Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 576: debated on Thursday 6 March 2014

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.