House of Commons
Thursday 17 February 2011
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—
11. How many apprenticeship starts there have been in the academic year 2010-11 to date. (41352)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
Regional Growth Fund
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Employment Growth Strategy
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.
I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave earlier.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
I certainly will. We hope to publish the draft Bill before Easter.
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.
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?
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 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 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.
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.
Last night at approximately 3.30 am local time, Bahraini police moved into the Pearl roundabout area of Bahrain’s capital city, Manama, to clear an encampment of protesters. The Bahraini Ministry of the Interior claims that the protesters were asked to move before force was used. Other reports say that the police moved in without warning, using tear gas and rubber bullets. Two people have been confirmed dead and there are reports of further casualties. The police and the Bahrain defence force have moved to secure key areas in Bahrain, particularly the Pearl roundabout in Manama and neighbouring districts.
This morning, there are further reports of sporadic clashes and unconfirmed reports of further deaths. There has also been a large gathering outside the hospital where the injured were taken. Traffic is severely disrupted in Manama and there are reports of stockpile shopping. There are no reports of other areas to the west and south of Bahrain being affected.
We are not aware of any UK nationals having been caught up in the violence so far. We are advising all British nationals to stay away from protests and to avoid all but essential travel around Bahrain. The airport in Manama continues to function normally, but we will of course keep the situation under review and ensure that British nationals in Bahrain receive full consular support.
We have conveyed our concern about these events and the level of violence to the Government of Bahrain. We are greatly concerned about the deaths that have occurred. This morning, I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Bahrain and last night our ambassador spoke to the Minister of the Interior. In both cases, we stressed the need for peaceful action to address the concerns of protesters, and the importance of respect for the rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression. It is also essential that all those who are injured have immediate access to medical treatment. We urge all sides to avoid violence and for the police to exercise restraint. The Bahraini Government should move quickly to carry out their commitment to a transparent investigation into earlier deaths, and extend that to include today’s events and any alleged human rights abuses.
I also said to the Foreign Minister that this is a time to build bridges between the different religious communities in Bahrain. I said that we would strongly oppose any interference in the affairs of Bahrain by other nations or any action to inflame sectarian tensions between Bahrain’s Sunni and Shi’a communities. We recognise that Bahrain has made important political reforms alongside its growing economic success. We strongly welcome such steps within the context of the long friendship between Bahrain and the UK under successive Governments. I was assured in Bahrain last week and again this morning that the Bahraini Government intend to build on these reforms.
We will always encourage Bahrain and other countries to take further steps that meet legitimate aspirations for greater political and social freedoms. As I said in my statement on Monday, Britain will continue to send a constant message to Governments of the region about how important it is to move in the direction of more open and flexible political systems and sound economic development, while always respecting the different cultures, histories and traditions of each nation.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for coming to answer this urgent question himself, and for bringing his ministerial team. Does he agree that a wind of change is blowing through the Arab world—first Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, and now Libya, Algeria and the terrible news of deaths and hospitals filled with the wounded as the autocrats of Bahrain seek to crush their people’s hopes? [Interruption.] I hear sneers from the Government Benches. Momentous changes are under way as big as those of 90 years ago after Lawrence arrived in Aqaba.
Seven thousand British citizens live in Bahrain, and UK exports to Bahrain are worth £500 million. Last week, the Foreign Secretary visited Bahrain. Did he have contact with the pro-democracy opposition or was the purpose of his mission simply to be a latter-day Castlereagh, upholding conservative monarchs in the region? Why is there no statement on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website with even the tiniest hint from the Foreign Secretary to the rulers of Bahrain that they must move with the times—or does he chastise only the Israeli Government? Does he agree that all political detainees must be released now?
Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that late last year his FCO ministerial colleagues signed off on exports to Bahrain of tear gas, irritant ammunition, riot control equipment and other matériel used to crush democracy? Will he tell the House that there will be no more exports of such matériel from Britain? Will he confirm that the Register of Members’ Financial Interests shows that Ministers, while in opposition, were on a regular gravy train to Bahrain, paid for by the rulers of the statelet? Does he agree that it would be better if the financial links between Bahrain and Members of this House were now suspended?
Finally, does the Foreign Secretary agree that almost a century of British policy, supported by Governments of all parties, based on turning a blind eye to the repression and corruption of the regimes in this region may be coming to an end? Will he therefore agree to a wide review of UK foreign policy in the region before it is too late, and reverse the cuts to the BBC and the British Council, so that Britain can be more and not less present, and on the side of democracy and decency in the region for the first time in generations?
If I may respond to the substantive parts of the right hon. Gentleman’s question, Britain is of course on the side of decency and democracy everywhere in the world, including in the middle east and the Gulf states. The House gave strong support on Monday for the sentiments that I expressed in respect of our approach to the situation. The Opposition were also generally supportive of our continual call for more open and flexible political systems, and for the recognition of legitimate political aspirations, while respecting and understanding the fact that those countries are all different, that they all cope with different situations, and that they have had a different pace of reforms.
It is certainly important to express our gravest concerns in the manner in which I have this morning, but it is also important to recognise that important reforms have taken place in Bahrain and that the King of Bahrain pledged himself in the last week to further such reforms.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the presence of Government statements on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website. That website will of course be updated with all my statements, including this one and what I will say at the press conference that I will hold shortly with the Spanish Foreign Minister. However, I did speak about this matter in the House of Commons itself on Monday, and that is where Governments should give their definitive statements on such things.
Any exports will be looked at under the strict criteria that we always apply in this country. It is true that both in opposition and in government, many right hon. and hon. Members have been to Bahrain and held extensive discussions with its leaders. In fact, on every occasion when I went there in the last five years, Ministers of the previous Government were there at the same time. It is wholly right to have that dialogue with Bahrain and other Gulf states.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about my visit last week. I met a variety of opposition human rights organisations, including the Bahrain Human Rights Society, the Migrant Workers Protection Society and the Bahrain Women’s Union. I subsequently raised some of the issues that they brought up with Bahraini Ministers. We have a continuous discussion and dialogue on human rights with the Bahraini authorities, which again is absolutely the appropriate thing to do.
I am sure that the right position for this country, in the context of that long friendship with Bahrain of which I have spoken, is to press for legitimate aspirations to be met and for actions to be taken that bring different religious communities together, as well as to express our grave concern when such matters arise.
I am not sure that I can match the rhetoric of Rotherham, but I agree with the Foreign Secretary that it is clear that very substantial movements for change are sweeping through the middle east—an area with which we have a long history, including sometimes on colonial terms. He recognised the importance of the area by recently visiting it.
The Foreign Secretary has confirmed already that we will conduct ourselves according to our belief in the rule of law, democratic principles and the need for freedom of expression, but has he considered whether, in this period of potentially tumultuous change, there could be a role for the Arab League? Has he sought discussions with the Arab League ambassador here in the UK or with others elsewhere to determine whether the Arab League could help in what looks like a transformation in the region?
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. There is indeed a movement for change in many parts of the Arab world, although we must understand that motivations and aspirations differ from one country to another. Bahrain has achieved much more economic development than Tunisia or Egypt, but it has a starker religious divide, despite the efforts of the Bahraini Government to say that everyone is a Bahraini. The circumstances are different in each country. A meeting of Gulf Co-operation Council Ministers is taking place in Bahrain this afternoon. They will discuss the situation together.
My right hon. and learned Friend asked specifically about the Arab League. In recent days, I have discussed the situation in the Arab world, and most specifically in Egypt, with the secretary-general of the Arab League, Mr Amr Moussa. We might be hoping for too much if we expect a consistent position on this by the Arab League, because the circumstances of each country differ so much, and because, of course, the Arab League includes nations such as Syria and Libya, which have a particularly severe approach to dissent and are not accommodating of any reform movements or demonstrations in their countries. I think, therefore, that it would be difficult to bring about a unified response from the Arab League, although it would be very good if it did happen. The British Government will continue to make our case in exactly the way he described.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his answer. Will he give more detail of the work being done to support British nationals in the country, and what contingency plans will go ahead in the event of these protests escalating? I fully support his comments urging restraint on all sides and expressing the British Government’s grave concerns about the policing of the protests on Pearl square, and his advocacy of the protection of human rights. Given the strength of our diplomatic relationship with Bahrain, will he tell the House what he and his officials plan on doing in the days ahead to ensure that the Bahraini Government are aware that the eyes of the whole world are on the behaviour of the police and security forces in the light of recent events? He is right, of course, to say that Bahrain has seen some progress on political reform since the introduction of the new constitution in 2002, and I welcome the fact that when he was in Bahrain last week, he raised the importance of continuing progress along that path. Will he therefore tell the House specifically what advice on such further reform he gave to the Bahraini Government last week, and what steps the British Government would now like to see in the days, weeks and months ahead?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. On contingency plans, I have spoken to our ambassador in Bahrain this morning. Of course, we are watching the situation very carefully as it may affect British nationals, travel advice or the situation at the airport. If it becomes necessary, we will send additional resources to reinforce our diplomatic or consular presence. That does not seem to be necessary yet, but we will keep it under review night and day. After recent experiences in Egypt and Tunisia, we are used to sending a rapid deployment team when necessary, and to smoothly and calmly assisting British nationals if a crisis develops. I also thank him for his welcome for other things that the Government have said.
On the specific advice that we give to the Bahraini Government now and in the future, we always have to be careful, given that we do not believe in outside interference in the political affairs of other nations, about being so prescriptive that we think exactly what reforms should take place. However, we think that there are legitimate aspirations that should be satisfied, and that it is important that the Government in Bahrain continue to make it clear in their words and actions that political reforms will continue and that economic opportunities will be opened up across the whole of society. That is what we will emphasise. However, as another nation, we will not try to determine the exact detail of their policies.
As my right hon. Friend will know very well, Iran has long had a claim over the sovereignty of Bahrain, which raises delicate international problems at the present time. However, it is something on which the British Government and the Arab League can march together in giving support to His Majesty the King of Bahrain in resisting any attempt by Iran to exploit the present situation.
My hon. Friend is right. That is why I mentioned earlier, in response to the original question, that we would strongly oppose any outside interference in the affairs of Bahrain or any attempt to widen and exacerbate the sectarian difficulties that clearly exist there. He puts his finger on that. It is a message that should go out loudly and clearly from the western world, and now I think from the Arab world. I have no direct evidence of such interference taking place, but it is right for us to sound a strong warning about it.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that events in Bahrain and throughout the Arab world demand a much more fundamental reassessment of British and western policy in the region, away from support for autocratic Governments, to unequivocal support for democracy, freedom and human rights?
Our relationship is with nations rather than individuals, as I have stressed in the case of Egypt and Tunisia. However, it is important to be able to work with the leaderships of countries throughout the Gulf—a particularly strong example of that—in the interests of the security of the whole region as well as of the welfare of British nationals, and of the consistency and strength of our policies on the Iranian nuclear programme. Of course, we have good relations and have discussed foreign policy matters very closely—as often, though perhaps not often enough, happened under the previous Government—with all the leaders of the Gulf states. I do not think that events call for us to break our links with the leaders and monarchies of such states. That would be the height of folly. However, they call for us to repeat all the time the messages that I have mentioned today, and for Britain to assist in that wherever we can. Last week in Tunisia, I announced the Arab partnership fund to help the development of civil society and political parties throughout the Arab world. That is the right approach for Britain.
Unlike Libya, where demonstrations are also taking place today, Bahrain is a loyal friend of the west. It has started political reforms and is very tolerant of western lifestyles. May I urge my right hon. Friend, before the Government make any criticism of Bahrain, to proceed with extreme caution and say, on behalf of the House of Commons, that the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), with his one-sided views, does not speak for us?
Thankfully, that is the case on all subjects, so it is hardly necessary to make that latter point. My hon. Friend is right—we have had a long friendship for the past 40 years with Bahrain, and it is felt strongly in that country. He is also right to point out that protests have been going on in Libya, where television cameras are not present, so they may not be so much in the news. However, we should remember those protests, too, and we call on the Government in Libya to recognise the right to peaceful protest and to avoid the excessive use of force. That message should also be conveyed clearly today.
The great changes would not have happened without fresh information from the platforms of social networks and from the most reliable, trusted news organisation in the world. As the Government are in the mood for U-turns, should not they look again at their planned wasteful cuts to the BBC world services?
The hon. Gentleman is right that social networking sites have played a strong role in recent events across the middle east. So has satellite television, which brings us to an important point. The BBC’s services must adapt to the changes in the world—the vast majority of people in the Arab world keep in touch with those events through watching satellite television channels. That is the way for the BBC to develop its services, including its online services, rather than thinking that every service that it now provides has to stay exactly the same. Medium-wave transmissions across much of the Arab world will be continued. Shortwave transmissions will continue into the Arabian peninsula and into Sudan, but the right way to go is to develop the BBC’s satellite television services. That is the sort of thing people are watching.
My right hon. Friend has a good record on standing up for human rights in the region, but in the events that are now unfolding, will he take a close interest in the position of Christians and Christian communities throughout the region? They have already faced pressure and persecution both from some of the existing regimes and from certain political forces within them, although Bahrain is not one of the worst examples by any means.
As my hon. Friend says, the important issue that he raises is thankfully not a factor in these particular disturbances, but the message of tolerance and acceptance of different religions should always go out clearly from this country. That is very important to underline in the middle east today, where there have been terrorist outrages against Christians, but also against other religious minorities across the region. Part of what we need in the middle east in the coming years is not only an acceptance of more open and flexible political systems, but real leadership from the countries concerned in accepting the presence of different religions.
May I welcome the tone and content of the Foreign Secretary’s statement? Bahrain has a long-standing relationship with our country, and it is seeking to reform in the context of its own philosophy. I do not blame the Foreign Secretary, but before his visit there were no protests in Bahrain. In the meetings that he held with those who wanted to accelerate the reform process, did he anticipate that they would happen? Will he continue not to lecture middle eastern countries, but to work with them to ensure that their reform process is brought to a logical conclusion?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. That is the right way to frame those things—with a deeper understanding of what is happening in those societies. He might have a word with the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) afterwards about some of those issues. It is true that outbreaks of disorder have occurred in several places that I visited last week, but I am confident that it is not cause and effect. In my tour of the middle east, we correctly anticipated some of the places, such as Yemen and Bahrain, where difficulties would arise. It is all the more important in those countries to stress the message of necessary and appropriate reform. Among the leadership in Bahrain, there is the appetite and determination to carry out those reforms. There is no doubt about the sincerity of the King of Bahrain and the leaders of the country about that. We will therefore continue to give our advice and to deplore situations where violence arises and lives are lost. Both elements are important.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. Will he clarify the position to ascertain whether what is happening in Bahrain now is connected to incidents there four or five years ago, when disturbances were linked to the influence of Iran, which asserted that it was the custodian of Shi’ites and would even send its troops to defend them, or whether it is a genuine desire for reform by the people of Bahrain?
As I said, I do not have any evidence of Iranian involvement in the protests, although, over the years, I think that some statements by Iran have been intended to exacerbate tensions in Bahrain. We should therefore remember that context. However, it is fair to say, without analysing or knowing the politics of every other country in the world, that there are legitimate aspirations for better economic opportunity and political rights in the countries concerned, including Bahrain. Undoubtedly, a mixture of factors is at work, and that underlines the need for the approach that I have described.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 28 February will be as follows:
Monday 28 February—Motion relating to the big society. The subject for this debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Tuesday 1 March—Second Reading of the Protection of Freedoms Bill.
Wednesday 2 March—Estimates day (2nd allotted day). There will be debates on Sure Start children’s centres and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the details of which will be given in the Official Report, followed by a motion to approve the draft Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (Continuance in force of sections 1 to 9) Order 2011.
At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.
[The details are as follows: Sure Start Children’s Centres: 5th Report from the Children Schools and Families Committee of session 2009-10, HC 130; Government response—4th Special report from the Education Committee of session 2010-11, HC 768; and HMRC: Oral evidence taken before the Treasury Sub-Committee on 8 February 2011, HC 731-ii, and 19 January 2011, HC731-i; oral evidence taken before the Treasury Committee on 15 September 2010, HC 479; 7th Report from the Treasury Committee of session 2009-10, Administration and Expenditure of the Chancellor's Departments 2008-09, HC 156, and Government response, Cm 7917; 8th Report from the Treasury Committee of session 2006-07, The Efficiency Programme in the Chancellor’s Departments, HC 483, and Government response, 1st Special report from the Treasury committee of session 2007-08, HC 62”.]
Thursday 3 March—Opposition day (12th allotted day) (half-day) (first part). There will be a half-day debate on a Democratic Unionist party motion, subject to be announced, followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.
Friday 4 March—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 7 March will include:
Monday 7 March—Consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (day 1).
Tuesday 8 March—Remaining stages of the European Union Bill.
Wednesday 9 March—Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill.
Thursday 10 March—There will be a debate on a motion relating to UN women. This debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee, followed by a further debate on a subject to be nominated by that Committee.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 17 March 2011 will be:
Thursday 17 March—A debate on articles 9 and 13 of the Bill of Rights and the role of Parliament in dealing with all grievances and the importance of freedom of communication between constituents and Members.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply. I thank him for his clarification this week on the Scotland Bill, although the publication of the Scotland Bill committee’s report at Holyrood is, of course, only part of the legislative consent motion process, as the Scottish Parliament then has to debate the report and the legislative consent motion and vote on them. Given that the Secretary of State for Scotland has described this as the biggest transfer of fiscal powers since the Act of Union, we should wait until the process has been completed in Holyrood before proceeding with Committee stage here.
In the light of the significant developments in the middle east, do the Government have plans for a debate?
On police numbers, will the Leader of the House ask the Home Secretary to come and explain why she is now three weeks late answering a named-day question tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)? Is it because the Home Secretary cannot think of a way to square her commitment not to cut officers from the front line with the 1,500 police officers and staff who will go in West Yorkshire, the 480 in Merseyside, the 1,500 in Kent and the more than 1,000 in Devon and Cornwall? When senior officers are describing these as the
“biggest budget cuts for a generation”,
I think that my right hon. Friend—and the public—deserve an answer to her question.
It has been another very bad week for the Government. Youth unemployment is now at its highest level since 1992—the last time we had the misfortune of a Tory Government. One in five young people are now without work, and we discover this week that the Tories’ latest scheme for helping the young unemployed is to flog off internships with top banks at £3,000 a time at a ball to raise funds for the Conservative party. That is not so much social mobility as upwardly mobile socialising.
May we have a debate on the quality of ministerial decision making and briefing, as it has also been a very bad week for Ministers? The Prime Minister claimed yesterday that the Government are running the biggest back-to-work scheme since the 1930s—funny that, because, as historians will point out, Britain did not have any Government employment schemes worthy of the name at the time. The Education Secretary was bang to rights in court for an “abuse of power”, the Defence Secretary had to apologise to front-line soldiers for sacking them by e-mail, and the Environment Secretary has been put in special measures by the Prime Minister over the forest sale fiasco.
I welcome the statement that we are about to hear following the Prime Minister’s decision yesterday to take an axe to his own policy. I did say to the Leader of the House that the Government would have to change their mind. I wonder whether coalition Members feel any sympathy for the Environment Secretary, given that she has been briefed against this morning by No. 10 for a crazy policy that I suspect was foisted on her by the Treasury. There she was two weeks ago, racing ahead doing what she thought was wanted, and then last week she got nervous and started to apply the brakes. Now the Prime Minister has grabbed the steering wheel, and the sound of crunching gears can be heard all over Whitehall as reverse is engaged. At least we will be spared a new regulatory body to deal with privatised forests: presumably, it was to be called Ofcut.
May we have a debate on the latest bank bonuses? Last week the Chancellor trumpeted his bonus deal and called for an end to banker bashing. A couple of days later, the Business Secretary contradicted him—not for the first time—when he railed against the
“extraordinarily large bonuses which most people cannot understand”
No wonder—this week we saw reports that the bonus pool at Barclays is going up. There we were thinking Project Merlin was named after a wizard: now we learn it was a bird. Presumably the Chancellor had an image of himself swooping down, talons extended, to seize offensive bonuses from the mouths of greedy bankers. Now we know that he was just dropping them off. When it comes to being tough on bankers, the Chancellor is not so much a bird of prey as a great bustard flush.
Finally, will the Communities and Local Government Secretary come and explain why he criticised local government for a 78% increase in chief executives’ pay when it now turns out that this figure was actually for pay rises for chief executives in FTSE 250 companies? If the Secretary of State cannot even get the simplest facts right in his vendetta against local government, is it any wonder that local government has completely lost confidence in him?
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s response, although I hope that he managed to clear all his questions in advance with the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor, as the latest leaked memo from Labour HQ has revealed is required of him and every other member of the Opposition Front-Bench team.
On the legislative consent motion, as the right hon. Gentleman said, I wrote to him and the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) following our exchanges last week, and I placed a copy of the letter in the Library. It is our understanding that the Scotland Bill committee in the Scottish Parliament will publish its LCM in the week commencing 28 February. Today’s business statement has provisionally allocated 7 March for day one of the Scotland Bill.
On police numbers, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) is entitled to a reply to her named-day question. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the former Home Secretary had said that he could give no guarantee that there would be no reduction in police numbers were Labour to be re-elected.
On youth unemployment, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) said in 1995:
“Our plan is nothing less than to abolish youth unemployment.”
They left government with youth unemployment 240,000 more than when they came in. So we will have no more of that.
On internships, I welcome the announcement by you, Mr Speaker, that—with support from the Commission—an internship scheme will be initiated in the House. I encourage all hon. Members to take part in it. It is right to encourage internships and to give access to internships to those from all income groups.
On bonuses, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that there was no bonus regime under his Government. Indeed, they signed a contract with one of the banks that obliged it to go on paying bonuses at market rates. It was this Government, not his, who introduced a regime and a deal with the banks. So we will have no more on that.
As the right hon. Gentleman anticipates, we will shortly have a statement on forests.
On the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, I understand that a press statement was put out by his Department on the matter.
It has been a challenging week for the Government, but it is the week in which we have established the big society bank, with several hundreds of millions of pounds to underpin charities. It is a week in which we have put a major constitutional reform Bill on the statute book. It is also a week in which we have published the Welfare Reform Bill, the biggest reform of the welfare state for 60 years. So the coalition Government are determined to make progress with our social, economic and constitutional reforms and we will not be deflected from that task.
May we have a debate to discuss the relationship between the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Department of Health? I ask specifically for this because two members of staff from the Department are sitting on a working group looking into the emotive issue of the care of women during abortion, and if the findings of that group are to be credible, its manner of operations should be above reproach. It is not adhering to Government guidelines on consultation, and that is causing huge concern.
I understand my hon. Friend’s deep concern on the subject, which she has made one of her special interests. My understanding is that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is a professional body independent of Government, and it has set its own consultation periods. There is a consultation period of four weeks—as is standard for the college—and it ends tomorrow, although any responses received by 25 February will be accepted. However, I will, of course, pass on her comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.
May we have a debate on ministerial responsibility? Following the education maintenance allowance debacle, the U-turn on school sports and the Building Schools for the Future debacle, we now learn that Building magazine is to publish an article calling into question figures that the Education Secretary used just this week in the House about his new pilot scheme. Would it not be appropriate for him to join the Environment Secretary in special measures as a failing Minister?
Certainly not. On Building Schools for the Future, my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary made a statement to the House earlier this week, and on that issue the judge agreed that my right hon. Friend behaved rationally and that his decision was not open to legal challenge on that basis. So I reject the hon. Gentleman’s assertions of the criticism of my right hon. Friends in the Cabinet.
The Government’s tobacco control strategy is at an advanced stage of preparedness and I understand that it will be published shortly. Given that smoking is still the biggest killer and cause of preventable early death, will the Government ensure such an important debate, in their time, on public health and in particular tobacco control?
I commend my hon. Friend’s work as chair of the all-party group on smoking and health—a group of which I used to be an active member. He is right to draw attention to the importance of making further progress on smoking, which causes some 100,000 premature deaths each year. It is right at the heart of our public health strategy. I cannot promise a debate in Government time, but there may be an opportunity at some point in the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill to debate that important aspect of public health.
This week, the Deputy Prime Minister published a written ministerial statement on public reading stages during Bill Committees. As the Leader of the House knows, my commitment to public engagement in the legislative process is absolute, but not at the expense of a Back Bencher’s ability to scrutinise legislation and hold the Government to account. What is the evidence base for this policy? What assessment has been made of its impact on a Back Bencher’s ability to scrutinise legislation? Just between these four walls, can he say what consultation the Government had with him? They certainly had no consultation with Back Benchers.
I welcome the hon. Lady’s commitment to the House getting more engaged in the legislative programme. It is our intention to publish more Bills in draft. We will publish more in this Session and even more in the Session that follows. The hon. Lady was a member of the Wright Committee, one of whose recommendations was that there should be more engagement between the public and the House on the legislative programme. The Deputy Prime Minister’s written ministerial statement was a further step down that road towards a public reading stage. We have invited their with comments on the Protection of Freedoms Bill to log their comments on the Government website, which will then be moderated and made available to the Public Bill Committee. I hope that that will enrich and inform those who participate in Committee.
I want to engage with the hon. Lady, the Procedure Committee and the Liaison Committee before we move to the fulfilment of what is in the coalition agreement—a commitment to a proper public reading stage. I hope that at that stage the House will take ownership of the process, rather than its being led exclusively by the Government.
May we have a debate on the tailored support needed to get people back into work? It is clear that only with tailored support built on individual needs, as envisaged by the Government, will we start to see people returning to work in the numbers that we all want.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need tailored individual support to get people back into work. Under the Work programme, to be introduced later in the year, we will have payment by results. Providers, whether from the independent sector or the private sector, will be remunerated when people are in sustainable, long-term employment, rather than as with previous programmes, where payment was simply to get someone off the register for six months. Sadly, over half of those people were back on benefits by the seventh month. I hope that the structure of our Work programme will have the results that my hon. Friend wants.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was asked on the BBC “Today” programme about having debates on senior pay in council chambers, which he is insisting on, but not on senior pay in Whitehall in this Chamber. He said:
“I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t have this kind of debate in the House of Commons.”
We have heard that the Secretary of State gets confused about which sector he is talking about, so can the Leader of the House tell us whether he has any plans for a debate in Government time on senior pay, and will he extend it to low pay, which Opposition Members think is just as important?
Of course low pay is important, but the hon. Lady’s question focused on what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said. As far as civil servants are concerned, Select Committees have adequate opportunity, particularly when they look at the accounts of individual Departments, to hold the Minister to account on the salaries that are paid in the Department, and it is always open to have debates on the Floor of the House about the structure of salaries in the civil service. Of course, there is a defined salary structure in the civil service, whereas there is slightly less clarity in relation to local government and the chief executives, so I do not think it is an exact parallel.
Having given reasonable time for the Committee stage of the European Union Bill, will the Leader of the House be good enough to ensure in programme motions or whatever that we have adequate time to discuss the Bill properly on Report and Third Reading in the light of any amendments that may be tabled? Perhaps he would be kind enough to have a word with me about it, too.
As my hon. Friend knows, I am always ready to have a word with him. I have announced that we shall be having the final day of—I think—seven days on the European Bill. We actually added an extra day in the light of representations, and we have allocated a whole day for the final stages. I very much hope that that will be adequate.
I thank the Leader of the House for confirming in the Chamber today that the first day of the Scotland Bill Committee will not now be until 7 March, and I thank him for his letter yesterday. However, will he confirm that, given the other provisional business that he has laid out, the second day of Committee cannot be until 13 March at the earliest; that the programme agreed on 27 January still applies; and that the debates on the borrowing and fiscal powers can also therefore not commence until the second day, on 13 March at the earliest?
I have announced the provisional business for the second week back. I have not got as far as the business for following weeks in March, but I will certainly take the hon. Gentleman’s points on board. Of course it is a very important Bill for the Scottish Parliament, but we published the Bill in November, on St Andrew’s day, and we are not dealing with the Committee stage until March—a larger than usual gap between publication and Committee. I hope that that will give the Scottish Parliament an opportunity to consider the necessary legislative consent motion. I can confirm that we are adhering to the principle that the House will have an opportunity to amend the Bill if the legislative consent motion requires any amendment.
As I cannot without massive inconvenience to others be present for the upcoming statement on forests, may I unreservedly welcome the Prime Minister’s sensible and timely initiative on that matter? Given that the Government are responding so well to the views of the public on that issue, may we have a statement from the Minister for Housing and Local Government on fluoridation in the Southampton area? A court has held that the soon-to-be-abolished strategic health authority has the legal right to proceed with fluoridation despite the opposition of three quarters of the population; nevertheless, if we are down for localism, surely the matter should be for elected local government to decide.
My hon. Friend is right that the High Court rejected an application for judicial review of the decision by the South Central strategic health authority to apply fluoride to the water for his constituents, and indeed many others. It is now considering what next to do. I have some—hopefully—encouraging news for my hon. Friend. Under the reforms envisaged in the Health and Social Care Bill, the South Central strategic health authority will be abolished, and its public health responsibilities will be passed to local authorities, which will give my hon. Friend the control that he seeks. The Government are now, in the light of that court decision, working out how best to apply the regulations to take the fluoridation policy forward.