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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 523: debated on Thursday 17 February 2011

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Apprenticeships

All our Christmases have come together.

Provisional data show that there were 119,800 apprenticeship starts in the first quarter of the 2010-11 academic year. That good news confirms that employers are recognising the value of apprenticeships to building growth and competitiveness. The Government are committed to increasing the budget for apprenticeships to over £1.4 billion in the 2011-12 financial year.

As part of the recent apprenticeships week, the National Apprenticeship Service launched a 100-day campaign in Reading. By the end of the first day alone, 28 pledges of places and a further 19 expressions of interest had been received from local employers. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Reading’s employers, Reading borough council, the Reading Post and other local organisations on supporting that excellent initiative and demonstrating what can be achieved when business and Government work together?

I do indeed congratulate them, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on drawing the matter to the House’s attention. I did a little research: the event was attended by 51 employers and resulted in 29 apprenticeship pledges just on the day. My goodness, we are reminded of Virgil: “They can because they think they can.”

I recently visited Brentford football club community sports trust as part of apprenticeship week and have also written to more than 600 businesses to encourage them to take up apprenticeship places and take on more apprentices. What other advice would my hon. Friend give businesses to encourage them to provide more apprenticeships?

Businesses need to know that they will recoup their investment rapidly, with even the most expensive apprenticeships paying back in less than three years. Apprenticeships have a real link to productivity and to competitiveness. May I just say that Brentford football club had a very good result on Saturday, when they drew with Milton Keynes Dons?

Chester FC was also successful last Saturday, winning 5-0; I was fortunate enough to be there. It is a community-run and owned football club, which recently launched an apprenticeship scheme employing 21 16-year-olds on sports management courses. What is the Minister doing to encourage other big society organisations to get involved with apprenticeships?

We are involved in an unprecedented campaign to promote the value of apprenticeships. Last week—apprenticeship week—450 events were held throughout the country. I met learners, employers and providers. Apprenticeships are top of the agenda for all those groups.

Last Friday, I visited the Just Learning day nursery in my constituency to see at first hand the benefits of apprenticeships for young people and employers. I was pleased to meet apprentice Jade Vale and manager Tracey Tomlinson, who were very positive about the apprenticeship scheme. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that people can progress to the higher level of apprenticeships to meet the needs of employers?

My hon. Friend is right. The previous Government’s Leitch report made it absolutely clear that we need to boost intermediate and higher level skills as our economy becomes more advanced. I am working with the sector skills councils and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills to develop more high-level frameworks. The numbers doubled in the past year, but we must do more. Apprenticeships are critical to the nation’s growth and prosperity.

I recently visited Medway youth club, a local charity in my constituency that helps young people get into work and into apprenticeships, and it very much welcomes the Government’s apprenticeship scheme. However, it would like to see more assistance being given to small businesses, and guidance for setting up apprenticeships.

It is a little known fact, but none the less one that I want to draw to the House’s attention, that 78% of apprentices are employed in small businesses, which are the backbone of our economy. I started in a small business, which got bigger as a result, and small businesses are essential if we are to make apprenticeships sing.

Last Friday, I spoke to several employers in Eastbourne, and their view was that a grant to the providers of apprenticeships would act as a huge incentive and make a huge difference to take-up and completion. Although I appreciate that tough current fiscal conditions mean that any money has be found elsewhere, does the Minister agree that, for small employers in my constituency and throughout the country, a small cash incentive for small and medium-sized enterprises will lead to a dramatic rise in the take-up of apprenticeships?

We are committing substantial funds to apprenticeships and, indeed, those funds will be targeted at the firms that most need support to take on apprentices and build their skills. My hon. Friend is right to say that these are tough times, but we are always open to proposals made by this House and representative bodies of the kind that he describes.

I am sure that the House will welcome the emphasis on apprenticeships, which shows the Government carrying on the work that we did. However, does the Minister not think it is shocking that, in figures given to me this morning by his colleague the Secretary of State, the Government have confirmed the true picture that there will be 529,000 fewer adult learners being funded by the Government in two years’ time? Does not that show that the emphasis on apprenticeships is being paid for by cutting opportunity elsewhere? How does that prepare people for today’s labour market?

The right hon. Gentleman speaks of opportunity, but it was Baroness Thatcher who said that if your only opportunity is to be equal, you have no opportunity. What he and his colleagues left us with was a dull, egalitarian mediocrity. We are going to drive up standards and skills, and drive growth and prosperity.

We just heard from the Minister that more needs to be done about apprenticeships. Indeed, he wrote to all hon. Members encouraging us to take on an apprentice in our offices. Why then are the Government removing the requirement for apprenticeship places on Government public investment programmes?

The work that we are doing on public sector apprenticeships, in this place and elsewhere, continues. Indeed, I met a shadow Minister—one of her parliamentary colleagues—to talk about apprenticeships and public procurement. The hon. Lady is right—we do need to drive public sector apprenticeships and we do need to lead by example.

Last Friday, I saw a group of young people who were learning on the job in the cultural quarter programme, which is led by the Royal Opera House and participated in by the Victoria and Albert museum and other cultural organisations in London. Thirty-four young people are on that programme, but it is funded by the future jobs fund, so it is about to run out. I invited those young people to come to the House to tell Members of Parliament what they have learned from this programme and how they have encouraged other young people to start careers in the cultural industries. Will the Minister come and listen to what they have to say about the difference that the future jobs fund has made to them?

As you know, Mr Speaker, the future jobs fund is not within my ministerial purview—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Well, never pitch above your pay grade or outside your purview. I will of course meet the young people and the hon. Lady and listen to what they have to say.

I have just returned from a fact-finding mission to Dusseldorf and Berlin with the Welsh Affairs Committee. Is the Minister aware that all German businesses are required to join a local chamber of commerce and the regional chamber of commerce, and that those organisations are required to provide comprehensive apprenticeships, tailored to the industrial needs of that region? Will he consider that approach so that we have apprenticeships that are comprehensive and grounded in the real business earth of this country?

We can learn a lot from the example of other countries. Germany is often held up as a shining example of apprenticeships, and France has also made immense progress with apprenticeships over the last quarter of a century. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the link to local businesses and chambers of commerce and, as ever, he makes a thoughtful contribution to our affairs. I will certainly take another look at the issue to see what can be done to borrow that kind of good practice.

Yesterday, I met a number of apprentices at the excellent Fosters bakery in Barnsley, and we welcome any moves to build on Labour’s record, which rescued apprenticeships from 65,000 starts in 1997 to 279,000 last year. Will the Minister confirm four simple facts? Will he confirm that, at a time of rising youth unemployment, this Government have dropped Labour’s guarantee of an apprenticeship for every young person who wants one? Will he confirm that, at a time of rising adult unemployment, this Government plan to cut the total number of adults who get publicly funded training by 500,000 a year? Will he confirm that his Government have dropped Labour’s policy of saying that those who get public money for social housing must provide construction apprenticeships? And will he confirm that he now plans to make adult apprentices pay between £5,000 and £9,000 for the right to do an apprenticeship?

Trying to deal with four questions is a bit like being at the Woolworth’s pick ’n mix. I will deal with the first one only. The apprenticeship offer that we are enshrining in law means very plainly that everyone who secures an apprenticeship place will be funded—not the permissive, meaningless offer that prevailed under the last Government. The right hon. Gentleman should know better.

I am very sorry, but what the Minister has said is not true. If he says that every apprenticeship place will be funded, will he confirm that for adult apprenticeships—those aged over 24—they, not the Government, will have to pay the cost of their training? Is that not the truth about this world? On the one hand, those who have little money are asked to pay for the cost of their own training, while, as the Daily Mail put it, at the “black and white” party the Tory party—fundraisers, millionaire Tory supporters—paid £3,000 to buy internships at top finance companies. The Minister has one world for himself and his friends and for those families who can pay, and a completely different world for others.

On the night of the “black and white” party, I was at my desk working, actually, and then I had a half of mild at a working men’s club.

The truth is that, in a very tough spending round, we guaranteed funding for young people, boosted funding for 16 to 18-year-olds and boosted funding for adult apprenticeships, and we are seeing real growth. The right hon. Gentleman is right: people over 24 will borrow to invest in their future, but my goodness, the repayments are income-contingent, there are no up-front payments and, as he knows, it is real value for money.

Local Enterprise Partnerships

I am pleased to say that we are making good progress with regard to local enterprise partnerships. Indeed, I can announce today that we have cleared the London enterprise partnership. That brings us to a total of 31, covering 87% of England's population.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Naturally, I am rather disappointed that Dorset has not yet found a solution. May I have an update on progress towards the inclusion of Dorset within a local enterprise partnership? What timelines are the Government working to? If it is necessary for support to be given, will that be given?

As the hon. Lady knows and we have discussed, Dorset has the challenge that Poole and Bournemouth face eastwards economically but the rest of the county does not. So we have worked with local partners, and offered them an opportunity: once they have decided, they will come back to us and we will help to ensure that they progress with their enterprise partnership as quickly as possible.

Can the Minister advise on the timings of the announcements of the agreement of new LEPs? How is he guaranteeing private sector leadership for LEPs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. With 87% covered in less than 22 weeks—unlike the progress that we often saw from Labour—there has been positive progress. On the private sector issue, LEPs are specifically business-led, and most encouragingly, in her local LEP, eight of the 14 participants—over 60%—are from the private sector. That is a very good example, which I know other enterprise partnerships intend to follow.

In their response to the Select Committee report on LEPs, the Government have said that they will not impose performance management criteria on them. Will the Minister explain just how the performance of LEPs will be monitored and assessed?

The whole point about partnerships is that local priorities will lead, not central diktat. That is why we believe in ensuring that we enable partnerships to come forward and that they judge the issue on how they break down the local barriers to growth. We are committed to ensuring that the economy grows; these will be excellent vehicles to achieve that locally.

Well, we are clear what LEPs and businesses are asking for, even if Ministers are not. We believe that assets and funding intended for local growth in our regions should stay there. We have put forward a detailed strategy on skills and access to European and regional development agency money—the tools that LEPs need to do their job. But the Secretary of State is not passing any assets on, and is twisting the arms of RDAs over it. Today’s Local Government Chronicle reveals the west midlands RDA disposal plan—more than half its assets up for sale. The north-east regional development plan that I have seen says the RDA has been told that it must help address the fiscal deficit. How can the Secretary of State now deny that he is flogging off our local family silver to keep the Treasury happy? Has he not left LEPs in the lurch?

We got there eventually, Mr Speaker.

The RDAs have brought forward assets plans, which the Government are looking at. In the growth plan, we set out clearly how we will deal with them. The idea that we will be selling off the silver is a nonsense. I am sorry that Labour Members have nothing positive or intelligent to say about the matter.

Entrepreneurship

The Government have actively encouraged enterprise, including doubling the amount of small business rate relief for one year, launching the new enterprise allowance, and initiating a new programme in universities, Enterprising Academics. With support and practical input from my entrepreneurs group, I am developing further measures to support entrepreneurship around employment regulation and start-ups.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I welcome, as do my constituents, the new enterprise allowance—in fact, my constituents have been asking me about that for the long-term unemployed. A recent graduate from Slaithwaite also asked me whether we might extend the scheme to recent graduates, to take advantage of their skills, especially if they have studied business or engineering.

That is an excellent suggestion, which we will pursue. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the new enterprise allowance is being trialled in Liverpool, and will give people who would otherwise face long periods of unemployment the opportunity to start their own businesses with financial support, mentoring and access to loans. It is a very good scheme, which I want to encourage and expand.

How will the Secretary of State respond to the wonderful report on creative clusters in our country launched yesterday by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts? The report shows again that 6% of new businesses create 50% of new jobs, but that most of the clusters are in London and the south-east. As he is stripping the capacity to do anything about that in Yorkshire, which is performing at a low level, what will he do about it?

As it happens, under the growth review that Ministers are conducting, yesterday we reviewed the creative industry sector to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The sector has serious problems of access to finance, because of a lack of tangible security, and issues around copyright protection. We are pursuing both those issues, and if we can crack them it will help creative industries across the country.

Bank Lending

4. What recent progress he has made in his discussions with representatives of the banking industry on increasing levels of lending to small and medium-sized enterprises. (41345)

16. What recent progress he has made in his discussions with representatives of the banking industry on increasing levels of lending to small and medium-sized enterprises. (41357)

As announced last week in the House by the Chancellor, the UK’s five major banks have stated a capacity and willingness to lend £190 billion of new credit to business in 2011. That includes £76 billion of new lending to SMEs, which is a 15% increase on the amount lent in 2010. If demand exceeds that, the banks will lend more.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s work and the Government’s announcement. To have maximum transparency, will Ministers negotiate with the banks for the figures on lending to small and medium-sized businesses to be published by principal local authority area on a regular basis, so that we can see exactly what is happening throughout the country?

The figures will be independently monitored by the Bank of England and published quarterly. My right hon. Friend makes a helpful suggestion, and I will examine whether the figures can be disaggregated in that way.

Will the Secretary of State assure me that he will take no lessons on the banking system from the shadow Chancellor, who designed the system that failed us so badly, and who did nothing to encourage transparency and control bonuses? Will he ensure that banks start to lend to small businesses?

Indeed. In not only the agreement but our wider policy, we have advanced considerably on the position a year ago. We inherited a banking system that had collapsed, in part because of failures of regulation. We have introduced much more effective and higher levels of tax on the banks, because of the profits on their balance sheets. We have introduced greater transparency, which will add to legislation. Through the banking commission, we have set up a process of fundamental structural reform.

On Government action to encourage lending, we see this week that, thanks to a lack of regulation, Dollar Financial intends to open another 800 money shops in this country this year alone. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether such legal loan sharking is the lending that he wants to encourage?

There is a consultation process going on at the moment led by my colleague, the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), and we shall respond to it shortly. Clearly, it is essential that we have lending in deprived communities, with social enterprise and credit unions, and we are working to expand those areas.

Last week, the man chosen by the Secretary of State to lead his business advisory group and to be his very own sounding board resigned because of the Government’s deal with the banks. Does he agree with his noble Friend Lord Oakeshott that the Government have gone soft on the banks, that the Merlin lending deal does not live up to the coalition agreement and that the Government negotiators were arrogant, incompetent and

“couldn’t negotiate their way out of a paper bag.”?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Lord Oakeshott has taken over his former mantle as the Lib Dem voice of decency on the banks and, as The Independent says:

“Is Lord Oakeshott the new Vince Cable?”

I do indeed agree with my friend Lord Oakeshott on many issues, including what he says about banking, but on this issue I think he is wrong. May I suggest that a more authoritative view comes from the business organisations whose members will benefit from lending? For example, the CBI—often quoted these days from the Opposition Benches:

“It’s good news that banks have agreed to lend more to businesses, and there will be more transparency in this area.”

The FSB says that

“we welcome the intention to lend more to small businesses.”

They are the people who are benefiting.

Low-emission Vehicles

Our aim is to make the United Kingdom a leader in the research, development and manufacture of low and ultra-low carbon vehicles. To this end, we have a comprehensive plan supporting major investment by companies, funding for research and development, consumer incentives and investment in infrastructure.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware of the Glasgow company, Allied Vehicles, which is leading the way in the production of electric cars in Scotland? I am sure that he is aware of Nissan’s role in the field and its comments that the Labour Government’s grant for business investment had ensured the manufacture of the Leaf car in the UK, creating 100 jobs and producing 600 vehicles. Will he tell the House precisely how much investment the Government have set aside for the manufacture of electric cars throughout the United Kingdom?

We are putting in more than £300 million to make sure that hybrid and electric vehicles are progressing, both with Ford and with Nissan. That is important both as grant and as a form of finance guarantee. As the hon. Lady knows, Glasgow is a new beneficiary of our new investment in the plug-in places programme, which is important. I look forward to its progressing.

Lotus Cars, based just south of Norwich, has a worldwide reputation for innovation in low-emission vehicle technology. Lotus has submitted a bid to the regional growth fund, which if successful will enable the company significantly to increase its operations in the UK, providing hundreds of new jobs. Does the Minister share my enthusiasm for the ambition behind Lotus’s bid, which so clearly demonstrates how the regional growth fund is encouraging manufacturing companies to think boldly?

The hon. Gentleman is right. Lotus is one of several excellent premier brands in motor engineering in this country. I shall not comment on the specific bid, because there are several to hand at the moment, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have real opportunities in the sector. The Government are an effective partner in making sure that the sector grows.

The Minister made mention of the need to invest in the sector and he is right; we need investment in all the greener technologies. That is why the establishment of the green investment bank is so important. It is almost a year since the election, so may I urge the Government to get a move on with the establishment of the green investment bank? Can the Minister give us an update on when he expects it to be operating and investing in those important technologies?

Clearly, the bank needs to work on a commercial basis. We are making very good progress with the proposals on it and we shall set them out in May.

Regional Growth Fund

9. What criteria he used to determine appointments to the independent advisory panel for the regional growth fund. (41350)

The selection of panel members was rooted in ensuring that the independent advisory panel is mixed, with a good spread of expertise from around the country, bringing together representatives from major businesses, small and medium-sized enterprises, entrepreneurs, academia and civil society. All members of the panel act in an individual capacity under the chairmanship of Lord Heseltine.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but can he explain why a representative of the New Economics Foundation has been appointed to the panel? That organisation has attacked the merits of economic growth and argued that Burma, Saudi Arabia and Haiti show Sweden, the United States and the United Kingdom that achieving long, happy lives without overstretching the planet’s resources is possible. Might it not have been better to appoint someone to oversee the regional growth fund from an organisation that supports growth?

The organisation is there to support growth. The suggestion that my hon. Friend mentions seems seriously dotty, but I have seen other work from the New Economics Foundation, focusing on local communities, which is very good. I can assure him that the advisory panel’s work will be overseen by Lord Heseltine and Sir Ian Wrigglesworth, neither of whom could be said to be shirking on matters of business and entrepreneurship.

Given that the Government have said that they will be the greenest Government ever, can the Secretary of State give an assurance that panel members will include people with expertise on sustainable development and environmental protection, so that there can be a balance with growth and environmental concerns?

Export Licences

10. What assessment his Department has made of the administrative burden on businesses of the process for issuing export licences. (41351)

Export licensing needs to be thorough, especially where there are sensitive locations or uses. However, it is important that the Government continue to focus on keeping the costs to business down and we intend to do that.

Small businesses in my constituency of Redditch wishing to export to China have been victims of excessive red tape and delays in securing an export licence. One company has been waiting for months in respect of an order from China that would generate revenue and employment for the west midlands. Will the Minister take steps to reduce administration burdens on small and medium-sized enterprises and meet me and the company affected?

I should be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend. As she knows, two thirds of all applications are dealt with within 20 working days, but as she will appreciate this is sensitive equipment to a sensitive location. We need to ensure that we license only legitimate exports in these circumstances. I am pleased to say, however, that in this instance the licence has been granted.

Higher Education

13. What his policy is on widening access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds; and if he will make a statement. (41354)

20. What his policy is on widening access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds; and if he will make a statement. (41361)

This Government are committed to social mobility. That is why our higher education reforms have no payments up-front, more generous maintenance support and the extension of loans to part-time students. Last week we gave updated guidance to the director of fair access about access agreements and outlined details of our £150 million national scholarship programme.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and for the additional support to disadvantaged students. In a report, the Sutton Trust has described university entrance quotas as

“a punitive measure against talent and effort”

and argued that no child should be denied a university place because of their social or educational background. Does he agree with that view and will he clearly rule out any move towards the social engineering of university admissions?

We in the coalition Government do not believe in quotas, for the reasons that my hon. Friend rightly sets out. They would be not only undesirable but illegal because the autonomy of universities in running their own admissions arrangements has legal protection.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Burnley college, which is operating in a disadvantaged area, on its event last Friday, when dozens of companies met scores of young people who wish to take up apprenticeships in engineering? Does he agree that that is the right way to go and that the coalition Government are repairing the damage following the destruction of manufacturing engineering by the previous Government?

As we heard so eloquently from the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, the coalition Government are absolutely committed to apprenticeships. It would be a mistake to hold the view that apprenticeships and places in higher education are in conflict. Indeed some apprentices may subsequently go on to university and benefit from a university course, too.

Can the Minister give an estimate of the likely shortage of funded places at university in the next academic year? Can he square that estimate with his desire to get young people from deprived backgrounds into university?

We have committed to repeat the initiative this year with 10,000 extra places at university. Current indications are that applications are running perhaps about 5% higher than at a similar point last year, but we will have to see what the eventual figure is. As the right hon. Gentleman used to say when he was in government, application to university has always been a competitive process. No individual place can be guaranteed but we are committed to broadening access to university.

In the last month, the Secretary of State’s Department has confirmed that another 10,000 student places are set to be axed. We now know that his national scholarship programme will help under 2% of students. The logic of his rhetoric on access would have us all believe that Oxford and Cambridge are to be the last universities in England allowed to charge the full £9,000, which nobody thinks is credible. In his mind, the Secretary of State may well still be “St Vince”, but with Corporal Jones from Havant and Private Pike from Southwark and Bermondsey by his side is he not really just Captain Mainwaring, bumbling along out of his depth with all his best moments long since past?

We’re not panicking; we’re not panicking. In fact, it is Labour Members who left us with a situation whereby access to our leading, most research-intensive universities for people from the poorest backgrounds was declining. That is the challenge that we are tackling. I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s figure of 10,000 fewer places, as there are extra places. That is perhaps why the National Union of Students, in a leaked e-mail this morning, apparently described our reforms as “relatively progressive”.

The university centre Hastings is doing some excellent work with children from poorer families who want to go on to higher education. It is very concerned about the future of higher education for them and asked me to inquire about the national scholarship fund and what more can be done to help children on free school meals when they leave school and might need some assistance.

Absolutely. When the national scholarship programme is mature, it will be worth £150 million a year. With match funding, which we expect the universities to provide, it could offer—contrary to the assertions of Labour Members—extra financial support to up to 100,000 students. It could work in various ways, providing help with accommodation costs, fee waivers and extra direct financial assistance, which we think is a very practical way of helping students from poorer backgrounds.

Construction Sector

14. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on the construction sector of the outcome of the comprehensive spending review. (41355)

The comprehensive spending review set out our plans for £200 billion of investment over the next 10 years as part of the first national infrastructure plan. This was welcomed by many in the construction sector.

Does the Minister agree with Steve Morgan of Redrow when he says that the new homes bonus scheme is unlikely to prompt councils to approve more homes?

A number of benefits are being put forward for home building and for construction as a whole. The key issue with the housing market is whether the demand is there. That is the challenge: we will do our bit, but the market will need to operate as well.

Legal Aid

18. What assessment he has made of the potential effects on requirements for support from his Department by citizens advice bureaux of planned reductions in the provision of legal aid. (41359)

My Department does not provide core funding for individual citizens advice bureaux; it provides it only for the national umbrella bodies of which they are all members. However, we are aware of the challenges facing bureaux from funding cuts at both the national and local level, including from the proposals on legal aid funding, and we are working closely with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and other Departments across government that have an interest in the citizens advice service.

As the Minister will be aware, citizens advice bureaux are suffering pressures not just from cuts to the legal aid budget but across Departments that are cutting services. How many citizens advice bureaux does he think will be cut as a result of the spending review?

As I said in my initial response, funding for local citizens advice bureaux is up to local authorities. The Department for Communities and Local Government has made it clear that the voluntary sector, including citizens advice bureaux, should not be hit disproportionately. I hope the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that the national bodies Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland have had their funding for next year maintained at current levels. I hope she will also welcome the announcement this weekend by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we will supply £27 million of funding for face-to-face debt advice next year.

The Secretary of State will be well aware of the devastating impact that the cuts to legal aid will have on citizens advice bureaux across the country, leaving many people without the advice they desperately need. As the Cabinet Minister responsible for the citizens advice service, what action has he taken to ensure a coherent strategy across government to safeguard the full range of funding that the service receives from different Government Departments? At the moment, he seems to be abandoning the service, like the hireling shepherd leading out the injured lamb to be torn apart limb by limb by its predators.

I do not think I have been promoted. However, I can reassure the hon. Lady that we are taking a cross-Government approach to the funding of citizens advice bureaux. That is why the Department has been so strong in making sure that national funding for the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, which supplies technology and IT for all local bureaux, has been maintained, and I would have thought that she welcomed the extra money—£27 million—announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the weekend, for which she and others have been calling.

Post Boxes

19. If he will take steps to require Royal Mail to ensure the retention of the (a) colour of and (b) royal monogram on post boxes. (41360)

Royal Mail has publicly stated that it cherishes its distinctive and much-loved red post boxes and that it is absolutely committed to ensuring that they remain a distinctive part of our communities. The Government believe Royal Mail should continue to use the royal cypher on post boxes and we are in discussions with the palace about that.

The red pillar box is one of the great symbols of our great nation, and it would be a national shame if pillar boxes were to disappear as a result of privatisation. Will the Minister require the Royal Mail to keep red pillar boxes, or ensure that some form of listed heritage status is applied to them so that we do not lose this great British symbol?

I share my hon. Friend’s interest in red post boxes, so I visited the British postal museum and archive only last week, and I can tell him that Britain’s post boxes were originally green, but the public complained that they were too camouflaged, so chocolate brown was tried instead. That colour required too much paint, however, so we ended up with red, and we are on the fifth shade of red. I can also tell my hon. Friend that it would cost almost £1.7 million to repaint the nation’s 115,000 post boxes, and given that Royal Mail has 300 litres of red paint in stock I think he can sleep easily in his bed at night about the colour of our post boxes.

We have now learned more about post boxes and the Minister’s travel plans and personal interests, for which we are grateful.

Employment Growth Strategy

21. What his Department’s strategy for employment growth is for areas that have a high proportion of public sector employment. (41362)

The Government’s overriding economic policy objective is to bring about strong, balanced and sustainable growth. The growth review will support private sector growth, providing jobs to people released from the public sector. The regional growth fund will focus on providing financial support to areas with weak private sectors, and we will announce the first allocation of funds shortly.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. If the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is the Department of growth, then the Department for Communities and Local Government must be the Department for cuts. If we treat communities—or individuals—who are unequal as equal, we reinforce inequality. I welcome many of the measures that have been announced, but they are national measures. Are any special measures in place for communities that suffered from the front-loading of the cuts as a result of the local government settlement?

I know that my hon. Friend has worked extremely hard for the community he represents, which is a deprived area with relatively high unemployment. We would hope that specific tailored measures will come from the Leeds city region local enterprise partnership, which covers that area. The funding announcement on the regional growth fund is imminent, and it is often forgotten that, as a result of our negotiations with the banks, the business growth fund has an additional £2.5 billion, which will support private sector development across the country, including in my hon. Friend’s area.

Apprenticeships

Carlisle has five major factories, as well as many small ones, and they all need a skilled work force. Does the Minister agree that the expansion of apprenticeships is vital to fill the gaps in our economy, and that apprenticeships must get the status they deserve?

Yes, we must drive up their status; we must elevate the practical. The aesthetic of apprenticeships matters, and I am determined to ensure that those who achieve vocational, practical and technical competence are as revered as—indeed, perhaps more revered than—we who pursued the academic route.

Small Businesses (Recruitment)

24. What steps his Department is taking to make it easier for small businesses to recruit staff. (41365)

The Government are reviewing employment laws to provide the flexibility that businesses need and support economic growth. As part of this, we recently launched a consultation on employment tribunal reform and the employer’s charter, both aimed at increasing business confidence to take on, and manage, staff.

On Friday I met business leaders in my constituency, Rugby, who told me that the matter of greatest concern to them is that too many work force disputes, often without foundation, are taken to the employment tribunal. Fear of such action is acting as a deterrent to employment. Can the Minister update us on when the new proposals will come into effect?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we recently published the consultation, “Resolving workplace disputes”. I urge him to ask businesses in his constituency to respond to that consultation because we want to ensure that the current system, which I believe is bad for employers and employees, is reformed.

Topical Questions

Departmental Responsibilities

My Department has a key role in supporting business to deliver growth, rebalancing the economy, bringing enterprise, manufacturing, training, learning and research closer together, and in the process creating a stronger, fairer British economy.

Given its proximity to London and its highly skilled work force, does the Secretary of State agree that Brighton is a great place to do business? Will he consider relocating some of his staff and office use to this most excellent city?

My hon. Friend is right. Brighton has tremendous economic advantages. We will, of course, as a Government and as a Department, consider those for our own purposes.

Workers at Longbenton Foods in North Tyneside have been locked out of their frozen food factory this week and have been asked to take enforced holiday by the owners. More than two years ago the Labour Government stepped in to help the factory with grants when a fire closed it, and thus saved the jobs for the work force. As we try to ascertain what the current problems are, can the Minister assure me that, like his Labour predecessors, he will make a commitment to give any support he can to all those concerned in trying to ensure that those crucial jobs are maintained in my constituency?

These are always difficult times for people in the situation the hon. Lady describes. Would she do me the courtesy of providing me with the information? My Department will look at it. She knows that money is tight, for reasons that we are all aware of, but I want to make sure that I understand the facts, then I will give her an answer.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend agree that tackling vexatious employment claims and introducing more flexibility for employers will encourage the growth of jobs and a sustainable economy? (41368)

The response that the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), gave to the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) a few moments ago answers the question. The consultation process is under way. We want to deal with the problem that the hon. Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) raises, which is a big one, in two ways—first, by increasing the period of employment from one to two years before claims can be made, and, secondly, by insisting that all disputes that go to tribunals should go through a conciliation stage first.

As the Secretary of State is considering banking reform, may I ask him what discussions he has had both with the Northern Ireland Executive and with the Irish Government regarding the impact that the National Asset Management Agency is having on the banking sector in Northern Ireland?

I have not had any specific discussions of the kind that the hon. Lady suggests, but it would probably be appropriate for the Chancellor to do so. Clearly, there is an important Irish dimension because of the way in which British banks are heavily exposed to Irish banks.

T3. What plans does the Secretary of State have to promote gender balance in business, and what is his view on imposed quotas? (41369)

The Government are not in favour of imposed quotas, but the detailed proposals will shortly come forward. As the hon. Lady knows, a report is close to fruition and will be announced in a few days. It will advance the issue of greater women representation on boards, which has been shamefully low for many years.

Two days ago, with colleagues, I met the business leaders who are board members of Sheffield city regional local enterprise partnership. They are enthusiastic about their task but bemused by the lack of clarity about the powers, responsibilities and resources they will have to undertake it. Will the Minister tell the House when that will be clarified?

We are setting out the proposals clearly. They are also in the local growth White Paper. We have written to the boards and we are having a summit of all the board leaders together. There are various things that Sheffield will want to do and Leeds will want to do, which are different in other areas. We want to make sure that we do not strangle that initiative.

T4. The market for electric cars is estimated to be worth $2 trillion. Israel has resolved to make its road transport fossil fuel-free by 2020 and has the largest car dealership on earth in the north of Tel Aviv for electric cars. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that the UK will be at the front and centre of this new industrial revolution, and not lose out as we have done in other areas in the past? (41371)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why, unlike in other European countries, nine electric models will be available over the next year and why we are leading on electric manufacture. It is why we are investing in consumer incentives and infrastructure. It is a vital market. We are working on it.

Auto Windscreens went into administration on Monday. If the administrators do not find a buyer quickly, 1,100 people will lose their jobs. The Minister has been too busy to intervene personally and now his Department has passed the matter over to the Department for Work and Pensions. Under Labour, the regional development agency would have taken on a role of cross-co-ordination. Has the failure of the cross-agency co-ordination approach not let down those 1,100 workers, and why has the Department washed its hands of the matter by turning it into a pensions and benefits issue?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is being slightly churlish. He spoke to me only two days ago, when I made it clear that my Department would check the facts. We have done that. The Department for Work and Pensions is already in contact with the company. We are ensuring that we understand both the job issues and the company issues. We are very happy to work with all Members, so I am sorry that he has chosen to be somewhat churlish on this occasion.

T5. The UK dairy industry is in crisis, with farmers receiving from supermarkets 3p per litre less than the cost of production. This is leading to pressures to intensify dairy farming that are most concerning on grounds of animal welfare and the environment. Will the Minister update the House on plans to introduce a grocery code adjudicator, as announced in the coalition agreement? (41372)

Does the Minister plan to switch higher education numbers to low-cost courses in further education colleges, as recently reported in the Financial Times, and, if so, what modelling has his Department done on the effect on student choice and possible increased social segregation?

There are further education colleges across the country that are keen to deliver more higher education, and the coalition Government believe that that is an opportunity that they should be able to take up, provided they meet the necessary standards.

T6. Do the Government agree that universities should be free to admit students on the basis of academic merit without interference from the Government, and, if so, why are they intent on more regulation and meddling in the freedom of university admissions? (41373)

As I explained earlier, universities are of course free to control their own admissions and must have that freedom. Universities have always assessed students not only by what they have already achieved, but by their potential to achieve in future. They have often made that judgment informally and we support them in continuing to do so.

In answer to an earlier question, the Minister talked about the development of electric vehicles. Is the Department looking at encouraging the development and take-up of a hybrid version with a petrol back-up, rather than a traditional hybrid, to deal with the problem of range in rural areas?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is why, although electric vehicles are crucial, we are not focusing simply on one technology. Hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles are a crucial part of that, which is why we are ensuring that the office for low-emission vehicles is looking at all technologies, especially in the rural context.

T7. Ministers will be aware of the great potential of the Humber region for expanding the renewable energy sector, as was confirmed by the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) in a Westminster Hall debate yesterday. It is essential that small and medium-sized enterprises are given every support and opportunity to benefit fully from such major developments. What additional measures are Ministers considering for achieving that? (41374)

We are seeing growth in that area, not least because of the Government’s leadership in ensuring that investment is forthcoming. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about small businesses, and the key is supply chains. We are working with the industry to ensure that the major primes work with the smaller businesses so that everyone can participate, in the Humber and elsewhere.

Does the Minister agree that volunteering is a good way for young people to gain skills, build confidence and gain qualifications and contacts to assist them in finding work? Does he share my concern that funding for youth volunteering projects has been cut completely and that v projects will close in March?

Volunteering is an important way of giving people a taster, which can then lead to employment or to further learning. I agree that we need to do more work on the matter, and I am very happy to discuss it further. As a result of the hon. Lady’s question, I shall ask my officials to come back to me, and then I shall return to the issue, through her, and to the House.

T8. What efforts is the Minister’s Department making to support and to promote the marine industry in the UK? (41375)

We are working hard to ensure that the sector, which is a £10 billion industry by sales, is able to grow. That is why I am co-chairing the Marine Industries Leadership Council, and we held a reception in Parliament for all Members to understand its impact. We have a number of important studies on exports and on trade, making sure that investment is forthcoming, and we are determined to ensure an effective partnership between industry and Government so that there is growth.

I believe that the whole point of the big society is to give people the permission and the support to engage in their local community and to show responsibility. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members supported something that plays to the best traditions of our country.

T9. I have mentioned in the House before my constituency’s excellent Daresbury science and innovation campus, which really is a world-class centre for hi-tech entrepreneurship. Daresbury recently bid for a share of the £1.4 million regional growth fund. Can the Minister assure me that that bid will be looked upon favourably? (41376)

I am aware of the strengths of that excellent campus, and I am sorry that business in the House meant that I was not able to visit the other day, as I had hoped. I will visit very soon. Of course, there have been many bids for the regional growth fund, but in that way or in others I hope that we can continue to support my hon. Friend’s facility.

Government Front Benchers have today stated their intention to extend from one year to two a worker’s right to claim unfair dismissal, but, in industries such as construction, where tens of thousands of workers who have worked for many years for the same employer do not even have a written contract, what is the Secretary of State doing to enforce such basic employment rights before he starts taking workers’ other rights away?

We do not propose to take away all the rights to which the hon. Lady refers. We are approaching our employment law in terms of ensuring fairness for employees and that businesses have the freedom and flexibility to take on more people. I would have thought that she welcomed the fact that we want to reduce the dole queues by ensuring proper employment reform.

I greatly welcome this week’s news that the directors of Farepak and its parent company have been disqualified, and I am sure that the whole House, alongside all the families who lost money, will do, too. What can we do now to ensure that companies like that are not able to bleed their subsidiaries of savers’ and families’ money?

Disqualification proceedings have been issued against the nine directors on the grounds that their conduct makes him or her unfit to be concerned in the management of a company, so I am afraid that my hon. Friend’s remarks are slightly premature.

Will the Minister explain how the Government can possibly hope to promote access by cutting the teaching budget for universities by 80%? As a result, universities will have to charge £7,500 simply to stand still. Rather than attacking the autonomy of universities with Whitehall over-interference, why do the Government not invest the requisite public resources in our great universities?

The hon. Gentleman cites a figure that even the NUS no longer accepts as viable. He seems to have failed to understand the fundamental feature of our reforms, which is that the money will continue to reach universities but via the choices of students. That is the right way in which to finance them.

Sixteen months ago, the Office of Fair Trading declined to investigate ferry services to the Isle of Wight. Many islanders feel that the ferry operators view the OFT’s decision as carte blanche to cut services and to change their pricing structure. Will the Minister agree to meet me and a small group of my constituents to discuss those matters?

I am not aware of that OFT report from 16 months ago, but I will meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss it.

I thank the Secretary of State and his Ministers for what they have been trying to do in talking sense into Devon and Somerset over our local enterprise partnership, and suggest that perhaps west Dorset might like to come in with us as a solution to the problem mentioned by the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). However, Exeter is still being completely excluded from this process. Will the Minister not sign off the draft LEP until Exeter is guaranteed either a business or a local authority seat on the partnership board?

We have made it very clear that all partners must be engaged in this process, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for participating in it. I am talking to the partners involved, and I have made it clear that they must ensure that this is a genuine, lasting partnership that will help our local economies to grow.

I thank the Department and the Minister for all the work they are doing to secure jobs on the Pfizer site in Sandwich. What is his vision in securing those jobs and a future for the site in the science area?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. This is a very serious challenge that we face, and we are doing our best to tackle it. Yesterday I met the leader of Kent county council and other members of his taskforce, and last week I visited and met members of the work force. We are absolutely committed to the future of that site and believe that it should be possible for a range of different research organisations to be active on it. The site should have a great future.

I recently met representatives from the Union of Jewish Students at the university of Nottingham, who tell me that they are concerned about increasing incidents of anti-Semitism and racial incitement by guest speakers at university campuses. Will the Minister take steps to support the implementation of speaker policy guidelines in universities across the UK to help student unions and vice-chancellors to deal effectively with guest speaker invitations and prevent incidents of hate speech and intimidation?

I have discussed this with representatives of Jewish students. It is a challenge for universities, and the hon. Lady is right to raise it. We will continue to be absolutely emphatic on the rights of individual students to enjoy freedom without facing harassment and abuse, which, sadly, has been occurring.

Perhaps, like me, Ministers can recall how it felt to be among one of the last to be picked for a team in a game of schoolyard football. The experience is very similar for some areas wishing to join local enterprise partnerships. Can the Minister reassure residual LEPs in smaller areas that they will still have fair access to regionally administered skills funding?

Last but not least. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the 13% figure is often driven by the need for local partners to get their arrangements right. We are standing ready. We know that these partnerships can help local growth right across England, right across London, and in his constituency as well.

We found out this morning that Wonga, the payday lender, has raised £73 million to expand its operations across the country into even more communities. When are this Government going to get a grip on these legal loan sharks?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, we are waiting to respond to the consultation on consumer credit and personal insolvency, which will deal with all aspects of consumer credit. I am not aware of the particular point that the hon. Lady has made, but when we respond I hope that she will welcome our ideas.

In towns such as Bedford, there is a tremendous opportunity for small business men and women to support start-ups and entrepreneurs in their local communities with time, advice and money. Will the Minister consider ways in which he can support such community-led efforts to promote jobs and enterprise in local communities?

My hon. Friend exactly describes the great role of local enterprise partnerships, which provide the opportunity to forge together not only entrepreneurs but angel investors and local civic leaders. We are determined to grow the economy; the Opposition have nothing to offer. I am sorry that they are not prepared to listen and learn. They had 13 years in which we watched many parts of England and Wales fall behind. We are determined to ensure that that is not the case.