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Topical Questions

Volume 574: debated on Thursday 23 January 2014

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.]

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.