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Departmental Responsibilities

Volume 523: debated on Thursday 17 February 2011

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.