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Topical Questions

Volume 516: debated on Thursday 14 October 2010

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.