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Topical Questions

Volume 513: debated on Thursday 8 July 2010

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.