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Topical Questions

Volume 558: debated on Thursday 7 February 2013

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

A number of businesses in my constituency that I have visited have reported welcome news of an increase in orders from abroad. However, they have raised concerns about the time it takes to get export licences. In order to help those companies to remain competitive, what is my right hon. Friend’s Department doing to try to speed up efficiency in that respect?

The Export Control Organisation is currently meeting its primary target of approving 70% of licence applications within 20 working days. Last year, it met its secondary target of approving 95% within 60 working days. However, I well understand the frustration of legitimate exporters. The ECO is working with the Foreign Office to improve performance still further.

The EU Council is gathering as we speak. From the common agricultural policy to the absurdity of the European Parliament sitting in two places, it is clear that the EU needs reform. It is also clear—to the extent that any reform involves a significant transfer of power from Parliament to the EU—that we all agree there should be a referendum. Does the Secretary of State agree that, although reform is crucial, the immediate priority for British business is to grow our economy, and that continued membership of the EU is fundamental to that goal?

I agree. The way the hon. Gentleman phrased the question suggests that, despite some of the drama, there is a lot of common ground. As I understand it, all three party leaders want us to remain within the EU. We all support the need for radical reform and for a referendum on the conditions set out in recent parliamentary legislation.

To pick up on a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) earlier, I have spoken to many businesses—large and small—that believe that the Prime Minister’s approach to the EU risks Britain stumbling out of the EU. Companies in numerous sectors—from Virgin to Siemens, and from BMW to BT—that account for 170,000 direct jobs, never mind indirect jobs, have reiterated the importance of our continued membership of the EU to their businesses. In the Secretary of State’s leaked letter to the Prime Minister, he said the Government must build more certainty and confidence for business to invest. Does the Secretary of State believe the Prime Minister’s EU policy has helped or hindered that process?

The Prime Minister’s pressure for EU reform is necessary. I work with like-minded Ministers in other European countries to help to deliver that reform. We are all agreed that we need a minimum of uncertainty to attract inward investment. It is incumbent on all who want jobs in Britain to sound that positive message.

T2. With youth unemployment falling—sadly, it is still too high—is it not more important than ever that we prepare young people to enter work properly with the right skills, on which York college and Askham Bryan college in my constituency are doing great work? How will the proposed traineeship scheme support that? (141953)

I am extremely enthusiastic about the proposals for traineeships. They will help to get people who need work preparation, work experience, English and maths and a plethora of other skills ready to take on an apprenticeship and go to work. Colleges such as York college will play an important role in delivering that.

T3. This week the British company Centrica withdrew, along with RWE and E.ON, from investments in nuclear power following its investment of £1 billion. That proves that nuclear electricity is now unaffordable unless the Government invest £20 billion of subsidy in a French company. Will the Secretary of State follow his commendable initiative on Greencoat UK by investing in what is Britain’s greatest unused source of power, which is tidal power—clean, green, British and eternal. (141954)

We are certainly promoting research on new generations of renewable energy, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the new centre in Glasgow established specifically to look at tidal and wave power. I do not recognise his figure of £20 billion of subsidy for the nuclear industry. I am sure we are not going there.

T4. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Sam Davies from Whitland in Carmarthenshire for doing so well in the “We Made It” competition recently? Will he also get behind that competition, as it encourages so many young people into STEM-based jobs? (141955)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Yes, we welcome the “We Made It” competition. Manufacturing offers young people enormous scope to do something really worth while and to be well rewarded in the process. Through programmes such as See Inside Manufacturing, we are ensuring that young people see for themselves the wealth of career opportunities in manufacturing, and understand how studying science, technology and engineering at all levels leads to well-regarded career opportunities.

T6. The Secretary of State is aware of concerns about anti-competitive practices in the waste electrical and electronic equipment recycling market. What will he do to protect the position of small and medium-sized recycling companies such as Mercury Recycling in my constituency? Will he meet me to discuss this issue and wider concerns? (141957)

We have a tough, respected and effective system of competition and anti-cartel policy. If the hon. Lady is concerned about anti-competitive practices, I will certainly raise this with the Office of Fair Trading, but it is an independent agency that makes its own decisions on which cases to investigate.

T5. I, like many, welcome the substantial increase in apprenticeships. However, it is equally important to encourage as many employers as possible to take on apprentices. Does the Minister agree that giving employers a national insurance holiday during the period of an employee’s apprenticeship would encourage more employers? (141956)

I certainly agree that encouraging more employers to be involved is critical. The apprenticeship grant for employers in small and medium-sized businesses that have not taken on apprentices before is worth more, at £1,500 per apprentice, than a national insurance holiday. I encourage companies to get involved.

T7. The Secretary of State was briefed about the York central site next to York railway station when he was in my constituency last year, so he knows well its potential to generate growth and jobs, a potential improved by the Government’s welcome decision to join High Speed 2 with the east coast main line at York. Will he meet me and representatives of York city council to discuss what the Government can do to help the council bring the site into use? (141959)

Yes, I am familiar with the site. It was strategically important for childhood trainspotting, as I recall, quite apart from its potential for housing and regeneration. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. I have already discussed this matter with the council leader and the chief executive. They need some support for infrastructure, although the scale of that is not terribly clear, but we are certainly keen to take this forward.

T8. Does the Secretary of State share my concerns that the Financial Services Authority redress scheme for businesses mis- sold interest rate swap products excludes those businesses that have a life swap value in excess of £10 million, despite the fact that those businesses would otherwise be characterised as “unsophisticated” by the FSA’s own rules? (141960)

First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his work on behalf of the up to 100,000 companies that have been mis-sold these swaps. It is a terrible scandal and he was one of the first people to highlight it. I think the position is now much better, but he is right to say that there are some anomalies at the borderline. The definition of “sophisticated companies” is not simply confined to scale, which I think is the point he is trying to make. I will continue to make that point to the FSA and the banks.

The Secretary of State knows that Nissan is vital to the north-east’s long-term economy and provides much-needed jobs and investment. Is there not a significant risk that the uncertainty about Britain’s future in Europe, which will continue for many years, could jeopardise this?

I am well aware of Nissan’s importance to the north-east. I visited recently and have spoken to the senior management at Nissan about the Prime Minister’s speech to reassure them that we see a future for this country within a protected and enhanced single market. That is what is important for Nissan and many other companies in the sector.

T9. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the growing funding problems for postgraduate students. Most have to pay large sums up front, borrowing from banks or their families if they are rich enough, which creates huge social mobility problems. Has he had a chance to look at the proposals in my policy paper, “Developing a future: Policies for science and research”, or, indeed, the very similar proposals from the Higher Education Commission and the National Union of Students? (141961)

Postgraduate education is very important. We have maintained funding for it through the Higher Education Funding Council for England, but I am following with great interest the imaginative ideas being brought forward and we are open-minded if people have proposals for increasing access to borrowing and finance for postgraduates.

In an earlier question, on the privatisation of Royal Mail, the Minister deliberately referred to the fact that shares would be sold off to the people in Royal Mail. It almost harks back to the “share-owning democracy” of Mrs Thatcher, when she privatised all the public utilities and almost without exception those public utilities—E.ON, EDF and all the rest—are now owned by Germany, France, Spain and even further afield. That is what happens to share-owning democracies. Instead of gazing into crystal balls, read the history!

I not only read the history, I remember the history because I was here, when the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues—

I voted for it, and he and his colleagues advised the workers in BT—[Interruption]—not to buy the shares and more than 90% of them did buy them. In this instance, Parliament has quite rightly provided that up to 10% of the shares should be reserved for employees. I think that the more than 130,000 people who work for Royal Mail should have the chance to share in the success of their company.

There will be no swearing in my question.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities will be aware of Chester university’s great success in getting industrial support. The vice-chancellor, Professor Tim Wheeler, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) and I all have a free spot in our diaries on 1 March. I was wondering whether my right hon. Friend would come and join the celebrations with us.

I very much hope to join that event. I hope to be up there that day. If not, I will be there on another occasion, because I am a great admirer of what has been achieved at the university of Chester.

Does the Secretary of State imagine that the counterfeiters, the smugglers and the others will welcome the introduction of plain packaging for the tobacco industry?

I know that there have been strong views on this issue in all parts of the House, and the Department of Health has undertaken a consultation on it. We await the results of that consultation, which will be analysed carefully. I am sure that the interesting counterfeiting issues that the hon. Gentleman raises will need to be considered alongside the health issues.

With Chinese new year celebrations and firework displays this weekend, will the Minister urgently receive a delegation of MPs and immediately suspend new regulations—which have just been implemented five years early—that will lead to the collapse of the British fireworks industry?

I know that my hon. Friend is speaking up for the industry on this issue. I met him at the end of last year. BIS policy officials have had two meetings with the industry. Lawyers have also had meetings, and a further meeting is due next week to try to resolve the issue he raises. Yesterday I received a letter from him and the hon. Members for Bracknell (Dr Lee), for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) and for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly). I will be happy to meet them next week as a matter of urgency to discuss this.

There are concerns that the UK is lagging behind its competitors in the registration of graphene patents. The USA has more than 1,100; we have just 46. Does the Minister agree that this is an example of why the Government need to provide more strategic direction and to support important technology sectors for the future?

We have, of course, invested more than £60 million in graphene research, notably, but not only, in Manchester. I have seen that evidence from patents. It is a reminder of the importance of ensuring that we are absolutely out there supporting the commercialisation of graphene, and that is what we are committed to doing.

I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on taking the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill through Parliament, and on allowing the adjudicator to impose fines. Will she look favourably on the adjudicator taking their own initiative in investigations from day one?

I thank the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for her question and, indeed, MPs from all parties who have campaigned for the adjudicator. Christine Tacon was announced as the adjudicator-designate a few weeks ago and we are looking forward to the pre-appointment scrutiny by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. We want to make sure that the adjudicator will be able to undertake investigations where there is any suggestion or suspicion that the code is not being complied with.

Last week, at a time of great uncertainty on the high street, the Co-op, working with the Farepak victims committee, announced that it would be the first major retailer to protect and guarantee customers’ Christmas savings in the future. Will the Minister welcome that move? May I also thank her and the Secretary of State for their work with Farepak victims? Long may it continue for consumer protection in the future.

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the excellent scheme that the Co-op has just announced. It should be celebrated and I hope that other companies will be encouraged to follow suit, because I know that giving this kind of protection to customers will be very welcome indeed. I will continue to work with her and other hon. Members on the issue.

Although I welcome the fact that university applications are up and that a higher proportion of them are from people from poorer backgrounds, will the Minister for Universities and Science join me in reminding my young constituents that, whatever the fees they are charged, they will only start paying them back once they earn more than £21,000?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. These reforms increase resources for universities. They are not putting off students from less affluent backgrounds and it is graduates, not students, who pay. That is a very fair and progressive way of financing higher education.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, if the United Kingdom stayed in the European Union and completed the single European market, our growth could increase by 7% within a decade, but that if we left the EU and had a relationship with it such as that of Norway or Switzerland, our exports could be as much as 14 times lower over the same period?

I certainly agree that it is desirable, for reasons of economic growth, that we remain part of the European Union and single market. The hon. Gentleman may not be aware, however, that both Norway and Switzerland observe the rules of the single market as well.