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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 549: debated on Thursday 6 September 2012

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What assessment he has made of the level of satisfaction of participants and businesses with the apprenticeship system. (119391)

6. What assessment he has made of the level of satisfaction of participants and businesses with the apprenticeship system. (119396)

10. What assessment he has made of the level of satisfaction of participants and businesses with the apprenticeship system. (119400)

The Department recently completed the biggest ever survey of apprentices and their employers, which revealed the best ever satisfaction rates. Overall, almost 90% of apprentices were satisfied with their training. Employer satisfaction is also high: 88% are satisfied with the relevance of their training, and 80% remain committed to offering places.

I welcome the evidence from the Holt review that we need to do more to make apprenticeships accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises. I know from my own apprentices’ business and administration non-vocational qualifications that they are not all user-friendly to the smallest businesses, which are the driver of future jobs. Does the Secretary of State agree that employers in, for example, the Federation of Small Businesses should have more say in the content of courses and in the setting of a reassuring series of national standards?

I do agree, but let me preface my remarks by saying what a success story the apprenticeship programme is. Not only has there been a big increase in scale—more than 60% over the last two years—but there is a very high satisfaction rate. Let me also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the former Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes)—who has now moved on to higher things—and to welcome his excellent replacement, who is, indeed, part of an excellent BIS team.

The Holt study, which the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) mentioned, does acknowledge that there are barriers to SMEs’ access to the apprenticeship programme. We are trying to address them, most notably by channelling resources through employers rather than trainers: that will increasingly be the emphasis of the programme.

The Jason Holt reforms present great opportunities for the hospitality sector, which has considerable potential for employment export earnings and economic growth, but in which we need to drive productivity gains. As the quantity of apprenticeships continues to increase, how can we ensure that their quality keeps pace with it, or does better?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we need to maintain quality standards. I have asked Doug Richard, an entrepreneur with a background in this area, to give careful consideration to the quality issues and how we can shape the apprenticeship programme around genuine skills training, particularly at skill level 3 and above.

A great deal is happening in the hospitality sector. For instance, Hilton recently offered 100 new apprenticeship places. The Department will shortly hold a round-table discussion about the sector, and apprenticeships will be an important element of that.

The number of apprenticeship starts in Brighton and Hove was up by 83% last year, with many digital media businesses taking that important first step. Does the Secretary of State agree that that the digital media sector is an important part of the apprenticeship scheme?

Yes. Apprenticeships increasingly cover the service sector as well as the traditional manufacturing and construction sectors, and the digital sector is an important part of that. It depends on high technology and high skill levels, and as a result is absolutely crucial.

May I put it to the Secretary of State—as I did on the last occasion when I questioned him on this issue—that while the overall numbers are very good, there are certain problems in individual sectors such as the construction industry? If we do not ensure that the number of apprenticeships in that important sector is much greater than it is now, we shall find when the national infrastructure plan takes off, as it must eventually—indeed, with the new team behind it, it will no doubt do so in the very near future—that we do not have the apprenticeships and the manpower skills in the industry that would enable us to benefit from it.

The hon. Gentleman is right. The programme must be demand-led and business-led. When a sector is struggling, as the construction sector currently is, that affects the demand for training; but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the sector is well organised, with a levy system and a skills training board. We certainly want to see a substantial number of additional trained specialists in the construction sector, so that we do not have to rely on people coming from overseas to do the work, as we often have in the past.

Although the number of members of ethic minorities who are taking up apprenticeships is improving, there are still patterns of occupational segregation, and ethnic minorities are less likely to be represented in the industry sectors with the best long-term career prospects. What specific steps are the Government taking to ensure that members of ethnic minorities have the chance to take up the best possible apprenticeships?

I have not had that case made to me before. Certainly if there is some element of discrimination, that is unacceptable. I guess there might be a correlation with other patterns in the labour force, but I will undertake to see whether there is any evidence of there being a real problem that we need to address.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on all his new Ministers? I am delighted that he paid strong tribute to the former Further Education and Skills Minister, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes). Given his commitment to vocational education and the personal warmth he brought to his task, he will, as I am sure his successor knows, be a hard act to follow.

We now know that over the past year the number of 16 to 18-year-olds starting apprenticeships went down in the south-west, the north-west and north-east England, yet the Secretary of State’s colleagues elsewhere in Government have so far ducked out of doing anything practical to implement Jason Holt’s excellent report to get more small businesses to take on those young people. Will the Secretary of State now change that course, with an active Government response to help small businesses to take on young people for the extra apprenticeships that we desperately need, given the failures to deliver growth by No. 11 Downing street?

The Jason Holt report was published just six days or so ago, so it is perhaps unsurprising that it has not yet been fully implemented. We are certainly going to be working on it, however. There clearly is an issue with 16 to 18-year-olds who need to have a ladder into apprenticeships rather than going straight into a demanding skill course associated with a job. We recognise that there is that transition issue, therefore, and I am working with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in particular on how we address it.

Recession (Small Businesses)

These are tough economic conditions for all sorts of businesses, including small and medium-sized businesses, but the small business sector is showing signs of considerable resilience. The number of small and medium-sized enterprises grew to 4.5 million at the start of last year—an increase of over 270,000 since 2008—and the proportion of people involved in setting up and running new businesses has increased to over 7.5% in 2011, up from under 6% in 2009.

I am afraid that is not true in the Cynon Valley. Earlier this week I was talking to small businesses, who said the failure of the banks to lend has made it very difficult for them to expand and take on new workers, such as the former Remploy workers in my constituency who were so disgracefully sacked by the Government last month. We have had enough of the donkey talk of carrots and sticks. Is it not time to hold the bankers’ feet to the fire and get some movement on this matter, because it is not happening now?

I have never been shy of criticising bank performance in lending to SMEs, and I am not going to change on that. None the less, I think we should be a little more positive about what is happening. One of the most interesting figures of the last two-and-half years is that the number of private sector jobs has increased by 900,000 in conditions of economic difficulty. Almost all of those jobs are in SMEs, despite the difficulties they face. We are taking action to ensure we get a better flow of funds from the banks, particularly through the new funding for lending arrangements, over and above the guarantee scheme. There are new challenger banks such as Aldermore and Handelsbanken that are specialising in that sector and meeting some of the unmet need.

Order. I gently remind the House that we have a lot of questions to get through, so some pithiness would be appreciated.

Does the Secretary of State agree that what the small business sector in this country needs is confidence, not carping from those on the Opposition Benches? The fact that the Government have created over 900,000 jobs since the election suggests they are doing a lot of good. Does he also agree that the World Economic Forum report of this week showing that Britain’s competitiveness has risen from 10th to eighth in the world league, because, it says, of our more efficient labour market reforms, suggests we are doing exactly the right thing?

I thank my colleague for reminding me of that. It is a very positive report, and it is striking that it puts such emphasis on the fact that we have very flexible labour markets, which is one of the reasons why the private sector has been able to take on so many more people. That is publicly appreciated by many of the large manufacturing companies as well as by SMEs.

Two and a half years in, this Government still offer no significant support for small, innovative, high-growth businesses, which are exactly the kind that we need to get us out of this double-dip recession made in Downing street. The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts has called on the Government to expand the small business research initiative. Started by Labour, it uses Government procurement to help to turn innovative small businesses into world beaters—we support that call. Is it any wonder that business confidence is low when the Government plan to spend 10 times more on subsidising local weekly bin collections than on innovative small business procurement? Can the Minister tell me whether they will now change—

Order. I am sorry but the questions and answers are far too long today. A quick sentence and we are done.

Will the Government now change course and bring forward proper support for small, innovative businesses?

Small, innovative businesses are absolutely crucial, and the CBI, in particular, has focused on what it calls the “gazelles” in that space. One specific initiative that we introduced—I launched it—and which the hon. Lady may not be aware of is the growth accelerator, which is a system of providing high-quality coaching for 26,000 small and medium-sized enterprises of exactly the kind she has described. All our evidence so far suggests that it is appreciated and is working extremely well.

Skills (Young People)

3. What steps he is taking to ensure that young people leave further and higher education with the skills that employers need. (119393)

I am very pleased to answer this as my first question because it highlights a vital problem that Britain must address in order to compete in the world. The number of apprenticeships has increased by two thirds, and by 97% in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I join the tribute paid to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who brought passion and drive to this programme. He would say that we must do more and we will do more, and that is exactly what I hope to do.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new role. Even though he has been in it for only a few days, what discussions is he planning to hold with businesses to understand where the current recruitment skills gaps are? Will incentives be given to students to study the subjects that we believe are critical to the future growth industries in the UK?

My hon. Friend is exactly right; I have already been in contact with the Institute of Directors and various employers. Britain must have a skilled work force that meets the needs of employers if we are to compete against the hungry and driven rising nations of the east, and I will do all I can to deliver that.

I welcome the new Minister and the new ministerial team. May I say that some of us will miss not only the old Skills Minister, but the old manufacturing Minister? May I also push the new Minister on work-readiness, which is vital to young people seeking jobs? At a time when 1 million young people are unemployed, we have to look at best practice. There is good practice out there in further education and in higher education. We need to identify it and spread it, and to do so quickly.

One of the things that my predecessor brought to this job was a cross-party focus. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on the importance of FE colleges and the excellent work that they do in ensuring that people are ready for work when they join the work force and in continuing to improve people’s skills once they are in the work force, so that we can compete with the best in the world.

Employment Law (Low-paid and Vulnerable Workers)

4. What assessment he has made of the likely effect of proposed changes to employment law on low-paid and vulnerable workers. (119394)

22. What assessment he has made of the likely effect of proposed changes to employment law on low-paid and vulnerable workers. (119415)

We are conducting a Parliament-long employment law review to remove unnecessary burdens on businesses and give them the confidence to grow and create more jobs. Of course, we also remain committed to providing protection for low-paid and vulnerable workers.

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new job and congratulate her. I advise her to take more advice from the Business Secretary and a little less from the Chancellor’s prodigy, the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), who is sitting two up from her.

Obviously, there is genuine concern as taking away employment rights from low-paid workers is not a substitute for a proper economic growth strategy. At a time when we should be looking at ways to encourage growth and hire people, rather than fire them, what assessment has been made of the positive impact on GDP of the proposed changes?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and his kind words. It is a particular delight that my first questions at the Dispatch Box come from my near neighbours in the west of Scotland. I also thank him for his advice. Of course he is right to point out that just removing employment rights is not the way forward. However, impact assessments have been published in respect of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. It is still progressing through this House and the Government intend to make further announcements next week on employment law reform.

I, too, am delighted to welcome the hon. Lady to her new role, particularly as she is my constituency neighbour. I do not know whether she is aware that on average women workers in my constituency earn £180 a week less than they do in her constituency. What does she think the impact of the Government’s proposals will be on women workers, who are more likely to be in lower paid, less secure jobs in the first place?

I thank my parliamentary neighbour for that question, in which she highlights the discrepancy between our constituencies. Of course, women are being hugely helped by many of this Government’s reforms, particularly our taking low-paid workers out of paying income tax. That is especially helpful for part-time workers, who are disproportionately women. She also raises the issue of the pay gap between men and women, which the Government are committed to addressing.

It is very good to see my hon. Friend at the Dispatch Box. Adrian Beecroft identified in his report a number of ways in which current employment legislation is impeding the creation of new jobs. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the coalition Government will act to implement those parts of the Beecroft report that will enhance the creation of new jobs?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Contrary to many of the headlines, the Beecroft report contained a wide range of proposals, many of which the Government were already committed to bringing forward. A call for evidence on one of the more controversial issues mentioned in it closed on 8 June and the Government are committed to progressing on an evidence-based policy. It is worth bearing in mind that some business organisations have expressed concerns about that policy, but the Government will respond formally shortly.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her new post and I know that she will make an effective and assiduous Minister. Does she share my pride as a Liberal Democrat Member of this coalition Government that we are introducing measures such as flexible working and shared parental leave and rejecting the specific Beecroft proposal of a fire-at-will policy, all of which will disproportionately affect low-paid and vulnerable workers?

My hon. Friend makes her point very forcefully. I am very enthusiastic about the coalition agreement proposals for flexible working and shared parental leave and I very much look forward to taking them on.

I, too, add my congratulations to the hon. Lady. As I did with her predecessor, I wish her just a smidgen of success. Given the number of Scots who have already spoken, we should all know that “smidgen” is a Scottish term for “a very little”. In the past two and a half years, Ministers have dithered on creating opportunities to get people back to work and have presided over a package of measures that make it easier to fire rather than hire employees. Given that the hon. Lady has backed her Secretary of State in saying that the watering down of employee rights, especially for low-paid female workers, is the wrong approach, will she now change course and put in place a proper strategy for growth, or will her new right-wing ministerial colleagues pressure her to follow the same failed approach?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations in person, having received them on Twitter yesterday. The Government are announcing a range of different measures today that will support the economy and improve competitiveness. They are on the right track and I am very committed to ensuring that we make them a success.

More than 900,000 private sector jobs have been created since this Government came to power. Will the Minister guarantee that her Department will deliver growth and that we will continue to see a rise in private sector job creation?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the success in the creation of private sector jobs. Members on both sides of the House share a concern about the problems of unemployment, which is why it is vital that the Government continue with our measures to kick-start the economy.

Start-up Businesses

5. What support his Department is providing to start-up businesses expanding in developing areas of industry. (119395)

We aim to make the UK the best place in the world to start and run a business. That is why we are reintroducing the Smart awards for innovative new businesses, creating 24 new enterprise zones and committing a further £200 million to enterprise capital funds.

CN Creative in Accrington in my constituency is a growing company that designs and manufactures the best electronic cigarettes in the world. It is planning to move its entire production from China back to the UK, to my constituency, but the banks will not lend it the money it needs, which is preventing the move and jobs coming to Britain. Does the Minister realise how damaging it is to start-up companies when they cannot access credit?

We agree; it is very important that banks are encouraged to lend to successful businesses. That is what the coalition is doing. Incidentally, the old pessimism that manufacturing will always go east is clearly now being reversed. We are optimistic about the prospects of manufacturing in this country.

Following today’s fantastic announcement of a further £267 million investment programme in the Honda plant in my constituency, what measures will the Minister take to help start-up businesses to take advantage of the potential opportunities in the supply chains of Honda and the UK automotive industry?

Immediately after these questions my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is going to Swindon to join Honda in this very welcome announcement. The Department absolutely understands the importance of the supply chains behind these large companies. Of course, the commitment to the supply chain is one of the many reasons why Britain is moving up the competitiveness league table.

Graduate Employment

University remains a great route to a rewarding career: 90% of full-time, first degree leavers are in work or further study six months after graduating, and graduates earn on average £100,000 more over their working lives. We recognise the need to do all we can to help universities and businesses to prepare students for the labour market.

The Minister might be interested to know that in 2010-11 the university of Winchester recorded that 96% of its full-time teacher training graduates had gone into teaching jobs, but is he satisfied that higher education institutions are doing enough to focus prospective students on the employment prospects they can expect if they choose to study and spend significant sums of money at their institutions?

I congratulate the university of Winchester on that excellent achievement. That is why this month we are introducing, for the first time, a requirement that universities release the information on the percentage of their leavers who are in work after six months, course by course, so that prospective students can assess their performance on that crucial measure.

The Minister is well aware that going to university improves employability, but he will also be well aware that tuition fees are acting as a disincentive for many students. Specifically, I have been approached over the summer by Muslim students who are concerned about sharia-compliant financing for their tuition fees? I know that the Department is looking at this, so will he update us on progress towards achieving a model for those students?

The encouraging evidence from the UCAS application data is that people from poorer backgrounds are not being put off going to university. There is no evidence that changes in patterns of university applications are affecting poorer students in particular. I have been considering the issue of sharia-compliant student loans, and we continue to do so.

Employee Ownership

The Government have welcomed the excellent report by Graeme Nuttall, which provided a series of recommendations on how we can promote employee ownership. We will publish a full Government response to his recommendations this autumn. We have already published a call for evidence on the right to request employee ownership, and I encourage any Members who have ideas on it to get in quick as it closes tomorrow.

I thank the Minister for that answer and warmly welcome her to her new role. The German and US economies have a much greater diversity of corporate ownership structures, so I wonder whether the Minister, in addition to looking at excellent British companies such as the John Lewis Partnership, will be looking abroad for useful lessons.

We certainly will. We are always happy to learn from and share experiences with other countries. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has been looking at the issues of corporate governance. I know that my hon. Friend has had a strong career with the John Lewis Partnership, which is one of the better known examples of employee ownership, but of course there are many other great examples of British companies that do that, and we are looking forward to promoting that more widely.

Regional Growth Fund

9. When he expects all bidders from the first round of the regional growth fund to receive the funds allocated to them. (119399)

The regional growth fund is a three-year fund and we expect all the £2.4 billion allocated to be fully spent in that time. In round 1, 44 of the 67 contracts awarded have been finalised, totalling some £340 million, of which £220 million has already been drawn down. Of the other 23, 11 have been withdrawn and the remaining 12 are being processed.

I welcome the Minister of State to his new role. Having formerly been the MP for Darlington, at least he knows where the north-east is.

The regional growth fund has been mired in delay, chaos and confusion and, for some companies, no little uncertainty. How can we be certain, despite yet more reassurances, that winning bidders will receive their long-awaited awards?

My predecessor, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), can be proud that rounds 1 and 2 of the fund now involve some 149 projects and programmes, delivering about 330,000 new jobs and drawing in nearly £5 billion of private investment. The bid for Gateshead college in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency was successful in round 2. A final offer letter was sent to the college at the end of July, and the money is there waiting for the college to take it up.

I welcome the Minister to his new role and look forward to having the opportunity to question him at some stage in the BIS Committee. May I draw his attention to the fact that in the black country some companies that were successful applicants in round 2 of the RGF have still not had contracts issued, with some waiting for as long as 10 months, and that business opportunities are being lost as a result? Will he undertake to look at this rigorously in order to speed things up?

I certainly look forward to appearing in front of the hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee.

I am happy to look at any specific examples of delay that the hon. Gentleman can produce. I want in round 3 to accelerate the process—in particular, to shorten the gap between announcement and conditional offer and between conditional offer and completion of due diligence. He will understand that it is necessary, when public money is involved, for those due diligence checks to be carried out. However, I will look at what he has said and we will do everything we can to accelerate the approval process.

Community Learning

This Government are committed to community learning. We have protected the budget, and I want to see funding increasingly targeted at the most disadvantaged people. Community learning trust pilots across England are testing new ways of better involving local communities in how that money is delivered.

I thank the Minister for that response. Does he agree that it is vitally important that there are opportunities to learn throughout life, and that having protected the community learning budget, it should be focused on those with ambitions to gain new skills throughout their life but not a great deal in the way of formal qualifications?

I do agree. I have already heard of the work that my hon. Friend has been doing in supporting Truro and Penwith college and Cornwall college. Improving our nation’s skills is vital for our economic prospects, but learning has intrinsic value in its own right. Henry Ford said:

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young”,

so I hope that I have discovered the secret of eternal youth.

Community learning flourished under the previous Government and is at risk under this one. In warmly welcoming the new Minister to his role and congratulating him, may I ask him to look at my recent letter to his predecessor about LymeNet community learning centre in Lyme Regis, which was set up in 1999? I saw its great work on visiting the Axminster Methodist church job club over the summer. Rural areas cannot afford the loss of community learning that is now on the cards.

I look forward to reading that letter, but I would say this: the budget for community learning has been protected in difficult fiscal times, and that shows the Government’s intentions in this area.


In total, 450,000 new businesses were registered last year compared with 360,000 in 2009-10. We have cut corporation tax rates to an all-time low, we continue to cut red tape, we are incentivising bank lending, and we have a range of other schemes to support high-growth businesses in particular.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his post and I welcome his answer. One of the concerns that SMEs in my constituency have is that, whereas previously they had access to overdraft extensions, which represent cheap credit, banks now insist on collateralised loans, which are repayable over a term at a rate over base, which represents more expensive credit. Will the Government’s innovative reforms result in not just an extension of credit, but a reduction in its price?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is exactly right: cheaper credit is the key for many small companies. The whole aim of the funding for lending scheme is to ensure that banks pass on the reduction in the cost of the money that they themselves are accessing. The Bank of England will monitor that, but my Department will check that each bank continues to do it.

I welcome the Minister to his post. Undoubtedly, many small firms are getting a raw deal from the banks, with increased charges and limited credit. The board of Wimborne business improvement district is exploring the possibility of setting up a “bank” of Wimborne in conjunction with a local credit union, the idea being to go back to old-style banking with strong local relationships. What comment would the Minister make about that?

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already met my hon. Friend’s constituents to discuss the issue, and I believe that he has already met the founder of the Bank of Dave as well. One of the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Banking was that the Financial Services Authority should look again at the requirements for a banking licence, to see whether they are too onerous and disproportionate for the providers of very small credit. We expect the FSA to publish its recommendations shortly and I would be very happy to discuss them with my hon. Friend.

Many small businesses in my constituency run a post office as part of their business, and they are very worried about the chipping away of business and, particularly, the threat of losing the DVLA contract. What is the Minister’s Department doing to encourage the DVLA to stick with the Post Office?

I cannot comment on any specific contract that may be up for renewal. Of course, the Post Office has to live in a competitive world, but I will certainly look at what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Late payments affect the confidence of SMEs to make purchases and to pay bills and even staff salaries. In this time of a double-dip recession, does the Minister agree that implementing the European Union directive on late payments would be a great help to SMEs?

It is extremely important, particularly for small companies, that their bills are paid promptly. In Government, we have taken steps to encourage Government Departments and public agencies to pay their suppliers promptly. It is also important that we look very carefully at any specific target that may encourage people to pay on the final day set in the target, rather than earlier as they would otherwise have done. I will certainly have a look at what the hon. Lady has suggested.

London Metropolitan University (Visas)

14. What recent discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on the UK Border Agency’s decision to revoke the licence held by London Metropolitan university to teach international students. (119406)

I am in regular contact with colleagues in the Home Office. The decision to revoke the licence was a matter for the UK Border Agency.

Our priority now is to ensure that the university’s legitimate overseas students are given the help and advice they need to continue their studies. To deliver this, I set up a taskforce within hours of UKBA’s decision, which has already started work.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. He mentions the taskforce, but the direct experience of one of my constituents is that it is anything but useful. She went as far as saying that it told her nothing that could not be found on the UKBA website. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that the help and advice given by the taskforce really enable legitimate students to access alternative courses?

The crucial task in which the taskforce is now engaged is preparing a kind of mini-clearing system in which there will be firm information about places available at specific universities and on specific courses that would have been available for suitably qualified overseas students at London Met. I can tell the hon. Lady and the House that that matching process will open and start on 17 September. We also know that the UKBA will not send out any letters about their 60-day limit to apply to the overseas students affected until 1 October.

I have a registered interest.

I put it to Ministers that although enforcement is critical, the message that needs to go out from the Government is that Britain is open for business in higher education, and that we care greatly about it for students, universities and our economy. What message is being sent by this Department to ensure that the world knows that we welcome higher education students and are proud of our record?

I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman, as do the Government. Of course Britain is open for business. That includes being open to attract students from around the world who have a legitimate entitlement to study here. There is no cap on the number of overseas students who can come to study in Britain. Through our Foreign Office posts around the world, we have re-emphasised that message in the light of the experience of London Met.

The attitude of the Minister and his Government to the international reputation of the UK’s higher education sector and its importance to our economic growth is shockingly complacent. May I press the Minister on the legitimate international students at London Met who are partway through their studies? Will he guarantee that no such student will be financially worse off as a result of the licence revocation? If that is not possible, will he reconsider with his colleagues in the Home Office alternative routes by which legitimate international students may complete their studies at London Met?

I understand that one feature of the offers of places in the matching process that will be launched in 10 days’ time is that many of the universities will offer courses at the same or lower fees than the students would have experienced at London Met.

Port of Liverpool

15. What support his Department is providing to the port of Liverpool; and if he will make a statement. (119407)

I understand the importance of the port of Liverpool to the city region’s ambitions for growth. Under round 2 of the regional growth fund, the Government are supporting the port’s bid to build a terminal capable of handling the largest container ships. Key features of the city region deal have regard to the local potential for logistics and offshore technologies.

Liverpool port is thriving under the management of Peel Holdings. What can the Government do to ease transport arrangements to and from the dock?

The starting point is the recognition that Liverpool docks, having declined for many decades, now have enormous potential as a result of the £35 million that has been put in to dredging for the deep-water terminal and the support for offshore technologies. There is a major problem of access. A report has been carried out and is being followed through as part of the city region bid. We are working with the Department for Transport. We recognise that there are transport bottlenecks and there is a commitment to act on that.

Automotive Industry

16. What recent assessment he has made of the health of the British automotive sector; and if he will make a statement. (119408)

The British car and truck industry is strong and growing. More than £6 billion of investment has been committed to it by global investors including BMW, Nissan, Jaguar Land Rover and, as we have heard today, Honda. More than 80% of the vehicles made here are exported, and exports now exceed imports in value for the first time since 1975.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his post and thank him for the welcome news that he has just given. Will he assure us that he will use his new post to encourage exports by taking every opportunity to talk up and promote UK plc, unlike Opposition Members, who seem to delight in constantly talking down the success of British industry and talking down our economy?

I will certainly do what my hon. Friend suggests. I met some of the key players in the industry yesterday. The Government provide significant support for research and development, training, and improving the UK’s sourcing of the supply chain in this important industry. I announced a further £9 million yesterday for a research and development centre for energy storage to capitalise on the growing electric and hybrid vehicle battery market. The Secretary of State will today visit Honda to welcome the 500 new jobs that it is creating in Swindon. I hope that the Labour party will welcome that vote of confidence in what the Government are doing.

21. Automotive companies and many other companies rely on skilled engineers. Whenever I raise the issue, the Government talk a great deal about the importance of getting women engineers into such companies. However, they have entirely cut the grant to the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, which was ensuring that good engineers got into jobs, and have given a minuscule amount of their budget to the royal societies and the Royal Academy of Engineering. I welcome the Minister and the rest of the team to their posts. Will he ensure that this matter is looked at again so that some of the jobs in these companies go to women engineers? (119414)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for what she says, and I am happy to look again at the matter. The Government are working with the Royal Society to see what can be done to encourage more women into engineering, and specific help is available from Government to help with engineering training, particularly for the automotive industry.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) has provided an object lesson to new Members in how to shoehorn one’s own question into someone else’s, and we are greatly obliged to her.

Bioethanol Industry

The Government’s bioenergy strategy makes it clear that sustainable first-generation biofuels such as bioethanol are cost-effective in reducing carbon emissions and are an important source of renewable energy. We have sent a clear signal to the industry that there is a market for biofuels in the UK by setting it a target of creating 10% of road transport fuel from renewable energy by 2020.

I thank the Secretary of State for the work that he has done to help with the restarting of the Ensus plant in my constituency, which supports 2,000 jobs. Will he continue to work with his colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Transport and the Treasury to ensure that conditions remain right for that exciting, sustainable growth business?

I would like to reciprocate by congratulating my hon. Friend on the work that he has done on campaigning for the Ensus plant, which was mothballed but has now been reopened, creating substantial employment. I believe that a significant number of other bioethanol plants are also in gestation, encouraged by the clarity of policy. One key element was the success that we had in persuading the European Union on the subject of unfair competition from overseas. That loophole has now been closed and there is a good business environment.

City Deals

18. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the effects on business of city deals. (119411)

Local enterprise partnerships were at the heart of the eight deals with the core cities that were concluded in July, to ensure a strong focus on the growth priorities of business. An estimated 175,000 jobs over the next 20 years, and 37,000 apprenticeships, could result from those deals.

When will the second round of city deals open, so that excellent local authorities such as mine can apply?

The cities Minister, who is now in the Treasury, has been discussing with me and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government how we will launch the second phase and the criteria that should be employed. I believe there will be an announcement very soon.

Topical Questions

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

The whole new ministerial team will already be aware that Malvern is the capital of cyber-valley owing to the cluster of private cyber-security firms that are located there, close to GCHQ. Will the Minister update me and the rest of the House on the steps that the Department is taking to encourage growth in that important sector, and will he visit Malvern?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the strength of the cyber-cluster in Malvern. Yesterday evening we held a major conference at the Foreign Office, at which I and colleagues briefed representatives of FTSE 100 companies on the threat to cyber-security, the practical steps that they could take to ensure it and the strength of the British cyber-security industry.

May I first welcome the Secretary of State’s new team of minders to their positions on the Front Bench? I note that he is so irrepressible that he needs not one but three minders to keep him in check. His new minder of state, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), told the Financial Times yesterday that he would

“make sure business feels it has a senior champion in the department.”

Does the Secretary of State not feel that he himself has been a sufficient champion of business across Government of late?

I certainly regard myself as a champion of business, and the success that we have had in private sector job creation and in some of our main strategic industries, such as the car and aerospace industries, with both of which I have worked closely, is evidence of that. I very much look forward to working with my colleague, and we have exactly the same aspirations for British business.

The fact is that business simply does not believe that the Government are doing enough. Last month, the head of the British Chambers of Commerce said that he would give key politicians—presumably the Secretary of State is one of them—three out of 10 for delivery. A couple of weeks before, members of the Institute of Directors went further, stating that Government policies to support business were ineffective in every single area, and who can blame them? The Government have failed to deliver on their infrastructure plan, they have failed to get finance to businesses that need it, and they have failed to meet the delivery targets in their 2011 plan for growth. The Government are ridden with indecision. Three marks out of 10 was generous. How many marks would the Business Secretary give the Government given their litany of failure?

Whenever I talk to business groups—which I do frequently—they unreservedly support the Government’s emphasis on financial stability That is something that the Labour party takes lightly, although we have emphasised it. There is a major agenda to revive the British economy, but in his question the hon. Gentleman made no reference to this morning’s housing statement. At the moment, construction is the most difficult sector in the British economy, because of the collapse that took place in the wake of the boom that his party created when in office. This morning, the Government have proposed a series of businesslike initiatives to free up sites for private development, to put substantial guarantees and resources behind social housing, and to revive a sector that was destroyed in the false bubble created by the hon. Gentleman’s Government.

T2. How much does the UK earn from overseas students, and what assessment has the Minister for Universities and Science made of the potential for further export growth from that sector? (119418)

We estimate that overseas students in higher education bring £8 billion to the British economy, which shows what a major export industry it is. We can be very proud of the success of our higher education sector, and that is why Britain has no limit on the number of suitably qualified overseas students who can come here to study.

T3. This morning the OECD predicted that the British economy will shrink by 0.7% this year. When will the Secretary of State get on and set up a proper British investment bank, and follow the example of institutions in Germany and Brazil that between them invested nearly £100 billion last year? (119419)

The hon. Gentleman is being a little churlish in not even acknowledging that on Sunday, the Chancellor made it clear that we wished to proceed with a business bank. We are discussing the range of its activities and the resources that will be available. The hon. Gentleman knows well that growth prospects in all European countries are extremely depressed at the moment, not only in the UK.

T4. As secretary of the all-party group for post offices, I strongly support the Government’s commitment to ensuring that there are no further post office closures, as well as the ambition to develop post offices to carry out more front-office Government services. I am, however, slightly concerned about the pace of progress in making new services available through post offices, and sub-postmasters in Gloucester are concerned about the possibility of losing the DVLA contract. I appreciate that the Minister has only just arrived in her post, but will she give that issue priority in the future? (119420)

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments; he is a strong campaigner for post offices which we all recognise lie at the heart of many of our communities. He asked me to comment on a live procurement contract, which I hope he will understand I cannot do. There are, however, some reasons to be cheerful. Over the past year, the Government’s services revenue for Post Office Ltd increased for the first time in 10 years, reversing the trend of decline that we saw under the previous Government.

May I welcome the new Minister responsible for further education and skills to one of the most important economic posts in the Government? Will he confirm his backing for the successful union learning fund that helps 100,000 people a year get on to courses? It is strongly backed by employers who claim that staff with little history of learning are helped to take up training because of the unions’ work.

I am grateful for that question. It is clear that we have not only supported the union learning fund, but we will be driven by the evidence of what works to ensure that we increase the skill levels of the British population, both for its own sake and so that we can drive our competitiveness in the years ahead.

T5. I know the Front-Bench team are totally committed to promoting growth in our economy. Will the Minister set out how he will boost employment and growth in rural areas while balancing the need to protect the environment from unrestricted development? (119421)

Several local enterprise partnerships are specialising in developing the rural economy—the hon. Lady’s LEP is one of them. Such development should be dealt with properly at that level. At my level, I look forward to talking to the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about how we integrate economic development and rural development.

Three hundred and sixty of my constituents have told me that they value our local post offices. May I press the Minister to allow the post office network to allow the DVLA to have that contract for the future? Why will she not commit to doing that?

As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), that is a live procurement contract—I hope the hon. Gentleman also understands that. However, he makes his point clearly. His points are on the record and it has been noted that he is standing up for his local post offices.

T6. What is being done to assist exporters, particularly in the north-west, to achieve results that match those of the best, such as Fisherman’s Friend in my constituency, which exports 97% of its products to more than 100 countries? (119423)

Until I heard the hon. Gentleman’s question, I thought Fleetwood was primarily famous for its football team, which has just got back into the Football League. I will make an effort to visit Fleetwood. I am delighted to hear of the success of Fisherman’s Friend, which I consume a great deal of. I had not realised it was an export firm, but we will do everything we can to promote it overseas.

The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill will, in effect, introduce no-fault dismissal by the back door through the system of protected conversation, which was debated extensively in Committee. Monitoring will be difficult, but what plans do the Government have to monitor the system to ensure that it is not abused by bad employers?

There is no question of introducing no-fault dismissal by the front or the back door. The proposal in the Bill relates to settlement agreements. We are proceeding in consultation with both employers and the trade unions—there is a wide area of consensus on the matter.

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend is going to Honda Swindon today to help to mark 20 years of investment of more than £2 billion. Will he take the opportunity to discuss how trade barriers between the EU and Japan can be further removed and improved so that Honda’s position can be strengthened?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s work, and to the workers and managers in Swindon who have made a success of the plant. As many of us remember, many of them went on to part-time working and long vacations to keep the plant alive, and it is now succeeding. I have discussed trade barriers with the Keidanren in Japan and with others. There are a lot of non-tariff barriers in the automotive industry. We must deal with them if we are to have a genuine free trade agreement with Japan.

The green investment bank was first announced in the coalition agreement. Why, two and a half years later, is it not up and running properly?

The green investment bank is up and running properly. The parliamentary legislation is being put in place, and the hon. Lady has the opportunity to debate it. The team in my Department that is overseeing the bank has already disbursed significant amounts of money to energy conservation and waste projects. The bank is a success, and it will expand considerably over the next few years when it has achieved state aid approval.

Business investment in research and development is absolutely essential for growth, and yet UK business invests less in R and D than our international competitors. What can the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills do with the Treasury to encourage more investment in R and D in our businesses?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the importance of R and D. We are improving the tax reliefs available to businesses, and especially to small businesses, when they invest in R and D to encourage them to do so.

The Secretary of State mentioned the importance of growth in his Department’s mission, and yet, as we have heard, the OECD has this morning revised its growth forecast for the UK economy from plus 0.5% to minus 0.7%. Does he not see the need to change course?

We recognise the economic difficulties faced by most of the western democracies, including our own, and the hon. Gentleman knows the reason for them. We had a boom in this country that got out of control and left a substantial legacy; we have broken banks; we have a very serious consumer debt problem; and we have major problems in our export markets. Those are the factors that contribute to the current difficulties, but we have a range of policies, several of which have been announced today, that are designed to counter those areas of weakness in growth, especially in construction.

UK Trade and Investment has scored some excellent results in attracting foreign direct investment, with a particular upturn over the last two years, but the spread of that investment is not necessarily equal. What action can we take to ensure that all parts of the UK benefit from UKTI activity?

As my hon. Friend says, there has been a considerable increase in inward investment, much of it as a result of the hard work done by UKTI and indeed by Ministers. There was a particular success at the British embassy alongside the excellent Olympic games, which is attracting more inward investment to this country. In terms of regional distribution, we are drawing up agreements between the local enterprise partnerships and UKTI on how to ensure that parts of the country that currently do not receive very much inward investment get a proper opportunity to lobby for it.

I am pleased that the Minister of State has had the opportunity to spell out the importance of international students to the UK economy, and his Department has estimated that the contribution could double. I am sure that he will share my frustration at the way those prospects are being undermined by the Home Office. What is he going to do about it?

We completely understand the importance of the Home Office maintaining the integrity of our immigration controls, but BIS—and the whole Government—believe that legitimate students who have a visa entitlement to come and study in Britain should be welcome. There is no cap on those numbers and we are making every effort through UKTI and British embassies abroad to continue to communicate the message that Britain is a great place to come and study at our colleges and universities.

There has been a series of positive announcements from the aerospace industry in the last few months, especially from companies such as Rolls-Royce, which employs more than 1,000 people in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend say more about what he is doing to support the aerospace sector?

Within the last few months I have been to Sheffield to open a new centre developing frontier research on materials. There is in addition work on aerodynamics, which we developed through a new grant under the leadership programme that we have in relation to the aerospace sector. Aerospace is an excellent example of how Government and industry can work together to create growth and world-leading industries.

I welcome the new team, who will be very aware that the Government’s stated policy is to improve UK growth through exports. Will they therefore explain why there is only one UK delegate to the NATO delegation supporting British defence industry and exports to that particular market? The US have got 40, the French and Germans have several—can we please have a bit of joined-up government and will he talk to his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

I can explain what happened at that conference. My ministerial colleagues and I spend a great deal of time promoting defence exports, which are one of the main success stories in the rapid growth of our exports and one of the main features of the rebalancing that is taking place.

In my constituency, 3,000 people are waiting desperately for a council house. Perhaps one answer to that problem, both in my area and across the country, might be to consider quantitative easing through social housing bonds, to ensure that there is an explosion in council house building in this country.

I know how passionately my colleague feels about this. I was with him a few weeks ago in his constituency and there is an acute shortage of affordable housing. The issue he raises of how to get resources into affordable housing was partly met this morning by the substantial increase in guarantees of £10 billion to housing associations, which is direct funding support for social housing. I am sure that he will see a good deal of activity in the wake of this.

Further to the Minister of State’s comments about overseas students, can he explain why there has been such a substantial decrease in applications, given the consequent substantial impact that will have on the British economy?

The evidence from UCAS—admittedly it is imperfect—does not show a fall in overseas applications. Indeed, more students are either coming to Britain to study or remaining overseas and studying for British degrees. That adds up to more than 1 million people who want to come and study for British university qualifications. That is a fantastic effort, and we can increase that number.