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Commons Chamber

Volume 513: debated on Thursday 8 July 2010

House of Commons

Thursday 8 July 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 12 July will include:

Monday 12 July—Proceedings on the Finance Bill (Day 1).

Tuesday 13 July—Proceedings on the Finance Bill (Day 2).

Wednesday 14 July—Motion relating to police grant report, followed by motion to approve a Statutory Instrument relating to the draft Terrorism Act 2006 (Disapplication of Section 25) Order 2010, followed by motion to approve a European Document relating to the European External Action Service.

Thursday 15 July—Proceedings on the Finance Bill (Day 3).

The provisional business for the week commencing 19 July will include:

Monday 19 July—Second Reading of the Academies Bill [Lords].

At 10 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Tuesday 20 July—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill, followed by proceedings on the Finance Bill (Day 4), followed by business nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 21 July—Proceedings on the Academies Bill [Lords] (Day 1).

Thursday 22 July—Proceedings on the Academies Bill [Lords] (Day 2).

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 15 July will be:

Thursday 15 July—A debate entitled “Reform of the Law of Defamation”.

May I thank the Leader of the House for the business and say how pleased we are to have him back, knowing his commitment to protecting the rights of Members of the House? Although he seems increasingly isolated in that quest, he remains our leading man. I use that term because, as it happens, it is exactly how he was described by The House Magazine, in a marvellous account of his rise to power and his duties as Leader of the House. It includes some fascinating reminiscences about the Thatcher years. For example, he says:

“When we won power in 1979 we were less prepared than today.”

Order. This is absolutely fascinating stuff, but it suffers from the notable disadvantage that it bears absolutely no relation whatever to the business of next week or the week after. I know that the right hon. Lady, who is a dextrous performer, will now speedily move on to matters of current interest, namely the business of the House next week and the week after.

I certainly will, Mr Speaker. One of the matters on which I wanted to question the Leader of the House with reference to his duties was the “serious training” that he said shadow Ministers had been given in order for them to be able to move quickly to implement some of the policies in the coalition agreement. I think that that “serious training” explains the speed with which the Thatcherite cuts in public service are being implemented. However, the interview does not tell us whether the duties of the Leader of the House include arranging training for Liberal Democrat Ministers enabling them, for instance, to explain during next week’s debate on the police grant report how cutting £125 million from this year’s policing budget will not affect police numbers—especially given that the Liberal Democrat manifesto stated that there would be 3,000 extra police on the streets.

Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Minister for Police explains in next week’s debate what statistics the Prime Minister was using yesterday when he said that violent crime had doubled, given that the UK Statistics Authority has said that it is misleading the public to use anything other than the British crime survey as a measure of long-term crime trends? The survey shows that, in fact, there has been a 41% reduction in violent crime since 1997.

May I also ask whether the “serious training” referred to by the Leader of the House involves training in how to make apologies? If so, I am afraid that the Education Secretary needs a refresher course. On Monday, he released his first list of schools that would no longer be refurbished or rebuilt. He released that list to the media. By Tuesday afternoon he had released a third list. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) raised the matter with you, Mr Speaker, and last night the Education Secretary was forced to come to the House to apologise. He arrived with a fourth list, but said he

“would be grateful if hon. Members would ensure that any information they had that pointed to inaccuracies was put to me”.—[Official Report, 7 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 492.]

Naturally, Labour Members rose to the challenge and pointed out that Monkseaton high school in Tynemouth, which was listed as having been cancelled, had in fact been opened last year, and had been visited by the one and only right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) when he launched the Conservative local election campaign. That is completely chaotic, and suggests a hurried and unreliable process.

If the hon. Gentleman has any suggestions for the Secretary of State, I am sure that the Secretary of State will listen to them.

Will the Leader of the House ask the Education Secretary to come to the House and, as a minimum, publish the criteria that were used to decide which school building projects would be cancelled, so that parents and teachers can see for themselves whether their school building programme has indeed been cancelled by any kind of reasonable and fair process? That is a minimum; but the fact is that the Education Secretary should simply withdraw the list altogether, and think again about destroying the hopes and aspirations of at least 700 communities around the country. Surely it is obvious that this whole process has become discredited, as has the Education Secretary himself—not least because he keeps telling the House that funding had not been agreed for these schools. He continued to say that in the House even after the permanent secretary had issued a letter saying that it was categorically not the case.

Finally, last week I asked the Deputy Leader of the House to place in the Library the Treasury paper on the 1.3 million people who were going to be thrown out of work because of the Budget. Neither that nor the advice given to the former coalition Chief Secretary on the future jobs fund has appeared. That meant that we had an Opposition day debate yesterday on jobs and unemployment with those two crucial documents withheld from us. How can the Leader of the House possibly justify that when the coalition agreement specifically refers to openness and transparency in government? Will he now place these documents in the Library as a matter of urgency?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her questions, and I hope that the The House Magazine might one day carry an article entitled “Leading lady”, in which she features. I got on very well with Lady Thatcher—so well that she appointed me to her Administration not once, but twice.

On the police grant order, there will still be an increase in the resources available to the police even after that order, which will be debated next Wednesday. The right hon. Lady knows full well the reason for that order: in the words of the Labour Chief Secretary, “There is no money left.”

On crime, it is important that the actual crimes recorded by the police are used alongside the statistical analysis of the British crime survey. Indeed, that was the measure most often used by Labour Members when they criticised our record in government. We have quoted the only statistics that are available on recorded crime across the period, but I can tell the right hon. Lady that the Home Secretary has written to the shadow Home Secretary stating that we are reviewing how crime statistics should be collected and published in future, and we will make further announcements in due course.

On the subject of apologies, both the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary have had the decency to come to this House and apologise when things have gone wrong. We have had no apology from the Labour Benches, however, for one in five young people being unemployed, and we have had no apology for Labour selling the gold at the lowest level for some 20 years, or for leaving us with the worst budget deficit in Europe.

The right hon. Lady will have seen the question the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) asked about the school list, to which my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary replied:

“It is my belief that the list we have placed in the Vote Office is accurate.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 492.]

He went on to say that he understood that double-checking was now taking place within the Department. My right hon. Friend also set out the criteria used to make the decisions at some length in his statement on Monday, and he was questioned about them for an hour and a quarter. The right hon. Lady should remember, however, that the reason for the statement was the over-commitment of resources by the outgoing Secretary of State, who acted irresponsibly by over-relying on end-year flexibility when the resources simply were not there.

We had a debate on unemployment yesterday, and the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), pointed out that over the next few years there will be an increase of 1.5 million in the number of people working.

On Monday the House adjourned at 10.49 pm, on Tuesday at 2.48 am the following morning and on Wednesday at 8.13 pm. That is very good for holding the Government to account, but for Members who, because of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, have up to a two-hour commute home, it is not sustainable. May we have a statement next week on whether IPSA has broken parliamentary privilege by restricting the ability of some hon. Members to carry out their duties?

On the narrow issue of privilege, that is a matter for Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend will know the procedure that needs to be gone through if anyone asserted there had been a breach of privilege, but may I also say the following to my hon. Friend? Earlier this week for the first time we had a seriously late-night sitting against the background of the new constraints imposed on the House by IPSA. I am aware that a large number of hon. Members were seriously inconvenienced by what happened, and that is something that I and others propose to pursue in a dialogue with IPSA.

May we have a debate in Government time on capital allocations following the Building Schools for the Future announcements, and possibly for two days, given how many hon. Members would wish to raise issues relating to their local schools? The list that was published yesterday still contains numerous errors in the Greenwich schools listed. A “Broadoak” school is listed as “Unaffected”—that is hardly surprising, given that it does not exist. The “University Technical College” is linked with Eltham Hill school, but Eltham Hill school is also listed separately. The Business Academy Bexley, which opened six years ago, the St Paul’s academy, which opened in January, and Charlton special school, which opened in September 2008, are also all on this list. What criteria were used to produce this list? It is arbitrary. What account has been taken of the capital needs that will have to be met, such as essential repairs and improvements to electrics? If we do not have a debate, how can we get to the detail of what has produced this list?

I will of course raise with the Secretary of State for Education the hon. Gentleman’s specific points about the accuracy of the list, but that contrasts with the need for the list. That need was set out in some detail on Monday, and Labour Members have not explained in any way where they would have found the resources necessary if they had wanted to go ahead with the BSF programme.

Will the Leader of the House find time for us to debate the appalling standards of commuter travel for many rail travellers in my constituency? Will he allow us to have the chance to press for wider local consultation given the upcoming local franchises?

My hon. Friend makes a forceful case for a debate, and I see the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee in her place. May I also say to my hon. Friend that he will have the opportunity to raise the matter with Transport Ministers at Transport questions on 22 July?

The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member and he has been a Select Committee Chairman. Can he explain to the House what the delay has been in getting the right order before us in respect of the Select Committee on Science and Technology? I understand that there is still a Conservative vacancy, and at least one Conservative Member from the new intake has come to me to ask how to get on the Committee. I directed him to the Whips. Can the Leader of the House ensure that the Committee is established as quickly as possible, so that we can have our first meeting next Wednesday?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, and I congratulate him on his post as Chairman of that Committee. If he looks at today’s Order Paper, he will see that a large number of Select Committees have been nominated by the Committee of Selection. However, it was not able yesterday to make progress with five or six Committees. I have been in touch with the Chairman of the Committee of Selection, and I understand that he hopes to make very swift progress with the remaining Committees. I am sure that he will take on board the very helpful suggestion that the hon. Gentleman has made about a vacancy.

I very much welcome the coalition Government and think they stand a good chance of putting right some of the mistakes of the previous Government. I am a great believer in evidence-based policy making. It seems to me that the Deputy Prime Minister often asserts the “great demand” for constitutional change, so could we have a debate about the evidence base for those statements so that we can examine the root of them?

Looking ahead, I have to say that the House will be doing very little but debate constitutional change in the weeks ahead. There will be a debate on the Report stage of the Bill to which my hon. Friend has alluded, and there will be ample opportunity to debate constitutional change and reform in the weeks ahead. I hope that I have correctly understood his question.

May we have an urgent debate—I stress the need for it to be urgent—on Building Schools for the Future? Following on from the question posed by the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) on the necessity for evidence-based decisions, may I say that what has become increasingly clear is that the Secretary of State for Education has never presented to this House, either in debate or in a statement, any kind of proof that his decisions were based on evidence, either of the economic need or of the educational need? Absolutely no detail has been provided, so one is left with the feeling that there is no Building Schools for the Future programme. This has caused enormous disquiet across the whole country, not least in my constituency. May I just point out to the Leader of the House that the people who are suffering most for the inequity and incompetence of the Secretary of State are our children? Our children are this country’s future, so it behoves this Government to afford proper time to this House to examine whether there is indeed a Building Schools for the Future programme, because the Secretary of State has markedly failed to convince any of us.

I do not agree with the assertion at the beginning of the hon. Lady’s question. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education set out very clearly in his statement on Monday the criteria that we used for deciding which projects would go ahead and which would not. He then answered questions for an hour and a quarter on those criteria. However, the hon. Lady will have a further opportunity next Monday, in Education questions, to pursue the matter.

May we have a debate on empty property business rates? In my constituency, Asda, having been denied building permission more than 10 years ago, has allowed the property to go to rack and ruin. It is a total eyesore for local residents, yet the Revenue apparently, I am told, owes Asda £2 million in back rates that Asda is allowed to claw back. That surely cannot be right. May we have a debate on that, please?

I understand the anxiety that the hon. Lady expresses. On 15 July, there will be Communities and Local Government questions and she will have an opportunity to make her point to Ministers.

This morning, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), slipped out that the merchant shipping regulations on ship-to-ship transfers of oil carried as cargo will be delayed until next year following lobbying by Lib Dem and Tory MPs. This announcement has been met with horror by organisations in Scotland such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Fife council and communities on both sides of the Forth. Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate in this Chamber or in Westminster Hall next week or the week after so that Members have an opportunity properly to debate this matter rather than having it simply slipped out on a Thursday?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. On 22 July, there will be Transport questions, but in the meantime I shall draw his anxiety to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and get a response.

This week, Toyota announced 750 job losses at its plant in Burnaston. That will have a devastating impact on families in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler). I have already met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss what we can do to get those people back into work, but given that we have seen a 10% decrease in the output of manufacturing since 1997 and given that that decline has been three times faster than the decline under the Conservative Government of the 1980s, may we have an urgent debate on support for manufacturing industries?

We shall debate the Finance Bill in the coming week, but I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that, against the background of the very disappointing news that he has outlined, some of the measures in the Budget are designed to help manufacturing industry, such as the reduction in corporation tax over the next few years, which is designed to promote inward investment. I hope that those policies will result in a turnaround in the unemployment position in his constituency.

Will the Leader of the House press the Health Secretary and other Ministers responsible to come to the House and create a debate on the strategy to deal with obesity in this country? This is not just a question for England, because when I go around my constituency I am shocked by the amount of obesity that I see. We are all being abandoned by the Health Secretary and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, because they will not ban trans fats from processed food. They appear to have abandoned us to the processed food industry by abandoning the strategy against obesity in England. It is a very important matter because it is damaging the health of our constituents’ children and bringing early death to our constituents.

Obesity is an important issue, although, happily, it is not one that either the hon. Gentleman or I would appear to suffer from. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has made it clear that, where possible, he wants to work with the industry rather than against it. That is the background to the announcements that he has just made. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, however, that this is an issue that, if possible, we should find time to debate. If we cannot, there will be an opportunity to raise it during Health questions.

I hope that I have not been called with reference to the last question, Mr Speaker.

The Leader of the House worked his magic when asked for a full day’s debate on the strategic defence and security review and supplied one about a week later. Will he work his magic again, following yesterday’s statement on Afghanistan, and arrange a full day’s debate on strategy in Afghanistan? Will he have a word with his counterparts in the other place, where there are many experts on this subject, so that they too might express their views on this extremely important subject?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is the Government’s intention that the House should be kept regularly up to date on the position in Afghanistan and, as he knows, there was a statement by the Secretary of State for Defence yesterday. It is our intention to carry on with that process and to have statements and, where appropriate, debates. I am sure that my colleagues in the other place will have heard my hon. Friend’s request for business there—that is happily a responsibility that does not currently rest with me.

The right hon. Gentleman may have had time to read the Law Commission report on the reform of ombudsmen. Will he tell the House his view of the MP filter, whereby referrals are made to the parliamentary ombudsman only through Members of Parliament? Does he support that situation?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Whether our constituents should have to go through us to have access to the ombudsman or whether they should have direct access has been an issue for some time. There is a Select Committee of this House that has responsibility for the ombudsman. Before I opine, it would be very helpful if the Public Administration Committee, which is the right Committee, were to have another look at this and see whether we need to retain the MP filter.

Despite the record amount of money spent on our national health service in recent years, there are wards in Crewe and Nantwich where the life expectancy of men and women is still up to 10 years less than in neighbouring wards. May we have a debate on the issue of health inequalities so that these unacceptable disparities can be discussed and debated?

My hon. Friend has brought to the attention of the House a very important issue, namely the very wide discrepancies in life expectancy according to where people live and their socio-economic background, and which this Government want to reduce. I am not sure whether I can find time for a debate in the near future, but the Chair of the newly appointed Backbench Business Committee will have heard his plea. I will raise the issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and see whether we can get a response for my hon. Friend.

I was recently approached by the chamber of commerce in my constituency and told it was expecting a loss of 17,000 construction jobs as a result of public sector cuts. That was before what happened with BSF. May we have an urgent debate on the loss of public sector construction jobs as a result of what has happened with BSF?

I am sure the hon. Lady knows that under the last Administration there was a forecast reduction in public sector jobs. So far as employment is concerned, as I said a moment ago we had a debate about this yesterday and the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), pointed out that it was forecast that there would be an increase of 1.5 million jobs over the next few years. I hope that some of those will be in the construction industry. In the first statement that we made on public expenditure, we put back in a sum of money for social housing. Housing is an important ingredient in our programme. I hope that as the economy recovers there will be more work in the construction industry, building the houses that our constituents need.

Following the excellent comments by our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about the need to abolish council non-jobs, may I urge my right hon. Friend to grant a debate on this subject so that we can all give our suggestions as to which politically correct council non-jobs should be abolished? Will he ensure that it is a full day’s debate, because I think that he will find that there are plenty of them?

It would be very sad if we had to wait for a full day’s debate before my hon. Friend could supply the House with his list of jobs that could be reduced. My hon. Friend is an ingenious person and I am sure he will find an outlet for the long list that he apparently has detailing how money might be saved.

Following my hon. Friends’ questions, may I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to early-day motion 399 in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy)?

[That this House condemns the Government's decision to cancel the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme for a number of schools in the London Borough of Waltham Forest; notes that parents, pupils, governors, teachers and other staff have often worked hard and valiantly under difficult conditions over many years; further notes that the BSF programme promised new buildings and vastly improved conditions for staff and students; and considers that this announcement will be a serious setback for education in Waltham Forest.]

Aside from the issue of the veracity of the announcements in the various lists that have been released, another problem is the fact that this matter will affect some of the poorest and relatively poorest communities in Britain who have been looking forward to having new school buildings for many decades and who are now going to be let down. Rather than just receiving a statement from the Secretary of State for Education, we really need a full day’s debate on this.

It is always open to the Opposition to use one of their Opposition days for a debate on this subject, but I repeat that the reason for Monday’s statement was that, as the former Chief Secretary said, there is no money left and steps had to be taken to restore confidence in the public finances.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the Tenant Services Authority? Councillor Lee Dangerfield, the chairman of housing in my constituency, has received a letter from the TSA asking him to waste more money on needless inspection regimes and plans costing £70,000. Is that not an obscene waste of taxpayers’ money when we need to cut our cloth according to the situation and give Harlow taxpayers value for money?

My hon. Friend might know that the role and functions of the TSA and the framework for social housing regulation are being reviewed. The review is informed by our commitment to reducing the number and cost of quangos and to cutting unnecessary regulation and inspection, and it will conclude as quickly as possible.

The Leader of the House might not have had time to read the report by the independent Work Foundation on the geography of the recovery and on coalition policies, but it clearly says that although current coalition policies might lead to some recovery in the south and in the services sector, they will not support job creation in the regions. Can we have an urgent debate on how job creation in the regions is to be supported and on what the coalition’s policies for that should be?

That issue was covered yesterday to some extent. It was precisely to redress the imbalance between north and south that we set up a £1 billion regional development fund. I hope that the hon. Lady will encourage her constituents to apply for resources under that fund.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the development of high speed rail services is vital for our national economy, depending on which route is chosen, there will be a significant impact on many local communities, including Hints, Weeford and Drayton Bassett in my constituency? Does he agree that we should discuss in the House the best mechanism, depending on the method and route chosen, by which to maximise the use of existing infrastructure and brownfield sites to minimise the impact on green spaces?

As a former Secretary of State for Transport with a real commitment to the railways, I agree that where it is practical so to do we should use existing track and routes rather than new ones. Where a new route is necessary, there should be the fullest consultation before that route is finally decided on.

Will the Leader of the House ensure that there is adequate time in the debates on the Academies Bill to discuss the way in which the Secretary of State for Education proposes to shower money on so-called free schools while drastically cutting money to schools in Sandwell, particularly Perryfields and Bristnall Hall in my constituency? There is also a question mark over Shireland. Is that proposal not an insult to the children, teachers and communities concerned and is it not a gross misdirection of resources?

I would not describe the academies programme in exactly the terms used by the right hon. Gentleman. The answer to his question is yes, there will be lots of time during the debate on the Academies Bill for him to make his case and for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State robustly to reject it.

Will the Leader of the House please find time for a debate on the unfairness arising from the fact that Members of Parliament who represent constituencies in Scotland can vote on matters such as education and schools that affect my constituents, but that I and other Members who represent seats in England have no reciprocal right to vote on matters affecting education in Scotland?

My hon. Friend might be familiar with a document that was published in the last Parliament by the Democracy Taskforce, of which I was a member, which addressed the West Lothian question. If he looks at the coalition agreement, he will see that our proposal to deal with this anomaly is to set up a commission to look into the issue and to report back with proposals.

Following on from questions regarding Building Schools for the Future, is the Leader of the House aware that the list referred to the fact that Tibshelf school in my constituency would not go ahead but did not mention that Deincourt school in the neighbouring constituency of North East Derbyshire is due to be closed because the Tibshelf school was expected to go ahead? So, two constituencies are involved, there were plans for a Deincourt school replacement and the net result is that the ripples are still travelling as far as the Tory county council. What are the Government going to do about this? When are they going to sort it out? Why can Tibshelf not have that school?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be in his place on Monday for Education questions when he can ask that precise question.

There has been considerable speculation in recent days that the Government intend to bring forward legislation to amend the civil service compensation scheme. Given the scale of cuts already envisaged, this is causing considerable additional anxiety to those who work in our public services. Will the Leader of the House arrange for Cabinet Office Ministers to come quickly to the House and set out precisely what the Government intend?

The answer is yes, because we will be introducing legislation to amend the civil service compensation scheme. In doing so, we will be taking forward policies of the outgoing Government that were unable to proceed because, on the application of the Public and Commercial Services Union, the High Court quashed the details of the scheme that was going forward. We need legislation to get around that. Our objectives are not wholly different from those of the outgoing Administration, namely to bring those in the civil service scheme into line with those in the private sector.

The Leader of the House will be aware that this week’s second and final report of the Independent Commission on Funding and Finance for Wales called for an immediate Barnett floor to protect Wales from further convergence, the implementation of transition mechanisms towards a needs-based formula for my country and a place at the table for the Welsh Government in discussions on fiscal autonomy for Scotland. Will he ask for a debate in Government time on those proposals?

There will be questions on Wales on 28 July, I think. In the mean time, I shall bring the hon. Gentleman’s views to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Wales and for Scotland. I am aware of the importance of issues concerning the Barnett formula.

Protecting the most vulnerable in our society should be a basic principle of government, so may I urge the Leader of the House to create the opportunity to debate, in Government time, the statement of 15 June 2010 by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, Health Canada and the European Commission’s directorate-general for health and consumers regarding the safety of looped blind cords so that we can put an end to the strangulation of children by looped blind cords in this country?

I agree that protecting the most vulnerable is an important objective for any Government. That is why, in the Budget, we took 800,000 people out of tax and increased the rate of capital gains tax and that is why our proposals are designed specifically to protect the most vulnerable from the measures that are necessary in the public interest.

May I earnestly press the Leader of the House on the need for an urgent debate on the impact of the BSF cuts that were announced on Monday? I am not sure that he is fully aware of the concern that is being expressed in constituencies such as mine about the impact of these dreadful cuts not only on our young people but on local construction jobs in an area that greatly needs employment.

I am well aware of the concern, because I sat through the exchange, as I am sure she did, at 7.15 pm yesterday when colleagues made their views known and I have seen the Hansard report of the statement on Monday afternoon. I would be misleading her if I said that I could find time for a debate on this issue. I have outlined the business from now almost until the House rises and I am not sure that I can find time for a debate on it.

A couple of weeks ago, when I asked the Leader of the House for a debate on the use of extended travel money by Opposition Front-Bench spokespersons, he told me that they should rely on Short money. The Library has kindly provided some figures from the last Parliament that show the average amount per Member for extended travel was £296 and the average per Conservative shadow Cabinet Member was £1,748.58. The right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), now the Minister for Universities and Science, spent £3,763 and the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, spent £13,573. I am not criticising them; they were simply doing their job as Opposition Front-Bench spokespersons. The Leader of the House is a fair man, so will he look into this? Is it right to deny us in opposition the opportunities his party had in opposition to do their job?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, in that the regime for extended travel in the last Parliament appears to have been more generous than the new extended travel regime introduced by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The issue has already been raised with IPSA by me and by some of the hon. Gentleman’s hon. and right hon. Friends, and I shall pursue the matter to see whether we can get some equity of treatment.

I am disappointed by the almost glib way the Leader of the House sought to dismiss our concerns about the Building Schools for the Future fiasco. Do the Government not owe it to the people of this country, including my constituents who send their children to King’s Heath Boys, to give us a full debate in Government time so that we can understand what went on? Is it a question of competence on the part of the Secretary of State? Is it a communication problem with his officials? Is it a sign of things to come, as the Government attempt to make cuts left, right and centre? Far from providing stability, we are in for months and years of misery and chaos, and if the Leader of the House is not prepared to let us understand what went on, I suspect he is trying to cover something up.

May I say to the hon. Gentleman that each year 20 days are allotted for Opposition debates? If he and his hon. Friends believe that they have a case against the Administration on incompetence, it is open to them to choose as a subject for an Opposition day exactly the issue he has raised—the handling of Building Schools for the Future.

In Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, the Prime Minister elected to answer a question by, in his words, trying to boost sales of a book that I understand was published by an organisation part-owned by Lord Ashcroft. Can the Leader of the House assure us that rather than questions to the Prime Minister resulting in all Members of Parliament receiving an e-mail from the publishing firm—almost as though it knew what would happen—they are there to provide enlightenment to members of the public and not for the Prime Minister to make a sales pitch on behalf of Conservative party benefactors?