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Topical Questions

Volume 579: debated on Thursday 10 April 2014

As we have just heard, the carbon floor price in the UK remains significantly higher in the EU, despite the welcome changes in the Budget. What specific assessment has the Secretary of State made of the investment decisions taken by international energy-intensive companies, such as those that operate in my constituency?

I think I largely answered that question a few moments ago, but the point I would emphasise is that despite the disadvantage of costs, albeit with the compensation we are now proposing, we have had very substantial investment in our energy-intensive industries. The steel industry, in particular, has been an exemplary example of long-term investment by Tata.

In export week, will the Secretary of State tell us what he is doing to garner support among Cabinet colleagues for our seventh-largest export industry, a sector that generates more than £10 billion of income for our country?

My colleague the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) has given a comprehensive answer on how we are promoting exports across the board. The industrial strategy is, of course, maximising our export potential.

I am talking about higher education. The fact is that the right hon. Gentleman’s Government’s net migration target has done immense damage to higher education, contributing to a 51% fall in postgraduates coming from India and a 49% fall in those coming from Pakistan. Jim O’Neil, on the Department for Education’s board, agrees, saying that the Government are sending out a message that they are “not serious” about exporting education. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) at No. 10 has argued, as we do, that legitimate students should be taken out of Government net migration targets, but is it not the truth that for all the talk from that Minister and the Business Secretary, both have let the sector down by failing to get their intransigent Home Secretary to see sense?

The simple truth of the matter is that, as a result of discussions across the Cabinet and with the Minister for Universities and Science and myself, there is no cap on the number of overseas students. [Hon. Members: “There is.”] There is not. We want to maximise the number. We actively encourage them, and only this week there was a £1 billion contract signed with Saudi Arabia for higher education training in which we are a participant.

T2. With the excellent news that manufacturing output year on year has increased by 3.8%, and with export week in mind, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to improve productivity so that we can further enhance the innovation of cutting-edge products and penetrate new export markets? (903640)

That is a suitable rejoinder to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier question. The key point he made in his earlier question is that to drive productivity we need an adequate supply of trained people. I would add to that the emphasis we are placing on innovation and the establishment of the Catapult centres across the country. This is a new approach based largely on the German model and it is succeeding admirably.

T3. I am concerned that the Secretary of State has been told that the current redevelopment of Swan Hunter’s yard in Wallsend is not appropriate. Will he meet me, the elected mayor of North Tyneside and others from North Tyneside to learn exactly how external funding is being used to develop the site and how his Department could support the creation of thousands of jobs in advanced manufacturing at Swan’s? (903641)

I am certainly very happy to give the hon. Lady an assurance to meet her in the House and to visit her constituency. I have been to Tyneside on several occasions and I am aware that it is a centre for advanced manufacturing. In many respects it is doing very well on the back of the growth of the oil and gas industry in the North sea. We clearly need more jobs on Tyneside and I am happy to work with her to deliver them.

T5. Twenty-five years ago the then Government intervened in the pubs market, recognising that it was failing consumers and small brewers. However, as a result of industry lobbying, they failed to place a limit on the number of pubs, which led to the development of the large pubcos. Twenty-five years on, will the Secretary of State assure me that he will listen to the majority of MPs in the House of Commons rather than giving in to industry lobbying, and that he will introduce the market-rent-only option which is the solution offered by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee? (903643)

As my hon. Friend knows, we have had a number of debates about this issue in the House, and the House has expressed its view. The Government recently held a consultation, to which thousands of responses were received. We are now considering those responses, and will issue our own response as soon as we can.

T4. Last week, the Prime Minister said on the BBC that he would do everything he could to keep the pits at Kellingley and Thoresby open. This morning, the Minister of State issued a written statement confirming that the Government were facilitating a “managed closure”. Given that people will begin to lose their jobs on 23 May, there is now a very short period in which it is realistically possible to secure alternative investment to keep the pits open. Towards the end of last week, a private operator suggested that it might be interested. Has the Minister of State, or his officials, had any discussions with it about whether it is possible to find a way of securing a commercial future for those pits and those communities? (903642)

In my ministerial statement, copies of which are available in the Vote Office and the Library, I confirmed that we were prepared in principle to contribute a £10 million loan—alongside contributions from other private sector investors—to support a managed closure of the two collieries, which would avoid the significant losses and liabilities that would have materialised in the event of the immediate and uncontrolled insolvency of UK Coal. That does not exclude any further private sector interest, and I have been meeting others who have expressed an interest, as has UK Coal.

T8. Given that sales increased by 2.8% in London and by 6.2% outside London during the Olympic games as a result of the relaxation of the Sunday trading laws, will the Minister consider a further relaxation—perhaps during the World cup, the Commonwealth games and the run-up to Christmas—or, better still, abolish the restrictions altogether, in order to help bricks-and-mortar retailers to compete with those that trade online? (903647)

We now live in a world in which an increasing amount of trade is carried out online at times that are convenient to consumers and others. We relaxed the rules during the Olympics, and said at the time that we would assess the impact of that relaxation. A debate about the issue is undoubtedly taking place.

T6. The latest report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England shows for the first time in 29 years a decline in the number of overseas students studying in the United Kingdom. Let me now give the Secretary of State another opportunity to admit that the inclusion of students in the net migration target is hindering the growth and international competitiveness of our British universities. (903644)

There is no cap on the number of legitimate overseas students coming to Britain, and we will not introduce any such cap. The Secretary of State and I work with the Prime Minister and others on trade missions around the world to encourage young people with the necessary aptitude and qualifications to benefit from study in Britain to apply to come here. We can be proud of our universities.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Elekta Oncology Systems, a leading manufacturer and exporter of oncology systems which is based in my constituency, on its plan to expand by about a fifth in Crawley, and also on its involvement in the Government’s regional growth fund?

I do congratulate that company. As part of our life sciences strategy, we are supporting high-tech medical companies large and small, and it is great to hear that they are prospering.

T7. The Secretary of State said earlier that investment in businesses would go ahead next year, but today we have heard about the closure of coal mines. Will the Minister explain why, according to figures from Bloomberg New Energy, investment in clean energy in the United Kingdom is due to hit a five-year low this year? What is happening to that investment? (903646)

There has been a wave of investment in energy, not least the commitment last week by Siemens to invest £300 million in two plants on the Humber that will create 1,000 new jobs. We have seen a series of projects come forward for assistance under our renewables regime, and we will be running a capacity market later this year to secure more energy investment in four years’ time.

The Budget invited universities and others to bid to develop the new Alan Turing institute for big data, an invitation enthusiastically embraced in Wiltshire and Swindon’s economic plan. How can we now work with the Minister to make this bright idea a reality?

My hon. Friend indeed represents an area with, shall we say, some very distinctive skills in cyber and big data, and yes, absolutely, it is very important that places like his have the opportunity to apply to have the Turing centre. We will be running a consultation on its best location.

In answer to a written question I was told that the Government know next to nothing about the number of jobs they claim to have created, not even how many of them are new jobs rather than simply a transfer from the public sector, so why will the Secretary of State not tell us how many of these jobs are minimum wage, unpaid or zero-hours?

We are perfectly happy to provide information where it is available. It is obviously easy to quantify jobs created in projects. Collecting a vast inventory of information on fluctuating wages is a much more difficult proposition.

May I commend to the Secretary of State “A Blueprint for Britain: openness not isolation” by Iain Mansfield who is a former employee of his Department? It was the winner of the prestigious Brexit prize by the Institute of Economic Affairs, and it concludes that

“if the right measures are taken the UK can be confident of a healthy long-term economic outlook outside the EU.”

To correct the hon. Gentleman slightly, I think the gentleman concerned is employed by UK Trade & Investment, and he wrote this in his personal capacity, and it is perfectly reasonable to do so. I look forward to responding to his essay, which seems to me fundamentally mistaken, but no doubt we will argue about that.

When I visit schools in my constituency I ask them about the careers information, advice and guidance they receive and, without exception, they say that it is totally dreadful. To be fair to the Government, it was not much better under the previous Government. This is very important for social mobility, so what is the Minister intending to do to make face-to-face guidance available to everybody?

That is a very fair question. It is true that careers guidance has not been good enough in Britain for an awfully long time under Governments of all stripes and the new publication today, which I am sure the hon. Lady will want to get a copy of and I am happy to send to her, will strengthen the statutory duty on schools and also, crucially, open schools and colleges up to employers and encourage, and make it easier for, employers to get involved in schools, to inspire and mentor and give guidance to young people.

Farmers are the backbone of the £97 billion agriculture and food sector. How are the Government helping them take advantage of the latest science and innovation supporting our world-class agricultural technology sector?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the significance of this sector, and that is why we have a £160 million agri-tech strategy, which is aimed at promoting exports and investment in high-tech agriculture for the future.

The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), refused to answer me, but I wonder whether the Secretary of State could estimate how many of the 12 immediate beneficiaries of the fire sale of the Royal Mail are Tory party donors?

It is not my job to collect information on the Conservative party’s funding. All I can tell the hon. Gentleman is what the Minister of State has already told him: that a majority of the shares allocated to priority investors are still held by them and a substantial majority of the shares in Royal Mail that were issued through the initial public offering are being held by long-term institutional investors.

The start-up loan scheme is one of the most inspirational business policies that this Government are pursuing. Can the small business Minister confirm that we are right behind it, we are putting more money into it and we will do everything we can to grow the scheme as much as possible?

Yes, I will. Only this week, we took through the statutory instrument to expand the start-up loans scheme and ensure that the funding is available. Fifteen thousand people have now had the benefit of using the scheme, but it is not just about the money; it is about the mentoring and the wider support that come with a start-up loan, and I commend everyone to have a look at the scheme and commend it to their constituents.

Does the Secretary of State share my concern that, following the closure of the Insolvency Service office in Hull, there will be a gap between Newcastle and Ipswich with no Insolvency Service offices between those two areas? Will he agree to meet me to discuss this matter?

I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this issue. The Insolvency Service is having to look at the way in which it manages its estate. The number of insolvencies has been dropping significantly year on year, and it has to make the best use of its resources.