Skip to main content

Business, Innovation and Skills

Volume 555: debated on Thursday 20 December 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

Payday Lenders

The Government are not aware of any robust research that quantifies the effect of payday loans on areas of social deprivation, but I expect that there are links. We are very concerned about the findings of the interim report from the Office of Fair Trading’s payday compliance review and strongly support any enforcement action that the OFT takes. Payday lending can work for some people in some circumstances, but it is not a solution to long-term financial difficulty.

Scotcash, which represents many vulnerable families in Glasgow, has brought to my attention a payday loan agreement in which the APR is a staggering 7,200,000%. Given that Which? has indicated that more than 48% of those who take out payday loans believe that they will not be able to repay them, is it not now time for the Minister to commit to firm statutory regulation in 2013 rather than relying on wishy-washy voluntary codes?

The hon. Lady raises two specific issues in her question. Although there is concern about high interest rates, just as when someone hires a car for three days they do not look at the annual cost of doing so, with short-term credit the APR is not necessarily the most relevant statistic. The hon. Lady’s second point was on affordability assessments and the detrimental effect of people being lent money they should not be lent when debt advice would be much more appropriate. That is a significant concern. The Government are considering the OFT’s review and the OFT is already taking action—it has opened formal investigations into several payday lenders. We expect the final report early in the new year and the Government are committed to ensuring that we take action on this issue.

Green Manufacturing Jobs

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change on investment in green manufacturing jobs. (134534)

I regularly meet the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to discuss energy and climate change policies, including investment in green manufacturing jobs in the north-east and elsewhere. We are committed to supporting green technologies including offshore wind, for which a sector strategy is to be published in the spring.

On Teesside and elsewhere in north-east England we have seen tremendous investment in green industries, but we have also seen billions of pounds-worth of contracts for British offshore wind farms placed abroad in Germany and Holland. I had hoped there would be provisions in the Energy Bill, which had its Second Reading yesterday, to ensure that British firms got British jobs. There are no such provisions. Has the Secretary of State suggested any amendments to the Energy Bill to ensure that we get British jobs?

We are pursuing this not through legislation but through practical action and we are working with the developers’ forum to try to ensure that at least 50% of supply chain work comes back to the UK. We cannot do that unless we have the capacity, which is why we have established the catapult centres in the north-east and Glasgow to develop basic technology as well as the six renewable engineering centres, which will develop our engineering capacity.

A small business in my constituency conveyed to me that it has considerable doubts about the implementation of the green deal and is therefore reluctant to invest in training for new employees and to make any other investment that might be appropriate to meet the demands of the green deal. What reassurance can the Minister give that the green deal will be implemented and that those opportunities will be there for small businesses?

I know that my colleague the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change attaches enormous importance to the green deal. It is, as I understand it, completing its state aid clearance in Brussels. When it is launched there will be a major incentive for people to improve their homes and to develop jobs on the back of that.

The Minister of State tells the Institute of Directors that his Secretary of State sometimes escapes his electronic tag, while the Energy Secretary has to slap down his Minister of State over wind energy, so investors no longer know what Government policy is and Business, Innovation and Skills Ministers are too busy tracking the Secretary of State to help create clarity and green manufacturing jobs. Given that this is the season of good will, cannot the hostilities cease? Will the Secretary of State ask for permission from his Minister of State at least to undo his electronic tag a notch or do, and will not BIS and DECC Ministers snuggle up together to watch “Strictly”, eggnog in hand, and promise to come back in 2013 determined to focus on British enterprise and industry, not departmental infighting and ministerial surveillance?

While we are on our links with the criminal underworld, perhaps I should explain to the House that I have responsibility for offender learning, and one of my plans for the new year is to lay on a basics economics class for the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

Strike Action

3. What plans the Government have to make it a requirement that more than 50% of the eligible membership must approve strike action for it to take place. (134536)

With tube strikes planned for this Christmas, I suggest that it is not right that a minority of employees, particularly in the public services, can hold employers and the public to ransom. May I urge the Government to revisit this one?

I hear what my hon. Friend says. Obviously, we are pleased that the CrossCountry and ScotRail strikes have been called off. Dialogue is always the best way to resolve these issues. Strike action is a sign of failure on both sides, so resolving the issues is always the best solution. On the subject of a minimum turnout and vote, I gently point out to my hon. Friend that his Conservative colleague, Nick Alston, is the new police and crime commissioner for Essex and was elected with the support of 6.6% of the electorate.

The right to withhold one’s labour is a mark of a country’s democracy. Does the Minister agree that any move to restrict that right is a move in an anti-democratic direction?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. It is also worth noting that strikes and industrial action at present are at historically low levels. That is a sign of positive industrial relations and is to be welcomed. Trade unions play a very important role, and although the headlines generally focus on industrial action and strikes, the excellent work that they do on training and resolving workplace disputes often does not hit the headlines and should be commended. We always keep issues under review, but it is fair to say that the industrial action laws and situations are generally working well.

Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (Exports)

4. What steps he is taking to increase the number of small and medium-sized enterprises which export to international markets. (134538)

8. What steps he is taking to increase the number of small and medium-sized enterprises which export to international markets. (134543)

Exporting is a key part of the Government’s plans to return the economy to sustained and balanced growth. That is why we have increased funding to UK Trade and Investment in the autumn statement—an extra £140 million over the next two years—enabling UKTI to double the number of small and medium-sized firms supported from 25,000 to 50,000 by 2015.

Automotive Insulations is a supplier to the motor industry based in my constituency and has increased turnover from £3 million to £14 million over the past few years, expanding its business to supply European motor manufacturers as well as those based in the UK. The current advice and support from UKTI is to focus on fast-growing markets outside Europe, but does the Minister agree that starting to export is a very big step for a small or medium-sized business and it is often easier to start exporting by supplying to our closest neighbours?

I congratulate Automotive Insulations on its extraordinary success over the past few years. Of course for an automotive company it may make sense to start with helping to penetrate the European supply chains, but in due course it may want to look further afield. In the end, this is a matter for the company to decide, but of course it is for the Government to provide help and advice.

Brentford and Isleworth is one of the fastest growing areas for new businesses in the country, with an increase of about 9%. It is important that we encourage SMEs to export around the world so that people can experience what is great about buying British. Will my right hon. Friend support and attend a trade and investment fair that I would like to organise for west London in the springtime, which will give local businesses more information on breaking into emerging markets and help them grow for the future?

I would be delighted to help with that event in any way I can, and I will ensure that officials from Shand house, UK Trade and Investment’s regional London office, help as much as they can, too. I am aware of the exporting success of companies in west London. We would like to do everything we can to assist my hon. Friend.

The Minister will know that Yorkshire has a large number of manufacturing firms that export all over the world. They are particularly strong in the green sector, which the Secretary of State left out of his description a few moments ago—I am sure that he did not mean to, because he has been very supportive of manufacturing in Yorkshire. The fact of the matter is that the Treasury is the problem. We need more leadership from the Treasury and co-ordination across all Government Departments to ensure that we have the right skills and the appropriate level of investment in the manufacturing industry for this time.

I am very surprised to hear that kind of criticism after an autumn statement that increased investment allowances, announced a further round of regional growth funding and further lifted the burden of taxation on British business. British business has welcomed the autumn statement. I think that the hon. Gentleman ought to read it again.

Small and medium-sized businesses are clearly the heart of the community as they create and maintain jobs. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that we have a UK strategy that enables all parts of the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland in particular, to benefit from international markets?

UKTI is UK-wide and, of course, does everything it can to support exports from every part of the United Kingdom. As I have said, there is an increased focus on helping small and medium-sized firms to export, which is why we are providing a new facility from April to extend credit totalling £1.5 billion for small firms that need it for longer term financing—three to five years—for contracts overseas.

18. The improvements the Minister mentions with regard to UKTI are being recognised in Lancashire, with much more outreach work with local chambers of commerce and Members of Parliament. How will he build on that, particularly with smaller businesses that, as other Members have mentioned, often lack the personnel to attend conferences during the day? (134556)

Let me reassure my hon. Friend that UKTI will continue its outreach activity in Lancashire and the rest of the country to encourage and support as many businesses as possible. Exporting is vital for our economy and exports are now increasing again, which is why UKTI was given such a boost in the autumn statement. That means UKTI is increasing its number of international trade advisers, and we are also placing officials from UK Export Finance in the regional offices so that more businesses, particularly small businesses, can benefit from their advice.

Business Bank

The statement I have laid before the House today details recent progress, including the appointment of individuals to chair the bank’s advisory group and lead work on the institution’s design. Good progress is also being made on designing the bank’s interventions. To that end, my officials have been engaging closely with challenger banks, non-bank lenders, the main high street banks, financial advisory firms and financial services representative bodies.

Although I welcome the Chancellor’s commitment to funding the business bank quickly, in contrast to the 13 years of boom and bust under the last rotten Labour Government, will the Secretary of State reassure me that this measure, together with others, such as lending funds to businesses, will do much to reassure local businesses, given the challenges they currently face?

Of course I recognise that the borrowing position for many small companies dealing with the banks remains difficult. The evidence suggests that the funding-for-lending scheme that the Chancellor introduced is having a significant impact, and the British business bank will significantly improve the level of finance available to British businesses, especially SMEs.

My constituent Sally Hares runs a business, Hare’s Moor, which repackages fresh products for making curries. She cannot access a loan of £5,000 for a repackaging machine. Will the Secretary of State meet her to find out which fund she can access so that she can grow her business?

I will certainly ensure that the hon. Lady and her constituent get good advice on the range of opportunities available to them. This is somewhat removed from the immediate concerns in establishing the bank, but she legitimately raises an important issue; many small companies cannot get credit.

The small business bank provides the last chance for this Government to take meaningful action that could ensure the vital flow of cash to Britain’s small businesses. The reality among the small businesses that I speak to is that they do not have any of the confidence that the Secretary of State seems to be exuding about the access to finance that is out there. There is a worrying lack of urgency and clarity about the Government’s plans. Will he publish a timetable for the establishment of the business bank and update us on progress with all the main elements that will need to be in place, such as when it will apply for a banking licence, when lending will begin, and when state aid approval will be sought?

There is certainly no complacency. We recognise that there is a very serious problem that ultimately resulted from the collapse of the banks in 2008-09, which has had devastating long-term consequences, and we are seeking to address that with a variety of interventions. There are positive things, including the emergence of challenger banks. When the advisory group meets early in the new year we will set out a detailed plan of action, including dates and objectives. I am happy to brief Labour Members when we have concrete detail.

Further Education Colleges

6. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that further education colleges provide a modern learning environment. (134540)

10. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that further education colleges provide a modern learning environment. (134545)

The autumn statement released £270 million more in funding to upgrade further education colleges, and I can today announce that details of the college capital fund are being published by the Skills Funding Agency. These new funds take to over £1 billion investment in college capital in this Parliament, because the Government believe in helping everybody to reach their potential.

The Government’s commitment to further education is very clear and very welcome. Ministers’ commitment to making sure that the merged Southwark and Lewisham college in my constituency is a success is particularly welcome. Given that we have now heard that the college intends to keep a major presence on the Bermondsey and Waterloo sites, may I encourage Ministers to continue to support the progress of developing a major educational campus, ideally including the university technical college and the secondary school, on the Bermondsey site?

The right hon. Gentleman and I had an extremely productive meeting with stakeholders on the future of Lewisham college, which is soon, as he says, to change its name, and I hope that a resolution can be brought that satisfies all parties.

Wiltshire college’s Chippenham campus missed out on a £36 million rebuild during the fiasco that was the Learning and Skills Council’s capital programme under the previous Government. The college now has more focused plans to build an engineering facility at the Chippenham campus. Will the Minister ensure that college campuses that missed out while the sun shone get more than their roofs fixed this winter?

Wiltshire college has already undertaken building works up to the value of £6 million, including through the third stage of the capital grants that were released this September. However, I hear very clearly the hon. Gentleman’s call for work at the Chippenham campus, and I look forward to receiving his submission. As I say, the details of the investment fund have been published today, so work can proceed apace.

Can the Minister confirm that as a result of the current plans for further education loans, his Department forecasts 100,000 fewer learners in the sector? What is he going to do to make sure that does not happen?

We are working very hard to ensure that those over the age of 24 in advanced learning have the opportunity to take out a loan if required. We are ensuring as best we possibly can that the process goes through smoothly and, most importantly, that everybody knows of the opportunities that are available due to the loans.

What steps is the Minister taking to work closely with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that obstacles do not come in the way of people trying to enter further education while they are in periods of unemployment? I have a constituent who had to give up a course because the DWP failed to inform the college on time that she was on the relevant benefit to get fee exemption.

For far too long the skills system and employment system have not interacted well and have not spoken to each other. I probably spend more time with the employment Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), than with any other Minister outside my Department. I had two meetings with him on Tuesday and will have three meetings with him today, so we are working extremely hard to try to bring to an end the inconsistencies that the hon. Lady rightly highlights and that have been there for far too long.

Central Bedfordshire college also lost out in all its attempts to get capital funding under the previous Government. Does the Minister have any words of encouragement for the college? Its buildings are old and need to be renewed.

My hon. Friend is a passionate advocate for Central Bedfordshire college. I am glad to say that the increased funding provided in the autumn statement means that those bids that narrowly missed out, such as that of Central Bedfordshire college, have a very good chance of proceeding at the next stage, not least because that college’s bid was very good value for money, though it fell down on some technical aspects. We are looking very closely at how we can proceed with the new funds available.

As well as needing bricks and mortar, a modern learning environment in further education colleges means expanding qualifications and courses, particularly in science, engineering and technology. The Gatsby Foundation, backed by Lord Sainsbury, told Doug Richard’s apprenticeship review that we would need more than 400,000 technicians at levels 3 and 4 over the next eight years and that we could guarantee quality apprenticeships in that regard by linking them to professional registration. Does the Minister agree that that offers an excellent opportunity for FE colleges and others to take a lead, but that they need extra resources for those subjects now, not later, if older learners are not to be put off from becoming technicians, as we have argued, and his predecessor, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), agreed when making concessions on FE loans?

There was rather a lot in that question. I certainly agree with Lord Sainsbury. The Gatsby Foundation does excellent work in producing more occupational qualifications that have the standing of the industries they support. More occupational qualifications in this country would be a very good thing, because we have serious skills shortages, not least, as the hon. Gentleman has said, in the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—particularly engineering. We are doing everything we can, including working with Lord Sainsbury, to turn that situation around.

Construction Output Figures

7. What assessment he has made of the latest construction output figures; and if he will make a statement. (134541)

The latest Office for National Statistics figures show that the seasonally adjusted volume of construction output fell by 2.5% in the third quarter of 2012. The volume of new construction orders, however, rose by 5.4% in the third quarter of 2012.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but the fact is that construction is in deep recession, with output falling by 10% between the fourth quarter of 2011 and the third quarter of this year. Industry is, indeed, in crisis. Is it not time for the Government to boost construction, including a programme of local authority house building to house the almost 2 million households on waiting lists?

Certainly, the construction industry has had a torrid time ever since the collapse of the bubble in residential and commercial property. I know that there is a lot of distress in the sector, but there is some indication of orders improving. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have taken action in the past few months. In September, we launched the programme of guarantees for social housing bodies to proceed with construction and raise capital for that purpose, and the autumn statement announced £5.5 billion-worth of new commitments, mainly through guarantees, for infrastructure projects.

The Government themselves procure construction projects. A local business in my Kettering constituency is the sub-contractor on a major Ministry of Defence contract, yet its payment terms from the principal contractor have gone up from 60 days to 90 days to 120 days. Will the Secretary of State work with other Government Departments to make sure that sub-contractors are paid on time?

The hon. Gentleman raises issues in respect of late payment and the sub-contracting chain. One of the things that we are doing as part of the industrial strategy is, perhaps for the first time, bringing together the construction industry as a whole to work through supply-side issues, including late payment.

Will my right hon. Friend look at the high level of regulation, particularly with regard to construction sites? Does he have any news on how we can deregulate further in order to allow construction to proceed more rapidly once planning permission has been given?

The red tape challenge is designed precisely to look at areas where regulation is excessive and inappropriate. On health and safety, however, construction sites are notoriously dangerous and we need to maintain basic standards.

British Antarctic Survey

9. What steps he plans to take to protect and support the work of the British Antarctic Survey following his decision not to merge that body with the National Oceanography Centre. (134544)

I saw the important work of our scientists when I visited the Falklands and the Antarctic last February. The Natural Environment Research Council has committed to maintain funding of the British Antarctic Survey at £42 million a year for the rest of this spending period. The NERC should, in future, have a discrete funding line for the Antarctic from within the ring-fenced science budget, subject to future spending reviews, to ensure that there is a visible UK commitment to Antarctic science and our presence in the region. It is a fitting tribute that the southern part of the British Antarctic Territory has been renamed Queen Elizabeth Land in honour of Her Majesty the Queen at the end of a glorious jubilee year.

The whole House and the entire nation will be delighted at the Government’s announcement that part of the British Antarctic Territory will be named after Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in this diamond jubilee year. The House is also delighted that the British Antarctic Survey has been rescued from the previous proposals. Is it possible for the British Antarctic Survey to work more closely with the Falkland Islands? Does the Minister recognise the importance of having British sovereign territories in that region of the world to conduct scientific research and endeavour?

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s work on behalf of the Falklands and the British presence in the Antarctic. There is already practical co-operation. I have seen for myself the support that the Falklands Islands provides to the British Antarctic Survey. While I was in the Falklands, I met the director of the newly created South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute in his office at Stanley cottage. Although the NERC cannot legally fund the institute, we are offering non-financial assistance by giving advice, hosting visits and facilitating partnerships with British universities.

Life Sciences

Last week, the Prime Minister launched the “One Year On” report for our life sciences strategy, which included a new commitment to sequence 100,000 genomes. In the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced an additional £100 million for life sciences research and, in the past year, more than £1 billion of private sector investment has been attracted to the UK on the back of Government initiatives for the life sciences. We are therefore succeeding in creating the right environment to attract global life sciences investment.

I welcome the Government’s progress report, “Strategy for UK Life Sciences—One Year On”, and the Minister’s strong support for this vital sector. Given the critical contribution of life sciences and pharmaceuticals to Macclesfield’s local economy, what plans does he have to build on this important momentum in the year ahead?

We need to do more and we can do more. We are going to work closely with British businesses, including AstraZeneca, which I remember visiting with my hon. Friend in his constituency earlier this year. That company has received a conditional offer through round 3 of the regional growth fund. We are continuing to back this very important, internationally competitive industry.

Copyright Law

I am taking a number of steps to reform copyright law, in response to the Hargreaves review. Today, I am publishing the Government’s decision on changes to copyright exceptions, which I believe will achieve the right balance between creators, rights holders and users. The document, “Modernising Copyright: A modern, robust and flexible framework”, has been placed in the Library.

Does the Secretary of State agree that intellectual property rights and copyright underpin the success of our creative industries, which are so important to the economy? Is he concerned that many in those industries feel that the Government, on the back of the Hargreaves report, will dilute their intellectual property rights, not least in the area of exceptions to copyright law?

The hon. Gentleman is right that the creative industries sector, which is crucial to the economy, depends heavily on intellectual property rights. However, we are dealing with a body of law that is extremely old—I believe that it goes back to Queen Anne. It certainly needs modification in the digital age. He is right that we need to move extremely carefully. That is why, over the last few weeks, we have been in discussions on some of the sensitive issues in relation to copying music and photography. When he studies the report in the Library, he will see that we have got the balance right between rights holders and liberalisation.

Regulation Costs

The Government are reducing the overall burden of regulation affecting business. From January we will further tighten the screw on regulation by doubling the challenge from one in, one out to one in, two out. The impact of regulation is independently verified and reported twice a year in the statement of new regulation. We published the fifth statement this week for the first half of next year, which forecasts that by July we will have reduced the annual cost of regulation to business by over £900 million.

I was told by a colleague that early in this Parliament a Minister responsible for deregulation—not the current Minister—rushed into a meeting with his colleagues to say that although his civil servants wanted to increase the number of regulations on business by 67 this month, with hard fighting he had beat them down to 57. That is still 57 extra regulations this month. Is my right hon. Friend going to bear down on that and ensure that by the time of the next general election there is a real, dynamic reduction in regulation on business?

Yes. This Government intend to be the first ever to reduce the overall burden of regulation during their time in office. If my hon. Friend looks at the fifth statement of new regulation, he will see that—significantly—more regulations will be removed over the next six months from January than will be added. As I said, the overall cost reduction to business is nearly £1 billion.

I welcome that approach, but are the Government also estimating the cost of a lack of regulation such as, for example, the practice of upward-only rent reviews for high street shops, irrespective of falling turnovers? Such rent reviews are heaping further costs on businesses and making them less viable.

There is downward as well as upward movement in that sector, but I will certainly refer the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the Minister for Housing.

Regulators (Fees)

14. What recent assessment he has made of the level of fees charged to business by regulators. (134551)

Recent reviews by my Department through the focus on enforcement initiative have uncovered a range of problems reported by business about the way that more than 50 regulators enforce the law, including inconsistency and lack of clarity over the charging of fees.

As my right hon. Friend will know, regulatory sloth and incompetence are currently damaging a business in my constituency and one in South West Bedfordshire. Will he take steps to ensure that regulators are not incentivised to damage businesses through unjustifiable fees?

I am aware of the issue in my hon. Friend’s constituency concerning the implementation of the biocidal products directive. Systemic, not just isolated, problems are damaging the relationship between regulators and industry. Last month we acted to stop regulator charging regimes that incentivised regulators to increase their costs to industry, and we will place a duty on regulators to bear down on costs and report publicly on how costs and fees are calculated. Regulators will have to demonstrate that they are efficient, and give industry the information it needs to hold regulators to account.

Manufacturing (Investment)

Manufacturing is crucial to economic recovery. The autumn statement announced measures to encourage greater investment in manufacturing, including a significant increase in the annual investment allowance from £25,000 to £250,000; £310 million for the regional growth fund; and an extra £120 million for the advanced manufacturing supply chain initiative. The House will also welcome the announcement by Nissan yesterday of a £250 million investment in a new premium brand car to be built in Sunderland, which the Government expect to support under the regional growth fund.

The recent increase in capital investment allowances will create a massive boost for small and medium-sized manufacturing businesses in south Staffordshire and the west midlands. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact that that will have on manufacturing businesses across the United Kingdom?

I expect the increase in capital allowances to have a positive effect. Under this Government, manufacturing share of gross domestic product is rising, but under the previous one nearly 1.7 million manufacturing jobs were lost, and our manufacturing share of GDP declined. The measures we announced in the autumn statement, together with the measures we have taken to rebalance our economy and put our public finances in order, leave British business very well placed to continue the recovery.

Order. We have already heard from the hon. Gentleman in substantive questions and it is not long before we will have the delight—I hope—of hearing from him again in topical questions. Members cannot, I am afraid, have two goes at substantives. One can almost have too much of a good thing.

Higher Education

16. What recent assessment he has made of his changes to higher education and to the level of student tuition fees; and if he will make a statement. (134553)

The proportion of English school leavers accepted by universities for 2012-13 was the second highest on record. Final data show that acceptance rates from disadvantaged areas increased. More students are getting into their first choice universities.

But UCAS data show that there was an overall 11% fall in applications for higher education in 2012-13, and early indications are that the number of applicants for 2013-14 will fall further. Is the Minister worried by that emerging trend, and if so, what will he do about it?

Of course, entry to British universities is competitive, and we have many more applicants than places, but we will continue to get across the message that no student has to pay up front to go to university, and that students start paying for university only if they are earning more than £21,000. That is a very fair way of financing our universities.

What measures is the sizzling science and higher education Minister putting in place to ensure that applicants to universities have the very best information on the outcomes of their courses?

For the first time, we have required that key information sets contain the information that prospective students want about, for example, employment outcomes from particular courses at particular universities. People are entitled to that information—it was not available before, but now it is.

I am afraid the Minister is trying to gloss over the facts of his record. The reality is that two years on from the Government’s decision to treble tuition fees to £9,000 a year, applications have dropped by 54,000, which is 11%; acceptances are down, as are the numbers of mature learners and part-time learners; his core and margin policy has caused nothing but chaos and confusion; his AAB policy has been a dramatic failure; and to top it all off, legitimate international students are choosing to go to our competitor countries to study as a result of Home Office policies. Is not the truth that the past two years under this Government have been a disaster for students and universities alike?

The fact is that the confusion is over the Opposition’s policies. We know they are planning to reduce fees to £6,000, but there is no indication of what they will do to compensate universities for the loss of those revenues. The only time the hon. Lady came to the House to explain her policies, it became clear she would abolish bursaries for students under access funds. Under this Government, we have more students going to university, well-funded universities and more students getting their first choice than ever before. We are proud of those reforms.

Business Start-ups

If women started businesses at the same rate as men start businesses, 150,000 extra businesses would start up in the UK each year, yet just 28% of those benefiting from the Government’s new enterprise allowance scheme are female. What Christmas present could the Minister give to women wanting to start businesses next year?

We are extremely proud of the sharp rise in the number of start-ups under this Government, but we want to do more and to go further. If, as the hon. Lady says, women started businesses at the same rate as men, the number would rise still more. We are helping through the new enterprise allowance. We have extended start-up loans, and some of the brilliant schemes—such as the Peter Jones academy—that help young entrepreneurs to know what it takes to start a business are already having an effect. We are making rapid progress, but I want to do much more.

Internet Access (Rural Areas)

19. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the use of satellite broadband for delivering internet access in rural areas. (134557)

We see satellite broadband as an essential means to deliver faster internet access for rural communities, businesses and individuals. Everywhere in Britain can therefore access broadband via satellite. This is an issue we regularly discuss with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

How will the latest round of European Space Agency negotiations support the UK companies that want to deliver satellite broadband to my constituents in West Worcestershire?

We got an excellent outcome from the European Space Agency ministerial last month. Britain is now the leader of the ARTES 2 programme for the development of the next generation telecommunications platform. It is great to see British businesses taking a lead here, and this will increase broadband speeds and reduce costs for UK users in rural and remote areas, making satellite broadband even more accessible.

Topical Questions

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

Given the acknowledged need to get finance quickly to the SME sector, does the Secretary of State share my concern that the British business bank will not be fully operational until the autumn of 2014? Given that private sector models such as Aldermore have been up and running to a much quicker timescale, can he give an assurance that he will try to speed the process along at his end?

The business bank has already been established, and it will be up and running next year. Of course, the full clearance of European state aid, which is a necessary formality for certain kinds of lending, will take longer. I acknowledge the role of Aldermore and other banks, such as Metro and Handelsbanken, which is very important. This bank will complement and support them.

T3. Does the Minister agree that it is the wide range of educational provision in the higher education sector that really benefits young people, and if so, what is he doing to increase the diversity of that provision? (134561)

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of diversity, and that is why we have liberalised the rules on the size of institutions that can take the name “university”, as a result of which 10 more higher education institutions fulfilled that criterion, seven of which have already received approval from the Privy Council to become universities.

This has been a sad week for British retail. Comet has closed its doors after 79 years of trading. I am sure that the whole House will want to convey our deepest sympathies to the 6,900 employees who have subsequently lost their jobs at the worst possible time of year. Given that in less than a year the owners appear to have lost the £50 million dowry they received to buy the business and left the taxpayer with a £49.4 million bill, will the Secretary of State commit to publishing the findings of the inquiry he has set up into this affair?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the collapse of the Comet chain has caused great distress, not only through direct job losses but through the effect on the supply companies. There is also a large amount of unpaid credit—£230 million, I think—and not least the taxpayer stands to lose £50 million. He repeats some of the very serious allegations that are being made about the people involved in the company. I take the allegations very seriously and that is why I have asked my Department to conduct a thorough inquiry under the powers it has.

The hon. Gentleman asked about publication. As it happens, under the law I am not allowed to publish the report, but I will try to ensure that he and his Front Bench colleagues are properly briefed whenever information becomes available.

I am grateful for that reply. In the case of Comet, OpCapita has very serious questions to answer. Cases such as these are also raising questions about our insolvency regime in general, which—in spite of being one of the best in the world—needs to be improved. For example, the number of reports of directors being unfit to hold office has increased, but the percentage of directors being disqualified has fallen massively. The pre-pack procedure has been heavily criticised, and we could adopt elements of the US chapter 11 procedure here.

The Department has said that it is reviewing the overall insolvency framework to see whether it is fit for purpose. For the benefit of the House, will the Secretary of State outline who is to do that review? Will there be a call for evidence, and when may we expect to be told the results?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this episode reveals wider possible failures in the system. There may well be better ways to handle insolvency—although it is fair to say that in general the British insolvency regime is regarded as one of the best internationally—and we should be open-minded about other approaches. The American chapter 11 system may well be better and I want to have a proper look at that. We are specifically going to have a look initially at a narrow issue concerning insolvency practitioners and their fees. The Insolvency Service is being looked at as part of the red tape challenge, which is examining the regulatory system and how it can be improved. I also want to review more broadly whether we can adopt better practices across the piece.

I call Richard Graham. Not here. That is the second time this has happened in a few days. The fellow has got to get himself sorted.

I recently met Phil Downer, who runs a recruitment business, and he took me through the 14 pages of the new agency workers regulations that he has to fill in every time he recruits somebody for a few weeks. Will the Minister explain whether the red tape challenge is addressing this unnecessary regulation, which is a massive burden on a small business man who is trying to get on in my constituency?

The hon. Gentleman is a strong supporter of businesses in his constituency. The red tape challenge is looking at a wide range of issues and he is right to highlight that. We need to ensure that there is proper paperwork when it is necessary, but we will review whether the current burden is appropriate and proportionate.

T2. Since the Davies report, we have seen an increase in the number of women in non-executive roles. However, the gender balance for executive roles has remained at approximately 5%. What plans does the Minister have to increase the proportion of women in non-executive and executive roles in 2013? (134559)

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the issue of executive roles, which is more difficult to address than non-executive roles in the boardroom. The Government are taking action. The Women’s Business Council is looking at what specific steps can be taken and we expect its report in May. More than 60 companies have already signed up to the Government’s Think, Act, Report initiative, looking in detail at how they recruit, promote, retain and pay their women executives so that we can ensure that women are reaching the boardroom not just in non-executive roles but in executive roles.

T5. The UK has among the most generous maternity leave provisions in the world, which mean that some employers have to provide time off for employees for up to a year. This is particularly onerous for very small businesses. Will my hon. Friend look at the possibility of reducing the level of maternity benefits for micro- businesses that employ 10 people or fewer? (134563)

At this time of year, when we remember the Christmas story, we can be thankful that in the past 2,000 years not only has maternity care improved somewhat, but so has the recognition in society of the positive role that women, and mothers in particular, can play in the workplace. I recognise that it can be difficult for employers when an excellent employee is away for a year. That is why I hope that, as a strong champion for small business and as a father, my hon. Friend will welcome the Government’s plans to introduce shared parental leave, which will let mums and dads choose how they care for their children. Of course, that will mean that many mums will return to work in under a year, which will help to deal with the problem he outlines, as well as help dads to spend more time with their child in the early weeks of their child’s life.

On the specific issue, approximately 1.5 million people become parents every year, and we would not want that talent pool to be dissuaded from applying to work for small businesses.

I think on the strength of that answer there is plenty of scope for an Adjournment debate in which, no doubt, we will hear about the Nordic nostrums and views about neanderthals from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who was scarcely able to contain himself a moment ago.

T6. Sadly, people can be vulnerable to getting a Christmas debt hangover. The National Audit Office reported this week that debt management companies are making £0.3 billion a year. Will the Government take robust action in the new year to regulate debt management companies? (134564)

The Government are certainly looking very closely at debt management. The National Audit Office has looked at the Office of Fair Trading. It found that it has a positive role to play in enforcement action, and has been active in this area. We are trying to agree with industry a protocol to improve debt management and advice. We will continue to look at this carefully because, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, this is important to many people.

T7. The Under- Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), is due to visit Lowestoft college in the new year. I would be grateful if he confirmed that the additional funding for capital investment in further education colleges, further details of which he announced this morning, is available for refurbishment projects such as the one that the college has worked up and which will enable it to build on its excellent work in providing people with the skills needed in the energy sector? (134565)

Yes, I am looking forward to visiting Lowestoft college on 8 March. It narrowly missed out on a bid in the last round of funding, but, as we have discussed, more funding is available. I want the new funding to be targeted at colleges that have estate in either a poor or inoperable condition. One third of the college estate is in such a condition, having been left in that state by the completely shambolic FE policy of the Government that left office—thankfully—in 2010.

Bolton university is making up to 90 people redundant because of the fall in student numbers, while 60,000 of the young people awarded places at university last year did not turn up. Will the Minister admit that the tripling of fees has created chaos and will harm the British economy?

We do not recognise that description of what is going on. We have very enterprising universities, including Bolton, that are thriving as more students get their first choice of university than ever before. And, of course, there is no cap on the number of overseas students legitimately entitled to enter the country to study.

In my constituency, we have a thriving manufacturing sector, but one area of concern I have is the availability of skills, especially in engineering. Does the Minister agree that we need to redouble our efforts on science, technology, engineering and maths—the STEM subjects—at school to ensure that we have a good pool of skills in that sector?

It is critical that we turn around engineering to ensure that we have the engineering skills necessary to compete in the future. In Stroud and across the country, there are shortages of engineering skills, and this Government are addressing it.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the acquisition by Steelite International of Royal Crown Derby as a sign that we need to show leadership and increase regional growth funding? Will he meet me and other Stoke-on-Trent MPs to discuss the Government’s continued opposition to the anti-dumping measures against ceramic tableware from China? It is important that we invest in UK manufacturing on a level playing field. That is an issue that the Government need to address.

On the regional growth fund, the hon. Lady will know that the Chancellor announced another £310 million in the autumn statement, and 85% of the projects in rounds 1 and 2 have now started, but I hope to tell the House how we will apply the additional money early in the new year. I hope that Stoke will be one of the areas to benefit. The allegation about anti-dumping is a very serious one, and I am happy to meet her and her colleagues to discuss it further.

Do the Government believe in the right of each individual and business to choose the bank they wish to have operating on their behalf, and if so will the Government guarantee that no existing customer of Lloyds bank, whether a business or an individual, will be forced to transfer their account to the Co-op without their express consent?

The general principle of account portability and its being voluntary is absolutely right. I am aware that some banks are currently discharging their customers against their will, which is bad business practice but not something we can stop. I am not sure what particular objection the hon. Gentleman has to the Co-op. It is one of the new challenger banks that we welcome.

I send my sympathy to the Comet staff who have lost their jobs today, just five days before Christmas. When the Secretary of State carries out his review of what happened at Comet, will he look at how staff have lost bonuses and how staff who have served loyally for many years will not get their full redundancy packages, in spite of the fact that the Government are stepping in with £50 million?

The inquiry that the Department is now carrying out will be into the conduct of the directors, and various consequences will flow from that. We cannot investigate the wider social consequences, but the hon. Gentleman is quite right that severe loss has been suffered, not just by the workers but by the Government, who are having to make up the redundancy pool.

Companies in my constituency have contacted me about how interest rate swap product mis-selling is threatening their very futures. May I urge my right hon. Friend to work with colleagues across the Government to try to resolve this issue as quickly as possible?

I have already been working closely with the Bully-Banks group and the Federation of Small Businesses, which is deeply concerned about the problem. The scale of the scandal is becoming larger by the day, as more cases are uncovered. It is clear that the banks—or some of them—behaved extremely badly in the sale of such products. I am not fully satisfied that they are yet conforming with the spirit of the FSA’s advice on the matter; indeed, yesterday I met the chairman of the new regulatory authority to discuss with him how we can support small business more actively.

Further to that point, the banks and the FSA are dragging their feet, making a decision and then not making a decision on interest rate swaps. Meanwhile, perfectly viable small and medium-sized businesses are going to the wall. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that the banks and the FSA make a decision quickly, so that businesses do not go under unnecessarily?

In relation to the speed of the process, I was assured yesterday that the FSA will complete early in the new year a pilot it has undertaken to identify the range of companies that might be assisted. That will then be rolled out to all companies. There is a genuine problem of definition. Some companies are sophisticated and took on these swaps quite conscious of the risks involved; others were mis-sold them. The borderline between the two is not absolutely clear, but I agree with the hon. Lady’s general proposition—a view that other Members share—that a lot of small businesses have been severely mis-sold products and need to be assisted.

The rising world population means that by 2050 we will need to double world production, albeit with half as much water, land and energy. Does the Minister agree that British agricultural science, not least at the Norwich research park, has a potentially huge role to play in helping the world to feed itself? May I welcome the agricultural science strategy and ask that it look to draw in as much investment from around the world into Britain’s science base as possible?

This is an area where British science has a lead. We have already invested more in the Norwich science park, which I visited with my hon. Friend, and we will continue to do so as part of our industrial strategy.