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Topical Questions

Volume 534: debated on Thursday 27 October 2011

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

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I congratulate Ministers on the fantastic apprenticeship numbers that were announced today. With that and the rebalancing of our economy in mind, and given that in Rossendale and Darwen we have a manufacturing economy, can the Secretary of State tell the House how we are going to make it easier for employers in my constituency to take on new apprentices?

The hon. Gentleman is right to acknowledge the big increase in apprenticeships, and it is not simply quantity; it is also about quality. Some of the rapid growth that is taking place is in advanced apprenticeships, including in manufacturing, and we welcome that, but we do not accept that the status quo is adequate. We want to strip away some of the bureaucratic barriers that hinder companies, particularly small companies, and my colleagues are working on that.

A few years ago, the Business Secretary was described by the Deputy Prime Minister as an “economic prophet”. So in January, when the Secretary of State told the House that

“…economic growth is now strong. It will become stronger as a result of the work that the Government are doing in stabilising finances”—[Official Report, 13 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 429.]

we listened with interest. Given the performance of the economy since January, does the Business Secretary believe he has lived up to his billing?

May I first warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his rapid and considerable promotion? I will not tempt fate by hoping that he makes a success of it, but I none the less wish him well. Of course, one advantage that he has in coming into Parliament only very recently is that he is not personally responsible for some of the disasters that occurred under his predecessors. One of our problems is sorting out some of those disasters, not least of which are the massive deficit that we inherited, a broken banking system, large amounts of personal debt and a flat housing market. All those factors explain why it is now very difficult to launch into rapid growth, but we are putting in place the rebalancing of the economy and the financial discipline to make that feasible.

I thank the Business Secretary for his kind words, but I wonder when he will take responsibility. In his first speech as Business Secretary, he described his Department as the “Department for economic growth”. The truth is that, under his leadership, it has been the Department for no growth. The economy has stagnated, unemployment has soared and confidence has nose-dived—and that is all before the effects of the eurozone crisis have been felt. Things would be very different if he changed his policy and adopted a proper plan for growth to get demand back again. In January, he thought his policies were working and it turns out he was wrong. He has described himself as a Keynesian, but Keynes famously said:

“When the facts change, I change my mind.”

Why will the Business Secretary not do the same?

Well, Keynes famously wrote in his well-publicised note to Franklin Roosevelt that probably the most useful thing that the Government could do in a depression was keep down long-term interest rates, and that is what this Government have done as a result of their fiscal prudence.

The hon. Gentleman says that we do not have the policies in place; we have two things in place. We have policies for financial stability, which we did not have when we inherited the economy; and on the other hand we have policies in place to rebalance the economy, to reinvent manufacturing, which was allowed to decline catastrophically under the previous Government, and to promote exports and business investment—things that were shamefully neglected when his colleagues were in government.

T2. The Mayor of London has had great success in growing the number of apprenticeships from the low base inherited from his Labour predecessor by requiring apprentices to be taken on as a condition of bids for public projects. Will the Minister look at whether that success could be built on and extended to national Government? (76873)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the remarkable figures in London. Of all the regions, London has seen the biggest proportionate growth in the number of apprenticeships, and I recently had a meeting in the Mayor’s office to discuss the subject. She is also right that there are things the Government can do to help, so we will look again at what can be done, based on the experience in London, to promote apprenticeships in the way she describes.

T4. In June, the Office of Fair Trading upheld the Which? super-complaint about card surcharges, agreeing that they pose significant detriment to consumers. When will the Government act to stop people being exploited in this way? (76875)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are looking at the OFT’s powerful report and consulting colleagues in the Treasury, and we will come back to the House in due course.

T3. In formulating his response to the Beecroft review, will the Secretary of State bear in mind the interests of hundreds of thousands of people who are currently locked out of the labour market, particularly youngsters who might well be prepared to waive some of the more generous job protection provisions in return for that vital first start? (76874)

My hon. Friend will know that the Chancellor has announced that we will move the period of unfair dismissal from one year to two years—I know that my hon. Friend welcomes that—which will deal with exactly the point he has made. He will also know that we have an employment law review and a red tape challenge to ensure that we have employment laws in this country that will make our labour market fair and efficient.

T5. What message do the Government think they are sending to the thousands of families in this country who are now struggling in debt as a result of payday loans, by allowing the legal loan sharks not only to advise them on employment law, but to swell their party coffers? (76876)

I was expecting the hon. Lady to thank the Government for putting forward an idea that she and other Members have been pressing on the Government: namely, to launch research on the impact of a cap on the total cost of credit. I am really rather disappointed in her.

T6. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the Wilson review on the collaboration between industry and universities. I am currently working on a project in the west midlands with local business leaders and universities. Will he meet industrialists and me when the report is competed next year? (76877)

I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend, because she is absolutely right that one of our priorities is to ensure that the strength of our research base is fed through into stronger support for business and greater business investment, and we look forward to Sir Tim Wilson’s report.

T7. The Secretary of State will be aware that Remploy businesses were set up across this country after the second world war to give work to disabled people returning from the war. Those businesses have gone on for decades and given great work to disabled people. Why are the Government going to axe the programme? (76879)

Certainly we should be doing all we can to support disabled workers. My understanding is that those decisions lie with the Department for Work and Pensions, but I would be happy to engage or help if there is a problem.

UK Trade & Investment has just completed a trade mission to Iraq for the Erbil international trade fair, of which I was privileged to be a part. We had 86 businesses, companies and educationalists at the British pavilion at the trade fair, whereas three years ago we had only one. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the UKTI team and our consul-general on their great work during the mission?

Yes. UKTI does an excellent job. Like all other parts of the Government, it is having to do more with less, but it does so through refocusing and strategy. I have not yet been to that country, but I look forward to doing so.

T8. Does the Minister of State really think that sending a letter to Members whose constituents are affected by the potential redundancies at BAE Systems stating that those people could move to other parts of the country to get jobs shows any understanding of the regional economy and the need for skilled manufacturing jobs, particularly in the Humber area? (76881)

The letter sets out, first, help for those individuals on the ground at those sites. Secondly, it refers to making sure that by having the new talent retention service we do not lose those skills; and, thirdly, it refers to making sure that we put enterprise zones in place. I have to say that the response I have had from local people has been far more positive, sadly, than that of Labour Members.

Many of those who strongly support the Government’s policy to establish a grocery adjudicator to curb the bully-boy tactics of supermarkets will be concerned to ensure that it has the teeth to do the job. Will my hon. Friend the Minister take this opportunity to reassure those supporters of the Government’s policy that a supplier will not be required to take the risk of making a complaint in order to prompt an inquiry by the adjudicator?

I again pay tribute to my hon. Friend, because he has been a stalwart campaigner for that change. I am delighted that we were able to publish the draft Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill on 24 May, and that the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee’s report on it has welcomed our proposals. He will know that the proposal is unique, because it allows anonymous claims to be made to the adjudicator and for reports, of which the adjudicator will be able to take note, to be put into the public domain.

The Bank of England’s own data released last week indicate that lending by banks to small businesses fell by £2.5 billion in the three months to August. Was not the Secretary of State right to admit at last that the economy is in a far weaker state under this Government than it ever was in the last year under Labour?

That certainly is not the case, but the hon. Gentleman has a perfectly valid point in relation to bank lending. That is absolutely the case, and, as a result of the agreement that we have reached with the banks, they have—certainly in the first two quarters—achieved the gross lending objectives that we set them, but there is a lot more to do. Surveys show that a shortage of credit is a serious problem, and we have to continue to work with the banks and, where necessary, to require them to make credit available to the economy.

Since December 2008, 3,218 tied pubs have closed and 425 free houses have opened, yet the British Beer and Pub Association, which speaks for pub companies, continues to mislead Ministers and MPs by stating that the opposite is actually the case. Do Ministers agree that this discredits the BBPA and also shows that the Government must stick to their commitment to act on the issue?

My hon. Friend has been a doughty campaigner on the subject, and he will know that the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has just undertaken a report on all those issues. The Government are therefore considering it and will respond to it shortly. If I were tempted into replying to the details of his question, I would prejudice that response.

Having withdrawn funding from the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, will the Secretary of State tell us which women’s organisations he has contacted to encourage women back into those under-represented areas?

It is important that women are properly represented in engineering and science, and I discuss that issue with a range of groups, so I hope the hon. Lady will be encouraged by the fact that we have 26,000 STEMNET ambassadors. Already, we have 40% who are female, but obviously we need to be better.

Next month should at last see meaningfully democratic elections in Egypt, but a new democratic Egypt faces a future hamstrung by debts from the Mubarak era. Will my right hon. Friend ask his officials to conduct an audit of the £100 million owed by Egypt to the Export Credits Guarantee Department?

As my hon. Friend knows, there is a mechanism for dealing with official debt, through the Paris Club, but I will certainly undertake to speak to my colleague, the Secretary of State for International Development, to ask what concessional assistance we are giving to Egypt. The matter does not directly bear on my Department, but I accept that there is a link with the promotion of trade.

Does the Business Secretary believe that tax evasion and tax avoidance is having a negative impact on economic growth?

Absolutely. I am resolute, and I hope that my colleagues on the Opposition Benches will work with me in combating both.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is considering the creation of a public data corporation. Does the Minister accept that making public data openly available can facilitate innovation in more ways than can be easily anticipated, benefiting the economy and the country? Will he meet me and other campaigners to discuss the details of that further?

I am certainly very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue. He is right to bring attention to this very important innovation by the Government to create something called a public data corporation, bringing together a number of key Government assets to ensure that they are managed efficiently and to put a greater amount of data into the public domain.

One of the Labour Government’s great successes was the introduction of the artist’s resale right. Since then, the art market has quadrupled, and hard-pressed artists have received £13 million. The derogation in awarding the artist’s resale right to the estate of dead artists lapses at the end of the year. Will the Secretary of State confirm that from January next year it will apply to the estate of deceased artists?

No, I cannot confirm that, but I will speak to my colleague at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about the impact on the art market, and how we propose to proceed with that in the European Union.

The success of apprenticeships is undoubtedly vital to future prosperity in areas such as the west midlands. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the progress of the apprenticeship programme in the west midlands region?

I described this as a rosy day for Britain, and it is a rosy day for the west midlands too. The number of apprenticeship starts in the west midlands is up by more than a half on 2009-10, which is due in part to the advocacy of excellent Members of Parliament such as my hon. Friend.