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Topical Questions

Volume 529: debated on Thursday 9 June 2011

My Department has a key role in supporting the rebalancing of the economy and business to deliver growth while increasing skills and learning.

The Government are forcing Advantage West Midlands to engage in a fire sale of £108 million-worth of assets. They are blocking councils from gaining those assets and barring local enterprise partnerships from retaining them, yet they have seen fit to gift Boris Johnson with London Development Agency assets. Why can they not do the same for high-need, high-unemployment Birmingham?

There is no fire sale of regional development agency assets. There was always a process of disposal of those assets by the RDAs themselves, and roughly 20% of their assets are likely to be sold. The others are being passed on through the different channels, which the hon. Gentleman knows about.

T2. The Minister will be aware of the outstanding Truro and Penwith college, which is based in my constituency. In recognising the new opportunities to expand its provision of higher education, he will also be aware of the constraints on the ability of further education colleges to award degrees. At the moment, they need a university partner. What support can he offer to excellent FE colleges to enable them to award high-quality degrees? (57802)

I support the excellent work of FE colleges in providing higher education in Cornwall and elsewhere. I am concerned, as is the Secretary of State, by reports that some universities might be threatening to end their partnerships with FE colleges without good reason, but I reassure my hon. Friend that FE colleges are indeed eligible to apply for their own degree-awarding powers. In addition, our White Paper will propose making it easier for FE colleges to access a wider range of external degrees.

I welcome the good news from Nissan and BMW, which, despite the Secretary of State’s curmudgeonly response, built on Labour’s support for those companies’ investment in the UK. In 2006, he was very clear when he said:

“The DTI, and its army of Sir Humphreys, should be scrapped.”

Then he was offered the job of running it, and said that it would be the Department for growth. How is the Department for growth getting on?

The Department for growth is getting on extremely well. The right hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten that a change took place after 2006, and that my Department was amalgamated with the one that he used to run. He might want to speculate as to why we took it under our wing. Certainly, growth is taking place. There is rapid growth now beginning to take place in manufacturing and exports. That is a consequence of this Government’s determination simultaneously to get on top of the fiscal deficit and to rebalance the economy, and that is happening.

Actually, the old DTI was merged with my Department. The truth is that in the past year the Office for Budget Responsibility has lowered its growth forecast three times, long-term unemployment has been at its highest since 1997, retail sales are down, construction is in the doldrums and consumer confidence has been at record lows. Is it not the truth that the Business Secretary has wrecked support for the regions, cut consumer protection when prices are rising ahead of wages, talked tough and delivered nothing on bank lending, bungled higher education and produced a growth plan so unconvincing that it is being rewritten as we speak? The Business Secretary is wrong, is he not, to think that his Department cannot make a difference. It could. It is not just the Chancellor who needs a plan B, is it?

The right hon. Gentleman has a short memory. He does not seem to appreciate that the failed model of growth that we inherited was not simply a question of the budget deficit, as we had a massive problem with consumer debt, which inhibits consumption; we had a massive property bubble, which collapsed; and we had a banking system, the largest in the developed world, that collapsed on us—and we are having to dig our way out. A major rebalancing of the economy is having to take place. It is difficult, it is painful, but as I said in response to the earlier question, that rebalancing is now occurring through the growth of manufacturing and exports and through business investment, which is where it needs to be.

T4. Small businesses are the engine of growth and jobs for our economy, and all the time that owners and managers spend dealing with red tape is time taken away from expanding their businesses, so what have the Government done to reduce regulation on small businesses? (57804)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are spending a huge amount of time on tackling red tape through the red tape challenge, and I can report to the House a little victory. On bank holiday Monday, I attended the EU Competitiveness Council to argue for an exemption for micro-entities from various accounting rules under an EU directive. I am sure that the House will be pleased to know that that exemption passed the Council.

T3. According to the Office of Fair Trading, self-regulation of debt management companies is not working. Does the Minister agree that it is time for the Government to act to protect vulnerable consumers? (57803)

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. He knows that I met him and other members of the all-party group on debt and personal finance to discuss that very issue. He will know of my concern about it, which was shared across the meeting. When we respond to the call for evidence on consumer debt and personal solvency, we will have a lot to say about that very issue.

T5. We all welcome the fantastic news from Nissan and BMW, but we want to see automotive investment in the west midlands. Will the Minister assure the House that he and his officials are doing all that they can to attract automotive investment into the west midlands? (57805)

I am delighted to be able to give my hon. Friend that assurance. He is an assiduous campaigner for the automotive industry in the sector. I am meeting him and other Members in a week or so to discuss the issue. It is important to remember that we have seen improvements in the investment for Jaguar Land Rover, that discussions are going further forward and that investment in 1,500 skilled engineering jobs has taken place. What matters in that context is remembering that under the last Labour Government, 1.7 million people came out of the manufacturing work force—a change that we need to bear in mind when we hear criticism from Opposition Members.

T6. Given the public outrage at the “quick buck” strategy at Southern Cross, the Financial Times says that the future of 31,000 elderly people is in jeopardy. Will the Secretary of State investigate the conduct of the directors and consider whether regulation should be extended to ensure the financial stability of companies that care for our parents and our relatives? (57806)

My colleague the Secretary of State for Health has made it absolutely clear that no resident, whether publicly funded or self-funding, will be left homeless or without care. In other words, the residents will be given priority and the Government have taken the responsibility to ensure that they are protected. As to the company itself, it had a long-standing failed business model. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) has been in touch with the banks to ensure that the credit is properly managed in this critical period so that it happens in an orderly way. There is no way in which we can bail out the company, but I have asked my officials to look carefully at the business models of companies that provide public services to ensure that they are stable and that the responsible sector regulators are able to act appropriately.

As the House knows, this was a contentious issue, but I was able to bring together all the parties involved and they acted with professionalism, goodwill and good faith. This week the Institute for Learning announced that, with the support of the trade unions and the employers—the colleges—a settlement has been reached. I know what you are thinking, Mr Speaker: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

T7. Is the Minister aware that many thousands of jobs in Scotland depend on defence contracts? What steps is he taking to ensure that the present constitutional uncertainty in Scotland does not undermine the ability of Scottish firms to bid for Ministry of Defence work? (57807)

Both my Department and the MOD are mindful of the importance of the long-term contracts to which the hon. Gentleman refers. We are working hard on that, and we have no intention of being distracted.

Every day by which the creation of a groceries code adjudicator is delayed is a further day on which farmers, growers and food producers in this country and in the developing world go to the wall. What reassurance can Ministers give me and, indeed, the House that they will make every effort to ensure that a proposal which has cross-party support is implemented as quickly as possible?

My hon. Friend, who has campaigned so vigorously and successfully on this issue, will be delighted to know that we published the draft Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill just before the recent recess. We hope that it will be scrutinised by the Select Committee and will attract interest across the House, and we hope to introduce the formal Bill on the basis of that scrutiny.

T8. May I return the Minister to the issue of regional development agency asset sales, about which there is considerable concern in my constituency and throughout the north-west? Can he answer the question put to him earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey)? If assets can be gifted to Boris Johnson and London, why can they not be gifted to the rest of the country? (57808)

Let me clarify the position. The London Development Agency had already been merged into the Greater London Authority, so the process position was very different from that involving the RDAs. We have ensured that we are able to represent that. I understand the concern, but we are working with local enterprise partnerships, local authorities and local businesses to ensure that they are involved in the regenerations. I have discussed the issue with a number of the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends who have constituency interests in it, and I continue to listen to and work closely with them.

May I ask the Secretary of State to look into the Edexcel science modules taken by young pupils? Some of those modules are seriously flawed, which may put people off studying science and technology for life.

I will undertake to discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, because my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We do wish to encourage young people to study science at school, college and university.

Growth, which was mentioned earlier, does not seem to be happening in the north-east of England. Workers at the H A Interiors factory in my constituency have not been paid for nine weeks— although I understand that they were paid their April wages yesterday; I will have to check that. Can the Minister help the company in any way? At least under Labour the workers got their pay.

I have already corresponded with the hon. Gentleman on the matter. He is right: we should be concerned first and foremost with the welfare of the workers and their families. I strongly emphasise the need to ensure that ACAS continues to be involved in the process. I hope that my letter to the hon. Gentleman and the news that some of the first payments have apparently been made will prove encouraging, but let us keep the dialogue going.

I draw Members’ attention to my registered interest in small businesses.

The enterprise investment scheme, which was introduced by the last Government and has been greatly enhanced by the present Government, has increased investment in our early-stage businesses, largely because it provided tax relief for equity investors. Will Ministers consider discussing with Treasury officials whether similar tax incentives can be provided for debt investment in venture capital and early-stage businesses?

We have made important reforms to the EIS. The technical reform to which my hon. Friend has referred has been and continues to be examined, but no decisions have been made.

We have heard from the Secretary of State’s own mouth that Project Merlin has fallen at the first hurdle. We also now know that one of the promoters of the business growth fund, Santander, has withdrawn from the fund. What impact will that have on Project Merlin, on the business growth fund, and on growth and investment in the United Kingdom?

The business growth fund is an extremely promising initiative, filling a gap in capital markets that has been left empty pretty much since the 1920s: the provision of equity for rapid growth mid-cap funds. The £2.5 billion fund is committed to by the main banks, and Santander wishes to pursue its own initiative, which is additional to the fund. The business growth fund is a great success. It was launched in Birmingham—I was there a few weeks ago—and it will achieve a lot for British industry.

I noted the Business Secretary’s earlier answer citing the STEMNET project. I hope he is also aware of the work of I’, whose events reach over 10,000 students, with funding of less than £9 per student drawn from charitable and business sponsors. Will he learn from the success of this initiative as a model for the online engagement of students with the futures they could realise through science, technology, engineering and maths?

That is a very imaginative suggestion which I certainly undertake to pursue—and will, perhaps, discuss at the Cheltenham science festival this weekend.

One in 10 people in the north-west of England works in manufacturing, whereas just 3% in London work in manufacturing. The sharp fall in the purchasing managers index last month showed that all may not be well with UK manufacturing. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister therefore confirm that UK Trade & Investment will publish annually the regional impact of its work, so that we can be sure that Government policy works for all economies in Britain?

We will go further than that: we are making sure that UKTI is focused like a laser on small businesses in the manufacturing sector. That is why we are changing the budget and the structure, and making sure that in the regions outside the south-east there is a strong network—a strong set of roots—so that we can support manufacturing more effectively than the Labour party did in 12 years in office.

I recently met business leaders from the Coventry and Warwickshire chamber of commerce. They are extremely heartened by the current review of regulation and red tape, but they are keen to know when there will be tangible changes. Will the Minister therefore tell the businesses in my constituency when they can expect to see tangible progress from this welcome review?

I will be delighted to do so. Not only have we got the moratorium exempting small businesses from future regulation, but we have cut by 70% down to 46 the 157 proposals, many of them legacies from the past Government, and only 11 of them will cost business anything at all. We are ending the gold-plating of e-regulations, and we are changing the approach so that we sunset regulation in the future. Each of those steps will make a difference, and I will make sure that we report back to the House each and every year.

Back in February, the House debated the problems caused by high-cost credit and agreed to consider a cap on the cost of credit. Following that, 15 MPs from across the House wrote to the Minister responsible asking for a meeting to discuss how we might take that decision forward. Five months later, during the recess, he responded, stating that he was too busy to meet us. As the number of people borrowing from these companies rises in all our constituencies every month, will the Secretary of State show some respect for the House and respond to this legitimate issue by agreeing to meet us?

May I congratulate the hon. Lady on being the Member of Parliament who wants to meet me more frequently than any other? She omitted to tell the House not only that I have met her twice and that she failed to provide the evidence backing up her arguments for which I asked, but that I have met other Members of the House from the coalition parties who are campaigning on this issue, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) and the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson).