Skip to main content

Business, Innovation and Skills

Volume 513: debated on Thursday 8 July 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

Inward Investment (North-west)

UK Trade & Investment works with local partners to support inward investors, and in 2008-09 it helped to create or safeguard more than 10,000 jobs in the north-west. The Government intend to publish a White Paper later this year, which will provide more detail on how inward investment can best be supported by UKTI and the Government as a whole.

I thank the Minister for his answer. I am sure that many businesses in Fylde will welcome his response. In his recent speech, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that Britain was open for business. Can the Minister give an example of a business that is taking that on board?

That is an excellent question; let me give an example. The Chancellor’s decision to simplify and reduce corporate tax rates will directly help to attract more investment. Indeed, by 2014, this country will have the lowest corporation tax rates of any major western country. That is good for investment and good for jobs.

Is the Minister aware of the huge Mersey Gateway project in my constituency to build a second bridge across the Mersey? Independent examination shows that it would probably create 4,000 to 5,000 new jobs as well as hundreds of construction jobs. Will he remind the Transport Secretary of the importance to inward investment and jobs of that project, which is currently postponed, pending review?

I am more than happy to talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The hon. Gentleman is right that in order to encourage investment we need to look at longer-term projects, and investment is an important part of that.

Does my hon. Friend accept that there are constituencies in the south-east that face economic and regeneration challenges as great as those elsewhere in the country? Will he—

Order. I am sorry, but I must explain to the hon. Gentleman that the question specifically relates to the north-west and that although other parts of the country might share similar concerns, they are not relevant to this question. We all get used to these things; I have made these mistakes myself, I assure him.

The Minister will know that businesses in the north-west are very concerned about the loss of investment that could result from the abolition of the Northwest Regional Development Agency. Will he answer a question that I asked a few weeks ago? Is the £1 billion of additional growth money from the regional growth fund in addition to or instead of money that has already been allocated to RDAs and local authorities for economic growth?

The regional growth fund is entirely separate from the RDA changes. We are keen to strengthen local economies, hence our move on local enterprise partnerships, but the regional growth fund will bring £1 billion to the hon. Lady’s region and the other selected regions. It will start in 2011 and I think it is good news.

Business Support (Wales)

2. When he last met the Deputy First Minister in the Welsh Assembly Government to discuss policy to support businesses in Wales. (6679)

As I gallop to Wales from the north-west, let me make sure that I give the hon. Gentleman the right answer.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has not yet had the opportunity to meet the Deputy First Minister to discuss business support in Wales, but, as the hon. Gentleman will know, business support is a devolved activity.

I am sure that the Minister would like to join me in congratulating the One Wales coalition in Wales on reaching its third anniversary this month, with the Deputy First Minister’s Department having developed innovative strategies such as ProAct and ReAct. The Department is also publishing, this week, its new economic renewal programme, which focuses efforts on improving business infrastructure, such as broadband provision, in Wales. Will the Minister make representations to his colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that the money that would have been spent for the benefit of Wales, through the independently funded news consortiums pilot, is released directly to the Welsh Assembly Government to help them to achieve their broadband objectives?

The economic renewal programme, which I have had an opportunity to look at, has considerable merit, not least because it moves away from the tinkering and meddling of the last Labour Government and towards infrastructure. Broadband investment is very important and the Ministers who deal with broadband will have heard his representations. The issue is important and we want to act on it promptly.

Sheffield Forgemasters

3. What factors he took into account in deciding to withdraw the £80 million loan facility to Sheffield Forgemasters. (6680)

Will the Secretary of State withdraw the entirely false accusations that were levelled at Graham Honeyman, the chief executive of Sheffield Forgemasters, that he was not prepared to sell any shares in the company? The reality is that the loan facility went alongside a private finance package involving equity release. What Graham Honeyman and the workers, 65% of whom own shares in Forgemasters, did not want to do was sell the company off to an absentee owner, given that they had rescued it from an absentee owner and near-bankruptcy in 2005. Will the Secretary of State withdraw the accusations against Graham Honeyman and recognise that he has resurrected that company and that it would do even better in future if it had the loan alongside a package involving equity release?

The Government’s decision has absolutely nothing to do with the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised. We regard Mr Honeyman and his team as having produced an excellent project. We have no criticism of him or the company. Officials in the Department are now working to try to help to achieve a private sector solution.

I yield to no one in my admiration for Graham Honeyman, having visited Sheffield Forgemasters when I was shadow Minister following the floods that devastated the company. However, will my right hon. Friend explain why, of all the grants and loans issued by Yorkshire Forward, north Yorkshire gets less than the 11% share to which it would be entitled and—

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Given the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, may I indicate that I would like to seek to raise this matter on the Adjournment at a further date?

Manufacturing Industry Investment

4. What recent assessment he has made of trends in levels of investment by manufacturing industry; and if he will make a statement. (6681)

In 2009, the volume of manufacturing investment in the UK declined by 21%, the largest annual fall on record, and it declined in 10 of the last 11 years. This Government believe that that trend can be reversed. In developing our plans to rebalance the economy, we are keen to ensure that we provide the best long-term environment in which manufacturing can grow.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but will he reflect on the comments from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the manufacturers’ organisation the Engineering Employers Federation that the biggest beneficiaries of the Government’s changes to capital and investment allowances and corporation tax are low-investment and high-profit firms—

“Banks and supermarkets rather than manufacturers”,

as the IFS put it? What practical help can the Minister offer to manufacturing industry today?

I must correct the hon. Gentleman and give him the facts. We have had to reduce capital allowances to enable us to fund the corporate tax cuts, but the net result of the changes is that manufacturing—and not the industries to which he referred—will still be better off. Indeed, by 2014-15, it will be better off by £250 million per annum. I think that that is a very good policy, although I detect that the Labour party may now be opposed to it.

We accept that the coalition Government have put many good things in place to help industry generally, but I have a specific question about manufacturing. Will the Minister say whether the Government are planning any particular help for manufacturing to restore it to its rightful place, which is leading the world?

Indeed we are, and our plans include the changes to corporation tax that mean that manufacturing industry is better off by £250 million, the reduction of the burden of red tape and the removal of many regulators, and the £150 million that has been set aside to fund up to 50,000 more apprentices. The Government’s stronger long-term approach contrasts with the pick ‘n’ mix tactics and the tinkering and meddling that we had from the last Labour Government.

I remind the House that manufacturing investment declined in 10 of the last 11 years. That is the record of the Labour Government, and Labour Members should be ashamed of it.

I want to return to the issue of capital allowances. The Minister and the Secretary of State have said that they want to rebalance the economy, but the Budget proceeded with plans to cut £3.1 billion from capital allowances and the investment allowance by 2013. The IFS has said that

“cutting capital allowances is not a good way to raise money because they are an efficient way to promote investment”.

In addition, the Engineering Employers Federation has said that the cuts

“make the investment needed to rebalance the economy more expensive”.

Labour’s Budget in March doubled the investment allowance for manufacturers, but this Government have cut that by 75%. We are all saying that we want to rebalance the economy, so how can the Minister justify these cuts of £3 billion a year in our support for manufacturers?

As I told the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) earlier, the net balance is that manufacturing will be £250 million better off. That is the point. The right hon. Gentleman refers to the annual investment allowances but, even after these reforms take effect, the vast majority of businesses—over 90%—will still have all their investment costs covered by the Association of International Accountants. The key point is that the record of the Labour party is one in which manufacturing investment declined in 10 years of 11. We are changing that environment by taking the long-term approach. Is the hon. Gentleman proud of his record of investment down and jobs cut? Is he proud of that?

Further Education Funding

5. What the eligibility criteria will be for further education colleges for funding from the recently announced renewal and enhanced renewal grant schemes. (6682)

The additional investment in further education college infrastructure that we announced on 24 May will be used to support further education institutions to develop the best facilities possible and will be prioritised to support colleges that have yet to benefit significantly from the college building programme. As I announced on 21 June, the Skills Funding Agency has identified institutions that are eligible to apply for the additional funding and has issued guidance to those colleges on how they can apply for funding from both the renewal and enhanced renewal grants.

I warmly welcome the introduction of the funding, which will help colleges affected by the previous Government’s moratorium on Learning and Skills Council funding. However, independent specialist colleges, such as the National Star college in my constituency, which train some of the most affected disabled people in the country, were transferred before the election from my hon. Friend’s Department to the Department for Education. Such colleges look set, therefore, to lose out on the opportunity to apply for capital funding for the second time in a row. Is there anything my hon. Friend can do to deal with that unfair situation?

My hon. Friend has been a champion of National Star college, which does outstanding work for the learners he describes. I share his concerns. He is right about the transfer of responsibility. Nevertheless, because of the overtures and the strong case made by others, and my own commitment to learners with those difficulties, I have today initiated discussions with the Department for Education to see how we can move with coherence to a position where all colleges benefit in the way my hon. Friend describes.

In fact, is the scheme not typical of the way the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has been rolled over by the Treasury since the election? Can the Minister confirm that we invested more than £2 billion in our FE colleges and that the £50 million fund has been pilfered from his skills revenue budget and, therefore, represents a cut in future years, not an investment? He will want to be straight with the House about that after yesterday’s debacle.

Speaking of debacles, FE capital funding under the hon. Gentleman’s Administration was indeed a debacle, obliging Sir Andrew Foster to conclude that it was due to mismanagement. The hon. Gentleman knows that the FE capital that we have announced is in addition to the spend we will make in 2010-11 on capital in FE. It is time FE was given a new future, and it will be under this Government.

Post Office Network

We have been clear that we will ensure that post offices are allowed to offer a wide range of services in order to sustain the network. We are working with Post Office Ltd to develop new sources of revenue, including considering the case for a Post Office bank.

I thank the Minister for his response. He, like me, campaigned tooth and nail against the previous Government’s mass post office closure programme, which proved so damaging to communities such as mine in Norwich South. Can my hon. Friend give an assurance that over the next five years of this Government he will do everything he can to make sure there is no further post office closure programme?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he has done in his constituency campaigning against the closures proposed by the previous Government. This Government recognise the important social and economic role played by post offices in communities throughout the United Kingdom. That is why we have secured £180 million in the next financial year for the social network payment and why I give the House my commitment that I shall work night and day to avoid the mass closures of post offices that we saw under the previous Government.

In addition, I handed in a petition to Downing street, with more than 5,000 names of people who were trying to save four post offices in my constituency. Sadly, it fell on deaf ears. Is my hon. Friend concerned that Camelot’s proposed plans to allow bill payments through its terminals may adversely affect the 7,500 post offices that do not have such terminals?

Again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work campaigning for his constituents and their post offices. I must say that Camelot’s proposal to provide commercial services through lottery terminals is still subject to the regulatory approval of the National Lottery Commission. If the commission consents to Camelot’s proposals, Post Office Ltd will carry out an assessment of the impact on sub-post offices and we will take that into account.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to the continuation of the provision of postal services in a wide range of communities. Given the difficulty of maintaining counter and, indeed, banking services in our poorest communities, can he give us an assurance that, in ensuring that such services can be maintained in such communities, public safety and staff safety will be a paramount consideration in finding suitable outlets?

The safety of staff and the public is always a major consideration as we go forward in modernising the network. I think the fact that the Government are committed to looking for new services and new ways of doing things, and to seeing whether we can increase the financial services that go through the network, will be widely welcomed. That will enable the network to be more financially viable and therefore to meet even better the concerns that the hon. Lady has voiced.

The Minister knows full well that one of the determining factors as to which post offices remained open during the two or three-year period when we lost 2,500 outlets was the access criteria. Can he give the House an assurance today that we will not see those access criteria interfered or tampered with?

The hon. Gentleman can have my assurance that I am working very hard with Post Office Ltd to make sure that we have the new services that will generate the revenue, so that we do not have to see the mass closure programme that precipitated the access criteria that the hon. Gentleman’s Government had to introduce.


7. What assessment he has made of the contribution of small and medium-sized enterprises to economic recovery. (6685)

Small and medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of the economy and will make a vital contribution to the economic recovery, through new start-up activity and through business growth. BIS is currently conducting a survey of small and medium-sized enterprises, which will further inform our assessment of the contribution of SMEs to the recovery.

On Tuesday, I visited the Queens Road area of Watford—an area previously of retail prominence—with Helen Lynch, a local community volunteer who is trying to revitalise the area. One of the main problems I saw was that many shops had shut down and were shuttered up. When I have tried to get people interested in taking up retail units in starting up a small business, one of the main problems facing them was the high level of business rates. I wonder whether the Minister with responsibility for small business, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), would agree to come to Watford with me so that we could discuss the issue on the ground with some local business people and other interested parties.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and the work that he does supporting small businesses in his constituency. I certainly think that my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for small business would be delighted to visit them. We are looking at temporary rate relief for small businesses. I know that it is a key problem for them.

Will the Minister do what he can to encourage and, through his own Department, support the venture capital investment so needed for small manufacturing start-ups? Not only is it a problem that the capital allowance has been reduced, but access to the necessary credit and resources is problematic. Will he conduct a review on venture capital availability?

Under the Budget we have set up a new enterprise capital fund, into which the Government have put £25 million. We are looking for additional private funding, but I certainly recognise the importance of the venture capital industry and venture capital funding for small businesses.

SMEs offer some of the best potential for future growth, but the biggest barrier to that is access to finance—in particular, I am talking about the failure of the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, because of the Catch-22 that it is the banks that SMEs apply to that say no. What can my hon. Friend do about that?

We are expanding the enterprise finance guarantee scheme by an additional £200 million, and we understand that it will support some £700 million of extra bank lending, but I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the problem of securing bank lending. We are due to publish a Green Paper on business finance before the summer recess. I hope that that will address many of the issues that are involved.

We on the Labour Benches welcome the extension of Labour’s successful enterprise finance guarantee that was announced in the Budget. We are questioning what has happened to the “major loan guarantee scheme” referred to in the coalition agreement. Is that in fact the same thing as Labour’s successful enterprise finance guarantee scheme, which the Tories and the Liberals have now extended in their own Budget?

In our approach, we want to look at all the issues in the round, so one of the key aims of the Green Paper on business finance is to ensure holistic measures of business support.

Graduates (Employability)

We are committed to increasing employment by cutting the burden of national insurance on new businesses employing new staff in areas such as Plymouth. We are cutting corporation tax over the next four years. We are easing the burden of regulation. In addition, I have asked universities to provide public statements on what they do to promote employability, to encourage them to improve the job-readiness of their students and to do better at getting their students into internships, work experience and work.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he willing to meet me and the vice-chancellor of Plymouth university—the enterprise university—to discuss ways in which it might make greater commercial use of its excellent reputation in marine science research as well?

I have met the vice-chancellor of the university of Plymouth and corresponded with her when she praised the co-operation that she already had with my hon. Friend. Of course, I would be very happy to meet her. Those are exactly the kind of initiatives linking universities and business to promote economic growth that the Government are backing.

In October last year, the Minister said:

“At a time when the jobs market for young people is tougher than ever, it is far better to find them a place in education than to leave them languishing on the dole…whereas going to university will increase their qualifications and make them more employable in the long run.”

Will he confirm that that is no longer his view, in the light of the withdrawal of 10,000 university places?

In that statement, I announced my commitment to 10,000 extra places at university, when the then Government were planning a cut in the number of places at university. We have delivered those 10,000 extra places. There will be more places at university this year than the then Government originally planned, and we are proud of what we have achieved.

Given that the Office for Budget Responsibility has confirmed a rise in unemployment next year and that the Association of Graduate Recruiters estimates that vacancies for graduates will fall by 7%, what will the right hon. Gentleman do to support graduates in what will be the toughest year on record to get employment?

I have here the forecast from the OBR, and it is an endorsement of the measures that the Government took in the Budget. It makes it absolutely clear that it expects total employment in the economy to rise from 28.89 million now to 30.23 million in five years’ time, as a result of the decisions that the Government are taking. Of course, times are tough for students, but going to university and getting a degree remains a very good investment in people’s long-term prospects for well-paid employment, and we will encourage universities to focus on maximising the employability prospects of their students.

FE Colleges (Capital Funding)

10. How many further education colleges will receive capital funding from his Department in 2010-11. (6688)

One hundred and sixty colleges, including 28 sixth-form colleges, will receive further education capital support totalling £407 million in 2010. In addition, a further £50 million will be invested to support those colleges that have yet to benefit significantly from the capital programme. We expect that extra resource to increase significantly the number of colleges that receive capital grant support, with potentially 293 colleges receiving capital support in 2010-11.

Will funding be available for Hadlow college’s plans for Betteshanger business park, near Deal? The business park was created by the regional development agency, £18 million was spent, and it has been left empty. It would be great to bring it into use.

It is essential that my hon. Friend and the House understand that that resource is on top of the existing investment programme, which is supporting a large number of current projects. That resource will enable real investment, bringing genuine benefits to learners and enabling colleges to plan for the future. I do not want to be unkind to Opposition Members, but it is important to recognise the disappointment that colleges felt under the previous Government. The Foster report said that that was due to inadequate management information, poor monitoring, a poor long-term financial strategy, meetings that led nowhere and monitoring that was focused on the wrong things. Now, I do not want to be unkind, but that is not good enough.

Given that we are where we are in respect of capital funding for colleges, will the Minister look very carefully at the urgent need for increased capital expenditure in Stoke-on-Trent and at whether we can apply for the £5 million to get investment in the Burslem and Shelton campuses? Our college has no reserves, and I need the Minister to address that urgently.

I cannot make promises about individual colleges, but I hear what the hon. Lady says—she makes a powerful case—and I will be happy to meet her with my officials to discuss that matter further.

May I welcome the Minister’s response and his plans to give further education colleges more freedom? Will the new freedoms that he is offering extend to capital projects, to make it easier for colleges to get alternative sources of finance?

Indeed, and it is perhaps also important to let the House know that the Government money that is available will leverage in other moneys. We want to look at all kinds of ways in which colleges, enjoying the new freedoms that this Government are determined to give them, can invest in their future. By the way, I know that my hon. Friend is a great champion of further education. I add that because he deserves that plaudit.

Will the Minister accept my invitation to come and visit the College of North West London in Brent so that he can spread some of his largesse there?

My largesse is legendary, and I can hardly wait to visit. I would make one request—that there are tea and cakes when I arrive.

Small Businesses (Finance)

The coalition is committed to ensuring the flow of credit to viable small and medium-sized enterprises. The emergency Budget contained several measures, including the enterprise finance guarantee, the growth capital fund and the enterprise capital fund. However, unlike the previous Government, we are addressing proactively problems in the banking sector before rather than after they irreparably damage the economy.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. Is he aware that, in my constituency, some small businesses that have successfully managed to gain access to finance are now being prevented from using that, because a bank in which the taxpayer has a significant interest has scaled back its willingness to be exposed to joint liability with small, family-run suppliers? Will he agree to take time to meet me to discuss that?

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that problem, which is happening all around the country. As it happens, in his constituency, I believe that nine companies have taken up the enterprise finance scheme—654 companies in Scotland have done likewise—and have drawn more than £1 million from it, but I recognise the problem. Actually, I think I met the chief executive of the bank to which I believe my hon. Friend is referring last week. I am aware of the enormous frustration in many small-scale enterprises, and I will continue to pursue the matter.

What help will the Secretary of State give to those small and medium-sized businesses that were hoping to take part in the building of 700 schools, including one in Tibshelf in my constituency? Does he not understand that public sector cuts equals private sector misery?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is conflating two massively different issues. I have many responsibilities—this is a very big Department—but school building, mercifully, is not one of them. However, he raises the more basic question of bank lending. Of course, there is an enormous problem, despite very high approval rates through the banking system. I am discussing with the Chancellor how we can improve the supply of capital, and there will be a paper before the summer on the different streams that we can energise to get capital flowing into good companies.

University-based Research Funding

During 2010-11, the Department will provide £5.7 billion in funding for science and research, made up of £3.9 billion, principally to the research councils, and £1.8 billion of research funding distributed by the Universities Funding Council in England. The previous Government delayed the comprehensive spending review, so budgets have not been set for future years. They will be decided this autumn as part of the spending review.

As the Minister will, I am sure, agree, we enjoy a world-class research base in our universities here in the UK, but stability of funding is crucial to that. I seek reassurance today that he will take that as a priority, especially for science research, which is so essential as a driver for our economy. Can he confirm whether the VAT increase, which will affect universities to the extent of £200 million, will be taken into account?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are committed to a strong research base in Britain and in our universities. If the hon. Lady looks at the Budget, she will see that it contained, alongside the necessary VAT increase, imaginative proposals to try to help universities respond to that challenge.

Is the Minister aware that the decisions that individuals take to come to this country, leave this country and to stay and research in this country depend on how welcome they are made to feel here and how much funding is available over a long time scale? Will he commit to a 10-year prediction of how much money is likely to be available, so that when we are out of the current hole people will know that there is a rosy future ahead?

It is quite a challenge to make a 10-year prediction when we have just embarked on the comprehensive spending review for the next three years. I can say that we are committed to supporting research in this country. The challenge we face is that we inherited from the previous Government a commitment to reductions of

“£600 million from higher education and science and research budgets”.

EU Free Trade Agreement (Peru/Colombia)

13. If he will make representations to his EU counterparts to require that the proposed EU free trade agreement with Peru and Colombia undergoes ratification in each member state. (6692)

This Parliament will have a chance to examine properly the free trade agreement with Peru and Colombia. We expect that member states will need to ratify the agreement formally in 2011, but we will confirm that when the final texts are issued later this year.

I do not know whether it is because the Minister is a Lib Dem rather than a Conservative, but that is a much better answer than I got to this question on Tuesday from the Minister for Europe. Can he ensure that that happens? There are other countries that would like to slip past the fact that Colombia has a poor human rights record. There are more trade unionists killed in that country than in all the other countries in the world put together, and an enormous problem with displaced people. It is therefore vital that this House gets to choose whether to sign up to that free trade agreement. Will he ensure that every other country signs up to that and, if necessary, use his veto?

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe gave an excellent reply to the hon. Gentleman. In any event, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, because when he was Minister for Europe he negotiated one of the strongest ever human rights clauses in the FTA with Peru and Colombia, and he deserves the credit on behalf of many people in Colombia. He will know that legal advisers are now looking at the draft text and will have to decide whether it is known as a mixed agreement or a union-only agreement. Our belief is that it will be a mixed agreement and therefore that not just the European Parliament but all Parliaments will have to consider it. That will create the debate that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

Universities UK

I meet Universities UK on a regular basis. I last met UUK representatives at their board meeting on 25 June when we discussed a range of issues facing higher education. With my right hon. Friend being the rector of Glasgow university, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State having been an economics lecturer there, I am of course impressed by the excellence of that institution.

Well, that is very nice to hear. I hope that the Minister will visit, and we will make him feel extremely welcome. A guest lecture would not go amiss.

Given the Government’s policy of a cap on immigration, the Minister will be aware that Universities UK and many others across the sector are worried about its impact, as 10% of university staff across the UK are non-EU nationals, including 2,500 staff at the Scottish universities alone. What can he do with his colleagues in the Home Office to mitigate the impact of that policy on the tertiary sector?

We are working closely on this matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and I think that we have reached a sensible way forward, which she announced the other day. Of course, if there are individual problems affecting universities in the operation of these controls, we would be interested to hear from them, and will discuss them with our colleagues in the Home Office.

The Minister will be aware that the United States spends 2.9% of gross domestic product on higher education. We spend 1.3%, which is below the OECD average. The previous Government took a brave decision on tuition fees, although it was very unpopular with my hon. Friends. May I invite the Minister to take equally unpopular decisions on university finance, perhaps to introduce a graduate tax or lift some of the charges that universities can make? We must get more money into our universities.

That is why, of course, the Browne review was set up on a cross-party basis—to look at these issues so that we can find a way forward that I hope will command consent on both sides of the House of Commons.

Science and Innovation Industry

We will encourage universities to work with businesses and enhance the effectiveness of the UK’s innovation system to support successful business innovation. The coalition agreement made it clear that we are committed to refocusing the research and development tax credit on high-tech companies, small firms and start-ups, as recommended by Sir James Dyson. We are considering the other recommendations in his report.

May I say how nice it is to see such a heavyweight business and finance team on the Front Bench? I would also like to declare an interest as someone who has had a career in business before coming to the House. Does the Minister agree that, in order to unlock the significant economic potential of our science and research base, instead of scattering money to the four corners of the kingdom, as the previous Government tended to do, we should focus our money on those centres that have a demonstrable track record in commercialising technology, such as the excellent John Innes research centre and the Norwich research park on the edge of my constituency?

The John Innes centre is a centre for plant science, but that does not mean it was a planted question.

Order. May I gently remind the Minister, who always looks very comfortable at the Dispatch Box but is usually looking the wrong way, that he needs to look at, and address, the House as a whole?

I can assure the House that we are looking very carefully at the important issue of concentrating research funding in the areas where it will yield its greatest results. However, concentration means concentration of research in departments. It need not be done university by university.

Businesses (Health and Safety)

17. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on health and safety regulations affecting businesses. (6697)

No discussions have as yet taken place between Ministers and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in relation to health and safety regulations affecting businesses. However, Ministers met Lord Young of Graffham on 1 July. Lord Young is leading the Government’s review of health and safety laws and regulation, their implementation, the compensation culture and the associated litigation process.

I hope that the Minister’s bosses in the House can persuade him not to work night and day, as he said earlier, because that sends a bad message to a lot of people. Since the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, the number of fatal accidents at work has fallen by 75%. Can he assure us that there will be no return to the bad old days?

First, I am not going to apologise for working hard. My right hon. and hon. Friends are working extremely hard. However, I can assure the right hon. Lady that the UK’s excellent health and safety standards will not be compromised as a result of this review. It will focus on unnecessary bureaucracy. I wonder whether she has spoken to businesses in her constituency—I have spoken to them in my constituency—who complain that, in order to comply with some of the complex bureaucracy of some of the health and safety rules, they have to employ consultants. We need to ensure it is easier to comply, but that in no way should undermine the importance of health and safety.

Small Businesses (Finance)

Many small businesses, including those in my constituency, face much higher facility fees, even when they can get access to finance. Does the Minister agree that banks should not use the current situation to hike up fees, and will he take this up with them?

Indeed, we already are. I want to stress and put clearly on the record the fact that we are not willing simply to allow the situation to continue. Small businesses are crucial to our economy. We want to ensure that banks understand that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I meet regularly with the banks. If we find that they are clearly pushing such charges up, we will make them come to see us in the Department and ensure that they understand that we are not happy and that we will act to ensure that they change their behaviour.

Topical Questions

My Department’s responsibilities include helping to drive growth, including by rebalancing the economy; building on the strengths of manufacturing, the knowledge industries, and the science and research base; helping businesses to grow by getting rid of excessive regulation and ensuring that they can access credit; being open to trade and foreign investment; and encouraging the development of a skilled and educated labour force.

Does the Business Secretary share my concern that, with the ending of the cheque guarantee card scheme next year, the demise of the cheque will be hastened, affecting very small businesses and, of course, the elderly? What action, if any, can he take in conjunction with his Treasury colleagues?

I do share my hon. Friend’s concerns. As she knows, the decision originated last June with the Payments Council, which is an independent body. The decision was based on the fact that there had been a dramatic fall in cheque use, from 11 million a day in 1990 to 3.5 million. However, the Government recognise that there are large numbers of individuals, small companies and charities for whom the cheque is an extremely important way of making transactions. The Payments Council is an independent body, but we are trying to ensure that it has alternatives in place, so that people are not greatly disadvantaged by the change.

May I ask the Secretary of State about an important area for consumers and businesses—the future of mobile broadband internet? As he will know, it is growing exponentially, and is hugely important for consumers and businesses. Will the Government therefore put an end to the uncertainty on the issue that has been created since the election, and proceed with the statutory instrument on the planned future spectrum option, which can make the sector grow in the UK? That measure, which was put together by the Labour Government, would have ensured fair competition through caps on the amount of spectrum that could be bought by a single operator. There has been great uncertainty on the issue since the election. Do the Government accept that it would be wrong to have that option in place in a way that squeezed out competition, and will they therefore set out their plans?

We are looking carefully at this issue, holding regular discussions with the mobile phone operators and involving other Departments and regulators. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right. Getting the issue sorted is an absolute priority for us, and we hope to make an announcement before the end of the summer recess.

T2. Following the excellent plans for apprenticeships, is my hon. Friend the Minister aware that the local apprenticeship scheme run by Essex county council and Harlow college has agreed to place an Essex apprentice in my office from October? Will he also look into boosting apprentices in Whitehall and Westminster, and through Government contracts? (6704)

My hon. Friend has been a champion of apprenticeships since he arrived in the House and before. I congratulate him on his initiative in that respect. He will know that this Government have already transferred £150 million into the apprenticeship budget to create 50,000 more apprenticeships. I can announce today that one of them will be joining my office in Whitehall, and I invite other Ministers to do the same.

Can the Secretary of State clear up the confusion on the future of regional development agencies that has arisen out of conflicting statements? On the one hand, there is an apparent open-mindedness on the part of the Secretary of State; on the other, his counterpart in the Department for Communities and Local Government has taken a more hard-line and ideological approach. If there is a desire in any region, including the west midlands, for the retention of a strong regional structure—albeit with sub-regional arrangements, including local employment partnerships—will the Secretary of State be open to the retention of a strong regional development agency there?

There is absolutely no conflict, dispute or ideological perspective involved in this at all. We have made it clear that all the RDAs will be replaced by local enterprise partnerships. They will have a change in function from the current RDAs. We have also made it clear that if there is a will in a region to operate on a regional basis, a regional structure can emerge. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), will shortly produce a White Paper setting out how the regional process will develop.

T3. I have been made aware recently of a number of cases of academic visitors coming to the UK, often for only a few days, and being denied visas for their entry. Will the Minister meet the Home Secretary to work out a new protocol for treating these people? Will he also meet me to talk through the issue, so that we can ensure that the reputation of British educational research is supported and not weakened? (6705)

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I are both aware of the importance of these academic exchanges and visits. If there are any particular operational problems that my hon. Friend has encountered, I would be very happy to meet him to discuss them.

T4. Does the Secretary of State appreciate the real need of ports such as Hull to upgrade to cope with green energy production? Is the £60 million promised by the Labour Government still on offer, or does he dismiss it as a cynical Labour election ploy, as he has done with Sheffield Forgemasters? (6707)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there was an announcement in the Budget on commercial rates, which was a big issue for those ports. We are anxious to help the development of green investment and, as he will know, we are studying a proposal for the green investment bank, which could well become a vehicle for good projects in that sector.

T5. I was listening carefully to the Minister’s earlier response to the question on penalty charges applied to personal bank account holders who occasionally stray into unauthorised overdraft. Bearing in mind the Supreme Court’s decision last year, which has resulted in a very unsatisfactory situation, does the Department intend to review the situation and, indeed, intervene to protect those personal account holders who find themselves in difficulty? (6708)

There certainly was a problem of serious overcharging, and it was pursued through the courts by the Office of Fair Trading. I am going to meet the director general of fair trading very soon, and I shall try to establish whether any action needs to be taken by the Department, as opposed to through the legal channels that have been pursued so far.

What assessment has been made of the impact of front-line services in local citizens advice bureaux, such as my own in Makerfield, of the £2.5 million cut to Citizens Advice?

I have met representatives of Citizens Advice England and Citizens Advice Scotland to discuss any difficulties they might have in implementing in-year cuts, as I have with all partner organisations of the Department. They have given me their assurance that they are managing, and they are working with my officials to try to ensure that those cuts can be made without hitting the front line in the way that the hon. Lady describes.

T6. Learners at colleges across England such as Great Yarmouth college have contributed something like £28 billion to our economy over the past 15 years. Does the Minister agree that those colleges need the support of our Government? What freedoms can we give them to ensure that they develop even further in the future? (6709)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He is right to raise that issue in those terms, because it is through freedom that colleges will be able to innovate and excel. It is vital that colleges become more responsive to learner demand and to employers. That is why I have already announced certain important freedoms that they want and that were denied to them by the Labour Government.

I think that there is cross-party consensus that major infrastructure projects such as high-speed rail and new nuclear and renewable energy schemes are essential not only for the future of our economy but for the greening of the economy. However, they often attract local opposition. There is huge concern within the business community about the proposed abolition of the Infrastructure Planning Commission. What representations is the Minister making to ensure that the successor planning regime does not allow nimbyism, masquerading as local democracy, to strangle those schemes at birth?

What we are changing is the quango that will report on the final decision. We are not changing the streamlined system that will sit behind it—we think it is good; for business and for infrastructure—but we do think it important that when a final decision is made on a major infrastructure programme, it is made by a Minister standing at this Dispatch Box who is accountable to this House. I think that is an important principle; it will not undermine business investment and it is good for democracy.

T7. Last week, I joined students at Rugby high school in my constituency, who were taking part in a business partnership event, in which they learned the principles of running a business. Does the Minister agree that it is vital to encourage and support such entrepreneurs of the future? (6710)

We are strongly committed to enterprise education. People can learn how to be enterprising and learn the skills necessary to run a business. We are indeed committed to supporting such initiatives.

The Secretary of State will be aware that of all the important things for small businesses, the most important of all is that people have enough money to buy their products. In that light, what impact does he think the increase in VAT will have, particularly on the retail sector, which relies so much on people having the money to purchase products?

The Budget made it very clear that the value added tax increase is part of an overall process of reducing our enormous deficit, and it will lead to the strengthening of the British economy in due course. Those who criticise the VAT increase have to explain whether they are recommending that we make even deeper cuts in public spending instead.

T8. Will the Secretary of State meet a group of seaside MPs whose constituencies face very specific challenges both in job creation and in new business start-ups? Could we further discuss how to boost domestic tourism, which plays such an important part in the economy of my South Thanet constituency? (6711)

The hon. Lady, if I may say so, is a very good advocate—possibly even a champion—of tourism and so forth. [Interruption.] My largesse does not go quite that far. I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and her colleagues. It is important to recognise some of the special problems in particular locations, and start-ups are crucial in that respect.

Will the Minister assure me that in the lifetime of this Parliament he will not cut the budget of a vital part of his Department, the companies investigations branch, which does vital work to protect front-line services and consumers?

All partner organisations and all parts of Government have to look very closely at their budgets as we approach the comprehensive spending review. We will ensure that key parts of the Department, which I often refer to as “the plumbing”—the parts that uphold company law and competition policy and the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, for example—get the resources they need, as they affect key areas of our economy.

May I say that the announced 50,000 new apprenticeships are hugely welcome in my constituency, as Rossendale and Darwen has many young people working in the manufacturing sector? Given that an apprenticeship should be only the start of a journey of lifelong learning, what steps have been taken to encourage those who have completed an apprenticeship to go on to university?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about progression. It is important to have a ladder of training opportunity, going from re-engagement of those who have been disengaged from education, training and employment through to apprenticeships, and then to higher level skills, too. We will certainly do that.

Will the Secretary of State confirm whether he will go ahead with previous plans to introduce financial incentives of about £5,000 for people buying new electric vehicles?

No, I cannot confirm that because the decision is still awaited, and it lies with the Department for Transport. Only last week, I attended a major series of events with the automotive industry, which impressed on me the importance of this decision in order to promote electric power. I fully understand the rationale behind it, but I cannot confirm the decision today.

The university campus at Burnley college has developed what it believes to be the most advanced wind turbine in the world. The previous Government were asked to fund further research on it, which they refused, so will the Minister visit this project and look at the possibility of helping to develop it further?

I always enjoy visiting universities, especially when they have enterprising ideas that bring forward business opportunities, so I am happy to accept my hon. Friend’s invitation.

Will the Secretary of State confirm what communication he or his Cabinet colleagues have had with Corus and Tata Steel Europe, since the announcement of the departure of the coalition Government’s fiscal friend, Kirby Adams?

I met Dr Ratan Tata when he came through London. We have not had detailed discussions on the future of the steel project—we remember the consequences of the closure on Teesside—but we support the continuation of training for those redundant workers who require it and have not found their own way following redundancy.

The Minister may be aware that the selections for the UK WorldSkills squad are due to take place in anticipation of the 60th WorldSkills competition, held in London next year. One of the selection events is taking place in my constituency at the excellent North Warwickshire and Hinckley college during November. Will the Minister consider accompanying me on a visit to the college during that week, to see the excellent work that the students are doing?

I can see that I will be busy travelling the whole country. Of course I will—WorldSkills matters and celebrates success; there was cross-party agreement about that. I will support the event in his constituency and WorldSkills more generally.

Order. The answer to the right hon. Gentleman is that points of order follow statements. [Interruption.] Order. Somebody chuntered from a sedentary position that there was a point of order earlier. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is a considerable authority on these matters and knows perfectly well—it is helpful for me to explain this to the House—that one circumstance in which a point of order can come before a statement is when, in respect of a particular question, a Member is so dissatisfied with the answer that he or she signals an intention to raise the matter on the Adjournment. I explain that both for the benefit of the House and for those outside who are unaware of such matters.