Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 552: debated on Thursday 8 November 2012

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

Schools routinely measure the number of youngsters going on to higher education, but not necessarily those who go on to apprenticeships—something that was picked up on in the report published this week by the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills. Does the Minister think that more can be done in this area?

Yes. As I said earlier, we welcome the thorough and interesting report from the Select Committee. Recommendation 16 said that alongside university admissions, schools should publish apprenticeship starts from their former pupils, and I agree. Through the new destinations measures, which were introduced this summer, we will ensure that that happens.

There are more than 1,200 people claiming jobseeker’s allowance in the Secretary of State’s constituency. Under his proposed “shares for rights” scheme, employers in his constituency will be allowed to make the acceptance of job offers conditional on people agreeing to give up their basic rights at work for shares. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that JSA claimants in Twickenham will not lose their benefits for refusing the offer of a job because it is conditional on them giving up their rights for shares?

In a statement in the Commons a couple of days ago, I think, the Minister in the Treasury who is responsible for taxation made it absolutely clear that the scheme was voluntary. While the hon. Gentleman hunts for the ghost of Beecroft in this proposal, I will put a simple proposition to him. If employers were seriously interested in trying to set up an arrangement that had minimum job protection for employees, why would they go to the trouble of establishing a complex employee ownership scheme when they could do that so much more easily through an agency workers agreement, which would have far lesser employment rights than this proposal?

There was no answer to my question in what we have just heard from the Secretary of State. He cannot answer it because this has not been properly thought through. He has said that the scheme has had a mixed reaction. That is a gross understatement: it has been described as “awful” by the National Center for Employee Ownership. He has said that it is not intended for most ordinary businesses. It would be interesting to know which businesses have lobbied him to introduce this nonsense. While we support strongly employee ownership, it is beyond me to think why that must be tied to giving up rights at work. Is it not the case that, just as the Secretary of State was forced to consult on proposals to fire employees at will by the Treasury, he has now been forced to do the same on this crazy proposal? This is a Secretary of State in office but without the power to say no to the Chancellor.

There is no proposal to fire employees at will, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. I will repeat what I said: the scheme is entirely voluntary. He should perhaps reflect in a little bit more detail on some of the comments of both businesses and trade union stakeholders. Businesses have said that this is an interesting proposal that many are unlikely to take up. The trade unions have said, similarly, that they do not like it, but they do not expect it to have a significant impact on the labour market.

T3. Having recently taken a trade delegation of Worcestershire businesses to China, as per my entry in the register, I was impressed by the support from UK Trade & Investment that was available to small and medium-sized enterprises, many of which received sponsorship towards the cost of the trip. What is the Minister doing to ensure that the message gets out about the help that the Government are providing to smaller companies to export to the world’s fastest growing markets? (127323)

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who I think took part himself in a trade mission to China last month. I encourage other hon. Members to follow in his footsteps.

UK Trade & Investment is building relationships with its private sector partners to increase awareness of its services for exporters throughout the networks. UKTI will host export week from 12 to 16 November, when there will be more than 100 events around the UK designed to reach out to small and medium-sized enterprises, including events being organised in the west midlands to promote forthcoming market visits to Austria and Romania.

T2. Jaguar Land Rover and Tata have committed to Birmingham and Britain, transforming the Jaguar plant in my constituency into a world-class success story. Just when the plant is taking on 1,100 workers, the High Speed 2 route unnecessarily threatens its rail terminal, which would have serious implications for the company and the community. Will the Secretary of State intervene with his counterpart in the Department for Transport and meet me, because nothing must be done to put at risk the success of the biggest plant in Birmingham? (127321)

I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and anyone else concerned about this problem. I meet regularly with Jaguar Land Rover, as does the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon). This is not an issue that it has raised with us so far, but we are happy to pursue the matter. I want to reinforce what the hon. Gentleman said, however. This is a magnificent company investing £2 billion over this decade and creating high-level employment. The Government have made a substantial contribution to support it through the regional growth fund, support for the engine plant in Wolverhampton, which is now getting off the ground, and in other respects.

T8. Chester has seen record numbers of new businesses being set up in the past year, with 305 being registered during the first six months of the year—a 323% increase on the year before. Does the Minister agree that these and other recent figures show that the work that the Government are doing to encourage private sector growth and redress the north-south imbalance is beginning to deliver results in the north-west of England? (127329)

That is encouraging news and shows the strength of the small business sector in the north-west in particular. The key to encouraging small businesses is to continue to cut back the burden of red tape imposed by the last Government, to reduce the level of business taxation imposed by the last Government and to ensure that they have full access to finance through the banking system.

T4. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for meeting my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) and me to discuss the rejection of the bid for a regional growth fund grant by Durham Tees Valley airport and for his offer to meet representatives from the airport and the local enterprise partnership. Will he reaffirm his support for regional airports as drivers of economic development, and tell the House what he can do to help our Durham Tees Valley airport to deliver on its development plan and ensure that the airport is sustained well into the future? (127324)

Yes, I did indeed meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. It was a good meeting, and they have followed it up with a very good submission explaining the link between the regional airport and the growth fund bid. We are now analysing that. I hope that he would acknowledge that there has also been some good news, however, in the sense that the Tees Valley LEP has just won a substantial programme bid through the regional growth fund, which will contribute to development in his area.

Next week is global entrepreneurship week. May I welcome the work that the Government are doing to support entrepreneurship, particularly their support for the national student entrepreneurship union, for silicon valley coming to the UK next week and for the launch of the important Cambridge cluster portal, which highlights that in Cambridge there are now 1,400 technology companies employing 53,000 people and more than 10 billion-dollar companies? Does that not suggest that our policy for an innovation economy is working?

That is an excellent example of the success of our innovation policies. Like other BIS Ministers, I will be welcoming visitors from silicon valley, who I am sure will be coming to England and Cambridge to see how it is done.

T5. Every pound invested in the construction industry generates nearly three in economic activity. What support is being given to construction companies, such as Marshalls in Halifax, to get them building, boost the construction industry and protect and create jobs now—before it is too late for these companies? (127326)

The best way that the hon. Lady can help that company is to support our proposals to unlock new housing, particularly affordable housing, and new infrastructure as set out in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, which unfortunately the Labour party voted against on Monday night.

Earlier the Secretary of State gave us an update on the good progress we are making on the green investment bank. Can he confirm, however, that EU state approval specifically excludes the nuclear supply chain, which is a major low-carbon industry, and that organisations such as Sheffield Forgemasters will be excluded if we do not appeal that?

We have indeed got state-aid approval for the green investment bank. There are no plans for it to invest in the nuclear supply chain, but we have not ruled that sector out. As it happens, a working party is being assembled to develop a strategy for the nuclear supply chain, which my colleague the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), will be co-chairing, and we expect to give it substantial support.

T6. Polestar, a major printing works in my constituency, has created hundreds of well-paid jobs through its investment in recent years. However, its bid to the regional growth fund to create hundreds more jobs has been turned down. Will the Minister look at how such firms can get good quality feedback, so that hopefully they can submit successful bids in future and create those jobs? (127327)

I will certainly do that. All unsuccessful bidders are offered feedback from the regional growth fund secretariat, and if that has not happened, I am happy to arrange it for Polestar in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. There were a number of other successful bids in the Sheffield and Yorkshire region, which I hope he will acknowledge will bring more growth and jobs to Sheffield.

Perhaps the most valuable long-term economic legacy of the Olympics will be a boost in UK tourism. To achieve that we will need a few high-profile attack brands. London will of course be one of them; another must surely be the Lake district. What plans do the Government have to make the Lake district an attack brand for UK tourism?

I had an opportunity recently to meet my hon. Friend and his local enterprise partnership, which is one of the most dynamic and is dominated by small business, most of it focused on the tourism industry. He is absolutely right that one of the key legacies of the Olympics is attracting people to come to the UK, and I am happy to talk to him even more frequently than I do at the moment about tourism.

The Minister of State has been to Darlington and should be, but probably is not, embarrassed by the decision he made to decline the regional growth fund bid for Durham Tees Valley airport. Is he as shocked and frustrated as we in the north-east are to learn that there is now £1 billion of unallocated RGF money in his Department’s coffers?

I have not only been to Darlington, as the hon. Lady knows, but I spent 10 years of my life there—and, in the interests of social mobility, I was happy to give her predecessor a leg up the political ladder. I look forward to my visit to the north-east next week. The Secretary of State has already explained the circumstances in which the bid for the airport was turned down, but I have to tell her that the north-east did extremely well in round 3 of the regional growth fund. I look forward to hearing more about some of the successful projects when I visit next week.

I welcome the good news that the British Antarctic Survey is to continue as an independent organisation. May I underline the need to ensure that it remains on a firm and sustainable footing, and also add my thanks to the Minister for helping in that matter?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The decision by the Natural Environment Research Council to continue supporting the British Antarctic Survey has been widely welcomed. At the beginning of this year I had the opportunity to go to Rothera and the Antarctic and can personally confirm the excellence of the research that the British Antarctic Survey does.

Ministers tell us that they are well minded against capricious regulation, perverse taxation and over-interpretation of EU judgments. Will one of them therefore listen to the consortium of intermediate alcohol producers and exporters across the UK? They have profound concerns about the impact on their business of HMRC’s changes to notice 163, which go far beyond a one-off adjustment to a marginal tax rate.

I am certainly prepared to look at that. One of the purposes of the red tape challenge was to ask businesses themselves what were the issues constraining growth, and I am happy to look into that matter for the hon. Gentleman.

I was disappointed that I could not join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his recent visit to the MIRA technology park. Despite my personal disappointment, will he join me in celebrating this world-class project, which will create 2,000 jobs in the midlands region, and does he agree that it has been facilitated by the regional growth fund and the enterprise zone policies of this Government?

Indeed, I have now been twice to MIRA. It is a magnificent institution and one of the most successful in the UK at promoting advanced technology. MIRA has benefited from the regional growth fund and a successful enterprise zone, and could well expand to become a world-class centre for transport technology.

The growth of businesses in rural areas is being constrained by the lack of access to broadband. Even where businesses can achieve the Government’s target of 2 megabits, they are finding that that is the download speed, and they are still constrained by the greatly inferior upload speed. Will the Government consider reassessing the 2015 target of 2 megabits?

I will certainly do that. This is an issue for businesses in rural areas across the country. Clause 7 of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill will help to accelerate the roll-out of broadband, not least in rural areas, but the hon. Gentleman joined his party in voting against it on Monday night.

I think that most of us in the House would admit that the Secretary of State is passionate about manufacturing and business, and he exhibited that last Thursday when he came to Huddersfield to visit our textile training centre of excellence. Why cannot we have more all-party agreement on some of the challenges that we face? The recommendations in the Heseltine review give us an opportunity to adopt a common strategy across the House. Is that a challenge that the Secretary of State is willing to take up?

I am absolutely willing to take up that challenge. There is an enormous amount of wisdom in the Heseltine report and we will of course respond to all 89 of its recommendations in due course. I was particularly enthusiastic about his strong endorsement of the industrial strategy, an important part of which could well be the resuscitation of the textile industry of which the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has been a prominent advocate and which I was happy to visit in Huddersfield a couple of weeks ago.