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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 493: debated on Thursday 11 June 2009

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Minister of State was asked—

Human Tissue Legislation

1. If he will direct the Office for Life Sciences to review the arrangements for pharmaceutical and medical biotech businesses to access samples of human tissue. (279000)

The Human Tissue Authority is currently assessing the impact of human tissue legislation and regulation on tissue-based research. This is of course primarily a matter for the Department of Health.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but lack of access to human tissue samples is impeding research in the fight against cancer and other diseases. Most human tissue removed in surgeries is currently incinerated, but with patient consent it can be put to very good use. Will the Minister ask the Office for Life Sciences to look into creating a database to record what samples are available where across the country to help academics and biotech companies to achieve scientific breakthroughs?

The hon. Lady is right that bioscience is hugely important. For research on Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia, access to human tissue can mean real advances. The Office for Life Sciences is co-ordinating activity and I am pleased that the Department of Health is among the group of Departments represented. She will also be aware that in March this year the HTA announced a project to assess the impact of tissue legislation and regulation on tissue-based research.

Extremist Activity (University Campuses)

2. What recent assessment he has made of the levels of extremist activity on university campuses; and if he will make a statement. (279001)

The assessment of the law enforcement agencies is that there is some extremist activity on a small number of campuses. Where it occurs it is serious, but the assessment is that it is not widespread. Following the issuing of guidance to universities on this matter last year, we continue to work with the higher education sector to help it to reduce the risk of extremist activity on its campuses and to protect the safety of students and staff.

According to the British high commission in Pakistan, half of those granted student visas go missing when they come to the United Kingdom. What discussions is the Minister having with universities and the authorities to ensure that that ends, and ends soon?

I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that there has been a change to the visa regime, which means that so-called bogus colleges have largely been closed down over the past year. Now, only 1,600 colleges have been granted a registration, compared with 4,000 previously. I am in regular discussion with my colleague in the Home Office, and the hon. Gentleman will know that the Home Affairs Committee is also looking into the issue. My colleague in this Department and my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration will give evidence before it.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, but I gently suggest that his civil servants might be allowing him to become a little complacent. If he talks to Jewish students about the intimidation on campuses earlier this year, in which Islamist organisations fuelled by outsiders intimidated Jewish students, not allowing them to meet or make their case, he will learn that it was a grave and worrying moment. Will he meet a delegation from the Union of Jewish Students and the Community Security Trust to discuss these issues? We cannot allow the notion that there is no problem to gain ground.

I have already met the Union of Jewish Students and I have set up a group within the Department that includes representatives from the universities to discuss these issues. We will meet regularly to continue to make an assessment of the anti-Semitism that can exist on campuses and to do all the appropriate work to minimise those threats and those issues for Jewish students. That kind of xenophobia and racism have no place in the national life of this country.

Small Businesses

Since 2005, we have reduced the administrative burden on business by £1.9 billion and are on track to deliver our promise of a 25 per cent. reduction worth £3.4 billion by 2010. We plan to adopt new simplification targets for 2010 to 2015 which will address regulatory costs for all businesses, but especially small businesses.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment and promotion, which were well deserved. He has always taken an interest in small businesses. He will be aware that the First Secretary has made a number of encouragingly pro-business speeches recently. In fact, he said that both the Government and Europe should get off the back of small businesses. He seemed to be implying that the Government now want to come out of the EU social chapter. Is that the case? Will the Minister also confirm that it is still his Department’s intention strongly to resist the job-destroying agency workers directive?

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, which are greatly appreciated. I ran a small business myself for a period and I know the importance of good regulation for small businesses. Some regulation is good, but the Government are keen to reduce and eliminate unnecessary regulation. The type of regulation that is acceptable to the Government should support workers. The minimum wage is a form of regulation of which we are very proud. We all support that type of good regulation, but we will always eliminate bad regulation. We are always listening to businesses to hear what they have to say, so that we can do that as often as possible.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, reducing the imposition of regulation on small business is important, but another important factor is ensuring that finance is available for small businesses. He is aware that the enterprise finance guarantee is working well and is getting money for small businesses to where it should be. Is he satisfied that there is sufficient money in that scheme to ensure that, as we are at the turning point of the recession, the vital resource of money for small businesses will be available for some time to come?

It is, of course, extremely important that such finance is available for small business. I noted, as I sat as a Whip in the Chamber, how the Opposition have stopped talking about the ineffectiveness of so-called Government schemes. Those schemes are working. It is always important to listen to business and to hear what it has to say about the availability of resources. If there are shortages, we will certainly listen to what small businesses have to say.

May I, for the second time in less than 24 hours, congratulate and welcome the Minister and extend that welcome to the rest of his ministerial colleagues on the Front Bench, pausing only to regret that the majority of the team—and its most powerful members—sit in another place? I invite him to reassure the House of the Department’s commitment to regulatory reform, and particularly to the deregulation of small businesses. I urge him to reconsider the provisions of my private Member’s Bill, which would remove the requirement for a small business to apply for rate relief so that it would be applied automatically, instead. I withdrew that Bill voluntarily on the basis of assurances from the Government that, to be honest, have not been met.

I thank the hon. Gentleman again for his kind words. As I mentioned previously, I ran a small business, so I know the frustrations caused to businesses by the imposition of what they perceive as unnecessary regulation. I can assure him that I will do all I can to remove unnecessary regulation for small businesses, because I bear the scars of having to go through lots of forms that I could not understand.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment to a key role in the empire of Mandelsonia. It is good to see him on the Front Bench.

In tracking the concerns of small businesses, we are seeing the cost of compliance moving up their list, and that is a worry to many who recognise the role of small businesses in creating most of the jobs that will pull us out of recession over the next 18 months. Will he assure the House that the dropping of regulatory reform from the original title of one of the component Departments does not mean that there will be a relaxation of attention on this important area for small and medium-sized enterprises?

As the Minister responsible for regulatory reform, I can assure him that I do not intend that its importance should drop in any way. It is a vital part of creating a more efficient and competitive economy and I will do all I can to take the agenda forward.

I, too, welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. I lose track, but I think that he is the seventh or eighth Minister whom I have shadowed in the last few years and I genuinely hope that he lasts longer than his predecessors.

Despite the Minister’s claims and his welcome experience in small business, red tape is strangling enterprise. Let me give him an example. To install new microgeneration technologies in this country, a business must comply with not one, two or even three regulators but five separate regulators, three of whom make separate charges. Is that burden of regulation intentional, or is it just the result of ministerial incompetence?

It is never the Government’s intention to create difficulties for anyone. Our intention is to make progress. I should be very glad to have more information about the specific example to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, and I shall gladly look into it. I thank him for his kind words, and assure him that I intend to be here for a very long time.

Scientific Research

My Department will invest some £5.5 billion in research funding in 2009-10. This is made up of the science research budget, which will reach almost £4 billion next year, and the Higher Education Funding Council quality-related research grants.

The Minister will recognise that science is long term and involves dedication. Does he accept that there is consternation in the science community that, since the latest reshuffle, neither of the words “universities” or “science” appears in the name of his Department? Moreover, the Science Minister and the Secretary of State are both in the House of Lords and therefore unaccountable to this House. The Science Minister is also forced to take on defence duties as well, and there is a real fear that the needs of strategic, long-term science will be subordinate to business. How can he reassure the science community on all those points?

I am afraid that I must disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I believe that our Science Minister brings an enormous wealth of expertise from his industrial background that is to the advantage of both the country and the Government. As for the Department, it makes absolute sense to bring together our leading-edge scientific research and support for business and the fields of higher and further education. The economic situation that we face requires all those things to be brought together, in the interests of scientific research and the country’s economic future.

My hon. Friend will know that the investment in science that the Government have made in the north-west of England has paid real dividends, in that it has attracted high-quality science and protected and developed businesses at the leading edge of our economy. Will he assure the House that investment will continue to be made outside the golden triangle of the south-east, and that there will be real investment in science in the regions?

The investment over recent years in the north-west has been extremely welcome, and is a reflection of the fact that the science budget has trebled since 1997. We have maintained our commitment to the science budget, and that stands in contrast to the signals given yesterday, when we were told that the Opposition are planning a 10 per cent. cut across the board in such funding. The sort of choice that the country will face in respect of science funding is therefore quite clear.

May I return to the point made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)? Notwithstanding the Minister’s proper defence of the Science Minister’s credentials, will he accept that there is very real consternation in the universities in general, and the science community in particular, about the fact that the words “universities” and “science” have been deleted from the name of this mega-Department? What can he do truly to reassure us?

The hon. Gentleman has been in the House a very long time, and I have to remind him that it is not unknown for science to be a responsibility of this Department. That was the case until a couple of years ago, so I do not see the need for consternation about its return to the Department. That synergy was there before, and it will still be here in the future.

The leading scientific research undertaken at places like Loughborough university, and the development of resulting products, will be vital if we are to bring our economy out of the current recession. However, although the global figures always sound impressive, is my hon. Friend aware that there is often a shortfall at local level in the amount of funding available for the development of leading scientific projects, and especially for bringing them forward to market? Will he ensure that greater emphasis is placed in future on those technologies that will make a real impact on the economic situation of the east midlands region as a whole? Will he argue the case that, far from being reduced, funding should be increased, as the technologies being developed will create jobs both locally and internationally?

I know that my hon. Friend is a real champion of science funding, research and educational opportunity. His point about the application of science and bringing research to market is well made. We are hugely committed to that. It is one reason we have backed the science budget and why it is in such a different state today from the science budget that we inherited when we came into office. I assure him that that commitment will remain in the future.

May I welcome the Minister for Business to his wider range of responsibilities? Of course, investment in science, technology, engineering, maths, and also in the arts and humanities for the digital economy, is essential if we are to emerge from the recession even stronger. In just a matter of weeks, there will be hundreds of thousands of graduates leaving our universities in the bleakest job market for a generation. Now is an ideal time to expand the research opportunities for them, so that they can learn, invest and build our future, rather than have a taste of the dole queue.

We are acutely aware of the graduates who will come out of universities in the coming months. The predecessor Department, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, announced measures on the expansion of internships and so on to try to expand opportunity for people in that position. I quite agree with him that research should not just be about science; we have also expanded funding to the economic and social research budget, which has gone up from £105 million in 2004-05 to £166 million in the last financial year. Once again, there is a stark contrast between that commitment, and pledges for a 10 per cent. cut across the board from the Conservative party.

Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), one of the key areas in the north-west for science development is the Daresbury laboratory and business park. Its output is key to science, invention and research and to products being brought to market. It is key to have the space and the willingness to develop that through factories and other facilities. There is an important point to be made about Daresbury: it is one of the key areas in the country with the room to do that. I ask my right hon. Friend to make sure that he keeps that in mind when he is looking at funding for science, as Daresbury science and business park is one of the key areas in the country for that.

My hon. Friend makes his point very well. The excellence at Daresbury is well recognised. I know that he is a strong advocate for it, and I can assure him that that is understood in Government. His points about the spin-offs and benefits from that are absolutely correct.

There are clearly many unanswered questions about science funding in the future. Just two years ago, the Prime Minister announced with a great fanfare that he was creating a new Department called the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which basically separated science from business, yet less than two years later he has abandoned that new Department and taken us back to the future, with all the resultant costs and confusion. The question is: was he wrong back then, or is he wrong today? Like Thomas More, I see no further alternative.

I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman has been living for the past two years, but I have to tell him that there have been some changes in the economy in that period. We face a worldwide economic downturn, and in those circumstances it makes absolute sense to bring together science, business, and higher and further education. We now have a Department in which educational opportunity, science and innovation and support for business all work together for the benefit of the country’s economy. That can only be a good thing, and I would have hoped that he supported it. Perhaps he should address his concerns to his party’s Treasury spokespeople, given the 10 per cent. cut in the Department’s budget that his party would make if it had its way.

Further Education Colleges

5. What estimate he has made of the costs incurred by further education colleges in seeking (a) application in principle and (b) application in detail status for the capital expenditure programmes. (279004)

The Learning and Skills Council and independent property consultants are working with colleges to understand the extent of the costs. Until that work is completed we will not know the exact expenditure that colleges have incurred, but no college that has acted reasonably will be left unable to meet its financial obligations relating to that matter.

How many colleges have had to abandon building projects over the past nine months, and what impact will that have on their ability to cut costs to meet Treasury efficiency targets?

It is important to acknowledge the concern felt as a result of what happened, the fact that there was a review subsequently, and the fact that there is a process in place through which colleges will receive decisions in a way that is objective and meets the priorities involved. It is also important to remember that we are talking about not whether, but how investment will be made. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could pledge that his party will meet the investment in further education that this Government are promising.

My hon. Friend knows that his new Department will be judged on how well it does its job, so may I urge him to prioritise the decisions on colleges? When a constituency college of mine, Kirklees college, Huddersfield, took over the failing Dewsbury college, it was given clear promises that it would have a rebuilding scheme. It has been delayed and delayed, however, so it is about time that that bureaucratic nightmare ended and we allowed people to get on with such schemes, which are good for education and good for the regeneration of our towns.

Yes, and may I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s work in his constituency and in his role as a Select Committee Chairman? There is a process in place, and all parties agree that it is the right process to deal with what occurred following the Foster review. The Learning and Skills Council will very shortly take decisions on those projects that meet the priorities and criteria that the Foster review set out. I can promise my hon. Friend that he will not have to wait long for those decisions to be announced.

Colleges throughout the country will have been dismayed to receive from the Learning and Skills Council yet further correspondence stating that the decisions that were supposed to be taken on capital programmes last week have been delayed. Indeed, the LSC’s national projects director said:

“We made an erroneous assumption that 30 to 40 projects might be shovel-ready, but there are an awful lot more.”

Does that not indicate to the House that the LSC is still in turmoil? Perhaps the Minister will reassure the House today. Exactly when can our colleges expect to know whether they will get the money that they so badly need?

The hon. Lady will know that the previous chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council resigned over the matter and that Ministers came to the House and gave an explanation and an apology for what had occurred at the LSC. The new chief executive wrote just last week to all college principals to explain that he was hopeful of announcing the projects that will go through to the next stage of the process very soon, and I have no reason to believe that that is not the case.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend and fellow MP4 band mate on a well-deserved promotion to his new post? We look forward to hearing the song that he will no doubt write about it.

On the colleges issue, my hon. Friend will be well aware of the worry that has been caused, the delay to the capital programme and the money that colleges have already expended in order to be shovel-ready. In my constituency, Goole college, which is part of the Hull college campus, is trying to push forward a project as part of the town’s renaissance project; and, in north Lincolnshire the excellent John Leggott college is shovel-ready and a local contractor, Clugston, is ready to go in and deliver. Will my hon. Friend look into the issue as a priority and give those people the news that they hope to hear?

I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming me to my post. Being shovel-ready—to use the phrase that appears in some papers relating to the issue—is one of the criteria, along with a scheme’s impact on the local economy and local learning, and so on. Those criteria are now being used to come to an objective decision. On his concerns about the expenditure and costs that have been incurred so far, as I said in my answer to the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), reasonable costs will be reimbursed to colleges. I also assure my hon. Friend that the Learning and Skills Council’s decisions will be announced shortly.

I, too, welcome the Minister to his new job or, should I say, jobs, because he has a couple. He has inherited a lamentable situation, but I wish him personally very well and success.

Further education colleges are strongly rooted in their local communities and characterised by their localness and accessibility. They successfully attract many learners from non-traditional backgrounds. What message does the Minister have for the thousands of learners and lecturers who now have to use sub-standard Portakabins and other accommodation as a result of the continuing delays that have been caused by the mismanagement of the capital programme and budget? When does he expect them to have proper classrooms again?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. He and I worked closely together when we were both Whips, and I am sure that that will aid our working relationship in our new roles.

My message to those learners and to people across the country would be that I am positive that far fewer students are in Portakabins now than under the hon. Gentleman’s party when it was in power. During its last year in power, it invested not a penny in further education colleges; there were 7 per cent. real-terms cuts in further education budgets during its last four years of power. From what we heard yesterday, I am afraid that it is clear that if it came back to power, there would be more of the same.

Barnsley college has spent £12 million in preparing for its capital programme refurbishment. It is halfway through a four-phase redevelopment, two phases of which have already been completed. The third phase led to the demolition of the college. We are not only shovel-ready, to use the silly phrase, but the shovels have been on site since last year. Our programme has been interrupted, but there is absolutely no reason why the Learning and Skills Council cannot allow the project to continue. Barnsley college is £12 million in debt—technically, it is insolvent.

I can reassure my hon. Friend by repeating the commitment that no college will be allowed to become insolvent as a result of the process. My hon. Friend raised the matter with the Prime Minister yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, and he was probably reasonably pleased with the answer. Barnsley college is one of the colleges being considered by the Learning and Skills Council under the objective criteria following the publication of the Foster report. I am pleased that there has been a high level of investment so far in the college, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will not have to wait long to hear from the LSC about whether Barnsley college has been successful in its next phase.

Adult Numeracy and Literacy

6. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of adult numeracy and literacy courses. (279006)

Since we launched our skills for life strategy in 2001, we have enabled 2.8 million people to achieve nationally recognised qualifications. Our strategy is changing lives and helping people to find, stay and progress in work, increase their earnings, help their children and play a more active role in their communities.

I very much welcome that response, and I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position. Does he agree that there are some real signs of improvement in our colleges due to the Government’s early action? Job losses, however, remain part of the landscape. Will he encourage more people to take up the courses so that, if they happen to lose their jobs, they will be in a much better place from which to apply for new ones?

I thank my hon. Friend for her welcome, although she slightly inflated my status. It is important that we commit to going further and try to be ambitious about our targets and ambitions for literacy and numeracy; that is why we recently refreshed our skills for life strategy in relation to those skills. It is also important to remember that the skills impact not only on the adult who acquires them, but on that adult’s family. The ability to read a story to the children and help them with their sums and homework is really important. It is essential that we change the culture around such issues in our country—particularly in respect of numeracy, which has not been given the importance that it should have been in relation to literacy. We have a lot more to do, but good progress has been made so far.

Should not numeracy and literacy be taught first in the home? We should encourage families to eat together, speak together and learn children the language and social skills that they need, rather than leaving that to public sector funding. We need to resolve the problem of broken families.

We do, although we should teach the children rather than “learn” them, as the hon. Lady said. Seriously, though, she is right that such skills must start in the home. That is why it is so important that those basic skills should be taught to adults who have not acquired them. We are trying to address the issue from both ends, through, first, improving literacy and numeracy delivery in schools. That has been going on for the past 12 years. Remember that children who started school in 1997 are now young adults coming through the system. We are also trying to make up for the decades of neglect of literacy and numeracy. We could blame Macmillan, Harold Wilson or anyone we like, but the legacy needs to be dealt with. That is what we are trying to do. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We must try to think family as we try to enable the skills to be taught from an early age.

Higher Education Facilities

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Higher Education Funding Council for England on new locations for higher education facilities in England. (279007)

On 6 May, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) wrote to the HEFCE reaffirming the Government’s commitment to the new university challenge.

Is the Minister aware that probably nowhere in England is further away from any institute of higher education than Berwick-upon-Tweed, and that a very good community-based bid involving Sunderland university and institutions on both sides of the border is going to be submitted? May I ask her and her fellow Ministers to take a close personal interest in filling this gap and bringing something to Berwick that would be hugely beneficial on both sides of the border?

As the right hon. Gentleman may know, some 27 areas have expressed an initial interest in applying for a new university centre. We have been delighted with the enthusiastic response from partnerships across the whole of England. I am sure that the application from his constituency will be considered alongside all the others, but we certainly take a special interest in it.

My right hon. Friend will know that in South Yorkshire our only higher education institutions are based in Sheffield. As long ago as the early 1990s, the three former coalfield boroughs of Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster were successful in winning city challenge funding from the previous Government. We tried to make our flagship project the establishment of a university of the coalfields in the Dearne valley. Would it not be fantastic if this Government could achieve the grand objective that the boroughs set, as long ago as the early 1990s, of establishing a university of the coalfields in the Dearne valley in South Yorkshire?

I know how passionately my hon. Friend feels about the quite low aspirations, in a sense, to go to university that there have been in our area among young people. I know, not only as a fellow South Yorkshire MP but as the regional Minister, that he has been campaigning extremely hard on that. He is absolutely right—we need to do everything we can to support young people in our area in going to university. That has been our aim, and it will continue to be so.

Intellectual Property

The Government work to tackle IP crime in three main areas. First, we have to get the legal framework right, so I have been working with my ministerial colleagues on the “Digital Britain” agenda, particularly on the problem of file sharing. Secondly, we have to co-ordinate enforcement activities. That is why I have set up a new ministerial group to deal with issues of enforcement and to support the IP group. Of course, we also have to raise capacity and awareness.

Does the Minister agree that online piracy represents a threat to the survival of the TV, film and music industries? What progress has he made in persuading internet service providers to take action against illegal file sharers by adopting a graduated response? Can he confirm that the Government will legislate to back up any action that is agreed?

The hon. Gentleman is right; this important issue is challenging Governments across the world. Indeed, over the weekend elected politicians have been standing on that agenda in Sweden, and he will be aware of issues that have been raised in France. In this country, we have said that it is important to move to notification, which will reduce file-sharing activity so that people know that what they are doing is illegal, and we will move towards legislating to compel internet service providers and rights holders to work together.

Apprenticeship Courses

9. How much has been allocated to fund apprenticeship courses in (a) South-West Bedfordshire and (b) England in 2009-10. (279010)

Funding allocations to apprenticeship training providers in England, including Bedfordshire, for the 2009-10 academic year have not yet been confirmed. The national apprenticeship service will notify providers later this month. We expect to spend about £1 billion on apprenticeships in 2008-09 and more than £1 billion in 2009-10.

Of course, we are not cutting any student places. In relation to apprenticeships in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, my understanding is that Bedford Training, for example, has exceeded its maximum contract value and reported a waiting list of 20 learners, but will have enough funding in 2009-10 to recruit all 20. However, if I am incorrect about the issue that he raises, I will meet him and ensure that we look into it.

I welcome my hon. Friend to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but I hope that he accepts that there is a funding problem. It has been primarily caused by many employers trying to cope with the recession and having in their terms to cut back, and apprenticeships are one area in which they are doing so. A number of young apprentices in my constituency have finished only 50 per cent. of their courses. I ask my hon. Friend to look at that problem to see how he can help those young people to complete their apprenticeships.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, although I should point out to her that adult starts on apprenticeships have risen from 300 in 2006-07 to 27,000 in 2007-08, so the context is increased investment rather than any reduction. We have to make that clear. However, she is absolutely right to point out that redundancy can have an impact on apprentices, as it can on anyone else during an economic downturn. The national apprenticeship service provides a one-stop shop for employers, providers and learners to access information support should that occur, and the intention is to place apprentices on suitable schemes. Also, the length of time for which they may undertake training if they cannot immediately be placed has been extended. However, it is important to set the context of the increased investment and number of apprentice places.

I welcome the Minister and the rest of the team to their posts. Members of all parties are really pleased to see the rise in the number of adult apprenticeships, and the funding for 2010 looks reasonably secure. The problem that the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) raised was about employers taking part.

On 9 June, in a comment to The Guardian, the Chancellor made it clear that education would be one of the priorities after 2010, together with housing, transport and health. Will the Minister give the House a categorical guarantee that in that period the funding for adult skills—particularly adult FE and higher education, which will be crucial to the future of our economy—will be maintained and not cut?

The commitment of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to apprenticeships is well known and long-standing, and I confirm that it will remain an absolute priority of this Government to grow the number of apprentices and invest in them. I have been appointed Minister with responsibility for apprentices and will work in the Department for Children, Schools and Families as well as the new Business Department, which shows our commitment to connecting the under-19 and adult apprenticeship schemes. I also commit to engaging an apprentice in my own private office.

I, too, congratulate Ministers on their new posts, although we believe that our colleges and universities are not simply the instruments of a Business Department, and they certainly do not look forward to reporting to Alan Sugar.

I congratulate the Department on its efforts to improve social mobility with an imaginative new route into the House of Lords—four Ministers so far, and at least another one on the way. Does the Minister recognise that in order really to improve social mobility we have to spread apprenticeships and provide new routes from them to university? Does he accept that at the moment, the biggest single victims of the recession are young people? They see apprenticeships disappearing even after they have been started, and they face the prospect of finding it hard to get to university when they apply, and of being unemployed when they leave university. Will the Minister, new to these responsibilities, make a simple commitment that no young person who has started an apprenticeship will find themselves losing it before they have been able to complete it?

As I said earlier, some redundancies in firms are inevitable during an economic downturn and a recession, and that could include apprenticeships. I have committed to ensuring that the national apprenticeship service will do all it can to place those apprentices in similar apprenticeships elsewhere, and that extended training is available if that is not possible in the immediate future.

The hon. Gentleman is right about social mobility and the need to focus on younger people and apprenticeships and increase the numbers. As someone from a working-class background, with a steelworker for a father and a dinner lady for a mother, I know something about social mobility and the importance of training, education and apprenticeships. I knew as a young man growing up in south Wales that many of my friends benefited from the apprenticeships that were decimated when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power. That is why we are making such investment. We will publish a framework in the summer for apprentices getting through to university.

Topical Questions

Our Department brings together support for business and enterprise with innovation, skills and further and higher education policy to ensure that we foster competitiveness and spread opportunity. All that is important to Britain’s economic future.

Are the Government still committed to implementing the entire package of reforms proposed by Richard Hooper on regulation, pensions and ownership? Lord Mandelson recently said that that was vital to the Royal Mail. Is it still vital or has it been ditched to save the Prime Minister’s skin?

The reform of Royal Mail is important, and Richard Hooper recommended the three elements that the hon. Gentleman outlined. The Bill to carry forward those reforms has completed its stages in the other place and been introduced here. Its Second Reading is a decision for the business managers at the appropriate time. On whether all three elements are essential, they are very important, but, as the Secretary of State also said, we will continue to try to secure best value for the taxpayer, and the timetable for any transaction for Royal Mail may be a little longer than that for the legislation.

T3. This Government have given a clear commitment to continuing to support business and enterprise during the recession. What additional dividends does my right hon. Friend anticipate from the appointment of Sir Alan Sugar to the departmental team? (279026)

Sir Alan Sugar is one of Britain’s most well known and respected entrepreneurs. He will act as an adviser to Government—not as a Minister. We believe that it is important to draw on that sort of entrepreneurial talent precisely because of the economic challenges that the country faces. While we draw on the best talent available, others are indulging in parlour games about peers and personalities. We will continue to draw on whatever talent is necessary to do the best economic job for the country.

May I congratulate the Minister on his elevation to Cabinet status in Lord Mandelson’s amazing, ever-expanding empire, which now stretches from space to defence sales to universities and further education? No doubt Lord Mandelson has other territorial ambitions in mind.

On 11 May in the House of Lords, Lord Mandelson said:

“It would be irresponsible of the Government to allow delays to the suite of measures needed to reform Royal Mail and secure the future of the universal postal service… Any delay would merely serve to threaten the sustainability of the network.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 May 2009; Vol. 710, c. 848.]

The Minister knows that we expected Second Reading of the Bill two days ago, on Tuesday. He knows that it is the acid test of whether this lame-duck Government are any longer capable of delivering a difficult decision about any important subject. Why is the Bill being delayed if it is not because of the internal political dissension in the extraordinary Cabinet in which he now finds himself serving?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman must know that no date for a Second Reading was announced. The Government are committed—[Interruption.] The Government are committed to reform of the Royal Mail. The challenges that it faces in addressing the pension fund deficit, the need for investment and change, and the need to change the regulatory system are real. We remain committed to the legislation, which will be brought forward. What the Secretary of State also said about the transaction is that we have a duty to secure the best value of money for the taxpayer and to have an eye to the market conditions, but the legislation will be brought forward.

T6. I am very pleased that this year 55 per cent. more young people in Stockport are going to university than in 1997. The new university centre, in which Stockport college of further education has expressed an interest, will encourage even more young people to do higher degrees. However, Stockport college is still in negotiations with the Learning and Skills Council about its capital programme. When a final decision is made, may I urge the Minister to ensure that consideration is given to the college’s excellent record of achievement and that funding is released so that the college can complete its new town centre campus? (279029)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaigning and lobbying that she has done on behalf of her constituents. I know that she wrote to the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills earlier this month to reiterate her support for that programme. As I said earlier in questions, the Learning and Skills Council will be announcing decisions in the near future. One criterion in the new objective set of criteria that followed the report commissioned earlier this year is the ability of any investment to impact on learning.

I brought a legislative reform order on insolvency before the House just some weeks ago, and I recommend the debate to the hon. Gentleman very strongly.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the provision of learning for pleasure and its importance to communities, and to older people in particular? I thank her for recently leading a lively debate with some lively elderly people in my constituency, on Bar lane in Riddlesden. Learning for pleasure can mean all sorts of things, and can create cross-departmental savings and advantages. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to hark back to 1983, when I took a course at my local college—I was unemployed at the time—in teaching English as a second language. As a result, for four years I dedicated my Wednesday mornings to teaching young Pakistani women who had entered this country as wives. They were not allowed to go to the local college, but I was able to introduce them to English, which was a useful exercise for them and me.

I have very fond memories of the meeting that I had with those lively older people in my hon. Friend’s constituency. They were extremely keen to put their views on how important learning is for older people. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have studied the White Paper “The Learning Revolution”, which sets out an ambitious vision for community learning in the 21st century, with £30 million of spending added to it. She is quite right that there is often a social impact too. The experience that she described is one that I know is shared by many others. The White Paper will do a lot to encourage that kind of activity.

T5. The Minister responsible for further education will be aware that the College of West Anglia in my constituency is one of those colleges whose capital programme has been put on hold. It was to have a new campus which would have been the centrepiece and foundation stone of a major regeneration project in South Lynn. The delay will not only impact on the wider community but cause widespread anxiety among the staff, lecturers and students at the college. Will the Minister confirm that the changes and reorganisations in his Department will not impact in any way on the LSC’s decision? (279028)

I can absolutely confirm that the changes in the Department will not impact on that, because we have already set in place the necessary measures to resolve the issue of the pipeline projects—the capital projects for FE colleges—through the Foster review, which has set out the objective criteria that are to be followed. They include considerations of the impact on regeneration and on learning, and of whether a project is ready to go ahead. I should like to add that, in this year’s Budget, the Chancellor pledged an additional £300 million for that capital project in recognition of its importance during the economic downturn. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he will not have to wait much longer to hear the results of the LSC’s deliberations.

T8. May I press my hon. Friend on the case for the Mid-Cheshire college redevelopment? It is an absolutely fantastic £35 million redevelopment project for a college that provides an outstanding quality of education. However, the project is not quite shovel-ready, and the fact that delays to the shovel-ready projects have already been announced means that colleges further down the line will face even more delays. The college is desperate to know the time lines for the decision on its allocation so that it can plan for the future. It is also worried that the LSC’s recent announcements on the criteria used to determine funding do not mention quality. Surely the funding should follow quality, and outstanding colleges such as Mid-Cheshire college should benefit from that funding. (279031)

Funding will follow—or will lead—improved learning opportunities. That is part of the project. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done to promote that project in his constituency. The projects that are not quite ready to be dealt with at this stage will be dealt with later in the year if they are at the appropriate stage by then. In addition to the £300 million from the Budget, which I mentioned earlier, an additional £2.3 billion will be spent on these projects during this comprehensive spending review period. Furthermore, there has already been an indicative letter from the Treasury to the Learning and Skills Council about a further pledge of £300 million a year, so this is not something that will come to an end—provided, that is, that we have a Government who are committed to making that investment.

T10. The education maintenance allowance has been a huge success. However, one of its problems is that there is a sharp cut-off related to parental income. One of my constituents, a single parent, has a son at university and another in sixth-form college. Does the Minister accept that the sharp income-related cut-off takes no account of additional circumstances and can discourage many people from staying on in education? Will he look into that? (279033)

I do not think that I can agree with the hon. Gentleman that the scheme discourages young people from staying on. Quite the contrary: when I have visited colleges, I have spoken to young people who are very grateful for the EMA. It has been a success. However, I am willing to look into the particular circumstances that he mentions, although that has not been what I have heard as I have gone round the colleges and universities.

Notwithstanding the answer that the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills gave earlier, does not he recognise that the Postal Services Bill seems to have disappeared into the legislative ether, somewhere between the other place and Committee Room 14? Does not he accept that one part of that Bill is of particular importance for the future, whatever happens? That is the regulatory toolkit that is needed and that has been agreed on by those on both sides of the House. If he is not going to bring the Bill forward, will he at least agree to bring that measure forward?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that regulatory change in postal services is necessary, and the proposal in the Bill is to put at the heart of the new regulatory system the maintenance of the universal service—the six days a week, one-price-goes-anywhere service that is at the heart of our postal system. I remind the House that the conclusion drawn by Richard Hooper was that if we did not change and reform the Royal Mail, that service would be under threat. That is what has happened in some other countries, and it is certainly not what we want to see here in the United Kingdom.

May I refer once again to the LSC’s review of further education college building, particularly in respect of the Manchester college? In terms of excellence, capacity to learn and shovel-readiness, that college’s proposals are high on the priority list. Manchester college differs from other further education colleges in that further education is the most likely route in Manchester for the overwhelming majority of young people in post-school education, as they do not go in sufficient numbers into higher education. It thus matters far more that our FE system, which is already excellent, is improved. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that point on board.

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a powerful point on behalf of his constituents and shows his intimate knowledge of the education system in his constituency. I can only repeat that the LSC is considering all the projects in the pipeline and will make its announcement shortly, based on the objective criteria that we have talked about. We should remember that this is not about whether we should make investment in further education, but about how we make it, which is in stark contrast to what would happen if the Conservative party were in power.