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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
23 January 2014
Volume 574

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

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1. What steps he is taking to encourage more people to become engineers. [902128]

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12. What steps he is taking to encourage more people to become engineers. [902143]

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14. What steps he is taking to encourage more people to become engineers. [902147]

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The Government are working with employers, professional bodies and higher and further education institutions to implement the Perkins review of engineering skills and boost careers in engineering, particularly for women. In September we announced a £400 million boost for STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—teaching in universities.

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In a recent Science and Technology Committee report “Educating tomorrow’s engineers”, we recommended that

“learned societies, professional engineering institutions and trade bodies put an obligation on their members to systematically engage in promoting engineering and technology as a career through a structured programme of educational engagement.”

What progress, if any, has been made in making that come to fruition?

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There is a recognition of the seriousness of the shortage of engineers, and we are trying to address that in a variety of ways. On the particular programmes that my hon. Friend has described, we are working with the professional associations on work experience for students and industrial placements for teachers, because we have to change the perceptions of young people in schools.

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I welcome my right hon. Friend’s initiatives to encourage more people into engineering. I founded the Isle of Wight Technology Group to help engineering and technology companies work together on training, recruitment and other issues. Will he say how many new engineers are being grown on the island, and will he come to the Isle of Wight to see for himself the good work that technology companies are doing?

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I cannot give my hon. Friend a precise number, but I know that a depth of engineering talent is arising from the island’s successful companies, both in the maritime sector and in aerospace. We want to build on that, and I would be absolutely delighted to meet him and his engineers on the Isle of Wight—I always enjoy a walk on Tennyson down.

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As my right hon. Friend knows, Devonport dockyard is the only naval dockyard in the country that refits and refurbishes our nuclear submarines. How have the Government helped—and how can we help—to make sure that we protect Britain’s nuclear engineering skills base and ensure that the work force are not lured away to Hinkley C, just up the peninsula?

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My hon. Friend is right to say that in an environment where there is an acute shortage of professional engineers and craftsmen, there is a tendency to poach skills. We see that happening in other sectors, like the motor car industry, oil and gas and so on. The answer is to produce more engineers, and he will be aware that in his constituency, or certainly in the city of Plymouth, we have the 600-place university technology college, which is growing with support from the Government. That is a very positive step forward, and I am sure he will be pleased with it.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that today’s good news from the automotive sector should encourage more people to become engineers, but that there is still a real issue to address to ensure that the automotive supply chain gets the engineers it needs and that young people are encouraged to go into it? Does that not involve doing more to ensure that training meets the needs of the supply chain and that small businesses in that sector get the investment they need, which requires a different approach from finance houses?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the key challenge now faced by the car industry, which is a great success story, is to progress the success of OEMs—original equipment manufacturers—which are expanding, down through their supply chains, which were hollowed out in earlier years. We are addressing that issue through the Automotive Council and the industry strategy. That is progressing well, but it does need a great deal of support for the training base and the training of engineers, which is what we are doing through our apprenticeship programme.

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Young people across Plymouth are telling me that they feel as though they are little more than walking pots of money when it comes to careers advice and that schools are almost harassing them at times to keep them in school. That obviously militates against some of them going to do engineering apprenticeships, as my neighbour the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) has pointed out. What more can the Secretary of State do to set up an independent careers advice arrangement, so that these young people can get broader advice, not specific and closed advice from their schools?

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Yes indeed. The all-age careers service that we have put in place is now generally acknowledged to be giving successful advice through the age range. On schools, we recognise that there is an issue to address on the career paths of the non-academic—the more vocationally trained. We shall shortly be issuing guidance to schools on how to access independent advice.

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The aerospace industry has shown marked improvement in the past few months. Just last week, Magellan Aerospace in Belfast announced a new job contract through the Prime Minister, and jobs and opportunities were created. Is it now time for higher education and for industry, particularly aerospace, to work together to make sure that those jobs are taken by young people from universities and colleges at this time?

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I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I was in Belfast recently and met a combination of Northern Ireland universities and industry. They are working together and realise that a recovery is taking place, despite the problems of the traditional industries around Belfast. Such work requires the kind of collaboration he has described.

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Will the Secretary of State reassure me that he regards the excellent John Perkins review of engineering skills as the irreducible minimum necessary to address the urgent shortages in engineering skills in our country, and that his Department will remain open to ideas better to market engineering to young people, and to address the appalling gender stereotyping that is frustrating so many women’s ambitions to get into engineering?

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Yes, it is an exceptionally good report. The challenge is a massive one. There is an acute shortage of engineers, and the problem is particularly serious among women. I believe that something in the order of one in 10 professional engineers is a woman, and about one in 20 in advanced apprenticeships. We are actively seeking to address that with the professional institutions.

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I too wish to ask the Secretary of State about the engineers of the future. The mismanaged free-for-all that gave private students unfettered access to the student loan system has now cost his Department so dear that big cuts are being discussed. On top of the huge cuts for educating 18-year-olds in college, we now hear rumours that the student opportunity fund that helps poorer future engineers will be completely axed. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to promise the House that he will not sacrifice social mobility to pay for the chaos in his Department’s budget?

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The right hon. Gentleman could perhaps do a little better than rely on rumours that have very little foundation. The substance of the matter is that in the autumn statement, we were committed to additional investment of £400 million in STEM teaching to provide modern facilities that were neglected during the years he was Financial Secretary to the Treasury.

Apprenticeships

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2. What steps he is taking to ensure that apprenticeships respond to employers’ needs. [902129]

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Our apprenticeship reforms are responding to the needs of employers by putting them in the driving seat. Trailblazers, led by employers and professional bodies, is leading the way in developing new standards in a wide range of sectors.

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Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the 300 in 100 campaign in Cornwall on its aim to get 300 new apprenticeships in 100 days? I participated in the campaign in St Mellion a few weeks ago along with many employers in my constituency.

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I would love to congratulate my hon. Friend, who has teamed up with other MPs across Cornwall, including my hon. Friends the Members for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and for St Ives (Andrew George) and many others. Many Members of this House have been part of the 100 in 100 campaigns to get 100 apprentices in 100 days, and Cornwall is taking it just that bit further.

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The number of apprentices in the 16-to-18 age group is dropping at the moment, with serious implication for our long-term skills base. Will the Minister look again at the proposals of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee to use public procurement contracts to ensure a certain level of recruitment for that age group in the way in which the previous Government did and local authorities are doing?

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Of course, Crossrail, which is the biggest public construction project in Europe, has in it exactly what the hon. Gentleman describes. He will have seen last week that we announced 2,000 new apprentices as part of High Speed 2. I entirely agree about the need to drive up the number of apprentices. We introduced a rule that every apprenticeship had to be a minimum of a year, and the number of apprenticeships for those aged between 16 to 19 lasting a year or more has gone up sharply. We must be careful to consider the reason for the numbers. Apprenticeships of under a year, in many cases without a job attached, are not really apprenticeships at all.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of increasing the skills of apprenticeships is the creation of pre-apprenticeship schools, otherwise known as university technical colleges? Will he look at expanding the Government’s programme of 24 UTCs, one of which will be in Harlow, so that there is one in every town across the country?

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I absolutely support my hon. Friend in his enthusiasm for UTCs, not only the one in Harlow, for which, I know, he is a great campaigner, but those across the country.

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But why have Ministers failed to match their rhetoric with action? Something like what my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) suggests in his Apprenticeships and Skills (Public Procurement Contracts) Bill would create thousands of new quality apprenticeship opportunities by requiring all major suppliers on large public projects to offer apprenticeships.

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As I said, we do that on some of the largest procurements. If we are talking about action, the fact that a record number of people are in apprenticeships is action that we should support, and the fact that 1.5 million people across the country have started apprenticeships since 2010 is also action we should all be proud of.

Exports

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3. What recent assessment he has made of the level of UK exports. [902131]

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The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, released on 9 January, show that UK exports totalled more than £494 billion in 2012, the highest level on record. Exports in the first 11 months of 2013 were in excess of £40 billion a month.

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I am grateful for that answer. It has been very encouraging to hear a number of businesses in my constituency, including the Hainsworth mill in Stanningley, reporting increased exports in recent months. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the performance of UK exports in some of the newer growth markets?

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In spite of tough trading conditions, British exports of goods have increased under this Government—to China by 98%, India by 56%, Russia by 110% and Brazil by 45%.

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The Minister will be aware of the importance of Airbus to UK exports. Is he as concerned as I am about the billions of pounds of subsidy to Boeing that has been announced by Washington state and sanctioned by the US Government?

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These are issues I discuss with Airbus from time to time. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of action under the World Trade Organisation on two cases, one involving subsidies to Boeing and the other involving alleged subsidies to Airbus. I hope that some of those issues can be resolved in discussions on the transatlantic trade partnership.

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In Germany, the Mittelstand leads the way in exports. What steps are the Government taking to target our mid-sized businesses, particularly for emerging markets?

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I recognise the enormous amount of work my hon. Friend did when he served in the Department before me. We have a target of assisting some 1,500 mid- size businesses by 2015. My noble Friend Lord Livingston yesterday announced a major enhancement of the programme that will see an expanded regional network of advisers in UK Trade & Investment, with some 28 advisers in place across all nine English regions, specifically targeted to drive up the number of mid-sized businesses that might be deciding to export for the first time or to increase their performance.

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Given the recent comments from Nissan and other manufacturers about the importance of Britain’s staying in the EU, does the Minister agree that it is vital that Britain stay in the European Union and that the current uncertainty about Britain’s future membership that we see in some quarters is damaging to the future of British job prospects?

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What is important for car manufacturers from overseas, such as Nissan, and for all foreign investors in Britain is that the single market is strengthened and available to them. One of the purposes of our reform programme in Europe is to ensure that the member states that do not wish to become enmeshed in the eurozone can still enjoy the full protection and opportunities of the single market.

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May I warmly congratulate UK Trade & Investment on its work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs promoting the food and drink sector and also the GREAT Britain campaign, which is, I think, genuinely great? Will my right hon. Friend set aside a small promotional budget to support our presence at international food fairs? We are outgunned by other countries, and a pavilion that showed off the best of British produce would bring dividends.

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I shall certainly see what more we can do in that regard. I know that food and drink exports will be one of the themes of our commitment to Expo in Milan later this year and I shall be discussing our pavilion in Milan this evening and tomorrow.

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I detect a real note of complacency in the Minister’s remarks. Let us not crack open the imported champagne just yet. The Secretary of State’s trade and investment White Paper of 2011 stated:

“The UK now needs to rebalance its economy…toward increased exports and investment.”

Yet the value of exports fell in the last quarter and net trade acted as a drag on GDP growth for much of 2013. Given that the trade gap remains persistently high and is growing, manufacturing as a share of our economy has fallen under this Government, and investment has continued to flatline, will the Minister now concede that an export-led recovery has not materialised?

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I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman should talk down British exporting and British manufacturing at precisely the time we see a renaissance not only in our automotive industry but in our aerospace and other industries. Of course trading conditions are tough, not least with problems in the eurozone and elsewhere, but exports are up and we continue to help drive increased export performance through supporting small and medium-sized enterprises and mid-sized businesses.

Royal Mail Shares

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4. What assessment he has made of the value for money achieved for the public purse through the recent sale of shares in Royal Mail. [902132]

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With permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer this question together with Question 5.

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Unfortunately not. It is perfectly reasonable for the Minister of State to seek to do so, but the attempted grouping falls because I fear that the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) is not present in the Chamber.

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I was hoping there would be some interest in this question.

We believe that value for money should be assessed over the long term and should consider not merely the proceeds from the initial sale but the value of the taxpayer’s retained stake in Royal Mail and the reduced risk to the taxpayer and the six-day-a-week universal service of a stable company with access now to private capital.

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Given the botched and imprudent sale of the first tranche of Royal Mail shares by this Government at the expense of taxpayers, the public will be concerned about the emerging reports that the Government intend to sell off the remaining family silver before the next election. Will the Minister confirm whether those reports are accurate?

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I can confirm, first, that the sale of Royal Mail was a success. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I am delighted that the shares have risen in value, reflecting Royal Mail’s interim trading results and the long-overdue agreement with the union. Any decision on a sale of the remaining stake is still to be taken.

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One of the hidden values for money is the fact that of the 150,000 eligible hard-working postmen and women who could take up their free allocation, only 368 said no. That means that as the company goes from strength to strength, those who directly work for Royal Mail will now financially benefit from that. Is not that a very good thing?

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Yes. I would have thought that Labour Members would welcome this extension of employee share ownership. I am delighted that 99% of Royal Mail’s employees took up the offer and now have a stake in the success of that company as it moves forward.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) said, the fire sale of Royal Mail has cost the taxpayer in excess of £750 million, but it has not taken it long to enjoy its new privatised status. Reports in the media suggest that the board of Royal Mail is about to propose a significant pay increase for the chief executive to bring her in line with those in other FTSE 100 companies. The Business Secretary says that he will use the Government’s remaining stake as the largest stakeholder to veto the proposals. Does the Minister agree with the Secretary of State, his boss, or is this just froth?

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If this were a fire sale, it would certainly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) has said, be one of the longest fire sales in history, given that Governments have been trying to sell Royal Mail for over 20 years. I think we should salute Moya Greene’s achievement in transforming a loss-making public corporation into one of Britain’s top 100 companies and congratulate her, as one of all too few female chief executives, on her award as business person of the year. We have yet to receive any proposal from the remuneration committee.

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When I last visited Stroud sorting office just before Christmas, I noticed that the much-needed modernisation programme was being started. Does the Minister agree that that has been made possible by the sale of shares and that it represents a Government success?

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Yes. The purpose of the sale was to enable Royal Mail to have access to private capital so that it would not be dependent on the taxpayer for ensuring the successful delivery of the six-day-a-week universal service on which we and all our constituents rely.

Women in Business

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6. What steps he is taking to support women in business. [902135]

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This Government want to see as many women as possible going into and progressing in business. We commissioned the Women’s Business Council to look at what barriers prevent women from reaching their potential and how to maximise their contribution to economic growth. We work closely with Lord Davies to increase the number of women on boards. Women now account for 20.4% of board members in FTSE 100 companies, up from 12.5% in February 2011.

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Last week I met a woman called Adele who has set up a child care business. A few years ago her bank refused to lend to her because, in her view, it just did not understand her business plan. Such was her belief in her business that she remortgaged her home and her business has now expanded to look after 300 children. Given the lower levels of finance being offered to British female entrepreneurs compared with their European counterparts, does the Minister support Labour’s proposal for regional banks, which could be better placed to understand and support local small and medium-sized enterprises?

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The Government are doing quite a lot to ensure that women entrepreneurs have access to finance, and it sounds as though the hon. Lady’s constituent is a very good example of that. The Government Equalities Office offers child care grants to men and women, but primarily to women, who want to set up businesses in that particular area. The Government also support the Aspire fund, which aims to get equity into businesses run by women. The Start-Up Loans Company has offered 12,500 start-up loans and well over a third of them have gone to women to help them set up businesses that I hope will be as successful as that run by the hon. Lady’s constituent.

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Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating those women in rural businesses, primarily farms? Women are the backbone of the farming community and have taken the opportunity to diversify locally. Examples include Shepherds Purse cheese makers, Get Ahead Hats and countless other business opportunities for women.

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The hon. Lady highlights some extremely important businesses, and similar examples can be found across the whole of the UK and in a lot of our rural areas. Women are extremely good at identifying new opportunities to diversify businesses in more remote areas. They are often incredibly business savvy and can make a real success of it.

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17. Many women see their careers stall when they become pregnant. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is carrying out a welcome, if belated, inquiry into pregnancy discrimination, but it will be many months before we have the findings. In the meantime, is the Equality Advisory Support Service monitoring the number and nature of pregnancy and maternity-related queries so that the Minister can take early action on systemic patterns of discrimination? [902150]

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As the hon. Lady undoubtedly knows, it is about 10 years since the last research was done to look properly at the rate of discrimination against women as a result of pregnancy. That 2005 report showed that about 30,000 women had lost their jobs as a result of pregnancy. As the hon. Lady has said, the Government have commissioned the EHRC to do a proper piece of research to identify what the situation is now, and we hope that will give us a good idea of what needs to be done. It is clear that discrimination against women on the basis of pregnancy is completely illegal, and it also makes terribly bad business sense for businesses across the country. This Government want to do something to ensure that we get rid of that type of discrimination.

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Will the Minister join me in congratulating a constituent of mine, Jennifer Davies, who has set up a small company called Get Customised, which produces a range of customised products? She is going from strength to strength, not simply because of her determination and dedication, but because of the benefits she has received from a Government-backed start-up loan.

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I am very glad to hear of the success of some of the start-up loans provided by this Government, and that the right hon. Gentleman has been able to identify an example in his constituency. Businesses across the country are going extremely well as a result of support from this Government. Another scheme that the Government are doing to help women in particular is the Get Mentoring scheme, into which we have put nearly £2 million. More than 40% of the mentors already trained are women. The scheme is designed to try to get more women to start up businesses and to be as successful as his constituent.

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Will the Minister set out how, in her quest to have more women on boards, she intends to ensure that we do not just see the same women on more boards or, indeed, more women on fewer boards?

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I am sure that the hon. Lady will join me in rejoicing at the fact that the FTSE 100 now has only two companies with all-male boards. A couple of years ago, the figure was 24 boards, so there has been significant progress. To increase the number of women going on to boards, we are doing everything we can to improve the pipeline, which means that more women below board level can get the support, mentoring and advice that they need to make themselves ready for and to get into board positions. We are doing what we can to increase the number of women on boards and to increase the flow of women, so that we can bring new blood on to the boards of Britain’s businesses.

Bank Lending

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7. Whether net lending to businesses by banks has risen in any of the last 24 months. [902136]

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The answer is yes. The most recent data from the Bank of England show that net lending to small and medium-sized enterprises was positive in March, June and November, and the Bank of England’s most recent “Trends in Lending” and “Credit Conditions” reports show that confidence is beginning to return, helped by interventions such as the British business bank.

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According to the chamber of commerce, unemployment in the north-east has gone up by 1,000 in the past quarter and by 16,000 in the past year, of whom 13,000 are women. We agree that small and medium-sized businesses should be driving the economy up and unemployment down, but I am told that many in my region see confusing Government schemes and the banks as failing to give them the help and resources they need. What specific things will the Secretary of State do to help people in the north-east and let our people share in the so-called upturn?

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Anybody who looks at yesterday’s employment figures will realise that we are in a very positive trend on employment—far in excess of what was predicted. Specifically in relation to the north-east, the hon. Gentleman will know that the main mechanism the Government use to support jobs and companies is the regional growth fund, and I think that the north-east has received more regional growth fund support than almost any other part of the country.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that as businesses expand and get more sales, they generate more cash, so we would not necessarily expect net lending to go up?

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That is certainly a factor. Indeed, many individual companies—quite apart from the banks—have become highly risk-averse, but I do not doubt that the supply of credit is a serious problem. That is why we have made interventions, such as the British business bank, that are already making a significant difference.

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19. May I tell the Secretary of State that in Yorkshire, too, small and medium-sized businesses in particular find it difficult to borrow money from conventional banks, which is why they increasingly look to crowdfunding for finance? Has he seen that Nicola Horlick has set up a new organisation to get into the crowdfunding market, because she too believes that conventional banks do not respond fast enough or efficiently enough? [902152]

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The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Indeed, one of the more encouraging signs over the past year is that unconventional forms of lending, such as crowdfunding, are becoming increasingly common. The Government are supporting two of the main schemes that operate on a peer-to-peer lending basis. Lending is expanding very rapidly in that sector for the small and medium-sized companies that need it.

Life Sciences Sector

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8. What support he is providing to the life sciences sector. [902139]

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We are supporting this key sector through our life sciences and agri-tech strategies, which back research and development and promote manufacturing. Since the Prime Minister launched our strategy two years ago, industry has announced investment of £2 billion, which is a vote of confidence in what we are doing.

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I welcome the Government’s commitment to encouraging the nation’s agri-tech industry and to recognising the importance of food security. The Minister and the Secretary of State will no doubt be aware of York and north Yorkshire’s huge potential to become a global leader in food manufacturing, agri-tech and biorenewables industries. As such, will the Minister clarify whether there are any plans to announce further catapult centres in this field?

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There is a lot of interest in our new centres for agricultural innovation. We expect to announce the bidding process for the first one in the spring and we will consult on themes for the other centres. I congratulate my hon. Friend on reminding us of the case for York as a possible centre. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was brought up there, but we will try not to allow that to affect our decision.

Small Businesses

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9. What steps he is taking to support small businesses. [902140]

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We are passionate supporters of small businesses. More than 12,000 start-up loans have been approved; over the past year, UK Trade & Investment has helped more than 30,000 businesses to export; and, in April this year, a new employer allowance will cut £2,000 from the national insurance bill of every company in the country.

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Located at the crossroads of the UK motorway network, Rugby is a great place to do business. Our excellent small businesses can benefit from the initiatives that the Minister has outlined. What would he say to small businesses that want to grow as the economy expands, but are unable to find larger premises because many of the older buildings have been demolished and speculative development of the type they need has not taken place?

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Ensuring that the commercial property market works effectively is an important part of reforming the banking system and getting it back on its feet after the crisis. That market is one of the main routes through which we can open up more development and ensure that there is more capacity, so that when small businesses want to expand, they have the physical space in which to do so.

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Small businesses on Worcester’s high street are looking forward to the employment allowance and to the generous rebate on business rates that was announced in the autumn statement. Will the Minister join me in urging Worcester’s Labour-led city council not to put up parking charges by 10%, which would be a kick in the teeth for the high street?

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Ensuring that any agency of Government or any council can live within its means is a crucial part of good governance in these difficult times. The approach that the Government have taken is to do that through making savings, difficult as it is. That is clearly working and I recommend it to the Labour-led council in Worcester.

Manufacturing

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10. What assessment he has made of innovation in the UK manufacturing sector. [902141]

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Manufacturing businesses are among the most innovative in the UK. In 2012, they spent £12 billion on research and development. We are investing in R and D alongside them. In particular, we are backing eight great technologies that are shaping the industries of the future.

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The Government focus a lot on labour productivity, but what support are they giving to innovation in resource productivity, which accounts for two thirds of the costs in manufacturing?

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on the interesting and imaginative work she is doing on this subject with other hon. Friends. Through our support for R and D—notably but not solely through our catapult centres—we are rewarding innovation that ensures that businesses operate with lower overheads.

National Minimum Wage

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11. What his policy is on the national minimum wage. [902142]

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15. What his policy is on the national minimum wage. [902148]

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Our aim is to maximise the wages of the low paid without damaging their employment prospects. We fully support the work of the independent Low Pay Commission in framing the pay rate recommendations for 2014. I have also asked it to consider the conditions that would be needed for faster, above inflation, increases in the national minimum wage.

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I warmly welcome the Chancellor’s announcement of his support for raising the national minimum wage, which would be of huge benefit to the lowest paid in Burton and Uttoxeter, and across the country. Does the Secretary of State accept that it would also place extra costs on business, particularly on small business? Will he consider what could be done to reduce business taxes and regulatory burdens to help those businesses pay for an increase in the minimum wage?

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Yes, of course we are conscious of the extra cost that would fall on business. That is why the Low Pay Commission tries to make a balanced judgment between the impact on employment and the increase in earnings for workers. It must be left to make its judgments and its independence must be respected. On the tax implications, given that the Chancellor is now heavily involved in this proposal and supportive of it, I am sure that he will be helpful on that front as well.

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Some 14 million people are on the minimum wage, most of whom work in retail, hospitality or cleaning. They earn just over £12,000 a year and are hard-working people. It is rightly the ambition of the coalition to make work pay more than benefit. Does my right hon. Friend imagine that anyone thinks that an above-inflation increase in the minimum wage would not pay for itself and should not be available to help those who are working hard?

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My right hon. Friend reflects the thinking that framed the advice I gave to the Low Pay Commission. Indeed, such thinking is not merely attractive in that it gives an incentive for people to work and improve their earnings, but it has positive implications for public finances.

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The Government would have us believe that they are now great supporters of the national minimum wage, yet we know that many sitting on the Government Benches today voted against it in 1997. If the national minimum wage is so important to the coalition, why have the Government allowed its value to fall by 5% since the election?

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The real value of the minimum wage started to fall under my predecessors in the wake of the financial crisis, and on each occasion, I, like my Labour predecessor, have followed the advice of the Low Pay Commission. The levels that have been set reflect that independent advice.

Female Entrepreneurs

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13. What recent estimate he has made of the number of female entrepreneurs. [902144]

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There are now a record 4.9 million businesses in the UK, and we estimate that 880,000 of them are led by women, which is 18% of the total. That demonstrates the opportunity for this country, should we manage to get that proportion up.

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Evidence shows that companies with more women in positions of power outperform their rivals. Does the Minister agree that we cannot afford not to make progress in securing more women in positions of power? If so, what will he do about it if companies do not hear him asking them nicely?

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I, too, have seen the research showing that companies with women at the top tend to perform better than those that have only men. That balance in the boardroom is vital, and I am a strong supporter of the agenda the hon. Lady promotes. More than 4,000 start-up loans have gone to women, and we are bringing in a new partner directed precisely at people who are returning to work after having children. For the bigger picture, ensuring that we have more women on boards is a campaign we are working on across the Government.

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The start-up loans scheme has been the most monumental success, but many female entrepreneurs ask me for more focused sectoral mentoring as part of that scheme. May I encourage the Minister to promote that as he develops the scheme further?

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A scheme exactly like the one my hon. Friend calls for is coming his way very soon.

Apprenticeships (Minimum Wage)

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16. What recent estimate he has made of the number of apprentices being paid at a rate below the apprenticeship minimum wage. [902149]

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The Government have zero tolerance for employers who break the law, which is why we have introduced a range of enhanced enforcement measures to crack down on rogue employers. HMRC prioritises apprentice enforcement cases, and the Government have overseen one of the most successful expansions of apprenticeships with around 1.5 million apprenticeship starts in England since 2010.

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Does the Minister agree it is worrying that the proportion of apprentices who are not being paid the apprentice minimum wage has increased to more than one in four? What action is she taking to clamp down on rising non-compliance of employers with the apprentice national minimum wage, which is increasing under her watch?

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The hon. Lady is right and the Government are also concerned about the level of non-compliance. Since 1 July, HMRC has been prioritising complaints from apprentices about non-payment of the national minimum wage, and we are ensuring that every single case is investigated. We also started an awareness campaign in November that targets schools, colleges, jobcentres and so on, so that those starting apprenticeships are aware of what they are entitled to. From 1 October the skills Minister has been writing to all apprentices starting a Government-funded scheme to ensure that they know what they are entitled to and that businesses know what they must pay, so that we reduce non-compliance.

Reshoring

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18. What assessment he has made of the potential for reshoring and import substitution in the UK economy. [902151]

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There is great potential for business reshoring to Britain. We surveyed manufacturing small and medium-sized enterprises and found that 11% have reshored some production to the UK in the past 12 months. The Automotive Council has identified £3 billion of additional sourcing opportunities. Businesses are bringing activities back to Britain as we become a more flexible and competitive economy.

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I believe there is more we can do to help reshoring, for example by making cash contributions to regional growth funds, cutting business rates locally for manufacturers bringing back jobs and adding reshoring to the UK Trade & Investment job description. Does the Minister agree that on import substitution there is a real opportunity to encourage supply chains to get local suppliers to compete for business? For example, Gloucestershire-based ADEY Professional Heating Solutions recently gave a £1.5 million contract to Future Advanced Manufacture, business that was previously being done in China.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are, of course, an open economy and we export and welcome companies from abroad that invest here, but we can do more to support our supply chains so that more prime manufacturers in Britain also purchase from SMEs across the country. Indeed, I remember visiting the company to which he refers. It is an excellent example of what we are talking about.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [902153]

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My Department is concerned with the promotion of growth, recovery and a rebalanced economy.

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Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Bee Design Consultancy, which I visited last Friday in my constituency? In the past few years, it has gone from having two employees to 19, and it now exports its skills all over the world, recently to Lamborghini in Italy. I invite him to come to Redditch to visit the company next time he is in the west midlands.

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I would be delighted to come to my hon. Friend’s constituency and share that success. It is not just about mainstream car producers, but specialists, as she describes.

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The Secretary of State talked about the importance of strengthening the national minimum wage, which Labour established in office to secure a fairer deal for workers. With that in mind, does he agree that for an employer to mislead workers into purchasing personal accident insurance, the charges for which would take workers’ pay under the minimum and the purchase of which is not necessary given employers’ own insurance cover, would be completely indefensible and possibly unlawful?

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Yes, I agree that that would be indefensible and I think it is unlawful. I have been advised that this practice has happened. The relevant body, the employment agency standards inspectorate, is investigating individual cases and will take enforcement action. If it proves to be a widespread practice, there will clearly be a case for a broadly based inquiry.

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I asked the question because it is precisely what employment agencies employing workers on, or close to, the minimum wage appear to have been doing. I have been passed evidence that suggests Blue Arrow, Staffline, Acorn, Taskmaster, Randstad and Meridian, employment agencies employing more than 100,000 workers, have been mis-selling personal accident insurance to workers which they arguably do not need and from which those agencies have been profiteering. There is even a company, Gee 7 Group, which specialises in putting together these dubious arrangements for agencies. Further to my questions on this topic since October last year, will the Secretary of State now commit to holding a full inquiry into this shabby practice?

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I will commit to ensuring that we have proper enforcement procedure. The hon. Gentleman has listed more companies today. We will investigate them and that may well merit a more broadly based inquiry. I will say that the information he has made available, which I think has already been publicised, depends on the information that has been obtained from a whistleblower in a company. The Government’s reforms will strengthen the rights of whistleblowers and put them and others in a stronger position. The hon. Gentleman has identified a legitimate case of abuse and I recognise that we have to deal with it.

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T2. Will the Minister outline the work the Government are doing to increase the number of engineers who will be needed to work in the energy sector in Suffolk and Norfolk, and to build on the excellent work being done by Lowestoft college? [902154]

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Yes, I am a great supporter of Lowestoft college, which it was a pleasure to visit last year with my hon. Friend. It has a centre for the promotion of engineering and training in the offshore industry, which is so important to the town, and I will do everything I can to support it.

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T4. Blacklisting is a scourge of any civilised society. Will the Secretary of State guarantee to the House that the confidential documents currently being withheld by the Government relating to the Shrewsbury 24 dispute in 1973 do not include extensive details relating to individuals who have been blacklisted and the companies operating this very sharp practice? [902157]

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We have debated this issue in the House before—I think the hon. Gentleman spoke on it, and I responded—and we take it very seriously. I have had conversations with the Information Commissioner to ensure that the injustices of the past are properly dealt with, and as I have said to the hon. Gentleman and the Opposition spokesman, if Members have more concrete evidence that has not been properly investigated, they should bring it directly to me.

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T3. Suppliers to top-tier Government contractors still complain that payments made under the prompt payment code are not forthcoming. What more can the Government do to improve the situation and release billions of pounds back into the economy to support our long-term economic plan? [902155]

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The problems of people failing either to make prompt payments or to honour payment terms—two related, but slightly different points—need to be addressed. They are largely problems that negatively affect small companies, and we are currently consulting on how radical we need to be to get the balance right and address them.

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T7. Will the Secretary of State confirm that business investment has flatlined over the last year and that this is one of the major causes of Britain’s worsening productivity problem? What are he and the Government going to do about it? [902160]

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As everybody acknowledges, business investment has been badly hit since the financial crisis, but with the economy rapidly recovering, I think we all expect—and the surveys suggest—that there will be a movement forward in terms of business investment, once capacity has been fully utilised.

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T5. The number of students coming from India has dropped by 25% since the new restrictions were introduced, which means we have fallen below the United States as destination of choice. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that we attract the brightest and the best to our universities for the best education in the world? [902158]

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There are of course no caps on the number of legitimate, properly qualified students who can come to study in Britain, and I take every opportunity to visit India, as does the Prime Minister, to communicate that message there. Properly qualified Indian students are welcome here.

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T8. The Financial Times this morning quotes a Treasury spokesman as saying that an interest rate rise is “not something we are worried about” and a “sign of success”. Does the Secretary of State concur with that view? [902161]

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Fortunately, my many responsibilities do not include the setting of interest rates. I am happy to leave that to the Governor of the Bank of England, who has made an admirable impression.

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T6. Did the science Minister hear the excellent Radio 4 programme about Malvern’s cyber-security hub, and will he clear his diary to come and open the private sector-led national cyber-skills centre in Malvern? [902159]

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My hon. Friend is a great advocate for the Malvern cyber-security hub, and I do indeed very much hope to visit it. I am sure it is well worth a visit.

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T9. Is the Secretary of State aware that all the new oil and gas platform construction projects for this year have been either cancelled or postponed, which will have a devastating effect on employment in my constituency and others in the north-east, as well as those in Scotland? Will he, together with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, take immediate steps to address this matter? [902162]

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There is an enormous amount of investment in the North sea—about £13 billion last year, which was a big increase. One of my and my colleagues’ objectives, through the industrial strategy, is to ensure that as much of the supply chain as possible originates in the UK, and we are working with the industry on that. I frequently meet oil companies and fabricators to try to progress that.

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I wholly support the Government’s move to increase the education leaving age to 18, but while the Department for Education budget is protected, the further education budget, which comes under the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and which will now be educating far more people up to 18 than schools, is not. This will put a huge strain on FE budgets. Will the responsible BIS Minister talk to the Secretary of State for Education to ask for assistance?

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I frequently talk to the Secretary of State for Education. The change to funding for 18 year olds was not one made lightly; dealing with the deficit requires difficult decisions. We published the impact assessment on the consequences, which show that disadvantaged students are not affected disproportionately. If we did not have a budget deficit of £100 billion, life would undoubtedly be easier.

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Queen Victoria was on the throne when the Dunlop Motorsport factory first produced wooden wheels and then rubber tyres in Erdington. Now, 125 years of history and 300 highly skilled jobs are at risk. Jaguar Land Rover needs the land for its welcome expansion. Birmingham city council has identified an alternative site about three miles away. But the global board, based in Ohio, has yet to commit to Birmingham and Britain—with only nine months left before the lease runs out. In thanking the Secretary of State for the welcome steps he has already taken, may I ask whether he will convene a top-level meeting with Goodyear Dunlop, involving both him and me, so that we can get a decision made that a great piece of our manufacturing history remains part of a great manufacturing future in this country?

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I am well aware of this issue and its importance to British manufacturing, and, indeed, to Birmingham. I would be happy, as I am sure would the Minister of State, to meet the key people in order to make sure that we get the right decision.

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Given the enthusiasm of both the public and employees for buying shares in Royal Mail, will the Secretary of State look at what other assets in the public sector could be successfully transferred to the private sector?

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Asset sales are an important part of Government economic policy. They have been very successful in raising cash and enabling the Government to invest more than would otherwise be the case. We approach this on a practical basis, aiming to get value for money for the taxpayer.

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Will the Secretary of State update us on his latest decision on article 7 of the proposed EU consumer products safety regulations on origin marking, which, if agreed, would mean that quality ceramics made in Stoke-on-Trent would be labelled “Made in the UK”? Is it not time that we put an end to misleading consumer product marking?

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I thank the hon. Lady and her colleagues from the potteries who have been to see me about this specific issue. Apparently, there was a meeting of what I think is called COREPER on Monday, but no agreement was reached. There is a divided view on the role of mandatory regulation to deal with this problem. I take a close interest in this matter, and I will follow it up.

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For the 150,000 posties who are now shareholders in Royal Mail, will the Secretary of State or the Post Office Minister tell us what the average value of their individual shareholdings was at flotation and what their average value is now?

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It has undoubtedly increased, and we should all welcome that, particularly the commitment of Royal Mail employees to the future success of the company. Perhaps I shall write to my hon. Friend with the exact information he requests.

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The Minister confirmed just a few minutes ago that women who become pregnant can and do face discrimination at work. Why, then, are the Government going to charge those women £1,200 to go to an industrial tribunal?

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I am disappointed that this figure is being bandied around yet again. It does not cost women more than £1,000 to go to a tribunal. It costs only £250 to start a claim, and most cases are finalised well before a hearing. For those who end up going to a hearing, fee remission applies in many cases, and if the women win their case, costs are often awarded against their former employers. It does not cost what the hon. Gentleman suggests, it is scaremongering by Labour Members, and I am concerned that this will put women off taking cases against their employers when they have been unfairly discriminated against.

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On the Secretary of State’s undoubtedly enjoyable trip to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley), will he break his journey in Wellingborough so that I can show him the success of local businesses? More importantly, this would not cost the taxpayer a penny because both Wellingborough council and East Northamptonshire council have free car parking, which encourages local business. If possible, I look forward to seeing him soon.

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I should be delighted to go to Wellingborough. Indeed, I should like to make the visit a political one as well, and, on behalf of my Department, to express my appreciation of someone who has given so much support to the coalition. [Laughter.]

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Last year, Sheffield Hallam university received £6.9 million as part of its share of the student opportunity fund. That not only helped it to recruit 30% of its undergraduate intake from low-income households—a commendable achievement—but to engage in critical retention work with the most disadvantaged learners. Yesterday, in the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, the Secretary of State agreed with me that the fund’s work would be damaged if its resources were cut. Can the Minister reassure the House that that will not happen?

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We certainly understand the value of the work of the student opportunity fund. Indeed, I have visited Sheffield Hallam university and have seen the excellent work that it does.

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As the Prime Minister’s recent excellent trip to China has shown, there are phenomenal opportunities for Britain to trade with the Chinese. May I urge the Department to continue to lobby for the simplification of visas for Chinese visitors and entrepreneurs?

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Yes, and we will do so. I understand that my colleague the Home Secretary has already introduced a revamped system which is much faster and which gives those who have secured British visas speedy access to the Schengen countries. We are very conscious of the importance of Chinese visitors, and we will do our best to make it clear that they are welcome.

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Two able pupils at a Hackney secondary school in one of the most deprived parts of my constituency have been offered a place at a good university on condition that they secure two As and a B in their A-levels. The university is willing to negotiate on those grades, but will not discuss their C grades in GCSE maths: they will need B grades. If they were foreign students, they would be given coaching by the university. Will the Minister meet me, and some of the people in Hackney who are concerned about the matter, to discuss how we can tackle it and ensure that there is proper social mobility in this country?

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I should be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the matter, but let me make two things clear. First, universities decide their own admissions criteria, which is right, and secondly, as we increase the number of students and remove artificial caps, it will be possible for universities to recruit all the students who are qualified to benefit from going to university.