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Topical Questions

Volume 537: debated on Thursday 8 December 2011

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

May I thank the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning for visiting my constituency of Bromsgrove and opening a £3.5 million extension to North East Worcestershire college? Will he update the House on what other investment plans he has for colleges up and down the country, and how that will promote young people’s life chances?

I said a few moments ago that we have made £100 million available. It will be spent quickly, and that will affect colleges across the country. I should like to thank my hon. Friend for being such a generous host when I visited NEW college in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) was in attendance as well, because the college serves both constituencies. On that occasion, I had an opportunity to ride a Harley Davidson motorbike, and like that bike, the career of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) is powerful, speedy and impressive.

It is exactly one year on from the Government’s trebling of tuition fees to £9,000, and we can clearly see the disastrous impact of that decision. UCAS applications are down by 15%, and the Government have had to introduce the chaotic core and margin model to make up for the fact that they got their sums wrong. Is the Minister for Universities and Science aware that he has created a perfect storm for our world-class higher education sector, and why is he prepared to put our world-leading reputation at risk?

Our reforms will ensure that universities are well financed, and that there is more funding available for access than ever before. Perhaps the hon. Lady would explain to the House why she proposes to double fees and, at the same time, reduce the funding available for scholarships and access money.

T2. It is clear to me that the more young people and adults hear the actual facts about the funding for universities, the more likely they are to apply. Given that there are five weeks left before the conventional cut-off date for applications, will the Minister tell the House what the Government propose to do to make sure that young people and adults, whether full or part-time students, understand the benefits of applying to university. (85417)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the excellent work that he has done on this important subject. I can report to the House that 90% of schools and colleges have been visited by graduates explaining the facts of the system. In addition, they are reaching out to parents evenings. Every hon. Member has received a copy of the DVD that has gone to every school with the information that shows that no student has to pay up front to go to university.

T4. When the Secretary of State was talking about the running down of British industry, he failed to mention that, in the 1980s, the Thatcher Government employed MacGregor to come over here and close large parts of the steel industry, and he almost destroyed the whole mining industry. Does the Secretary of State not realise that, surrounded by all those Tories, he is a mini-MacGregor of his day, carrying out the dirty work of the Tories and overseeing the demise of the rest of British industry? He does it not for the money that MacGregor got but for a ministerial car and a red box. (85419)

After the hon. Gentleman’s previous contribution, I set up a visit to his constituency, which will take place, I think, in the first quarter of next year. I can discuss these matters in depth with him then, which I think is rather more than my Labour predecessor did. The hon. Gentleman has been a Member for a long time, but he has overlooked the fact that in the 13 years of Labour Government there was a decline in manufacturing output averaging 0.5% a year.

T3. Returning to 2011, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to create the conditions for the pharmaceutical and life sciences sectors in the United Kingdom, including AstraZeneca in Macclesfield, to be able to compete more strongly in the global marketplace? (85418)

The life sciences strategy we produced earlier this week aims to rise to the challenge my hon. Friend identifies. In particular, there is an imaginative proposal under which 20 compounds that have been identified by AstraZeneca but are not currently being commercialised will be open to research by others, with a view to using them to create the medicines of the future.

T5. Bolton university is excellent at recruiting and retaining large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is worried, however, about the future of the widening participation premium, which makes up 6.7% of its teaching grant. Can the Minister reassure them that that premium will be fully funded in 2012, 2013 and beyond? (85420)

We have to look at the Higher Education Funding Council for England teaching grant year by year, so no assurances can be given about the total teaching grant at this stage. That has never been possible under any Government. What I can tell the House is that the total amount of money going into access funding has increased significantly because of the increase in fees. It is now running at a higher level—£200 million higher—than ever before.

T6. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning will agree with me not only about his own irrepressibility but also about the importance for economic growth of our meeting the training needs of businesses. What measures is he taking to reduce red tape and excessive micro-management in respect of further education colleges —a trend that so characterised the last Government—in order that they can respond to our economic needs? (85421)

The Foster report described the last Government’s policy as a galaxy of bureaucracy, oversight and inspection. By contrast, we are cutting red tape, streamlining funding systems, and giving colleges greater discretion to respond to the demands of employers and the needs of learners. I have recently published a document setting this out in detail. Copies are available in the Library of the House—and signed copies by application.

T7. Northern Ireland is the only region where employment law is devolved, an anomaly that in the past has led to the Northern Ireland position being largely ignored in the formulation of UK policy both in the transposition of European Union employment directives and in national agreements. Will the Minister assure us that he will work with the Minister for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland to provide a framework in which Northern Ireland interests can be addressed in any future developments in this area? (85422)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: our Department looks at the majority of employment law for the rest of Great Britain but not for Northern Ireland. However, I can assure her that officials from my Department are in regular contact with their counterparts in the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland. Examples of that include frequent conversations during the consultation on resolving workplace disputes, and close working between the employment agency standards inspectorate and the equivalent team in Northern Ireland. Indeed, we are currently working with it to understand the impact of the agency workers directive, and we will continue to do so.

T9. Will the Minister update me on what efforts are being taken to attract inward investment into enterprise zones such as that in Warton in my constituency? (85424)

We have made good progress on enterprise zones. I know that locally there is a team working together with UK Trade & Investment on specific live commercial projects, and I am hopeful of real progress in the next few months.

T8. Last week we heard how Project Merlin had failed and was going to be bailed out by credit easing. How many banks have signed up to credit easing, how many small businesses will be helped by that, and will it be more successful than the business growth fund was? (85423)

The Merlin project certainly did not succeed in its central objective, which was to achieve growth in gross lending by banks. There has been a contraction in net lending for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that many companies are holding more cash. Credit easing will be commenced soon. The Treasury will maintain a metric of performance by individual banks, and this will lower the cost of capital for many of their customers. The cost of borrowing and covenanting, as much as access, has now become the central concern.

Will the Minister explain how revising TUPE will actually create more jobs, as opposed to facilitating outsourcing?

My hon. Friend will know that there are mixed views in the business community about whether or not the current TUPE regulations are gold-plated, which is why we have called for evidence. We have not published a consultation with specific proposals as we want to have evidence from all stakeholders, so that when we make our proposals in a future consultation they will be well evidenced.

May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the £150 million worth of entirely private investment that Associated British Ports wants to spend now to equip Southampton for the next generation of container ships? Instead of creating and supporting 2,000 or more jobs, this project is mired in red tape in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and its agencies. Will he speak to his colleagues to try to get this vital project under way?

Yes, I will certainly do that—that seems a very helpful intervention. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, logistics, including ports, were a major part of our work in the growth review. A lot is now happening to open up British ports and invest in them, and I will certainly pursue his inquiry.

I am very much looking forward to welcoming the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), who is responsible for business and enterprise, to the festival for manufacturing in my constituency to celebrate what we have achieved in the constituency, and to promote more investment and employment. But one area that we need to focus on is the supply chain, so what are the Government planning to do to help with that?

I am pleased to say that not only will I be able to attend the Stroud manufacturing festival, which is an excellent example of the initiatives taken by those on this side of the House, but the Government have put in place a £125 million supply chain initiative. It builds on the work we have done in the automotive sector, it is a great opportunity and I hope it will be one of those areas where the Labour party will set aside the posturing and work with us positively.

I have been raising the issue of small businesses’ failure to be paid by large contractors. The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) was good enough to write to me, but he said that more than 50% of the problem occurred because there continued to be a problem with effective customer management on the part of the supplier. In other words, the large companies were to be managed by the small company. Is it not time that we actually did what the Electrical Contractors Association has called for and make it compulsory for 30 days’ payment to be in every single contract for a small supplier?

In fact, the Labour party tried to do that at the very beginning—in 1998, I believe—and failed. What we are doing is using our procurement powers to make sure that government sets the standard. I think that that is the best way, but I am always happy to look at unreasonable behaviour by large corporations and I would be happy to look at any further details that the hon. Gentleman can provide.

The county of Avon was abolished in April 1996. The Somerset village of Shipham was never part of Avon and has always been in Somerset, so it is a constant irritation to my constituents that post, including that from all Government agencies and any organisation using the Royal Mail’s database, is addressed to Shipham in Avon. When complaints are made to the Royal Mail’s headquarters, they elicit the reply, “We like to give users an historical perspective.” That is complete tosh. The Royal Mail does not update its database and will not correct inaccuracies in the address details. Will the Minister wade into this ancient, decades-old dispute on behalf of the long-suffering villagers and get this bizarre—

I am very grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. She will be aware that her constituents in this village share their concerns about postcode issues with many other residents in many other constituencies across the UK. I have raised this matter in the past with Royal Mail, and it believes that the costs of changing its systems would be disproportionate. Of course I will raise her point, but I do not want to raise her expectations.

The responsibility to promote adult and community learning in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter. Has the Minister considered linking with Northern Ireland’s Department for Employment and Learning to provide a strategy for the mutual benefit of both the UK mainland and Northern Ireland?

I do have regular discussions with my counterparts in the devolved Administrations. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is an excellent one and I shall take action on it following questions today.

I am afraid that I am going to take the Minister back to the issue of postcodes, as many of my constituents contact me with their frustrations about the very wide range of postcodes in Staffordshire Moorlands, which leads to problems with insurance, cold weather payments and the emergency services failing to find people. So would he be able to meet me and local representatives to discuss the possibility of creating and setting up a Staffordshire Moorlands postcode to deal with these problems?

I am always happy to meet hon. Members and I am sure we can arrange that. Ahead of that meeting, however, I want to ensure that the hon. Lady and her constituents who will be accompanying her do not have raised expectations. Royal Mail is struggling with its financial position. We are turning around Royal Mail—it was a disastrous financial case when we had it from Labour—and, as Minister, I would not want to impose extraordinary and disproportionate costs on it. I shall certainly meet the hon. Lady, however.

The Labour Government introduced the artists resale right, which has made an enormous difference to many artists in this country. The law requires that it is introduced for the estates of deceased artists from 1 January next year. When I last asked the Secretary of State about it, he said that he could not confirm that it was going ahead and he still looks as bemused as he did then even though it is his responsibility, but the Arts Minister has told me that it will go ahead as long as I do not mention it to anybody else. Will the Secretary of State please now inform us exactly what is happening on the artists resale right?

I believe it will go ahead; I have made further inquiries since the hon. Gentleman’s original question.

The Secretary of State visited my constituency in July, closely followed by the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), clearly recognising the need to boost the local economy. Since that time, we have had two enterprise zones, regional growth fund successes, a new road scheme and the halving of the Humber bridge tolls. My constituents are asking: what next?

I think there is an expression that goes, “post hoc ergo propter hoc”. It is not just a coincidence.

I once used that on “Any Questions”. I say to the Secretary of State that it does not work.