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Topical Questions

Volume 555: debated on Thursday 20 December 2012

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.