a company—not that that is likely, because it would be a lot more than we get at present—or even £100 million, surely that company should have to pay that back to its consumers. It should not give it to the Treasury to spend, though I am sure it would spend it in a very nice manner. It should go towards what it was designed for: paying for electricity. That £100 million or £1 billion should go back to the customers of that company. I ask the Minister to look at that.

The Bill is a great deal better than it was when we scrutinised it on the Select Committee. Everything else about the Bill has been rushed. Look at the number of amendments tabled today, and the number of things that we are not being told—the strike price and so on. We are basically being given a promise that it will be all right on the night. We need to know what the Bill is. The Select Committee had five weeks’ scrutiny of the Bill, when normally the period is 12 weeks. Then we waited an inordinate amount of time for the Bill to come back to us. When we got it, we sent it back to the Minister and told him that it was a dog’s breakfast; it was terrible. We then got something else. It has been through Committee, and we have improved it. I implore the Minister to consider the amendments that hon. Members on both sides of the House are putting forward, and seriously look at using the best bits to improve the Bill

further, because this is an okay Bill, but that is all it is; it is not good. It is probably slightly better than what we had at the start, but we still have a long way to go. I ask the Minister to consider that.

I also ask the Minister to look at the issue of people paying their taxes. We see that npower has admitted that it does not pay corporation tax. Another three of the major companies say that they do not pay much corporation tax. I am pleased to say that the two companies with Scottish links say that they do pay their corporation tax, although I would still like to look at the books.

There lies the biggest problem that we have with energy: looking at the books. What are the books? I have talked to Ofgem and to the Minister. What do the books cover? That goes back to the definition of cost and the definition of turnover. Where does the generation element come in and where does the retail element end? What happens to all the money that is made on either side of the box in the middle? That is a real problem. When billions of pounds of profit are made on one side and appear not to be counted, and billions of pounds are missing on the other side so the companies put the prices up, they keep making money but the consumers—the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the hard-working families that the Minister likes to talk about—are all suffering, and it appears that our Government do not care.

We should be doing more. We have even got to the stage where HMRC hired a gentleman called Volker Beckers, who was the chief executive of RWE npower. I bet he knows how to deal with tax for those energy companies. I hope he uses the same skill as he used for RWE not to pay corporation tax to get the same money out of the same company for HMRC.

There is much that is good in the Bill. I hope the Minister will consider the amendments moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and listen to what my friend the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) said. Between us all, we will make the Bill better, but we must remember that at the end of the day it is the people who put us here that we should be looking after.

 

Home Office Question on Ibrahim Magag

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): How many people are subject to a terrorism prevention and investigation measure.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): In the last quarterly report on the exercise of powers in the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2011, for the reporting period 1 September to 30 November 2012, 10 people were subject to a TPIM notice during that time.

John Robertson: It is nearly 50 days since Ibrahim Magag went missing and the now famous absconding black cab shows that the Home Secretary made a mistake with TPIMs. Will the Minister say whether Ibrahim Magag was under surveillance at that time—nothing technical, a yes or no will do?

James Brokenshire: The operation to locate Ibrahim Magag is ongoing and the police are doing everything in their power to locate and indentify that individual. The hon. Gentleman would perhaps agree that the best place for a terrorist is in prison, and that is why the Government have committed additional resources to supplement the TPIM regime and ensure a balance of preventive measures as well as ensuring that people are brought to justice.

HM Revenues and Customs Debate

Yesterday, I spoke in a debate called by my colleague, John McDonnell MP, regarding the resources and capacities of HMRC, following further job losses. The text of my speech is below. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that, while thousands of people are losing their jobs, three new board members have been appointed at £20,000 a year. This included Volker Beckers, the former RWE Npower Chief Executive, an appointment I have already been critical of – see here.

 

Speech

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on getting the debate, which is important. I do not intend to go over the same ground as other colleagues, but some points need to be re-emphasised. I am looking forward to the Minister’s reply, and if he gets time, I hope that he will answer a few of my questions, although I am happy to get a response in writing.

Other than the 40,000 jobs that will be lost by 2015—over the past eight and future two years—which is bad enough, what we have is an HMRC that has just employed three new non-executive board members. Volker Beckers, previously chief executive of RWE npower, is now the chair of the scrutiny committee and has a job worth £20,000 a year. That might not be an awful lot to Mr Beckers, but it would be to people who were about to lose their jobs. Why does that man have a job at £20,000 a year, which will not mean a lot to him? He also comes from the electricity companies, which have been ripping off customers left, right and centre, although the Minister might consider the case to be one of poacher turned gamekeeper. That might be right, but I would still like to know the reasons.

Norman Pickavance was previously director of human resources and communications at Morrisons. He left Morrisons just before it announced a third year of no profits. Will he be asked to bail out of HMRC if it is not successful? He is on a retainer of £15,000 a year, and I would like to know what he does for that £15,000 a year.

John Whiting, previously of the Chartered Institute of Taxation, perhaps has a job that is connected with HMRC, but he is working for it only part time, and he will receive £20,000 a year. How much time will he spend earning that money, and what will he be expected to do in return?

On 1 February, the Daily Mirror reported that a group called the Cup Trust had been banking millions of pounds and giving out millions of pounds in gifts to people, yet only 8% of its money seems to go to charity. Two days later, the same newspaper revealed that it had not given £80,000 to charity, although its books said that it had. That is not tax avoidance; it is ripping of charity people. On many occasions, I have asked what happens to the extra money that is put aside for proper charities, and we are told that the Treasury takes it back and will not give it to charities that do the right thing. The Daily Mirror’s headline stated:

“Charity tax avoiders: Scam bosses could trouser £7.7 MILLION while good causes received just £135,000”.

If the Daily Mirror can find that information, and we hear about it only through the paper, what have the Treasury and HMRC been doing?

The problem with HMRC is not the people at the bottom—the 40,000 people who will lose their jobs or have already lost them—who do a good job and work hard, but those who run it and are in charge of those people. That, Minister, is you.