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Business, Innovation and Skills

Volume 542: debated on Thursday 15 March 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

Apprenticeships

The Government have prioritised apprenticeships. As a consequence, final figures show that in the full 2010-11 academic year there were 457,200 apprenticeship starts, an increase of 63.5% over the previous year. Over the past two years, the number of apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds has increased by a third and that for 19 to 24- year-olds has increased by two thirds.

May I commend the Secretary of State most warmly for what he and his Department have done on apprenticeships? In particular, may I shower praise on the absent Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, who has driven this programme forward? The number of apprenticeships in my constituency has increased by almost two thirds in the past year, so will the Secretary of State ensure that some of the pre-work training—for instance, at the British Racing School, where I joined an apprenticeship scheme on the gallops—can continue under the new scheme being set up?

I am happy to be showered with praise by the hon. Gentleman, and I entirely share his appreciation of the work done by the absent skills Minister. Indeed, there has been praise from a more independent source than either of us: I believe that the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee has, rather unusually, acknowledged the considerable contribution we make through our apprenticeship programme. I am not aware of the anomaly that the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) points out, but it is an important one and I promise to investigate it.

The Secretary of State knows that Labour Members like apprenticeships and welcome anything that expands genuine, good apprenticeships. But the fact is that if we are to end this inter-generational worklessness in our country, we need a new culture where nobody expects to go into unemployment at least until they are 25—that is the way to go. To change the culture, people need to be in training, education or work—no alternative.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I do not disagree with a word he says. The culture is changing; there is a great appetite in business to take on apprentices and among young people to apply for apprenticeships. I am sure that everybody in the House agrees that apprenticeships are important—we are actually doing something about them.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the number of apprenticeships in Harlow has increased in the past year by 76%? Is he also aware that we have a very strong bid for a university technical school in Harlow? Does he not agree that university technical schools will put young people on the conveyor belt to apprenticeships?

Yes, I do agree, and we need to acknowledge the contribution that Lord Baker has made. He worked on this idea for a long time before it became fashionable, and it is now being implemented. It is extremely popular with young people and with employers, and the Government are getting behind it with financial support.

I recently visited a number of apprentices in my constituency in apprenticeship week, and I commend the work of Hackney community college in this respect. Interestingly, the apprentices were doing training courses, but a lot of them had no real prospect of a job at the end of their apprenticeship. What can the Secretary of State say about the Government’s plans to convert apprenticeships into long-term employment for these young people?

The whole point about apprenticeships is that they are training for people in work, which is why they are attractive to employers and to people who apply for them. The normal practice is that people are in work, they upgrade their skills and they proceed. The overall economic benefit to the economy was recently spelt out by the National Audit Office: for every £1 of taxpayers’ money that goes in, the overall economy derives a benefit of at least £18.

3. What steps he is taking to enable small and medium-sized companies to offer high-quality apprenticeships to young adults. (100020)

We are making it easier and quicker for small and medium-sized companies to take on an apprentice by simplifying and speeding up the process for employers. Additionally, we are making available up to 40,000 incentive payments of £1,500 to help small employers recruit their first 16 to 24-year-old apprentice. A small and medium-sized enterprise review is under way to identify further ways of engaging SMEs in high-quality apprenticeships.

Although the apprenticeship grant for employers initiative is welcome in my constituency, where there are many SMEs, does the Secretary of State agree that the scheme would have even more impact if the rule prohibiting the participation of companies that have taken on apprentices in the past three years was relaxed?

I understand the frustration of employers who have a good record on apprenticeships and feel that they are penalised in such a way. If we had unlimited money, we would meet the hon. Gentleman’s expectations, but the scheme that I have described is restricted to new companies that are taking on apprentices for the first time. It has to be that way for financial reasons, but I would have hoped that companies with a good record in apprenticeships will have seen the benefit of them and will offer them for good commercial reasons.

Terrible youth unemployment figures were released from my constituency yesterday. Companies continue to tell me that they cannot get banks to lend them money. What representations has the Secretary of State made to his colleague, the Chancellor? He promises to ensure that more money is available for small businesses, but what representations is he making to ensure that more money is available so that such businesses can take on more apprentices?

The Chancellor and I discuss this problem constantly because it is a real issue for SMEs. As a result of the Merlin agreement last year, there was a significant increase in lending to small-scale enterprises beyond what they would otherwise have had. I recognise that it is a continuing issue and I am sure the Chancellor will have some ideas in the Budget about how to extend it further.

University Applications

4. What assessment he has made of the level of applications to English universities for courses commencing in September 2012. (100021)

Order. The Minister will not do so, notwithstanding his extremely good intentions, as the grouping is broken for the very good reason that the hon. Gentleman in question has withdrawn his question. Nevertheless, we look forward to hearing the Minister’s mellifluous tones.

In that case, Mr Speaker, I shall reserve my answer to the question before us.

The latest UCAS figures show that 30.6% of UK school leavers applied to university, down from 31.4% the year before but still the second highest on record. This will still be a competitive year for access to university, like any other, as people continue to understand that university remains a good long-term investment in their future.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but what measures are the Government taking to ensure that the supply of places in 2013 and beyond matches the demand for places at English universities given the drop in applications for the 2012 entry and the confusion over student number controls for 2013 and beyond?

We will continue to offer a large number of places at university and they will continue to be very well funded. Indeed, the latest figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England show that the funding for university teaching will go up from £8.9 billion this year to £9.1 billion next year and £9.6 billion the year after. That money is coming through in fees and loans—not fees that students have to pay up front—to ensure that we have strong, effective universities that can continue to educate many students.

That is welcome news, but from what my constituents have said one would not judge that from what is said at university open days. Institutions seem still to be seeking to attract students on the basis of their existing facilities, be they educational or otherwise, rather than providing information about value for money for the cost of their tuition. What is the Minister doing to encourage universities to publish data such as drop-out rates, teaching time, contact time with students and student satisfaction rates?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that students need to have access to such information. That is why we have identified the 17 key sources of information to which students attach most importance, and that should be available on Government websites before the start of the next round of university applications.

Is the Minister aware of the double whammy faced by universities such as Plymouth that are losing hundreds of students because of a combination of two of his policies, which are to redistribute 9% of their students to cheaper universities while allowing the elite universities to have unlimited numbers of students who get two As and a B. Will he look again at that policy, which will have a serious impact on the south-west economy?

Our policy of saying that universities are free to recruit students with AAB or better without number controls puts more power and choice in the hands of students, which is one of the key propositions of our White Paper. We need to strengthen students in the system to get universities to focus on high-quality teaching and we intend to go further with that proposal.

The Minister caused unacceptable confusion and uncertainty for students making applications and to higher education institutions last year through his introduction of the core and margin model. Will he take this opportunity to agree with us and to heed calls from across the sector that there should be no further changes to core and margin in the next academic year?

We are considering this in the light of the experience that universities are having, but we have made it absolutely clear that the direction in which we want to go is for more choice for students and more flexibility for universities. The timings will depend on the experience of universities.

Inward Investment

In December 2011 the Office for National Statistics reported a record stock of foreign direct investment in the UK at £731 billion. The Government are determined to continue to improve the UK business environment to make us a global investment location of choice. The recent major automotive investment by Nissan and the expansion of Jaguar Land Rover are very good examples of that.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Attracting inward investment is going to be a key element of aiding our economic recovery. Will he inform the House of any figures he might have showing how the United Kingdom is doing in this area compared with the rest of Europe?

Britain is the third-best attractor in the world of direct foreign investment and the leading country in Europe. That remains the case; indeed, the position has been strengthened by the decisions we have taken over the past 18 months.

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Secretary of State knows that this news is very welcome throughout the House and that we are delighted to see new jobs and production coming to the UK. I gather that JLR is doing that at Halewood, as well as Nissan, which is great news. Is there a danger, however, that the money for the investments being supported by the Government could be coming from the regional growth fund? If that is the case, will he confirm that there will be enough funds in it? Is there a danger of the smaller companies that are applying being crowded out? It is a challenge fund, as he knows, and on those grounds even very good and worthwhile projects could be rejected.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the regional growth fund played an important part in key decisions such as Nissan’s decision to expand its operation in the UK. There is, of course, a limited amount of money; it is a challenge fund. It is because we recognise that the regional growth fund is a very valuable source of funding that we have extended it by a further £1 billion, and there is currently a new process of application taking place.

We are rightly hearing a lot about the special and essential relationship between the UK and the US this week, but one of the other special and essential relationships the UK has is with India. Does the Secretary of State agree that growing inward investment into the UK from countries such as India clearly demonstrates the success of UK Trade & Investment’s inward investment strategy?

Indeed, and I am flying out to India tonight to pursue this issue—I think it will be my third visit since I became Secretary of State. I shall be making exactly that point—that Indian investment in the UK is extremely welcome. We are attracting more such investment and leading Indian companies such as Tata and Sahavirya Steel Industries are absolutely valuable to our economic recovery.

But it is not just about increasing inward investment; it is about retaining it. I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement about the automotive industry and the increased inward investment, but there are persistent rumours that there might well be reductions in inward investment in parts of the automotive industry. What actions is the Secretary of State taking to retain that investment and to retain jobs in this country?

The hon. Gentleman’s starting point was a positive one and a right one. I understand that production in the automotive industry has increased by 20% over the past year, and a lot of that is due to inward investors. If he is referring to uncertainties about the future, I am of course well aware of the problems surrounding General Motors. Within the Government, I am working very closely with the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my colleague the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk). I was in the United States two weeks ago talking to the chairman and chief executive about that. I have to say that the Government, the trade unions and the British management have put forward an extremely powerful case not just for staying in the UK but for expanding.

Graduate Employment

6. What steps he has taken to encourage universities to publish data about the employment of their graduates. (100023)

Improving student information on employment to support informed choice is at the heart of our university reforms. From this September, the new key information set will provide the information that students say they want, including on graduate salaries and employment. Going to university improves job prospects overall, with 84% of graduates in employment compared with 67% of non-graduates.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Speaking as a history graduate who went on to be an entrepreneur, I should like to know whether he has a view on why only 3.5% of graduates set up their own business in the first six months after leaving university. What can we do to increase that figure?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we ought to be doing better on this, and that was one of the tasks that we set Sir Tim Wilson, who has just produced his excellent report. We are doubling the number of enterprise societies to which students have access and we want every university and college in the country to have an enterprise society that helps students know how to do what my hon. Friend did.

While visiting an engineering company in Luton this week, I was told yet again that companies are finding it hard to recruit British engineering graduates and are having to take graduates from overseas. Are the universities simply not producing enough engineering graduates, or are graduates going to other jobs and working overseas?

We are seeing an increase in the number of engineering places in universities, which is very important because it is just what the British economy needs as it rebalances. There is also a challenge on where engineering graduates go, and we of course hope that more of them will work in industry. As we see manufacturing in Britain strengthening, as it is under the coalition’s policies, I am sure that more recruits will go into industry.

Business Growth

18. What assessment he has made of the ability of other Departments to encourage business growth. (100039)

With your permission, Mr Speaker, and assuming that both Members are present, I will answer Questions 7 and 18 together.

All Departments are assessing how they can remove barriers to growth through the growth reviews. That has led to more than 300 actions being identified, and the Cabinet has met twice in the past month to ensure that delivery of these actions is on track.

The Minister and the Secretary of State might recall that over a number of months I have called for the headquarters of the Green investment bank to be located in Edinburgh, so it is only right that I record my welcome for the decision to do just that. The Minister’s Department might be supporting the green economy, but other Departments do not always seem to see its value in supporting growth. Will he have a word with the Chancellor to emphasise the importance of supporting the green economy, particularly in the light of some of his recent statements on the matter?

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is pleased that the headquarters of the Green investment bank will be located in Edinburgh, which is important so that we can get a genuine centre and cluster of green finance expertise, although there was a “but” at the end of his question. I can say to him that the entire Government are committed to ensuring that we develop renewables. Whether in relation to finance or technology, we are committed to making real progress, and in the past 12 months we have done precisely that.

The Public Accounts Committee has found that small and medium-sized defence contracts, such as those for new armoured vehicles, are being squeezed out by big-ticket items that are over budget, such as aircraft carriers. Will the Minister ensure that the Ministry of Defence backs prime contractors and supply chains, such as General Dynamics UK in south Wales, so that British business can deliver the best equipment and the jobs that we need?

Absolutely. Defence Ministers and I regularly discuss that. There is a clear White Paper and a strategy. The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to look at not only prime contractors, but the UK-based supply chain, on which we are making good progress, but we are alert to the danger that larger contracts can sometimes block out some of the smaller opportunities for indigenous UK businesses.

The Department currently administers 48 different business support schemes, many of which have further sub-schemes that run from them, all rightly aiming at supporting and assisting business, and other Departments also run such support schemes. Does the Minister accept that there could well be a need to rationalise some of those schemes in order to simplify the process and take out some of the inefficient bureaucracy behind them?

My hon. Friend is right. Two things need to be done: first, we have to cull the schemes that have not worked, a good number of which we inherited, I am sorry to say; and, secondly, we have to ensure that the schemes are easier for businesses to use. We have created a finance finder so that businesses, rather than having to look at which scheme to use—an equity investment, export or loan support scheme—can secure finance with a number of simple questions. We will be developing and launching that app so that every business, small or large, can apply and get the answers they need quickly.

The International Monetary Fund recently published a report stating that it expects the British economy to grow faster than those of France and Germany. Is not that down to the fact that this Government are cutting corporation tax, reducing regulation and encouraging businesses, such as Jaguar Land Rover in my constituency, to invest? We are making the difference, unlike the Labour party.

That was a tricky question. My hon. Friend is absolutely right and is a fantastic supporter of industry. I think that the Labour party, beyond the jokes, needs to remember that 1.7 million people lost their jobs in manufacturing over the 13 years it was in government.

The Secretary of State, in his leaked letter last week, wrote that “a connecting thread” in the failure to provide a “compelling vision” or economic growth is

“the need for strategic and long term thinking about supply chains and the role played in them by public procurement decisions,”

but that there is

“no connected approach across Government.”

That is presumably the objective of the advanced manufacturing supply chain initiative, which was launched in December. Almost five months after the launch, however, will the Minister of State confirm that no firms have yet received help because not a jot of progress has been made? In the light of missed opportunities throughout Whitehall, whether in green technologies, feed-in tariffs, trains, Royal Navy tankers or nuclear technology, how on earth does Ministers’ dawdling help British businesses grow and win contracts? No firms helped—yes or no?

The point—to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, if he would like to have an answer—is very simple: we are making good progress on skills, innovation and the supply chain. But is it not right for a Secretary of State to look at progress over 10, 15 and 20 years? Is that not what Governments should do? The Opposition need to bear it in mind, because, if the Labour party in government had looked 10 or 20 years ahead, this country would not be in the mess that we are having to clear up.

Careers Guidance

8. What steps he is taking to ensure universal access to independent and professional careers advice and guidance. (100025)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work as chair of the all-party group on social mobility. Social mobility is at the heart of our plans for careers guidance, and I am pleased to confirm that we will publish a document, alongside the launch of the national careers service in April, setting out everything that the Government are doing to ensure that young people and adults have access to information and advice on learning and work, and receive support to move forwards in their lives.

I thank my right hon. Friend very much for that answer. It is absolutely true that good information, advice and guidance are essential for social mobility. Will he place a particular focus on disadvantaged youngsters to ensure that their ambitions are not limited, bearing in mind that often the best advice is to “Keep your options open”?

That is absolutely correct, and often even the most disadvantaged young people have high ambitions, but they do not know the route to achieve them. That is one of the crucial things that information, advice and guidance can secure, including advice and guidance on the key A-levels that will be needed if they wish to study at university.

I thank the Government for the work done so far. May I encourage Ministers to keep pressing so that all youngsters at school have guaranteed face-to-face careers advice and guidance, and all school leavers and older people have access to careers advice and guidance in their local colleges? The Association of Colleges is very keen on schools and colleges being a place where such information can be provided to all in the community, of all ages.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his very important work in that area. The Department for Education will publish statutory guidance for schools very soon, and it will make it clear that schools cannot discharge their duty simply by relying on in-house support or by signposting to a website. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right as well about the importance of face-to-face guidance.

UK’s Science Base

Britain’s research base is the most productive among the G8, and the Government are committed to maintaining that world-leading position. That is why funding for science and research programmes has been protected with a flat-cash, ring-fenced settlement of £4.6 billion. On top of the £1.9 billion capital funding announced as part of the spending review, we have since announced a further £495 million of capital investment in science.

It is national science and engineering week, and the Minister and I are both taking part in a mathematics event today. Does he agree with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, however, in the letter to the Prime Minister that was reported last week, that the Government’s science policy is “piecemeal” and:

“The Technology Strategy Board…is operating on a shrinking core budget and thereby missing valuable opportunities”?

Do we not need a long-term strategy, such as the one that was set out in 2004?

The Technology Strategy Board does an excellent job and has a crucial role, and if the right hon. Gentleman looks at the board’s core funding, together with the funding that is available for its new technology and innovation centres, he will see that its funding has increased.

The Minister will be aware that Britain produces tens of thousands of enthusiastic and bright science graduates every year, yet the majority of them go into non-STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—jobs. What can the Government do to ensure that more of these skilled science graduates go into manufacturing and engineering?

Ultimately, of course, these decisions must be made by individuals, but we want to make it absolutely clear that students have the opportunity to understand the options available; that is why there is going to be an enterprise society in every university. It is also very important that in the recruitment milk round during the months up until taking their final degrees, students have the opportunity to learn about work in SMEs and work in manufacturing, alongside work in the other classic recruitment areas.

Research undertaken by the House of Commons Library this week shows that our science investment is being cut by 14% by this Government, while Germany and China are increasing theirs. Moreover, it says that the UK is becoming an innovation follower, as one of only a handful of countries in Europe to cut its science investment—and the Secretary of State would appear to agree. In this science and engineering week, will the Minister finally explain why he is damaging our science and engineering base?

Given that we had to sort out the mess in the public finances that we inherited from the previous Government, the cash protection for our science budget is evidence of the coalition’s commitment to science. We can be proud of the fact that with only 1% of the world’s population we produce 14% of the world’s most important science articles. We are increasing investment in capital. It is a great pity that the hon. Lady did down what is still the world’s finest science base.

The Government’s investment in the new technology and innovation centres will allow the excellence of UK science to be used to develop commercial technologies. Will the Minister give us a short update on the setting up of these important institutions?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will be setting up seven such centres, which will tackle the long-standing problem that we have excellent science in Britain but do not always make the connection between research and its commercial applications. These new centres, all across the UK, will bridge that gap and strengthen our economy as a result.

Employment Protection Law

10. What representations he has received on the potential effects of his proposed reform of employment protection law. (100029)

I receive a wide variety of different representations on employment law reform, including from business groups and trade unions that I meet on a regular basis. The reforms aim to give business greater confidence to take on staff, while protecting fairness for employees.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that his consultation on no-fault dismissal has been delayed because, as one Lib Dem put it, “Conference delegates will go mental”? If even his own party members are against it, why does he not stand up to Downing street and reject this despicable policy?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that countries with flexible labour laws have the best growth and those with inflexible labour laws have the highest unemployment; that the more we can do to ease employment by reducing regulation the better; and that this should be done as a matter of urgency, especially in the context of Europe?

My hon. Friend’s basic premise is correct. I am sure that he has read the recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which said that Britain has the second most flexible labour market in the OECD, and that is what we want to retain.

First, I congratulate the new Minister for employment law, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). I am disappointed that he is not answering this question, but let me put it on record that he has been courteous and constructive in his role so far, and I wish him at least a modicum of success. [Interruption.] That is as far as my generosity goes, I am afraid.

With no plan for growth and consumer confidence at its lowest in decades, the Government are trying to make it easier to fire, rather than hire, people. There is an ongoing pitched battle between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Downing street, with the Secretary of State being dragged kicking and screaming to a no-fault dismissal consultation on which, indeed, a written statement was issued only 10 minutes ago. The new Minister said in October:

“I think it would be madness to throw away all employment protection in the way that’s proposed, and it could be very damaging to consumer confidence”,

and suggested that it was crazy. Does the Secretary of State agree with his new Minister?

The interesting thing about this controversy is that we are being attacked with such vehemence from the left and the right, which suggests that we are just about in the right place.

We welcome the publication of the Beecroft report today. Leaks reported in the media suggest that something of a fire-at-will culture will be instilled. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, at a time when many employees are suffering an uncertain future and feel vulnerable, that would do nothing for good employment relations or, indeed, for productivity?

The so-called Beecroft report had a series of recommendations, most of which were sensible and unobjectionable, and are being implemented. Indeed, we are championing some of the recommendations, for example those on visas, in Government. So far, there is one area of disagreement, which relates to the no-fault dismissal issue. We want to strike a balance between making it easier for micro-companies, which have genuine difficulties with staff management because of their small scale, and the danger of creating general insecurity in the labour force. I will proceed on the basis not of ideology or vested interests, but of evidence. That is why we are calling for evidence today.

Traditional Craft Industries

Our craft industries contribute £3 billion a year to the British economy and are an important source of new apprenticeships. As they have been neglected in the past, the Government have formed the craft skills advisory board to ensure that practitioners have a voice in Government, and have established the craft awards to give our craftsmen and women the national recognition that they deserve.

In his absence, may I commend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning for the passion that he has shown for our traditional crafts? May I also thank His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales for the interest that he has shown in this area? Does the Minister agree that we should do all we can to encourage more young people to work with their hands as well as their brains, which will not only allow them to earn a decent income, but build their self-esteem?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. On the subject of traditional craft skills, the enthusiasm and support of my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning are matched only by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. Indeed, I understand that the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning granted an audience to the Prince and that the main topic of their conversation was the importance of traditional craft skills for the future. On that, I think there is complete agreement.

Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill

I hope to introduce the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill into Parliament as soon as parliamentary time allows. The Leader of the House confirmed on 15 December last year that it was a strong candidate for the second Session of this Parliament.

Given that the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills was asked to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny on the draft Bill before the summer recess last year, and that over the past six months we have had the lightest legislative programme that I can remember, what reassurance can the Minister give to suppliers that the Government are still committed to introducing the Bill, in line with their manifesto commitments?

I can give absolute reassurance to the hon. Gentleman that the Government remain completely committed to implementing the Bill, and that we will do so as soon as parliamentary time allows.

The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has taken some compelling evidence from growers who have virtually no protection from month to month in their agreements with supermarkets. Will the Minister assure the House that the adjudicator will have powers of investigation and the power to levy fines on those who do not obey the code?

The adjudicator will have powers of investigation. On the question of fines, there will be a reserve power in the Bill. However, the Government take the view that the other powers, particularly the power to name and shame supermarkets, should be sufficient to have a significant effect on behaviour. If they do not have that effect, there will be the reserve power to introduce fines.

Will the Minister ensure that when the Bill emerges, it has the necessary legislative consent motion from the Northern Ireland Assembly, so that it can apply across the jurisdiction?

Industrial Strategy

Yes, I am developing an industrial policy, and I will continue to work closely with my ministerial colleagues on that important work. In speeches on 27 February and 6 March, I set out what that policy should be and where our future industrial capabilities should lie.

In his leaked letter last week, the Secretary of State said:

“Where we know big investment decisions are going to be made…we need to put in place a strategy actively to plan how we will strengthen the supply chain”.

Does he therefore agree that a good start would be to work towards ensuring that the new Ministry of Defence tankers are built in Britain, not in Korea, and that our new nuclear reactors are made in Sheffield, not in France?

A great deal of progress is being made in developing British supply chains that were whittled away to a disastrous extent with the decline of manufacturing under the last Government. If the hon. Lady looks at what is happening in the car and aerospace industries, for example, she will find that a lot of supply chains are coming back to the UK. As for her last point, on the nuclear industry, I think she is aware that the company that she represents is a regional growth fund recipient.

19. The Secretary of State will not know this, but a high-tech company in my constituency that spawned out of Manchester university was told by its would-be venture capitalists that unless it moved from Manchester to within the golden triangle of Oxbridge and London, it would not obtain finance. Will he look into that financial gap, which has been around for a long time and prevents the dynamic growth of industry, particularly in the northern regions? (100040)

As it happens, I was in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency yesterday, and I met groups of businesses with similar concerns. He is right that there is a long-standing financing gap, particularly for small and medium-sized companies looking for risk capital. The business growth fund, which is a private sector initiative rather than Government money, is already beginning to fill that gap. It is headquartered in Birmingham but, I think, has substantial outreach into Manchester.

Village Post Offices

Government funding of £1.34 billion is in place to modernise and maintain a national post office network of at least 11,500 branches, with particular regard to retaining village post offices in recognition of their important social and economic role in the communities that they serve.

The Minister will recall that we went over this in some detail on Tuesday, relating to the closure of the sub-post office in Torphichen village. Can he assure me that he will contact Paula Vennells, the chief executive, and her counterpart in Scotland, Sally Buchanan, and make it quite plain that when they intend to close a post office or change the service to a Post Office Local, they must have the courage to meet the public and discuss with them what they intend to do within a month of any change becoming apparent? It appears that at the moment they are hiding from my constituents.

First, may I say that I appreciated the kind words of welcome from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray)? I guess that wishing me a modicum of success is about as good as it will get, so I thank him for that.

I appreciated the chance to debate the issue of post office closures, and particularly the temporary closure, because of the sudden resignation of the sub-postmaster, in the village of Torphichen in the constituency of the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty). I absolutely confirm that Post Office Ltd will always abide by the code of practice to ensure that action is taken quickly to restore post office services wherever possible. In his village community, everything is being done to restore those services.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position.

Under the last Government, post offices closed in my constituency in Courthill, Auchinairn, Westerton, Killermont and elsewhere, so I very much welcome the Government’s £1.3 billion of investment in the post office network. Will the Minister outline what the next steps will be in modernising the network so that we can all be certain that it will have a secure and sustainable future in all our constituencies?

I thank my hon. Friend. I am proud of the fact that the Government are investing £1.34 billion in ensuring that we retain the post office network, in marked contrast to the Labour party, which spent public money on closing down great chunks of the network. There is a lot of work to be done, and we particularly need to ensure that the post office becomes the front office of both local and national Government services. Post Office Ltd has already had significant success in that regard.

Companies Act 2006

Directors’ duties were codified in the Companies Act 2006, providing legal clarity for directors and raising awareness of their duty to have regard to long-term factors in promoting the success of the company. A variety of guidance is available to directors to help them observe their legal duties.

I thank the Minister for that reply. He spells out the need for directors to make judgments that look after the long-term interests of the company in accordance with section 172. Will he take this opportunity to confirm that specific regulatory requirements, which are very often referred to as tick-box requirements, in no way trump, or have to be regarded as superior to, the responsibility of directors to make the sort of judgments referred to section 172, to which he referred in his reply?

I can confirm that the duty in section 172 is absolutely clear. The evidence of surveys shows that the duty is well understood, and it is important that directors abide by it.

Small Businesses (Access to Finance)

The Government are providing a comprehensive package of finance support, whether it be debt or equity funding, financial support for exports, or indeed a Business Angel co-investment fund. Next week, the Chancellor will launch the national loan guarantee scheme.

With just 136 net business start-ups in Glasgow North East in the last year, and with net bank lending having fallen in every quarter of 2011, when will firms in my constituency benefit from credit easing? It is more than five months since the Chancellor first announced it.

Topical Questions

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

As the Government have stumbled from the tuition fees debacle, through the uncertainty caused by core and margin and AAB, the reputational damage of international student visa policy, and the failure to develop policy on postgraduate education, will the Secretary of State admit—he has rightly identified this in other areas of Government policy—that the Government lack a compelling vision for UK higher education, and that that is behind today’s fall in our international reputational rankings?

We set out our approach to higher education in our White Paper. It shows how, even when public expenditure has to be reduced, we have been able to ensure that our universities remain well financed. It ensures that we still have more young people applying for university than in any year of the previous Labour Government. We are backing our universities.

T2. Given that we now know that the new Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult centre will be in Glasgow, with a base in Blythe but with no regional hubs around the country as originally envisaged, will the Minister outline how the considerable expertise and resources found on the East Anglia coast can be best utilised? (100044)

The Government recognise the strong energy and offshore renewable sector in East Anglia. It is the intention that the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult will provide a national capability that will be available fully to companies from all the English regions.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on his leaked letter to the Prime Minister? I know he had some choice words to say about the Opposition, but the letter describes the Government’s action to promote growth as “frankly rather piecemeal”. I could not have put it better myself. When that was put to the Prime Minister last Wednesday, he said that the Secretary of State was wrong. I think it is grossly unfair that the Prime Minister should have the last word on this, so will the Secretary of State explain why the Prime Minister is mistaken?

I am delighted the hon. Gentleman is focusing on that issue. As far as the leak is concerned, I am sure he is aware that it emerged from a Government Department—not mine—and was given to the Labour party, which gave it excellent publicity. If he ever finds himself out of a job, he is welcome to apply to be a press officer in my Department.

The letter had many choice words on Labour’s record in government, but it makes a strong case, which my colleagues in the Government share, and which I have set out in more detail in a couple of long speeches, for the need to get behind successful British companies and sectors, as we are doing through our training, our innovation policy and our support for supply chains. That will happen to a growing degree as we proceed.

Well, let us look at the support. The national loan guarantee scheme, also referred to as credit easing, has already been mentioned. Last October, Ministers said that they would urgently implement the scheme, yet they only submitted it to the EU Commission for approval on 10 February—more than four months after it had been announced. At our small and medium-sized enterprise lending summit in the House yesterday, RBS told us that the scheme would make little difference, that the benefits in the main would not be felt by SMEs and that the promised reduction in the cost of borrowing would be insignificant. If this is what the country’s largest bank is saying about the scheme, why should we believe it will make a blind bit of difference?

The hon. Gentleman needs to wait until the Chancellor announces the scheme. It is a very, very large scheme, far exceeding other forms of Government support. The detail clearly needs to be got right, and we clearly need EU state aid approval, but I believe, as does the Chancellor, that it will make a significant difference to the terms on which small companies can borrow. He should be a little patient and wait for the Budget next week.

T4. There are almost 4,000 small businesses in my constituency, in towns such as Alsager, Congleton, Sandbach and Middlewich, and many of them are micro-businesses. What are the Government doing to support micro-businesses and to enable them, when they want to, to develop and grow? (100046)

Alongside helping with things such as bank lending and the new equity schemes, I would point most obviously to the business angel co-investment fund, which is crucial to plug that equity gap for micro-businesses—not the larger equity businesses but the ones looking for funding of between £200,000 and £2 million. It is a £50 million package, and I commend it to my hon. Friend.

T3. Recent evidence has shown that those from a lower socio-economic background make up only 14% of those applying for medicine and dentistry, whereas the figure is 29% to 30% across other courses. Will the Minister say what steps he is taking to ensure that those from a lower socio-economic background are not priced out of the courses where, as Professor Sir Les Ebdon has said, they are needed most? (100045)

It is important that we have true meritocracy in access to our universities, including to medical courses. I am a great admirer, for example, of a programme run at King’s College London, linked to Guy’s and St Thomas’, that provides an extra foundation year for young people who have an aptitude for medicine but not the necessary A-levels. That is a good example of how access funding can be used to improve social mobility.

T5. Many people in South Staffordshire are concerned when they see the directors of large public limited companies awarding themselves large pay increases despite the fact that the companies are not performing. Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents that the voice and votes of shareholders will be listened to when it comes to remuneration packages? (100047)

Yes, that is absolutely the direction in which the Government are going. Following the Prime Minister’s announcement that we intend to proceed on binding votes, I announced a set of detailed proposals that will give shareholders a significantly enhanced role in the setting of pay and which will, I hope, have the moderating effect that the hon. Gentleman described.

T6. I am still receiving numerous complaints from small businesses across Denton and Reddish facing problems accessing finance for their viable business propositions. Given that the economic forecasts are continually being revised downward and the quarter 4 gross domestic product figures are showing a contraction, will the Secretary of State now act and get the banks lending to viable small businesses in my constituency? (100048)

Although two thirds of businesses seeking a loan get it, I fully understand, having run a business myself, that for those who do not it is immensely frustrating. That is why we have extended the enterprise finance guarantee and saw a 13% improvement in bank lending under Merlin. But is there more to do? Yes. The Chancellor will deal with that next week.

T7. Does the Minister agree that Newcastle upon Tyne, with its great industrial heritage, will be the ideal location for a university technical college, which will provide exactly the sort of technical education that can cure youth unemployment and help meet the needs of modern manufacturing and engineering employers? (100049)

The coalition is keen to see more of these university technical colleges. They are an excellent way of linking universities and schools, and I am sure that his eloquent bid will have been noted.

Given that UK companies are sitting on some of the highest levels of cash reserves of any western nation, what steps will the Secretary of State’s Department take to release those funds for the much-needed investment in British industry?

Perhaps I should say that because of the problem of large piles of liquidity in the big corporates—this is not a new problem: it has been building up over the last decade—I asked Tim Breedon, who was formerly the chief executive of Legal and General, to look at practical ways of dealing with it, such as building up supply chain finance and new forms of trade credit. It is a serious problem, but we need business to invest, and the cash is there in many companies.

T8. I was reassured earlier to hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State describe the work that he is putting in with GM to help protect the future of Vauxhall at Ellesmere Port. In his discussions with GM, will he remind the company that Ellesmere Port is one of its most productive plants in Europe and ideally placed to build its next-generation cars, such as the all-electric Ampera? (100051)

My hon. Friend touches on the core argument. We are talking about a very productive plant, which reflects well on the management, and also on the labour force, who have been consistently co-operative. Currently the plant does not operate at full capacity; the issue for the company is how to use that production in a way that minimises excess capacity. We are confident that the UK has a strong case in ensuring that existing production—but also new models, as he said—is secured in Ellesmere Port.

The Business Secretary has just described himself as being under attack from left and right on his proposals to weaken employment protection laws. Where on that spectrum would he put Fiona Dawson, the managing director of Mars UK, who has said:

“I would like to see something that makes it easier for the workforce but it’s got to be fair. So I would not support employees’ rights being removed. I think we’ve got to make sure that it is fair, not just for businesses but for employees as well”?

How does he respond to that?

It is precisely for that reason that we are having a call for evidence, and the company that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned and others can contribute to it.

There is currently complete inequality between the bargaining position of small businesses and that of their banks. Many small businesses find themselves threatened with receivership unless they concede to higher interest rates or new charges. What can the Government do to rebalance the law in favour of enterprise?

We can do what good Conservatives do, which is to introduce competition. That is why we are ensuring that we get new entrants into the market, so that the four or five that take the view that they have an opportunity to dominate the market are unable to do so. Let us get the new entrants in. I am proud that, as a coalition Government, that is precisely what we are doing.

The most successful defence-exporting countries procure and buy from their own home-grown industries. How will the approach that the Ministry of Defence is now taking—buying off the shelf in open competition, without any regard for British firms—help us to export more to the rest of the world?

We need to ensure that we get the very best value for money on behalf of the taxpayer, but do we need to ensure that procurement contracts reflect good indigenous British businesses? Yes, and that is exactly what is reflected in the White Paper. That is the approach we want to take.

Does the Minister agree that when a company goes into administration, wages owed to its staff should be the top priority? Will he take steps to ensure that redundant Thamesteel workers in my constituency take priority over all other creditors?

I certainly agree that the interests of workers should absolutely take priority, and I would be happy to look into the case that my hon. Friend has raised.

I was very disappointed that despite an invitation, no Minister from the Department was on the Treasury Bench when I moved a motion to introduce the Eradication of Slavery (UK Company Supply Chains) Bill. Will one of the Ministers in the Department meet me to discuss the Bill’s ambition to eradicate slavery from the supply chains of large UK companies, following legislation in other countries?

I welcome this week’s report by Cranfield School of Management, which shows an increase in the number of women on company boards. Does my hon. Friend agree that this shows both how success can be achieved without imposing quotas and how much further there is to go before British industry can access the much-increased pool of talent that including women will reveal?

The initiative taken by the noble Lord Davies has been remarkably successful. Some 26% of appointments to directorships of FTSE 100 companies over the last year have been women. That is a dramatic improvement on the previous position, and we have every confidence that it will have a continuing improving effect in the boardrooms in this country.

Given that the Higher Education Funding Council for England is predicting more mergers and turmoil in the higher education sector, and that Asian universities are overtaking UK universities for the first time in our history, will the Minister come to the Dispatch Box and reassure the sector that it has a future?

I have absolute confidence in the future of our universities. Indeed, the Higher Education Funding Council has produced a report in the last few days that confirms that our universities are in a very healthy financial position. The extra income that they will receive through fees and loans should also increase in the years ahead. We inherited from the previous Government plans for a reduction in university science funding but, fortunately, those plans have not had to be implemented.

Does the Minister agree that, regardless of the success of the one-in, one-out policy, the fact that European Union regulations are not included in it means that the overall burden of regulation on businesses is likely to increase?

We are alert to that danger, which is why we have ensured that we have the agreement of the Commission that, for the first time that I can recall, micro-businesses will be exempt from future European directives. I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome that change.

An inquest is taking place this morning into the tragic death of 22-month-old Joshua Wakeham, who died after becoming entangled in a looped curtain cord. Sadly, such events are not rare; there were three in one month recently, and 360 in America in a 15-year period. Joshua’s mother has fairly asked why no one warned her of the danger. A campaign has been mounted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) and other Members to expose the danger of those cords. Will the Minister agree to meet Joshua’s family, so that we can discuss the dangers and the need for an advertising campaign so that everyone knows about the 250 million such cords in this country?

Order. It sounds as though that matter is strictly sub judice. The hon. Gentleman has been felicitous in the way he has worded his question, but I know that, in response, the Minister will want to focus on the broad issue, and possibly on a meeting, rather than on the details of a sub judice case.

With your guidance, Mr Speaker, I would say to the hon. Gentleman that the broader issue is clearly one that we should all be concerned about. In the light of your advice, I would certainly be happy to look at that broad issue on behalf of the Department.

I applauded the Secretary of State’s announcement, back in 2010, that the Government would cease the practice of gold-plating European Union regulations, but the vast majority of businesses in this country would like to see him take a more backward-looking stance and review the 13 years of gold-plating that took place under the previous Administration. Can the business community rely on the support of the Secretary of State in that regard?

My hon. Friend is clearly thinking along exactly the same lines as the Government. We are going to look at precisely that problem, by going back through the stock of regulations that were introduced by Labour during those 13 years.

The Government will be aware that this is national science week, and that the Big Bang Fair is taking place at the national exhibition centre in Birmingham. I am sure that the Minister will be pleased to hear, as I was, the good news that Coventry schools have more finalists in those events than any other schools in the country. Will he find time to join me at the national exhibition centre, where we hope Coventry will win some of the prizes in the finals when those decisions are taken?

On this occasion, I can confirm that I should be delighted to accept the hon. Gentleman’s invitation. I plan to be at the science festival in Birmingham on Friday, and I look forward to meeting him there. It will be a celebration of the strength and excellence of science in Britain.

Small and medium-sized enterprises in Harrogate and Knaresborough have been telling me about the charges they face for late payments. This is a broader, national issue as well. Will the Minister please update the House on what he is doing to tackle the issue?

As we have learned, the Labour Government introduced legislation on this, but it is not working. We want to do more. We want to ensure that the Government lead by example, and we are working with business on that. We also need to reflect on the fact that half of all business transactions are entered into without any prepayment agreements. There is therefore a fundamental problem with how business is transacted. I want to look at that, rather than simply reaching for the legislative button at the first opportunity.