House of Commons
Thursday 13 June 2013
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Innovation and Skills
The Secretary of State was asked—
Our ambition is to double exports to £1 trillion by 2020. This ambition was reflected in the 2012 autumn statement, when UK Trade & Investment was allocated an extra £140 million to enable it to double the number of small and medium-sized enterprises supported from 25,000 to 50,000 by 2015.
The Government have made an excellent start, with exports to Brazil up by half and to India by more than half and those to China almost doubled, yet still only one in five SMEs exports. Were we to get that up to one in four, we could wipe out our trade deficit, so what efforts are the Government making to engage with the four out of five SMEs which currently do not export but whose products and services would be attractive to overseas markets?
My hon. Friend analyses the problem correctly: we have to make a major effort in big emerging markets, which we have neglected in the past. We have identified 20. I have been to the majority of them, leading trade missions, as have my colleagues. With reference to raising awareness, for example, in May, a few weeks ago, we had 80 events across the country identifying 3,600 businesses with interests in emerging markets, and there is a greatly increased tempo of activity in the field through the establishment of chambers.
What has the Secretary of State learnt from the experience in Germany, where the state-backed investment bank makes export finance one of its priorities and one of its objectives? Does he think there are lessons there for this country that could improve access to export finance to address the problem that he has just set out?
The Germans do indeed have a very good system of export support and trade finance. They do many of these things well. Partly in response to that, in the earlier period of this Government I introduced a new range of short-term trade finance products that we had not had before. They are now picking up a substantial amount of interest, and in the Budget the Chancellor announced £1.5 billion for medium-term—three to five-year—export credit guarantees, which are now being implemented.
In the Secretary of State’s assessment, what would be the implications of a Brit EU exit on the export sector?
I am going to Luxembourg tonight. I hope that by the end of tomorrow we will have to agreed to launch those very important negotiations. This is potentially the biggest trade deal that has been accomplished for many years, and it will have major implications—positive implications—for British exporters, particularly in sectors such as cars.
The Secretary of State’s answer to the very pertinent question posed by the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) smacked of complacency. His response did not mention the fact that figures published last week showed that the value of exports has fallen by 1.3%. The CBI also said last week that the trade figures were “unsatisfactory”, with
“still a long way to go. The Government needs to do more to help raise exports to the fast-growing economies.”
Does the Minister agree with the CBI’s assessment? Is he satisfied with the Government’s performance in boosting trade so far or does he think he needs to raise his game?
The game has been raised very considerably over the past three years but the hon. Gentleman is right. The figures on exports are not great and the reason is simple: half our exports go the European Union, where output is declining. It has a major economic crisis. Exports are growing rapidly to emerging markets. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) cited the figures and I will repeat them: 28% growth in the past year to Russia, 16% to Brazil and 16% to China. That does not suggest that we are not trying.
Yesterday the Government published our response to the recent consultations on consumer rights and, alongside that, a draft Consumer Rights Bill. This will help consumers and their advocates understand their rights when things go wrong.
A constituent of mine paid £20 for the previous day’s congestion charge, rather than £12, having found an authentic-looking site at the top of Google’s listings. The ownership disclosure was out of sight on the landing page, below the fold. What can be done to protect against such intermediary internet rip-offs?
As many of us know from our constituency work, there are a large number of consumer rip-offs. The purpose of this legislation is to provide for much stronger redress, particularly in internet trade, which is growing rapidly—we have had the most rapid growth of any country outside Finland—and we must bring consumer legislation up to match it.
Glasgow’s Evening Times reported this week that one in five Glasgow citizens is currently using payday loans to try to meet everyday costs. What measures do the Government propose taking in their new legislation to protect consumers and, in particular, control the rollover of payday loans, which is often the nub causing people to go into serious debt?
A great deal is happening on the payday loan front. The Office of Fair Trading is coming to the end of its investigation, which will result in action that is appropriate to the competition authority. Responsibility will shortly pass to the Financial Conduct Authority, which has more powers and can be more active in that field. We are looking, in particular, at how we can deal with misleading and dangerous advertising in that area.
They will considerably improve the rights of redress, and there is a whole series of specific measures in the Bill, which will be debated at length, on how to achieve that. When we aggregate all the redress elements, we estimate that it will probably be worth something in the order of £4 billion over 10 years to consumers.
In June last year the Government announced a crackdown on cowboy builders. The DCLG website states:
“The measures will also ensure that householders have a financial safety net in place… if… self-check installers fail to finish work properly or if they can’t be chased through the courts.”
Around 85,000 complaints about cowboy builders are made to the OFT every year. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many people have benefited from that Government scheme in its first 12 months?
I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman exactly how many, but I am happy to write to him about that. I launched the scheme and am therefore interested in seeing how successful it has been. Over the years we have all met constituents who have had appalling experiences with rogue builders. The existing system operating through trade standards has not been totally effective. This kind of branding will, we hope, bring more cowboy builders to account.
The UK automotive industry is in great shape: last year UK car production increased by 9% and car exports exceeded imports by value for the time since 1976. The new automotive investment organisation, which we are announcing today, will build on that strong performance, which has already attracted more than £6 billion in global investment over the past two years.
I thank the Minister for that impressive description of the current state of the British car industry. What measures is he taking to ensure that we have sufficient skills, particularly in engineering, to develop the components industry in the car sector as well as recognising the need to provide new technologies?
Addressing the skills challenge and increasing the supply of engineers is critical for the automotive industry and others. It needs attention in schools, where the Department for Education is investing £135 million in science and maths education, and from industry itself. I hope that more car companies will follow Nissan’s lead in taking up the employee ownership pilots.
As a west midlands MP, I join the Minister in welcoming the success of the British car industry, which is a tribute to the industry, its work force and trade unions and his Department under both Administrations. Is it not extraordinary that other Government Departments do not back the British car industry, especially the police, who are buying more and more foreign vehicles? Will he talk with the Home Secretary to get her to back British industry? It might even help her leadership ambitions.
In South Staffordshire we are seeing the construction of a £500 million new engine plant for Jaguar Land Rover. However, one of the great constraints on the automotive sector is the need for more engineers coming through our university system. What more can the Government do to encourage more engineers to drive forward our wonderful automotive sector?
We are encouraging more children to take up science subjects and to study maths earlier and for longer, and to be more aware of the high-value, highly regarded careers that are available in engineering. We are urging companies to open up their premises to more visits from schools, particularly in connection with the See Inside Manufacturing initiative that we are launching again this October.
Prompt Payment Code
I have written to all the FTSE 350 companies urging them to sign up to the prompt payment code. Signatories must pay their invoices on time to maintain membership. Three quarters of FTSE 100 companies are now signatories, and over 1,400 large companies have signed in total.
Last year a Federation of Small Businesses report showed that 40% of small businesses had faced problems with payment from Government agencies and quangos. Will the Minister make the prompt payment code mandatory for all public sector organisations and consider budget cuts for persistent offenders?
Does the Minister agree that paying small and medium suppliers on time is part of the broader responsibilities of the large company? Will he look at the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, which is making a real difference for small and medium-sized enterprises and their relationships with taxpayer-funded local authorities and health authorities? Will he try to ensure that large companies pay taxes and have a broader responsibility to the community in which they sit?
That goes a little wider than the original question, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman. There are large companies sitting on large amounts of cash, and it is not right that smaller businesses in their supply chains should have to wait longer than 30 days to be paid promptly.
Medical Education and Research
The Government are committed to well-funded medical education and research and to maintaining long-term funding in these areas. In 2013-14 we will spend £330 million on health education and £630 million on health research.
I thank the Minister for his answer. However, the chair of the Medical Schools Council has said that any move of this budget to the Department of Health poses a significant risk of undermining Britain’s leading position in health research and education. Will the Minister confirm that he will resist all attempts at Treasury short-termism and a move of the budget to the Department of Health, as this area is a driver of growth and a global strength for the UK?
It is a global strength for the UK, and that is why we have protected the Medical Research Council’s budget in real terms. Only last week we had the topping-out ceremony at the Crick institute—the opening of the new laboratory of molecular biology. On the particular issue that the hon. Lady raises, I cannot do better than to quote the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who said the other day:
“I give you an absolute commitment that I will do nothing that jeopardises that vital basic research that the Medical Research Council undertakes, and I would always make sure that that money is not used for other things.”
We cannot do better than that.
The Government have announced more university training places for medical students and doctors. This is a matter of some urgency given the wave of doctors who are due to come up for retirement and the fact that it takes seven years to train a doctor. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on this?
I am grateful for the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), but perhaps I could press him to go further specifically in relation to the potential moving of the Medical Research Council’s budget to the Department of Health. He will be aware that the chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities has described the proposed move as a “fudge” that will threaten the independence of medical research in this country. Does the Minister still believe in the Haldane principle, and if so, will he commit to keep the Medical Research Council under his Department’s control to ensure that it remains free of political interference?
I am happy to give the assurance that we are committed to the Haldane principle and it is important that medical research remains subject to it. That is essential for all parts of the science family. I can do no better than repeat the Chancellor’s assurance that we will make sure that the money is not used for other things, and that if there is any change the vital, basic research that the MRC carries out is not jeopardised.
We have made it easier and quicker for small businesses to take on apprentices by simplifying the process for employers. We have introduced an apprenticeship grant for employers. The National Apprenticeship Service has a dedicated team to provide bespoke services for small businesses and we are implementing the key recommendations of the Jason Holt review.
I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. I, like many hon. Members, am dedicated to promoting apprenticeships in my constituency, particularly in small and medium-sized businesses, but they are often very busy and hard to reach, so it is difficult to get across the message about what is available. Ironically, they are often the firms that would most benefit from an apprentice. Will the Secretary of State outline the specific measures available to promote apprenticeships and any support the Department can give hon. Members in doing so?
May I first anticipate the House’s disappointment that I am answering this question, rather than my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock)? He is being a role model for our policy of shared parental leave and is currently nursing Humphrey Hancock, who was born a few days ago.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) has seen the benefits of the growth of apprenticeships, which is one of the Government’s big success stories. The number has grown from 500 at the beginning of this Government to 870 at the latest count. My hon. Friend is right that there are particular obstacles for small business, but companies with fewer than 200 employees already take 80% of all the apprenticeships in the country. We are trying to improve the service. One of the latest developments is the introduction of a website to make it much easier to access the NAS and its services.
I am sure the whole House will wish Humphrey a speedy recovery.
The Opposition are not at all disappointed that the Secretary of State has stepped into the breach. Although his Department has achieved some success on apprentices, the construction industry is still falling behind its own targets. If we are to get the investment programme under way, it is vital to increase it. Will the Secretary of State give that some attention and get cracking with it?
I will. Indeed, at the beginning of the week I chaired a meeting of the construction industry’s council, which we have put together. Its members acknowledged that skills were one of their key constraints, one of the problems being that the construction industry has been through a very deep, cyclical depression, which has had a major knock-on effect on skills. We are now working with it to boost skills, so that the upswing in the industry that we are beginning to see is not impeded by the shortage of key people.
We are currently consulting on proposals to introduce a statutory code of practice and adjudicator for the pubs sector. The consultation closes tomorrow.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. In assessing the possibility of a code and adjudicator, will he take account of the experience of my constituents Peter and Sara Strawson of the White Horse in Quidhampton, who, like many others, though accepting the challenges of local competition and changing patterns of consumption, maintain that Enterprise Inns signed them up to a lease on a false prospectus and then, with a combined wet and dry rent footing, made their business completely uneconomic and unsustainable?
I think we all have such examples of publicans in our constituencies and it was that kind of experience that led to the Select Committee producing four reports on the subject. It also led to our seeking a voluntary code. In view of the lack of progress, we recommended a statutory code, on which we are now consulting. We have had about 6,000 replies, which is a remarkable response. I cannot yet assess the conclusions, but my hon. Friend’s example is fairly typical of many.
Like too many other landlords in Meon Valley, Angela Ryan, who until recently ran the White Hart pub in South Harting, has lost her battle to continue in business after facing unsustainable rent demands, again from Enterprise Inns. Will the Secretary of State assure me that he will do everything in his power to redress the balance between landlord and owner, so that such SMEs have a reasonable prospect of continuing in business and our rural communities may retain their valued pubs?
My hon. Friend’s example reinforces the general point that I made a moment ago. I cannot pre-judge the outcome of the consultation and we have not yet studied the responses. The Government’s overriding objective is to achieve fair treatment for publicans in respect of rent and beer prices. I think that the mechanism that we have proposed will survive scrutiny.
The Secretary of State will be aware that there was a huge Fair Deal For Your Local rally in Parliament recently. It was attended by Members from all parts of the House who support Labour’s view that a statutory code for pub companies must include a mandatory free-of-tie option to hardwire fairness into the system. Is a fairer distribution of risk and reward an objective of the Government’s regulation?
It is an objective of our regulation to achieve a fair distribution of risk and reward. As I have said, the precise mechanism and whether we proceed with the adjudicator in the way that we have suggested very much depend on how we analyse the consultation. The results will of course be discussed in the House.
Yesterday’s news about Punch Taverns’ unsustainable debt and its row with the committee set up by the Association of British Insurers shows that the securitised pubco scam is a disaster not just for local pubs but for the British economy. Will the Secretary of State listen to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Forum of Private Business, all of which back Fair Deal For Your Local and the obvious solution, which is the market rent-only option?
Small and Micro-businesses
I announced last week that we will extend the exemption from burdensome new regulation to firms with up to 50 staff, and that will continue after 2014. Our growth accelerator scheme has supported more than 6,000 small businesses with high growth potential. We are encouraging more businesses to exploit export opportunities, and UK Trade & Investment is on track to double the number of SMEs it supports to 50,000 by 2015.
Although I welcome the Government’s initiatives to date, given the importance of small and micro-businesses to the economy will Ministers use their influence to push for further tax incentives to encourage growth and employment? After all, cash flow is king for such businesses and history suggests undeniably that financial payback does not take too long to come around.
As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are making the tax system in the United Kingdom the most competitive in the G20. In 2011, we reduced the small companies rate to 20%. More than 1 million employers will benefit from the new £2,000 employment allowance from next April and nearly 500,000 employers will pay no employer’s national insurance contributions at all from that date.
We are designing an employee share scheme that will honour the commitment made by Parliament in 2011 that 10% of Royal Mail shares should be reserved for employees. We are still considering the details, but it is very much the Government’s intention to make the offer attractive to employees, while balancing the overall value for money for the Government and the interests of other stakeholders.
John Lewis, under the inspired leadership of Andy Street, who I should declare is a friend of mine, is synonymous with quality and service. Does my right hon. Friend agree that John Lewis, which uses the mutual model, might provide an appropriate model for the privatisation of Royal Mail?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are currently considering the way the privatisation proceeds, and we have committed to Parliament that 10% of shares will go to employees. There are different ways of doing that and we have not prejudged exactly how it will occur. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this is the largest worker share ownership in any privatisation that has occurred, and it will be the largest for several decades.
More than 90% of BT’s employees registered to participate in shares when the company was privatised. Does my right hon. Friend agree that everybody in this House, and outside, should encourage as many Royal Mail employees as possible to participate in and benefit from shares from a sale?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. We wish to work with employees, and particularly the union that represents them. My colleague the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), and I have regular conversations with that union, and wish it to be positively engaged with the share sale process.
I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in congratulating all Royal Mail staff for producing a doubling of profits this year, and we send our best wishes to the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), for a speedy recovery.
The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks, who I am surprised is not answering this question, is seen as a fire fighter in Government, but rather than putting out the fire at Royal Mail, he has lit the fuse and put the fire sale signs up. He is, of course, rushing that through to spare the blushes of his Chancellor, who is borrowing £245 billion more than he said in 2010 and is desperate for pre-election cash in the coffers. The Minister signed a letter in 2009 in which he said he was opposed to privatisation, so why are the Government now rushing a sell-off that is opposed by right-wing think-tanks, the unions, the National Federation of SubPostmasters, small businesses, the Liberal Democrats, and people up and down this country who will receive a poorer postal service as a result?
The Opposition have a strange but perhaps rather revealing idea of speedy decision making. The process of bringing private capital into the Post Office started in 2008 under my Labour predecessor. It was one of our first pieces of legislation—I introduced it in the House, it was agreed, and we are now following through in an orderly way designed to get good value for the taxpayer and a good outcome for Royal Mail.
High Street Businesses
High streets are changing and the Government are committed to helping communities adapt their high streets to those changes. We have taken action following the Portas review by lifting planning restrictions, doubling small business rate relief, and providing towns with a package of support to drive forward their local economy. I look forward to giving evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee inquiry into retail in due course.
High streets obviously need to provide a diverse offer in order to succeed, and the provision of street markets and farmers markets are particularly important to many high streets. There is a significant problem in a number of areas because we cannot get road closure orders to allow such markets to go ahead. What work is the Department doing, together with the Department for Communities and Local Government, to ensure that markets thrive, and what will the Government do to develop a market strategy?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman, like other hon. Members, will support his local market. I had the pleasure of supporting Sevenoaks local market last month, and there is an initiative across the country—love your local market—in which I hope he is participating. I will look into the particular point he raises about highway closures.
In my constituency, a number of businesses in the high street have unfortunately closed. If they go into liquidation, their employees receive pay arrears, holiday pay and notice pay, if necessary from the national insurance fund. If the business just ceases trading and is eventually struck off, its employees do not get pay arrears, holiday pay or notice pay. Will the Minister meet me to discuss that anomaly in the law?
I would be happy to do so, but I hope my hon. Friend will not be too gloomy about the state of the high street. He will know that, in the most recent year for which we have figures, some 22,900 store-based retailers opened and 21,000 closed—more stores were set up than were closed.[Official Report, 18 June 2013, Vol. 564, c. 3MC.]
My hon. Friend will know that we have doubled the small business rate relief for the past three and a half years, which has helped more than 500,000 businesses. In the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, we postponed the revaluation to give businesses more certainty—a larger number of them were forecast to lose under the revaluation than would have gained.
I agree with my hon. Friend. We must get the balance right. It is important that local authorities do not freeze trade out of their local high streets. One action we have taken following the Portas review is to encourage local authorities to look at the total local economy and ensure that there are not undue restrictions on encouraging people to come into the high street.
Women play an important role in growing our economy. We commissioned the Women’s Business Council to investigate how we can help remove barriers and maximise women’s contribution to economic growth. Following its excellent report last week, the Government will publish an action plan this autumn that will improve web-based support for entrepreneurs. We will work with the British Bankers Association to improve women’s awareness of the financial support available.
If women set up businesses at the same rate as they do in the US, benefits of up to £42 billion could be delivered to the economy. When I recently organised Start-up Challenge seminars for women in my constituency, they were full of excellent, enthusiastic and dynamic women who were keen to be entrepreneurs. What more can we do to stretch out to those women and encourage more of them to be great entrepreneurs for the country?
If women were setting up and running new businesses at the same rate as men, we would have an extra 1 million female entrepreneurs in this country. Despite progress in recent years, women remain less likely than men to start a business, so we have more to do.
The Secretary of State has recently made a number of welcome speeches in support of women in engineering, enterprise and the boardroom, but unfortunately, they are not matched by action from his Government. Why, for example, has the number of investments by the Aspire fund, which was set up specifically to support women-led businesses, fallen under his Government to a quarter of what it was under the previous Government?
Export week was launched by my colleague Lord Green in May and included over 80 events across the UK, attended by more than 3,600 businesses focusing on 20 high-growth markets.
As chairman of the all-party group on Azerbaijan, I attended the Caspian oil and gas conference, where BP announced its further development of the Shah Deniz gas field. What action can the Government take with UK Trade & Investment further to expand British trade with Azerbaijan in order to address the concerns of the governor of Ganja, it’s second city, that, although German, Dutch and French companies are bidding for major infrastructure contracts there, no British companies are involved?
We are absolutely aware of the international export opportunities presented by major infrastructure projects and are strengthening the commercial role of our embassies in key target markets such as Azerbaijan to ensure that we secure a fair share of those contracts.
I attended one of the 80 events, in Derbyshire in the east midlands. There were fewer than 100 people there, and not one from my constituency. UK Trade & Investment has been given additional funding. Will my right hon. Friend explain what it is spending that funding on, and why it is not reaching out? It is all right exporting from the south of the country, but we need to look to the midlands and the north too.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on the importance of reaching out to businesses in her constituency and across the midlands. Indeed, we are trying to strengthen the ability of chambers of commerce located in our key target markets to communicate with small and medium-sized enterprises back home. We are specifically helping smaller companies with the cost of going to their first international trade fair, as not enough of them take that important opportunity. We are seeing the benefits, with exports to target markets up by 49% in Brazil, up 130% in Russia, and up 60% in India.
Green Investment Bank
The state aid approval obtained in relation to the green investment bank enables it to make investments on commercial terms across the following green sectors: offshore wind; waste processing and recycling and energy from waste; non-domestic energy efficiency; the green deal; biofuels for transport; biomass power; carbon capture and storage; marine energy; and renewable heat.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I congratulate him on getting the bank operational so quickly. However, he will know that under the terms of the EU state aid clearance a number of low-carbon technologies were excluded, including nuclear supply chain and solar, and that carbon capture and storage was regarded as low priority. Does he have any intention of going back to the EU and asking for the clearance to be amended, so that the bank can more closely follow the purpose set out in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging the progress we have made. Our first priority is to ensure that the institution makes good use of the £3 billion of Government capital that is now being deployed alongside private capital. We are making good progress in that respect—something in the order of £700 million has been committed. He raised the matter of a wider scope for the bank. He anticipates the answer; we would have to go back to the European Commission and seek state aid approval. I do not currently have any plans to do that.
The business bank will tackle long-standing market failures in the provision of finance to small and medium-sized businesses. I expect the business bank to be fully operational in 2014, subject to EU state aid approval. Its programmes are being operated from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as an interim arrangement to help businesses straight away, including the £300 million investment programme launched in April.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but in December 2012 he told this House that the business bank was already established. In fact, as he has just said, it is really operating with a re-named group of civil servants from his own Department. What assurance do we have that it will become a bank by 2014, or ever?
I do not know whether the hon. Lady is suggesting somehow short-circuiting the whole state aid approval process. The last I heard, the Labour party was committed to the rules of the European Union. If it wants to break them, it should perhaps make that explicit. In the meantime, we operate within the rules and that means we have a team of professional people—they are not civil servants; they are from the financial sector—who are doing an admirable job and are already out in the market with a heavily oversubscribed offering which we hope to see deployed very quickly.
I have regular discussions. As our response to Lord Heseltine’s report made clear, the Government will be creating a single local growth fund for local enterprise partnerships from April 2015, which will include housing, transport and elements of skills funding. The size and content of the single local growth fund will be confirmed at the spending review.
On 18 March, the Treasury accepted Lord Heseltine’s proposals on devolving regeneration funding to local enterprise partnerships from 2015, but in late April the Business Secretary briefed journalists that we will not be going down that road. Will the Minister tell us whether the Business Secretary backs the Government’s plans to implement Lord Heseltine’s recommendations by 2015?
My right hon. Friend certainly does so. It is up to local leaders in each local enterprise partnership to identify their growth priorities and to set them out in their local economic strategies, and those growth strategies might well include regeneration. The hon. Lady will know that Humber has the largest enterprise zone in England. It has already had some £50 million of assistance from the regional growth fund and is well placed to exploit the opportunities arising from offshore renewable industries, as I saw when I met the partnership there earlier this year.
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 importance of further education colleges, such as the award-winning and hugely ambitious Middlesbrough college in my constituency, in helping people acquire the skills they need for local job markets, will the Minister explain to the House what work his Department has done to encourage local enterprise partnerships to work more closely with colleges?
The Department has given a clear remit to local enterprise partnerships to work on raising skills in their areas. It is obviously important that they work with further education colleges, and in our legislation in 2011 we removed much of the red tape and regulation that had prevented further education colleges from contributing to that.
T2. The Secretary of State is right to say that he cannot comment during the consultation and to urge as many people as possible to take part in the BIS consultation on pubcos by tomorrow, but does he agree that the evidence supplied to him must be accurate and honest? Given that in the past week we have had a dishonest and untruthful statement to MPs and the Select Committee from both the chief executive of Enterprise Inns and the chief executive of the lobbying organisation for pubcos, the British Beer and Pub Association— (159379)
I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done on the pubs issue. He has played a significant part in influencing the House’s thinking on it. I am sure he appreciates, however, that I would get into difficulty if I started talking about serious people in the industry being dishonest and untruthful. I will not go down that road.
In the US, small business Saturday takes place immediately after Thanksgiving, on one of its busiest shopping days of the year, and celebrates small businesses’ contribution to local economies and encourages people to shop in them. It has proved to be very successful. A grass-roots movement of organisations, including the Federation of Small Businesses, representing hundreds of thousands of small businesses, has formed to make a UK small business Saturday happen later this year. Will the Secretary of State lend his support to this initiative, which aims to give a boost to the country’s small businesses?
I will do whatever I can to boost the cause of small business. I was with the Federation of Small Businesses at the beginning of the week addressing many of those issues. In my earlier answers, I explained what we were doing for small business in respect of trade, apprenticeships and the business bank, and the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), has talked about deregulation. It is a very wide agenda and we are delivering those aims.
One of the things that small businesses find most objectionable is the perceived preferential treatment that they see some large companies getting from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, in contrast to the heavy-handed treatment that small businesses sometimes receive. If HMRC is to clamp down on tax avoidance by large companies, which the Secretary of State says is a Government priority, transparency is key. Under the Companies Act 2006, large companies are obliged to disclose details of foreign subsidiaries to Companies House, but it appears that the latter is not properly enforcing these requirements. In March 2011, the Business Secretary said that he would carry out—
It has happened; I have conducted it. The problem is very simple: roughly 4 million accounts are registered with Companies House and scrutinising all of them in detail is difficult. I have asked Companies House—it is now doing this—to ensure that the returns of the top-350 companies are analysed in detail for errors. If there are errors, our experience so far has been that they are very speedily corrected.
I have visited Stockport on several occasions. It has been an excellent council over the years, and my right hon. Friend works effectively with it and on Stockport’s behalf. I always try on my regional visits to meet apprentices and small companies providing them, and I would be happy to do that next time I come to Stockport, which I think will be quite soon.
T6. The Secretary of State will have had representations from high energy-intensive users in manufacturing, such as the chemical industry in my constituency, about rising energy prices and energy policy and their impact on its competitiveness. Has he raised those concerns with his colleague the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change? (159383)
The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have quite rightly raised this issue on many occasions. There is an issue of price competitiveness for industries such as steel and aluminium, and we have addressed their concerns. He will know that the Treasury has funded a compensation scheme. We have been through a consultation process. Payments will be made quickly in respect of the European Union emissions trading scheme. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has also made a commitment to ensuring that the electricity market review implications do not fall on energy-intensive industries.
T4. It is one thing the Government not following through on their promises to tackle plastic waste in this country, but what on earth was my right hon. Friend doing complaining to the EU about Italy’s plans to ban or phase out the use of single-use plastic bags, and why was the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs not even consulted, given that it is one of its policy areas? (159381)
The Italian proposal would allow for only biodegradable bags, so would discriminate against British businesses that sell similar recyclable or other forms of degradable bag—for example, oxo-degradable plastic bags, with which I am sure my hon. Friend is familiar.
T8. If the Secretary of State finds himself before the Star Chamber, will he bear in mind that unemployment in the west midlands is rising and the rate of employment is falling? Will he therefore resist any cuts that further threaten the growth potential of small businesses and research and development across the west midlands region? (159386)
I am frequently in the west midlands; I was in Coventry last week discussing these issues with the local enterprise partnership. My understanding is that there has been rapid growth in private sector employment in the west midlands and many other parts of the country, and, as the hon. Gentleman will have seen from yesterday’s figures, unemployment is still falling.
I know that my hon. Friend has continued to raise the case of Mr and Mrs Langstaff in his constituency. The “Insurance: Conduct of Business” rules require insurers to handle claims promptly, and redress is available through the Financial Ombudsman Service if they do not do so. I note that a number of insurance companies have now signed the prompt payment code.
I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the concern about the future of northern museums, including the Museum of Science and Industry. Will BIS Ministers discuss with colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport how best we can protect the future of our science museums, which are so important in encouraging young people into careers in science?
A report from Sheffield Hallam university shows that Merseyside’s local economy will lose a staggering £847 million—that is, two years and five months’ worth of economic growth—as a result of the Government’s cuts to welfare support. What discussions are Ministers having with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about the impact on regional growth?
The resurgence of the motor manufacturing industry has had a tremendously positive effect on the supply chain across the west midlands, but further growth in that supply chain is now being challenged by the lack of available skills. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what more he can do to address that pressing problem?
This is a pressing problem right across the automotive industry and other engineering industries, and it has to be attacked on a number of fronts, including through more investment by the Department for Education to encourage more children to take up science, maths and technology, and through industry itself getting more involved in the employer ownership pilots and opening up its premises so that people can see the kinds of rewarding career that are now available in manufacturing and engineering.
I am sure the Secretary of State will have noted that, while unemployment fell by 5,000 this week across the UK, it rose in the north-east of England by 4,000 to 131,000. That means that 10.1% of our working population, and 24.9% of our young people, are now unemployed. Will he meet me and other colleagues to discuss how we can alleviate that individual suffering and unleash the potential of the north-east economy?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are particular problems in the north-east of England, but they are far from new. I was in his constituency a few weeks ago when I visited Durham and Tyneside. The great potential of the north-east is that it is a major manufacturing area of the UK with a strong export intensity. If we can achieve the rebalancing of the economy, as we are determined to do, the north-east could be one of the main beneficiaries. I am happy to meet him to talk further about that.
The Government are having a really successful run-up to this year’s G8; $4.5 billion was pledged for global malnutrition last Saturday and there has been a highly successful science summit this week. Will the Science Minister update the House with further details of the science summit?
We had an excellent summit of the G8 Science Ministers at the Royal Society yesterday. We agreed that new global challenges such as antibiotic resistance needed to be tackled, and we committed ourselves to the publication of research and data that are publicly funded.
A delegation from the Confederation of Indian Industry visited the UK this week. What is the Secretary of State doing to support economic partnerships between Britain and India, and how does he envisage their driving growth in the UK?
The Confederation of Indian Industry was in the Department at the beginning of this week to make the case for the deepening of the relationship, and that is proceeding well. Unfortunately, we are starting from a low base, as Britain’s share in the Indian market is not as great as it could be. The one really big success story is Indian investment in the UK, which is growing rapidly. That includes our largest manufacturing company, Tata, which is highly successful and a very valuable corporate citizen. We are doing all we can to develop that relationship.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech), and given the importance that this Government have placed on science, is it the Department’s intention to play an important role, in conjunction with Ministers from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, in securing the future of the three northern museums in the Science Museum Group, particularly the National Media museum in Bradford, which is crucial to the local economy in the Bradford district?
Earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) and I decided to use a survey to investigate zero-hours contracts. The Secretary of State has now followed us. Hopefully I can help by asking him whether he will now look into the situation of the 37,000 people on zero-hours contracts whom the Government estimate to be working in the care sector in the north-west.
We do indeed have anecdotes about abusive practices in that area. We also have a lot of other anecdotes to show that the system works very well for a large number of workers and companies. I am not jumping to any conclusions; I am just trying to gather the facts. I should add that the zero-hours contract system continued under 13 years of the Labour Government and that no Labour Minister thought that there was a problem with that.
I thank the Minister for Universities and Science for his visit to the university of Worcester last week. Does he agree that the magnificent new library, the Hive, which was delivered in conjunction with local city and county councils, is a shining example of creative collaboration between universities and the local government sector, which other universities should follow?
The Secretary of State will know of the campaign launched by the Cutlers company, supported by the Sheffield Star and with wide support across the city, concerning the threat posed by the red tape challenge to controls over the use of the name Sheffield. In response to the campaign, the Deputy Prime Minister has indicated that the protected name status for Sheffield will be retained. Is that correct?
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 17 June—Second Reading of the Pensions Bill.
Tuesday 18 June—Motion to approve a European document relating to the reform of the common agricultural policy, followed by motion to approve a European document relating to enhanced co-operation and a financial transaction tax and documents relating to economic and monetary union, followed by motion to approve a European document relating to the European elections 2014, followed by a general debate on Sudan. The subject for this debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Wednesday 19 June—I expect my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to update the House following the G8 summit, followed by Opposition day (3rd allotted day). There will be a debate on the topic of the economic and social importance of regional arts and the creative industries, followed by a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 20 June—A general debate on carers, followed by a general debate on the east coast main line franchise. The subjects for these debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
The provisional business for the week commencing 24 June will include:
Monday 24 June—Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.
Tuesday 25 June—Opposition Day (4th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Wednesday 26 June—I would like to remind the House that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make a statement on the spending review, followed by Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill, followed by motions relating to the hybrid Bill procedure.
Thursday 27 June—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 20 June will be:
Thursday 20 June—A debate on the sixth report of the Justice Committee on interpreting and translation services and the Applied Language Solutions contract, followed by a debate on the UK contribution to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
In the light of recent revelations about the Chair of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, may I welcome your decision, Mr Speaker, to write to the Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee? It is surely right for you to ask whether Chairs of Select Committees should have commercial interests in those sectors covered by their Committee— but it is not just MPs who can have an influence on Government.
I understand that on Tuesday evening, the Prime Minister’s Australian election guru, Lynton Crosby, addressed the Tory parliamentary party, with the Chief Whip and the Prime Minister in attendance, on his strategy for the general election. He is having a clear influence on Government, but we do not know who Lynton Crosby’s corporate clients are. We do know, however, that his company, Crosby Textor, has long lobbied lucratively for big tobacco. We know, too, that plain packaging for cigarettes suddenly disappeared from this year’s Queen’s Speech, despite strong hints that it would be included. So does the Leader of the House agree with me that for the sake of transparency, lobbyists at the heart of No. 10 should publish their interests and their client lists? We have already had one scandal involving prime ministerial appointments at No. 10; surely we do not need another.
I understand that Government meetings have already taken place to discuss the contents of the lobbying Bill. Labour has been offering cross-party talks to find a solution for three years. Why does the Leader of the House not take up our offer? Will he will arrange for pre-legislative scrutiny, and when can we expect to see the Bill?
At the Coming Year in Parliament conference on Tuesday, the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) jumped the gun by announcing that on 5 July the first private Member’s Bill to be discussed would be the EU referendum Bill tabled by the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton). [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I thought they might like that, Mr. Speaker. Normally it is the job of the Member promoting a Bill to decide on the day for Second Reading, but the cat is now well and truly out of the bag. Will the Leader of the House confirm the obvious—that the Bill is actually a Conservative party handout?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, but let us see what the Leader of the House says.
Will the Leader of the House also assure me that the hon. Member for Stockton South will at least be consulted on the parliamentary strategy that Conservative party managers will be pursuing in his name? Is not the real purpose of the Bill to persuade the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay and 100 of his colleagues to stop writing letters to the Prime Minister? Does this not show that his party is more concerned with pursuing partisan interests than with pursuing the national interest?
Over the last week, we have seen a bleak picture emerging of an increasingly divided Britain. New figures from Public Health England reveal that thousands more people are dying prematurely in the north than in the south. The shocking variations show that someone living in Manchester is twice as likely to die early as someone living in Wokingham. Moreover, a report published by the TUC this week shows that wages have fallen by nearly 8%. This comes at a time when prices are rising and people are suffering unprecedented cuts in their living standards. The regional differences are shocking, with the north-west and the south-west seeing pay packets shrink by more than 10%. The Chancellor used to say “We’re all in this together”, but those figures, added to his millionaires’ tax cut, make that statement laughable. Will the Leader of the House schedule a debate on divided Britain, to take place in Government time?
This week, the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) added his request for a leadership contest to the growing pile in the 1922 Committee’s files. Likening the Tories to passengers in an aeroplane, he said that they could either “do something about” the Prime Minister or
“sit back, watch the in-flight movies and wait for the inevitable.”
I have been wondering what movies members of the Cabinet might be watching while waiting for the inevitable to arrive. “Eyes Wide Shut”, perhaps? “Clueless”? “Les Miserables”? Or perhaps they have just been instructed to watch “The Wizard of Oz”.
Luckily for the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary took the opportunity to lecture him about his “motives and values” last night, and his fellow Bullingdon boy Boris Johnson rushed to undermine him by calling him a “girly swot”. As a self-proclaimed “girly swot”, I remind the Mayor of London that being called a woman and clever is not an insult. Indeed, is not the truth that if the Prime Minister had a few more “girly swots” in the Cabinet, he would not be in the mess that he is in now?
I thank the shadow Leader of the House for her response. Let me begin by echoing her expression of support for your letter to the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, Mr. Speaker—not least because I think that we in the House of Commons want consideration of the relationship between Members’ interests and their responsibilities to proceed on the basis of advice from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Standards and Privileges Committee, whose task is to secure those standards in the House. However, I also think it important for all of us in recent weeks to have recognised the importance of understanding not only what the rules say, but the spirit behind those rules. I think that if every Member of Parliament lives by the spirit as well as the letter of the rules, we will avoid what might otherwise be excessive and unduly intrusive rule making on what Members should and should not do.
The hon. Lady asked me about a number of matters relating to the Conservative party. I remind her that I am here as Leader of the House, and I speak here on behalf of the Government. Lynton Crosby is not in the Government or an adviser to the Government; he is an adviser to the Conservative party, and I am not therefore responsible here for his activities.
We will make announcements in due course on the introduction of the lobbying Bill to reform third-party influence in the political system. As the hon. Lady will know, the aspects of it relating to a register of lobbyists were the subject of earlier scrutiny with the benefit of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee response, which was not wholly supportive of the original proposals. That has given the Government an opportunity to consider these matters further, and that is the basis on which we will make further decisions and bring this Bill forward.
What the hon. Lady said on the EU referendum Bill might have led people to get things slightly wrong. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) is in charge of this Bill, and nobody thinks otherwise. As far as the business is concerned, I am looking forward on, I think, Wednesday of next week to having full details from the Members in charge of all the private Members’ Bills of what their intentions are, including on the timing of the Bills.
The hon. Lady raised a point about Public Health England. The data it has used serve to illustrate the tragic divide in terms of mortality between different parts of the country, and they are, essentially, the same data that we inherited in 2010; there is, effectively, no difference. What is deeply worrying, and what is at the heart of this, is that there is not just a divide between, for example, Manchester and Wokingham; there is also a divide between Manchester and Birmingham. The simple fact is that more can be done in many parts of our country to reduce premature mortality and morbidity.
When I was Secretary of State for Health, we sought to address that through the establishment of Public Health England and especially the transfer of public health resources into the hands of local authorities. The hon. Lady did not welcome the increase in resources for local authorities, relative to those that were previously deployed by primary care trusts, to support public health preventive measures. Putting that money in the hands of local authorities will enable them to make an impact on what we know makes the biggest difference to health, which is lifestyle. It is not just about how much we spend on NHS services, because Wokingham gets the least cash per head from the NHS budget, but it has some of the best morbidity and mortality outcomes. It is also about trying to make sure we change people’s lifestyles. On that we are agreed. There are basic things like the social grading of health, relative deprivation, the extent to which people are in work, the extent to which they have good parenting, the quality of education, and the quality of environment. Those are the things that make a difference, and that is, I hope, where our local authorities will use these powers to very good effect.
May I gently thank the hon. Lady for enabling me to announce one of next week’s Opposition day debates, and also say that I hope that, for the benefit of the House, the Opposition will give the House a little more notice of such debates? Next week, for example, Members should be able to see on Tuesday’s Order Paper what the subjects for debate will be on Wednesday. That was not the case this week, and I hope the Opposition—I say this in the spirit of co-operation that we are often able to enjoy—will in future be able to make that possible.
Order. As usual at business questions, a great many colleagues are seeking to catch my eye, but I remind the House that after this exchange there is to be a statement by the Economic Secretary on the Royal Bank of Scotland, followed by a debate under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, which is significantly subscribed. Therefore, there is a premium today on brevity from Back and Front Benches alike.
We are in the middle of a consultation on the draft environmental statement for High Speed 2; the Department for Transport is defending itself in the Court of Appeal on HS2; the Information Commissioner has decided that it is in the public interest for the Major Projects Authority’s report in detail on HS2 to be published; and there is an adverse National Audit Office report on the financing of aspects of the project. Surely introducing a preparation Bill giving unlimited spending power at this stage is premature. Will the Leader of the House seriously consider rethinking the provisional business on 26 June, and putting off Second Reading of the Bill until we have satisfactory outcomes to those four matters?
I know how strongly my right hon. Friend feels, not least on behalf of her constituents, about this matter and I know that she will assiduously examine the legislation as it comes through. I remind her that Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill is exactly that: it is about giving parliamentary authority. I believe the official Opposition share the view that such projects should be enabled to go ahead, and the spending authority the Bill provides will enable that to happen. Given the importance that we all attach to HS2 as a project for long-term economic growth in this country, I think it is important that the House proceeds on the basis I have outlined.
Now that the Backbench Business Committee has reconvened, will the Leader of the House work with us to redesign the e-petitions system, so that it becomes much clearer who is being petitioned and what an e-petition can realistically achieve?
I again congratulate the hon. Lady and all the members of the Committee on their re-election, which is a vote of confidence in the Backbench Business Committee. One of the things I hope we can achieve—not least in planning in this Session for subsequent implementation—is a petitions process that builds on the success so far. My predecessor in the Parliament, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), was able to introduce, through the Government e-petition system, a measure that has dramatically improved the public’s perception of how Parliament responds to the issues that matter to them, as evidenced in the 10th audit of engagement published by the Hansard Society. There were negative aspects outlined in that audit, but one of the positive aspects was that more of the public feel that Parliament is debating the issues that matter to them. The hon. Lady is right, however: we have a Government petitions system and some parliamentary scrutiny of that, but I think the public want to know that they are petitioning Parliament, while at the same time engaging an active response from Government, and I hope we can agree that.
My hon. Friend asks a question with which Members across the House will sympathise. I am glad I can assure him that the widow and child of Drummer Lee Rigby will receive financial support, as do the families of all those who have died in the service of this country. That may include a widow’s pension, a bereavement grant, payments via the armed forces compensation scheme, a survivor’s guaranteed income payment and child payments. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend and others.
On 3 July, I will be hosting a dinner at the Birmingham botanical gardens celebrating 60 years of continuous representation by women MPs of Birmingham, Edgbaston —a record not equalled by any other constituency in the country. May we have a debate in Government time on how all the political parties can promote greater participation by women, because we are still far from achieving parity?
I am glad that there is to be such an opportunity, and may I say, at the risk of flattering the hon. Lady overmuch, it is not just that Birmingham, Edgbaston has been represented by women but that it has been very ably represented? That will get me in trouble at the next election.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. The subject has been discussed in business questions before and the shadow Leader of the House has rightly raised it. I hope that there will be opportunities for such a debate. Perhaps the Backbench Business Committee will consider it, if the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and other Members invite the Committee to do so.
May we have a debate on the mis-selling of interest rate swap products by the commercial banks and, specifically, on why tailored business loans have not been included in the Financial Standards Authority—now the Financial Conduct Authority—review, despite there being similar products and similar evidence of mis-selling, which has been hugely damaging to small businesses up and down the country?
I will, if I may, take the opportunity to talk to my right hon. and hon. Friends at Her Majesty’s Treasury about that and, through them, to the Financial Conduct Authority, which, as my hon. Friend says, is undertaking investigations. But it is important for the House to recognise the degree of concern of consumers about this matter, and I hope that I get a decent reply.
Will my right hon. Friend resist a futile debate on the subject of Mr Lynton Crosby not only because he is, to anybody who knows him, a man of unimpeachable integrity, but because he is not a Government employee, not a civil servant, not paid out of public funds, not subject to the ministerial code and not subject to the civil service code, unlike the special advisers appointed by the Labour party who were empowered to give instructions to civil servants, instead of Ministers?
Will the Leader of the House consider a debate on pension contributions in Northern Ireland? It is well known, as per my early-day motion 176, that people in Northern Ireland who were aged 14 and 15 and working between 1947 and 1957 paid national insurance contributions, but that these did not count towards their pension, as this is calculated by taking account of contributions made from the age of 16 upwards.
[That this House recognises that people working in Northern Ireland at ages 14 and 15 between 1947 and 1957 paid national insurance contributions but that these do not count towards their pension as this is calculated by taking into account contributions made from age 16 only; acknowledges that this impacts Northern Ireland disproportionately as the working age in Great Britain changed from 14 to 15 in 1947, 10 years before it was changed in Northern Ireland; and calls on the Government to look at measures to address this discrepancy.]
I have taken this matter up with the Northern Ireland Executive, who say that it is not their responsibility and that it is a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions. There is an issue of equality here that deserves a debate in Parliament.
I am interested in the point that the hon. Lady makes and will, of course, ask my hon. Friends at the Department to respond to her. It may also be something that she wishes to raise with them at DWP questions on 1 July. She will understand completely that the Pensions Bill—I have announced the debate on that— includes the creation of the single-tier pension, which will be transformative in terms of people’s expectations of a secure income through the state pension in retirement.
Has my right hon. Friend seen my early-day motion 239 regarding the obscene behaviour of Thames Water, which has increased its profits and charged the consumer inflation-busting prices, but does not pay its corporation tax?
[That this House is disappointed that Thames Water, despite having an annual turnover of £1.8 billion, making a £549 million profit and awarding its chief executive a bonus of £274,000 in the last financial year, did not pay any corporation tax due to paying off debts to holding companies; notes that Thames Water increased its customers' bills by 6.7 per cent last year; further notes that Thames Water plans to increase water bills by a further £80 this year to pay for the Thames Tideway Tunnel; believes that Thames Water's 13 million customers should not pay more for water bills to make up for its bad financial management; and calls for Thames Water to pay tax on the real value of its profits, to stop bonus payouts until then, and for profits to be handed back to consumers for lower prices.]
May we have a statement on that, and will my right hon. Friend lobby the Treasury to introduce a windfall tax on greedy water companies and to pass the money raised back to the consumer?
I have seen the early-day motion to which my hon. Friend refers. He knows, as hon. Members will understand, that HMRC is vigilant in ensuring that companies, including Thames Water, pay the taxes that they are legally obliged to pay. In this context, I would add one further point that it is important to bear in mind. The benefits from investment relief and tax relief enjoyed by water and sewerage companies to encourage infrastructure investment are passed on to customers through lower bills via the regulator Ofwat’s five-yearly price reviews. Those reviews, if they are also vigilant, can ensure that those benefits do reach consumers.
May we have a debate on loan sharks and the increasing number of payday loan companies that are springing up in our communities, and an explanation of why the Government are failing to control them? Could it be that one of them is bankrolling the Tory party?
No, I do not think the hon. Gentleman is right about that at all. The evidence is to the contrary. The Government are serious about this. That is why we announced in March a strong action plan with immediate and longer-term measures relating to evidence of abuse of payday loans, which is not to say that such short-term loans are wrong, but they must not be abusive or harm consumers. One of the things that we therefore wait to find out is whether the Office of Fair Trading intends to refer the matter to the Competition Commission.
Is it possible to have a debate on capping welfare spending? I personally believe that the best way to do it is to cap benefits at the level of the average wage in this country, but it appears that others in the House believe that pensioners should be the ones who are capped. Pensioners in my constituency are very concerned to hear that.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We must take measures to ensure that we are fair. We have seen in the latest data that people in work, including and perhaps specifically in the private sector, have had very limited increases in their pay. Working-age benefits should therefore reflect such constraint. The Labour party, however, appears determined to allow welfare payments to balloon. The Opposition did not support us on that cap on welfare benefits, and their view appears to be that all the constraint on spending should be borne by pensioners. If they were to abandon the triple lock and do it that way, it would mean a £234 cut in the basic state pension. There are 11.5 million pensioners in this country who will be aghast at the thought that that is the proper policy to pursue.
On fairness and wages, the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed yesterday that post-2010 a significant fall in average real hourly wages has occurred, so may we have a statement from the Chancellor on why he thinks that since April 2013 average earnings, including bonuses, have shot up by 5.8% in the financial sector? Maybe the Chancellor could tell us whether this has anything to do with the top rate of tax being cut from 50p to 45p in April.
The hon. Gentleman should know that the broadest shoulders are bearing the greatest burden and that in every year of this Parliament the richest people in this country have been paying an increasing proportion of the overall tax burden. He should also know—the Chancellor will, I know, take every opportunity to make this clear—that we are therefore focusing the help that we can give on those with lower incomes, which is why 24 million basic rate taxpayers will be £700 better off next year than they were under Labour, specifically as a result of the measures to increase the personal tax allowance.
May we have a debate on the British overseas territories? Quite rightly and reasonably, the Prime Minister wants all the British overseas territories to sign the OECD convention on tax transparency and information. It would be wholly unreasonable for countries such as Bermuda to frustrate this commitment to greater tax transparency. Surely overseas territories cannot claim the privilege of being British and then fail to co-operate on tax evasion.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, with the G8 summit happening in the days ahead. I hope the Prime Minister will be able to report to the House next Wednesday on that, and I hope he will be able to report on unprecedented co-operation internationally in eliminating tax evasion and reducing abuse and avoidance of tax internationally through international mechanisms. I hope that will include British overseas territories. I know that Bermuda has reiterated, including this morning, its wish to form part of what is an unprecedented international effort to tackle international tax avoidance.
In a week when we learn that three of the science museums in the north are under threat, may we have a major debate on the overweening, unhealthy dominance of London and the south-east, which is sapping the life-blood out of the other cities and other regions in this country?
The hon. Gentleman was here last week and will have heard some of the exchanges on that point. Colleagues on both sides of the House have set out how strongly they feel about the contribution made by some of our national museums, particularly those relating to science and technology, railways and coal mining. Of course, his persuasion and influence no doubt encouraged Opposition Front Benchers to choose the contribution of the creative arts in the regions as the subject for the Opposition day debate next week.
As we approach the first anniversary of the wonderful London 2012 Olympics, may we have a debate on what more can be done to strengthen the position of sports facilities and playing fields in the planning system? The Hyde Park Olympic Legacy Group in my constituency is campaigning to retain a field but finding it frustrating, so this is an issue that we should discuss.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I hope that we are all actively pursuing the sporting legacy. I know that is something that Lord Coe is doing, leading from the Cabinet Office. In my area—I hope that this is true for others—we are working together, through the sports partnerships, to try to maximise the sporting legacy of the Olympics and Paralympics. My hon. Friend raises an interesting point about access to facilities. I think that some of our legislation, including that relating to assets of community value, will make a considerable difference. He will have an opportunity to raise the matter when Ministers from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport answer questions next Thursday.
Recently there have been a number of examples of damaging conflicts between police and crime commissioners and chief constables, the most worrying of which has been in Gwent, where the PCC effectively sacked the chief constable. May we have a debate in Government time on whether it is appropriate for PCCs to involve themselves in operational police matters?
I am sorry to hear about the case in Gwent, although I do not know the circumstances and cannot comment on it directly. In my county, I am pleased to say, the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable are working together very effectively. It is clear that that should rest on the chief constable and the police service understanding that the police and crime commissioner has a democratic mandate to set priorities and strategy and allocate resources, and they should respect that. At the same time, police and crime commissioners, like the police authorities that preceded them, should respect the police’s responsibility to take charge of operational matters.
With the sixth fastest household growth rate in the whole country, the borough of Kettering has many new residential developments that have unadopted roads. There is effectively no legal mechanism whereby the local authority can force developers to develop the roads to an adoptable standard. Unless they are adopted, there are no parking controls, no proper street lighting and so on. May we have a statement from the Department for Transport on the legal mechanisms it could make available to local authorities to get roads up to adoptable standards?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an interesting point. In my constituency, which, like his, has had many recent developments, many such roads have been adopted, so it is clear that many authorities are taking up the opportunity that exists. However, I will of course talk with my friends in the Department for Transport to secure a fuller answer for him. If he wishes to raise the matter on behalf of his constituents, Ministers will be here to answer questions on 27 June.
Today the Canadian Prime Minister is addressing hon. Members of both Houses as part of what seems to be a huge state lobbying effort on behalf of companies, such as Shell, that want to exploit tar sands at any cost and weaken the EU fuel quality directive to create a market for this dirty oil. Since tar sand oil is so incredibly damaging, may we have a debate on the cosy relationship between politicians and the fossil fuel industry, both in the UK and elsewhere?
For a moment there I was pleased that the hon. Lady was drawing attention to the presence in the Houses of Parliament of the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who will be speaking in an hour or so. I rather regret the way she then went on to speak about Canada. Canada is among our very closest friends and allies in so many ways. The Prime Minister is a distinguished occupant of that post in Canada and I think that we should welcome him wholeheartedly.
On 17 April, my 18-year-old constituent, Georgina Woodley, sadly lost her brave battle with cancer. Hospice care for those at the beginning of life and at the end of life is extremely good, but her courageous family are now campaigning for better palliative care for teenagers and young adults. May we have a debate about this issue at the earliest convenience?
I am sure that the whole House will share my hon. Friend’s sadness at the loss of his constituent and express our condolences to her family. Considerable strides have been taken in palliative care, particularly in relation to teenagers. I have met the youngsters at Christie hospital and University College London hospital, which, not least with the support of the Teenage Cancer Trust, have done a tremendous amount to improve the age-appropriate character of care for teenagers with cancer. There is more that we can do, absolutely, especially in support of the hospice movement. I hope that, following up on the Tom Hughes-Hallett report, we can introduce a system where money follows the patient so that the hospices that provide care that would otherwise be provided by the NHS get the support they need to provide the very high-quality personal care that they specialise in.
Now that we have had a chance to digest the latest report on children’s heart surgery and the flawed decision making to which it draws attention, may we have a debate on the quality of decision making in the NHS as a whole? That would give us an opportunity to debate further issues such as the removal of vascular services from Warrington hospital, on very flawed evidence, and the constant pressure for a merger between Warrington and Whiston, which would no doubt take away Warrington’s accident and emergency provision.
I will not comment on the particular instances that the hon. Lady mentions, though I have been aware of them in the past. The previous Government used to tell us that all these decisions were being made locally, but some of the evidence shows that they were, in effect, being made on a national basis but were not accountable on a national basis. Accountability will now be much clearer. Following what my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary said at the Dispatch Box yesterday, it is clear that in future NHS England will have a responsibility for commissioning these national specialised services across the country instead of the joint committee of primary care trusts from all over England that did it in the past. That is much clearer and much more straightforward, and I hope that NHS England will demonstrate a greater degree of consistency in decision making as a consequence.
May we have an urgent debate on the level of bonuses paid to Network Rail bosses? Is it not the case that rail bosses should not be paid large bonuses if they stand in the way of economic progress and also stand in the way of the vital need for a direct rail link from London to Shropshire?
Clearly, we are looking for Network Rail management to be appropriately rewarded in relation to their performance. I have nothing against bonuses if they accurately reflect the performance that is part of the contractual requirements. The job of Network Rail’s management—I think that they recognise this—is not only about the performance of the railway system as a whole but the many steps they should take through their investment programme to secure economic activity and growth, not least in some of the areas that are currently less well served by the rail network.
May we have a debate in Government time on the Government’s flagship policy, the big society? That will give us an opportunity to discuss the important work done by volunteers as individuals, societies and institutions. It will also give us an opportunity to discuss the astronomical rise in the number of food banks across the country, which is a cost of living issue, and more so than any Government directive. May we have that debate, because this is a stain on David Cameron’s Britain?
During last week’s volunteers week, I saw for myself, as I am sure that many Members will have done, very many examples of fantastic volunteering activity. These are often tough times for charities, and inevitably so, because of the economic circumstances in which we found ourselves at the end of the last decade. I hope that an opportunity for a debate will arise, but I cannot promise one in Government time. The House will consider through the Backbench Business Committee the relative priorities in providing time to debate such matters. Such a debate would enable us to see how the Government’s big society initiatives are having a dramatic, positive difference. Last week, for example, the Work and Pensions Secretary led internationally on how social investment can deliver benefits to communities.
The House will be aware of the implications for farming of the 18 months of extreme bad weather: we expect a poorer harvest, milk production has dipped and there has been a reduction in farm incomes. Will my right hon. Friend allow a debate, preferably in Government time, on the implications for food security and farm incomes of the extreme bad weather?
My hon. Friend is very knowledgeable on these matters and I completely understand her point, not least because my constituency has substantial arable production. I cannot promise a debate at the moment, but I am sure it would not be beyond the bounds of possibility to cover some of these matters in next week’s debate on the reform of the common agricultural policy.
Will the Leader of the House ask the Lord Chancellor to come to the House to explain his flawed policy on legal aid? He refuses to meet the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, the Law Society is threatening legal action, the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls are against it, and it undermines the English legal system. We need a statement or a debate in Government time.
I sat here with my right hon. and hon. Friends during Justice questions a few days ago when almost exactly the same point was made to them, and I heard them reply and say how often they meet the Criminal Bar Association and others and that they had done so recently. I will, of course, draw their attention to what the hon. Lady has said, but I heard them say that it is not true that they are not discussing this issue with those affected.
May we have a debate on the current and future prospects for private sector employment? As we know, since 2010, 1.3 million new private sector jobs have been created and total employment stands at just a shade under 30 million. In my constituency unemployment fell by 79 last month and has fallen by 248 in the past 12 months. In addition, two private sector projects are set to create more than 8,000 new jobs over the next three years. All this in a constituency that is already in the top 20 for economic growth in the country.
Too long. I ask the hon. Gentleman to exercise a degree of self-restraint. He heard me earlier exhorting colleagues on both sides to be briefer. He should not then indulge himself in a long-winded question. He might have to wait a little longer for his next question than he otherwise would have done.
My hon. Friend was taken with enthusiasm at the economic performance under this coalition Government. He is right. Many people in many constituencies will be encouraged by private sector employment growth—by the simple fact that three private sector jobs are being created for every one lost in the public sector. To be frank, the Labour party derided us when we said that we could expect that to happen. It was wrong. This bodes well for job creation and, indeed, for wealth creation in the future.
Yesterday the Prime Minister was pressed on the issue of arming the Syrian rebels. He said that he has
“always believed in allowing the House of Commons a say on all these issues.”—[Official Report, 12 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 333.]
However, he was not explicit on whether the House would have a vote. Is the Leader of the House able to guarantee that there will be a vote on any proposal to arm the Syrian rebels?
May we have a debate on celebrating Yorkshire? It is the 150th anniversary of Yorkshire county cricket club and, yesterday, skipper Andrew Gale scored a century at Lords; the Secretary of State for Health scrapped the flawed review that was to close Yorkshire’s children’s heart surgery unit; and in my part of Yorkshire employment is up and unemployment down.
I am glad to have another opportunity to celebrate Yorkshire. At the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), I had the privilege and pleasure of meeting Geoffrey Boycott at the Yorkshire county cricket club’s 150th anniversary celebrations here at the House on Monday. I will enjoy any opportunity to celebrate Yorkshire again in the future.
Since the Government do not bother to monitor how they spend taxpayers’ money through the high street innovation fund, may we have a debate in Government time on the effectiveness of the Government’s policies on high street renewal and business improvement districts, so that we know whether all areas, including the Lifford business association area in my constituency, are getting a fair deal?
The Government are constantly seeking to evaluate the value for money of our expenditure in ways that the previous Government never attempted and we are delivering better value for money. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in his place during Business, Innovation and Skills questions, but if he was, he would have heard the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) pointing out that more retail outlets have been opened recently than have been closed. The industry is undergoing substantial structural changes, not least because of the growth of online shopping. It is important for us all to recognise that there will be an inevitable process of adaptation.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. When we came to office, we set out to curb the profligate use of taxpayers’ money through such expenditure. We must think about how much individuals pay in tax and about how cavalierly that money has been spent, not least under the last Labour Government, through the use of procurement cards. The private office of a single Secretary of State spent hundreds of pounds on dinner in restaurants and on hotels. We have curbed all that. It is important, in so many ways, that we do not go back to the days of the last Labour Government.
The Prime Minister walked out of the cross-party talks on a press charter, there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech on lobbying and, although we all understand the need for international action on aggressive tax avoidance, there has been no legislative proposal in the UK. In contrast, the French Government have taken action this week to insist that companies that make money in France have to pay tax there. In the interests of a fairer and more transparent society, will the Leader of the House tell us when the Government will bring forward proper measures to tackle those three important areas?