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Topical Questions

Volume 564: debated on Thursday 13 June 2013

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)

Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. Topical Questions must be brief. The hon. Gentleman has had one opportunity already. There is a lot to get through and there are other colleagues to consider.

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—

Order. What we need is a question, with a question mark—just one sentence. We have a lot to get through.

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.

T3. Does the Secretary of State welcome Stockport council’s fund to assist private businesses in setting up apprenticeship organisations and schemes? Next time he comes to Stockport, will he agree to meet some of them? (159380)

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.

T7. The late payment of commercial debt regulations provide for a 60-day payment period, unless agreed and not grossly unfair. Will Ministers consider a longstop date of 90 days to give small businesses certainty? (159384)

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.

What assessment has the Minister made of the take-up of post-24 advanced learning loans and the potential impact on further education colleges’ finances?

We are absolutely committed to ensuring that such loans are taken up. We are very much looking forward to ensuring that they help to spread training opportunities for adult learning, to which we have a clear commitment.

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?

We absolutely understand the importance of science museums and the communication work that they undertake, and of course we recognise their significant role.

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?

We do not recognise those numbers. There is a significant resurgence of activity in many successful companies in Merseyside, as there is in the rest of the economy.

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?

We understand the importance of those museums. They are the responsibility of DCMS, and that Department is well aware of the significant role that they play, particularly in attracting young people and getting them interested in science and technology.

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?

It was an excellent visit, and the initiative for a new joint university and city library was indeed striking. It is an initiative from which other cities across the country can learn.

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?

I will certainly have a look at that. It was a point made to me on Tuesday when I had the pleasure of addressing the stainless steel annual conference and celebrating the 100th anniversary of Harry Brearley’s invention of stainless steel.