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Topical Questions

Volume 569: debated on Thursday 24 October 2013

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

One of the biggest difficulties for all businesses in the country, whether a small retail outlet or a major manufacturer, is the cost of energy. The Secretary of State is a bit of a leftie. [Laughter.] I say that as a compliment, obviously, and he seems to be taking it that way, although the gentleman with the jumper on, the Minister for Skills and Enterprise, who is protecting everybody from the cold over there, seems to disagree. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister, with the former Prime Minister or with us about what we should do about energy prices?

I do not think that either the Leader of the Opposition or the former Prime Minister has quite got it right, but I have stressed that, for industry, which is our concern in this Department, the way forward is to ensure that energy-intensive industries are properly compensated and enabled to compete on a level playing field, and we are pursuing that.

T2. Can the Minister give the House a progress report on how the Government are dealing with the scourge of the payday loan companies? (900659)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He rightly highlights the fact that there have been significant problems in the payday lending industry; thankfully, significant action is also being taken to match that. Twenty-five payday lenders have left the market since March as a result of strong action by the Office of Fair Trading, with the Competition Commission undertaking an investigation, and earlier this month the Financial Conduct Authority published a suite of new proposed rules, which will limit roll-overs, cap the number of times that a lender can use a continuous payment authority and introduce strict new rules on advertising to ensure that people do not get ripped off.

The Secretary of State has said that growth must be better balanced and less reliant on rising house prices, but this week he has warned of dangerous and unsustainable house prices in London and extreme problems of affordability across the country on his Government’s watch. Does he therefore not agree that it would make sense to review how the second part of his Government’s Help to Buy scheme operates now, as opposed to in a year’s time, given the attendant risks posed to more balanced growth?

I am delighted to see that the hon. Gentleman has progressed beyond his recent role as a share tipster and is now returning to more important and central concerns. The central point is that the growth we are experiencing is balanced. We are now beginning to see serious growth in manufacturing and the construction sector, and the next big step will be to see improvements in investment. As far as the housing market is concerned, the Chancellor has acknowledged that the Bank of England needs to watch the process very carefully.

But the right hon. Gentleman promised an export and investment-led recovery, yet as growth returned over the summer, exports fell, and the Office for National Statistics says that growth has been concentrated in household expenditure, rather than investment, which is £2 billion lower than it was a year ago. We all know that he is a keen dancer. In failing to prevail over the Treasury, is not the risk that, rather than marching to the tune of the makers, he is dancing to the Chancellor’s new song of house inflation?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree that there is no harm in the trend we are observing, which is that consumers are now more confident and are therefore spending and generating demand—I think we have both agreed over the last three years that the generation of demand is a key part of recovery. As far as exports are concerned, there is rapid growth in British exports to the big emerging markets, such as Russia, China, India and Brazil—indeed, I am going to Russia next week to pursue this course.

T3. Tamworth borough council is doing its bit to back small business Saturday by promoting “created in Tamworth” and offering free market stalls to business people and free parking to customers. Do the Government agree that local authorities have a hugely important role in helping rather than hindering small business growth, not least by offering more free parking? (900660)

We in Government are huge and enthusiastic supporters of small business Saturday, which has cross-party support. I encourage local authorities of all political persuasions to follow the lead of Tamworth and introduce policies that can help to support small businesses across the board, and especially on Saturday 7 December, small business Saturday.

T5. I was disappointed by the Minister’s response to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) earlier and surprised at his lack of basic geography, so I am going to give him another opportunity. I understand that we are all just “the desolate north-east” to Government Members, but I remind the Minister that Northumberland college is indeed in south-east Northumberland and up to 50 miles away from parts of north Northumberland. Once again, what will the Minister do to meet the basic needs of young people in north Northumberland? (900662)

I know the geography well, not least because I have visited Northumberland college in the last few months—[Interruption.] Hold on. Transport issues are important. If the hon. Lady is saying that we need to ensure that we get basic skills provision into all areas, including rural areas, I entirely agree with her, but if she is saying that the best thing to do is to ignore large rural areas, I disagree. I would have thought that we could work together on this sort of thing.

T4. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating engineering and manufacturing firms in Erewash, including F. C. Laser and TecQuipment, which are continuing to grow and to recruit apprentices? In addition, F. C. Laser has recently won the D2N2 award for the most promising business in 2013, proving that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Erewash and creating many jobs. (900661)

I commend my hon. Friend’s work in supporting small businesses and jobs in Erewash, through supporting enterprise. This is all about ensuring that companies can start up and grow and that they can employ people as easily as possible. I hope that our employment allowance, which comes in next April and which will give every company that employs people a £2,000 tax break, will help to take that a step further.

T6. Small businesses in my constituency have been flagging up the importance of local enterprise partnerships focusing more on skills training and apprenticeships, and on the fact that that could be better promoted if all LEP boards included at least one specialist education representative. What does the Minister think of that idea, and will he consider making it a prerequisite for LEPs receiving Government funding? (900665)

Unusually, I agree with both the suggestions that the hon. Lady has made. I look forward to working with her to support skills and small businesses through the LEP in Brighton.

T7. Manufacturing in the midlands is going through a renaissance, but the challenge is to create the skills necessary to meet future needs. Will the Minister join me in welcoming Tomorrow’s Engineers week, and tell the House what more can be done to enthuse young people, particularly young women, about engineering? (900666)

Yes, I am an enthusiastic supporter of Tomorrow’s Engineers, and the Government are backing that project in every way that we can. Tomorrow’s Engineers is about demonstrating that engineering is part of the future of our economy, and that it is an exciting career for someone to get into, whether they are a man or a woman. It is where the future of our economy is going, and providing the necessary skills is a vital part of what we are doing.

The Secretary of State has spoken proudly about the new businesses that have started up, but can he tell us how many businesses closed last year, and how many jobs were lost as a result of those closures?

I shall be happy to write to the hon. Lady with the number of deregistrations, but overall there are more businesses being created than are being closed. We have, I think, 400,000 more new businesses than we started with two and half years ago.

T8. What steps are the Government taking to address skills gaps, create jobs and increase productivity by improving the information given in schools about vocational job opportunities, particularly local ones? (900667)

We are making the skills system more rigorous and responsive to need, but schools have a duty to secure careers advice. I want that advice to be inspirational and impartial, and to include more mentoring, especially from people who have real jobs, so that we can help each child to reach their potential.

Last week, I attended the Hounslow enterprise showcase, organised by Dawn Edwards and Isabel King from the Real Business Club, which was run with the support of the local jobcentre and Hounslow chamber of commerce. I spoke to three women from my constituency who were looking for advice on how to start or grow their businesses. Does the Secretary of State think that we need to do more to support women-led businesses, particularly as research shows that the UK has a higher gender gap in entrepreneurship than many of the OECD countries?

Yes, we acknowledge the importance of women in business. Indeed, one of the initiatives that we are leading involves ensuring that women are properly represented on the boards of our leading companies, thereby creating role models for people starting their own companies. I agree that there is a gender gap and I agree that we need to do a lot more about it.

In the past three years, the UK car industry has gone from strength to strength, but there is always more to do. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what further work is planned, in conjunction with the Automotive Council, particularly with regard to new engine and powertrain technologies?

Let me first pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who had responsibility for this industry in the Department for three years. The automotive strategy, published earlier this summer, included a focus on the new automotive investment organisation to attract more suppliers into the UK, work to tackle the skills base by recruiting nearly 2,000 additional graduates into engineering, and further work to strengthen the supply chain throughout the industry.

The Secretary of State will know that there is serious concern among our universities about many of the provisions of the Immigration Bill and their impact on international student recruitment. What discussions has he had with universities on the issue and what representations has he made to the Home Office?

What we are seeing is a continuing increase in the number of overseas students applying to come to study in Britain. We all make it clear whenever we visit overseas markets that there is no cap on the number of legitimate overseas students coming to Britain; they are very warmly welcome.

I understand that in 2014-15 the local LEP is going to have a sizeable budget to distribute for infrastructure. Will the relevant Minister explain how we can access that budget and what the criteria will be?

Local enterprise partnerships have been invited to submit their growth plans not simply for the first year of devolved budgets, which is 2015-16, but for the expenditure of structural funds—both regional funds and social funds—from July next year for the next seven-year period. We will examine each of the local growth funds and work with individual LEPs on particular growth deals to suit each area.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of the funding for lending scheme on investment in small businesses?

The funding for lending scheme has had a very significant impact on the mortgage market. It has had a much lesser impact on small business, but it has recently been adapted, and I believe it has been used by some of the new competitor banks such as the Aldermore. We certainly welcome that.

Yesterday evening, I had the pleasure of attending the formal launch of the transport systems catapult, which is going to be based in Milton Keynes. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this will be an important innovation to reaffirm the UK’s leading role in transport technology development?

This is a very important event—investment in our transport infrastructure to make it smart and innovative. It is backed with £50 billion of BIS money, with support from the Department for Transport—and, most importantly, with substantial business support as well.

The Secretary of State will be aware of my concern about the legal requirements when a company goes into administration. Will he look at making it a mandatory requirement for administrators to prioritise the wider social consequences of the sale of a company rather than allowing asset strippers to destroy jobs and local communities?

The hon. Gentleman rightly outlines the devastating impact on communities that can happen when companies go into administration. Those involved in dealing with the administration of a company have a variety of different issues to prioritise. We are making sure that the problem is looked at in a range of ways. We are simplifying insolvency processes and considering some of the issues rightly raised by Members—about pre-packs, for example, with an ongoing review. We are looking at fees, too, which have sometimes meant that people cannot get as much of their money back as they should in these unfortunate circumstances. The Government are taking forward all those issues.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking Robbins report. Will the Minister for Universities and Science confirm that this Conservative-led Government will continue the spirit of Robbins and ensure that higher education is open to all?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; indeed, today is the day, 50 years ago, when the then Conservative Government accepted the Robbins report. We are marking the 50th anniversary with more funding going into universities, with more students and with more applications from students from disadvantaged backgrounds than ever before, so we can be proud of our record on higher education.

A report published today by the 1994 Group of universities shows that, although the overall figures for post-graduate study in the United Kingdom look healthy, that is mainly due to a 90% increase in the number of overseas students. What are the Government doing to support British post-graduate students?

That is an issue, which is why the Higher Education Funding Council for England has provided an extra £25 million of support for next year’s post-graduate students. We will increase that amount to £75 million for the following year, because we do not wish to see people who could benefit from post-graduate education missing out.

As the chemical industry is Britain’s leading exporter, I warmly welcome this week’s launch of the chemicals growth partnership. Will the partnership convene specially to discuss the issues presented by Grangemouth?

Despite the serious news about Grangemouth, the sector as a whole remains optimistic about, in particular, the potential for future growth. The launch this week focused on energy costs, innovation and supply-chain development, and the partnership has published an action plan, which I know my hon. Friend has seen.