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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 499: debated on Thursday 12 November 2009

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Minister of State was asked—

Higher Education

Last week, we published our higher education framework. There has been a narrowing in the gap between the least advantaged and the most advantaged in terms of higher education participation in recent years, but we want to go further, for example by supporting many of the recommendations in the recent report by the panel on fair access to the professions chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn).

I thank the Minister for that answer. Increasing additional student numbers is incredibly important to constituencies such as mine in Milton Keynes where there is a relatively low participation rate in higher education. Can the Minister give me any good news about the expansion of the new university centre in Milton Keynes and perhaps about having additional student numbers for those who are studying HE in further education colleges?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her doughty championing of extending universities’ reach across Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes is offering higher education to more students through the Open university than any other university in the country. My hon. Friend was lucky and successful in her bid to extend that reach to mature students and part-time students in Milton Keynes. Additional student numbers are of course an issue for the funding council, but I know that the business plan, as it comes forward, will make that case even stronger.

It is probably common ground between those on all three Front Benches that there is a problem of fair access to some of our research-intensive universities and to particular courses. Does the Minister not accept that the brave new world for which he is preparing the ground, with the connivance of those on the Conservative Front Bench, with fully variable market fees after the next general election will make those barriers even harder for people from poorer backgrounds to leap?

I am going to take every opportunity to expose the conceit of the Liberal Democrats over the next few months. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said that they would turn their backs on the 50 per cent. participation rate and their leader said that they would downgrade their position on tuition fees because they could not cost it after the election. That is the Liberal Democrats’ position—conceit and taking our students for granted.

My understanding is that Cambridge and Oxford still refuse to let full-time students work during term time. The access regulator, as I understand it, has never imposed any sanctions against any university. Will my right hon. Friend look into this?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that point to my attention. He knows that universities are autonomous, but I had not heard that before. I will look into the matter and discuss it with the funding council.

In a written answer, the Minister confessed that only 6 per cent. of state school pupils aged 15 progressed to Russell group universities. Of those few, just one in 10 are from the bottom two socio-economic groups. It is clear that very few such students get to our longest established universities. Vitally, many from more disadvantaged backgrounds study HE in FE, but we know from an answer just this morning that this figure is falling too. So is the Government’s expensive Aimhigher programme a failure, or are the answers to the parliamentary questions inadvertently incorrect? It must be one or the other: is it failure or fallacy?

Universities, parents and students up and down the country will be very nervous that a Conservative Government would cut Aimhigher. The socio-economic gap between those in the highest and lowest groups is down by 7 per cent., while participation from the poorest neighbourhoods in the country and from state schools is up. All that is against the backdrop of the Conservatives slashing funding for universities. We have seen an increase of 25 per cent. in the participation rate, so will the hon. Gentleman commit to a 50 per cent.—

Order. I gently say to the Minister of State that the purpose of Question Time is for questions to be put to Ministers, rather than to members of the Opposition.

My right hon. Friend knows that I have been campaigning for fair access for many years, but can we ensure that fair access means that students are suitably qualified and that they can speak and write English properly? In addition, do they not need to work a bit harder, as at present the average student in our universities does not work hard enough?

My hon. Friend has been a campaigner for the use of contextual data in the past, and I hope that he will welcome that in the higher education framework. I think it best that I leave his words of advice to students to him, as that is a point that only he could make.

High-Speed Broadband

2. What steps he plans to take to provide support for development of high-speed broadband networks. (299490)

11. What steps he plans to take to provide support for development of high-speed broadband networks. (299500)

The “Digital Britain” White Paper, published on 16 June, outlined the Government’s plans for a next-generation fund, which will help to deliver at least 90 per cent. coverage of next-generation broadband for homes and businesses by 2017. The fund will be created through a levy of 50p per month on all fixed telecommunication lines.

The distinguished Government adviser Professor Andrew Cave has said that the wrong sort of regulation will deter private investment. Charles Dunstone of TalkTalk has said that the telephone tax will delay it. Why is the Minister introducing a telephone tax, and a wireless broadband tax of £100 a year that will hit our small businesses?

I am surprised and disappointed that the Opposition are setting their face against a policy that will extend broadband to rural communities and create an inclusive broadband system. The Government have a firm and decisive position, and I would be very interested to hear what alternative proposals the Opposition have for delivering broadband to the rest of the country.

Other countries are laying fibre-optic cable to thousands of homes, so why have UK operators barely started to think about doing so? BT, protected by its monopoly over the local loop, appears to be making minimal investment. If we are to get a universal 2 megabit broadband connection by 2012, are the Government not going to have to raise their game in a serious way?

With respect, the Government have set out clear policies to intervene, where appropriate, to take the market position forward. Of course, a great deal of investment must be made by the private sector to take forward the extension of broadband across the UK, but the Government must also play their part. We are doing that by making it very clear indeed that we will support the development of broadband so that we have an inclusive broadband system in the UK.

How acceptable is it that a village like Hilton in my constituency, which has a population of nearly 4,000, should have a speed that is too low to enable people to carry out any normal domestic activities? Its thriving business sector also struggles with a speed that is unacceptable. Is it not correct to take a tougher regulatory line with BT?

Of course, it is not acceptable that individuals and businesses are excluded from access to broadband. It means that they cannot develop as they would like. For that reason, the Government have set out a clear policy and are determined to act to extend broadband coverage across the country.

Internet service providers will lose income from people who are cut off as a result of allegations of illicit file-sharing, yet the figures used by my hon. Friend’s Department to assess the scale of internet piracy are provided by the music industry and are based on a poor sample—fewer than 200—and have been soundly ridiculed by the BBC. Will he give me a guarantee that he will review those figures?

It is extremely important that we recognise the huge impact that illegal file-sharing is having on creative industries, such as the music and film industries, in which we excel in the UK. Any suggestion of removing access from individuals would be very much a last resort, but there is a real issue that we need to confront and deal with, and we shall look closely at the available solutions.

Will the Minister accept that the way we shall get the private sector to create a really competitive market in the roll-out of broadband is by allowing different digital platforms access to content, particularly of BSkyB’s premium programmes? What is he doing to make sure that Ofcom creates that wide competitive programme, rather than simply giving in to Murdoch?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Labour Members never like giving in to Murdoch and we are, therefore, very keen indeed to create and take forward a competitive business model. We are not in anyone’s pocket. We want to create a level playing field in the UK and we shall work with business to achieve it.

Business Investment (Yorkshire)

My Department is taking a number of steps to support businesses and promote investment across the regions, including schemes such as grants for business investment, the enterprise finance guarantee and support for collaborative research and development projects. In addition, BIS supports the regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, which has spent more than £200 million supporting businesses in the last two years.

York is performing better than many other cities in the economic downturn. We have a lot of vigorous private sector businesses, but they need help not just with investment, but with exports and in building up their skills base through training. To what extent is Yorkshire Forward focusing on those needs?

My hon. Friend is quite right to point out the local situation in York. He has been very involved in ensuring that there is help for businesses. In fact, Yorkshire Forward supported 17 companies in York during the first two quarters of this year as part of its targeted export support services and, through the Train to Gain enhancement fund, it has supported 32 York businesses. That is a good track record for the RDA in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Can the Minister explain why small businesses in York and north Yorkshire say that they cannot have access to credit and finance from the Government and from the finance credit guarantee to which she referred? What are the Government doing to make that finance and credit available?

Through Yorkshire Forward, we have established Business Link as the first port of call for businesses to get advice, often, for example, on how to have a free financial health check. That has enabled them to put a case together and access the enterprise finance guarantee and other initiatives. I have to say to the hon. Lady that her party voted against all help in such circumstances—

May I tell the Minister that yesterday I was at the launch in Leeds of two research papers commissioned by The Northern Way, highlighting the significant role that all three RDAs—Yorkshire Forward, Northwest RDA and OneNortheast—are playing in supporting local businesses in their regions? Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to strengthen the links between the three RDAs if we are to continue to accelerate economic development in the regions and attract skilled workers?

My hon. Friend is quite right to point to the work that has been done across the northern regions. The work of The Northern Way has focused very much on what needs to be done during the economic downturn and in planning for the recovery. The work of the RDAs has been absolutely crucial during this time, and the Conservative party has sent out very conflicting messages about the future—

Is it true that the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) who just asked the right hon. Lady that question is her deputy Regional Minister? If it is true, how can it happen?

Because my hon. Friend is doing a great job in ensuring that we work closely with business organisations, the regional development agency and local authorities in Yorkshire and the Humber, to ensure that real help is made available to those businesses and individuals and that we are planning properly for the recovery. The Conservative party voted against all those measures and has no answers for the future in Yorkshire and the Humber.

Order. I want to make great progress in getting down the Order Paper. At the moment, questions and answers are too long, and they need to be shorter.

Minimum Wage (Tips)

4. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of measures to prevent tips being counted towards salaries in calculation of the national minimum wage. (299493)

Measures to prevent tips from being counted towards salaries in calculating the minimum wage were introduced by the Government on 1 October this year. The public do not expect the tips that they leave for staff to be used to make up the minimum wage, and the change that we have introduced brings clarity for customers, staff and employers. We will ask the Low Pay Commission to review the measure next year, as part of its annual reporting process.

In constituencies such as Cleethorpes, where many people work in the hospitality industry, this move has been widely welcomed, but can my right hon. Friend tell me whether there is still a difference if people tip via cash or credit or debit card? With one of those methods, the money used to go to staff, and with the other, it did not. Will he clarify the position?

Yes, I am very happy to clarify that. My hon. Friend is right that, in the past, the law treated tips differently depending on whether they were left by cash or by credit card. The change that we have made clarifies the position and makes it clear that all tips and gratuities, whether left by cash or by credit card, can no longer be used to make up the minimum wage. That is right; it is an important measure of justice for service workers; and it is entirely in line with the public’s expectations.

Apprenticeships

5. How many young people started an apprenticeship in (a) Shipley constituency and (b) England in the latest period for which figures are available. (299494)

Some 220 young people aged 16 to 18 started apprenticeships in Shipley in 2007-08, and 107,600 did so in England. The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill will ensure that all young people receive objective and comprehensive advice about their options at the age of 16 and that an apprenticeship place is available for all suitably qualified young people by 2013.

I thank the Minister for those figures, but will he break them down further and explain how many of them were real, traditional apprenticeships, as most people in this country would understand them, and how many of them were other forms of training that the Government call apprenticeships for reasons of political spin?

The hon. Gentleman’s attitude is rather disappointing and rather out of date. More than 180 apprenticeship frameworks, across all sorts of careers, are available now in the UK since the Government rescued apprenticeships from the oblivion that they were heading towards under the Conservative party.

Does my hon. Friend agree that Shipley and England in general can learn from best practice on apprenticeships from across the UK, including Wales and, in my constituency, Rhyl college, which has had a £4 million extension to increase the number of apprenticeships? Will he join me in congratulating Rhyl college, which has been a finalist for a beacon award in open access?

I have always considered Rhyl a beacon for other towns across the UK, and I join my hon. Friend in congratulating his local college on its achievement.

If the Minister is so keen on apprenticeships, will he explain to the House why, in the leaked document that I have before me, he proposes cuts to the funding of apprenticeships, and why he is doing so little to help apprentices who are losing their jobs during the recession? Why does he not adopt our policy of a clearing house to help apprentices who lose their jobs to find new employers? If he will not do that, why does he not ask Lord Sugar to take that on? That might be a better use of Lord Sugar’s time than denouncing Britain’s hard-working small businesses, which is all that he seems to do at the moment. Or is it a case of “Lord Sugar, you’re fired”?

The hon. Gentleman raises a number of issues. Of course, the so-called secret document to which he refers confirmed savings announced in the Budget. It just goes to show that if one wants to keep something secret, one should announce it in the House of Commons. Those figures were no secret to anybody in the further education sector. It was not a secret document, and of course it did not propose a cut in apprenticeship numbers. We are confident that we can maintain the numbers by reducing unit cost. I thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome greater efficiency.

Employees’ Rights

6. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that employees’ rights are adhered to in the workplace; and if he will make a statement. (299495)

Last year, the Government launched a £6 million, three-year information campaign to make sure that vulnerable workers are aware of their rights and of how to report abuses. As part of our efforts, we recently launched the pay and work rights helpline on 0800 917 2368. It combines the functions of five previous helplines, making it easier for vulnerable workers to report bad treatment at work. Today, we are also announcing specific plans to ban up-front fees in the modelling and entertainment industry, to stop agencies trying to exploit young people who are trying to break into those industries.

I welcome that response, but may I remind my right hon. Friend of his words in July? He told the BBC:

“We know that there will be a minority of employers out there who will try to get around the law and perhaps that temptation increases in a recession, but we are determined that the recession must not be an excuse for people to be denied their basic employment rights.”

Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree with the 156 people who have signed early-day motion 2099, and will he implement the agency workers directive now?

It is perfectly normal for member states to be given three years to implement such directives. We will legislate to implement the directive in the coming months, but I have to tell my hon. Friend that if the Opposition had their way, the issue would not be whether the measure was implemented next year or the year after that, but whether it was implemented at all. The Leader of the Opposition said last week—

Order. The Minister’s responsibility is to answer questions appertaining to the policy of the Government, not the Opposition.

Will the Minister confirm that the helpline number that he has given to the House is available to hon. Members’ staff who are threatened with redundancy by the recommendations of Sir Christopher Kelly?

The helpline is open to all. It will, of course, be up to the enforcement agency to decide whether to take up cases referred to it.

EU Agency Workers Directive

8. What plans he has for implementation of the EU agency workers directive; and if he will make a statement. (299497)

The Government are committed to getting the legislation on to the statute book by the end of this Parliament; my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed that in his recent speech to the TUC. Last month, we published draft regulations that are scheduled to come into force in 2011.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether he has received any representations from those who would seek to ensure that the directive does not apply to the United Kingdom? Did they make those representations to him because they want to attack vulnerable workers, or is it, for them, merely another promise on Europe to be broken?

If you will permit me, Mr. Speaker, I will answer the question. Yes, we have heard calls for social and employment legislation to be repatriated, and for us not to go ahead with the legislation. I do not know where the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) stands on the issue, but I do not believe that that would be in the interests of the country, when agreements have already been reached in Europe, or in the interests of agency workers, for whom we want to ensure justice, through the implementation, on a proper time scale, of the legislation.

Conservatives did, indeed, campaign for a delay to the agency workers directive’s implementation until November 2011, and business was very relieved when the Government conceded to that delay. But, given the regulations’ complexity, why are the Government now pandering to trade union demands to push the measures through before the general election?

It is perfectly normal for legislation to be passed by this House and then for a period to elapse before its implementation. There is nothing unusual about that, and there is no undue delay to the matter. When such directives are agreed in Europe, it is perfectly normal for member states to be given up to three years to implement them. We have stuck by what we said we would do on the legislation, which is to legislate in the coming months and to have an implementation time scale on the basis that we have set out.

Small and Medium-sized Businesses

9. What progress he has made on ensuring increased access to finance for small and medium-sized businesses. (299498)

A number of targeted interventions are working to ensure access to finance for small and medium-sized businesses. They include the enterprise finance guarantee, whereby 6,240 businesses have been offered loans totalling £630 million to date, and the capital for enterprise fund, whereby £60 million has been offered to 40 businesses.

Picking up the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) made, I wonder whether the Minister agrees with her new noble Friend Lord Sugar, the Prime Minister’s enterprise tsar, who said that those small businesses that are trying to seek credit are merely moaners and living in Disneyland.

That is not my understanding of what Lord Sugar said. However, there has been very good progress in terms of the enterprise finance guarantee, and, as I said, about £630 million has been offered to small and medium-sized enterprises. The hon. Gentleman needs to understand that his party totally opposed those facilities, and that, working with regional development agencies and local authorities, we have not only got real help out there to businesses during these difficult economic times, but set out a very clear plan for the recovery regionally, locally and nationally.

Will my right hon. Friend look at access to finance for research and development in manufacturing and, in particular, the position in Coventry, where Ericsson is sacking 700 skilled workers because it cannot access R and D money owing to its status as a cost centre, and not a profit centre? That seems a big restriction.

I will certainly take up with the regional development agency the issues that my hon. Friend raises, because finance is available to undertake research and development. Obviously, we regret Ericsson’s announcement. It will remain a large investor, so it is not leaving the UK entirely, but I understand the feeling that it will be a great loss to the west midlands.

Access to, and the cost of, bank credit remains a critical issue for many small and medium-sized businesses. However, the financial crisis has equally shown the need for better access to equity finance. In that regard, does the Minister agree that to address the equity gap we need to put in place mechanisms, including local enterprise funds and even regional stock exchanges, such as the very successful Investbx? How are the Government going to achieve that?

Certainly, the recently launched innovation funds will be extremely helpful in that regard. The hon. Gentleman may also be aware of a number of regional development agencies that are considering using European regional development fund money in order to look at venture capital funds and ensure that there is capital for the future.

Grocery Supply Ombudsman

10. What recent representations he has received on the Competition Commission’s proposals for a grocery supply ombudsman. (299499)

We have received a number of oral and written representations from interested parties, expressing a range of views on the Competition Commission’s proposal for a grocery supply code of practice ombudsman. Those views, together with the commission’s careful analysis, will be taken into account when we reach our decision shortly.

After 10 years of inquiries, the Competition Commission’s recommendation clearly identified that supermarkets transfer excessive risk and unexpected costs, to the detriment of both suppliers and consumers. Surely for the Government this is more of a Kelly inquiry moment than a Professor Nutt moment. Are there any circumstances in which the Government have ever refused to accept the clear recommendations of the Competition Commission in this way?

As I discussed with the hon. Gentleman just last week when he came to meet me about this subject, Parliament ultimately intends Ministers to take decisions. That is why the power rests with Ministers, and I think he would be the first to criticise me as a Minister if I simply accepted every recommendation without giving it due consideration.

It is very clear that small food producers face unfair competition with large retailers. The Competition Commission has made a recommendation. When are the Government going to make a decision and announce it?

Groceries Supplies (Code of Conduct)

12. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the grocery industry on establishing a groceries supply code of conduct. (299501)

The answer is none. The Competition Commission has powers under the Enterprise Act 2002 to put in place the revised groceries supply code of practice without involvement from Government. It laid that order on 4 August, and it will come into force on 4 February 2010.

Why is it taking so long to establish an ombudsman, and will my hon. Friend please take note of the representations that he has received today and act quickly?

I will take note of the representations from hon. Members, and in the very near future I will meet interested parties to give further consideration to the matter of the ombudsman. As I said, the code will come into force on 4 February next year.

In Desborough in my constituency, the Co-op has the only supermarket in town and it has restrictive covenants on other sites where supermarkets might locate. Those covenants are effectively acting as a brake on the economic redevelopment of the town. What will the Government do to ensure that they do not act as a brake on economic growth?

That is a separate matter for the Competition Commission, which is considering whether changes are necessary in planning requirements to do with competition. Again, the Government will respond shortly on that matter.

Labour Force Re-skilling

13. What expenditure his Department has incurred on labour force re-skilling initiatives in the last 12 months. (299502)

In 2008-09, investment in work-based learning through Train to Gain and apprenticeships was £1.2 billion. The Department has also focused the total adult skills budget towards skills and qualifications that support progression into and within sustainable employment, as set out in the November 2008 investment strategy.

Following on from the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), may I ask the Minister what discussions he has had with Tata and Ericsson about the Ansty technology park in Coventry? As my hon. Friend indicated, 700 jobs are going to be cut there arbitrarily, and the potential creation of 2,000 jobs has been stopped. What discussions have taken place with both companies?

I understand that the Secretary of State has already been in discussion with the companies about that. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination said earlier, the Government regret Ericsson’s announcement. It will remain a large investor in the UK, but nevertheless the jobs involved are highly skilled and will be a great loss in the west midlands, so we are currently in discussions with the company to see what the Government could do to try to alter its decision.

According to the recent CBI report on skills funding, this year the Government’s Train to Gain programme will fund eight times more courses at level 2 and below than at level 3, with funding often just going to badge up existing skills. Does the Minister think that that lack of focus on technical skills is why four in 10 businesses say that Train to Gain adds nothing to their organisation?

As I said earlier, Mr. Speaker, if you want to keep something a secret, announce it in the House of Commons. The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed, but yesterday we launched a White Paper setting out our policies in this regard, including creating an extra 35,000 apprenticeships at level 3 to raise the level of skills and deal with the problem of what is sometimes called “assess assess.”

Free Trade Agreement (Colombia)

14. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on a mandate for the European Commission to negotiate a free trade agreement with Colombia. (299503)

Order. I think I am right in saying that Question 15 has been withdrawn—the grouping is with Question 16.

16. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on a mandate for the European Commission to negotiate a free trade agreement with Colombia. (299505)

Negotiations between the European Union and the Community of Andean Nations were launched in 2007. The mandate was last revised in December 2008 when, because the Andean nations could not agree a common position—[Interruption.]

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. There are far too many rather noisy private conversations taking place. It is pretty rude and I am sorry to say that it includes those on the Front Bench, and that must stop.

The mandate was last revised in 2008 when, because the Andean nations could not agree a common position, Colombia and Peru asked the European Commission to negotiate a multi-party trade agreement with interested Andean countries. Ecuador remains an observer.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but will he recognise that this House has a strong and proud tradition of supporting free trade union movements, especially when it is called Solidarity? Will he impress upon his European Union counterparts that we cannot enter into a free trade agreement with any country that does not allow free trade union movements?

Of course, free trade unions are a fundamental tenet of any civilised society. That is why we have successfully pressed the European Commission to include a human rights clause in the agreement with Colombia and Peru, which, if breached, would enable the agreement to be suspended.

Small and Medium-Sized Businesses

17. What recent progress his Department has made in assisting small and medium-sized businesses to secure finance. (299506)

A number of interventions are working to help access to finance for small and medium-sized businesses. These include the enterprise finance guarantee, by which some 6,200 businesses have been offered loans totalling £630 million to date, and the capital for enterprise fund, by which £60 million has been offered to 40 businesses.

I have to beg to disagree with the Minister. Many companies in my constituency and the most recent credit crunch survey by the Federation of Small Businesses have confirmed that in too many cases, the cost of credit is actually increasing, whatever the Government say. What are they going to do about that? Which of the Minister’s schemes is actually going to ensure that the cost of credit is affordable, because the EFG is failing in that, and credit is terribly important to small business?

I absolutely accept that access to finance and credit is critical to small businesses. That is why we have acted on this. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, which he mentioned, 11 loans have been offered to businesses through that scheme. That is just one part of the country—as I said, the total is 6,000 overall. The issue he raises is vital, which is why we have launched those schemes. The enterprise finance guarantee is having an effect, but we must also remember that most businesses will get credit through conventional bank loans. The Government scheme has never intended to replace conventional bank lending, but to be an additional fund where we will share more of the risk in a particular group of cases.

One of the best ways of improving access to finance for small and medium-sized enterprises is to look at the poor cash flows that they are having to endure because larger firms further up the chain are exploiting their vulnerability. What does the Minister intend to do to improve that parlous position?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. That is one reason why the Government have tried to be a better customer and to pay more of our invoices within 10 days, rather than 30 days, as was the case previously. I am glad to say that most Departments have stepped up to the plate on that issue, including the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—more than 90 per cent. of my Department’s invoices are met within that 10-day period. In addition, we have launched a prompt payment code with larger businesses. It is also important that they are a good customer to the many small and medium-sized businesses that depend on their business.

The Minister must be aware that August was the seventh consecutive month in which the net flow of finance to business fell, and that the figures for the third quarter of this year are the worst on record for the fall in lending to business. Will he not acknowledge that the Government’s efforts to tackle this problem of credit for business over the last nine months—the worst of the credit crunch—have failed, and that they would have been much better advised to take up our suggestion of a large across-the-board loan guarantee scheme, which might have saved quite a number of our struggling businesses?

I certainly do not accept that the Government’s efforts to promote credit and help small businesses get access to credit have failed. As I said, our scheme is working. Some 6,000 businesses have benefited, and hundreds of millions of pounds have been lent. We have also reached agreement with the banks in which we have stakes in order to ensure that they keep lending. Another factor is the fall in demand for lending that is experienced during a recession as businesses face difficulties. The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s comments today are in contrast to those he made to the Press Gallery, where he said that our Secretary of State was one of the few Ministers who had workable policies, some of which he wanted to borrow.

NEETs

18. How many people under the age of 24 were not in education, employment or training on the most recent date for which figures are available. (299507)

In the second quarter of 2009, there were 959,000 people not in education, employment or training aged 16 to 24. This includes young mothers with children, those who are seriously ill or have profound disabilities, and young people who have a course or job that has not yet started, including those on a gap year.

Those are absolutely terrible figures and much higher than one would have expected, especially as so much taxpayers’ money has been focused on getting young people into education, employment or training. May I suggest to the Minister that those young people who are fit and well and not included in those three sectors should be encouraged—in fact, made—to work for the local community on worthwhile projects? Our towns and cities are filthy: it is about time that everybody in the local community helped to put that sort of thing right.

I remember being unemployed in 1982 under a previous Government when I left university, and I can tell the hon. Lady that there are now far more opportunities provided by the Government for young people who are out of work than there ever were at that time. The Conservatives have refused to commit to the education maintenance allowance or to match our commitments to job training and places, so those are hollow words from the hon. Lady.

Would my hon. Friend agree that the best that we can do in this situation is to carry on working for these young people and continue the Government initiatives? We should not listen to the Opposition who have nothing but crocodile tears to offer this country.

Small Businesses

19. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s enterprise champion in contributing to the Government’s policy on small businesses. (299508)

Would the Minister recommend to the Secretary of State that he sits Lord Sugar down in a room, looks at him mournfully, stabs his finger at him a couple of times and says, “You’re fired”?

I have many interesting discussions with the Secretary of State, but I certainly would not give him that advice.

Royal Mail

We want to see an efficient and modern Royal Mail and have made £1.2 billion available in financing to enable Royal Mail to implement its transformation plans. We welcome the agreement reached last week between Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union, which has resulted in a period of calm to enable negotiations on taking forward the modernisation plan. The critical challenge, of course, for Royal Mail is to modernise in the face of technological change and the growth of alternative means of communication, such as e-mail, texting and broadband internet.

Does the Minister share the dismay of the British people at how Royal Mail—a great British institution—has been downgraded under this Government? Will he ensure not only that the current truce continues until Christmas, but that the Government take positive action to ensure that once again Royal Mail becomes a flagship institution in our country?

We have certainly not downgraded Royal Mail. We have backed it to the hilt financially. The £1.2 billion that I referred to comes on top of £1.7 billion to support the post office network and on top of more money earlier in this Government to support Royal Mail. Our commitment is not open to question. The issue is transformation in the face of the technological change that affects the lives of each and every one of our constituents, and that is Royal Mail’s task. That is why it is so important to get an agreement that is not only signed up to, but properly implemented to ensure the health of this critical British service.

Topical Questions

Our Department is focused on working with business to help Britain through difficult economic times, to try to ensure that Britain is as well placed as possible for economic recovery, when it comes, and to equip people for the jobs of the future. In recent weeks, we have had a particular focus on the latter point with the publication of the higher education framework and yesterday’s skills White Paper.

When will my right hon. Friend respond to the fatal accident inquiry by Sheriff Mackie in our sheriff court? Furthermore, what action does he intend to take to prevent further child deaths from strangulation by loop blind cords?

In July, officials met representatives of the British Blind and Shutter Association, when the industry’s “Make it Safe” initiative on how to reduce the risk from loop blind cords and chains was discussed. The Department and the industry have agreed a plan to make their guidance available to the widest possible audience, which would include working with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents to address the important and serious issue that my hon. Friend raised.

At a time when 51 companies are going bust every day in this country, and when, as we said a few moments ago, the credit position for small businesses is very difficult, does the Minister agree with Lord Sugar, the small business tsar, that struggling small business men are moaners and living in Disneyland, which he undoubtedly said? Is it not time for the Department’s senior Minister in the House of Commons to apologise on behalf of the Government for what was said? Otherwise, it will appear that they are indifferent to, and out of tune with, the problems of entrepreneurs up and down the country who are trying to save their businesses and other people’s jobs.

I reject entirely the charge that the Government are indifferent to the difficulties faced by small businesses. We know that small businesses are vital to creativity in the country and to employment, and we appreciate the passion and commitment that it takes for people to start and grow a small business. That is why the Government have backed small businesses, why we shall continue to do so and why we are working with them to help them through difficult economic times. We know that the economic recovery is based on their health and strength in the future.

T2. Despite the UK blocking websites that deal in images of child abuse, recent court cases have shown that abusers are still distributing such material using private, peer-to-peer file sharing. Will the Minister assure me that the Government are aware of the need for an action plan to combat this foul trade and will use a digital economy Bill in the Queen’s Speech to curb that practice? (299517)

My hon. Friend raises a serious and grave issue. It is my understanding that the type of foul behaviour to which he referred is unlawful under current legislation and that action is being taken under it to counter that behaviour. The digital economy Bill will address issues relating to the infringement of copyright.

T3. The beer tie is valuable and necessary in respect of small and family breweries, but damaging and unnecessary in respect of pub companies and larger breweries. Will the Minister ask the Office of Fair Trading to make a referral to the Competition Commission setting the bar far higher than in previous cases? (299518)

The OFT has made a decision on the super-complaint made by the Campaign for Real Ale about that issue. We are studying carefully the detail of the findings and are quite encouraged by some of the industry activity over the summer following the Business and Enterprise Committee’s report on the matter. It is too early to decide whether the Government should intervene, but we are encouraging parties to work closely together and to deliver on their commitments. We will be monitoring the situation closely.

T4. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to help people who get into debt through overspending on credit and store cards? Will he also congratulate citizens advice bureaux and the Consumer Credit Counselling Service on the work that they do to help individuals who run into such problems? (299519)

Yes, I will congratulate them, as well as my right hon. Friend on the work that he has done with Citizens Advice and the voluntary sector over the years. We recently announced our consultation on changes in relation to credit cards, which opened on 27 October 2009 and will close on 19 January next year. The consultation is looking at how repayments are allocated to balances, whether mandatory higher minimum payments should be set, whether there should be a limit on unsolicited limit increases and whether re-pricing of existing debt should be banned or restricted. The consultation has been widely welcomed.

T6. May I ask the Minister for further education about the National Star college, which he will know is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and on whose behalf he has been campaigning assiduously? The college has a national remit to help young disabled people, but its capital programme was not funded. It recognises the tough economic climate that we are in and has made proposals to the Minister to reduce the amount of public funding that it needs. What can he say to the House today to demonstrate that the Government are truly committed to helping young disabled people across the country? (299523)

The Government are committed to helping disabled people, and have done more than any previous Government on that matter. I met the principal of the National Star college earlier this year and undertook to look further into the possible funding of its capital programme. The Learning and Skills Council is working with colleges on the next stage of the capital programme, but at this point that is all that I can say on the matter.

T5. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the South Yorkshire Investment Fund, under the leadership of chief executive Mr. Tony Goulbourn, on investing in some 469 South Yorkshire businesses over the past few years? Does he agree that the fund is making a big difference in promoting entrepreneurship in South Yorkshire? (299522)

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It sounds like the fund is doing a very good job, serving as another example of how we can get finance to small businesses during difficult economic times and help them to make the investments that are so vital for our economic future.

Following on from the earlier exchanges on fair access to higher and tertiary education, do the Government accept that the cause of fairer access was hardly helped this autumn by the difficulties that the Student Loans Company ran into? Members from all parties in the House have been pressing for a proper inquiry arising therefrom. Can the Minister say what steps will be taken to ensure that students do not encounter the monumental backlogs that were experienced in England particularly, but which had knock-on effects elsewhere, not least in Scotland?

Well, for reasons known only to him, the right hon. Gentleman will have missed the fact that there is indeed an inquiry, which is being led by Sir Deian Hopkin, the former vice-chancellor of South Bank university. I have said that I am sorry for what has happened, and so has the chief executive of the Student Loans Company. We did that in the House a few weeks ago, so I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can have a look at Hansard.

May I put on record the fact that I concur with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on the National Star college? May I also reinforce the point made earlier in Business, Innovation and Skills questions, in the exchange on the statutory code of practice for the grocery trade, about how important it is that the code should be reinforced by the introduction of an ombudsman? I hope that the Government will take that decision as a matter of urgency.

The establishment of an ombudsman raises a number of complex issues. Obviously we will weigh up a number of factors—including possible costs or savings being passed on to consumers, the potential for a better deal for suppliers and the regulatory burdens on business—before we take our final decision.

Students in my constituency are concerned by both the scope and the format of the fees review that was announced this week. Can the Minister tell me what steps he is taking both to ensure that the student voice will be properly heard and to assure students and parents in my constituency that the review is not simply an exercise for putting up student fees?

I can indeed assure the hon. Gentleman, because he will have seen that one of the seven panel members is a former chair of the British Youth Council. Let me also assure his constituents that the Government are committed to a 50 per cent. participation rate and refer them to the statements of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). We believe that the issue is important and should not be downgraded in any manifesto, so let me also refer the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to the statements made by his leader.

I have just come from a meeting with a group of former employees of a company called Dot2Dot, which ran a shuttle service between Heathrow and the local hotels. The company was sold by National Express Group and it has been passed through a series of owners. Its employees are not being paid their redundancy and holiday pay, or getting their legal entitlements. Will the Minister agree to meet me and other Members who represent former Dot2Dot employees, to ensure that they get their rights?

I will happily accede to my hon. Friend’s request for a meeting. As I have said—I was quoted earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller)—we do not want to see the recession and these difficult economic times used as an excuse to deny people the employment rights to which they are entitled. I will happily meet my hon. Friend to discuss this issue.

In the coming weeks, many of my constituents will be using mail order companies and the internet to buy Christmas presents that are not locally obtainable in the isles. They will find, however, that mail order companies will either not deliver to island communities or do so only at an exceptionally high surcharge. Will the Government take this problem seriously, and take action to ensure that there is a meaningful universal service for parcels, which we do not have at the moment?

Competition in the parcels industry has been far more developed than in the letters business for many years. This is a competitive market, and there is a lot of competition within it. My regret is that, in this area of future growth for Royal Mail—probably in contrast to the letters business—the recent industrial disputes could drive customers away from Royal Mail. It would be a great shame if that happened. I hope to see Royal Mail compete in this market, because it is genuinely the future growth area for mail.

Has the Minister heard the same representations that I have heard concerning companies that believe that European regulatory steps could impede their ability to hedge on their currency—a vital activity for export-oriented businesses? South Derbyshire is dominated by just those kinds of companies.

I have not received specific representations on that issue. However, if my hon. Friend wishes to speak to me about it further, I will happily look into it for him.

May I raise with the Minister the subject of further education and the National Star college? The college provides some of the finest residential training anywhere in the world, and it has worked extremely hard to raise £2 million of its own money, which will be in jeopardy if it cannot access funding from the Government. It has also worked very hard at the Minister’s behest to take 15 per cent. off the cost of the project. Will he redouble his efforts to see whether he can find that funding?

I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the work of the National Star college, and I undertake to carry on my efforts to look into this matter. This particular proposal is part of the huge investment in further education that has covered more than 700 projects in 330 colleges in the past few years, at a cost of £2.7 billion.

When will the Minister’s Department own up to its responsibilities in relation to people with pleural plaques who have been denied compensation? Will he agree to work with other Ministers and Members of the House to ensure that we repeal the Law Lords’ decision of two years ago and give those people the money that they are entitled to?

I understand the strength of feeling in the House on this issue, but I believe that the Ministry of Justice is the lead Department on this matter.

What assistance can the Government’s enterprise champion offer to people starting up new businesses, such as my constituent, Pam Randall, who has been told that she might have to wait up to nine months to register for VAT? Will the Minister have a discussion with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, to try to make HMRC more businesslike?

We of course want to do everything we can to help people to start up businesses, and it is important to encourage young people into enterprise. We try to do that through a number of means, and we want the process to be quick and easy in this country, so that entrepreneurship can flourish and grow.