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Commons Chamber

Volume 518: debated on Thursday 18 November 2010

House of Commons

Thursday 18 November 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—

Science and Research

1. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on the economy of maintaining his Department’s science and research budget at present levels. (24721)

Investment in science and research attracts inward investment, drives innovation and delivers highly skilled people to the economy, which is why we are protecting the cash budget for science and research at £4.6 billion and ring-fencing it.

The Government are right to protect the science budget in cash terms, which is a decision that will reap dividends for our economy in the future. Does the Minister agree that the world-leading Daresbury science and innovation campus in my constituency should continue to receive the funding it needs so that it may play an important role in future economic growth?

My hon. Friend has campaigned effectively for Daresbury, and I can tell the House today that we have agreed that the public sector bodies can sign the joint venture agreement with their preferred private sector partner. That means that Daresbury now has excellent prospects as a national science and innovation campus, and I look forward to visiting in the new year.

If the science budget is to be protected in the way the Minister describes, it is important that the right people are taking the right decisions. Since 1993, the post of the director general responsible for the science budget has been occupied by a senior scientist. Lord Krebs and I, in our respective roles as Chairs of the two Science and Technology Select Committees, have written to the Secretary of State asking for a guarantee that that will be maintained. Will the Minister give that guarantee now?

The Secretary of State and I have seen this correspondence, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman, whose close interest in these matters I recognise, that a very satisfactory solution can be found.

The Government speak of their support for science—support that has seen the science budget cut by 10% in real terms, stripped away the £400 million of annual science spend by the regional development agencies and exposed science capital expenditure to cuts of up to one third. Now the Minister is abolishing the top scientific post in his Department without even discussing it with the scientific community, which is a move that the former chief scientific adviser, Lord May, described as

“stupid, ignorant and politically foolish”.

So the science community has neither proper funding nor real influence. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s support for science is only skin deep?

We believe that it is possible to deliver the efficiency savings that mean that the science budget will be protected in real terms, and we are also, of course, committed to making efficiency savings within the Department. We make no apologies, therefore, for reducing the number of civil service posts in the Department. That is the right way to save money. However, as I said in answer to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), I am confident that the specific concerns raised by the science community about that post can be addressed.

Post Office Network

The Government set out their policy for the future of the post office network in a statement entitled “Securing the Post Office Network in the Digital Age” published on 9 November. Copies of the statement are available in the Libraries of the House and are accessible on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills website.

I am sure that the whole House will welcome the arrangements between the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Post Office to enhance the capability of post offices, the vast majority of which, of course, are run by individuals as part of a wider business. What further plans does my hon. Friend have to enhance the post office network, rather than close it, as the Labour party did when in government?

My hon. Friend is right to welcome the deal between RBS and the post office network. It means that nearly 80% of current accounts from the bank can now be accessed through the network, and we hope that that will be increased in due course. That is just one of the many policies set out in our policy framework so that we can ensure that the post office network does not suffer the major closure programmes we saw under the Labour party. I am sure that he will welcome the statement we made.

Does the Minister understand people’s concern that he has not chosen to go ahead with a separate Post Office bank? Will he say how he intends to ensure that small sub-post offices in villages will be able to offer a wider range of services to our constituents?

We looked in some detail at the case for a state-backed Post Office bank. The cost of a banking licence would have been in the realms of the amount of money we are putting into the post office network to modernise it and to prevent a closure programme. I am sure that the hon. Lady welcomes the £1.34 billion of investment in the post office network. That, along with the policies we set out in our policy statement to get more Government revenue through the post office network, and to tie up arrangements with banks such as RBS and the post office network, is the surest way to ensure that the post offices in the villages she talked about have a long-term viable future.

The Government are keen to promote closer working between post offices and credit unions. Will the Minister seek ways to facilitate robust back-office arrangements between the two, which would be a good and cost-effective way of improving financial inclusion?

I think the hon. Gentleman is quite right to point to the important role that credit unions can play and the potential for work between them and the post office network. As we said in our statement, there are already initiatives and pilots to see whether there is room for expanding the role of partnership work between the post office network and credit unions. I look forward to seeing the results of those pilots. The points made about a longer-term relationship are well made, and we are certainly looking at that.

There is real disappointment in small rural communities such as the ones that I serve at the Government’s announcement on the Post Office bank. What reassurance can the Minister give me that services through small local post offices will be maintained, or preferably improved?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has read our Post Office policy statement. I would have thought that he welcomed the fact that the measures we are taking are encouraging banks such as RBS to make their accounts available through the post office network in the towns and villages that he represents. I think that there is a much more positive future than under the previous Government and that is implicit in his question.

Local Enterprise Partnerships

3. What recent discussions he has had on the future of local enterprise partnerships; and if he will make a statement. (24723)

12. What recent discussions he has had on the future of local enterprise partnerships; and if he will make a statement. (24732)

On 28 October the Government announced that 24 of the proposed local enterprise partnerships were cleared to progress, and they are currently preparing their governance arrangements. We continue to engage with other proposed partnerships, and we will report back to the House in due course.

The local enterprise partnership for Kent covers the varying concerns of the Thames Gateway as well as disgracefully neglected coastal towns such as Dover. Will the Minister take on board the idea of more localisation in the governance of LEPs, to ensure that they focus on particular concerns?

My hon. Friend is a great champion of local businesses, and he knows, and is right to say, that the great benefit of such partnerships is that they are local and can deal with local economic priorities, rather than with the national priorities of Ministers. That is the benefit of such partnerships; that is why we are progressing with them.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his answer. Although I am pleased that Advantage West Midlands is being replaced by a more business-friendly, accountable and flexible LEP, can he tell us what steps he will take to ensure that the hiatus between the wind-down of the regional development agency and the ramp-up of the LEP does not adversely affect businesses in Tamworth?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the need to avoid a hiatus. That is why we are already actively engaged in enabling LEPs to begin their work long before the RDAs finally close in 2012.

As the Minister said, 24 bids were approved, but bids for many areas of the country, including for the black country, were not approved. Local enterprise partnerships will not have the same resources as the RDAs, which are currently spending about £1.5 billion a year in England. How are local enterprise partnerships supposed to help to rebalance the economy if they do not have the resources? Surely setting up these organisations and asking business to lead them is letting those business people down if the Government do not play their part and give them the resources they need to do the job.

We are in negotiations with the black country, and I hope that there will be a positive outcome, but the point of the partnerships is to remove the local barriers to growth and ensure that planning in local areas is addressed, that red tape is tackled and that local transport projects are dealt with jointly by business and civic leaders. That is what LEPs can do. It is not all about subsidies; it is about real action on the ground.

But the director general of the CBI described local economic partnerships as

“a bit of a shambles”.

Indeed, the Minister himself wrote to the Business Secretary, who is sitting next to him, to say that many LEPs were

“undermining our agenda for growth,”

and now the Business Secretary has told people in Birmingham that the abolition of RDAs is

“a little Maoist and chaotic”.

Can the Minister now tell the House: is he responsible for the Maoism or just for the chaos?

Yesterday, Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister told you and the House that whatever the Business Secretary had said, it was not what he believed. I know that Ministers have just come back from China, but I thought that public humiliation for incorrect thought went out with the cultural revolution.

Nissan told the Select Committee that the now abolished grant for business investment was vital to bring new investment and highly skilled jobs to the north-east. Was Nissan not right to say:

“The UK has a clear choice of whether it chooses to fight for new business, new jobs, and rebalance the economy or allow the opportunity of this business to go elsewhere”?

Does that not show that the Government have no plan for growth?

No, it does not. We are investing £1.4 billion in the regional growth fund, £10 billion in roads, and £14 billion in the railways, and we are ensuring that Nissan and others have the support that they need. That is why I shall be meeting Nissan on Monday.

Regional Growth Fund (Yorkshire)

4. How much money the regional growth fund will distribute to enterprises in Yorkshire in (a) 2010-11 and (b) 2011-12. (24724)

The regional growth fund is a challenge fund for England and is not ring-fenced or pre-allocated, including in terms of location. The fund will run for three years from 2011 to 2014, and the first round of bidding is now open for receipt of project proposals. It will close on 21 January 2011.

As investment in jobs, Yorkshire Forward offered the National Railway museum £5 million towards the cost of redisplaying the exhibition in its great hall, but was forced to withdraw the money because of the Government’s withdrawal of support for regional development agencies. Does the Minister agree with his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who suggested at a meeting with me and his hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) that the regional growth fund could be used to fund the National Railway museum to pick up where Yorkshire Forward was forced to leave off? Will he consider that proposal, and get back to me to talk about how that could be taken forward?

I have been to the National Railway museum, which is an excellent part of Yorkshire’s tourism and industrial heritage. There are clear rules about the regional growth fund, and they could well include the opportunity for a bid from the National Railway museum. If the hon. Gentleman or his local partners wish to proceed with that, they should look at the White Paper, and if there are any problems, I am happy to help.

Green Investment Bank

5. Whether his Department intends to sell assets in its ownership to provide finance for the proposed green investment bank. (24725)

The Chancellor announced in the spending review that the green investment bank will be funded with £1 billion from departmental budgets, and significant additional proceeds from asset sales. I will provide further information on which assets will be used to fund the institution in due course.

What funding will the Government make available to support renewable projects in the interim period before the green investment bank is established, which current estimates suggest is four years away?

No, it is not four years away. The intention is that investments will be made in 2012, and that asset sales will be used for that purpose. We are in the process of establishing the bank, and the hon. Lady knows that a substantial number of renewable projects are being supported under the spending review.

Immigration Cap (Intra-company Transfers)

6. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the future of intra-company transfers following the introduction of the proposed immigration cap. (24726)

Ministers, officials and I are in regular contact with the Home Secretary and other Ministers and officials in the Home Office to discuss the implementation of the commitment to limit non-EU economic migration. That includes discussions on intra-company transfers.

That answer will be of interest to companies from Canada, the USA, Korea, India, Israel and Saudi Arabia that are already in the Tees valley. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the Thai company SSI is able to bring in the executives that it needs to make a success of its forthcoming purchase of the Redcar steelworks?

The answer is yes. I pay tribute to the role that my hon. Friend has played in ensuring that SSI was able to come to the UK and transform the prospects of the Redcar plant. I can give him that assurance. Indeed, The Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions that in terms of the overall cap on migration,

“things such as inter-company transfers should not be included in what we are looking at.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 920.]

But companies such as Nissan, Toyota and Sharp Electronics in my constituency are investing in the UK and bringing teams to train British workers in new green technologies. The prevention of inter-company transfers is stopping them investing in British business, so why is the Business Secretary supporting the Tory immigration cap that he opposed at the general election?

The hon. Gentleman did not listen to my previous answer. The Prime Minister was quite explicit on this, and I will repeat what he said:

“things such as inter-company transfers should not be included”

in our proposal for the immigration cap. I have spoken to Nissan and other companies, and the Government are well aware of the needs of business. We are open to business and we welcome foreign investors. The proposal on the immigration cap will be pursued, but not in ways that damage those companies.


7. What plans he has to provide support for small and medium-sized enterprises in the next 12 months. (24727)

Among other actions, the Government are cutting corporation tax for small businesses, tackling red tape, helping home-based businesses and ensuring that small firms secure a greater proportion of Government contracts.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the recent Barclays business regional impact index shows that the majority of small and medium-sized enterprises in the north-west are looking to expand in the year ahead? Will he tell the House what steps he is taking to help those vitally important SMEs in regions such as the north-west?

As my hon. Friend will know from his own business experience, one of the best forms of help is business-to-business mentoring. That is why on Monday, to launch global entrepreneurship week, we announced a new national network of more than 40,000 experienced business mentors. That will make a real difference in Macclesfield and across the country.

Local Enterprise Partnerships (South-west)

8. What proportion of the population of the south-west is not covered by local enterprise partnerships. (24728)

To date, in the south-west two partnerships have been asked to progress—namely, the West of England partnership and the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly partnership. They cover approximately 30% of the population of the south-west. The Government are engaged in further productive discussions with other proposed partnerships, which we hope will be concluded successfully.

That is a pitiful record. It is no wonder that the Secretary of State described this as a Maoist and chaotic process. May I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to deploy some Stalinism, and to get those council leaders in a room and tell them to get their act together and stop excluding Exeter, the main economic driver in the region, from the process? If they will not do that urgently, will they just let the business community get on with it themselves?

I know that the right hon. Gentleman used to be part of Stalin’s last Government, but the most important thing is that he and I, and others, encourage those businesses and local partners that are not engaging in the process. We are making progress, and I hope that we can do that. The prospects are good, and I hope that he will engage with the process in a positive way.

It seems that the bid for a local enterprise partnership including Wiltshire involved such a great leap forward that it has not even landed yet. Will the Minister please tell the House which of his requirements for these bids it has yet to meet?

Without wishing to stretch the metaphor too far, this involves quite a long march for some. The key is business engagement; that is the crucial part. That is what we are looking for, and I am sure that that will be achieved shortly.

My constituency, like that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), is currently sitting in one of the Maoist black holes for local enterprise partnerships. The Department’s new skills strategy says that local enterprise partnerships will lead the transformation of their local economies, yet the Minister is so embarrassed by them that he failed to mention them once when he wound up the debate on growth last Thursday. If he really wants to help local enterprise partnerships, why will he not allow them to retain the assets of the regional development authorities?

As the hon. Gentleman knows all too well, the White Paper sets out a clear, sensible path for the transfer of assets, and liabilities, from the RDAs. Such transfers might in part be to the local enterprise partnerships, where they exist, and in other parts they might not. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman needs to look more closely at the White Paper; the process is crystal clear.

Small Businesses (Lending)

The latest official information shows that more than two thirds of loan applications from small firms are approved. However, the Government are determined to press the banks to ensure that creditworthy businesses have the finance that they need. Among the actions that we are taking are enforcing lending codes, improving customer information and extending the enterprise finance guarantee.

I thank the Minister for his response. Last week I met the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Federation of Small Businesses, which was extremely disappointed that the Government had ditched our plans for a Post Office bank. That would not only have provided small businesses with an alternative source of lending, but helped to sustain the post office network that so many of them rely on. I heard what the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), said earlier in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), but will Ministers think again?

With due respect, the hon. Lady forgets that the banks and the community development finance institutions are a crucial part of this discussion. If the FSB in her area wishes to make representations, I would encourage it, with her support, to do so.

In spite of what the Minister says, what is he doing to allay the concerns of eBay, which says that banks are still not lending to businesses? His Government did have lending targets for financing small businesses—what happened to them?

We still have the lending targets. The key thing is enforcement, which, despite the chuntering from those on the Opposition Front Bench, the last Government failed to do. What is important is that we now have a new lending code. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that businesses—whether they be eBay-based or real rather than virtual or online businesses—want a lending code and a proper appeal process. We have those, and I am determined to make sure that we enforce them.

A firm in my constituency cannot get money from the banks, which, if they do lend, do so at a 25% interest rate. It is a very successful company, but the banks, in order to gain liquidity, are stopping lending. We really must put more pressure on them.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Let me make it very clear again that when right hon. and hon. Members find unreasonable behaviour from the banks, they should ensure that it is raised with them and they should copy me in. When we find that evidence, we will challenge the banks vigorously.

As I know the Minister is aware, the highest of the high-technology growth businesses tend to rely for their early-stage finance not on banks but on early-stage investors, angels and family. Will he agree to make representations to the Treasury to look at anything we can do to incentivise such sources of finance?

I and my Treasury colleagues are already looking at how to improve business angel finance, not least at how the enterprise investment scheme works. We are also looking to extend a further £200 million in equity funds to the capital enterprise fund.


11. How many apprenticeship starts there were in the academic year 2009-10; and if he will make a statement. (24731)

Final data for apprenticeship starts in the 2009-10 year are not yet available. Provisional data published on Tuesday showed that there were 273,900 apprenticeship starts in that academic year.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The leader of the Scottish Labour party has assured every young person in Scotland that if he becomes First Minister in May, they will receive an apprenticeship if they so wish. Can the Minister also provide that reassurance to the rest of the young people in this country?

The hon. Lady is the youngest Member in the House. It was Swift who said:

“Invention is the talent of youth, as judgment is of age”,

and it is my judgment that much of the Opposition’s position on apprenticeships is indeed invention. We will put £250 million more into apprenticeships to create more than ever before.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not only the start-ups but completions that are important to apprenticeships? Does he further agree that in order to achieve completion, we need to increase the prestige of apprenticeships? Will he thus support the establishment of a Royal Society of Apprentices?

My hon. Friend has already established a reputation for championing vocational learning. We will commit to improving completions. I am prepared to say that the last Government made some progress there. I have already had discussions with a distinguished personage about exactly the idea that my hon. Friend proposes.

The Government are setting great store by providing more apprenticeships to replace the work that used to be done under the future jobs fund. What discussions is the Minister having with employers to make sure that sufficient apprenticeship places are available so that these youngsters can take up the offers that the Government say they want them to do?

As has already been said, we launched our skills strategy just this week, and I have a copy here for you, Mr Speaker. It has been welcomed by small businesses, the CBI, the Institute of Directors and the Trades Union Congress. The only people who have not welcomed it are Opposition Members, which says more about them than us.

University Places

14. What recent steps his Department has taken to increase the number of student places at universities. (24734)

Despite the need to address the deficit, we have enabled universities to recruit an additional 10,000 students in 2010-11. Had we not done so, the number of university places in England would have fallen this year. Our proposals for a fairer and more progressive system of university funding mean that we can maintain student numbers in the future.

Lord Browne’s review made it clear that the artificial cap on the number of students attending individual universities should be removed to improve market efficiency. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will implement that important recommendation in full?

My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate of the cause of liberalising universities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are determined to ensure that they have a freer system, and we will set out proposals to that effect in our forthcoming White Paper.

Is the Minister aware that the Government have just asked the British Council not to recruit before 2011-12 for its English language assistant placement scheme? The scheme is vital to many language students, and cancelling it next year would cause a great deal of disruption. Will the Minister reconsider? If he does not, he will remove a valuable scheme that is important to many language students in this country.

We are discussing the issue with language schools, and I met some of their representatives at the Department recently.

Will the Minister acknowledge that even before Lord Browne’s review, many universities—the university of Glasgow being a case in point—were finding that because of the purely artificial 50% figure that had been arrived at years ago, they were having to up their criteria for entry for, say, next autumn? Students who thought that they would be given a place are now finding that they are unlikely to be given one. How will the Government’s interpretation of Lord Browne’s recommendations deal with that fundamental problem?

While university places remain publicly funded, there has to be some sort of control. However, because of the proposals that we implemented in England this year, there were more places for British students in England. I hope that I am not being too chauvinistic when I say that, in the absence of similar policies in Scotland and Wales, the number of student places fell in both countries.

As the Minister knows full well, there is mounting concern about the damage that will be done by the Government’s unprecedented 80% cut in funds for our universities. The Institute For Fiscal Studies, which Ministers used as a crutch, is busy revising its assessment of the Government’s plans; there is increasing evidence that poorer students will be deterred from going to university; and the Higher Education Policy Institute says that fees of £9,000 a year will be the norm rather than, as the Minister has claimed, the exception.

Is it not now clear that, rather than arranging a quick vote to end the Deputy Prime Minister’s embarrassment on the issue, the Government should publish their plans in full—including their plans for student numbers—so that they can be properly scrutinised in the House and the full facts can be considered by all Members before the House votes on increasing fees?

We are, of course committed to publishing a White Paper on our proposals, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that they will ensure that power in our higher education system resides with the student, which is where it should reside. Universities will have to respond to the choices and preferences of students, and we believe that about a quarter of graduates will contribute less under our proposals than they do under the system left to us by the last Government.

Methwold high school in my constituency is developing a pioneering plan to offer university of London degrees. It will be a first, particularly in a rural community. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a great way of increasing participation and aspiration, and would he be willing to meet me along with a delegation from Methwold high school?

I think I read an interesting article about that important initiative in Times Higher Education the other day. I congratulate my hon. Friend on drawing the House’s attention to it.

We are committed to broadening participation in higher education. That is what our £150 million scholarship scheme is all about, and initiatives such as the one described by my hon. Friend are very valuable.

European Regional Development Fund

15. What assessment he has made of the effects of the abolition of regional development agencies on access to unspent funding from the European regional development fund. (24735)

My Department is working with the Department for Communities and Local Government to develop new delivery structures for the European regional development fund to replace the RDAs. We aim to ensure that the programmes continue to be implemented with minimal disruption.

I thank the Minister for his reply. In the west midlands, £113 million of ERDF money is still as yet unallocated. About 40% has historically been allocated to projects through the regional development agency, but the RDA is now to go, and there is no sign on the horizon of an alternative delivery mechanism. Can the Minister assure us that mechanisms will be found to spend that money before 2013, or will it go to the Treasury?

That money will be spent. Local enterprise partnerships and local authorities can apply for it, and we intend to announce a new delivery mechanism next spring.

High Speed 1

16. Whether the proceeds from the sale of High Speed 1 will be added to the start-up capital for the green investment bank. (24736)

I am unable to provide commercially sensitive information on individual asset sales, but I can say that I do not expect the proceeds of the sale of HS 1 to be used for the green investment bank. Instead, they will make a contribution to reducing the stock of national debt.

The Secretary of State has referred to his own policies as Maoist, but may I suggest that he is more like Chiang Kai-shek? He is losing the war, he has retreated to his own little island, and he is increasingly cut adrift from the mainland of this Tory Government.

That blizzard of rhetoric rather disguises the fact that in setting up the green investment bank we are making a very real commitment to investment in a green economy, and a substantial Government financial commitment has been made to it.

Offender Learning and Training

This is an issue that I think unites the whole House. Earlier this year I commissioned a far-reaching review of offender learning, because we know that getting people into jobs by improving their skills so that they can play their part in society reduces reoffending and makes communities safer.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Royal British Legion Industries, based in Aylesford, runs a project aimed at providing tailored support, employment and training for ex-service personnel with a criminal record. Will the Minister meet with representatives from RBLI to discuss what opportunities are available to them to expand this project, which is often run by ex-offenders, and thereby to assist the Government in improving provision of offender and ex-offender learning and training?

I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend, and the House, that I have already had discussions with RBLI; indeed, I am planning a further meeting to ensure that the excellent work being done is in line with our plans to take action on this issue, which, as I have said, unites the whole House.

Private Sector Job Creation (Halifax)

18. What assessment he has made of the prospects for private sector job creation in Halifax; and if he will make a statement. (24738)

In the recent spending review, the Government set out their framework for fostering private sector growth both by ensuring macro-economic stability and efficient and dynamic markets and by prioritising Government activity to support growth. The White Paper on local growth also sets out the actions that the Government are taking to foster private sector growth, and Halifax is covered by the Leeds city region local enterprise partnership, which is currently being taken forward.

I thank the Minister for his reply. A very high proportion of my Halifax constituents are employed in the public sector, and job losses in that sector would devastate the local economy. I fight for every job in Halifax. Will the Minister outline what his Department is doing to increase investment and encourage job creation in northern towns like Halifax?

I hear what the hon. Lady has to say, and I have no doubt that she fights hard for her constituents. I hope that she will therefore support not only the Leeds city region LEP but the regional growth fund, which exists to promote private sector growth, as well as a whole host of other measures such as the reduction in corporation tax, the national insurance holiday and the sustained investment in transport infrastructure, all of which will also help to create jobs.

Post Office Network

I am grateful to the Minister. Earlier this summer, the sub-postmaster at Quedgeley in my constituency of Gloucester decided to close his franchise because he could not see enough ways of making the business profitable. Can the Minister confirm that his plans for increased access to Government services, banking services and credit unions will help reverse the disastrous trend under the last Government of spiralling decline and closure, and instead enable sub-postmasters to make their businesses profitable again?

That is exactly right, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend both for his work as secretary to the all-party group on post offices and for his work in finding a new sub-postmaster for Quedgeley. Our policies include not only our £1.34 billion of investment in the post office network, but our efforts to ensure that, through the pilots that we have announced, Government services provided through the post office network will increase, rather than decline.

Local Enterprise Partnerships

20. What estimate he has made of the number of people and businesses in (a) the north-east, (b) the south-west and (c) Lancashire which will not be covered by local enterprise partnerships following the implementation of his proposals for such partnerships. (24740)

Overall, the 24 partnerships agreed to date cover the majority of businesses and the economy of England. In Lancashire, local disagreements have prevented a credible proposal from being made. As I mentioned in my response to an earlier question, 30% of the population is covered at the moment in the south-west, but I can now confirm to the House that we expect full coverage in the north-east.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he accept that Lancashire county council’s LEP proposal is not a pan-Lancashire proposal, but a Swiss cheese proposal, designed to annex east Lancashire? The war of words, to which he has alluded, between the east and the west is extremely divisive. Will he come to a decision that reflects local interests, rather than those of what I see as the gang of six? The gang of four Maoists seemed to resolve such things rather more quickly, so will he come to a quick resolution regarding the east and west?

I am not sure that either the Swiss cheese metaphor or the Maoist metaphor worked well, but let me deal with the reality of the situation. Three conflicting proposals were made in Lancashire. At the moment, positive discussions are taking place about how those can be rationalised, and officials will continue to work with both business and civic leaders to find a sensible arrangement. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will play a positive role in that, so that we can move on.

Immigration Cap

21. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the effect of implementation of the immigration cap on recruitment and retention in small businesses. (24741)

Ministers and officials in my Department, and I, are in regular contact with the Home Secretary and other Ministers and officials in the Home Office to discuss the implementation of the commitment to limit non-EU economic migration. Those discussions have, of course, considered all types of business across the economy.

I welcome the fact that 12 hours after the publication of the Home Affairs Committee’s report on immigration the Government accepted our recommendation on the immigration cap with regard to intra-company transfers. However, there is a problem, in that the Home Secretary qualified this by reference to a minimum salary of £40,000. Will the Business Secretary continue with the representations that I know he is making to the Home Office that these salary positions make it extremely difficult, especially for small businesses, to be flexible in their recruitment of people from overseas?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution to that valuable report, whose conclusions the Home Secretary has endorsed. Our overall approach to this is reflected in the answer that the Prime Minister gave in Parliament yesterday. He said that he wanted our policy to be

“business-friendly and helpful to the economy.”—[Official Report, 17 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 885.]

Skilled, entrepreneurial and talented people will be welcome under the immigration policy.

I am sure that Government Members entirely welcome the Government’s cap on immigration. Obviously we will be having a debate on immigration later today, which has been put on by the Backbench Business Committee. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the immigration cap does not apply to EU citizens, so they represent a big pool for small businesses to attract?

The hon. Gentleman is right on a matter of fact: this is a cap on non-EU migration, not on migration from the EU.

Regional Growth Fund

As I said earlier, the regional growth fund is a challenge fund for the whole of England and it should not have any ring-fencing or pre-allocations. We expect a number of very positive applications, and the first opening round of those will conclude on 21 January 2011.

Businesses in my constituency often impress on me how important reliable modern infrastructure is to their success. Can the Minister confirm that bids to the regional growth fund for capital funding will be considered if they meet the objectives set out in the growth White Paper?

I can confirm that all bids that meet the criteria of the fund, including bids for projects such as those that my hon. Friend mentioned, will, of course, be considered on their merits.

The Prime Minister two weeks ago supported the idea of a new silicon valley in east London. Is that an initiative that the regional growth fund could be used to support? What else will the Minister’s Department do to support the Prime Minister’s proposal?

The point of the proposal, and the regional growth fund, is to ensure that in areas where there is a particular reliance on the public sector, or on any other single sector, there will be a diversity of job opportunities. I am sure that the opportunity for a new silicon valley will be an excellent project, and one that will be considered carefully by the independent panel advising Ministers.

In the past, regional development funds have ignored areas of deprivation in some parts of the country—for instance, those in West Suffolk—because they are surrounded by areas of comparative wealth. Will the Minister confirm that any area of the country can apply for funding under the new regional growth fund, no matter how small the area of comparative deprivation might be?

All bids will be considered fairly and on merit. That means that when there is an opportunity to transform the economy so that it is less reliant on the public sector, irrespective of location, those applications will be considered with due care and consideration.

Now that we have a local enterprise partnership in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, will the Minister assure me that we will be able to bid for regional growth funding for applications in respect of ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent and in respect of the new environmental technologies? Will he keep a close watch on ensuring that our deprived area gets that Government funding?

That is an excellent question, and I shall keep a close eye on the proposals—and, indeed, on the future of the economy in Stoke-on-Trent.

Topical Questions

My Department has an important role in delivering growth and the coalition’s commitment to building a new and more responsible economic model while rebalancing the economy and bringing enterprise, manufacturing, training, learning and research closer together.

As the Lib-Dem Treasury spokesman in the last Parliament, the Secretary of State strongly criticised the Labour Government’s handling of the Lloyds TSB merger with HBOS, saying that the Lloyds shareholders had been sold a lemon. What does he say now to the 800,000 small Lloyds shareholders who have lost up to seven eighths of their investment, some of whom I have met in my constituency? What support will he give those who are now trying to win compensation?

First, I congratulate the hon. Lady, as I believe that last night she received the newcomer of the year award from The Spectator. On her specific question, she will be aware that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I established the banking commission specifically to consider the structure of banking and how competition can be improved. It will undoubtedly take into account the particular position of that bank.

T3. I recently visited the Abington pharmacy in my constituency, where I switched on a robotic dispenser—[Laughter.] It delivers pharmaceutical products, and I switched it on rather than turned it on. Many successful small businesses such as that pharmacy struggle to get the banks to give them loans, and small and medium-sized businesses are suffering as a consequence. What can my hon. Friend do to encourage the banks to lend to small businesses? (24748)

No. 1: ensure that we enforce the lending commitments. No. 2: extend the enterprise finance guarantee—and the third action that I would encourage would probably be to leave those buttons alone!

T2. Thousands of medical students will be crippled by the increased tuition fees, and the submission by the British Medical Association to Lord Browne’s review appears to have been ignored. Does the Minister agree that those increases will deter young people from undertaking medical training? (24747)

We do not believe that our proposals will have any such effect. Obviously, I am in close contact with the Secretary of State for Health, and we are confident that we can continue to support medical training in a way that will provide the doctors that we need.

T4. Does the Minister agree that the true test of any education or training system is that the person concerned comes out better qualified and better equipped to be an active and employable member of society than they were before they went into it? Does he agree that the 50% target for universities did not work and was not right, and that we now need to value vocational training and apprenticeship schemes better? (24750)

My hon. Friend is right. That is why, as well as maintaining student numbers this year with 10,000 extra places, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning have committed us to 75,000 extra apprenticeship places.

T5. Nissan is an important local employer in Sunderland and it has rightly said that “relatively modest” Government investment can rebalance the economy. That is crucial in regions such as the north-east. Does the Secretary of State agree with Nissan that if the Government do not fight for new business, it will simply go elsewhere? (24751)

One of the first decisions that this incoming Government made was to confirm support for the Nissan Leaf project. We continue to be in close contact with that company, which makes a valuable contribution to the economy in this country and the north-east, and we will maintain close relations with it.

T6. Students who complete degrees are rightly lauded as graduates at elaborate ceremonies that are all too often unlike those for people who learn valuable crafts. Does the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning agree that we must do more to recognise the value and status of those who complete apprenticeships? (24752)

For too long we have conned ourselves that the only form of prowess that matters is academic accomplishment. We need, in the spirit of Ruskin and Morris, to recognise that practical skills matter too. I recommend that my hon. Friend read my speech to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce on that subject. Signed copies are available, but I am told it is the unsigned copies that will be clamoured for in years to come.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Secretary of State gave vague assurances on intra-company transfers, particularly those that are vital to the future of Toyota on Deeside. When will he finally end the uncertainty that still hangs over this issue?

The Home Secretary will announce the results of the consultation very soon, and I am sure that it will give the hon. Gentleman the assurances that he wants on inter-company transfers.

T7. Will the Minister agree to meet a social enterprise in my constituency whose future is threatened by the draconian attitude of RBS, which seeks nearly £400,000 in penalties for a minor breach, even though a non-nationalised bank is willing to refinance its loan fully? (24753)

The Government are keen that banks should behave responsibly towards businesses, charities and social enterprises, and we continue to work with the banks to achieve that. For example, we are working with them to revise the lending code for micro-enterprises and we are publishing lending principles for medium-sized and larger businesses. We will continue to hold banks to account when they act unreasonably, and my officials will raise this matter with RBS.

In a letter that I received this morning from the Secretary of State, I was told that the funding for AgustaWestland

“has been provisionally allocated under the capital budget of the department over the Spending Review period”,

whereas the Sheffield Forgemasters loan was cancelled in June because its funding had been allocated during the current financial year. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the speediness of his response, but as the Forgemasters loan was the only BIS investment that was dropped in June, why can it not be picked up again and allocated in the period of the forthcoming spending review?

Because those two projects have wholly different origins and outcomes. We have not made any commitment on the AgustaWestland project, which will be evaluated and negotiated in the proper way. As for Sheffield Forgemasters, the hon. Lady has been told on several occasions that if it and its supporters put in a bid to the regional growth fund, it will be considered alongside other projects.

T8. One in five lip-reading classes in England and Wales are threatened with closure next year. Will the Minister reclassify lip-reading as an essential skill rather than a leisure activity, making sure that the classes are accessible to the hearing-impaired and continue to protect their ability to communicate? (24754)

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady, who will know that I have been a champion of the disability lobby for many years, as the chairman of the all-party group on disability. I shall certainly look into this matter. She will know that we have protected adult and community learning in the Budget. Some £210 million has been protected because we know the difference it makes in changing lives and life chances.

R3, an insolvency body, recently indicated that one in 10 companies are not prepared for the VAT increase in January. The Federation of Small Businesses in the north-east has highlighted a Kingston university study finding that small and medium-sized companies in the north-east will shed jobs. What action will Ministers take to deal with the VAT increase in January?

The whole point of making sure that the increase does not come during the Christmas period is that that is the most difficult period for most businesses. The increase is being made at the end of that period so that businesses can make the adjustment. Unlike what happened with the VAT change under the previous Government, we have given businesses a full six months and more to prepare. If there are particular cases to discuss, I am happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman.

T9. It is not too early to say that the ability of further education colleges to innovate has been strangled by targets and the dead hand of bureaucracy. Does the Minister plan to free colleges and make them more responsive to student and employer demands? (24755)

I have already mentioned our schools strategy, and we will free colleges for the first time from the hoop-jumping, bean-counting, form-filling, byzantine regime that the previous Government imposed upon them. They will be free to serve their learners, free to do their best and free to be their best.

According to the Government’s new skills strategy, local enterprise partnerships will have no powers over skills. Our people’s skills are the biggest factor in holding back economic development, and Professor David Bailey says:

“Make no mistake, this is a big blow”.

What will the Minister do to give powers over skills back to LEPs?

I think that the hon. Lady needs to read the document more closely, although I appreciate that she might not have had time to do so. We are very clear that colleges should work with local communities, engage with employers through local enterprise partnerships and react to their learners’ needs. The system will be driven by the needs of learners, framed by the needs of our employers and engaged with the local community in a way that the previous Government could not even have dreamed of.

The Secretary of State mentions that one of his key responsibilities is growth. North Lincolnshire council in my constituency recently gave planning permission for a major development that offers an opportunity for a renewable energy cluster. Will he visit the area in the near future so as to understand the full potential that it offers?

I have a long queue of engagements, but I shall add that to the list. It sounds a very promising opportunity.

Based on the equality impact assessment that I am sure the coalition Government have carried out on their higher education proposals, what will the impact of cutting the higher education teaching grant by 80% be on women?

Many part-time students are female, and it is already clear that our proposals to give a proper student loan entitlement to part-time students for the first time, in order to help with their fees, will particularly benefit women. We will publish the full impact assessment alongside our White Paper.

I welcome the steps that my right hon. Friend is taking to increase the number of student places at universities. He mentions increasing the number of part-time courses, and that is vital, but will he urge institutions to be more innovative in their approach to study?

My hon. Friend is right. One of the main objectives of our reforms is to allow greater diversity of provision, which means more short two-year courses and more part-time opportunities. We want to see a new freedom for universities to innovate, and those possibilities will arise as a part of our reforms.

The £1.4 billion regional growth fund is clearly grossly underfunded, and if we had taken the advice of Ministers today we would have spent it 10 times over already. Did the Prime Minister give my constituents false hope yesterday, when he suggested to me that they should go to that fund for housing regeneration?

As you can see, Mr Speaker, we are very keen to answer this question.

Absolutely not. Every area can bid, and the opportunities are clear for every constituency. There are also opportunities for the private sector, but the key point is that when funds are tight, we have to remind ourselves that the reason why is sitting on the Opposition Benches.

May I plead with the employment Minister and his boss to delay the implementation of flexible working, shared parental leave and the expansion of legislation on the right to request training, in order to give British business a holiday from new employment legislation in 2011, and allow it to focus on job creation and growth?

I may be about to disappoint my hon. Friend, because he will know that the coalition has some very expansive plans to promote the right to request flexible working for all employees, and to develop a new system of flexible shared parental leave. We believe that when we publish our plans and consult on them in the new year, he, and many businesses, will see that they are actually ways to promote business growth and enterprise.

We have learned this week from the papers that the Secretary of State is participating in the “Strictly Come Dancing” Christmas special. [Hon. Members: “Hurrah!”] Does that mean that his policy towards business and the economy is “Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow”?

I have been taught to dance “Quick, quick, quick, quick, quick”, and that is what I will be doing, both in my Department and on the Christmas show.

I understand that Lord Young is examining the impact of employment law on the growth of small business. Will my hon. Friend work with Lord Young to identify whether there are ways of modifying employment law for small businesses, particularly those that are family owned, and employ small numbers of people?

I have already met Lord Young to discuss his review, and I will be working with him. The House will want to pay tribute to Lord Young for his award yesterday as peer of the year.

I welcome the commitment, given by the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), in response to my first question, to setting up structures to access European regional development funding. Will the Minister confirm that money will be available to get the projects together to do that?

The officials are dealing with that issue at this precise moment. Once we have an answer, I will come straight back to the hon. Gentleman.

In my constituency, small businesses have historically been able to visit our local Crown post office to collect their mail early in the morning. Now the Post Office has informed those businesses that in future they will have to pay £225 per month if they want to collect their post before 8.30 in the morning. Will my hon. Friend encourage the Post Office to drop that additional burden on small business?

As my hon. Friend knows, such issues are operational matters for the management of Royal Mail, but I will certainly raise that matter with them.

May I press the Minister on when exactly he spoke to the Department of Health about forgivable loans for medical students?

I have had several discussions with the Secretary of State for Health, and our proposals will ensure that we continue to be able to fund medical students in Britain.

Socio-economic Equality Duty

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister to make a statement on the announcement yesterday outside Parliament that the Government intend to drop section 1 of the Equality Act 2010, which places duties on public bodies to act in respect of socio-economic disadvantage.

Equality is at the heart of what this coalition Government are all about. We have come together as a coalition to govern on the principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility.

In Britain today, those growing up in households that have fallen too far behind still have fewer opportunities available to them and they are still less able to take the opportunities that are available. We need to design intelligent policies that give those at the bottom real opportunities to make a better life for themselves. That is why we are devoting all our efforts and energies to policies that can give people real opportunities to make life better for themselves, and not just to new and unnecessary legislation.

We do not need new laws to come up with policies that open up opportunities, and we do not need new laws to come up with policies that support and protect the most vulnerable. We have already begun to implement them. That is why over the course of the spending review, we will spend over £7 billion on a new fairness premium. That will give all disadvantaged two-year-olds an entitlement to 15 hours a week of pre-school education, in addition to the free entitlement that all three and four-year-olds already receive. It also includes a £2.5 billion per year pupil premium to support disadvantaged children.

Those measures, combined with our plans for extra health visitors and a more focused Sure Start, will give children the best possible start in life. That is why we are extending the right to request flexible working to all, helping to shift behaviour away from the traditional nine-to-five model of work, which can act as a barrier to so many people and often does not make sense for many modern businesses, and why we will implement a new system of flexible parental leave, which will end the state-endorsed stereotype of women doing the caring and men earning the money when a couple start a family.

We do not need laws to make choices that protect the most vulnerable. When we have had to make difficult choices about how to deal with the record budget deficit left by Labour, we have done so in a way that protects the most vulnerable. We will increase child tax credits for the poorest families, protecting against rises in child poverty; we will increase spending on the NHS and schools in real terms every year; we will lift 880,000 of the lowest-paid workers out of income tax altogether; and we will protect the lowest-paid public sector workers from the public sector pay freeze.

All those policies were designed by the coalition to protect those most at risk and to give opportunities to those most in need. They are real action, not unnecessary empty gestures. That is why we are scrapping the socio-economic duty. I said during the passage of the Bill that this was a weak measure, that it was gesture politics, and that it would not have achieved anything concrete. The policy would only have been a bureaucratic box to tick—another form to fill in. It would have distracted hard-pressed council staff and other public sector workers away from coming up with the right policies that will make a real difference to people’s chances in life.

We cannot solve a problem as complex as inequality in one weak legal clause, and we cannot make people’s lives better by simply passing a law saying that they should be made better. We believe that real action should be taken to address the root causes of disadvantage and inequality. We do not need empty gestures, and we do not need the socio-economic duty, to do that.

It is very disappointing that I had to ask the Minister to come here. I would have expected at least a written ministerial statement or a statement to the House on a decision of this nature.

Dropping the socio-economic duty was not in the coalition agreement. It was a major part of the Equality Act 2010, which Parliament passed only this year. While we know that the Conservatives have never wanted Government to take responsibility for building a more equal society, that is not the view that the hon. Lady herself has previously taken. In fact, despite her words just now, on Second Reading of the Equality Bill she called for more legislation:

“The Government should have made legislative proposals to tackle socio-economic inequality in a Bill of its own”.—[Official Report, 11 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 579.]

Given the importance of narrowing the equality gap, does she still think this?

What proposals will the Minister now bring forward to assess the impact of Government policies on the most disadvantaged? Despite her fine words, is it not true that this Government simply do not care about socio-economic inequality? The Institute for Fiscal Studies has proved that the Government are hitting the poorest hardest. If there is no duty, how will people know about the impact of Government decisions on the most disadvantaged?

With this duty in place, public bodies would have had to think about what they should be doing to improve life chances. We all know about Sure Start; indeed, the Minister referred to it. We know its fantastic work, and how its impact is greatest on the most disadvantaged children. Councils would have had a duty to take that into account if they were thinking of closing children’s centres, but she is now saying that they will not. Does she think that is right?

The hon. Lady said that the duty is bureaucratic, but the truth is that the Government have the power to decide how it is implemented. Did the Government even attempt to draw up a flexible way of introducing it?

The Minister said that we cannot deliver equality by legislation, but the simple truth is that the Government do not believe that they have any responsibility to deliver a fairer society. Of course, legislation does not work like magic, but it is a key way that Government can change things. Road safety legislation does not stop all accidents, but it does make our roads safer and it does save children’s lives. This duty would have helped to make our society fairer, and it would have given poorer people a fair chance, so why is she scrapping it?

After 13 years of a Labour Government who left behind them a more unequal society with a widening gap between rich and poor, the idea that an exceptionally weak clause in an Act that has not been enacted or implemented was major legislation, when it contained only a duty to consider, is everything that is bad about politics. [Interruption.] It has not been implemented.

The public sector equality duty that will be introduced in the spring is the strongest measure possible. It will allow for transparency, and it will allow people to hold the authority to account in their locality. What the Government are doing is far more important than the duty the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) mentions. We are taking 880,000 lower-paid people out of tax, and spending £7 billion on the fairness premium and £2.5 billion on the pupil premium, which is additional money and the single most important measure for changing children’s life chances.

What is more, let me read to the hon. Lady what the last Government’s social mobility tsar Alan Milburn said:

“The challenges of the future call for a different relationship between the state and the citizen…It will mean…not just passing laws.”

But that was all the Labour party did—pass laws. What we are doing is about outcomes, not ticking boxes.

The most disadvantaged children, like all children, need time with their parents to thrive and prosper. Does the Minister think that flexible parental leave and the right to request flexible working are a more progressive concept than equality by diktat?

Of course, the right for all employees to request flexible working is a hugely important step and extremely progressive. It is about shifting the stigma that has always appertained to women requesting flexible working, and accepting that in whole-life journeys we all have caring responsibilities, including men, who were part of the equation last time I looked.

If the hon. Lady is so dismissive of legislation, one wonders why she is sitting where she is. May I point out to her that it was legislation that afforded women the right to vote, quite apart from other legislation that has been transformative not only for our society but for societies around the world?

If the hon. Lady is genuinely concerned that children in deprived situations should be taken out of that deprivation, why have her Government introduced a cap on housing benefit that will make thousands of children homeless?

Order. The Minister really cannot go into the subject of housing benefit caps. She can give a reply on equality if she wants, but she cannot talk about that, I am afraid.

That is such a shame, Mr Speaker, but I will restrain myself.

Of course legislation is important, but it must be effective legislation, not gesture legislation.

Is the Minister as surprised as I am to hear what is being said by Opposition Members who, in debates on previous legislation, have argued against equally weighted votes for men and women in equally sized constituencies?

Order. May I just say gently that people are perfectly entitled to vent their views, but questions must relate to the socio-economic duty? That is the matter that we are discussing.

The Government’s dilution of the previous Government’s equality legislation is just one of a series of betrayals of women. They failed to undertake a gender impact assessment of the emergency Budget—[Interruption.] Maybe the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice would like to take this seriously, because it is a serious matter. The Government have failed to sign up to new measures to combat human trafficking of women and children, and they have frozen the pay of the lowest-paid public sector workers, whose actual salaries are less than £21,000 and many of whom are women. When exactly will they stop taking measures that have a disproportionately negative impact on women?

As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, the Treasury did an envelope impact assessment on the comprehensive spending review, and each Department will undertake an extensive impact assessment as the spending review plays out. The Government are absolutely committed to equality and fairness—not just saying that we are doing it, but actually doing it.

I do not know what a socio-economic equality duty is, and nor do the people of Wellingborough. May I suggest that it is left-wing tosh and should be scrapped?

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s direct approach. I probably would not put it in quite such pejorative terms. If the Government are interested in delivering fairness and equality, that has to be done through measures that actually deliver them, rather than just talking about them.

Perhaps I can help the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). In the poorest wards in my constituency, my local authority—Tory-controlled Trafford—has repeatedly under-invested in public services, from addressing health inequalities to sweeping snow from the streets. In the absence of the socio-economic duty, how can my poor constituents be sure that they will not continue to lose out?

All councils up and down the country that are worth their salt will already be considering the socio-economic duty in terms of all the money they spend. That is the point. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but Opposition Members can jump up and down as much as they like—a duty to consider is not action at all.

Does my hon. Friend recall that I, too, was a member of the Committee that considered the Equalities Bill? Does she agree that the then Minister’s enthusiasm for this duty was utterly unconvincing in Committee? Does she agree that it detracted from the seriousness of the other duties in the Bill and that there was no idea what the impact would be?

I agree. That is the whole point. That is why I called the duty weak and why Lord Lester from the other place called it watery. It would not deliver what it said it would. Other proposals in the Bill were more important, but this duty distracted from their importance.

I am rather pleased by what the Minister has said, because it demonstrates beyond any shadow of a doubt that she, like other Liberal Democrats in the Government, is simply a mouthpiece of the Tories.

The Bill’s provisions have been described as “socialism in one clause”. Does the Minister agree that we cannot solve a problem such as inequality in one clause, whether by socialism or any other means?

I agree. Delivering equality and fairness is a serious matter, and the idea that one clause would make a significant difference is wrong, particularly as it was a tick-box exercise. If it had delivered a measured outcome, I am sure we would be implementing it; as it did not, we are not.

For decades, disabled people were told that equality would come through education and changing attitudes, but it did not. It was not until the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995—an imperfect Act it was, too—that we began to see equality. The Equalities Act 2010 would have done the same for poor people, and it does them and the hon. Lady a disservice when she says that the Government will scrap this duty. That is a mistake.

The hon. Lady makes my point for me. Substantive legislation is extremely important; this was not substantive legislation.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Opposition’s fixation on socio-economic equality rather than equality of opportunity is the reason why, sadly, during 13 years of Labour, our young people’s chances were determined by how much their parents earned. That brings shame on Opposition Members.

I could not agree more. It is to the shame of the Labour Government that, after 13 years, they left this country more unequal than ever before.

I am sorry, but it is rather incredible that the Minister has come here to try to defend the indefensible and that she has done it so poorly. Surely, if the legislation is put in place, it is up to the Minister to ensure that it is not simply a tick-box exercise. What message does it send to people on lower incomes in poor communities when the Government do not feel that they are worth legislating for?

It is totally defensible. Listening to Opposition Members, I must say that they are re-enacting what is in the Act: they are talking about things, not delivering them.

I welcome the Minister’s reply, but will she go further? The Government are consulting on related regulations to force up to 27,000 councils, schools, police forces and other bodies annually to audit their work force on age, disability, sexuality, sex changes, religion and other beliefs. Can she explain how, according to the departmental answer I received this week, those requirements will not cost public—

Order. That question suffers from the disadvantage that it has absolutely nothing whatever to do with the socio-economic duty.

The Minister came to the Chamber and said that the duty was “weak” and a “gesture”, and that substantive legislation is required. When will she introduce that legislation?

I think the hon. Lady misheard. I did not say that. I said that if we want to make a difference with substantive legislation, we should introduce it. I have already said that the Equality Act 2010 is substantive legislation, but that duty is a little bit of it that is not substantive.

My hon. Friend is right to focus on specific measures. Does she therefore agree that it would be better to enact practical measures such as the right to request flexible working?

All hon. Members are in a position of immense privilege, and it is generally the case that laws and regulations are made by the privileged and imposed on the disadvantaged. Therefore, how can the Minister argue against a requirement to consider the interests of those in our society who do not have a voice?

Because it is meaningless. If I thought that the requirement would deliver anything, I would implement it. As it does not, I will not.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we heard from the Opposition spokeswoman, the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), the pure nanny-state politics that was rejected so decisively by the British people at the last election?

Order. The hon. Gentleman is getting a little carried away, which is not an uncommon phenomenon in the House. He has resumed his seat and we are grateful to him. He knows, because he has been in the House for, I believe, 18 years, that he should not ask a Minister about the policies of the Opposition.