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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 516: debated on Thursday 14 October 2010

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Adult and Community Learning

Adult and community learning make a vital contribution to building a big society founded on social mobility, social justice and social cohesion. We will strive to reinvigorate adult and community learning to make it part of the wider learning continuum and to enable providers to respond to the learning needs of their communities.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Has he managed to see research from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education that demonstrates that 28% of adult learners show an increased involvement in social, community and volunteering activity as a direct result of their learning? Does he agree that that demonstrates the vital role that adult education will have to play in contributing to the big society?

Yes, indeed. As it happens, I have with me the response to the study that he describes. The transformative power of adult learning is well understood by this Government. We know that adult learning changes lives by changing life chances. It gives some of the most disadvantaged people in our community their chance to gain learning. It is frequently progressive to further learning and takes them to the world of work. This Government unequivocally back adult learning.

In our multicultural big society, which is being created, what specific help will there be for those who do not have English as a first language to help them acquire these skills?

It is absolutely right—in the spirit in which I have answered the earlier question—that we should consider the particular needs of communities in the way that the right hon. Gentleman makes clear. Language is critical—it is critical in building the social cohesion that I described. The chances for people in settled communities without a grasp of English to acquire that grasp are essential if they are going to learn and work.

Evidence from the excellent West Suffolk college in my constituency suggests that those who participate in adult learning increase their activity in the third sector. Given the necessary constraint on public spending, would the Minister perhaps give us a clue as to whether he is going to encourage more co-payment of fees?

Any clues offered on that subject would do me no good at all. It would be entirely inappropriate to prejudge the discussions on the comprehensive spending review. May I just say how welcome it is to see my hon. Friend in the Chamber today?

Adult Education

2. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on development of small businesses of reductions in spending on adult education. (17253)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the results of the spending review will not be announced until next week. However, a key consideration has been how we best ensure the skills of our nation are improved. I can also assure him that we have modelled the impact of our proposals on businesses and individuals. Skills are crucial to delivering growth and will play a key role in our agenda.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that adult education provides essential work skills for some of my most vulnerable constituents and that 40% reductions in spending on adult education will hit those constituents, and consequently small businesses, hardest—when they are both vital in providing economic growth to tackle the deficit?

The hon. Gentleman is right that small businesses form the backbone of our economy, and it is our job to ensure that they get the support they need. An advanced economy needs advanced skills, and backing business and providing growth means investing in skills. As I have said, he would not expect me to prejudge the CSR, but he can be assured that the team on the Front Bench fully appreciates the power and value of skills.

Will the Minister tell me whether his Department has made any progress on the skills needed for small businesses such as those in the curry industry and whether there has been any progress on trying to develop additional learning skills for that industry?

As my hon. Friend knows, because we have discussed the matter—by the way, I pay tribute to her work in that field—just this week I met my counterpart from Bangladesh to discuss the matter. [Interruption.] Sadly, we were not sharing a samosa at the time. I have asked my hon. Friend to make representations to the Department to talk about her work with that industry to deliver the skills that that industry needs.

Tuition Fees

3. What plans he has for the future level of the cap on tuition fees which may be levied by universities; and if he will make a statement. (17254)

We welcome Lord Browne’s independent report on higher education, which makes recommendations about the structure and level of graduate contributions. We are looking at his proposals carefully and considering a contribution level of £7,000.

My right hon. Friend knows the reasons, which are well documented, why I cannot support the thrust and direction of Government policy on this one. Given the inevitable, and indeed immediate, ramifications of any policy change for the tertiary sector in England on Russell group universities in Scotland, is he willing between now and next May to enter into open-minded discussions with all the political parties in Scotland to see whether a modus vivendi can none the less be achieved to maintain some of the principles for which we have argued long and hard where Scottish tertiary sector education is concerned?

That is a constructive suggestion. I am happy to do exactly what my right hon. Friend has said. To reinforce the point, yesterday the principal—the vice-chancellor equivalent—of Glasgow university, where I know my right hon. Friend is a rector and with which I have an association, said in relation to the growing funding crisis in Scottish universities:

“I believe we need to adopt a graduate contribution model that is properly designed, progressive and one which requires those who earn more during their lifetime to pay back more to society in order to fund higher education.”

That is exactly what we are doing.

On Tuesday, the Social Market Foundation published an analysis of how the Business Secretary’s £7,000 a year minimum fee will hit different graduates. It shows that the hardest hit will be graduates who earn £27,000 a year, while students who get help from the bank of mum and dad to pay off early will get a £12,000 discount on the cost of their degree. Is that fair?

It would not be fair, if that were the outcome. That particular analysis does not properly consider the true present value of the payments that people will have to make. There has been some excellent research on the operation of different interest rates in order to produce a genuinely fair and progressive outcome, which Government Members want and which I hope the right hon. Gentleman still wants.

When my building society starts asking me to pay my mortgage in net present value, I will do so. Until then, I will talk pounds and pence like everybody else.

Does the Business Secretary recognise that if he allows universities such as Oxford and Cambridge to charge £10,000 or £12,000 a year, the gap between the few and the many will get wider? The Higher Education Minister has said that it is not possible to stop people paying their fees up front. Will that not create the unfair situation in which those born into privilege, such as the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to pick two at random, can get a huge discount for paying up front, while the bright child from a poor background who makes it to Oxford or Cambridge will pay even more? How is that fair?

We are anxious to ensure a fairer solution than the existing graduate contribution system that we inherited. The right hon. Gentleman has used the analogy of mortgage payments, which is interesting. No building society or bank that I am aware of would exempt people from any payments until they were earning £21,000 a year, which is the progressive element that we are trying to introduce. He has rightly referred to the difficulties that would arise if certain Russell group institutions were allowed to charge very large variable contributions. That is why I made no commitment on Tuesday on how we would deal with that problem, on which we need to reflect further. He is right that there is an issue of fairness, which we will address.

Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to stop higher education from disintegrating into a free market free-for-all, either by imposing a cap or by requiring a high proportion of additional fees levied by some of the top universities to be paid out in bursaries to poorer students?

Yes, my hon. Friend is quite right; there has to be choice and there will be some competition among universities, which is welcome. That is very far short of a laissez-faire free market. We do not want that. There has to be protection for low-income students when they graduate. We will build in those protections and will ensure that there is a proper progressive scheme.

Local Enterprise Partnerships

4. What steps he plans to take to ensure that businesses in deprived areas receive support through local enterprise partnerships. (17255)

First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his promotion to the Opposition Front Bench as a shadow Transport Minister.

Local enterprise partnerships will be a vital element in our new framework for economic development. At the same time, we are planning to modernise business support to improve both access to information and the quality of advice. That will be especially important to firms in remote or deprived areas.

I thank the Minister for that answer and for his kind words. Does he accept that the recovery is currently very fragile? What interim measures will he put in place while the regional growth fund is being established and will he commit to funding the vital marina project in my constituency?

The hon. Gentleman has astutely got on to the record his local project and I commend him for that, but he will understand that a week before the comprehensive spending review I am not going to pre-empt such matters. I will say, however, that the combination of making sure that we have genuine economic development partnerships that are rooted in the communities and ensuring that they are a genuine partnership between business and civic leaders will enable local areas such as Barrow and Furness to set their own priorities and not have Whitehall telling them what they should do.

Although South Thanet is in one of the richest regions in the south-east, it is the 64th-most deprived district in the country. Does the Minister agree that LEPs must be there to support the most deprived districts even within richer regions?

One of the great advantages of moving away from the one-size-fits-all general regional development agencies is that local enterprise partnerships can respond to local needs. I know that my hon. Friend, who fights her corner for her constituents well, will make sure that that happens.

Yesterday, PricewaterhouseCoopers warned of half a million lost private sector jobs with the Government’s scrapping of schools, hospitals and road contracts. Meanwhile, Ministers from the Departments for Business, Innovation and Skills and for Communities and Local Government continue squabbling about what local enterprise partnerships can do, blocking resources that the private sector says it needs now. Why should businesses believe that the Minister and his colleagues have any plan for local growth or jobs when they are in such a shambles and chaos over LEPs?

We have inherited a situation in which the funds have run out, as the Labour party has said. That is why we are focusing on the things that really matter—tackling the public deficit to keep interest rates lower for longer, making sure that small businesses see their corporation tax go down and tackling red tape. The Labour party failed to deal with all that, but we will.

Apprenticeships

Order. It is always a terrible pain to have to interrupt the mellifluous tones of the Minister, but I think he meant to make it clear that questions five and six are grouped together.

I am always grateful for your benevolence and advice on these matters, Mr Speaker.

Days after taking office we announced an additional 50,000 apprenticeships over the financial year, taking the total to be delivered this year to well over 300,000 places—a record for the apprenticeship programme. The National Apprenticeship Service has assured me that we are on track to deliver on this commitment.

I am particularly pleased to hear of the efforts being made to fund more apprenticeships and I thank the Minister for his involvement in securing this scheme. However, I am concerned that many businesses in my constituency who want to take on more apprentices are struggling with access, support and advice. Has the Minister, or the agency responsible for the scheme, made any advertising plans to broaden participation in this excellent scheme?

Yes; we appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point. I have asked my officials to look closely at these matters. We appreciate that some of the supply-side barriers to small businesses, in particular, getting involved in apprenticeships need to be lifted. We know that to rebuild the apprenticeship programme after the sorry state it was left in by the previous regime—I do not want to be unnecessarily unkind, but I emphasise the word “unnecessarily”—we will have to do a lot of work to involve more businesses to satisfy our demands and learner wishes.

I thank the Minister for the answer that he has just given my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle). How will the Minister ensure that apprenticeship schemes are made available to all people, not just young people?

My hon. Friend is right that we need to consider closely not just the apprenticeships that are available to people as they leave school or college, but those for people who want to reskill or upskill. Lord Leitch, in a report that the previous Administration commissioned, made it clear that that is vital because of the demographics, the challenges that we face and the competitive pressures from those countries that have invested in apprenticeships. We will certainly take his remarks on board.

What preliminary discussions has the Department had with private sector employers who are about to provide those many hundreds, if not thousands, of apprenticeships? Does the Department have a target or time scale for delivering them?

I do not want to be repetitive, Mr Speaker, and you would not let be so, but I make it absolutely clear that almost as soon as we entered government we transferred an additional £150 million into the apprenticeship budget to create extra apprenticeships. Yes, of course, I am working with businesses, small and large, to make that dream—that vision—a reality. Indeed, we held a consultation on that over the summer, which I know the hon. Gentleman will have studied closely.

Science and Innovation

7. What steps he is taking to ensure that Britain’s science and innovation sector contributes to economic growth. (17258)

Science and innovation are critical to our future prosperity and strongly supported by this Government. As part of the spending review, we are continuing to strengthen the way we support science and innovation, and improving the way they contribute to economic growth.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I am sure that we all agree that the Government have a very important role to play in supporting science and innovation, but there are many other organisations and businesses that need to come together to support more scientific research. What steps can his Department take to foster the big society approach to more research and development?

In Britain we are very fortunate to have some very substantial charities that support scientific research, especially medical research, such as the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK. Indeed, only this week I was able to announce a £50 million joint project on tumour profiling to improve cancer treatment between the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK.

The Minister will be aware that knowledge transfer partnerships mean that the Russell group universities contribute £2 billion to British exports. Is he surprised, therefore, that Lord Browne dedicated just 300 words in a 30,000-word report to the employer contribution? Will the Minister say more than his colleagues have about the contribution that employers will make to higher education funding?

It is good to see the right hon. Gentleman in the House, and I look back to our exchanges when he was a Minister with responsibilities in this area. Of course, when he was a Minister in the Department, he was one of the people who commissioned Lord Browne’s review and agreed its terms of reference. I very much regret that in his first intervention on the review, he has not welcomed the fact that Lord Browne discharged the remit that he was set. It is very important that businesses contribute, alongside individuals and the taxpayer, and we are pursuing that as part of the CSR.

Does the Minister accept that the performance of higher education in engaging with the private sector varies considerably? Will he consider making the handing out of research grants conditional on institutions finding private sector partners?

That is a very important point, and we certainly welcome business backing for research, alongside public funding. There is very important evidence that public funding for research can be complemented by business backing. If I recall correctly, one of the best pieces of evidence on the subject is a research paper where one of the authors is now an official in Her Majesty’s Treasury, so it is a document that we particularly value.

In mid-September, apparently preparing the way for big cuts in the science and research budget, the Secretary of State managed to insult hundreds of hard-working British scientists by implying on the “Today” programme that

“something in the order of 45 per cent of…research grants…were going…to research that was not…excellent”.

As the US, France, Germany and China are increasing their investment in science and research to drive economic growth, is not this just one more reason why those who thought we had the Sage of Westminster and Two Brains running the ship are finding that we actually have Arthur Daley and the rest of the cast of “Minder” running the sails?

The countries that the hon. Gentleman cites—incidentally, I welcome him to his new position on the Front Bench—do not have the mess in the public finances that we inherited as a result of the performance of his Government. None of them is borrowing at the high level that we inherited, yet despite that, we remain strongly committed to science and excellent research in our universities.

Small Business Finance

The Government believe that improving access to finance is vital for small businesses. In response to our formal consultation on access to credit, we received more than 170 representations, and we will respond to them shortly. In addition, yesterday the British Bankers Association published its taskforce report on business lending, which has 17 separate recommendations. The Government welcome the progress made by the taskforce to date.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Many small businesses in my constituency and in the broader black country are still complaining about their inability to get capital to grow their businesses. Does he agree that this is now becoming a vital issue? Will he outline the steps that the Government are going to take to ensure that we get that capital into those businesses, which are absolutely vital to the future of the region and the areas that I represent in generating private sector jobs growth?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why, right away, within a month, we extended the enterprise finance guarantee by £200 million to help up to 2,000 more businesses. More than that, we have been actively pressing the banks to sort out the lending code, to deal with information so that it is more transparent, and to ensure that businesses have the opportunity to appeal. Yesterday, the taskforce reported back, and we will study its proposals. Let me make it clear, however, that as far as this Government are concerned, the real test now will be for the banks’ words to be matched by their actions.

Small businesses in my constituency, which includes some of this country’s leading manufacturers, are reliant on credit insurance. What steps are being taken to ensure that such insurance remains available to them?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue, which he has discussed with me in the past. This is a particularly acute problem for those in the construction sector. We have sought assurances from the principal insurers in this area that they have now put in place for the coming year a sufficient risk capability, and they have given us those assurances. As with the banks, we will be closely scrutinising this to ensure that what they have said they have done is implemented in the coming months.

I echo my hon. Friends in pointing out that one of the biggest issues that I am facing in my constituency is the lack of lending to small and medium-sized businesses. In addition, Lloyds TSB has announced in the past month that it is closing the only branch in a market town called Meltham. In stressing to the banks that they need to get lending, will the Minister also stress that they need to start serving our communities?

This is something that we have raised with the banks. On Monday, however, I want to go further—that is when we will convene our new small business economic forum with the express intention of bringing Government, businesses and the banks together so that we can deal with these issues and start to ensure that credit is available for all businesses, large and small.

The Secretary of State has rightly commented on the obligations of state-supported banks to do more to help our small businesses in the interests of the national economy. Will the Minister tell us whether the new growth fund set up by the banking taskforce and announced yesterday will have on its board a Government representative in order to influence policy decisions?

We met the banks yesterday and are perfectly willing to engage with them on how that could happen. We may well wish to ensure that the Government have a stake in that role, but as we received the recommendations just yesterday, I am sure the hon. Gentleman and the Committee that he chairs will understand that we want to examine them more closely. The new growth fund is a positive step which will deal with the gap that Rowlands identified in the case of mid-cap businesses. It is a welcome step, and the Government want to work with the banks to make it work effectively.

But does the Minister agree with the Deputy Prime Minister, who said on 27 April on Radio 5 Live about state-owned banks not lending enough to small businesses:

“What we’re saying is that the directors of those banks should be held responsible and if they fail to honour those lending targets they should be sacked”?

I do not believe that the Minister is really focusing his attention on the question. By his own Department’s definition, small enterprises are those with zero to 49 employees, and they have an average turnover of less than £3 million. How will the new business growth fund proposed yesterday by the British Bankers Association help those businesses, given that businesses will have to have a turnover of between £10 million and £100 million to apply and the average turnover of a small business is £3 million?

May I first welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position? Unfortunately, however, his first question confuses two matters. The growth fund is about investing equity into mid-cap businesses, as I described to the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey). Micro-businesses, which are very important, are an entirely different animal. That is where bank lending is crucial, and that is what we are dealing with. We are particularly keen to ensure that there is a proper lending arrangement for micro-businesses, and we are talking to the banks about how we can get one, but Members should not confuse capital investment and bank lending. They are two different things.

Grocery Supply Code of Practice

May I begin by recognising how long and hard my hon. Friend has campaigned on this issue, and indeed how successful he has been? He will know that the coalition statement commits the Government to introducing what we are now calling a groceries code adjudicator, and in our response to the consultation on 3 August, we set out how we would take that forward. I am pleased to be able to tell him that we now have approval to introduce a draft Bill this Session, and that the aim is to publish it for pre-legislative scrutiny before the end of the year.

I am very grateful to the Minister. The long-awaited code is now in place, but without an adjudicator it is like having rules for rugby without a referee. As the initiative has cross-party support and we have an extended Session, is it not possible to implement it this Session?

I very much hope that my hon. Friend will engage in the pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill as actively as he did in campaigning for the code. As we have not even published the draft Bill yet, it is a little early to say when the actual Bill will be introduced or whether that will be this Session or next, but I will keep him and the House informed.

Non-Departmental Public Bodies

11. What progress he has made in reducing the number of non-departmental public bodies and executive agencies sponsored by his Department, with particular reference to bodies responsible for further and higher education. (17265)

We are taking radical steps to reform the network of bodies sponsored by my Department. We announced this morning that we would abolish 17 partner organisations, merge eight, reconstitute two as charities and give further consideration to the future of nine more.

I thank the Secretary of State for that excellent response. Hereford college of technology is an outstanding institution, and I would welcome his visiting it if he should choose to do so at some time. Like many colleges, it labours under regulation by five separate bodies covering both further and higher education. Is there further scope to streamline the regulation of bodies covering such combined institutions?

Yes, there is further scope to simplify the landscape of further education quangos, and we intend to pursue that. There are far too many organisations, making it impossible for further education colleges to do their job, and we will remove some and simplify the whole system greatly.

Has the Secretary of State also done a U-turn on his views of Sir Philip Green, who gave advice about non-departmental public bodies? Once upon a time he said, talking about Sir Philip Green, that he had

“no time for billionaire tax dodgers who step off the plane from their tax havens…and have the effrontery to tell us how to…run our tax policies”.

Has he changed his mind on that as well?

Order. We do not need a character assessment of Sir Philip Green, what we require is comments on the subject matter of the question. The Secretary of State is welcome to volunteer them, otherwise we will move on.

I am certainly happy to answer. I have not changed my views—I think Sir Philip Green should pay his taxes in the UK.

Green Investment Bank

We remain committed to creating a green investment bank that will support the growth, industrial transformation and greening of the UK economy. Over the summer, we made good progress on the role and form of the bank and its relationship with other Government policies. I will make a statement on the bank shortly after the spending review.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. May I encourage him, in the remaining days before the final settlement of Government spending is reached, to ensure that a green investment bank has sufficient funds to make it a real agent for change towards a sustainable economy as well as the ability to lever in the maximum additional investment, and to follow the best models in other countries and among those proposed to the Government? This is a real test of the Government’s green credentials, and I hope he fights that case to the wire.

I accept that the test my hon. Friend sets is a good test of the Government’s green credentials. The bank must be ambitious and it must lever in substantial amounts of private capital. We must not be excessively constrained and must open up the possibility of subsequent expansion. I am sure we will give him a satisfactory answer.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if a green investment bank is to be successful, it must embrace all the science and technology available in our country? Much of that is seated in our great universities—we have over 120—but has he not already sold the pass? There will be substantial cuts in university budgets, which will affect towns, cities and innovation in this country.

You are right, Mr Speaker, that we have strayed a little.

The hon. Gentleman chaired the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families for many years, so I am sure he knows that in my statement on Tuesday, I spoke about the implication of the teaching grant for student-graduate contributions. The implications for research remain to be seen till next week.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the green investment bank is a key part of the important task of shifting our low-carbon policy from one that is based on restriction, targets and negative regulation to one based on enterprise, innovation, science and community? Crucially, does he also agree that the bank must be able to issue bonds? Will he make representations to the Treasury to ensure that its ability to do so is established in the legislation?

At this stage, we are not specifying the precise financial techniques that will be employed, but clearly, we will retain options and look at the variety of possibilities in future. Moreover, I would stress that the green investment bank is one of several policies that is driving the low-carbon economy, which also include reform of the electricity tariff system, the green deal and those that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is pursuing.

Royal Mail (Yorkshire and North East)

13. What consultation Royal Mail plans to undertake with businesses and the public on proposals to close sorting offices in Yorkshire and the North East. (17267)

Decisions regarding the rationalisation of Royal Mail’s mail centres are operational matters, which are the responsibility of the company’s senior management team. The Government are not directly involved in those decisions. The rationalisation process was centred on an agreement between the Communication Workers Union and Royal Mail. I understand that Royal Mail is not obliged to consult publicly on its internal review of proposals for restructuring its mail centres. However, it commits to keep all interested external stakeholders informed, and I believe that it has been in contact with the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman and the Government should be concerned about how the Post Office and Royal Mail serve their customers. Two years ago, when Royal Mail shifted the sorting of second-class mail from York to Leeds, it gave me a firm undertaking that it would consult the public if ever it considered shifting the sorting of first-class mail as well, and closing the York sorting office. That is what the company now proposes, but it has not consulted. Will the Minister ensure that the company consults businesses that will be affected and the general public in my constituency, or does the Government’s enthusiasm for privatising Royal Mail put them in a position in which they are no longer concerned about the customer?

I am sure that Royal Mail will again be in contact with the hon. Gentleman on those points, but he must tell his constituents that the experience of rationalising mail sorting centres has led not only to efficiency improvements that reduce the costs of sorting and delivering mail, but to an improvement in customer service to his constituents. If he wants quality and delivery to improve for his constituents, he should support that rationalisation.

May I urge the Minister to consult carefully with the remote businesses and communities of the Yorkshire dales which rely hugely on the Royal Mail to survive and conduct their business?

My hon. Friend is right that the Royal Mail needs to consider the interests of small and medium enterprises. Indeed, it is part of our approach in the Postal Services Bill to ensure that our new policy framework will do that. I hope that he will be reassured that experience of rationalising mail sorting centres has led to significant improvements to customer service.

Can the Minister explain what guarantees he will give that a privatised Royal Mail service will continue to do business through the Post Office rather than looking for other outlets and perhaps leaving rural post offices in Yorkshire and elsewhere with very little hope of survival?

May I begin by welcoming the hon. Lady to her new role? I look forward to many weeks in Committee considering the Bill. She will know that there is an agreement between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd, called the inter-business agreement, and it is that agreement—not a Government guarantee—that decides that relationship. We expect and believe that that inter-business agreement will continue.

Business Regulation

14. If he will take steps to ensure that his Department’s one-in, one-out plan for business regulation will include new business regulations originating at EU level. (17269)

This Government are determined to reverse the rise in regulation that is constricting enterprise and stifling growth. We have introduced the one-in, one-out system of regulatory control for domestic regulation, to bring about a fundamental change in the way that regulations are drawn up, introduced and implemented.

We will also take a rigorous approach to tackling EU regulations. The Government will engage earlier in the Brussels policy process; take strong cross-government negotiating lines; and work to end the so-called “gold-plating” of EU regulations, so that when European rules are implemented into UK law, it is done without putting British businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

May I urge the Minister to include EU regulations in the one-in, one-out system, as I understand that compliance with EU regulations costs this country some 3% of its annual gross domestic product?

May I reassure my hon. Friend that once the system is embedded with respect to domestic regulation affecting businesses and the third sector, the Government plan to extend it to other areas, including EU law?

I note that the Minister did not address the question asked by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone). Is he not willing to tell Parliament the truth that in fact business regulations are part of the common market, which means that they cannot be vetoed by the Government? What is required is for the Government to stop the gold-plating that is done by the civil service when regulations come from Europe.

The hon. Gentleman did not listen to either my first answer or my second answer. The Government are committed to ending gold-plating and I have said from this Dispatch Box that, once the one-in, one-out system is embedded, we will apply it to EU legislation.

Company Reporting (Operating and Financial Review)

16. What progress has been made towards reinstating an operating and financial review to ensure that directors’ social and environmental duties have to be covered in company reporting; and if he will make a statement. (17271)

The Department is currently consulting on the future of narrative reporting which addresses the coalition commitment to reinstate an operating and financial review. The consultation closes on 19 October and we will then consider the responses and take a view on how to take this commitment forward by the end of the year.

I thank the Minister for that reply and his active interest in this matter. I believe that this coalition Government will be the greenest Government ever, but we need to promote sustainable investment. The OFR will have a key role to play in that, especially in ensuring that the same standards apply for independent verification and financial reporting. Can the Minister assure me that the Government will support that?

This Government will be the greenest Government ever, and when my hon. Friend reads the consultation document he will see that we have some very interesting ideas about how to improve the way in which companies report on social and environmental matters. I hope that we will be able to drive up the quality of reporting and disclosures by companies in that area.

Graduate Employability

Students rightly expect better information about their chances of a job after studying different courses at different universities, and universities need to do more to improve the employability of their graduates. That is why I have asked universities to publish statements on what they do for students’ employment prospects. The vast majority have now done so.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that a key method of achieving increased employability are schemes such as those set up by David Nieper, a full service clothing manufacturer in Alfreton in my constituency? It has agreed a scheme with Nottingham Trent university that will ensure that students get a full range of experience and skills in the textiles sector to increase their chances of employment after they finish their course.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, one of the proposals in Lord Browne’s report that we are looking at very carefully is to do more to encourage the accreditation of skills developed in businesses and the workplace as part of a degree qualification.

Small Business Finance

Atega Business Solutions, a new business start-up based in my constituency, tells me that part funding is available to it, but that in most cases it has to spend 100% of the cost before it is eligible to claim back 50%, which deters it from applying. What advice would the Minister give to Atega to secure funding when money is tight?

It is important that businesses not only press their own bank, but shop around, because there tends to be an anxiety that, having been turned down by one bank, they will not be successful elsewhere—I remember that when I started my own business in the last recession. It is also important, if the hon. Gentleman can, to press that case on his constituents’ behalf with the British Bankers Association. If he does so, would he copy me in? If his constituents continue to have problems, I would like to ensure that the banks understand that we take an interest in the plight and prospects of our small businesses.

The measures introduced by the coalition Government to help small businesses have been a vast improvement on what went before under the previous Government. However, in the specific cases bought to the Department’s attention by Members of Parliament in which commercially viable small and medium-sized enterprises are still being denied access to capital, can I have the Minister’s assurance that the Department will do everything it can to help?

We can and we will, and I will be happy to support any Member who wants to press that case. This is a very important issue, and it should be cross party. We can make a difference.

Topical Questions

My Department’s responsibilities include helping to drive growth and rebalance the economy, which we can do by building on the strength of manufacturing, other knowledge industries and the science and research base, by helping businesses to grow by getting rid of excessive regulation and helping them access credit, by being open to trade and foreign investment, by encouraging the development of a skilled work force and by spreading opportunities and life chances to as many people as possible.

Working in agriculture is still an important life choice for many people in rural areas, and I am sure that, like me, the Minister would like to see a profitable and vibrant agricultural sector. However, will he please outline what steps he will take to support vocational and apprenticeship schemes in the agricultural sector?

Like my hon. Friend, I care about growers and farmers, because of the constituency I represent and because I know the difference that they make to our nation. Mindful of the concerns he expressed, and of others like them, I have already asked officials to work with the sector skills council in this area to see what further apprenticeship programmes can be developed in agriculture and related subjects.

T4. What action is the Minister taking, alongside his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, to prevent the regional economy of the south-west from entering a slump because of the parochial disagreements in the region? Or are DCLG and businesses unable to agree, in the same way that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats seem unable to agree in the south-west? (17280)

I will ignore the flim-flam at the end. What matters to the hon. Lady is ensuring an effective partnership in her area. There is squabbling in Somerset and Devon, which the people concerned have to sort out. If they do not, they will fall behind. That is the message for them, and I hope she will support me on that.

T2. Odstock Medical Ltd in my constituency was the first commercial entity to be set up under the NHS. It does vital work developing medical devices alleviating the condition of people with multiple sclerosis. Unfortunately, it is unable to access the SME support from the Department. Given that its major shareholder is the local hospital, will the Minister meet me to discuss how it can be reclassified as an SME so that it can access that support and grow its business, which does vital work? (17278)

This is a peculiar glitch in the way the law works, and I would be pleased to meet my hon. Friend and the business in his constituency to see whether we can wrinkle it out.

T5. Can the Minister explain what he will do to ensure that our universities stay at the leading edge of research and innovation? That is especially important as, for many universities, the Browne proposals will mean only replacement income, not growth and investment money, despite the quite disgraceful hike in tuition fees proposed. (17281)

The package proposed by Lord Browne as a whole is intended to put our universities on a stable and secure long-term funding basis that will enable us to support and encourage their work in research, and we are considering carefully the new proposals from Sir James Dyson for technology innovation centres.

T3. Further to the excellent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), given the volume of regulation that comes from the EU, does the Minister accept that unless the one-in, one-out policy applies to EU regulation as well, it will have only a limited impact? I understand that the Minister said that the policy would apply to EU legislation in due course, but can he give us a time scale for that? (17279)

There are two steps. One is to ensure that the practice that we follow deals with the gold-plating, which has quite rightly been raised by Members on both sides of the House. That is our first step, but as my hon. Friend has pointed out—and as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey) pointed out in his answer earlier—we are ensuring that we deal with domestic legislation first. We will then ensure that we look to include EU legislation. [Interruption.] I love this coming from the Opposition, who allowed 14 new working regulations every working day. We are tackling regulation; they funked it.

T10. If the Business Secretary had been able to accept my invitation to open the world’s most advanced plastics recycling factory in my constituency two weeks ago, he would have learnt that the decision to invest in this country was based on a £1 million grant from the regional development agency. How much will be available through such grants to attract other overseas businesses to invest in my constituency in the next three years? (17286)

I am sorry that I did not have the opportunity to visit the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I will try to make up for that in future. We want to attract inward investment, but it was not at all clear that the best way of doing so was through the RDAs, which were duplicating each other’s work. In key overseas countries, for example, there have often been several RDAs competing with each other, using public money in a completely unstructured and unhelpful way. We are going to resolve that.

T6. In my constituency of Pendle, many graduates earn far less on average than those working in other parts of the country. Does my right hon. Friend welcome the Browne review’s proposals to raise the threshold for fees repayment from £15,000 to £21,000? (17282)

My hon. Friend draws attention to an important feature of the Browne review, which is also one reason why the analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested that the poorest 30% of students would be better off as a result of those proposals.

Can the Minister state whether he has received the petition from the Science is Vital group, which lobbied Parliament last Saturday, and also say whether he has listened to the group, and if not, why not?

I believe that the Science is Vital group is also presenting a petition today. I hope to meet the members of that campaign to discuss their commitment to science and to emphasise that this Government are committed to excellent science research.

T7. The Minister will be aware of the thousands of companies that in the past have supplied Departments, an example of which is F. J. Bamkin in my constituency, which used to supply socks to the Ministry of Defence. Can he say what progress his Department has made in achieving the manifesto commitment to deliver “25 per cent of government research and procurement contracts through SMEs”? (17283)

The key to changing the system is to ensure that we open up the contracts. That is why we have already started to publish those contracts online, so that every business, large or small, can see what is on offer. Then we need to remove the barriers that exist, which is why we are tackling things such as the repeated pre-qualifications that are necessary for the same work in neighbouring areas. Removing those barriers, opening up the contracts—that is how we are going to hit the targets.

Yesterday I spoke to Dr Paul Greatrix, registrar of the university of Nottingham. He described the Government’s immigration cap as wrong-headed and perverse, because it will hamper the free trade in ideas and prevent our world-class international university from recruiting the brightest and best minds to join its highly skilled research team. What will the Minister do to ensure that our university’s excellent reputation is maintained?

We very much believe in the free trade of ideas, and we want Britain to be open. We are looking at the moment at how we can reconcile this with the coalition’s policy to maintain a cap on non-EU migration.

T8. Cumbria university, which has one of its largest campuses in the Lancaster part of my constituency, has experienced a number of financial and managerial problems over the past few years. Can the Minister comment on the university’s viability, given its new business plan? (17284)

I know that my hon. Friend has been closely involved with that university, as have other hon. Members. The Higher Education Funding Council for England advises me that, with the university’s new management arrangements and its new plan, it will have a far better prospect for the future.

On Tuesday, Tata Steel announced its intention to close its Living Solutions business in Shotton, with the loss of some 180 jobs. This is a hammer blow to all those employees and their families, as well as to the local economy. Will the Secretary of State join me in pressing the company to reconsider its decision, and also look at the future of the whole modular construction business?

I am always happy to meet Opposition Members who have local difficulties with local companies; I have already done so and I am happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman about this. I do not know the details of the case, and I have to say at the outset that we are not in a position to make available large amounts of public money, but if we can help in other ways, we will.

T9. Will the Minister confirm his commitment to ensuring that the nation has the right kind of skills for a sustainable economic recovery by supporting ambitious young people and adults such as those studying at Kirklees college to improve their education and skills in further education? (17285)

Yes, I do indeed recognise the excellent work of our colleges. That is why we want to give them more freedom, more discretion and more power to respond to the needs of learners and local businesses. We have begun to do that during our time in government, and I should like to draw the House’s attention to today’s written statement, which goes further along those lines.

Does the Secretary of State remember the Lib Dem halcyon days when he sat here on the Opposition side of the House opposing university top-up fees and walked through the same Lobby as me? He was also against the privatisation of Royal Mail, but we now know the price of a Liberal pledge: a seat on the Government Front Bench and a ministerial salary. What a price to pay.

I have always enjoyed joining the hon. Gentleman in the Division Lobby, and I have done so on many occasions. I have also enjoyed his humour. If he had followed my writings as closely as he claims to have done, he would have realised that I was advocating the introduction of private capital into Royal Mail about six years ago.

Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that the poorest 30% of graduates would pay less than they do now if the Browne review were to be implemented. However, potential students do not automatically assume that they are going to be among the bottom 30%, so any increase in tuition fees would surely be a disincentive for them to apply to go to university, even if they would ultimately be better off.

We can see from the evidence that the introduction of fees by the previous Labour Government did not have the effect that many people in all parts of the House feared. In reality, we have seen an increase in the number of applications from students from poorer backgrounds, because they knew that they would not have to pay up-front fees. That key feature of the system would be maintained under Lord Browne’s proposals.

A lot of the businesses in my constituency are involved in the offshore oil and gas sector, which is a global business that depends on the movement of labour so that it can move its work force around the world. That business is seriously concerned about the cap on immigration, and I hope that the Secretary of State is having very detailed discussions with the Home Office to ensure that that business remains in the North sea and does not go elsewhere in the world.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I have had many such representations, not only from that industry but from others. I have had discussions with the Home Secretary about this, and we are determined to keep Britain open for business and attracting the kind of companies that she has in her constituency.

Will the Business Secretary set out the timetable for the setting up of the local economic partnerships? Will he explain which umbrella body should be used to apply for European funding such as the rural development programme? Will he also guide us on the position on match funding going forward?

The deep-seated structural challenges facing the west midlands economy mean that our region has been hit harder by the downturn than anywhere else in the country, and the recovery will take longer, too. Is the Secretary of State prepared to meet a cross-party delegation of Members of Parliament from the west midlands and business leaders from the region so that we can discuss plans to bring new industries and new jobs to the region?

I am happy to do that. In recent times, I have met Opposition Members from the west midlands who were concerned about the car industry and others who were concerned about ceramics. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

My right hon. Friend has asserted the Government’s determination that graduate contributions should be linked to ability to pay. Will he therefore consider supplementing the Browne proposals with a less advantageous interest rate for the highest earners?

We are, of course, considering Lord Browne’s proposals very carefully and in greater detail. One issue that we will certainly consider is the exact interest rate that should be applied.

What an incredible transformation the Business Secretary has made from a Labour councillor in Glasgow to a Tory front-man in Westminster, with every principle dropped at the first sniff of power. Will he please detail what consultation process took place with the National Union of Students before reaching his own conclusions on the Browne report?

I fondly remember my days on the Glasgow city council, where we achieved much. I have met representatives from the National Union of Students on several occasions. We have consulted them and continue to do so. The NUS has some useful ideas, which will hopefully supplement our response to the Browne report. We shall continue to maintain a dialogue.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is an extremely experienced Member. He has now ratcheted up something in the region of 31 years in the House, so he knows that points of order come after statements.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is a very dextrous parliamentarian. He will try to catch my eye during business questions and he will be able to wrap his various points into a beautifully textured question if he gets the opportunity.