House of Commons
Thursday 20 December 2012
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Canterbury City Council Bill
Motion made, That the Lords amendments be now considered.
Lords amendments to be considered on Tuesday 8 January.
Leeds City Council Bill
Motion made, That the Lords amendments be now considered.
Lords amendments to be considered on Tuesday 8 January.
Nottingham City Council Bill
Motion made, That the Lords amendments be now considered.
Lords amendments to be considered on Tuesday 8 January.
Reading Borough Council Bill
Motion made, That the Lords amendments be now considered.
Lords amendments to be considered on Tuesday 8 January.
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Innovation and Skills
The Secretary of State was asked—
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
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.
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 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)
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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?
British Antarctic Survey
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
There were 450,000 start-ups last year—54,000 more than in 2010, and the highest number on record.
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)
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.
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.
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 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?
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?
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 7 January 2013 will be:
Monday 7 January—Remaining stages of the Trust (Capital and Income) Bill [Lords], followed by all stages of the Statute Law (Repeals) Bill [Lords], which is a consolidation measure, followed by debate on a motion to take note of a European document relating to the Commission work programme 2013, followed by debate on a reasoned opinion relating to the gender balance on corporate boards, followed by general debate on corporate tax avoidance. The subject for this debate has been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Tuesday 8 January—Second Reading of the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill.
Wednesday 9 January—Opposition Day [13th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on the statutory code of practice for pub companies, followed by a further debate on a subject to be announced.
Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.
Thursday 10 January—General debate on dementia. The subject for this debate has been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
The provisional business for the week commencing 14 January will include:
Monday 14 January—Second Reading of the Crime and Courts Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 15 January—Motion to approve the draft Scotland Act 1998 (Modification of Schedule 5) Order 2013.
Wednesday 16 January—Opposition Day [14th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 17 January—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 18 January—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 10 and 17 January will be:
Thursday 10 January—Debate on the third report of the Select Committee on Transport on competition in the local bus market.
Thursday 17 January—Debate on the fourth report of the Select Committee on International Development on tax in developing countries, followed by debate on the sixth report of the Select Committee on International Development on Afghanistan.
May I take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Speaker, and all right hon. and hon. Members a very merry Christmas? On behalf of the whole House, I should like to thank all the staff of the House who have kept the House and ourselves running smoothly: the Doorkeepers, the cleaners, the Clerks, the Officers and all the staff of the House and the House service. We wish a merry and peaceful Christmas to one and all.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for the next parliamentary week, even though it is not the next chronological week. I join the Leader of the House in wishing you, Mr Speaker, the staff who work here and have served us so well throughout the year, and all right hon. and hon. Members a happy and enjoyable Christmas.
Unfortunately, food banks had to feed almost 250,000 people this year. Independent figures from the Trussell Trust show that, in my own constituency, 295 children have been fed from food banks. Across the country, thousands of volunteers are helping hard-pressed families who are struggling to put any food on the table, and I pay tribute to their efforts. People are really struggling to make ends meet. Does the Leader of the House agree with me that in 21st century Britain people should not be struggling to feed their children because they have no money? At Christmas, that should be a particular source of shame, but yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions the Prime Minister boasted that this showed the big society was working. How out of touch is he? When the coalition was formed, Ministers could barely complete a sentence without mentioning the big society. This year, as the idea has unravelled and been revealed to be little more than a PR gimmick, they have gone pretty quiet on the subject. May we have a debate on the big society, to give Government Members the chance to explain why, when 250,000 people have had to rely on food banks to be able to eat, the Government are giving a huge tax cut to a few thousand millionaires?
I welcome yesterday’s written statement from the Home Secretary on the Hillsborough investigation and the overturning of the unjust inquest verdicts on the 96 who died. I also warmly welcome the Government’s decision that the Hillsborough single will not be subject to VAT. I welcome the court’s decision this week, but it does mean that the families of the victims, who have fought so hard for so many years, will now have to meet expensive legal costs to ensure that they are adequately represented at the new inquests. Given the exceptional circumstances, will the Leader of the House ask the Justice Secretary to look at whether the Government could meet the families’ costs?
On Tuesday, Her Majesty the Queen made an historic visit to No. 10 to attend the Cabinet, to observe, not to participate in proceedings—much like the Deputy Prime Minister, in fact. Does the Leader of the House agree that it was a sign of Her Majesty’s tireless devotion to her duties that she was willing to put herself through such an experience? I have to admit that the photograph of the Cabinet meeting from the Evening Standard worried me. Where was the Leader of the House? I looked very carefully, but the right hon. Gentleman just was not there. What on earth is going on? I thought perhaps he was a closet republican, as he is from Cambridgeshire, but surely that cannot be the case. Then it occurred to me that perhaps the Prime Minister has simply had enough of him. May I tell the right hon. Gentleman that I have now started a campaign to save him from the chop?
To honour Her Majesty’s Cabinet visit, the Government have very generously named a tract of Antarctic wilderness after her and given her 60 place mats—both of which will no doubt be very useful. As it is Christmas, I have been looking for gifts for the Cabinet. Given the miraculous resurrection of the Government Chief Whip’s ministerial career, I thought he might like a copy of the Australian ex-Prime Minister John Howard’s autobiography, “Lazarus Rising”. We would all be grateful if the Chancellor spent his Christmas reading “Macro-economics for Beginners”. Given that every announcement from the Department for Education inevitably finds its way into the media before the Education Secretary has had a chance to make a statement to this House, I think he would benefit from a copy of “How Parliament Works”, which is an excellent book. I thought you, Mr Speaker, might enjoy a manual written for classroom teachers, “Managing Very Challenging Behaviour”. The Leader of the House might benefit from a copy of the railway timetable, and just about all his ministerial colleagues might benefit from a copy of the book by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), “How to be a Minister”.
Given that this is the last business statement of the year, and provided that the predictions of the Mayan apocalypse are wrong, I look forward to seeing everyone back in the new year.
I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House, not least for her concern about my whereabouts at the Cabinet meeting. I felt like a reverse Forrest Gump: instead of being always in the picture, I was suddenly out of it. The hon. Lady’s reference to the railway timetable is correct. I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Oliver Heald) that I have an insufferable knowledge of Letchworth Garden City railway station, where I spent an hour and three quarters. If anyone were to ask me for a debate on recent failings in performance on the east coast main line or by First Capital Connect, I would be very sympathetic to that request.
The hon. Lady will recall that there was a debate in Westminster Hall yesterday on food banks in Scotland and, indeed, that reference was made to the subject at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions. I think the availability of food banks is an illustration of how we care for each other in our communities. We do not want people to need them, but as discussed in Business, Innovation and Skills questions earlier, there are many reasons why people access them—including money problems, debt management, the ability to manage their resources and so forth. As the shadow Leader of the House says, the Trussell Trust has rightly been working across the country to establish better awareness of, and access to, food banks, and we should recognise and support that.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for what she said about the Home Secretary’s written ministerial statement on a further investigation into Hillsborough and about what the Prime Minister said yesterday about VAT. She asked about legal aid. I can tell her and the House that the Government will provide funding for the legal representation of the bereaved Hillsborough families at the fresh inquests.
At Christmas time, we look back at the past year and forward to the next one. After a year in which we have had the diamond jubilee, the Olympics and the Paralympic games, 2012 will be a year to remember for many positive reasons. At this time, however, we also need to think about the people who might be looking on 2012 with less happy memories—people who are bereaved, people who are lonely, people who are in trouble or in pain and, indeed, people who are in poverty. There may not be such great events next year as there were this year, but I hope that in 2013 we will have many smaller positive events that will enable us as a country to live in greater peace and progress.
When do we expect to consider the amendments made in the other place to the Bill on individual electoral registration. Did my right hon. Friend see the circular from the Electoral Commission yesterday, warning that if the Bill does not reach the statute book by the end of January, it will not be possible for the Electoral Commission to guarantee the introduction of individual electoral registration in time for the 2015 general election? Will he assure me and the House that the Bill will be in a fit state to achieve Royal Assent before the end of January?
I did indeed see the Electoral Commission statement to which my hon. Friend refers. It is not for me to refer to business in the other place, but he will be reassured to know that the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, which has to complete its Committee and remaining stages in the other place, will be considered in mid-January.
Yes, and the Hansard writers, of course; we must not forget them. I also wish a merry Christmas to all the Back Benchers who have been so supportive of the Backbench Business Committee, by making representations to us to hold what have proved to be some of the most excellent debates held in the House this year. I thank them for their continued support for, and use of, the Backbench Business Committee.
I seek clarification on a minor technical point about e-petitions. The House has now opened Westminster Hall on Monday afternoons for debates about e-petitions with 100,000 or more signatures. Are the slots exclusively for e-petitions generated from the Government website, or do they include any e-petitions that reach 100,000 signatures?
Although I cannot promise a prompt debate, it is an important subject, and my hon. Friend might, I hope, seek a debate through the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. We have made considerable progress in this area, however. Working on the January 2008 recommendations of the organ donation taskforce, over the last four years there has been a 40% increase in organ donor rates across the United Kingdom, and through the work of NHS Blood and Transplant—an organisation I know well—including its extension of transplant nursing support, I hope we can improve that record still further.
May I add my voice to those of the shadow Leader and Leader of the House in wishing a happy Christmas to everyone, including—to the ire of the Prime Minister, no doubt—you, Mr Speaker? I also wish all the staff of these Houses of Parliament a happy Christmas, and let us hope that this coming year we look after them better than we did in the past year, which has been a very stressful time for them.
I am sure the Leader of the House was as shocked as I was to hear Lord Patten’s remarks on the “Today” programme. Following the recent disturbing time for the BBC and its reputation, he described the Public Accounts Committee report as “unfair” and “shabby”. There is something seriously wrong in that. Our constituents have legitimate concerns about the running of the BBC. My own view is that this merits his resignation.
On the first point, we in this House have a responsibility to look after the House staff, and I think we discharge it properly. Speaking as a recent addition to the membership of the House of Commons Commission, I know that it takes that responsibility immensely seriously, and ensures the staff who look after us are employed, and looked after, on the best and most favourable conditions.
The PAC report into the BBC is a matter for the BBC Trust and the BBC itself, not for me or Ministers directly. Such reports are important, however. As I know as a former head of a Department, when the PAC issues reports and recommendations, they must be responded to and taken very seriously.
May I wish the Leader of the House a happy Christmas—and, as it is Christmas, thank the Whips for looking after us, because that has not been said yet? Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Bill on the redefinition of marriage will have its Second Reading on 28 January, and that there is no truth in the outrageous suggestion that Whips are slipping Members who do not want to support that measure and calling people back from overseas trips who want to support it?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I cannot confirm the timing of business beyond what I have announced to the House, and it is not my place to comment on the characteristics of any whipping operation. However, we have made it clear, as I believe all parties have, that votes on the equal civil marriage Bill will be free votes.
May we have a debate about accurate reporting of the autumn statement? The Conservative party website currently states:
“Anyone in work and receiving benefits will gain more from paying less tax, than what they lose from benefits not increasing in real terms.”
I thought about asking for a debate on declining standards of grammar. As analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that lone parents and working couples with children will be net losers from the changes in the autumn statement, may we have a debate in order to get the right figures on the record?
The hon. Lady will recall that she will have an opportunity to debate this with my colleagues on Second Reading of the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill, on the House’s second day back. I point out to her that benefits are intended to be limited—an increase limited to 1%—but this follows five years during which benefits rose by 20%, whereas average earnings rose by 10%. We cannot ignore the simple fact that those on the lowest incomes are among those who will obtain the greatest proportionate benefit from the increase in the personal tax allowance. In April, that will increase to £9,440, which will more than halve the income tax bill of someone working full-time on the minimum wage.
In 2011, the leadership of Somerset county council announced that Somerset would be the first county to introduce partial closure and charging for the use of recycling facilities. The public expressed their concern that that would lead to increased fly-tipping. The resulting costs, which are £303,615 this year, have to be picked up by the taxpayer through the district councils. Will the Leader of the House allow a debate on how Ministers might be empowered to intervene to protect the environment and stop this irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money?
I am very interested in what my hon. Friend has to say, and I will ask my colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government to respond to her specifically. Where county councils and district authorities sit down to discuss these things together—I know they do that as they do it with us as Members of Parliament; we do it all together—we have a better basis on which to consider matters, rather than simply shifting costs between tiers of authorities.
May I inform the Leader of the House that the insulation companies in my constituency, large and small alike, wrote to the Department of Energy and Climate Change four months ago expressing their concern about the Government’s green deal? I chased that up two months ago to get a response, but to date that Department has not responded to me or to the companies, which have legitimate concerns. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State on what he is going to do to sort out his dysfunctional Department?
I will, of course, talk to my colleagues at the Department of Energy and Climate Change about this, but I would hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomed the green deal. It is going to have a positive impact on up to 8 million homes over the next eight years and create up to 60,000 jobs in the insulation sector over the next three years. The further roll-out of the green deal is going to take place over the months and years ahead, but I hope that early in the new year we will have an opportunity for him and others to see how the green deal will be having a positive impact.
When I visited Kyson primary school in Woodbridge for a belated Parliament week question and answer session with year 5 and year 6 students, I was struck by how often the issue of the Belfast riots came up among 10 and 11-year-olds. Given that these events are still continuing, with some disgraceful things occurring, will my right hon. Friend arrange for the Secretary of State to make another statement early in the new year?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who knows how our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has come to the House and, quite rightly, made statements. Of course, I have no doubt that in the new year, if need be, she will do so again. We all condemn the lawlessness and thuggery we have seen. It is not in defence of the flag; it is a disgrace to the flag, frankly, and to Britain that this is happening. We want to see it stop. In particular, the threat to our elected representatives and the threat to and attacks on the police are attacks on democracy. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is working with the Executive to ensure that local solutions, led in Northern Ireland, are leading the approach. We all support that, as we respect the devolution settlement, but I know that as a House we are very concerned and that the Government will take seriously their responsibility to report to us.
In view of all the good wishes that have been expressed today—I join others in expressing them—is the Leader of the House aware that one of the best wishes we could have for 2013 would be for a statement early in the year that this wretched Government will resign?
I know that my right hon. Friend will agree that we should commend Her Majesty’s Government for everything that has been done this year to make the diamond jubilee anniversary such a magnificent celebration for our whole nation. Will he arrange for the Government to make an early statement in 2013 about preparations for a possible blue sapphire jubilee to celebrate Her Majesty the Queen’s 65th anniversary in 2017?
At this precise moment, I will simply join my hon. Friend and the whole House in remarking on what a wonderful diamond jubilee year it has been and on how the example of Her Majesty over 60 years as our sovereign has taken the monarchy to the highest levels of respect, admiration and, indeed, affection that this country has ever seen.
The Government initiated a 10-year diabetes strategy for the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 2003, but there has been a 30% increase in the number of people with diabetes in my constituency and a 20% increase across the whole United Kingdom. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement or a debate on this vital issue?
I know the hon. Gentleman is assiduous in finding opportunities, and there will no doubt be early opportunities for a debate on diabetes care. His point is important, as we need not only to improve the quality of care so that best practice is achieved—the Public Accounts Committee identified in its report the quality of life and the number of lives saved that could be gained by implementing best practice in diabetes care, and although we are doing that we have more to do—but to use measures such as the health check system in the NHS and the preventive health strategies that are now being developed between the NHS and local authorities to reduce the rising prevalence of diabetes.
I extend my best wishes to you, Mr Speaker, and to the whole House. I pay particular thanks to colleagues on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and especially to the staff, who have enabled us to achieve all that we have this year. It looks as though there is very little chance of a white Christmas this year, but there will be flooding in many parts of the country. Many people have already been displaced. Will my right hon. Friend look favourably on my request for an early debate in the new year on flooding and on what more we, local authorities and other agencies can do between floods, as well as on the question of insurance to replace the statement of principles that expires at the end of May?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, she has rightly raised an issue that will concern many of us in many constituencies across the country. We feel deeply for those in the west country and elsewhere who are at risk at Christmas of flooding, with all the horrible consequences that flow from that. The House will be aware that the Environment Agency, local authorities, fire and rescue services and others have been forewarned by the Flood Forecasting Centre and stand ready to deal with any emergencies. I know that Ministers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will actively monitor that and will intervene and report to the House whenever necessary.
Flood insurance is a priority. Discussions with the Association of British Insurers are continuing. I cannot comment on the detail of that negotiation, but we are continuing to seek a new approach that is better than the statement of principles—one that genuinely secures affordable flood insurance without placing unsustainable costs on other policyholders or the taxpayer.
Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating IPSA—[Hon. Members: “No.”] Sarcasm alert—not only on concocting a generous tax avoidance scheme for its acting chief executive, Paula Higson, but on trying to protect our staff from those unwanted and pesky tax bills? That is the excuse it gives for insisting that staff expenses are paid into our accounts, not their own. The last time MPs accepted other people’s money into our bank accounts, it did not end well. Can the Leader of the House sort it out?
If I may, I will draw what the hon. Gentleman has said to the attention of the chairman of IPSA so that IPSA can respond to him. I know that the Speaker’s Committee on IPSA takes very seriously the views of Members on the administration of IPSA’s responsibilities, so I am sure we will have occasion to discuss the matter there.
Would the Lord Privy Seal be willing to investigate the behaviour of Cosalt plc, which has big problems with minority shareholding? We need answers to some legitimate questions, and 28 Members of Parliament are concerned about the matter.
I cannot promise to investigate in detail myself, but I can undertake to be in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. The issue clearly relates to corporate governance so I will ask him to look into it and respond to my hon. Friend.
May I add my thanks and best wishes to all the staff of the House, including all the staff of the Speaker’s Office?
Some 3,900 people in my constituency claim in-work benefits but will be worse off next year as a result of the autumn statement. May we have an urgent debate next year on the fairness of hitting the people who do the right thing while millionaires get a massive tax cut?
I remind the hon. Gentleman of the exchange that I had with the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). One must take into account the fact that people are in work and are receiving in-work benefits. Those benefits will not necessarily rise by inflation but by 1%. The pay of many people in work is not rising or is rising by a very small amount indeed, but one must also take into account that in recognition of that and because we want those who are in work to feel that work really pays and that the more hours they work, the more benefit they get, this Government are reducing the tax on the lowest paid. The personal tax allowance is going up to £9,440. That will make a significant difference to the tax bill of lower paid workers.
From his visits to my constituency, my right hon. Friend will be aware what a wonderful tourism destination Bournemouth is. Tourism is the biggest industry in Bournemouth. May we have a debate or a statement on proposals allowing a change of use of hotels, whereby they would be converted into flats, without the approval of the town hall? I hope my right hon. Friend would agree that such a policy would be devastating for tourism destinations such as Bournemouth.
My hon. Friend is right about the attractions of Bournemouth. I can remember being in Bournemouth on a number of occasions and having the benefit of the sun on our face and a beautiful bay in front of us to enjoy while we were there. The simple fact of the large number of hotel bedrooms in Bournemouth makes an enormous difference to its attractiveness to conferences, for example. I will talk to my ministerial colleagues and ask them to respond to my hon. Friend about the change of use regulations. Equally, in order to support economic growth, we should create as flexible a structure as we can for people who own property to allow them to develop that property and exploit it.
Is the Leader of the House aware that over the past few weeks people in Corby and east Northamptonshire have been peeping out of their windows in amazement at festive lights illuminating their roads, because they were plunged into darkness for a long time as a result of a decision by the Tory-controlled county council? That is just one reason why some of his hon. Friends were stumbling around in my constituency having lost their way. This matters so much for the safety and well-being of people across Corby and east Northamptonshire, so may we please have a debate on street lights?
I must confess that I was not aware of the street light situation in Corby—[Hon. Members: “Why not?”] Street lights are a matter for individual local authorities. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is discovering, if a Member wishes to raise that sort of constituency matter, applying for an Adjournment debate is a good tactic.
Youth unemployment in Harrogate and Knaresborough currently stands at 2.6%, having halved in the past year, and we have obviously seen some good progress nationally. Please may we have a debate on the growth of apprenticeships and the role they are playing in cutting youth unemployment?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Since the general election more than 1 million people have started an apprenticeship and the budget has been increased to £1.5 billion. In addition, I know that he will share my optimism about the development of the Youth Contract, especially the 250,000 extra work experience places or sector-based work academy places, the wage incentive to support 18 to 24-year-olds getting into work and the extra incentives for young apprentices in particular. That is all contributing, I hope. For example, the most recent data show that the unemployment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds is down 1.3 points this quarter.
Yesterday the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said that local councils had record levels of reserves that they should use to plug the hole left by his record levels of cuts. May we have a debate on how the Government could make better use of their own reserves and get their own house in order before lecturing others on how to run their affairs?
I am slightly at a loss to discover what point the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, especially given the circumstances in which the Labour Government, whom he supported, left this country and the unprecedentedly large debts they left this country. That is the situation we are dealing with. We are not dealing with a Government who came into office and found that they had reserves; we are dealing with a Government who found that they were borrowing £1 in every £4 they were spending.
During the past few days the Beacon of Hope, a hospice that has premises in my constituency and the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), has gone into voluntary receivership. Although hospices are a devolved issue, we know that charities, including hospices, are under huge pressure right across the UK, and it is especially poignant for hospices. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an opportunity, whether by statement or debate, so that we can discuss the financial arrangements under which hospices operate?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter and share his concern, and that of his constituents, about the financial situation the local hospice is in. As he says, it is a devolved matter, but I will of course talk with my hon. Friend about it. We might not be able to offer an immediate opportunity for debate, but I hope that we can discuss the hospice movement at an early date. From my point of view, I have listened on the issues relating to regulation and know that we do not have to impose additional regulation on the hospice movement. At the same time, in England the Government are supporting the hospice movement by conducting pilot projects for per-patient funding, which would make an enormous difference for hospices, and indeed those with life-limiting illnesses, because they would be able to choose the provider and location of their care and the resources the NHS and social services give to support them would be used directly to support the provider of their choice, including hospices.
May we have a debate on the new Governor of the Bank of England’s financial package? We learn from today’s newspapers that on top of his salary of three times that of the Prime Minister’s, he will have to manage on a London accommodation allowance of a mere £250,000 a year. In that debate, would it be possible to ascertain whether, if that is used for a mortgage, any capital gain made on the property would be repayable to the taxpayer?
I do not know whether we have any immediate opportunity for such a debate. I recall that when the Chancellor of the Exchequer came here and made a statement announcing that appointment, it was welcomed right across the House, including by the hon. Gentleman’s Front Benchers. The truth of the matter, as the Chancellor clearly stated, is that if we want to get the very best person in the world for this job, we have to be prepared to put in place the contract to make that happen.
There has been a great deal of speculation in the press that the Government are going to review the inflation target that they set for the Bank of England. Indeed, the Bank of England has failed for some while now to hit that target. May we kindly have a debate or a statement on the criteria that the Treasury will use to work out the inflation target that the Bank of England should be trying to hit?
My hon. Friend knows, I hope, that we have no plans to change the inflation targeting framework that was set out in the Bank of England Act 1998. As he rightly says, for a significant period that target was not being met, but the framework makes that transparent because it requires the Governor of the Bank of England to write to the Chancellor to explain why it has not happened. Inflation has substantially reduced in the past year or so. Alongside the fiscal credibility of the Government, that gives international markets and businesses confidence in the credibility of our monetary policy too.
Season’s greetings to everyone. In particular, I want to wish British industry a happy new year, but I fear that it might not be so. Britain has a visible trade deficit with the rest of the European Union of, typically, £1 billion a week. Britain’s manufacturing sector is half the size of Germany’s as a proportion of GDP. Britain’s industry has been damaged time and again over many decades by an over-valuation of our currency, and over the past 18 months or so we have seen a substantial weakening of the euro, which is again forcing up the value of sterling, with the result that our trade deficit will be even more difficult to overcome. Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on exchange rate policy and its implications for British industry?
The hon. Gentleman is describing a situation that relates to the decline in British manufacturing that occurred dramatically over the life of the previous Labour Government. I entirely absolve him of responsibility for some of that Government’s policies, which he did not necessarily support, although he supported that Government. We are very clear that we must achieve for the future a rebalancing of our economy. That is why British manufacturing has substantially improved its trade in and exports of goods to some of the new and emerging markets such as China, India, Russia and Brazil. It is not a matter of losing markets in Europe; we have to win them as well. In 2011, we exported £300 billion in goods, up 12.5% on the year before, and we need to sustain that progress.
The Leader of the House will know that group B streptococcus is the most common cause of life-threatening infection in newborn babies, and that each year, very sadly, some 100 newborn babies suffer either death or disability as a result. In countries that have routine screening, infection rates are falling, yet in this country infection rates have risen by a quarter in the past 10 years. The UK National Screening Committee has just announced, after a review, that it will not be introducing routine screening. May we have an oral statement from a Health Minister on the Floor of the House so that Members can question this very distressing decision?
My hon. Friend and I, and, indeed, other Members, have discussed this subject. He is right that it is the responsibility of the National Screening Committee, independently, to offer advice about the relative effectiveness of national screening programmes. I will, of course, ask my colleagues at the Department of Health to respond directly to my hon. Friend, but he might like to note that there may be a further opportunity to raise this important issue at Health questions on Tuesday 15 January.
Last week, Mr Levesconte, the landlord of the Royal Oak pub in Shrewton, left the country with £29,000 that had been saved in the local thrift fund by 60 families. This week, due to the generosity of the people of Shrewton, south Wiltshire and beyond, the full sum has been acquired through donations. Will the Leader of the House comment on the vibrancy of the big society in south Wiltshire and make a statement on the safety of investing and saving in banks, building societies and credit unions, as opposed to thrift funds?
I cannot offer a statement at this time, but I can say that I share my hon. Friend’s concern that people recognise the intrinsic merits of saving in institutions, not least guaranteed institutions such as banks, building societies and credit unions. On a positive note, those in Wiltshire are, as my hon. Friend has said, clearly a generous community who care for each other. That is a central part of not only the big society, but the kind of society that we all want to live in. I was equally touched by the way in which so many people have responded, in like fashion, after the wickedness of thefts from Great Ormond Street hospital by recognising that they want to contribute to look after others.
Thalidomide Trust (Grant)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to report to the House on a new 10-year grant to the Thalidomide Trust to help it find more personalised ways of meeting the health needs of thalidomide survivors.
The current three-year grant, which comes to an end in March 2013, was introduced by the previous Government as a pilot scheme. Its aim was to enable the Thalidomide Trust and its members to explore more innovative ways of preventing further deterioration in the health of thalidomide victims and to help preserve their independence.
This Government are committed to improving outcomes for all disabled people and to supporting them to live independent lives. That is why we are pleased to be able to continue the excellent work begun by the pilot scheme through this 10-year commitment. Over the next 10 years, the grant will be in the region of £80 million. It will be paid on an annual basis, rising each year in line with inflation.
I was privileged to speak on this very subject on my first day as a Health Minister and then met, along with the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), the Thalidomide Trust and its national advisory council. They impressed on me the complex and highly specialised needs that thalidomiders have, particularly as they approach older age. At the meeting, members of the trust and a number of thalidomiders stressed the need for certainty and that any future grant would need to be for longer than just three years. I am delighted that we are able to give them that certainty.
Many thalidomiders have had to use their bodies to compensate for the damage to their arms or legs in such a way as to cause severe musculoskeletal problems, including lower back pain, sciatica, damage to the coccyx area and shoulder pain and stiffness. Treatments to relieve those symptoms, such as massage and physiotherapy, not only help to maintain their independence, but often mean that they can stay in work.
The Thalidomide Trust has provided evaluation reports for the first two years of the pilot scheme. I have read with interest how it has invested the money. It is clear from the reports that this scheme is the best way to continue to meet the complex needs of thalidomide survivors. One recipient of the grant has improved her independence by installing a table that rises and falls by remote control, enabling her to reduce overstrain on her muscles. Another recipient describes how regular physiotherapy and visits to the gym, paid for by the grant, have led to him losing weight, thereby relieving stress on his joints, reducing the pain and improving his mental well-being.
A small number of people said that they had reduced their need for prescription painkillers and the frequency with which they need to see their GP. The reasons for that varied, and included successful surgery, lifestyle changes and improved access to complementary medicines, but all of them were linked to the use of the grant. The continued funding will help individual thalidomiders to maintain control over their own health needs, because they are the experts in what really makes a difference.
There will be clear principles for the use of the money. It must be used only for health-related needs and it cannot be used to duplicate support provided through a different source, such as personal health budgets. The grant must also be used only for the benefit of thalidomide survivors living in England. Separately, the devolved Administrations will each consider how they will support thalidomiders after the end of the current three-year pilot, which is in March next year.
Naturally, the Department of Health will review the scheme annually to ensure that it remains the most appropriate use of funding and the best way of distributing it to those who need it. The trust will use its extensive expertise and knowledge of its members to distribute the funds to thalidomide survivors in England.
I pay tribute to the Thalidomide Trust. The contribution of both the trust and its national advisory council, many members of which are in the Public Gallery to hear this statement, cannot be overstated. The trust uses its expert knowledge to provide invaluable support to survivors of the thalidomide disaster and their families, while members of the national advisory council work tirelessly, despite their own impairments, in the cause of all thalidomiders.
Finally, I reiterate the regret and deep sympathy first expressed three years ago by the then Minister of State, Department of Health, the former Member for North Warwickshire, Mike O’Brien. We acknowledge the physical hardship and emotional difficulties faced by the children affected by this drug and their families, and the challenges that many continue to endure, often on a daily basis.
I commend the statement to the House and wish everyone, including all thalidomiders, a very happy Christmas.
I thank the Minister for the advance copy of his statement.
Thalidomide survivors waited far too long for Governments over many years to address the appalling physical and emotional difficulties that they faced as a result of thalidomide prescribed by the NHS from 1958 to 1961. The last Government took the first steps towards addressing this unacceptable situation. In January 2010, the then Minister of State rightly offered our sincere regret and deep sympathy for the injury and suffering endured by all those whose expectant mothers took the thalidomide drug. I want to repeat that sincere regret and sympathy today.
The previous Government also acknowledged the urgent need for extra help for thalidomide survivors to meet their care and support needs, by putting in place a three-year pilot scheme. The pilot, as this Minister said, has helped survivors to improve the quality of their lives and to cope with their increasing loss of mobility and independence as they get older by helping them to buy and put in place the things that they say make the most difference to their lives.
I welcome the Minister’s announcement that the Government will continue the scheme for 10 more years with a grant in the region of £80 million. That will mean a huge amount to the 431 thalidomide survivors living in the UK today. As the Thalidomide Trust says, the money will allow one survivor with no arms to buy the special adaptations she has been unable to afford, and a man with no legs to make a down payment on a van adapted so that he can drive it from his wheelchair. It will allow a deaf thalidomide survivor to continue to employ someone to be her signer when she goes out so that she can retain her confidence and ability to remain active and mobile.
I have a number of questions about the scheme that I hope the Minister will answer. He will be aware that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland made proportionate contributions to the fund set up by the previous Government. Will the devolved Administrations make similar contributions to the fund he has announced today? He says that the grant will be reviewed annually, but there might be concern that that is not as stable as some survivors would like. Will the Minister guarantee that the views, needs and concerns of survivors will be at the heart of those reviews, and will he explain why we need an annual review, and not a three-year review as under the previous Government?
Will the reviews look specifically at the increasing needs of thalidomide survivors as they get older? Evidence collected over the past two years confirms that their health and mobility is deteriorating rapidly now that they have reached their 50s. Because of those increasing needs, will the Minister commit today to ensuring that there will be no less funding in the years ahead?
I will conclude, as the Minister did, by thanking and paying tribute to the work of the Thalidomide Trust, its national advisory council, and all campaigners who have fought to make successive Governments face up to their responsibilities. Members across the House sincerely regret how badly thalidomide survivors were let down, and we will strive to ensure that that never happens again.
I appreciate the shadow Minister’s support for today’s announcement and she is right to say that people have waited far too long for an acknowledgment of the tragedy and for practical action. I acknowledge—as I did in my statement—the actions of the previous Government in initiating the pilot scheme, and the expression of regret made by the former Health Minister. One powerful thing about the scheme, as designed in the original pilot, is that it gives maximum power to the individual to determine and respond to their priorities and needs. That means that the money can be used in a host of different ways, as the hon. Lady described.
The hon. Lady raised a fair point about the devolved Administrations, and we must be equally concerned about thalidomiders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The devolved Administrations did not feel able to commit to the 10-year period here and now, but they are fully committed to continuing that help and we will work closely with them to ensure that individuals in those Administrations are not left behind in any way.
The hon. Lady rightly mentioned the annual review, which is a question of proper accountability. The trust has done a brilliant job and I acknowledge its work. It is a completely responsible organisation that knows better than anyone how best to deploy the available resources, but as it acknowledges, it is right for it to be held to account for how public money is spent. There is no intention at all to question the purpose of the grant, and we want to give the certainty provided by the 10-year period. The fund will be index linked so that the value of money from the pilot scheme is maintained throughout that period. The review is simply to ensure that the scheme still makes sense and that we are using the available resource in the best possible way. I have every confidence that that will be the case and, as the hon. Lady requested, the needs of the thalidomiders who benefit from the money will be put at the heart of the reviews. We will not let those people down in the commitment that we are making today, and the funding will be maintained.
The hon. Lady rightly talked about deteriorating health because the body has been under such extraordinary strain. I spoke to thalidomiders earlier today. It is remarkable what their bodies have been able to do, often in the absence of limbs, but that puts an enormous strain them, and the wear and tear is now having its effect. We do not know what the prognosis is going forward. It is therefore right to take stock and see what their needs are after a 10-year period, but the commitment to those people must remain.
On 23 November, the first ever memorial to thalidomide victims was unveiled in Harrogate—a tree was planted and a plaque was unveiled to mark the 50th anniversary of the withdrawal of the drug. Thalidomide victims were present at the unveiling, which was carried out by Mr Guy Tweedy, a Harrogate resident and leading thalidomide campaigner.
The victims have waited a very long time for recognition, including financial recognition. I very much welcome the Minister’s comments, particularly those on the certainty required and the 10-year period, the challenges the victims face as they grow older and the sheer bravery that some have had to show during the course of their lives. I simply urge him to do all he can to support this special group.
I absolutely commit, on behalf of the Government, to do everything we can to support that group of people. As a society, we owe it to them to support them—they are often in very difficult circumstances. He is right to note the bravery that they have shown—not just the individuals, but their families too—in facing those circumstances.
I pay tribute to victims of the drug and to the trust that so admirably serves them, and thank the Minister for his statement, but how did he fix on that sum? Was it the sum that the trust asked for? Does it meet all the trust’s demands, or are other forces at work?