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Topical Questions

Volume 526: debated on Thursday 31 March 2011

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

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).