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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 526: debated on Thursday 31 March 2011

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—


Last week, this Government announced a new £75 million programme of training and other targeted support focused specifically on small and medium-sized enterprises to help them access advanced and higher-level apprenticeships. We also announced on Monday that we will be working to reduce bureaucracy for SMEs, making it easier for them to take on those new apprentices.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Silverstone motorsport college on its outstanding Ofsted report and on the fact that 50% of its motorsport technicians get apprenticeships in this high-tech, innovative industry? What more can he do to support increasing apprenticeships in this area?

In anticipation of my hon. Friend’s question, and because I know of her passionate interest in and advocacy of this subject, I have asked the National Apprenticeship Service to take further the work that I know she wants to be completed on offering a new motor race technician qualification. We will do that work, because we understand the points she makes, the value of that industry and its importance to our whole country.

I strongly welcome plans to expand the apprenticeships scheme further. The biggest barrier to the participation of small businesses is the lack of information, so will my hon. Friend consider moves to include promotional material in the annual business rates mailing?

That is a most welcome suggestion. I am perhaps known for my understatement, rather than my overstatement, but I do not think we can speak too loudly or clearly about apprenticeships, and that information is vital if we are to engage the businesses to create the prosperity we seek and build the opportunities we want.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the scale of the challenge facing the automotive industry, with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers saying that we need at least 10,000 apprenticeships a year for the United Kingdom to be at the forefront of the electric vehicle industrial revolution that is about to occur?

Yes, indeed. We recently announced that we are going to work with all the interested parties in the industry to bring about the kind of technological advance to which my hon. Friend refers. This is a real potential area for growth and we are determined, with the industry, to make that growth happen.

The Minister will know that we are all in favour of apprenticeships these days—we welcome the coalition to the cause—but the fact is that this is all something of a fig leaf, given that all the other education policies seem to be falling apart. Higher education is in meltdown, but all we hear about is apprenticeships and the university technical colleges. This is a fig leaf covering up the lack of policy across the whole education and skills debate.

I would hardly plead guilty for my advocacy of the causes that the hon. Gentleman highlights, but I can assure him that this is part of a coherent and holistic approach that means that everyone will get their chance of glittering prizes.

The Minister will know that the number of apprenticeships in this country was just 65,000 in 1996. It has increased to nearly 280,000 now, but young people face worse unemployment than ever and growth is down. He will not set a target for the number of apprenticeships, but what will he do if the number falls back?

The hon. Lady rightly identifies that apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship training can provide an important vehicle to bring people from disengagement to engagement. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has cemented the work done in the Budget to create those extra apprenticeships for people moving from the very circumstances the hon. Lady describes to the skills and success they deserve.

The Government’s flagship policy on employment and small businesses is the national insurance holiday for all companies outside London and the south-east. We heard only yesterday from Treasury officials that that has created only thousands of jobs, so is it time to go back to the drawing board on this policy?

I learned long ago never to pitch above my pay grade or outside my purview, and I rather suspect that that question might be both.

Low-carbon Technologies

2. What steps he is taking to promote expenditure on the manufacture of low-carbon technologies in each region. (49965)

The Government are supporting a range of projects across the country including offshore wind, nuclear manufacturing, low-carbon vehicles and marine energy.

It is self-evident that if every part of this country is to take advantage of the strong future in low-carbon technologies, we need investment in skills and research and, of course, access to finance. We heard some platitudes in answer to the first set of questions from the Minister’s colleague, but will the Minister tell us in hard terms what will be done to ensure that young people get those skills, that we have the research and that we have access to a finance system that knows that technologies north of Watford are worth investing in?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to what the Budget set out very clearly last week, but let me give him the tangible example he requests. The technology innovation centre for advanced manufacturing is designed specifically to ensure that clusters where we have excellence can be enabled. It will help Rotherham, Coventry, Sedgefield, Bristol, Strathclyde and Redcar. I hope he welcomes that support.

Given the consultation on changes to feed-in tariffs and the effect it might have had on decisions about solar investment, will the Minister work with his colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change to examine what might be done to consider alternative ways of stimulating the manufacturing and assembly of solar equipment in this country?

Solar power is important and I am well aware that it is of paramount importance in Cornwall. We are working with our ministerial colleagues, but I would welcome any contribution from my hon. Friend.

We are about to enter a new financial year, so will the Minister take the opportunity to reconsider the Government’s denial of the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters that the Labour Government planned to boost our position in civil nuclear trade? More broadly, will he confirm that the Government are still committed to a new generation of nuclear power stations, given the awful unfolding tragedy in Japan and the comments made by the Deputy Prime Minister to journalists?

Our commitment is clear and the right hon. Gentleman knows exactly where the Government stand. We have debated the question of affordability and Sheffield Forgemasters before, but I would say to the right hon. Gentleman and to Labour Members that we have the regional growth fund and we have worked with a range of businesses, including the business to which he refers, and we are happy to ensure that they have the chance to bid for that money as that part of the fund develops.

World Trade

UK trade increased by 55% in real terms between 1998 and 2008. None the less, the relative share of world trade declined from 5.7% to 3.9%. Our recent trade and investment White Paper sets out how we will assist exporters, focusing UKTI and new trade finance products on small and medium-sized enterprises.

A businessman in my constituency has traded successfully in north Africa for many years, but now does not know when his invoices will be paid, which affects his cash flow and business viability. Will my right hon. Friend consider introducing some form of payment guarantee scheme that will give SMEs the confidence to increase their share of world trade in the knowledge that they will be paid for it?

I am aware of the firm that my hon. Friend describes and of its difficulties in Libya. If companies are operating in difficult markets, such as Libya, they are advised to take out trade insurance. Where the market cannot provide that, the Export Credits Guarantee Department will underwrite it. We are expanding the range of ECGD products and the Treasury has authorised payments to companies in Libya for which insurance is due.

Over the next four years, UKTI is set to have its budget cut by some 17%. The schemes most commended by the CBI are passport to export and gateway to global growth. Will the Minister give an assurance that among the budget cuts those services will be protected?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that UKTI is capable of and committed to providing an increased range of activities and a better service even within its budget.

More than 50% of dairy farms in the UK closed under the Labour Government yet demand for dairy products across the world is rocketing. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out what proposals we have to launch an ambitious plan to export dairy products across the world?

Many of the problems of the dairy industry relate to the system of EU common agricultural policy financing, but I will look at the specific issue described by my hon. Friend and see what we can do to promote it.

Enterprise Zones (North-east)

4. What discussions he has had with the North Eastern local enterprise partnership on the location of proposed enterprise zones; and if he will make a statement. (49967)

Last Thursday, I was in the north-east and met the North Eastern local enterprise partnership. We had a very useful discussion about the way in which enterprise zones will help the growth of the local economy and I was encouraged by the positive response I received.

I am very pleased to hear that the Minister got a positive response—I would expect nothing less of the friendly north-east. The Chancellor said in his Budget statement last Wednesday that there would be an enterprise zone on Tyneside, but the Red Book refers to an enterprise zone in the North Eastern local enterprise partnership, and I am sure the Minister is aware that they are not one and the same. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change told the Sunderland Echo that Sunderland had a really good chance of getting an enterprise zone. Will the Minister confirm that the Chancellor misled the House last week and that a decision has not yet been made on where—

Well, I am glad we cleared that up, Mr Speaker. I can make it very simple for the hon. Lady: we are not going to impose a command and control model. We are working with local enterprise partnerships and we have offered zones where LEPs would like to locate them within their areas. We will discuss this with partnerships in the north-east and elsewhere.

I call Mr Zahawi, on the subject of the north-east from the vantage point of Stratford-on-Avon.

Like the North Eastern local enterprise partnership, Coventry and Warwickshire local enterprise partnership would very much like to talk to the Minister about our proposal for an enterprise zone—

Order. That was a nice try but the hon. Gentleman’s question must specifically relate to the north-east, about which I thought the hon. Gentleman probably had extensive knowledge.

Is not the danger of the Minister’s enterprise zone policy that it enriches landlords and developers by drawing economic activity from one area to another? When considering locations for the north-east, will he focus on the creation of jobs in industrial areas?

We are absolutely committed to doing precisely that. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman is quite so negative; that is not what they are saying in Sunderland and Salford.

Citizens Advice

6. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the future levels of Government funding to Citizens Advice; and if he will make a statement. (49970)

Last month I met the Minister with responsibility for civil society, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), and other Ministers with an interest in advice services to co-ordinate our national efforts. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has already agreed to protect the core funding for the umbrella organisations Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland.

I thank the Minister for that answer, which I did not hear much of. Walkden citizens advice bureau, which is in Salford, serves an area that is among the 7% most deprived in the country, and has done since 1939, but it is now under threat because of uncertainty about funding and because of cuts. Will the Minister call a halt to the cuts in funding for advice services, and will he conduct an urgent review on the future of the funding of those vital organisations?

The hon. Lady will know that local citizens advice bureaux are funded by local authorities and that the Government have called on local authorities to play their part, as the national Government are playing their part, and to pass on funding to CAB services. Those services are very important and are valued, and we are looking to all local authorities to play their part.

At a recent meeting I chaired, representatives from individual CABs and other advice centres from across the country gave the loud and clear message that the current uncertainty about the funding of advice services means that advice service centres are closing their doors, expert advice workers are being made redundant and vulnerable people will soon have nowhere to turn for advice. It is all very well the Minister’s blaming the closure of individual CABs on local government decisions, but those decisions are often taken in the light of extreme uncertainty about the future of other funding streams. His Government admits that there is much cause for concern, so why has he not sought an immediate moratorium on all cuts to Government funding streams for advice services for the coming financial year in order to allow time for a longer-term strategy to be developed?

I am very surprised that the hon. Lady did not mention the £27 million that the Government announced last month for face-to-face debt advice. That has been strongly welcomed by citizens advice bureaux across the country, and I would have thought that she would have given us credit.

The CABs in Goole and Scunthorpe provide excellent advice to my constituents on debt-related issues. While I welcome the money that has been announced, is it not time that we tried to achieve a national approach? CABs have a battle, year in, year out, to secure funding, which clearly does not help our constituents.

As I said in my initial response, we are working across government with other Ministers to make sure that we co-ordinate national efforts. We will soon respond to the call for evidence on personal consumer credit and personal insolvency, which will deal with issues such as debt advice.


With over 85,000 employers offering apprenticeships, it is clear that many businesses already recognise the associated benefits of improved business and personnel performance. The evidence of strong demand is supported by research. The findings of the skills economy research from July 2010 are that 83% of employers rely on their apprenticeship programme to provide the skilled work force that they need.

The Minister has been quite generous in the past about the work done by Ministers in the previous Government, including me, on apprenticeship numbers, and he has made a commitment to build on that. Does he have any concerns about the targets on apprenticeships over the coming period, given the pretty dire figures on GDP for the economy?

The hon. Gentleman, like me, is fond of Yeats, who said:

“Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.”

That is what we have done. The hon. Gentleman is right. I have followed him, and he is a hard act to follow, because he was a very competent Minister. I can tell the House—and I know that you, Mr Speaker, will be pleased to hear it—that the Statistical First Release published today illustrates that we are likely, or certainly on target, to reach the ambitions I have set out, which is good news for the hon. Gentleman, good news for me and good news for Britain.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the number of 16 to 18-year-olds taking apprenticeships in Essex has increased by 44% over the past year, and that Essex council and Harlow college are investing £100,000 in 50 apprenticeships for people from poorer backgrounds? Will he look at rolling out that scheme across the country?

I know of the good work done by my hon. Friend and by Harlow college. He will wish to know that there was a 20% increase in apprenticeship starts in 2010-11 compared with the same period in the previous year. That is because of the work of organisations such as Harlow college and the advocacy of hon. Members such as my hon. Friend.

Over the past few years, the oil and gas industry in north-east Scotland has created many new apprenticeships and skilled many new workers for the future. Does the Minister accept that that has been put at risk by the massive tax increase announced without any consultation in the Budget?

The figures will speak louder than any words—the hon. Gentleman’s words or even my own.

Adult Vocational Learning

The aesthetic of vocational learning is at the very heart of our ambitions. I want apprenticeships to become the primary work-based learning route and apprentices to be recognised for their achievements. For too long, we have allowed the myth to be perpetrated that only academic accomplishment can lead to work. That is not so, and it is certainly not so for this Government.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he has done in this area, and I thank him for that answer. However, does he agree that community and vocational courses are absolutely invaluable, not only for career advancement and upskilling but for younger people not in education, employment or training.

Yes, we spoke earlier about the importance of using those skills to create a bridge from disengagement to engagement. No one has been a doughtier champion of the need to stand up for those people than my hon. Friend. That requires a raising of the status of apprenticeships, but it also requires better progression, which is why I want to build an accessible, navigable and seductive vocational ladder that people can climb.

May I ask the Minister what discussions he has had with his counterparts in the Department for Education? The Secretary of State for Education consistently downgrades vocational qualifications in school. We cannot expect adults to value vocational education if we do not value it throughout the system. Is there not a disjunction in Government policy?

I am, for the purposes of this conversation at least, the Department for Education, and I can assure the hon. Lady that the Secretary of State for Education is wholly committed to this route. Indeed, his oral statement to the House earlier this week cemented and reinforced his commitment to apprenticeships and vocational learning.

Life Sciences

9. What steps he is taking to support the commercial development of life sciences through industry partnerships. (49974)

The Budget included a plan for growth for life sciences, including the development of a new technology innovation centre, the speeding up and reforming of clinical trials and the establishment of research partnerships to support the new model of open innovation and collaboration in the industry.

I thank the Minister for his reply and congratulate him on his commitment to business. Last week’s Budget set out a clear strategy for growth based on science, innovation and enterprise, particularly in my area, the biotech corridor between Cambridge and Norwich. Does he agree that the challenge is to ensure that our leading research institutes link up with industry so that our science is driven around the world in the three biggest markets: food, energy and medicine?

My hon. Friend is an outstanding champion in this field, and I was pleased that we were able to support Norwich research park in that context, for which he has fought and argued for many months. Our plan is about accelerating innovation, investing in the way collaboration takes place and ensuring that we retain this country’s world-class role in life sciences and biotechnology.

Fuel Costs

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change on the effects on businesses of trends in the cost of fuel. (49975)

I recently discussed the rising cost of energy with my counterpart at the Department of Energy and Climate Change to assess the cumulative burden of climate change policies and see what the Government can do to secure the competitiveness of energy-intensive industries as we decarbonise the economy.

We have an absolutely splendid coalition team in DBIS, led by a fantastic Secretary of State. In the past, energy was always the responsibility of the Business Department. Surely it should come back to that Department so that we can send out the message that we do care about business in relation to energy— and I could not think of a better set of people to look after it.

I am very flattered by the suggestion, if a little surprised, but I am already fully employed with my existing duties. In my recent conversation with my counterpart at DECC, we agreed that considerable progress had been made with Ofgem’s recent report on opening up competition and benefiting consumers, both industrial and personal.

Energy-intensive industries in my constituency, of which there are many, are worried about the cumulative impact of regulations relating to a carbon floor price on their competitiveness. Is the Secretary of State having discussions with the Treasury and DECC to ensure that our industries do not lose out to foreign competition?

I am doing just that. On Monday I was in Port Talbot to talk with Tata Steel about that exact question. It is absolutely right that the Government press ahead with our ambition to decarbonise the economy, but the system of tax and regulation is complex and we must structure it in a way that supports our energy-intensive industries.

Business Regulation

We have introduced the one-in, one-out rule to stem the flow of new regulation. We have also introduced sunset clauses on new domestic regulation, stopped gold-plating EU directives and launched a consultation on tribunals. In the Budget we announced a three-year moratorium on new regulation for micro-businesses. We will shortly launch a public review of the existing stock of over 21,000 regulations.

I welcome all those measures, but spin-offs and start-ups in West Worcestershire are discovering that in order to win Government procurement contracts they need to have accounts for the past two years, and I wonder whether the Secretary of State would urgently review that.

We are taking steps to open up public procurement for the kinds of small spin-offs the hon. Lady describes. There is, of course, an aspiration to increase public procurement from SMEs to 25%. At the beginning of the year the pre-qualification questionnaires, which were appallingly complex, were simplified, and they will shortly be removed altogether from companies trading at over £100,000.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will work very closely with industry to tackle increasing environmental regulation, which has already been touched on, especially that coming over from the European Union, so that we do not have uncompetitive industries?

Environmental regulation is covered by the moratorium that I have just described. Of course, if it is European Union regulation, we cannot unilaterally disband it, but we can ensure that there is no gold-plating, which is why we are following a minimal copying-out procedure for EU legislation.

The regulation of business is important for promoting employment. In my constituency, youth unemployment is 30%, which is way too high, so will there be an enterprise zone to look at business regulation and employment in the south Wales valleys?

As I discovered when I discussed the matter with them on Monday, the Welsh Assembly Government have responsibility for designated enterprise zones. I hope they will follow the model we are pursuing in England, and indeed we strongly commended it to them.

The Secretary of State’s very own figures show that he is not a deregulator but a regulator. It is 53-in, 3-out, not one-in, one-out, but apparently there is hope on the horizon, because he is going to repeal another regulation— one introduced to seize German-owned property after the war. I am sure Chancellor Merkel will be happy about that, but the point will be lost on UK business.

We hear from the Secretary of State about his plans to review 21,000 business regulations, but at this rate it will take more than 7,000 years to achieve that aim—and looking at the Secretary of State I do not think he has the time on his side. When will he ditch his rhetoric and begin practising what he preaches before it is too late?

The regulations that related to my Department were either European or related to the implementation of the minimum wage. I know the Opposition are showing considerable political versatility at the moment, but I did not think that they had got around to demanding the abolition of the minimum wage.

Company Profits (Reporting)

12. What discussions he has had with his international counterparts on steps to increase transparency in the reporting of company profits. (49977)

I, personally, have not had any recent discussions with my international counterparts on the matter, but the Government are committed to greater transparency through corporate reporting. Internationally, the Treasury is leading the Government’s efforts with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s task force on tax and development, which is exploring the issues of country-by-country reporting on tax and profits.

In the light of his answer, the Minister will be aware of the OECD’s recognition that poor countries lose more money each year to corporate tax-dodging than they receive in aid, and Christian Aid estimates that to amount to $160 billion. May I ask him to have a conversation with the Secretary of State? The right hon. Gentleman said in opposition:

“New accounting standards are needed to force multinational companies to declare publicly the profits they make and the taxes they pay in every country in which they operate. That way anomalies will be quickly spotted.”

Can I reasonably assume that, in the light of his commitment to the issue, the Government will raise it at the G20 in November?

I think that the Government—both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Chancellor—actually have a very good record on the issue. We are contributing to the OECD taskforce, because it is about ensuring not just that UK companies report their profits as they need to, but that we improve corporate performance throughout the world.

What guarantees can the Government give for those companies that report their profitability transparently that, at the next Budget, the Treasury will not come along and, completely out of the blue, wallop them with a great windfall tax, as it just has with the offshore oil and gas industry?

That was a very good attempt by the hon. Lady, who is obviously trying to champion her constituency, and that is exactly right, but I am sure she will attend the next Treasury questions.

Student Loans

13. What recent assessment he has made of the administrative efficiency of the student loans system. (49979)

The service provided by the Student Loans Company in the desperate, dying days of the previous Government was woeful, and it led to an independent report that said so. We replaced the chairman of the company immediately after we entered office, and I am pleased to report that the SLC answered more than 95% of telephone calls in the peak period from August to September 2010, compared with just 13% during a similar period in the previous year.

I am very grateful to the Minister for that response and to hear of those improvements. I have had a number of complaints from families in my constituency about repeated requests for information. Will the Minister assure families in constituencies such as mine and, indeed, throughout the United Kingdom that they will not have to suffer as they have because of past inefficiencies?

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science is absolutely determined that the service provided by the Student Loans Company should be up to scratch. I can tell the House, and my hon. Friend, that 99% of applications received from students who applied by the relevant deadlines with the correct documentation were ready for payment at the start of term. This is real progress, but we are not complacent, and we will always insist that we do the very best with the Student Loans Company.

Science and Research

During the allocation of science and research funding, BIS consulted the national academies, business groups and universities and agreed a flat-cash ring-fenced settlement for science and research of £4.6 billion a year for 2011-15. In the Budget, the Government invested a further £100 million in science capital, including £10 million at Daresbury.

I welcome the announcement in last week’s Budget of the extra £100 million in capital spending, including the £10 million at Daresbury. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that £100 million comes from the permanent bank levy, which was introduced by this coalition Government against opposition from Labour Members?

I can confirm that. Of course, the bank levy has a good economic basis because it is the payment that the banks make for the protection that the state provides for banks that are too big to fail. The £100 million is new money—new capital investment—and I am delighted that my hon. Friend’s campaign for Daresbury has borne fruit in this way.

In November, the Chancellor took £1.4 billion out of capital investment for science. Last week, he gave back about £100 million—strangely, all of it to Conservative constituencies. Our country’s leading reputation in science deserves better than that. When this week’s Royal Society report, “Knowledge, networks and nations”, spelled out the rise of China, India, Korea and Brazil as science superpowers, it was unable to set out the UK’s long-term plan because there is not one. Will the Secretary of State prevail on the Chancellor to agree a long-term plan for science funding, as we had under Labour?

There is a long-term plan for science funding. The hon. Lady obviously has not followed the comments that were made by the Royal Society and many others in the science community welcoming the flat-cash settlement and the ring-fencing of the science budget.

Tuition Fees

No university wishing to charge over £6,000 yet knows for certain how much it will charge, since no university has yet signed an access agreement with the Office for Fair Access. We expect there to be a wide range of charges, and those institutions discussing higher charge levels all look set to include substantial waivers for students from poorer backgrounds.

Hull university is reported to be planning to charge up to the £9,000 limit. Combined with this week’s announcement about the slashing by two thirds of the education maintenance allowance support to students, how will this help to attract more students from areas such as Hull to university, bearing in mind the excellent progress that was made under the Labour Government?

As the hon. Lady knows, and as we have discussed many times in this Chamber, the introduction of graduate contributions at the level we have will ensure that universities are indeed properly funded and maintain funding at world-class levels.

Is my right hon. Friend still reminding universities that it is unreasonable of them to charge fees significantly above the cost of providing the course and asking them to make sure that when they set their final fees in the coming weeks, they honour the cost that they said they would charge some months ago?

May I first thank my right hon. Friend for the extraordinarily useful work that he has been doing on social mobility? On his question, the Browne report estimated that universities would need to charge something in the order of £7,500 simply to replace their income, but no more, and that if they made the kind of efficiencies that other institutions are effecting, it could be as little as £6,000.

We have had the damaging row over student visas—still not sorted—and a Treasury growth paper that largely ignored the central role that universities have to offer for our economic future. However, the most serious problem is the considerable hole the Government are now staring at in their higher education budget—all because they ignored the many independent experts who warned, even before the tuition fees vote, that universities would charge close to the maximum fee level. Given the huge uncertainties facing university finances, all of them Government-created, does the Secretary of State not recognise that this House is entitled to know how that funding gap will be plugged?

First, the hon. Gentleman is terribly behind the times. He may not have listened to the Home Secretary’s statement on student visas, but she made it absolutely clear that there is no cap on student visas and that the study to work route is still available for overseas students. The universities have acknowledged that. There is no hole in the finances. If he had followed the public announcements that universities have made, he would have seen that of the 36 that we are aware of, 13 propose to charge up to the maximum. That is well below the 80% quoted by the Leader of the Opposition yesterday. Of those universities, many will have substantial fee remission on the Oxford model.

I have discussed on many occasions with the Minister for Universities and Science my view that Governments should avoid unnecessary interference in universities. The enhanced role given to OFFA is causing great unease in the sector and among some Government Members. Will the Secretary of State clarify the powers that OFFA has and how it will be expected to deploy them in relation to universities that set fees above £6,000?

I think that there is complete clarity. I set out the position in a letter that I sent to OFFA some weeks ago, which is available and which I can certainly make available to the hon. Gentleman. It is absolutely right that, in return for being allowed to charge the higher fee levels, universities should make the maximum possible access available to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is a particular problem with traditional universities, where social mobility declined in the last decade. We are determined to overcome that.

Small and Medium-sized Enterprises

Small businesses are vital to the economy and to future employment. That is why we have tackled the cost of employment by reversing the last Government’s plans for a payroll tax increase, and why the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey) has launched a comprehensive review of employment law to make the system easier and fairer for employees and employers.

I was pleased to see that the Federation of Small Businesses welcomed the Government’s three-year moratorium on new domestic legislation for micro-businesses. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that that and other measures to reduce the regulatory burden and increase job creation by small and medium-sized enterprises will be taken forward at pace, and that there will be regular updates to the House on their progress?

I am delighted to confirm that to the House. Those measures are crucial. We have to remember that under the previous Government, the proportion of employers who were small businesses dropped from well over a third to well under a quarter, and that was in a period of growth. We need to ensure that we reverse that trend.

One way to increase employment in small and medium-sized businesses in Stoke-on-Trent would be for us to have an enterprise zone. Following the Prime Minister’s very positive response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) yesterday and the extensive meetings that north Staffs MPs have had with the Secretary of State, can the Minister give some comfort to people in north Staffordshire that the local enterprise partnership will be looked on favourably, and could we have a meeting?

The hon. Gentleman is right that enterprise zones will be advantageous for small businesses. There is a second opportunity for 10 further enterprise zones. We are happy to talk to the local enterprise partnership in that area to ensure that it is able to put forward a positive dialogue. If the hon. Gentleman and other Members wish to participate in that, I suspect that my diary secretary will not be thrilled, but I shall be happy to see them.

Corporate Social Responsibility

I have had no such discussions in the context of the G20. However, in January, I met Professor Ruggie, the UN special representative on business and human rights. The Government welcome the guiding principles developed by Professor Ruggie and will work to build consensus for their adoption.

I thank the Minister for that answer. In opposition, the Secretary of State was a keen supporter of global action to tackle corporate tax dodging in developing countries, but the Department’s recent White Paper did not include a single reference to it. When will the Government put that right?

The hon. Lady was not listening to the answer that I gave a few moments ago to her colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran). The Government are working hard with the OECD taskforce on tax and development, because we want greater transparency in the reporting of profits and tax.

Groceries Code Adjudicator

20. What progress he has made on the implementation of his proposals for a groceries code adjudicator. (49986)

The groceries code adjudicator Bill is being drafted. I had hoped to publish it before Easter, but now I expect that publication will happen soon after Easter.

I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. Farmers in my constituency are very anxious to see the introduction of an adjudicator. Will it have sufficient powers to impose financial penalties if there is persistent avoidance of the code of practice?

When we publish the Bill, the hon. Gentleman will see that we wish to have a reserve power for the adjudicator on penalties, but there is also a real case to be made for the adverse publicity that large supermarkets would face if they breached the groceries supply code of practice.

Last week we had a debate in Westminster Hall on the pig industry, and Members indicated clearly that if there was no immediate action to restore the balance between supermarkets’ profits and the profitability of farmers, many farmers would go out of business. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that that does not happen?

I may have to refer the hon. Gentleman to Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who are obviously responsible for agriculture. We should be clear that the groceries code adjudicator will not be a price regulator—that has never been proposed. It will be there to enforce the groceries supply code of practice. That is very important, because it is in the interests not just of the producers and farmers who supply the large supermarkets but of consumers.

Topical Questions

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.

On tuition fees, has the Secretary of State read the reports of the Deputy Prime Minister’s visit to Mexico, where he was humiliated first by a Mexican student who said that he could no longer afford to come and study in Britain, and then by the Mexican President, who said that British students should go to study in Mexico instead? Is the Secretary of State in any way embarrassed by the fact that his policy on tuition fees has become a laughing stock across the world?

I was not in Mexico, I was in another country—Wales—discussing the issue. The simple truth is that, as I am sure we have communicated to the Mexican authorities, Mexican students are welcome to come to this country and there is no cap on the number of overseas students.

T3. The Macclesfield, Richmond and Wandsworth chambers of commerce are developing local mentoring schemes to help better support smaller businesses, and have submitted a related bid to the regional growth fund. Does the Minister agree that such approaches deserve serious consideration and will provide important insights to other local communities? (49991)

I would be wise not to over-promote a live bid to the regional growth fund, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that business-to-business mentoring is the best way forward. That is why we are developing a national scheme, and the contribution in the areas that he mentions sounds eminently sensible.

We would not have destroyed regional development agencies in the chaotic and Maoist manner that the Secretary of State has described, but as a constructive Opposition, we have proposed that RDA assets be transferred to local economic partnerships to promote growth and jobs. Will he confirm that many RDAs, including those in the north-west, the east midlands, the south-west, Yorkshire and Humberside and the south-east have also proposed that assets be transferred to local authorities in LEP areas, which will pay for them as jobs and growth are created? Why has he blocked those transfers?

In our Dengist phase, the LEPs are doing extremely well in constructing business-led leadership at local level. The process by which RDA assets are allocated is set out in the White Paper. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, some of the RDAs have negative net worth, so the issue of asset distribution does not apply. There will be different allocations, and my departmental officials are working through the RDAs’ legacy carefully.

The Secretary of State does not seem to know what is on his own website, which makes it very clear that he has blocked the transfer of those assets to local authorities. Will he confirm that the assets of RDAs that will now be sold will be worth more than the investment in enterprise zones? Is not the Conservative leader of Fareham council, who heads the Solent LEP, right when he says:

“Selling them at this time in the economic cycle is the worst possible solution. Treasury is looking for quick wins but that will undermine the growth agenda. We are meant to be focusing on growth but that will undermine the growth agenda”?

Why does the Secretary of State believe that Whitehall knows best, or has he been overruled yet again by the Treasury, who are the people who really run his Department?

The right hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten that those are taxpayers’ assets, the disposal of which should be done in a way that produces best value for money for the taxpayer. Some will be disposed of and sold, and some will be transferred when that will produce a good outcome. The process is being carefully worked through at departmental level, and it will produce a sensible outcome that remains supportive of local initiatives through the local enterprise partnerships.

T5. The funding for technology innovation centres is extremely welcome. Will the Secretary of State update me on any representations he has received on a bid from Malvern to the Technology Strategy Board? (49993)

Technology innovation centres are proving extremely welcome in the research community because they represent a bridge between academic research and business application. The first of those—the advanced manufacturing TIC—has been launched, and I went to Rotherham at its outset. Others are being prepared, and I am sure that the one in my hon. Friend’s constituency will be carefully considered by the TSB.

T2. On enterprise zones, do the Government agree that it is important that subsidies are not simply given to jobs and development that would have happened anyway? It is fairly easy to see how the Government could stop, and take measures to prevent, a firm from simply transferring to an enterprise zone with public money, but if a firm decides to expand into an enterprise zone, or if a new firm is created in one, how can the Government ensure that money is not simply given to a development and jobs that would have existed without the subsidy? (49990)

Care needs to be taken in respect of the displacement effects of this policy, and indeed any other spatial economic policy, because of the danger to which the hon. Gentleman alludes. We are working deliberately with local enterprise partnerships to minimise that danger, and looking to ensure that we understand the dynamics of the economy in those areas. That is why the whole Government are ensuring that we do not simply impose the policy from the centre, but work with enterprise partnerships.

T6. Since 1997, the proportion of A-level students studying core academic subjects has fallen, despite the fact that those subjects are preferred by universities. I think that that is partly down to the equivalence of UCAS points and the league tables. What action will the Minister take to ensure that universities make specific subject offers rather than points offers, and that they publish students’ results? (49994)

My hon. Friend knows that universities are independent organisations and that they decide which offer they make to applicants. Nevertheless, the Government are working with UCAS to explore how it can publish for each course the most popular qualifications of previously accepted applicants. We welcome the Russell group publication, “Informed Choices”, which includes advice on subjects. Universities, as Disraeli said, should be places of life, liberty and learning.

T4. There are still high numbers of rogue operators in the fee-paying debt management industry and they often charge high amounts and pay not one penny to creditors. Does the Minister agree with the argument advanced in Wednesday’s Daily Mirror by the free advice sector that it is no longer tenable to stand by and fail to protect vulnerable individuals from those companies? (49992)

The hon. Lady is right to raise this matter. She will know from her time working in the citizens advice bureau in her area how significant this matter is. Some debt advice agencies out there—frankly—do not act in an acceptable way. We are considering this issue under the consumer credit and personal insolvency review, and will make an announcement after the Easter recess.

T9. I am all in favour of encouraging enterprise and start-up businesses. However, what will my hon. Friend do about the current scandal of businesses trading, taking people’s money, closing down overnight, then starting up the next day with the same directors and defaulting on all due payments? That is a scandal in society and we must stop it. (49997)

My hon. Friend is exactly right, so I hope he welcomes the statement that I have made today on this very issue. Following a consultation launched by the previous Government, we have concluded that action needs to be taken on phoenix companies when assets are sold to connected parties without open marketing. Our proposals, which are in the statement, include insolvency practitioners giving three days’ notice to all creditors before the sale, which we think will be valuable.

T7. The proposed changes to the feed-in tariff for solar energy projects has dealt the industry a massive body blow and left in tatters plans by Norton sports and social club in my constituency to build one to finance their community work. How many more projects have been deferred, and what does the Secretary of State have to say to this job-creating industry? (49995)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the feed-in tariff consultation is being conducted by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but I will certainly communicate his concerns to it.

T10. I am very lucky to have many successful manufacturing businesses in my constituency, and I am always one to talk up our manufacturing expertise, whether it is David Brown Engineering in Lockwood, Thornton and Ross pharmaceuticals in Linthwaite, Equi-Trek horseboxes in Meltham or any one of many others. However, some of my smaller businesses are still reporting problems with bank lending. How aware is the ministerial team of this problem, and what can we do to help such businesses to achieve multimillion pound turnovers? (49998)

The hon. Gentleman is right that manufacturing is a success story. It is now growing at double-digit levels annually, in stark contrast with what happened in the period after 1997, when we had a hollowing out of manufacturing more rapid than anywhere else in the world. However, he is right that there is a threat to small and medium-sized enterprises in particular from bank lending practices. We have secured commitments to 15% more lending from the banks, but much more needs to be done.

T8. Given that demand for student places was always going to exceed supply this coming year, is the Secretary of State surprised that universities are charging as much as he has allowed them to charge? (49996)

The hon. Gentleman might be confusing the coming year with the year for which fee levels are being announced. However, as I said earlier, there is a wide distribution of proposed charge levels by the universities that have already made announcements—less than a quarter of all universities—and this reflects the policy that we introduced.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Government will not attempt to reduce the number of places at universities charging the full rate of £9,000 a year in order to oblige a greater proportion of students to attend universities that charge less?

We certainly wish to encourage providers that charge highly competitive fee levels, but we also wish to encourage high-quality universities of the kind my hon. Friend described. I do not think that the two are in any way incompatible.

Will the three-year moratorium that the Secretary of State mentioned earlier apply to health and safety legislation? I ask that question in view of the fact that two people are killed every week in construction.

We are reviewing health and safety legislation following a report on a common-sense approach to it. The moratorium approach to domestic regulation for micro-businesses will extend across health and safety, but it will be a common-sense approach based on ensuring that when public safety or national security are involved, measures are progressed.

In the light of the excellent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson), surely it is a matter for universities to decide who to admit on individual merit, not for us to have a central Government control model—a command and control model—that inevitably produces unfair discrimination. We are trying to build a big society, not recreate the Soviet Union, are we not?

There is no command and control. Indeed, we are seeking to free universities from the complex, rather Stalinist system that we inherited. None the less, it is right that the Office for Fair Access should judge universities that wish to charge the top rate according to its access criteria.

The Minister might be aware that the Office of Fair Trading is receiving complaints about the market dominance and business practices of Electoral Reform Services. Will he encourage the OFT to be more attentive and responsive to those complaints than it has been to previous complaints?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the OFT is an independent body, and I am sure that he would not want the Government to breach the law by intervening in that way. However, I am sure that the OFT has heard his question.

The excellent Coventry and Warwickshire local enterprise partnership is considering imaginative ways to make an offer for the next tranche of enterprise zones. Will the Minister meet it and me to discuss its imaginative ideas?

Mr Speaker, I think we have both now got our maps out and are sorting out the geography. However, the important thing is that the LEPs will be able to talk to the Government. The policy is led by the Department for Communities and Local Government, but we are working with it, and I am sure that the Government would be happy to hear from my hon. Friend.

Given that Leeds Met is the latest university to announce fees of £8,500, does the Minister think, in advising parents, that an English degree at Leeds Met is the same as an English degree at Oxford?

I would not presume to make that kind of differentiation: it is their choice and they will both be considered by OFFA in due course. I would, however, single out Oxford for compliment, because of its ambitious programme for fee remission.

Although I am irrepressibly optimistic about future growth in Hastings, I was stunned to find last week that, on the index of multiple deprivation, we had fallen from 31 to 19. May I therefore urge the Minister to give careful consideration to stimulating areas of the south-east that have particular deprivation problems, and not to concentrate all the tools from his toolbox on the north-east region?

That is an image that I will not pursue. I am well aware that coastal towns in particular often feel that they are at the end of the economic line. I would welcome the opportunity to talk to parliamentary colleagues about that to see how we can focus in on this important issue.

May I thank the Minister for the role that he has played and congratulate Exeter’s Labour-led council on its doggedness in ensuring that Exeter has a guaranteed place on the Devon and Cornwall LEP? Will he urge the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) to give urgent and positive attention to the bid for superfast broadband money, which has been submitted today and is supported by every Member of Parliament in Devon and Somerset?

We have issued a written statement today precisely on the new Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership for Devon and Somerset, as I think the right hon. Gentleman meant to say. I am grateful to him for his collaborative help on the scheme, which we are going to get under way. It is the next local enterprise partnership, and I shall certainly pass on his point to the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey).