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Commons Chamber

Volume 576: debated on Thursday 6 March 2014

House of Commons

Thursday 6 March 2014

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

Stephen Lawrence Independent Review


That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of the Report, dated 6 March 2014, of the Stephen Lawrence Independent Review: Possible corruption and the role of undercover policing in the Stephen Lawrence case.—(Mr Gyimah.)


That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of the Report, dated 6 March 2014, of the Stephen Lawrence Independent Review: Possible corruption and the role of undercover policing in the Stephen Lawrence case, Summary of Findings.—(Mr Gyimah.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Export Support Services (SMEs)

1. What steps he is taking to raise awareness of export support services among small and medium-sized businesses. (902858)

UK Trade & Investment has an extensive programme of awareness-raising activity that is directed at small and medium-sized businesses. That includes a national marketing campaign, “Exporting is GREAT”. More than 10 million people are expected to see the campaign and it should lead to about 3,000 additional businesses working with UKTI.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Clifford Springs in Redditch, which has a great record in exporting springs, for which Redditch is renowned? Will he tell Clifford Springs and other companies what more they can expect from UKTI?

I, too, congratulate Clifford Springs on its export success, particularly to the United States. UKTI has a team of 39 international trade advisers based in the west midlands. They have supported more than 1,400 companies across the region, including many companies in my hon. Friend’s constituency. They also support more experienced companies and companies of all sizes with advice, information and practical support to build their exports.

The Minister will know that one sector in which exports are great for Britain is the motorsport sector. That is to be applauded. However, does he share my concern that some of the exporting that appears to be going on is the exporting of jobs? That is what is happening at Dunlop Motorsport in Birmingham. It seems to be exporting some jobs abroad, when it has been offered alternative sites in Birmingham and when his Department has been pressing it to stay in Birmingham. Will he redouble his efforts to persuade Dunlop Motorsport to stay in Birmingham, where it should be?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met the company and it was the subject of a debate in the House recently. We will continue to do what we can. However, motorsport is an important and large business sector. I attended the Autosport exhibition in Birmingham recently, as the hon. Gentleman probably did. More than 45,000 people work in the industry across the country and it has a total value of more than £8 billion. We must do everything that we can to ensure that the sector continues to grow.

Exporting in the modern economy requires sustained financial support, yet the law in this country restricts to individual transactions the financial support for exports. I urge the Government to change the law so that we can have the support that is needed for exporters, small, medium and large.

I will certainly look at the point that my hon. Friend raises. I pay tribute to his efforts at the Department over two and a half years to back companies of all sizes in their export drive.

Bank Lending

2. What recent assessment he has made of the availability of finance and the level of lending by banks to small businesses. (902859)

Gross lending to small businesses for the 12 months to January was 14% higher than in the same period a year ago, although net lending continues to contract. The Bank of England’s credit conditions survey reported, however, that:

“The overall availability of credit to the corporate sector increased significantly”

in the final quarter of 2013.

I am really surprised by the answer that the Secretary of State has given, because small businesses in my constituency tell me that they are finding it almost impossible and often totally impossible to access the finance that they need. Lending to business is down after the failure of the Government’s Project Merlin, credit easing and funding for lending schemes. It now emerges that the business bank is just a rebadging of existing schemes. Why has the Secretary of State failed to learn from the Department’s mistakes and failures?

Of course, there is a continuing credit problem for many small companies. That is very clear. There is a very different pattern among the significant banks. Lloyds is greatly expanding its lending, as is Santander. Some of the new banks, such as Shawbrook and Aldermore, are beginning to make an impression. That has been cancelled out by RBS, although its new management have indicated that they wish to expand its net lending considerably. The business bank is beginning to make a significant impact. It is not a rebadging. It is already out in the market, supporting new forms of non-conventional business finance.

Business intentions rely on confidence, and with business confidence at a 22-year high, figures from the Office for National Statistics show that business investment is up 8.5% on the previous year. Does that not show that business is not only confident about the economy, but about the policies of this Government?

Yes, there is a high level of confidence, and it is reinforced by fact. Indeed, the output and spending figures are reinforcing the trend that the hon. Gentleman describes. There is, however, a continuing problem regarding credit to the small and medium-sized business sector. We are not complacent about that, and the interventions we are making will help.

Many businesses in my constituency tell me that their biggest problem is the withdrawal of overdrafts, and they are sometimes offered big and unwanted loans instead. Is the Secretary of State monitoring that trend, to ensure that banks are not fiddling the system to benefit themselves, and to attack small businesses that have cash-flow issues but do not need big loans?

One positive thing is that we are now getting a growth of specialist institutions that provide small businesses with a type of finance—Aldermore provides asset-based financing or new kinds of invoice financing to deal with cash flow or investment as required. However, the hon. Lady is right to say that there is a particular problem in that area of the market.

I recently had the privilege of opening the first bank in my constituency to be approved under the new Government fast-track system—Paragon bank—and it was full of praise for the help it received from my right hon. Friend’s Department. Does he share my aspiration that that will herald the beginning of much greater diversity and choice in the banking sector, and particularly help for small businesses?

My hon. Friend is right and I thank her for her kind words. Ultimately, what will change the problem is breaking the traditional monopoly of the big four banks. Many new banks are now coming into existence, and the more flexible licensing regime operated by the regulators is playing a significant part. I believe that 20 new banks have recently been licensed and, within a few years, I think we will see real competition and diversity.

The Secretary of State says that he is not complacent, and he has good cause not to be. Net business lending was down in eight of the past 12 months, and businesses will hear that in the past year, lending is down by £11.6 billion on the year before. How does he think those businesses will respond to the news that in the past year, Barclays and Lloyds made 508 people millionaires due to the bonuses they paid, at the same time as many small businesses are struggling to get access to finance? Is there a discrepancy between the Government’s performance on small business lending and the bonuses that continue to be paid by those banks?

There are often bonus levels that are extreme, but it is important to recall that at the peak of the financial crisis when the Labour party was in charge, there was a bonus pool of well over £12 billion. That has now shrunk to a tiny fraction of that, and at least one bank to which the hon. Gentleman referred—Lloyds—is making a significant improvement in the supply of small business lending.

EU Regulation

The Government continue to press the European Union to reduce burdens on business. We are focused on delivering the business taskforce’s report, their 30 specific recommendations for reforming EU law, and the “compete” principles that should apply to all new EU legislation. We have already achieved good progress on seven of the 30 recommendations, and we are seeing growing recognition of the “compete” principles among major European business organisations and in the European Parliament.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Businesses in my constituency complain not only about EU regulations, but about the fact that other countries do not play by the same regulations, and that when our civil servants implement regulations, they gold-plate them. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to remove that gold-plating and ensure that we do the minimum possible to abide by the rules?

I think there was too much gold-plating in the past, and we have reviewed all 132 directives implemented in the past two and a half years since we tightened the rules on transposition. Of those 132, there is only one example of a directive being gold-plated. That is the consumer rights directive where we took the decision to better protect consumer interests in the use of premium lines.

Do we have to use this language from The Sun about gold-plating? There is good regulation and bad regulation, and we should be in favour of the good and oppose the bad. As the Minister’s Department will know, this morning there is a Financial Conduct Authority report on crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is one way that small businesses can get finance, and they have been let down by the big banks in this country. This regulation comes from this Government. Is EU regulation able to help us where the Government cannot?

The business bank is working precisely on supporting crowdfunding with schemes of that kind. I agree that there is good regulation to protect consumers and health and safety, but there is also far too much unnecessary legislation that has been imposed on us by the European Union. The previous Government did absolutely nothing about it, but we are doing something.

Minimum Wage (Prosecutions for Non-payment)

Since 2010-11, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has identified £11.3 million in arrears of wages for 66,000 workers through civil powers, which are sufficient in the majority of cases. However, for the minority that are persistently non-compliant, criminal investigation is appropriate. Two employers have been prosecuted since 2010, with nine prosecutions in total since 2007.

Does the Secretary of State agree that paying Portuguese seafarers working on P&O Ferries in and out of Hull £3.96 an hour risks the employment of British seafarers? Will he make sure that the national minimum wage enforcement team investigates the maritime sector?

The maritime sector is subject to the national minimum wage if it is operating within the UK jurisdiction. I will happily take up the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions and, indeed, I was aware of accusations of abuse in this sector.

We know that the Government do not want to admit that the country is engulfed by a cost of living crisis, but that denial is made worse when the Chancellor is exposed as giving a hollow and empty promise to raise the national minimum wage to £7 an hour. Indeed, only a few days after he made that promise, the Conservative party issued a memo, under the heading “Common Sense Guide”, advising on how to avoid paying the national minimum wage. Rather than false promises for the lowest paid in our country, would it not be helpful to utilise the Secretary of State’s naming and shaming policy to expose the national minimum wage deniers in his Government and back Labour’s plans for a living wage?

I thought that the Labour party was still committed to supporting the national minimum wage. This is an interesting new evolution of policy, which seems to have been made on the stump. The naming and shaming policy has now come into effect and the first five companies were named at the end of last week.

Consumer Rights of Small Businesses

The Government have previously considered the case for small businesses to have rights when buying goods and services that are more aligned with consumers, and consulted on this question in 2008 and 2012. We have continued to engage with representatives of small business on this matter. The Federation of Small Businesses will shortly present a report in this area and I have committed to responding and will read it with interest.

I had a visit from the North East Federation of Small Businesses on Friday and was told that it has seen longer and longer delays in getting larger organisations to pay for goods and services, with one—Procter & Gamble—now having payment terms of 180 days. It says the prompt payment code has no teeth and companies just extend their terms to comply. Is it not time for the Government to intervene to put an end to these disgraceful delays and give small organisations a better chance of survival?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and the Government take concerns from business about unfair payment terms very seriously. For example, as he says, receiving payments promptly can be critical to the survival of a small business. That is why the Department launched a discussion paper called “Building a responsible payment culture” at the beginning of December. It sought views on what unfair payment terms look like and whether legislative or non-legislative measures should be used to tackle them. The consultation closed at the end of January and we are currently analysing the responses. We will announce shortly what we want to do to tackle the issue.

Bank Lending

The most recent data from the Bank of England show that net lending to small and medium-sized businesses was positive in March, June and November, and the bank’s most recent trends in lending and credit conditions reports show that confidence is beginning to return, helped by interventions such as the business bank. Gross lending continues to be higher year on year, but there is still much more to do.

When will the Government stop blaming the previous Government and everybody else and get the major banks such as Lloyds and HSBC actually lending to small businesses? Small businesses in my constituency and up and down the country are suffering very badly.

In order to understand the problem that we are having to address, it is important to analyse why it came about. We all know why it came about—because of the under-regulation by the Labour party. It is absolutely true that gross lending increased by £4 billion in October 2013—the highest amount since 2009—so we are moving in the right direction. But there is much more to do to clear up the mess left by the Labour party.

May I report from Northamptonshire that businesses are not having to go to lending to invest, but generating their own cash? The latest survey from the Northamptonshire chamber of commerce shows that

“44% of manufacturers and 21% of service sector respondents reporting an improvement”

in their cash flow

“with 24% proposing to invest in plant and machinery and 44% in training.”

Businesses are not necessarily dependent on lending from banks.

Of course some businesses are dependent on lending and it is very important to ensure that that problem is sorted out, but my hon. Friend rightly raises the fact that many businesses have an increasing amount of cash on their balance sheets. Encouraging them to get out and spend that cash and invest is an absolutely critical reason for increasing business confidence. I am delighted that business confidence is at record levels. Northamptonshire is one of the most supportive places for business and has recently won an award for exactly that.

Estate Agents

7. What recent assessment he has made of the number of complaints and the level of consumer detriment relating to estate agents’ practices in England and Wales. (902864)

16. What recent assessment he has made of the number of complaints and the level of consumer detriment relating to estate agents’ practices in England and Wales. (902875)

Citizens Advice received 2,831 calls on issues concerning estate agents from February 2013 to January 2014. The Office of Fair Trading investigated 114 complaints against estate agents from April 2013 to October 2013. Trading Standards continues to carry out enforcement activity against rogue estate agents. From 1 April, the Competition and Markets Authority will work with other consumer bodies to monitor the level of detriment relating to estate agents’ practices.

There is growing concern about the process of sale by tender, which has the potential to push up costs for both vendor and purchaser. Does the Minister share that concern?

This particular issue has not been raised with me, but I am happy to take it up with the enforcement authorities and the two redress schemes. I will ask the Office of Fair Trading and the CMA to consider the matter on behalf of the right hon. Gentleman.

There is no doubt that there are good estate agents out there as well as bad estate agents, but it is surely a very bad practice when both buyers and sellers are charged a fee for the same property. Will the Minister condemn the practice?

As the hon. Lady says, this is a potentially worrying and emerging trend that seems to be on the increase. I have already written to the redress schemes to ask them to examine the matter. From 1 April, Powys county council takes over responsibility for the overall enforcement of licensing of estate agents, and I will be writing to it to ask it to examine the practice.

The Minister mentions the Government’s intention for Powys county council, which serves a predominantly rural area, to take over the regulation of estate agents from April. Powys has had three different cabinets in as many months, and had to be threatened with intervention by the Welsh Government before it could agree a budget yesterday. Given that it cannot seem to get its own house in order, with practices such as double charging and mortgages by tender being put forward by estate agents, why does the Minister think the council is the right body to get house sales in order?

At the moment, both trading standards and the OFT possess enforcement powers relating to estate agents. From 1 April, we are simplifying the landscape by transferring the OFT’s powers to the lead authority, Powys county council. There is a precedent for having a lead local authority effectively to address functions across the nation—for example, illegal money lending teams for England and Wales do this. I have faith in the ability of our trading standards officers who are extremely effective, well trained and very responsive to the needs of members of the public, and I have every faith that Powys county council trading standards department will be able to exercise these functions perfectly adequately.

Apprenticeships (Role of Procurement)

8. If he will make it his policy to better use procurement by his Department to increase apprenticeship opportunities. (902865)

We consider opportunities for the provision of apprenticeships on an individual basis. Last month, however, we announced a new college to train the next generation of world-class engineers working on the construction of High Speed 2. We hope that that will create up to 2,000 apprentices. Crossrail is the largest procurement project across government—indeed, it is the largest construction project in Europe—and has a target of 400 apprentices over the life cycle of the project as part of its procurement.

I thank the Minister for his answer, and note his mention of procurement. In 2010, I introduced a Bill to increase the number of apprenticeships by means of public contract procurement. The proposal was adopted by the official Opposition, and was taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) in his Apprenticeships and Skills (Public Procurement Contracts) Bill. Does the Minister agree that it would be an excellent way in which to mark national apprenticeship week for the Government to adopt the policy officially, and to ensure that it is rolled out across the board?

As I have said, we include apprentices in procurement contracts. Of course procurement must put value for money at the top of the list to ensure that we spend taxpayers’ money wisely—which, these days, we do—but we must also ensure that, in national apprenticeship week, we celebrate the value that apprentices can bring, and the value that they can often add to projects.

I do not thank the Minister for his answer, because he did not answer the question. When he is considering whether to boost apprenticeships through the use of procurement, what is a higher priority for him: cheaper contracts, or the supply of apprenticeship opportunities to our people?

As I have said, we are including apprentices in procurement contracts through Crossrail and High Speed 2. We will also be establishing a nuclear college, so that it will be local people who, through apprenticeships, ensure that Britain maintains the skills that will enable us to build infrastructure such as the new civil nuclear power stations.

For every pound spent on an apprentice, £18 is invested in the economy. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the £16 million new facility at Leeds College of Building, which will deliver apprenticeships for 7,500 students and will make a huge difference to apprenticeships in the city?

I have been to Leeds to see what is being done with apprenticeships. Building colleges for building is an important part of ensuring that we can build our buildings in the future, and using apprenticeships to do that is an important way of improving and retaining skills, but, crucially, it also gives thousands of young people a chance to obtain the skills that they need in order to hold a sustainable job and have a secure future.

The building of Hinkley C will create a huge amount of employment in and around not only Somerset but Devon. Apprenticeship schemes will certainly work very well when it comes to building a power station.

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to Bridgwater college, which has put an awful lot of effort into ensuring that we build up the courses that will provide us with new nuclear skills.

National apprenticeship week provides an extraordinary opportunity to celebrate the amazing work of our apprentices, but it is a matter of concern to all Members that there are now 5,000 fewer young people studying in apprenticeships than there were at the time of the last election. That is why news of huge staff cuts at the National Apprenticeship Service is so worrying. The excellent Nick Linford of FE Week says that they may amount to 20%, and I hear from front-line staff in Birmingham that the figure may be 50%. The Minister refused to answer a written question on the subject, and he dodged a question about it in the House yesterday. Will he now tell us how many staff at the National Apprenticeship Service—which is part of the Skills Funding Agency—will lose their jobs in the next year?

The National Apprenticeship Service does a magnificent job in putting together events such as national apprenticeship week, and it is important to ensure that we run it as effectively as possible. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that a record number of people have participated in apprenticeships in the last year, and that they are doing a fantastic job. It is true that we had to remove some low-quality apprenticeships that were only six months long. The Opposition claim that they want high-quality apprenticeships, but then complain when we remove low quality. I will not take any lessons from them.

Businesses in Bassetlaw

I will parlay with the devil to get jobs and investment into my constituency, and I can guarantee the Secretary of State my personal protection from my constituents and their anger with the coalition. Perhaps we shall be able to have, for the day, a healthier coalition promoting jobs and investment in Bassetlaw.

I am not sure I shall need much protection because the firms in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are already beating their way to my door. I believe 14 companies have availed themselves of the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, there have been five start-up loans and 17 other companies are using the growth accelerator, all in his patch.

National Minimum Wage

Our aim is to maximise the wages of the low-paid without it costing jobs and ensure the benefits of the recovery are shared by everyone. We fully support an independent Low Pay Commission and are currently considering this year’s recommendation to increase the national minimum wage by 3% to £6.50. This would represent the first real increase since the financial crisis. In addition, we are considering the Low Pay Commission’s response to how we can restore the real value of the national minimum wage, which has not kept pace with inflation since 2008.

I am looking forward to many of my constituents seeing a pay rise shortly as the minimum wage rises, but what is the Secretary of State doing to address the worrying productivity gap so that future wage rises are based on increases in productivity and earned output?

My hon. Friend is right that if we are to sustain real increases in wages whether at the minimum level or above, there have to be productivity increases and many of the problems in the low-paid sectors like catering and care are to do with the fact that productivity levels are very low. I gather, for example, that in some of the lowest paid sectors the minimum wage is already 90% of the median. That reflects the low productivity in those industries.

21. With families £1,600 a year worse off, has the Secretary of State got any plans to follow Labour’s lead and incentivise employers to pay the living wage? (902881)

We have already made it clear that we would encourage companies to pay the living wage if they could afford it, but we need to be very clear that this is not a mandated system. Indeed, the Low Pay Commission has expressed considerable care in its recommendations to be sure that in promoting a higher level of wages at the bottom, which we want to see, we do not force large numbers of workers out of work.

Flooding (Support for Businesses)

We have funded a £10 million business support scheme which is available to businesses that have been flooded or significantly impacted by the floods. The grant can help businesses with clean-up costs, drying equipment, temporary accommodation and marketing. This is part of a wider package that includes 100% business rate relief for three months and new repair and renewal grants.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer and for all the Government are doing to help businesses affected by the floods. In my constituency, 29 businesses, mainly in the town of Stourport-on-Severn, have been directly flooded and a number of others have been indirectly affected. So far, Wyre Forest has not been included in the first tranche of the direct support grant. Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that those businesses that have been affected will be supported when the second tranche is announced next week?

Yes. With the first round of funding—some £5 million—the aim was to get the money out and allocated to local authorities as quickly as possible. We are in touch with other local authorities, including Wyre Forest district council, and I hope the second round of funding will be allocated very shortly.

Can the Minister confirm that the business support money that is available is capped at £5,000? That might meet the needs of smaller businesses, but for medium-sized or larger businesses that is quite a small amount considering many of them lost very expensive equipment.

The cap is £2,500 for the business support scheme, although there are other schemes available and the hon. Lady will be aware that I wrote to her on 25 February pointing out that Hull has been allocated some £230,000, the fifth largest allocation anywhere in the country.

20. Following the floods that took out Dawlish railway line, last week I visited a number of my businesses at my Plymouth railway station, including taxi drivers, Spar and some newsagents, who have noticed a 40% drop in their footfall. What might the Government be able to do to help those people? (902879)

We have announced a £2 million tourism support package, from which Plymouth will benefit. Local workshops and drop-in clinics will deliver practical help on the ground for tourism businesses, alongside a focused marketing campaign to boost trade for Easter and the early summer. VisitBritain is providing a promotional push abroad to encourage visitors from overseas, and I can tell my hon. Friend that it is working in partnership with Brittany Ferries on a £10 million campaign to promote the south-west more generally.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that small businesses will be excluded from the Flood Re insurance scheme, and that that will have an impact on their future reinsurance and excess premiums?

The Flood Re scheme is there to help some of the hardest-to-insure areas, but most business insurance is already priced to risk, unlike household insurance, in which cross-subsidies apply. However, I will certainly look again at the point my hon. Friend has raised.

Retail Grocery Market

Retail is a highly competitive sector, particularly in the grocery market, with multiple companies competing for market share on price, brand and quality. Retailers are quick to respond to changing consumer preferences. The Competition Commission’s 2008 assessment of the groceries sector found that it was generally working well and that consumers were receiving the benefits of competition, such as value, choice, innovation and convenience.

I am happy to agree with the Minister on that, and I would like to draw to her attention the behaviour of the Co-operative supermarket in Cinderford in my constituency. It is using every trick in the book to behave in an anti-competitive manner to block a planning application that has been approved by my local council and that is popular with local people. Should not it just get on with competing on the basis of price and choice, rather than on the basis of the quality of its legal team?

I fully support competition in the retail sector, with its benefits for consumers. The competition regime in the UK is designed to ensure that competition works in the best interests of consumers; it is not intended to protect incumbent businesses from competition. The Government remain committed to a town centre first policy, but that does not mean that shops cannot be built outside town centres where appropriate. It is up to local authorities to ensure that their local plans identify the retail needs of their local communities, and that they provide a firm basis for any planning decisions.

Postgraduate Qualifications

14. What steps his Department is taking to encourage UK students to study for postgraduate qualifications at UK universities. (902873)

The Government understand the importance of postgraduate study, which is why we are creating a new postgraduate support fund, worth £75 million over the next two years. This investment will allow universities to pilot innovative programmes to support access and participation.

As the Minister knows, the UK will not remain competitive if we do not reverse the frightening trend of falling numbers of British students starting postgraduate qualifications, and I fear that the situation could get worse as the first cohort of students to have paid much higher undergraduate fees starts to feed through the system. How many additional postgraduate students will £75 million pay for? What will the Government do further to boost the number of British students doing postgraduate courses?

After 2016, graduates will be paying back less per month than under the current arrangements, so that factor should not deter postgraduate study. Our extra funding is paying for 20 programmes, in 20 universities, to explore different ways of encouraging more postgraduate study.

Part-time and Mature Students

15. What recent estimate he has made of changes in the number of applications by (a) part-time and (b) mature students since changes in the level of student fees. (902874)

Data are not collected on applications for part-time study in higher education. However, the number of part-time students enrolling in higher education has fallen by 42% since its peak in 2008-09. The latest figures from UCAS show that the number of mature applicants to full-time undergraduate courses has risen over the last two application cycles by 5%.

I thank the Minister for that answer, and for that rather startling statistic. Another startling statistic is that the number of part-time undergraduates fell by 19% in 2012-13. Does he now regret the trebling of tuition fees? Does he understand that it has undermined the number of part-time students and that it is leading to declining social mobility?

This is not to do with the introduction of the fees and loans. As I said in answer to the previous question, the burden of repayment on graduates has fallen. The hon. Gentleman describes a trend that began under the previous Government. We believe it is attributable significantly to their policy of not funding students who already have an equivalent-level qualification. That is why I have started the process of reversing that by extending entitlements to loans to more part-time students, and we aim to continue to reverse the damage done by Labour’s policy.

Bank Lending

Banks’ lending practices—good or bad—can have an impact on the willingness of small businesses to approach their bank. We are alert to any evidence of poor practice, and we take up concerns both with the banks and, where necessary, with the financial services regulators.

While bankers are still happily filling their boots with multi-million pound bungs, thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises across this land are being sucked dry by those same banks. Regulators are offering only woefully limp regulation at the moment, so is it not now time for Ministers to step in to protect SMEs from these mis-sold interest rate hedging products?

Of course, we have strengthened the regulation of the banking system enormously in the past three years. As yesterday’s figures from the Financial Conduct Authority show, 62% of businesses that might have been mis-sold interest rate swaps have now been told by the banks whether they are owed compensation under the scheme regulated by the FCA, and all businesses owed redress will have been made offers by the end of June.


We are well on our way to delivering the agenda of apprenticeship reform. This is national apprenticeship week and, as we know, across the country participation has increased by about 80% since the election. In Stevenage, participation in apprenticeships since the election has more than doubled.

Apprenticeships are a great opportunity to reduce the gap between education and employment, and in Stevenage last year more than 800 young people took up the opportunity of an apprenticeship. Yesterday, I launched a jobs fair so that we can push towards 1,000 young people taking up the apprenticeship opportunity this year. Will the Minister join me in congratulating all the local partners—the jobcentres, employers, schools and colleges—on the work they are doing?

I add to those in that list, all of which I congratulate, my hon. Friend, who has obviously played an important role in bringing people together. Apprenticeships, especially high-quality ones, can happen only as a partnership between training providers and employers, and of course the Government, with some of their funding, to give young people the opportunities they need.

On Monday, I had the pleasure of hosting a group of apprentices from MBDA here in Parliament. The group included Anna Schlautmann, the manufacturer apprentice of the year, and Jade Aspinall, Semta’s apprentice of the year. MBDA has a fantastic apprenticeship programme, so what is the Department doing to promote best practice in apprenticeships?

These apprentices clearly had an interesting time, because they met not only the hon. Lady, but the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon)—and indeed, I also met them. They were extremely impressive, and showing the highlights of the best apprentices is something we should all celebrate across this House.

Figures released this week show that every time a local company hires an apprentice their bottom line gets an average boost of £2,100. In Eastleigh, that means that new apprenticeships alone provided a local boost of more than £2 million in 2012-13. Will the Minister join me in praising local businesses in Eastleigh, such as GE Aviation and Arlington Rail, which have a great track record in delivering high-quality apprenticeships? Will he also join me in praising the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle), who is leading the charge on this?

Yes, of course I will join my hon. Friend. I also join him in paying tribute to my hon. Friends the Member for Burnley and for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who are apprenticeship ambassadors and do enormous work, in this House and beyond, to promote apprenticeships.

Insecurity in the Workplace

The 2011 workplace employment relations study measured insecurity. It showed that job insecurity is related to three factors: whether a workplace had been subject to recent redundancies; if managers felt that the recent recession affected the business; and the number of changes to working terms and conditions experienced by employees.

The Minister will be aware that research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development shows that approximately 1 million people in this country are currently employed on zero-hours contracts. We know that many of these are exploitative, so will the Minister confirm whether the Government will use the opportunity of the forthcoming Queen’s Speech to legislate to end the misery that is suffered by so many in our communities?

The hon. Lady will know that the Government looked at zero-hours contracts last summer, and are currently consulting on related issues such as exclusivity clauses and so on, which are just some of the problems that people have highlighted. Following on from that consultation, we will look at what measures need to be taken to ensure that such contracts are used positively and not to cause problems for those who are being exploited by them.

Export Support Services (SMEs)

22. What steps he is taking to raise awareness of export support services among small and medium-sized businesses. (902882)

On my last trade envoy mission to Indonesia, I arranged for a film to be made of about a dozen SMEs that were with me before, during and after the mission in order to show it at later seminars across the country to convince small businesses that they can export successfully to far-away growth markets. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such low-cost films made by different trade envoys in different markets could be an attractive tool to encourage SMEs to export?

I have just learned something new. I did not know that the hon. Gentleman was a trade envoy, but I do now and I am pleased to learn it.

I agree that films can be a useful way of helping businesses to understand the benefits of exporting. My hon. Friend will be interested to hear that UKTI is producing a series of “Exporting is GREAT” videos based on companies that feature in its campaign. There are currently four videos for Cundall, Angloco, Serious Games and for Lye Cross Farm, which exports cheese to France.

Topical Questions

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

Will the Secretary of State say what the latest position is regarding Hibu, as he met a small delegation of MPs some months ago to discuss the situation? He will know that many of the shareholders have lost a lot of money, especially those in Coventry.

The hon. Gentleman is right that many people have lost significant amounts of money, and they are clearly keen to see action. The administrator has a statutory duty to report on the behaviour of Hibu’s directors, and that report is due before the end of May. At that point, the Secretary of State and the Insolvency Service will look at whether action needs to be taken to disqualify the directors.

T2. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Lancaster chamber of commerce and Lancaster and Morecambe college, ably supported by the Lancaster Guardian, on putting on courses for local businesses to demonstrate the benefits of apprenticeships? Does he accept that such local initiatives will build on this Government’s success in putting real apprenticeships back on the career map? (902884)

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. The Lancaster Guardian, like many local newspapers across the country, plays an important role in changing the culture, supporting apprenticeships and ensuring that young people know the opportunities that are available to them.

In the last annual report and accounts of his Department, the Secretary of State said that the Department remained

“on track to deliver against our spending review settlement.”

However, the head of the National Audit Office said in the same report that there are significant uncertainties relating to billions of pounds’ worth of the Department’s assets, which will affect its financial position. Can the Secretary of State explain the discrepancy?

I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to the significant assets that were left with the dissolution of the regional development agencies. In fact, the job of managing that complex process has been extraordinarily successful.

No, I refer to the student loans worth billions of pounds. Subsequent to the publication of those accounts, the NAO published a report that revealed that because Ministers have dramatically overestimated the number of graduates who will be able to repay the loans to pay for the Secretary of State’s higher tuition fees, he has, in effect, blown a hole in the Department’s budget. In fact, the Library estimates that from 2015-16 an extra £600 million a year will have to be found. Will the Secretary of State now explain how he will fix the problem without putting under threat the country’s scientists, students, universities and colleges?

This is an absurd misunderstanding of what is called the resource accounting and budgeting—RAB—charge system, which depends on long-term predictions of earnings growth. I assure the hon. Gentleman that if the recovery of the economy continues as it is, the RAB charge estimates will be substantially revised down and the imaginary black hole will very soon disappear.

T4. What steps is the Department taking to support small and medium-sized businesses in Lancashire that are keen to export their goods and services? (902888)

We are committed to helping Lancashire companies to start exporting or to expand in new markets. Between April and December 2013, UKTI helped nearly 600 businesses across Lancashire and I was pleased to see my hon. Friend supporting those efforts by partnering with UKTI in delivering a successful export event for local businesses at the BAE site in his constituency last week.

T3. I know that many of us were waiting with a great deal of interest for the Financial Conduct Authority’s new rules on payday lending, but does the Minister share my disappointment that it did not come up with a much tougher action plan on advertising? (902885)

We were clear in our consultation on payday lending that we had put all the options for change on the table. We have taken the consultation seriously and that has included my meeting many of the stakeholders. We will do what it takes, but we will do what works—and what works for businesses large and small, focusing especially on the needs of small businesses—but we will not make changes just to satisfy calls and headlines. We will make sure that the system works as properly as possible.

T5. Pendle businesses were delighted when the Government published the draft assisted area status map back in December, proposing to include part of Pendle for the first time. The current map, drawn up under the previous Government in 2007, did not include a single part of Pendle, yet the new map will include about 50% of the borough. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress in bringing the new map into force? (902889)

I am glad that my hon. Friend is pleased with the draft map. The Government are considering responses made in stage two of the assisted areas consultation to the draft map and the final map for 2014 to 2020 is due to come into effect on 1 July this year.

T7. A major hotel chain in my constituency employs a conveyor belt of young people. They are all on zero-hours contracts, tips are pooled and loosely accounted for and if workers have the audacity to question anything they are rewarded —punished—with fewer shifts. When will the Secretary of State stop consulting and start doing something about exploitation through zero-hours contracts? (902891)

As I said in answer to a previous question, we are in the process of consulting. It is important that we get this right so that we do not penalise employees by getting the rules wrong. Many employees benefit from zero-hours contracts and we need to ensure that we take the right action rather than hasty action. We will respond to the consultation and make proposals to get rid of the exploitative factor in zero-hours contracts.

T6. Agriculture matters in my constituency yet the average age of my farmers is about 60, so we have a desperate need to encourage young people to go into farming. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Skills and Enterprise made a statement to the House yesterday about the reforms to the apprenticeship scheme, but will he outline how his reforms will encourage young people to use apprenticeships to go into farming? (902890)

Of course, apprenticeships increasingly cover the whole economy, including farming and agriculture. The number of apprenticeships in agriculture has increased by a quarter and I am pleased to say that we are working with farmers in our trailblazer reforms of apprenticeships to get them and the agriculture sector to write the rules on what training is needed to ensure that apprenticeships work better for them in future.

Bogus self-employment continues to spread through the construction industry, in part because the number of HMRC employer compliance inspections has halved in four years. Does the Secretary of State regret that?

Of course we want to see maximum compliance. We realise that there are abuses in the construction industry and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are committing to stepping up enforcement action.

I am very pleased with the Government’s rapid response in providing support for businesses that were directly affected by the floods, but evidence is emerging in Worcester of substantial indirect effects from transport disruptions, particularly to small businesses. I understand that Worcester received around £57,000 of funding in the first tranche of the floods fund. Can the Minister confirm that as more evidence emerges, there may be more money to support local SMEs?

I can confirm that a second tranche of funding will be made available under the business support scheme, and my Department is talking to all local authorities where businesses have been affected. Where they have been significantly affected, of course we want to help.

My constituent, Mr Rundell, paid for an additional guarantee scheme from a high street retailer for an electrical item on the basis that he would get a replacement. It later turned out that that was not the case. What assessment has the consumer affairs Minister made of the way in which these policies are sold to constituents and to people across the country, because very often such a policy turns out not to be what they have been promised?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Consumer Rights Bill is in Committee and a number of Members here today are on that Committee. One of the issues we are looking at is warranties and guarantees and ensuring that consumers are aware of their statutory rights. There is protection for consumers. I recommend that the hon. Gentleman’s constituent contact the Citizens Advice helpline, which will be able to point him in the right direction to ensure that if he has been mis-sold something, he can get the remedies due to him under the law.

I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting Burnley last week to open a new industrial estate and visit a number of rapidly expanding companies that are embracing the Government’s economic policy. Does he agree that if the success being achieved in Burnley was replicated across the country, our economic position would be growing much better?

Yes, I had a very rewarding visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency and I think there were broader lessons. Much of the gloom about the economy that is being spread by the Opposition is not reflected in many manufacturing towns such as Burnley, which has an unemployment rate well below the national average and highly successful manufacturing companies, particularly in aerospace and the car supply chain. Many other towns and cities across the UK are now sharing that experience.

The Secretary of State will be aware that business growth in the UK is dependent not just on exports but on investors. Recently I went on a visit to India and I discussed with businesses, including a Confederation of Indian Industry round table here, issues concerning UKTI. How successful does he believe UKTI is at creating investment opportunities for medium-sized businesses from abroad, particularly in our regions, so that we can see growth and investment partnerships?

UKTI is now regarded as an excellent service for business. It has a dedicated unit devoted to high-value opportunities and big inward investment in the UK. I visited India recently and met a substantial number of Indian companies, both in the service sector, such as call centres, and in manufacturing, such as aerospace, that are targeting the UK to re-shore production here from India.

Tomorrow in Kettering, with local employers, Tresham institute will launch Experience Kettering, a workplace experience scheme for hard-to-place young people aged 18 to 24. Would the Skills Minister congratulate Tresham institute on this initiative and send some words of encouragement?

I would be delighted to congratulate Tresham institute on what it is doing to help young people into work. Work experience is a vital part of getting a job and I hope it is also working on the new traineeship programme, which is designed to help people into an apprenticeship or a sustainable job.

What impact and what offence does the Secretary of State believe have been caused to Jewish and Muslim businesses by the statement from the chief veterinary officer today, threatening to ban the practice of shechita and halal?

I confess that I have not yet absorbed the significance of that statement. We will certainly consider it.

The House is awaiting the response to the BIS consultation on pub companies, but now that the London Economics research has been exposed as fundamentally flawed and does not follow the brief given to it by BIS, and the firm has charged £26,000 for fieldwork that did not take place, will my right hon. Friend ignore this bunkum and listen to the Federation of Small Businesses’ research, which shows that the market rent-only option would benefit the UK economy by £78 million?

As my hon. Friend knows, responses to last year’s Government consultation numbered in the thousands. We are looking at all the evidence that was put before us, including the research he mentioned. We also received evidence from thousands of individual tenants who contacted us to tell us about their circumstances and the impact the proposed measures could have on their business. We are looking at all of that and will bring forward proposals shortly.

Apprentices in Bolton West have told me that teachers tried to dissuade them from undertaking apprenticeships, particularly if they were high-flying students. What is the Department doing to educate teachers and ensure that proper careers guidance is in place?

That is properly a matter for the Department for Education but, as I am also a Minister there I will take this opportunity to explain that we are introducing stronger statutory guidance. There was no guidance for schools before, so we have introduced a new legal requirement on them to secure independent and impartial advice, and we are introducing stronger statutory guidance to ensure that they do so, alongside the new National Careers Service, which this Government introduced.

I will meet representatives of Jaguar Land Rover tomorrow to discuss their vision for their Gaydon headquarters. As it is international women’s day on 8 March, I will also be discussing the work they do to encourage women and girls to take up science, technology, engineering and maths. The Secretary of State is passionate about getting more women on boards and, importantly, into all sort of industries, so will he join me in celebrating international women’s day and reminding businesses that they need to do their bit to encourage more women into the sciences?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. To encourage more women into science, we have specifically said that when universities bid for the new capital funding we are allocating to them, they will be required to show what they are doing to attract women into those essential subjects.

Business of the House

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 10 March—Remaining stages of the Care Bill [Lords] (day 1).

Tuesday 11 March—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Care Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 12 March—Remaining stages of the Intellectual Property Bill [Lords], followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, followed by, if necessary, considerations of Lords amendments.

Thursday 13 March—Statement on the publication of the sixth report from the Communities and Local Government Committee on local government procurement, followed by a debate on a motion relating to the badger cull. The Select Committee statement and the subject for debate were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 14 March—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 17 March will include:

Monday 17 March—Consideration of Lords amendments.

Tuesday 18 March—Consideration of Lords amendments.

Wednesday 19 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

Thursday 20 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.

Friday 21 March—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 13 March will be:

Thursday 13 March—A general debate on Commonwealth day.

The House will also be aware that this morning I made a written statement announcing that Her Majesty the Queen will open a new Session of this Parliament on Tuesday 3 June 2014.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business.

The events unfolding in Ukraine are of grave concern. There is agreement across the House that Russia’s actions are without justification and flout international law. European leaders are meeting today in Brussels. In view of the seriousness of the situation, will the Leader of the House confirm that there will be a statement on the outcome of that meeting in the House on Monday? Will he also undertake to ensure that the House is kept adequately informed about this rapidly developing situation without having to depend on inadvertent Downing street leaks?

This Saturday is international women’s day. It is important that we reflect on the ongoing fight for women’s equality in this country and around the world. A shocking report published this week shows that one third of women in the European Union have suffered physical or sexual violence, but under this Government the number of domestic violence cases passed to the Crown Prosecution Service has fallen by 13%. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in Government time on how to end the scourge of violence against women, and ensure that the perpetrators know that they will be brought to justice?

If the Prime Minister is good at one thing, it is completely failing to provide answers during Prime Minister’s questions. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) asked the Government exactly how they are planning to achieve their aim of bringing back fox hunting for their Bullingdon buddies. The Prime Minister guaranteed the House a vote, so will the Leader of the House now confirm that, if the Government intend to use a statutory instrument to drive a coach and horses through the Hunting Act 2004, the statutory instrument will be taken on the Floor of the House and not upstairs?

Next Thursday there will be a Back-Bench business debate on the badger cull, which will call for the cull to be stopped. The Government have already ignored one vote to stop the cull, but the emerging evidence is that the trials have been a failure and may even have made the situation worse. Will the Leader of the House tell us that, if there is another vote to stop the cull, the Government will this time abide by the will of the House?

On Monday and Tuesday the House will debate the Care Bill. There is a lot in the Bill on which both sides of the House can agree, but unfortunately the Government are using it as a back-door route to give themselves the power to close any hospital they want. Given that the Leader of the House was the first to use trust special administrators in south London, and his successor was embarrassed in the High Court for trying to use them to close services at Lewisham hospital, will he now concede that any reconfiguration of hospital services should be clinically led and not done for purely financial reasons?

I congratulate the Leader of the House on finally being able to give us the date of the last-gasp Queen’s Speech of this clapped-out, dysfunctional Government. A Queen’s Speech in June and an extended recess show that this is a zombie Government who have long since run out of steam. They may think they have cobbled together an agreement, but it has lasted less than a day. Today, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and a Home Office Minister will make totally contradictory speeches on immigration.

The Chancellor ambushed the Liberal Democrats in the Cabinet on vetoing a European Union referendum, and with the Budget only two weeks away, he is too busy fighting with the Mayor of London about who will be the next Tory leader to think about his day job. As yesterday was Ash Wednesday, may I suggest that, hard as it may be, they may want to give up squabbling, conniving and plotting for Lent?

This week the Deputy Prime Minister has been so desperate to grab the limelight that without any apparent sense of irony he has been busy accusing politicians of having brass necks. He is now so worried about the Liberal Democrats being completely wiped out in the European elections that he has agreed to a featherweight boxing match with Nigel Farage on television. We have a Deputy Prime Minister so desperate for attention that I am surprised he has not photoshopped himself into that selfie at the Oscars.

I entirely agree that the events in Ukraine, as we discussed briefly last week, continue to be deeply disturbing. It is important, as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, that we continue to set out clearly that there will be costs and consequences to the Russian Government if they continue, as they are doing, to breach international law and to intrude on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Today’s summit in Brussels gives us an opportunity, which the Prime Minister is using, to set out clearly the nature of those costs and consequences. We are looking for de-escalation, and it must be made clear to the Russian Government if that if they do not take action to de-escalate and to move back from their position, robust action will follow.

The hon. Lady asked about future business. Of course, I expect my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to update the House following today’s discussions in Brussels and on such events that may occur over the next few days. As she knows, following the Foreign Secretary’s statement on Tuesday, we will keep the House fully informed. I will continue to discuss with my colleagues how we can ensure that the views of the House can be fully expressed. I think that will be helpful and I hope that it will further reinforce internationally the outrage that we feel about events in Ukraine.

I am delighted that the House will have so many opportunities to mark international women’s day, including through the Backbench Business Committee’s scheduling of a debate in this Chamber this afternoon, and this afternoon’s debate on women and the economy in Westminster Hall. The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and others have secured a very important debate on Monday on the petition relating to female genital mutilation. There is a wide range of actions on this.

In the particular instance the hon. Lady mentioned, I share her concern about the survey that was published this week. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has published a ministerial statement today setting out that there will be an update of the violence against women and girls action plan, which will be published on Saturday. That will provide an opportunity to highlight the progress that we have made in tackling violence against women and girls. Last year, we extended the definition of domestic violence to include controlling, coercive behaviour; introduced two new stalking offences; and in December launched the This is Abuse campaign to highlight that it is not just physical violence that makes a relationship abusive. We have also announced the roll-out of Clare’s law and of domestic violence protection orders, and ring-fenced nearly £40 million of funding for specialist local support services and national helplines to support people in abusive situations.

The hon. Lady asked about the statutory instrument relating to the number of dogs used to flush out foxes for shooting. I am perfectly happy to discuss this through the usual channels. As she will know, it is always our practice to ensure that, where it is requested and sought by the House, there is an opportunity for proper debate on and scrutiny of statutory instruments, so we will of course look at that. I have to say, however, that I do not regard this, in any sense, as a debate about undermining the Act that the House passed. It is quite separate from the question of what should be the position in relation to the Hunting Act more generally, whereby the coalition agreement said that under the coalition programme we would look for a debate in the House, and we have not had an opportunity to do that yet.

The proper place for Ministers to set out the position on the badger cull is in the debate. The Backbench Business Committee has scheduled that debate for next Thursday, and I am very happy to let it take place. As the shadow Leader of the House knows, Ministers take account of Back-Bench motions, and we have done so in the past in relation to the badger cull. She may recall that we brought the issue back before the House before the badger cull pilots were undertaken, and there was a further vote that endorsed the position taken by the Government.

When we debate the Care Bill next week we will look at clause 119 and further amendments relating to trust special administrators. As far as I am aware, it has always been the case that whatever the trust special administrator brought forward, it was necessary, as was the case in relation to Lewisham, that it should meet the need to put services not only on a financially sustainable basis but on a clinically improving basis; the two have to be recognised as being linked. In south-east London, it was not possible to sustain the quality of services in the situation in which South London Healthcare NHS Trust found itself, and that is why the trust special administrator was appointed. The powers that the Secretary of State has and the powers that are sought should enable the clinical services for patients to be improved, and that is how they will be used.

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s welcome of the announcement of the date of the state opening of Parliament. Last year I published the date on 7 March, so I managed to make it a day earlier this year; we are trying hard to give the House maximum notice. Her point about the lack of business is misplaced. I have announced for next week four days’ business, three of which consist of substantial progress on Government Bills. I reiterate to her again that I do not regard, and the House should not regard, days allocated to Opposition debates and to Backbench Business Committee debates as anything other than a substantial use of the House’s time. Debating Government legislation is not our only purpose in being here. In recent years, and during this Parliament, the House has established a very positive track record of debating the issues that matter to the people of this country alongside making progress on Government legislation.

There is no merit in filling the House with legislation for its own sake. The previous Labour Government put 53 Bills before the House in one Session. [Interruption.] I will stop in a moment. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) will have his chance—he always does. In the penultimate Session of the previous Parliament, the previous Government introduced 27 Government Bills, while in this Session of this Parliament, this Government have introduced 24 Government Bills, so I completely refute the proposition that we are not dealing with business—and ours are rather better Bills, if I may say so.

The hon. Lady asked about the Deputy Prime Minister’s debate with Nigel Farage. I am really pleased he is doing it, because I think it will be very welcome if the Deputy Prime Minister takes the opportunity to set out to the people of this country the sheer lack of effort, energy and commitment of UKIP MEPs in the European Parliament. Happily, in my region, David Campbell Bannerman left UKIP, joined the Conservative party and is more responsible in what he does and puts in much more effort, but others have lamentably failed to represent the people who voted to send them to the European Parliament in the last election and who I hope will not make the same mistake again.

Order. As usual, dozens of hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. However, I remind the House that there are two further ministerial statements to follow, first from the Home Secretary and then from the Secretary of State for Defence. Thereafter, there will be a statement by the Chair of the Defence Committee and two debates under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. Therefore, there is a premium on time and, exceptionally—I emphasise the word “exceptionally”—it may not be possible today to get everybody in, which, as the House knows, is my usual practice. There is an imperative, therefore, on Back and Front-Benchers alike to be brief.

In the light of one of the statements you have mentioned, Mr Speaker, and the publication in a few minutes of the Privileges Committee report, will the Leader of the House consider a debate on a positive aspect of the relationship between UK police and MPs? I am, of course, referring to the little-known—it should be publicised—police service parliamentary scheme, which has successfully brought police and MPs together. It started in 1999 and operates under the guidance of Sir Neil Thorne. An early, short debate would be timely, because the new scheme for this year has just commenced.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making a very good point. Just as Members have very much appreciated participating in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, they have equally benefited from participating in the police service parliamentary scheme. A meeting was held last week to set out what the scheme has achieved and to look forward. I hope Members will take advantage of it. Many of us benefit from the opportunity to spend time with the police service in our constituencies, but the scheme offers the opportunity to understand more systematically the character of policing, not just in our own constituencies, but elsewhere too. In the context of all the debates we are having about policing in this country, it would be wonderful if more Members demonstrated to the police service their commitment to understand the nature and challenges of policing today.

Last month, Liverpool city council won a High Court action, which ruled that cuts by the Government to European funding for Liverpool were unlawful. Last night, Liverpool city council had to agree £156 million-worth of cuts, which will impact severely on the provision of mandatory services, including social care to the elderly and children, yet yesterday the Prime Minister said that he does not believe the people of Liverpool are being short-changed. Can we please have an urgent debate on the Government’s blind spot when it comes to Liverpool?

The Government have no blind spot in relation to Liverpool. On the contrary, many of the things we are doing are helping Liverpool. Speaking personally, when I was Secretary of State for Health, two of the most important future building projects to which I gave my personal support were the rebuilding of Liverpool Broadgreen and Alder Hey hospitals. That does not ignore Liverpool; it supports Liverpool in the continuation of one of its most important services. I will not reiterate the points the Prime Minister made yesterday. He set out very clearly the figures for the level of support received per household in Liverpool relative to other places.

Between 1997 and 2011, the number of prescriptions for methylphenidate hydrochloride—also known as Ritalin—rose from 92,079 to 929,839, which is a 1,000% increase. As the drug is commonly used to treat children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, may we have an urgent debate about the effects on society of drugging a generation of children?

I know that there have been such debates, if not in the most recent past. If my hon. Friend and other Members feel strongly about these issues, they might together choose to ask the Backbench Business Committee to find time to explore them—if not in the Chamber, then in Westminster Hall.

As my hon. Friend knows, a range of factors affects the number of prescriptions. During as long a period as 1997 to 2010, much of course happened in relation to awareness about such conditions and the overall level of prescribing and treatment for ADHD generally. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidance in 2006 and the clinical guidelines in 2008 have had an impact on prescribing by clinicians. I say all that merely to illustrate that there is a range of issues, but he is right to say that it is sometimes useful for this House to take the time to look at them.

Given the fact that Barclays and Lloyds bank have now created more millionaires than the national lottery, as reported in the Daily Mirror, may we have a debate in the House about why this Government are allowing the banks to continue to rip off customers and Britain?

It is not this Government; we are doing no such thing. This Government have seen the level of bankers’ bonuses substantially reduced compared with the rate under the previous Government. It is astonishing. I will not go on about this, but when Labour Members were in government they mismanaged regulation of the financial services sector to such a point that we had bust banks and immense bail-outs, with bonuses wildly out of control, but they have the brass neck to stand up and complain about the reduced level of bankers’ bonuses being implemented under this Government. Frankly, we are making very clear that where we have shareholdings, bonuses have to be within a very controlled framework, and they are coming down relative to last year.

We are very lucky to have had some excellent Leaders of the House. I wonder whether the current Leader of the House might make a full oral statement next week on votes in this House. As a Member of the House, I have always thought that when this House votes, the Government are bound by that vote, but that does not necessarily seem to happen when Back-Bench motions are debated. Will he make a statement on that next week?

I can tell my hon. Friend that it has never been the case that a motion in this House binds the Government, except in so far as a vote is taken on legislation. With the greatest respect to him, whatever he may believe to be the case, a motion in this House has never bound the Government, except in such circumstances.

To repeat what I said to the shadow Leader of the House, time and again, even if the Government have not agreed with what was expressed in a motion passed after a Backbench Business Committee debate, we have always taken the motion seriously and responded to it. For example, I recall that hon. Members felt strongly about the matter relating to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. We did not agree with them, but a lot of care was taken to explain why we did not agree and to respond to the House on that subject. We will continue to act in that way.

I am very pleased that we will have a debate next week about the removal of railway rolling stock from the north to improve services in the south, but may we have a wider debate on exactly what the coalition Government have got against the north, and to look at the cuts to major northern cities and northern arts funding, and the delay in giving any assistance to areas of the north that flooded in December?

The hon. Lady asks that question when it is this Government who are bringing forward HS2, which will make the biggest difference since the Victorian era in terms of providing capacity and creating high-quality links between northern cities, to the rest of the rail network and beyond London. The Network Rail programme is the largest programme of rail investment since the Victorian era and many of the areas that will benefit are in the north of the country.

A £3 million gamma knife radiotherapy machine is sitting unused at University College hospital in London because NHS England refuses to send cancer patients there. Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Health to look into that as a matter of urgency?

I will, of course, raise that matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, as the hon. Lady requests. However, the commissioning of specialist services is a matter for NHS England under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, as she will recall. I completely understand what she says. I have seen the latest radiotherapy machines of the kind that she describes, which perform stereotactic radiotherapy. That is an interesting new treatment, but it is not appropriate in all circumstances.

Some good work has been done in this Parliament to hold down fuel duty, and I pay tribute to the Government for that. However, may we have a debate on the benefits of cutting fuel duty, such as boosting jobs, boosting the economy and helping hard-pressed families? Given that it would be self-financing, would it not be a good idea to think about it in the run-up to the Budget?

I will tell the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the right hon. Gentleman’s thoughts in the run-up to the Budget. We will, of course, debate those issues during the Budget debate. I share his sense of how important it is to people that fuel duty has been frozen for the entire Parliament, with the result that it will be 20p per litre lower than it would have been under the escalator put in place by the previous Government.

In the last Parliament, the number of health visitors dropped by 16%. In this Parliament, that trend has been reversed and the number has gone up by 1,000. There is an even faster increase in the number of midwives, which is up by 1,500, with a further 5,000 in training. Please may we have a debate about the improvements in maternity services? That would allow me to highlight the recent survey by the Care Quality Commission, which put Harrogate district hospital’s maternity services among the very best in the country.

I am glad to have the opportunity to congratulate the staff at Harrogate district hospital. I visited it some years ago and know that it is a fine district general hospital.

My hon. Friend makes a good general point. In about 1998 or 1999, the last Labour Government abandoned universal health visiting services. Because we are expanding the number of health visitors, by the end of this Parliament, we will again see a universal service for all parents coming home with a new baby, so there will be an opportunity for health visitors to work with every family. That will make a big difference by starting people off on the right track.

On midwives, for years after 2001, the previous Government ignored the increase of about 16% in the number of babies being born in this country. There was nothing like a commensurate increase in the number of midwives. Happily, since 2010, this Government have more than kept pace with the increase in the number of babies being born and have been making up that deficit. The increase in the number of midwives will help us further to improve maternity services.

Notwithstanding the previous comments of the Leader of the House on bankers’ bonuses, does he understand that millions of our constituents are at a loss to understand why British bankers are acting with impunity? Out of respect for you, Mr Speaker, I will temper my language. If these people continue to hold the country to ransom by threatening to leave the country, please let the reprobates go.

The Government have been very clear that in banks where we exercise a shareholding responsibility on behalf of the taxpayer, the level of bonuses will come down, bonuses should be paid in a form that can be recovered if people do not deliver and bonuses should often be deferred so that they can be linked directly to the long-term increase in the value of the business and the benefit to customers. Of course, there are many banks in which we do not have that shareholding responsibility. Those banks are subject to the law and to their shareholders, but that is as far as it goes.

What is important is that we have a more competitive banking system. That is what the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013 and the measures that we are putting in place will achieve. There should be more challenger banks. People can and should make their own judgments about which banks are providing them with the right service.

This afternoon a general debate on Welsh affairs will be held in this Chamber. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a hugely welcome development, so close as it is to St David’s day, and that it should be standard practice to hold a similar debate every year as part of the programme of the House?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and in this instance credit goes to the Backbench Business Committee. It has demonstrated that it is responsive to Members in this House, and the Welsh affairs debate today is very positive. I hope, for example, that Members will look forward to the changes that the Government are planning to bring forward in the draft Wales Bill, and it might be an opportunity for those on the Opposition Front Bench to explain why they are opposed to further devolution of tax powers to the Welsh Government.

Last week we debated the impact of welfare reform on people with disabilities. Following that debate, I was contacted by a deaf constituent, who said that she wanted to follow the debate, but had been unable to do so because of the lack of signing or subtitles. May we have a debate on how we can improve accessibility to debates in this House for people who are deaf?

There may be an opportunity to discuss that at some point but I cannot identify when it will be. The hon. Lady makes a good point and if I may, I will discuss it with colleagues on the House of Commons Commission and elsewhere. It might form part of the agenda when we discuss matters such as parliamentary broadcasting with the BBC.

May we have a statement about the criteria for environmental impact assessments to be carried out on wind turbine applications to ensure they are properly scrutinised? In my constituency, the local council has decided that such an assessment is not required on a forthcoming planning application in a sensitive area, but I fear, in my generosity, that it may have misinterpreted current guidance.

My hon. Friend knows that planning regulations set out the procedure for establishing whether an environmental impact assessment is required. Not every wind turbine development will require one, and the need for an EIA depends on a proposal’s size and location, and whether it is likely to have a significant effect on the environment. I hope that when my hon. Friend looks at the planning regulations—as I know he will have done—he will be able to challenge if necessary whatever decision his local authority may have made. If I may, I will raise the issue with my hon. Friends at the Department for Communities and Local Government, and he may wish to have a further conversation with them about whatever interpretation the local authority has taken.

May we have an urgent Government statement on the great train robbery? In east Lancashire we have a brand new line with no trains on it, and last week we found out that the trans-Pennine trains are being moved to the Prime Minister’s constituency in the south. It seems to me there is a huge north-south shift, and that the north is being short-changed.

I will ask my hon. Friends at the Department for Transport if they will respond directly to the hon. Gentleman on that issue, and he may wish to raise it at Transport questions. As far as I am aware—I stand to be corrected—such matters are governed not so much by Government policy but as a consequence of the way train operating companies and Network Rail behave.

Throughout the world, 57 million children are denied basic access to primary education, and excellent work has been undertaken by the Global Partnership for Education. May we have a debate on its work, and on the need for our Government to renew their commitment and replenish its funds in June?

I cannot promise an immediate debate, but I know that hon. Members feel strongly about this issue. The renewal of the millennium development goals and our determination to try to meet them is something that we can be proud of, but we need to ensure that we make progress, because we have not always made the progress that we want to make collectively. In this country, we can be proud of what we are doing, because—it is the first time it has been done by any major country—we are achieving the goal of providing 0.7% of gross national income in support of our international development aid. That enables us to speak with great authority internationally when it comes to meeting those objectives.

To mark Fairtrade fortnight, I had a meeting this morning with farmers from the Kuapa co-operative in Ghana who sell Fairtrade cocoa that goes into Divine chocolate. May we have a debate in Government time to review what more might be done to boost Fairtrade?

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman has to say and welcome the fact that he was able to meet the producers of Fairtrade chocolate. Hotel Chocolat is close to my constituency, and I would be glad to talk to them about their use of Fairtrade chocolate. I cannot promise a debate immediately, but the Backbench Business Committee can consider such issues if several Members feel strongly enough to bring them to it.

The Government have recognised the importance of the Humber estuary for the renewable energy sector and in December the Transport Secretary approved a new port facility and energy park. However, two petitions have objected to the proposal, triggering a special parliamentary procedure. To make sure that we get the much needed jobs and growth, can the Leader of the House ensure that the process makes progress as quickly as possible?

My hon. Friend once again shows his consistent pursuit of the interests of his constituents, and I completely understand that. He will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the merits of the project before all the statutory processes have been completed. Now that the petitioning period has ended, the matter is in the hands of the Chairman of Ways and Means and his counterpart in the Lords, and I am sure that they will give it consideration in a timely manner.

This question genuinely requires just a yes or no answer. Can the Leader of the House confirm, as per the coalition agreement, that there will definitely be a debate and vote on the repeal of the Hunting Act 2004 during this Parliament?

The hon. Gentleman may want a yes or no answer, but he will not get one. As must always be the case, the answer is subject to the progress of business and an agreement that we will bring such a measure forward at any time.

Earlier this week, Raquel De Andrade was imprisoned for a string of offences. She was apprehended at Harrow registry office trying to marry a Nigerian national who had overstayed his visa. Her big problem was that she was already legally married to three other men who had also overstayed their visas, and she was caught when officials became suspicious because she wore the same wedding dress each time. On a serious point, may we have a debate in Government time on what extra support can be given to efforts to combat the menace of bogus and sham marriages?

It is an abuse, and it is important that it is dealt with. My hon. Friend will recall that we are taking further powers in the Immigration Bill which is now before the House of Lords. I will raise the issue with my colleagues at the Home Office, but I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured that we take it seriously. We are legislating on it, and he may have an opportunity to raise it further in Home Office questions or in consideration of Lords amendments to the Immigration Bill in due course.

In June 2011, the House made clear its view that wild animals should not be used in circuses. In March 2012, the Government gave a commitment to the House and the country that they would bring forward legislation to deal with the issue. Can the Leader of the House say when that legislation will be brought forward?

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised that I am not in a position to pre-empt announcements on the introduction of legislation, especially in the run- up to the Queen’s Speech.

This week, Dennis Eagle, a local business, was awarded an £8.5 million grant under the advanced manufacturing supply chain initiative. This will create 52 jobs and safeguard another 32 jobs across the supply chain. May we have a debate on reshoring and supply chains, which are essential to re-establishing the UK as a centre for manufacturing?

What my hon. Friend says is very encouraging. I am pleased to have the opportunity to join him in congratulating Dennis Eagle on its advanced manufacturing supply chain initiative award. We are in favour of all Eagles, in their place—[Laughter.] He makes a good point. Some recent examples of reshoring have been very encouraging and demonstrate the tip of the iceberg. Those looking to increase manufacturing and supply manufacturing jobs no longer need to go abroad to be competitive, and that makes an enormous difference. Our backing for skills, apprenticeships, supply chains and innovation in new technologies is creating the right environment. On Tuesday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills announced further supply chain funding, which is another practical example of well-targeted Government support helping UK firms to keep that progress going.

Is the Leader of the House aware that crowdfunding allows many people, particularly women, to get into business start-ups for the first time? This is an area that has not been colonised by men, so, in the week of international women’s day, will he arrange an early debate? The Financial Conduct Authority released its recommendations on the regulation of crowdfunding this morning. Getting the regulation right will provide a wonderful opportunity to expand and become the international centre for crowdfunding.

I am glad the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter. I have not had an opportunity to look at what the FCA has had to say. He has, rightly, raised this issue before and I hope he finds today’s publication positive. We certainly want to see an improvement in the sources of funding available to small business. He will have heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills say how we want to achieve additional sources of funding for small businesses, through not only banks but a wider range of sources. Crowdfunding is for entrepreneurs. There are 400,000 more businesses than there were in 2010, many of which were set up by women. The hon. Gentleman may have an opportunity to raise the issue further in this afternoon’s Westminster Hall debate on the contribution of women to the economy. If we can raise the rate of women entrepreneurship in this country to the level in the United States, it will dramatically increase our prospects for growth. [Interruption.]

It has been suggested to me that we have now had the debate. I think that is perhaps a tad unkind, but I am grateful for the advice.

May we have a debate on credit rating companies, which can have a negative impact on some businesses because of false commentary? For example, a company called Experian claims that a company in my constituency, Fast Food Supplies (Anglia), is high risk and has a bad credit record. That is not true: the business has been operating successfully for 26 years and is expanding, moving into bigger premises and taking on more employees.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Credit rating is used widely by reputable companies, of which Experian is one. None the less, it needs to be done accurately. I think he and his constituents will find that Experian, as a highly reputable company, is as concerned as anybody to ensure that its credit ratings are accurate, but the House will appreciate that he is representing his constituents’ interests and will continue to do so.

May we have a debate on racism, particularly anti-Semitism? The repellent behaviour of Nicolas Anelka, and the pathetic and spineless response of the Football Association, remind us that racism is always there and always requires vigilance.

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, with which I completely agree. I cannot promise a debate immediately, but there were debates to mark Holocaust memorial day earlier in the year, and I hope that the House will continue to have opportunities to convey its abhorrence of racism and our determination to tackle it wherever we see it raise its ugly head.

Russia has abused the sovereignty of Ukraine by marching into Crimea. Is there any chance of an urgent debate on the matter next week?

As I said to the shadow Leader of the House, it is evident from the number of questions asked by Members in response to the Foreign Secretary’s statement on Tuesday that, in due course, there will be good reason for many of those Members to have an opportunity to make a somewhat longer contribution in a debate. I cannot promise such a debate next week, because Government legislation will be debated on three days out of four and the Backbench Business Committee will be using its slot on Thursday, but my colleagues and I will think about when it might be best for one to take place.

May we have a debate on the importance of public consultation in the setting of Government policy? This morning, with no consultation and on the basis of a very small and flimsy scientific report which is hotly disputed, the chief veterinary officer announced that the Government might be minded to ban the practices of shechita and halal. May we have a debate on precisely why that has not been subject to any public consultation on the Government’s part?

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I do not recall the chief veterinary officer’s saying such a thing. I understood that it was said by the new head of the British Veterinary Association, who, of course, was not speaking on behalf of the Government.

May we have a debate on how we can encourage more families to adopt? Will the Leader of the House join me in welcoming Yorkshire and Humber’s adoption day—which was staged by an organisation called Being Family—given that there are currently 116 children in the Leeds area who would like to be adopted?

Many of us, as constituency Members, are aware of the benefits of adoption—particularly for the youngest children—and the need for it to take place more quickly. I hope the hon. Gentleman will find that the Children and Families Bill will make a substantial difference. There have been more adoptions in the last year than there were in the year before, but I expect the Bill to help more children for whom it is appropriate to be adopted, and to be adopted sooner.

Pendle’s work force contains one of the highest proportions of manufacturing workers in the United Kingdom. I have been delighted to encounter an increasing number of female engineers, including Annette Weekes, the managing director of PDS (CNC) Engineering Ltd in Nelson, whom I met most recently last month. As we approach international women’s day, may we have a debate on what more the Government could do to boost the trend and get more women into engineering?