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Topical Questions

Volume 503: debated on Thursday 14 January 2010

Last week the Department published a growth paper setting out what we needed to do to drive forward economic recovery. The priorities included promoting enterprise, better access to finance, securing much-needed infrastructure investment and making the most of the transition to a low-carbon economy. Those are the priorities as we come out of the recession that will ensure that the recovery is sustained in the long term.

Can a member of the ministerial team reassure me that today’s important round-table discussions with institutional investors about how to vote their shares during hostile takeover bids are not just a flash-in-the-pan response to the hostile bid by Kraft for Cadbury, which is unwelcome, but will be the start of an important debate about how institutional investors behave, which is not always in the long-term interests of the UK?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the meeting today between the Secretary of State and institutional investors. We should not see the meeting purely through the lens of a single takeover battle. It is important for the long-term health of the economy that we have long-term commitment from institutional investors. That will be at the heart of the discussions that take place today.

Ceres Power in my constituency is developing a fuel cell that reduces our reliance on carbon by 50 per cent., but it needs to know that the Government are supporting it. Can my hon. Friend the Minister assure me that proper provisions are in place to ensure at this critical stage that the development progresses and we move forward such excellent technologies?

It is always difficult to comment on one case on the hoof, but with the Department of Energy and Climate Change we have published a low- carbon economic strategy. We have put considerable Government resources behind that, a significant part of which is support for the development and manufacture of low-carbon vehicles here in the UK. Low-carbon industries are an essential part of our economic future, and that is why we have put in resources behind them.

T4. What assessment has the Department made of the impact on small businesses of a recent decision of the Payments Council representing the high street banks to phase out the use of cheques? Is he aware that that move is opposed by the Federation of Small Businesses? Does he agree that a large number— (310603)

Order. We are in topical questions. May I appeal for short questions and short answers? I want to get through as many colleagues as possible.

It is time for a confession: I am a cheque user. If that is old-fashioned, I am afraid that I cannot make an apology for it. I understand that cheque use has declined more widely, but I certainly hope the transition is managed as sensitively and as carefully as possible—for small businesses and for us cheque users.

T3. The development of electrical vehicles in the north-east has been a huge boost for manufacturers such as Tegrel, which is producing a charging station in my constituency. Will the Minister assure me that the Government and the regional development agency One NorthEast will continue to support such work; and that we will support RDAs, unlike the Opposition? (310602)

The north-east is a real hub of low-carbon technology development in the automotive sector. Nissan and Smith Electric Vehicles, which I have already visited, are at the forefront, and the investment at Nissan’s battery factory is going ahead. I should be very interested in seeing the company to which my hon. Friend refers.

Will the Minister of State confirm that manufacturing, as a proportion of total GDP in this country, has declined by no less than 9 per cent. during this Government’s period in office? That is the fastest rate of decline in our history. How can the Government’s new industrial strategy, and their claim that they will revive this country’s manufacturing capacity, be taken seriously when they have scandalously neglected the subject and the whole sector for their entire period in office?

Manufacturing is still immensely important to the UK economy and to the region that I have the honour of representing. In the past 18 months alone, we have given significant support to the aerospace sector, to new nuclear and to other low-carbon manufacturing industries. It is sad that that support, through the strategic investment fund, was described by the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), as a disgrace. We do not think it is a disgrace; we think it is essential, and that is why we are committed to supporting manufacturing in this country.

Now that the Scottish Parliament has taken steps to overturn the October 2007 ruling on pleural plaques, can we have a guarantee that we will do the same thing here, for the rest of the British Isles, as speedily as possible and before the election?

I do not know whether my hon. Friend was present when my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) asked me about that matter a short time ago, but I appreciate that hon. Members wish to see a solution to it. I understand that a meeting involving hon. Members, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Justice will take place in the near future, and I am sure that they will have heard the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

T5. I attended the fifth anniversary breakfast of the Givers Gain business networking organisation this morning. The small and medium-sized enterprises there said that they are being crippled by red tape. What plans does the Secretary of State have to reduce the regulatory burden on SMEs? (310604)

For the first time, this Government have published the forward regulatory programme—the regulations that the Government will bring forward. The process with this Government, unlike any previous one, has been open, so our engagement with small businesses and the bodies that represent them has been very close indeed. We are always open to hear from businesses about particular regulations, and I always listen to what they have to say.

An increasing number of sub-postmasters face action for the misappropriation of funds that, they believe, is based on shortcomings in the Horizon computer system. Given those numbers, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time for the Post Office to review those cases and that system so that sub-postmasters can be confident that the computer systems that are put in place are there to support them, not to put their livelihoods at risk?

I have received representations about that issue from hon. Members on behalf of sub-postmasters in their constituencies. The Post Office tells me that it has looked into all those complaints, and says that it has faith in the integrity of the Horizon system. However, I am sure that if there are further complaints, the Post Office will properly examine them, as it should do.

T6. Myerscough college in my constituency is an excellent mixed FE and HE college that awards degrees by third-party universities. In the light of the current financial situation and the fact that the Higher Education Funding Council for England has been supportive, yet unable to fund the HE capacity, will the Minister consider a review of HE funding in FE colleges to ensure that money gets to the front line as quickly and efficiently as possible? (310605)

We have increased funding by 25 per cent. In “Higher Ambitions” we set out the importance of HE provision in FE colleges, which extends the reach of higher education to those from non-traditional backgrounds and, often, poorer socio-economic groups. I am happy to look into the specifics of the hon. Gentleman’s college, but the Government’s commitment in this area is clear.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to put an end to the exploitation of and discrimination against young people at work who are under 22 and who, if they are earning the minimum wage, earn almost a full pound less than their adult counterparts? For me, and surely for him, this has to be an issue of equal pay for equal work.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government decide the minimum wage rates on the basis of recommendations from the independent Low Pay Commission, which has on it representatives of employers and employees, as well as independent experts. The commission has recommended that youth rates are justified for the minimum wage. We, too, want to see maximum employment chances for young people. I can tell my hon. Friend that this year the commission recommended that the adult rate for the minimum wage kick in at the age of 21 rather than 22. That recommendation has been accepted by the Government, and it will come into force in October.

T7. The Government have scandalously neglected manufacturing in Wellingborough, which has resulted in unemployment increasing from 1,407 to more than 3,000—an increase of 114 per cent. Would any of the Ministers like to come to the Dispatch Box and apologise to the people of Wellingborough? (310606)

As I said, we are giving considerable support to manufacturing; this was set out in the paper on growth that we published last week. I have to say that there is a stark contrast between our commitments on aerospace, on low-carbon vehicles and on advanced engineering and the utter silence and utter absence of a manufacturing or an industrial policy from the Conservative party.

Like so many others on this side of the House, I welcome the decision on pleural plaques reached in the Scottish courts. However, we need a UK-wide response to this, because it would be absolutely ridiculous if we found that people living in one part of the country who may have contracted this condition in another part of the country fall foul of different compensation schemes.

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. There is not much to add to what I said earlier. The Government understand the desire for a response to these issues, not only on pleural plaques but on wider respiratory conditions.

The pay package for the chief executive of Royal Mail last year was £1.3 million; for the managing director of the letters business, it was £849,000. If the Government really believe in redistribution of wealth, how about starting with those two salaries?

The rewards are indeed high; the hon. Gentleman is quite fair in saying that. The transformation and modernisation task at Royal Mail is enormous, and for those rewards we want to see modernisation carried through—delivered—to give us the healthy, efficient and modern Royal Mail service that we need in order to maintain the universal service that is at the heart of our postal system.

I am encouraged by what the Minister says about pleural plaques, but can he be categorical? I know that his Department has inherited some of the liabilities from the previously nationalised industries. Can he say that his Department would not object to a change in the law that would overturn the decision on pleural plaques that was made in the House of Lords on 17 October 2007?

These decisions will be taken across Government. As I said, I understand that hon. Members are looking for a response soon. A meeting will take place soon involving the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Justice, which leads on this issue.

T8. Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace), and given the strain on public finances, will the Minister confirm that excellent colleges, such as the college of West Anglia in King’s Lynn and City college in Norwich, will continue to have the flexibility to respond to local needs and priorities? (310607)

Yes. In fact, we are introducing more flexibilities for colleges as a result of our skills strategy, including, for “good” and “excellent” colleges, the ability to do so via cross-budgets, in a way that was not available before.

It is pleasing to see that the Government have accepted the idea of the ombudsman for the grocery trade and I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on all he has done to push that forward. Will the Government now just accept the private Member’s Bill of our hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)?

Of course, that is ultimately a matter for the House, but the consultation will take place following the introduction of the code on 4 February. That consultation is on not only one model but whether the ombudsman or enforcer will be housed within an existing institution, so at this point I cannot commit to my hon. Friend’s suggestion.

T9. This is a further comment from the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry:“evidence gathered recently by the science community has identified entire” GCSE “science papers with no underlying mathematics, and science questions with no science.” Is the Minister entirely uninterested in this problem of the connection between science at school and the quality of science at university, or does he simply believe that so long as people are going to university, that is all right? (310608)

It really is a disservice to our students and teachers to talk down science teaching in that way, but I refer the hon. Gentleman to the £140 million we have made available to improve teaching in science across the country.

In the very week when the Crown Estate has given out the biggest contracts for wind power, would the Minister be surprised to learn that I have received a letter saying that there is no course in Scotland for training in that industry and no demand for people to be trained? Will he do something about that so we do not have people from outside the UK building those wind farms?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the huge investment, employment and industrial potential of those industries. He is also absolutely right to say that if we want to maximise the opportunities presented by the transition to a lower-carbon economy, we have to give young people the skills to do the jobs that that will bring.

T10. Ministers should be aware of the current financial difficulties at the university of Gloucestershire, which have come about despite its success in attracting applicants. Are they prepared to meet me and my constituents from the university to discuss the crisis and whether the flat-rate nature of the cap on student numbers is unfair to popular universities such as Gloucestershire university? (310609)

The cap on student numbers affects all universities in the country. It is important not only that we grow participation but that we fund students, often with grants, when they are at university. That is why we have the cap. The hon. Gentleman’s views on the university of Gloucestershire are best directed to the funding council if he thinks there is a problem.

Given the priority my right hon. Friend says he attaches to the new green economy, can he tell the House what new European money there is for the west midlands, in order that we can innovate?

I can tell my hon. Friend that altogether, following announcements from across the Government, there is some £500 million-plus for low-carbon industries. That is significant backing for a range of low-carbon industries, many of which we have mentioned in our answers today.

Reading college has suffered from a lack of investment over the years and Thames Valley university is now pulling out. It has been announced that Oxford and Cherwell is going to be the preferred bidder, but I have significant concerns about the bid process and the due diligence that has taken place. Please will the Minister take a significant interest in this matter, because young people in my constituency deserve a high-quality education?

I am very happy to look into any real concerns the hon. Gentleman has. I am not aware of any concerns about due diligence with the process—of course, Oxford and Cherwell college won the bid in a consortium with another organisation. I know he has written to me, but if has any particular concerns, I would be happy to look into them. I understand that he is meeting the consortium soon, and I hope that that helps to alleviate any concerns he has.

A number of measures such as advanced technology and manufacturing and low-carbon fuel vehicles have made a significant difference, but what can Ministers do to assist manufacturing companies that are still struggling with credit insurance? Several local companies have approached me to say that they are still struggling with that scheme. If Ministers can make some suggestions about how they can assist, that would be very helpful.

This has been a significant issue during the recession. I agree with my hon. Friend and many companies have reported problems. It appears to me that there are flaws in a product that is insurance only for good times. After all, we want insurance for good and for bad times. The flaw in the product has been exposed during the recession, and I suggest that we need a better system in the future that helps businesses in bad times and good.

Does the Minister accept that manufacturing industry, which I have supported for almost four decades in this House, is the only source of non-inflationary economic growth and should be supported by whichever Government are in power and that Departments should err on the side of buying British?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of manufacturing. That is why we have given it support, and why I am so disappointed that the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) described that support as a disgrace. I disagree with those on his Front Bench, and I am glad that he does too.

Last, but not least.

Does the Minister agree with the view that the Lisbon treaty was a package of modest and necessary reforms, and that EU-wide co-operation was necessary to produce an efficient regulatory system? That is the view of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), as articulated to the Japanese chamber of commerce.

It is the case that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is reported to have told the Japanese chamber of commerce that the Lisbon treaty was a modest and sensible set of reforms. I am only sad that the rest of those on the Opposition Front Bench disagree. As on several other occasions, the right hon. and learned Gentleman shows considerable wisdom that is sadly not shared by the rest of his party.

Order. I hope Members will agree that topical questions are a valuable and valued part of our proceedings. I am keen always to accommodate as many Members as possible, but we could improve in terms of pithiness of question and answer to get everybody in within time.