Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 531: debated on Thursday 14 July 2011

The Department is responsible for reducing regulation, increasing trade, growing the economy and promoting excellence in higher education and skills.

With regard to deregulation, the Minister will have seen the report from the CEOs conference held by The Times, which suggests that an unencumbered supply side is key to growth. One of the key recommendations was moving to faster deregulation—far from one in, one out, it hoped for five out and only one in. Can he make any statement on that?

I am always keen to accelerate matters, but it is worth putting it on the record that in the past 12 months this Department alone has been able to scrap regulations that would have cost business £430 million every year. It is a good start, but, yes, we want to move forward.

T5. In January, at a cost of £300,000, the Prime Minister stripped the Business Secretary of his responsibility for media competition and policy issues after he declared war on Rupert Murdoch. Given yesterday’s announcement by News Corp that it is dropping the bid for BSkyB, does he expect to have those powers transferred back to him at BIS? (66047)

I do not know the answer to that question, but I am delighted to discover that the whole of Britain and the House of Commons now agrees with me.

T2. Central Government clearly has a major role to play in supporting and helping business, but we often underestimate the importance of local government’s ability to support, or indeed hinder, business. Does the Secretary of State believe that returning business rates to local government control will be good for business? (66043)

Yes, I think it is a good idea in principle. Indeed, I announced it in a statement to the House last year. It could incentivise councils to attract businesses to their area. That is the reasoning behind it, but we have to be careful to ensure that there is an equalisation mechanism—some areas, of course, have a strong starting advantage—and to protect businesses from a very large increase in business rates, which could have the opposite effect.

What assessment have the Government made of the effect of the core and margin proposals for student funding on conservatoires such as Trinity Laban in my constituency, of which I am an unpaid director?

The Government understand the particular value and needs of conservatoires, which is why we drew particular attention to their need for proper financing in our grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

T3. Using his extensive business experience, as demonstrated by his confident and oft-repeated ability to foresee the economic downturn over many years, would the Secretary of State like to impart some of his wisdom and comment on how his Department, under his expert leadership, has helped small businesses to flourish, particularly management and IT consultants? (66044)

As you can see, Mr Speaker, we are able to work closely together as a team and assume all sorts of identities.

The key thing to bear in mind is that when we look at the number of small business start-ups this year and last, we see an increase of 51,000. According to leading independent surveys, there were 470,000. That is a good sign that we are making early progress, but there is much more to do.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the British train building industry hangs in the balance following the decision to appoint Siemens as the preferred bidder for the Thameslink contract? Unless it is reversed, it will cost the Exchequer more than £100 million in lost tax revenue. Derby does not need a task force—we need a reversal of the decision. Will he give a commitment to make representations to the Transport Secretary and the Prime Minister to call in the decision, to protect thousands of jobs and stand up for British industry?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s passion, but I think that the taskforce is important. If we start to unpick the contract now—in the third year of its running—we will face legal reviews and problems with how the project progresses. We need to deal with the procurement system as a whole. I am sorry to say that his Front-Bench team failed to do that in 13 years.

T4. University Centre Milton Keynes, in conjunction with local partners, is developing a knowledge gateway to stimulate enterprise and skills. May I urge my right hon. Friend to meet the dean of UCMK to explore how his Department might be able to support this initiative? (66045)

I would be pleased to meet the dean. Of course we absolutely support these types of initiatives, which improve the links between universities, employers and businesses. That is one reason we have invited Sir Tim Wilson to consider how we can revive the sandwich course that disappeared under the previous Labour Government.

What consideration has been given to creating a dedicated Minister for manufacturing within the Department to promote this vital economic area?

T6. One of the major barriers to the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises in west Wales is banks refusing to offer facilities to—or, worse still, withdrawing facilities from—companies that are perfectly viable and with which they have had a relationship over many years. Will the Minister offer any advice to those companies and ensure us that he will work with the Treasury to iron out these issues? (66048)

My hon. Friend recognises a real problem—there remains an issue with the supply of finance. Indeed, an independent survey on Monday demonstrated that about 15% of companies are probably discouraged from applying for it. We must wait for the figures in August from the Merlin process, but, as I have made clear in the House before, the Government can take further action if those figures are not satisfactory.

In response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), the Minister’s answer was more fairy story than fact. What he did not tell the House was that by 2015 the number of private housing starts will be 14% lower than in 2007, that public housing starts will fall by 39% over the next three years and that road construction spending will be halved by 2014. These are the facts—what is he going to do about them?

We are investing £10 billion in the road programme, £14 billion in the rail programme and £200 billion in infrastructure. We have put in place the first national infrastructure plan, which the Labour party failed to do. We are working with industry and construction, and I am sorry that the Labour party has nothing positive to add.

T7. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will consider the proposal for the technology and innovation centre for offshore renewables that brings together a network of key hubs across the country, such as OrbisEnergy in Lowestoft in my constituency, so as to ensure that the whole of the UK benefits from the proposed TIC? (66049)

We will certainly consider the proposal, but, as my hon. Friend knows, there is a proper process for evaluating different bids. The third TIC will centre on renewables, substantially on wind, and existing centres, such as the one in his constituency, are eligible and may well be considered.

Yesterday the Prime Minister told us that Citizens Advice was one of the most admired organisations in the country. Given that it and Consumer Focus are boycotting the payday industry proposals on a voluntary code of practice, does the Secretary of State think it appropriate that his Lib Dem colleagues are in Parliament today hosting a reception to endorse it?

The hon. Lady will know that the Government are working very closely with Citizens Advice on all these sorts of issues and that it is important to listen to the industry on a range of issues. I would have thought therefore that she welcomed hon. Members listening to the industry. She often does not listen to the industry and so often is not as informed as she could be.

T8. The Secretary of State will be aware that more than 80% of jobs in my constituency are in the private sector. Will he therefore congratulate the world-famous jam-makers Wilkin & Sons, based in Tiptree, on its outstanding international business, on all it is doing to create good local jobs and on all that it does to promote its brand—a great international British brand—at home and abroad? (66050)

I am delighted to support the company in Tiptree; hon. Members can perhaps see that I tend to do that too often, given my breadth. It is an excellent business that is showing the way, through its exports and productivity. It is a business that we can be proud of.

Five independent schools send more pupils to Oxbridge than 2,000 other schools combined. What is the Minister going to ask Oxford and Cambridge to do about that?

That is why we have required of them much more ambitious programmes on access than the previous Government required. Oxford’s proposals, released this week, show a big extension of summer schools and an extra effort to reach precisely that pool of talent to which the hon. Lady refers.

The French company EDF is about to build a giant wind farm off Redcar. The main contractor will be German, and most of the materials will be imported. What more can the Government do to ensure that British business benefits more from such projects?

This comes back to ensuring that our procurement system is reformed and reviewed, and that is what we are going to do, to ensure that errors are not repeated.

What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the Scottish Government’s decision to charge English students tuition fees of up to £9,000?

I know that there is strong feeling in England about that, but it is a matter for the Scottish Government and therefore not one for which this Government are responsible.

I know that the Minister shares my passion for the potential of our biomedical sector to create new jobs and businesses. Will he update the House on some of the exciting developments at Sandwich, Charnwood and Stevenage, in regard to the opportunities for the UK in reorganising the pharmaceutical sector?

This morning, I will be going to the topping-out ceremony of the bio-incubator at Stevenage, which represents precisely the kind of future for our life sciences that we wish to see. It is also very good news that Pfizer has now decided that it wishes to have a continuing presence at its research centre in Sandwich.

Can the Secretary of State confirm or deny that his Department is giving grants to fire authorities to set up arm’s length companies that will tender for private sector contracts?

Given that Northamptonshire has one of the fastest-growing populations in the country and that it sits at the crossroads of England, will the business Minister look favourably at the bid that is now on his desk to establish a local enterprise partnership there?

My hon. Friend knows very well that an excellent south-east midlands proposal is already under way. I am encouraging people to work together, but we will certainly always look at representations on a fair and open basis.

Will the Secretary of State actively seek to get responsibility for competition policy in media ownership back into his Department? The fact that he was honey-trapped in his surgery does not mean that it should not be a Minister in his Department who takes such decisions. We have now seen the error of sending these matters to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Unlike my predecessors, I do not see my job in terms of empire building; I am more concerned that we should get good policy. The Deputy Prime Minister has spoken today on the need radically to reform policy in relation to competition and cross-ownership in the media. Indeed, we might well have to revisit the legislation, because it is clearly unsatisfactory.

With reference to the Minister’s response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), Triton Showers, which employs 400 people in my constituency, is extremely concerned that the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive is now being aggressively enforced by the Environment Agency. Bearing in mind the Minister’s earlier answer, will he now make representations to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on this issue, which is causing real concern in the electric shower industry?

I will certainly look at this. As I said in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury, the guidance is slightly separate from the directive, so there is a need for clarity. That is why we are trying to renegotiate these matters in the recasting of the directive.

Following on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), may I ask the Minister whether he is surprised that the Scottish National party, which voted in this House against tuition fees, is planning to impose them now that it is in government in Scotland? What discussions has he had with the Scottish Government to ensure that English students can attend excellent Scottish universities such as Queen Margaret university in my constituency?

I do discuss this issue with the Scottish Government because it is important that students throughout the whole of the United Kingdom have proper opportunities to travel to universities around the United Kingdom. I also observe that, proportionally, many more Scottish students still wish to study at English universities than the other way round.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the recent announcement in Edinburgh by the climate change Minister of £20 million to be channelled into marine energy. Does he agree that the green investment bank could play a key role in this exciting sector and could do that best by being located in Edinburgh near to the hub of this developing sector?

I am well aware—I am tempted to say painfully aware—of the volume of representations coming from Edinburgh and elsewhere on this subject. They make a very good case for themselves, but will ultimately have to be judged against a variety of criteria relating to how the mission of the green investment bank will be advanced and the talent pool available.

Will the acting skills Minister tell me whether we will definitely be able to see the equality impact assessment of the Government’s proposed changes to ESOL—English for speakers of other languages—next week? It has been promised to me twice, but we have still not seen it.

More than two fifths of places to study medicine are awarded to prospective students living in the top fifth of areas for higher education participation. Will the Minister for Universities and Science consider the social background profile of students on longer degree courses, so that the Office for Fair Access can demand specific actions for these courses in future access agreements?

I know that the medical profession is committed to trying to ensure that it attracts talented people who can contribute to medicine regardless of their background. Of course, together with the Secretary of State for Health, I recently announced a very fair funding arrangement for medical students, which I hope will ensure that the profession will continue to be open to young people—whatever their background.

The Minister is aware that private and public sector have been working together to try to deliver 1,200 new jobs and training opportunities to east Durham through the film studio and centre for creative excellence. Has he given any further consideration to some sector-specific measures to encourage this development?

My Department and, of course, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will want to look at this together. I am aware of the proposal, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and I will look at it on that basis.

On Tuesday, LVMH, which produces perhaps some of the Minister’s favourite luxury brands of Louis Vuitton and Moët Hennessy, signed the “woman on the board pledge for Europe”. Will the Minister update us on what steps he will take to encourage British business to sign this pledge, and does he agree that increasing the representation of women on British boards is a matter of necessity, not luxury?

I strongly support the sentiments behind my hon. Friend’s question. He will know that the report of Lord Mervyn Davies encourages chairmen and chief executives to publish their aspirations and to have a strategy for their aspirations to have more women on boards. When we consult on the future of narrative reporting, we want to consult on the proposal to make the top FTSE 350 companies disclose their performance, including on women on boards.

Earlier in this question session, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills lamented the absence of his colleague, the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, and referred to the increased burden on him by virtue of that absence. I thought I would share with the House the very courteous letter received from the Minister of State, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who wrote earlier this week as follows:

“Dear Mr Speaker, My apologies for not being present for either DfE or BIS questions as I am abroad on Government business. I hope that your disappointment is as great as mine at the missed opportunities for a heady mix of scrutiny and theatre beloved by we connoisseurs of such things.”