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Topical Questions

Volume 571: debated on Thursday 5 December 2013

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

Portakabin, the world-class modular building company which is based in my constituency, has raised the possibility of supporting British exports through assistance with the translation of foreign regulations. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to deliver that vital service, which could break down barriers to trade and boost United Kingdom exports?

I know that the Prime Minister visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency recently and was very impressed by the Portakabin initiative. We have a concrete proposal for the establishment of a single market centre to help companies to negotiate overlapping regulations, particularly those relating to export controls. Translating regulations into a common language would make the process easier.

We had black Friday last week and cyber Monday at the beginning of this week, but, as many Members have already pointed out, the only day that really matters is small business Saturday. I am sure that you will be visiting small independent local shops in Buckingham this weekend, Mr Speaker. Will the Business Secretary join me in thanking the huge coalition—including organisations representing more than 1 million businesses, AmEx, the Ingenious Britain campaign, and, above all, the national campaign co-ordinator for small business Saturday, Michelle Ovens—that has made this day possible?

I am happy to do that, and to acknowledge the collegiate, cross-party approach adopted by the hon. Gentleman. Small business Saturday is a very good initiative, and we should support and sustain it as much as we can.

The owners of the businesses to which I referred will have heard about the Tomlinson report, which accuses RBS of artificially distressing successful businesses in order to seize assets and make a profit. That is a very serious allegation about a bank that we, of course, own. Tomlinson says:

“Banks must ensure…that robust processes are in place to…avoid conflicts of interest.”

It has transpired, however, that he is an RBS customer, and that he has a complaint about the bank pending. Was the Secretary of State aware of that before he allowed the report to be published, and does it not call the report’s independence into question? It is not independent, is it?

I was well aware that Mr Tomlinson was an RBS customer. He has been very public in his comments about the bank for a long time. He was appointed as entrepreneur in residence at my Department —we seem to have a team of entrepreneurs—and has contributed valuable insights. I have referred his report to the regulator and the bank. Crucially, his accusations are echoed in the report published by Sir Andrew Large, who was appointed by RBS.

There are serious problems in the banking system, and in RBS in particular. Those problems need to be investigated, and I think that Mr Tomlinson has performed a useful service in making them public.

T4. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for her earlier reply in respect of the review of zero-hours contracts, but does she agree that driving out shady employment practices and improving wages, including the national minimum wage, would have the additional advantage of reducing the welfare benefits budget? (901471)

My hon. Friend is right. That is one of the reasons why my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary asked the Low Pay Commission to identify the conditions that are necessary for an increase in the minimum wage. I think that we would all like wages to increase: things have been very difficult for households over the last few years following the economic crisis, and encouraging businesses to pay good wages encourages staff loyalty, motivation and productivity. It is, of course, important to balance that with the fear of unemployment, which we want to keep down.

T2. On Monday the Government announced substantial changes in the ECO energy efficiency scheme, including significant scaling back of the component that insulates solid walls. Most of the large-scale local authority and social landlord energy efficiency schemes depend on that component, and there will obviously be a correspondingly negative impact on the insulation industry. What discussions is the Department having with the industry about the likely number of job losses, and what are they doing to mitigate it? (901469)

I do not recognise the impact that the hon. Gentleman suggests. The energy company obligation scheme is being extended over a further two years, until 2015, and it is being focused better on those households that need it most.

Two hundred and three MPs across this House now back the solution proposed by the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills to pubco overcharging: the market rent only option. Will the Department do the right thing this time, back the Select Committee, deal with this crony capitalism and listen to the voice of small business? Both the Federation of Small Businesses and the Forum of Private Business support our approach.

My hon. Friend has been a stalwart campaigner on this issue, which, as he rightly points out, is of great interest to Members on both sides of the House and to the Select Committee. He will be aware that we undertook a consultation earlier this year, and we are reviewing the responses. He is also right to highlight the important contribution that organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses have been able to make in putting forward further research reports. We hope to be able to publish that kind of information very shortly so that more people will be able to look at the responses.

T3. In the light of the revelation that the Government have failed to act to close a tax loophole that has cost the public some £500 million a year, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with Treasury Ministers about the concern that some large firms are failing to pay the correct amount of tax while smaller ones are making their contribution? (901470)

There is a general concern about tax avoidance and there are some very public issues relating to certain companies. However, as the hon. Lady knows, in an hour’s time the Chancellor will be making the autumn statement, and I would be very surprised if a substantial part of that were not devoted to the issue of tax avoidance.

The Gangmasters Licensing Authority does terrific work in dealing with one particular vulnerable group of employees. Is there any scope for extending that way of working to protect other sectors, such as the care and hospitality sectors, in which there is at least the implication of abuse of employees and very low wages?

My hon. Friend is right to point out the importance of protecting vulnerable workers. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has recently carried out a two-year investigation into practices in the social care sector, particularly in respect of payment of the national minimum wage, where some non-compliance was found and was absolutely acted on. We need to ensure that such behaviour is cracked down on, which is why we are delighted to be able to put more resources into cracking down on abuse of the national minimum wage, increasing the maximum penalty fines and making it much easier to name and shame employers who deliberately do not pay their workers the right amount. That is the right approach.

T5. Is the Secretary of State aware of the latest scam hitting agency workers in my constituency and around the country, whereby £2.50 a week is deducted for personal accident insurance, even though the cost to the agency is a fraction of that and the worker is already covered by employer’s liability insurance? Will he look into that and put a stop to it? (901472)

The hon. Gentleman has raised issues relating to agency workers on a number of occasions, and I know that in his constituency there is a particular concentration of them. We are always happy to look at whether workers are treated as they should be. I am happy to look into the specific issue he raises and get back to him.

One of the biggest and most important decisions that any sole trader has to make is whether and when to take on their first employee. Will the Secretary of State set out what steps his Department is taking to make that process as easy as possible?

My hon. Friend is right to identify that moment in the life of a small business. By reducing the amount of national insurance paid, by introducing the employer allowance of £2,000 from April and by setting out that a company cannot be taken to a tribunal for two years, we are hoping to make it much easier to employ people and for small businesses to expand.

T6. Work programme providers say that their participants can hardly ever get on to an apprenticeship, and that surely cannot be right. It may partly explain why the Work programme has been so disappointing. Does the Minister agree that more should be done to open up apprenticeships to unemployed people? (901473)

A huge proportion of apprenticeships are undertaken by people who were previously unemployed. Of course, every apprenticeship is a job, and in order to get a job someone needs to have an employer willing to take them on. There are many other schemes, such as the traineeships, that Work programme providers work with in order to prepare people for getting a job. Ultimately, an apprenticeship is a job and is therefore a successful outcome for a Work programme person.

May I ask the Minister for Universities and Science what progress has been made in expanding the scholarship scheme for university students, particularly to help with the cost of living rather than the cost of fees?

We continue to provide support to students. The national scholarship programme has been shown to have less effect on young people choosing to go to university than some of the other support that is available through maintenance and student access programmes. We continue to work on the agenda set out by my right hon. Friend, ensuring that as many young people as possible from disadvantaged backgrounds apply to university.

T7. The Government have consistently been on the back foot when it comes to addressing the issue of late payments to small businesses. In the review of that, how will they address the central issue that late payment is a cultural and leadership issue, and needs to be seen as unethical as tax evasion? (901474)

Late payment is indeed a cultural and leadership issue. I held a meeting in the Department last week with all those concerned. As the hon. Lady well knows, we will be publishing a consultation paper very shortly. I commend her for her continued action and pressing on this issue.

Small business in Chester is really getting behind small business Saturday this weekend. I have delivered more than 400 packs to businesses telling them what it is all about. Will the Minister commit to making an assessment of the success of the first small business Saturday, so that we can improve and help small business in future?

I am sure that we can make a commitment right now to assess the success of small business Saturday, which will be celebrated across this House and across the country. This is the first one this year—it has been going on for some years in the United States—and I hope that it grows and grows.

T8. The number of workers who feel insecure in the workplace has gone up from 6.5 million to 12 million since this Government came to power. That has a knock-on effect on the physical and mental health and productivity of workers. Will the Minister make an assessment and do some research into the effects of insecurity on the work force? (901475)

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the downsides of job insecurity. We already have robust data from the workplace employment relations study, which gives us a strong base of research on which to draw to understand those issues. However, I gently point out to him that an increase in job insecurity is related to the fact that we had a massive economic shock on his party’s watch in government. High unemployment and unfortunate economic circumstances are the price that everyone is paying. The least his party can do is apologise.

For many years, Mill Road winter fair has celebrated one of the most diverse shopping areas in Cambridge. This year the fair coincides with small business Saturday. Will the Government congratulate those who have been running the fair and encourage its spread so that we can see real diversity? We also want a road closure so that people can walk easily to the shops.

I congratulate Cambridge on what it is doing for small business Saturday. I am sure that it will be a great success.

T9. The Secretary of State will be aware of the mechanism in the transatlantic trade and investment partnership that will allow global corporations to sue Governments before secretive arbitration panels that bypass domestic courts. As his own Department’s research says that nothing would insulate the UK from becoming subject to costly and controversial arbitration claims in the future, will he work to ensure that investor-to-state dispute settlements are removed from that agreement? (901476)

The overall context is that the transatlantic agreement between the European Union and the United States, if it materialises, would be of enormous economic benefit. We realise that there are some tricky negotiating issues, and the hon. Lady has highlighted one of them. We will try to ensure that the interests of our economy are properly protected.

Will my hon. Friend keep pushing for the teaching of enterprise in our schools, so that we can inspire a whole new generation of entrepreneurs?

Yes, I will, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work, especially in her constituency where new academies that link the world of work and the world of enterprise are springing up with her support.

T10. May I press the Minister for Universities and Science further on why he repeatedly rejected warnings on uncontrolled financial support to students in private higher education colleges? In March, he argued that the policy was important to enable private providers to continue with their expansion, but now that he is faced with a growing black hole in the BIS budget, he has reversed the policy. Will he explain why and will he guarantee no further cuts to student support to pay for his mistake? (901477)

Let us be clear, we inherited from the previous Government a complete rubber-stamping exercise under which there was no control whatsoever over alternative providers. We introduced controls. For example, in the last year, out of 87 applications from alternative providers, 18 were approved and 69 were rejected. That was effective quality control and we have taken further steps to ensure that the Department can remain within its budget.

Our plans predate small business Saturday, but this weekend in Rochester we have a Christmas fair and also a Dickens weekend. They attract many thousands of people to Rochester, which has, almost entirely, independent small businesses. Will the Minister join me in welcoming that?

The hon. Gentleman is adding his name to the roll call. Perhaps we could simplify this process, whereby if everybody in the House who does not support small business Saturday puts up their hands.

I shall enjoy supporting small business Saturday, too. Many young people take their first job in retail and gain vital experience and training that stands them in good stead for the rest of their working lives. Given the problems that retail faces, what steps will the Government take to support retail, especially to deal with the scourge of youth unemployment?

We support the national skills academy for retail, and I recently opened its new premises. It is a great supporter, ensuring that people in retail have the right skills to do the job and to progress.