House of Commons
Thursday 26 June 2014
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Innovation and Skills
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What assessment his Department has made of the main causes of insecurity in the workplace. (904468)
Employees’ views on job security are related to their individual circumstances and underlying economic conditions. Unsurprisingly, insecurity rose in the recession, but the fall in unemployment from 7.9% when we came into office in May 2010 to 6.6% in April 2014 and the creation of 700,000 permanent employee jobs since 2012 will almost certainly have reduced it.
The national minimum wage gives people at work security and a statutory minimum, ensuring decent wages. In January, the Chancellor advocated a £7 minimum. Was that not just empty rhetoric, given that no action has occurred since? Why are Ministers refusing to back Labour’s living wage plans?
Before I reply directly to the supplementary question, may I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott), who comes to the end of her admirable period in office at the end of this week as her colleague returns from maternity leave?
The Chancellor was not advocating a £7 minimum wage; he was explaining the simple arithmetic of what would happen if a real minimum wage were restored. The hon. Gentleman will well know that measures will be coming before the House to introduce much more effective enforcement action on the minimum wage. We should concentrate on strengthening the minimum wage, rather than pursuing the living wage as a mandatory option, about which there is confusion among Opposition Members.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that any employer found not to be complying with the national minimum wage legislation will be prosecuted, and that any employer seeking to use zero-hours contracts to get around the national minimum wage legislation will therefore be prosecuted? If employers seek to exclude people on zero-hours contracts from being able to take work with any other employer, cannot those contracts be declared void as being contrary to public policy?
On the latter point, we shall discuss in the forthcoming legislation how enforcement action might be taken in respect of exclusivity contracts. The answer to the first part of the question is yes, indeed: if the minimum wage legislation has been breached, action is taken, initially by retrieving the sums involved and by naming and shaming, and under the forthcoming legislation it will be by very significant penalties.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government’s approach to zero-hours contracts has to tread the difficult line between supporting the vast majority of employees who want to continue with those contracts, and limiting the use of such contracts where they are neither necessary nor appropriate?
My colleague is right that this is a difficult line to tread, which is why we must base our policy on evidence and not on dogma. The evidence very clearly shows that a large number of people do appreciate and see value in the current arrangements but that there is also abuse, which needs to be dealt with.
The ONS report was a helpful addition to the debate on zero-hours contracts, alongside the Department’s call for evidence and final consultation. Our policy is that although zero-hours contracts benefit many employers and employees, there is a need to address abuse.
The ONS study showed that 1.4 million workers were on zero-hours contracts. Those workers are unable to access rented property, because they cannot prove a work record, or mobile phone contracts and hire purchase contracts. What work has the Department undertaken also to identify the status of the 1.3 million people whose jobs were not examined as part of the ONS study? Do we not need to find out more about the people on zero-hours contracts rather than staying where we are?
I thank the hon. Lady for her close interest in this matter and for trying to build up the evidence base. There is some confusion here, because the 1.4 million figure relates to the number of contracts, and individual workers may have several contracts; the best number we have from the ONS for the number of workers involved is 583,000, which represents about 2% of the total labour force.
Does the Secretary of State agree that in today’s modern workplace many employees find zero-hours contracts very attractive because of the freedom they give them to combine different jobs, to work from home and be available to work, or to work and study at the same time?
My hon. Friend rightly says that certain groups of workers find these contracts advantageous, the main ones being workers who have passed retirement age and wish to do optional, flexible work, and students, for whom the lack of an obligation to turn up at a fixed time for a fixed period is compatible with their studies.
Employers are trying to steer a course between being flexible and skirting around their legal obligations, but there is concern about the zero-hours contracts for care workers, on whom we are becoming increasingly dependent. Will the Secretary of State’s Department take a careful look at that industry with a view to giving it further guidance if required?
Yes, indeed. We are already doing that, and I am discussing the matter with the Minister with responsibility for care. The problem with domiciliary care is that there is almost certainly an avoidance by companies to pay the minimum wage, and that overlaps with the problem of zero-hours contracts. We recognise that there are some very specific problems for workers in that sector.
Some £765 million of regional growth fund support has been paid to companies throughout England, which has leveraged £1.8 billion of private money. This combined investment of £2.5 billion in areas that need private sector growth has already delivered or safeguarded 97,000 jobs. Round 6 was launched last week and I encourage hon. Members to support companies in their constituencies in applying for funding.
In paying tribute to the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott), perhaps the Secretary of State could put in a good word for her to get another job—there are so few Liberal Democrat women Ministers in the coalition Government.
Humber local enterprise partnership has been among the best in showing that it needs to go further than Ministers are with Lord Heseltine’s agenda on devolved funding, distributing £30 million of round 3 RGF funding to more than 80 companies, mainly small and medium-size enterprises. The funding ends in March 2015, and the fact that future rounds will be open only to larger businesses and universities with a minimum bid of £1 million will exclude many SMEs that are vital to the future of Hull. Will Ministers look again at this matter?
On the hon. Lady’s first point about women in senior roles in Government—of course I want to add again compliments to my colleague—she may have noticed that the last of the FTSE companies that did not have a woman on the board, Glencore, has listened to our clear advice that it should proceed, and Mr Glasenberg appointed a woman director this morning. On the £30 million, which is of course the local fund that was hitherto administered through the local enterprise partnership but will come under the local growth fund when it is available from 2015-16, the local enterprise partnership will have discretion over how to use the funding available to it. I am sure that it will, as before, continue to support development in Hull.
For Kettering’s sustainable urban extension to be sustainable, the Department for Transport says that a new junction on the A14 called junction 10A is required at a cost of £39 million. That is supported by both the Northamptonshire LEP and the South-East Midlands LEP. Given that the junction could release economic activity worth up to £1 billion under the Treasury green book rules, will the Secretary of State look favourably at this bid from Kettering for this new road junction?
That is an issue that the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), the Department for Transport and I will have to examine. As I understand it, under the arrangements that will prevail in 2015, this is very much a matter for the two LEPs involved to exercise their priorities.
Some really good stuff has happened under the regional growth fund, and I am glad to see the next round, but it is still not enough. We are still not getting borrowing for start-ups. New entrepreneurs are not being encouraged enough, and we are not using crowdfunding and crowdsourcing enough. What will the Secretary of State do to increase the number of young entrepreneurs who have access to capital so that they can make a difference?
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive remarks at the beginning. On funding, he will be pleased to know that under the StartUp loan scheme, we now have 13,000 loans that have been disbursed. They operate through the Business Bank, which is also funding crowdfunding, and it is operating on a significant scale and accelerating fast.
We are creating a system of vocational training to enable everyone to achieve their potential. We are on track to deliver 2 million apprenticeship starts. We have introduced traineeships for young people, we are supporting national colleges for key sectors and technologies and of course more than half of university students are doing a course that leads directly to a profession.
I met Doug Richards in a very upbeat mood only half an hour ago, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we agree with Doug Richards that employers should purchase apprenticeship training. We want providers to respond to businesses, not to Government. We have consulted widely on how to make that happen. We will publish details of our preferred payment mechanism and next steps in the autumn.
Despite all the praiseworthy emphasis that the Government have placed on increasing the number of apprentices, the number of apprenticeship starts in the under-19 age group is dropping. The BIS Committee recommended that the Government should use public procurement to increase those numbers, as a lot of local authorities do. Why have the Government not done it?
Apprenticeships are essential to help deliver a growing economy, but nearly 400 employers in the north-west have replied to the future of apprenticeships in England funding reform technical consultation, and they have said that they will no longer recruit apprentices under the reforms that the Government propose. Will the Minister please say what he intends to do specifically for SMEs, which are concerned about the proposals?
As a dyspraxic, I remember how much extra effort I needed to put in to succeed at university. Students with disabilities and learning difficulties will be concerned about the Government’s reforms to the disabled students allowance, under which many of them will lose out. The evidence shows that students with learning difficulties are already less likely to complete their course and less likely to achieve the highest grades. Why does the Minister want to widen that gap even further?
Let me be clear: we are committed to helping disabled students. We will expect universities to do more to discharge their direct responsibilities to disabled students. Often, improved provision by universities is a better way of helping disabled students than funding to individual students. We will maintain strong support for disabled students.
We are promoting research and development, innovation and manufacturing so the UK is a global leader in life sciences. Businesses in life sciences have announced more than £2 billion of investment since our strategy was launched.
Following my right hon. Friend’s recent visit with me to see cutting edge 3D print technology at BD’s plant in Swindon, will he work with me to help the further development of high-value specialist manufacturing at companies such as BD, Patheon and Catalent, which form an important part of Swindon’s life sciences sector?
I remember vividly that visit last month and congratulate my hon. Friend on his very good working relationships with local employers. He is right that our life sciences strategy is not simply about research and development, important though that is. It is also about supporting high-tech manufacturing and promoting more of that in the UK.
In the run-up to the election, it is important that we try to maximise consensus across the House on science policy. To help the debate, we launched our Green Paper on science on Tuesday, and I welcome the Royal Society’s report today. It is important to be honest about where we are, though. Life science investment has fallen, according to the Library, by almost £500 million since 2010. In the last year for which data are available, total R and D spending in the UK is down by nearly £1 billion. We are now 23rd out of 33 for R and D spending in the OECD. Why does the Minister think that is? I am sure he will agree that this is not the way to win a race to the top.
A major change is happening in the structure of the life sciences industry, with it moving away from having large, in-house R and D facilities. That trend is happening around the world. We have been particularly successful in this country in making sure that as that happens we promote alternative investment, and we are now seeing—for example, in the facility that Pfizer operated in Kent—significant renewal as new, small businesses come in. Our life sciences strategy is attracting new investment to the UK—£2 billion of it since we launched the strategy.
We want to see growth that is sustainable and balanced, but it is local businesses and civic leaders who best understand what drives growth in their area. Through local enterprise partnerships they will have at least £20 billion to allocate until 2020.
May I take this opportunity to welcome the Government’s proposed plans to build a high-speed rail network between our great northern cities? In the light of that announcement will the Minister assure me that local businesses in Fylde and the local enterprise zone in Warton will continue to receive the full support of Government to promote growth in west Lancashire?
Yes, I give my hon. Friend that assurance and tell him that we hope before the summer recess to agree a growth deal with the Lancashire local enterprise partnership, centring on the arc of prosperity it has identified alongside Lancashire’s huge strengths in energy, manufacturing and engineering.
17. Does the Minister agree that it is incumbent on local government leaders, LEPs and local MPs to work with local businesses to ensure that places such as Carlisle maximise their potential as an economic powerhouse in their region? Does he agree also that local government and local businesses are as important as national Government in promoting growth and job creation? (904492)
Regional growth is dependent on good transport connections, and there has been widespread concern in northern Lincolnshire among the business community about the threat to services on the south transpennine line. Will the Minister agree to meet a delegation of business leaders from northern Lincolnshire to discuss that and other issues?
I am very happy to meet any delegation of business leaders with my hon. Friend. I am not the Minister for rail transport, but I shall certainly refer the issue to the Department for Transport, and I am happy to have the meeting that my hon. Friend requests.
Employment Support: Young People
We have record numbers participating in apprenticeships, new traineeships, maths and English training, which, with the record number of jobs, have contributed to a 98,000 fall in youth unemployment over the last year. We are simplifying vocational education and today publishing a simple slide showing young people their education options between the ages of 14 and 18.
I have a BAE Systems plant at Samlesbury in my constituency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) has one in Warton. BAE Systems took on a record number of apprentices last year, giving young people an opportunity to learn new skills to use in highly paid jobs when they are later taken on. What are the Government doing to encourage many more smaller firms to understand that apprenticeships can also benefit them?
I pay tribute to the work that BAE Systems does with its apprenticeships. It not only has hundreds of apprentices, many of whom I have met, but offers more and more higher apprenticeships, which provide the very best available training on the job. We have to make sure that smaller businesses get the message that apprenticeships can help them too; in fact, the majority of apprentices are in smaller businesses. We have made the apprenticeship grant for employers focused on smaller businesses to help them with the extra costs they have in taking on apprentices.
15. When are the Government going to put an emphasis on quality apprenticeships? Why do we need 47 different streams of funding for skills generally? When are we going to sort out on-the-job training from actual apprenticeships? Are the Government lumping on-the-job training into the figures for apprenticeships, when apprenticeships are totally different? (904488)
No, the figures for apprenticeships show the number of apprenticeships. They also show that we are on track to achieve 2 million apprenticeships in this Parliament—in fact, figures published at 9.30 this morning show that there have been 1.8 million apprenticeships since the election. We are simplifying the funding structures and putting more money through employers, so that they can buy the apprenticeship training they need.
I believe that the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), and I are both due to attend the Royal London Society for Blind People’s youth forum launch of “Let’s Work It Out”, which seeks to identify the barriers to visually impaired young people getting into employment. What more can the Government do to encourage employers to see the potential of visually impaired young people and to make them more aware of the technological assistance that can enable them to function in the workplace?
Making sure that those who are visually impaired can fulfil their potential in the workplace is a vital part of the training we support. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State is the president of the organisation that the hon. Lady mentions. Apprenticeships are one option, and there are specific mechanisms to ensure that those who are visually impaired can complete an apprenticeship, but more broadly we need to make sure that the whole skills system works as much for those with disabilities as for those who are fully able.
Small Businesses and Self-employed People
The Government are making it easier to start, finance and grow small businesses. There are now 400,000 more small businesses than in 2010. The total number stands at a record 4.9 million, with a record 4.5 million people in self-employment. Yesterday, we introduced in the House the first ever small business Bill.
The Federation of Small Businesses index has highlighted that small businesses are still struggling to get the finance they need to expand—something confirmed by small businesses in my constituency to a very large degree. The FSB also calls for greater competition and choice in business banking. Does the Minister accept that the Government’s failed schemes, including Project Merlin and credit easing, have had no impact whatsoever?
The hon. Gentleman was doing quite well until that last exaggeration. I certainly agree that strengthening access to finance is a vital part of securing our recovery, and of course measures in the Bill announced yesterday will help to do that, but according to the FSB, small businesses’ confidence is at a high since Labour’s great recession. Small businesses in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are playing their part, because unemployment on the claimant count has fallen by 30% in the past year.
Small businesses in my constituency and around the country tell me that the real struggle when they are supplying large businesses is payment terms. Does my hon. Friend agree that requiring large companies to publish their payment practices is an important step in helping to drive a more responsible payment culture between large and small businesses?
I recently held a listening event for businesses across Bolton West. A major concern for them, and a definite barrier to success for micro-businesses, is business rates. As they have gone up by £1,500 already in this Parliament and by another £270 in April, will the Minister support a cut in business rates in 2015 and a freeze the year after?
It is interesting to hear another Labour proposal that is uncosted and unfunded. We have instead taken action to reduce by £1,000 the business rates on retail premises. We are clear that business rates need reform, and that reform will happen, but what we need are sensible contributions to the debate, given the enormous hole in the public finances that we are still having to fill.
Foreign Direct Investment
UK Trade & Investment is promoting a highly competitive corporation tax regime, seeking investment in regeneration and infrastructure and emphasising the quality of our research base, all of which make us the best place in Europe to do business.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has been hugely significant inward investment of £500 million by the German firm Palm Paper in a paper mill in King’s Lynn? Does he agree that we need more such inward investment, and that to promote more foreign direct investment we need to deregulate further social and employment measures?
Our flexible labour market is one of the many reasons that foreign investors are keen to invest in the UK and we can always pursue that important agenda further. The latest independent assessment shows that the UK was the most successful country in Europe in attracting inward investment.
Regulatory Burden: Businesses
We have significantly reduced the burden of regulation on business. The one-in, two-out rule has cut the annual cost of domestic regulation by £1.2 billion so far, and the red tape challenge has identified over 3,000 regulations to be scrapped or improved. To ensure that all future Governments remain committed to reducing burdens, the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill published yesterday requires Governments to publish a target for removing regulatory burdens in each Parliament and to report against it.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his excellent reply. Does he agree that for business and enterprise to flourish, particularly in constituencies such as mine that have many small and medium-sized enterprises, we must stop the strangling of business by regulation from the European Union, and that means that the Prime Minister is doing absolutely the right thing in trying to reform Europe so that business can flourish in this country?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and I can tell him that of the 30 specific reforms requested by the business taskforce I chaired last year, nine have already been delivered, two further directives were withdrawn last month, and since the transposition rules were tightened three years ago there has been only one example of a European directive being gold-plated, which was the consumer credit directive that banned excessive payment surcharges.
The Bathroom Manufacturers Association is just one trade body which feels that regulatory policy has too little focus on enforcement of regulation. That leads to the undercutting of compliant, high-quality British manufacturers by cheap, non-compliant foreign imports. When will the Government understand that a mature and consistent approach to enforcement of regulation is not a burden on high-quality British manufacturing business, but an aid to it?
I am happy to meet that trade association to follow up its specific concerns. The hon. Gentleman is right that business needs uniform and proportionate enforcement, and we are looking to deliver that through improved guidance with the relevant bodies, such as the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency.
In the Budget the Government announced a package of support of £500 million a year for energy-intensive industries. From 2016, we will introduce compensation for the costs of the renewables obligation and the feed-in tariff. We will also be extending to 2019 the compensation scheme for the emissions trading scheme and the carbon price floor. Together with amendments to the carbon price floor, these changes will be worth around £7 billion to businesses in Britain.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that several of our EU competitors are increasingly cross-subsidising industrial use of electricity, creating a difficult landscape for our energy-intensive industries. A recent example of the impact of this is BOAL Aluminium, an aluminium processor which was going to invest £2 million in the UK but has moved that, with all the associated jobs, to Belgium, where energy costs 30% less. Is there more we can do to prevent carbon leakage of that type?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing representatives of the aluminium industry to see me in the Department. It is important that we in Britain do not lose out on such investment. We have already paid out some £30 million of compensation to 53 of the most electricity-intensive companies and we will continue to press for further reform in Europe.
It is good that some support is coming from 2016, but energy-intensive industries need support now in the challenging times they face. It is good that the Government have finally got their package of compensation for their unilateral carbon floor tax through Europe, but the Minister has previously given commitments to get that backdated to 2013, as promised to business. What progress has he made in getting that compensation backdated?
It took some 18 months to get that compensation scheme approved by the Commission, which is why it will take some time to get the compensation for the renewables obligation and the feed-in tariff and why that scheme will not apply until April 2016. The Commission did not agree to our request for backdating.
The hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) asked exactly the same question in April and today received pretty much word for word the same unsatisfactory response. The fact is that the Government have imposed a unilateral carbon price floor that is widely divergent from the EU emissions trading scheme, which has put Britain’s energy-intensive industries at a competitive disadvantage to our European counterparts and done nothing to prevent carbon leakage or encourage investment in low-carbon energy. What practical steps is the Minister taking to shape reform of the ETS to make it more credible and to level the playing field for British industry, or have the Government lost that battle in Europe too?
Other countries such as Germany can of course offer higher support to their industries, but they did not have the appalling deficit that we inherited, because of course they did not have a Labour Government. I intend to ask the new Commission this autumn for an early review of the ETS and to include new sectors, such as cement, that have missed out so far.
The number of apprenticeships has doubled and we are on track to deliver 2 million over this Parliament—this morning’s figures show that there are 1.8 million so far. It is all part of our long-term economic plan.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. There are exciting plans to develop an aerospace apprenticeship training centre as part of the iAero proposals for the former Filton airfield land, which are being discussed by his Department and aerospace businesses in my constituency. Can he assure me of his support for those plans?
I am enthusiastic about those plans. We are working closely with my hon. Friend and colleagues in the aerospace industry to see whether we can make them happen. The number of apprenticeships in Filton is up by 60% since 2010, so it is clearly a success story and we want to build on that success.
National Minimum Wage
The Government are committed to increasing compliance with minimum wage legislation. Everyone who is entitled to the minimum wage should receive it. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has 173 staff dedicated to enforcing the national minimum wage, and the Government are already taking tougher action on employers who break the law. We have made it simpler to name and shame employers who do not pay the national minimum wage and have increased the financial penalties for breaking the law.
I thank the Minister for her response, but in Corby HMRC found that £120,000 was owed to local workers, and that was just on a three-day visit, so it was the tip of the iceberg and we need to do much more. Will she, in her last days in her role, leave a present for her successor by beginning a review into how local authorities could take a much stronger enforcement role? They currently enforce on planning, parking and environmental health, so why can they not have a role in making the local labour market work for people?
Clearly we feel very strongly that employers should pay the national minimum wage. People working on the minimum wage are, by definition, on the lowest incomes in society, so it is critical that everything is done to ensure that they are paid it. Every complaint that is made to the pay and work rights helpline is investigated, and where arrears are found they are paid back and employers pay a significant penalty. We are happy to work with any part of Government and any organisations that are keen to ensure that the minimum wage is paid. We will ensure that any complaints reported to the pay and work rights helpline are investigated.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott), who has always been a very kind and effective Minister, and wish her well in her return to the dark arts of the Government Whips Office. Given that compliment, I am sure that she will wish to agree with me that any sanctions for non-compliance with the national minimum wage are ineffective without proper enforcement. Figures show that since the Government came to power the number of national minimum wage inspections is down by 60%, with only two prosecutions. That is hardly surprising, given that a recent answer she gave to a parliamentary question committed a budget of £9.2 million to enforcement, but the head of the national minimum wage enforcement unit publicly stated only last month that the budget is just £8 million. Just like the Chancellor’s hollow promise to increase the national minimum wage to £7, is this not just another example of the Government failing to stand up for the lowest paid against rogue employers?
I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The enforcement action taken by HMRC has significantly increased the number of workers who are getting the wages they are due. Between 2009-10 and 2013-14, there was an increase of over 17% in the number of workers who were helped and were given arrears, and the amount that has been paid back has been increased significantly. In addition, we are increasing fourfold the penalty that employers have to pay, and we now have in place a very draconian naming and shaming scheme. That means that all employers who are found not to have paid the national minimum wage are put forward for naming and shaming, and, unless exceptional circumstances are involved, they will be named publicly. That is acting as a real disincentive to employers not to treat their staff fairly.
Office for National Statistics figures for April show that manufacturing output in the UK rose by 4.4% year on year—the fastest pace since February 2011. Industrial production rose by 1.1% in the three months to April compared with the previous three months—the strongest three-monthly growth since June 2010.
I thank the Minister for that encouraging answer. With the need for more skills in energy engineering in mind, does he agree that it is a very good idea to have a centre for those skills at the now-decommissioned Berkeley power station, and that that represents a significant step in the right direction for the long-term economic plan?
Yes, I do agree. That project is a key part of Gloucestershire’s economic plan, and it can provide the skills that we will need for the next generation of nuclear power stations at Hinkley and Oldbury. We are currently considering Gloucestershire’s request for local growth funding to support the project. I hope to announce the allocation for Gloucestershire as part of the growth deal before the summer recess.
16. What recent support his Department has provided to small businesses. (904491)
The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill builds on a record of 42,000 businesses helped to export by UK Trade & Investment over the past year and 15,000 small businesses supported by the growth accelerator scheme. As the Secretary of State said earlier, the number of start-up loans approved has reached 18,000.
As my hon. Friend will be aware, large businesses still owe small businesses over £30 billion in overdue invoices. Only yesterday, a company in Basildon contacted me to say that one of Essex county council’s main contractors owes it well over £100,000 past the due date. Will he expand on how we will use the small business Bill to resolve this issue and pump billions back into the economy?
The Bill contains two elements on prompt payment, the first of which is to increase the amount that Government pay quickly. BIS pays almost all its invoices within 30 days and the vast majority within five days. We will also bring transparency so that when small businesses enter into contracts with large businesses they know their payment performance and can negotiate on that as part of the contract.
I am very grateful, Mr Speaker.
I am pleased that the Government have finally produced a Bill to deal with late payments to small businesses by large companies. It includes some of the recommendations from my inquiry last summer into late payments. However, it does not go far enough and will give little comfort to the small businesses whose viability is threatened. Why are these measures so timid?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work that she has done on this subject. We consulted on all the potential options, including statutory maximums for payment terms. We put the consultation out with an open mind and a wide range of options. In fact, the small business groups that came forward with proposals in response to the consultation favoured transparency, not a statutory limit. We followed the evidence and the response to the consultation. Like her, I am determined to do everything we can to tackle this problem while not getting in the way of freedom of contract between businesses. We have taken these measures because of what the evidence demonstrated, and I think they will have a big impact. That is all part of our long-term economic plan.
My Department plays a key role in supporting the rebalancing of the economy through business to deliver growth while increasing skills and learning.
In September, the Portsmouth warship yard, where many of my constituents work, will shut. That will leave the Government without a plan B for warships if the referendum goes the wrong way. The work force will be dispersed before there is an alternative user and the shipyard’s role in providing manufacturing apprenticeships across southern England will be lost. Will the Secretary of State look to delay the closure until the referendum is over, until there is a new user and until there is a credible plan for training manufacturing and engineering apprentices in southern Hampshire?
The maritime industries are, of course, crucial in Portsmouth, as they are in the right hon. Gentleman’s Southampton constituency. On the approach we are adopting, a Government group led by the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) is as rapidly as possible finding alternative commercial users, working with the Ministry of Defence. I welcome in particular the very exciting Ben Ainslie project and my colleague is working closely with Rear-Admiral Stevens to develop the Solent maritime industries.
T2. Fylde has a significant amount of advanced manufacturing companies, including BAE Systems and Westinghouse Nuclear Fuel. May we have an update on what steps are being taken to increase the number of highly skilled apprenticeships in the advanced manufacturing sector? (904495)
Absolutely. Through the trailblazer process, we are putting employers in charge of the training involved in apprenticeships, to make sure that, in addition to the big increase in numbers we are seeing, we increase the quality of training so that all young people have the opportunity to use an apprenticeship as an alternative to university in order to reach their potential.
I am talking about the disgraceful burden being heaped on the one in five self-employed people in this country who will be in receipt of universal credit. Those businesses are being required to report their income not once a year, but every single month. Their earnings are being computed on a completely different basis from the assessment carried out by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for tax purposes, and the minimum income they will be assumed to have is for 35 hours a week at the minimum wage. That is unjust and unworkable and it does not reflect how those businesses work. Why has this ministerial team sat back and allowed the red tape baron—the Work and Pensions Secretary—to erect this barrier to aspiration?
I would have thought that most reasonable people would welcome the growth of self-employment and entrepreneurship that is happening under this Government. I think they would also probably welcome the fact that the benefits system demands maximum integrity.
Yes. As my hon. Friend may know, I am a fan of the long-term economic plan. In fact, I have found a copy in my pocket if he wants one. Skills are a vital part of our long-term economic plan, because there is no doubt that, if we are not only to maximise our economic capacity in the future, but to make sure everyone in this country fulfils their potential, we have to deliver on the skills that employers need.
T3. Britain has a crisis in finding young people willing to study engineering, yet I have received an e-mail about a 19-year-old who has been offered a place on a pathways to apprenticeships engineering course. He will get access to £30 a week living allowance, but he will lose his unemployment allowance and he cannot access student grants. He may well not be able to take up the course. What are the Government doing to ensure that there is joined-up action across Departments for young people who want to study crisis employment subjects? (904497)
I recognise the problem that used to exist. The introduction of traineeships has tackled that. It is now possible for someone to go on a traineeship while still receiving their jobseeker’s allowance, because we have tackled the 16-hour rule for traineeships. If the hon. Lady writes to me about the individual case, I will make sure it is taken into account.
At the Mighty Middle conference held by GE Capital and the Reform think-tank this week, mid-sized companies from across Britain were exceptionally positive about the Government’s long-term economic plan. What more can we do to celebrate and assist those mid-sized companies?
Mid-sized companies are absolutely central to the Government’s industrial strategy. We are working with them to develop supply chains in the car industry, aerospace and the various energy sectors, and to support access to finance, training and innovation. They have a great deal of potential, as they do in countries such as Germany, where the Mittelstand are better developed than they are here.
T4. May I draw the Minister’s attention to the excellent “The state of the coalfields” report produced by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust? The report has highlighted particular problems, including a legacy of high and persistent youth unemployment, especially in the NEETs group of those not in education, employment or training. I also draw to his attention an excellent organisation in east Durham, the East Durham Employability Trust. What additional support can be put in its direction? (904498)
I have seen the report on the future of the coalfields. On the issue of NEETs, I would point out that yesterday’s figures show that the number of people not in education, employment or training is at a record low since the series of statistics began in 1994. I have no doubt that there is much more to do, because any young person not in education, employment or training is one NEET too many. The fact that the number of NEETs is at a record low shows that the economic plan is working.
It is encouraging that the one-in, two-out rule, or the one-in, one-out rule, is increasingly being adopted by other member states, including France and Spain. I shall visit Brussels next month to urge the Commission to redouble its efforts to remove unnecessary directives, and to make sure that where new directives are proposed, they fully take account of the needs of small businesses, which are most likely to create the jobs we need in Europe.
T5. More than a third of winning bidders in the regional growth fund’s first round have now withdrawn, while others have waited about two years to receive any money at all. Is this all part of the Government’s long-term economic plan? (904500)
It certainly is not. There are many reasons why some RGF bidders withdraw—because they do not get the planning permission they were anticipating, their main board does not give final approval for the plant, or they are not prepared to put in private sector money alongside the regional growth fund grant. Any money that is not used is of course put into future rounds of the fund. It is important that we carry out the necessary due diligence and check before taxpayer money is handed over.
The Business Secretary gave us the welcome news that the local growth fund will come on stream next year. Infrastructure is the key to allowing local businesses to develop. Will there be enough money in the local growth fund to improve and upgrade the A64 along its whole route from York through Malton to Scarborough?
I am afraid that my hon. Friend will have to be patient for a few weeks longer before we announce the local growth deal for the local enterprise partnership covering her constituency, but I am aware that that is one of the projects that the local enterprise partnership wants to prioritise.
T6. When the Prime Minister returned from the G7, he painted a very positive picture of progress in establishing public registers of beneficial ownership in the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, but the real picture is that only half of them have started or concluded their consultations. This is an opportunity for the Secretary of State to show off his leadership skills, so what work is he doing with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to make some real progress on this issue? (904501)
We will have an opportunity to discuss this in detail, because an open register of beneficial ownership will be one of the elements in the small business Bill. Britain will pioneer work in this area. Of course there are issues with our offshore territories. We are not a colonial power that can send in gunboats to solve these problems; we rely on persuasion, and that is what we will do.
There is a very long list of achievements that would bore the House considerably were I to dwell excessively on it, but the set of advances that we have made in giving business a long-term perspective through the industrial strategy, the collaboration with business and the associated work that we have done on access to finance, the build up of apprenticeships and the developments in innovation through the Catapult make up a considerable legacy of achievement.
Let us be clear. We are consulting widely on these changes. The main change is that people should only be supported with extra services, rather than, for example, getting laptops indiscriminately, as they do at the moment. We are talking directly to the representative groups involved and students will not lose out by these changes.
Every one of the 14 letters that the Governor of the Bank of England has written to the Chancellor explaining why the inflation target has not been met has mentioned the rising input cost of resources. What are the Government doing to tackle the problems of input resource price spikes and to incentivise infrastructure in the circular economy to cope with that?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring specifically to energy costs, which has been the main issue in the inflation of raw material inputs. My colleague the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks gave a very full answer in explaining the compensation mechanisms that we are introducing to offset them.
We wrote to the Low Pay Commission on its remit for next year. One of the things we have asked it to look at is the apprenticeship rate for the national minimum wage. We are aware that there are a lot of concerns, particularly about non-compliance in paying the national minimum wage for apprentices. The system is quite complex and often employers find it difficult to navigate. We have asked the Low Pay Commission to work out how the system could be simplified to ensure better compliance by employers.
A recent Which? investigation found that ticketing companies can add up to 37% to the face value of a ticket for music and theatre events in booking and delivery fees. Given that the market is dominated by a handful of big players, is the Minister confident that consumers are getting a good deal?
We have done a lot of work on ticketing. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, we discussed this issue a number of times during the passage of the Consumer Rights Bill. The Department has been working with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to look at the issue and a number of things are being done to try to tackle ticket touting, while trying to ensure that we still have a vibrant market so that individuals who buy tickets and want to resell them because they cannot attend an event are able to do so fairly and openly.
Like a number of MPs, I have taken on an apprentice, something that has been recommended by the Minister, but as a small employer this has only been made possible by the Liverpool chamber of commerce, which provides all the training, development and support for James, my apprentice. Under his proposed reforms, how does the Minister expect MPs to take on apprentices and provide the same high standard of training and support and administer training budgets? How much time does he expect us to take on this?
I am delighted to hear that the hon. Lady has an apprentice. I now have two apprentices and the House has an apprenticeship scheme that the Clerk has been instrumental in bringing forward. Under the new system we will make sure that small businesses and small employers, including MPs, can take on apprentices, and training providers will have a role to play just as they do now in helping with bureaucracy.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 30 June—Opposition Day (3rd allotted day). There will be a debate entitled “Chaos and Waste at the Department for Work and Pensions” on an Opposition motion. I expect my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make a statement following the European Council.
Tuesday 1 July—Motion to approve a procedural resolution relating to the Finance Bill, followed by motions to approve Ways and Means resolutions relating to the Finance Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Finance Bill (Day 1).
Wednesday 2 July—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Finance Bill.
Thursday 3 July—General debate on protecting children in conflict, followed by a general debate on social mobility and child poverty strategy. The subjects for both debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee in the last Session.
Friday 4 July—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 7 July will include:
Monday 7 July—Estimates day (1st allotted day). There will be a debate on universal credit implementation, followed by a debate on the implementation of the common agricultural policy in England. At 10 pm, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates. Details will be given in the Official Report.
[The details are as follows: Universal Credit implementation: monitoring DWP’s performance in 2012-13, 5th Report from the Work and Pensions Committee, HC 1209, Session 2013-14, and the Government response published as a 2nd Special Report, HC 426, Session 2014-15; and Implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy in England in 2014-20, 7th report from the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, HC 745, Session 2013-14, and the Government response published as 7th Special Report, HC 1008, 2013-14.]
Tuesday 8 July—Second Reading of the Modern Slavery Bill, followed by proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Bill.
Wednesday 9 July—Opposition Day (4th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.
Thursday 10 July—General debate, subject to be announced.
Friday 11 July—The House will not be sitting.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 3 July will be:
Thursday 3 July—Debate on the seventh report of the Foreign Affairs Committee on the UK’s response to extremism and instability in north and west Africa, followed by a debate on the sixth report of the Communities and Local Government Committee on local government procurement.
I should like to draw the attention of the House to the written statement today from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, informing the House of the publication on 17 July of the report of Lady Justice Hallett on the on-the-runs administrative scheme.
I thank the Leader of the House for that announcement.
Later today, we will debate the commemoration of the centenary of the first world war. We must never forget the monumental sacrifice of those who gave their lives, including Thomas Neely, a Victoria Cross recipient from Seacombe in my constituency, who died less than 50 days before the armistice.
Andy Coulson’s conviction this week has raised serious questions about the Prime Minister’s judgment. He and his staff were warned that some brave journalists were writing openly about Coulson’s behaviour, but he carried on anyway and brought a criminal into the heart of No. 10. Does the Leader of the House agree that the Prime Minister was not just ignorant about Andy Coulson, but wilfully negligent? Does he support calls for uniformity of vetting for senior Downing street advisers? Will he ask the Prime Minister to return to the House to make a statement, including telling us if he was advised by any senior civil servants in No. 10 against employing Andy Coulson?
Next week, we will be discussing the Finance Bill. The Leader of the House told me last week that everything is going very well, so will he explain why the Chancellor’s plan to cut the deficit is already running four years late and why he is borrowing £190 billion more than he planned? While he is at it, will he tell us why the Chancellor boasts about unemployment rates, while a report this week shows that new job creation has slumped and 60% of those on benefits are actually in work? Is not the truth that this is the slowest recovery for 100 years and that the vast majority of people are just not feeling the benefit?
The crisis at the Department for Work and Pensions just gets worse and the lives of some of the most vulnerable in our society just get harder. On Friday, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee condemned the personal independence payment as a “fiasco”. On Monday, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions sounded increasingly deluded as he defended his calamitous universal credit programme. Yesterday, it was revealed that universal credit could cost the public purse another £750 million because the DWP has not worked out how to integrate it with free school meals.
The Work and Pensions Secretary told the House:
“Universal credit is on track to roll out against the timetable set out last year.”—[Official Report, 23 June 2014; Vol. 583, c. 9.]
However, at the current rate of progress, will it not take a staggering 1,052 years before this programme is complete?
Universal credit is in chaos. The Secretary of State has lost control of his Department. Given that the Leader of the House is such an expert on “pausing” costly and calamitous reforms, does he accept that the Government should now pause universal credit?
This Government are completely out of touch and completely unable to deliver on any of their promises. When they came to office, the vast majority of people could see a doctor within 48 hours; now one in four cannot do so within a week. They promised a bigger Army for a safer Britain, but the former Chief of the Defence Staff has warned that the Army is not in a “fit state” to deal with current threats.
It is no wonder that two parliamentary private secretaries resigned from the Government this week to spend more time with their marginal constituencies—and the Government are in such disarray that their Departments did not even notice that they had gone. The Government have a Tourism Minister who declared from Brazil that people without passports should holiday at home, they have a Health Minister who thinks it “exciting” that the Government have lost control of the national health service, and they have a Prime Minister who claimed that he had done nothing wrong, but apologised so profusely that he very nearly wrecked the high-profile criminal trial of his mates at News International.
This week, I received an invitation to the Commons versus Lords shooting competition. I hope that the Commons team does not include any Ministers, because if it does, they will end up shooting themselves in the foot—or they might even end up shooting each other.
Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister sent the England football team a recorded good luck message, and just over a week later, the team crashed out of the World cup. With the European Council upon us and the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker looking increasingly inevitable, may I suggest one last desperate tactic that the Prime Minister could use to stop him? Forget about the Luxembourg compromise; the Prime Minister should send him a good luck message.
When it comes to negotiating in Europe, the Prime Minister should learn a lot from the World cup. Do not let expectations get the better of you; do not underestimate the power of smaller countries; and biting—or, indeed, backbiting—is never a good idea.
As the shadow Leader of the House said, we are rightly having a debate today to commemorate the events of the great war, and I am glad that we are able to do so just two days before the centenary of the events that precipitated that calamity. I hope that, during today’s debate, we shall hear from Members who represent constituencies throughout the country whose constituents are planning a wide range of commemorations over the next four years. For my part, I remember talking to my grandfather about the second battle of Ypres. He was at Hill 60, where Lieutenant Harold Woolley was the first member of the Territorial Army to earn a Victoria Cross. I think that all of us, through our families, have recollections of those who were there—including those who were injured or, indeed, lost—and today’s debate will give us an important opportunity to commemorate that sacrifice.
I am afraid I must tell the shadow Leader of the House that, although the jacket has got brighter, the jokes have got a bit duller. It is a shame. They are better than my jokes, though.
No, please don’t. As we move to summer, it is a great step forward.
In earlier sessions of business questions, the shadow Leader of the House had a thing going. It was called “mind the gap”, and it sort of disappeared. [Interruption.] Or was it there? If so, I missed it. I was wondering whether it would put in an appearance. It seemed to me that it was probably better to mind the gap than to throw someone in front of the train, which appears to be the latest suggestion. I am not quite sure who is in charge of Labour party policy, and I am not sure that it really matters that much, but the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) seems to be suggesting that no one else needs to be thrown in front of the train, because the Leader of the Opposition is already standing in front of the train and will be the subject of the train crash when it comes. I think that is a rather sad reflection on what the hon. Lady’s colleagues feel about the position of the Leader of the Opposition.
I listened to Prime Minister’s questions yesterday; I think the Leader of the Opposition asked exactly the same question and got absolutely the right answer. If we look back at the evidence that was taken and the conclusions reached by Lord Justice Leveson, we see that he made it very clear that the Prime Minister received those assurances and acted on the basis of them at the time. If he had known then what we know now, it would have been very different. He has made it clear that he gave Andy Coulson a second chance and he regrets that he did, because it was, as it turned out, a misjudgment.
The hon. Lady asked about security clearance. Well, these are matters for the civil service, and the Leveson report is very clear, as was the evidence given by Gus O’Donnell, that it was a matter determined by civil servants, and rightly so, in relation to identifying where there is any risk.
The hon. Lady asked about the economy, which is good—I am glad she did. We are reducing the deficit we inherited from the Opposition. Their recession—Labour’s recession—cost every household in this country £3,000. We are cutting the deficit. It is down by a third already, and it will be down by a half by the end of the financial year. Two million private sector jobs have been created—[Interruption.] I am afraid that any amount of wriggling will not get out of the simple fact that jobs have been created in this country on an unprecedented basis, not least because small businesses are being created on an unprecedented scale—400,000 more small businesses and five new private sector jobs for every job lost in the public sector—as we are taking the necessary steps to reduce the waste and inefficiency that we found in the public sector under the last Government. That includes in the Department for Work and Pensions.
It was Labour who presided over the tax credit disasters, and Members all across the House in previous Parliaments will remember how many of their constituents found that the tax credit system was simply not working for them. Fraud and error were costing the welfare system £30 billion and there was no control on the welfare budget, and now, we have capped the welfare budget and Labour is in no position to criticise that. It will try on Monday and it will fail, because it cannot criticise the programme of welfare reform that is delivering on capping the costs of welfare while focusing resources on those who are most in need. That is what failed under the last Government. Costs were out of control and those often in the greatest need were not getting the greatest help.
At the Department of Health, I was only too aware of that waste, for example. In this Parliament, we will have taken £1.5 billion a year—in total in this Parliament, I think that the figure is about £5 billion—out of the administration cost of the NHS. It is because we have cut the number of administrators by 19,000 that we can increase, as we have, the number of doctors, nurses and other health professionals by 16,000, including over 1,000 more GPs than three years ago. The number of GPs per 100,000 in the population is now higher than it was at the time of the last election.
Overall, I noted that the shadow Leader of the House now no longer has some of the questions that she had last week, because we have presented this week two more of the Bills that were announced in the Queen’s Speech, so eight out of the 11 Bills announced in the Queen’s Speech are under way. She asked when we would have the first Second Reading. We are going to have the first Second Reading of one of those Bills taking place—on modern slavery—and I am looking forward to us proceeding successfully with the legislative programme set out in the Queen’s Speech.
I remind the House, notwithstanding the number of colleagues interested in catching my eye now, that there is a statement on health to follow and that the debate on the commemoration of the first world war is substantially subscribed. I am keen to try to accommodate everybody now, but if I am to have any chance of doing so, brevity from Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike is essential.
Youth unemployment in my constituency in May 2010 stood at the scandalously high figure of 430. Last month, it was reduced to 200, showing that the coalition Government had reduced youth unemployment by half. We cannot be complacent and there is still more to be done, but can we have a debate in Government time on the measures that are being taken to improve apprenticeships to provide new opportunities for work and to encourage young people to understand that opportunities are out there, rather than a life on benefits, as was delivered by the last Government?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; what he says about his constituency is welcome and a good example of what is happening across the country, with the youth claimant count down by 129,000 in a year—the largest reduction in a year since 1997. The number of 16 to 24-year-olds not in education, employment or training is at its lowest in five years. The 1.7 million apprenticeships in this Parliament thus far are one of the central things that have made a big and positive difference, as has the Youth Contract and work experience more generally.
Has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 163, which stands in my name and those of other hon. Members?
[That this House expresses its utmost disgust with and condemnation of Global Vision College, Manchester, otherwise known as OLC and Manchester School of Economics, which has stolen £2,500 in fees from a constituent of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton, refuses to return it, has failed to answer successive letters from the right hon. Member, and is guilty of the crime of larceny; calls on the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Home Secretary and Greater Manchester Police to investigate these swindlers; and warns everyone in Manchester and more widely to have nothing to do with this disreputable organisation.]
It refers to the swindle carried out by a so-called college in Manchester that keeps changing its name and location in an effort to evade responsibility. It has stolen £2,500 in advance fees from a constituent of mine, which had been sent of behalf of relatives who were then not able to take up their places. Will the right hon. Gentleman ask those responsible, who are named in my motion, to look into the issue and respond to me, and will he consider a debate on the matter, which is quite a wide problem across the country?
I will, of course, ask my hon. Friends at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and at the Home Office, in so far as that is also relevant, to respond to the right hon. Gentleman on the issue raised in his early-day motion. He will have noted the steps that the Government have taken to close down some 400 bogus colleges, and I am sure that he noted the statement by my hon. Friend the Minister for Security and Immigration earlier this week about the further steps being taken to ensure the integrity of our higher education system.
In the light of the outstanding research referred to in the report by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority on mitochondrial transfer, and Professor Robert Winston’s concerns at the Government’s intention to introduce those techniques before they are known to be safe—as highlighted in early-day motion 122 that stands in my name and is garnering significant support—will the Leader of the House do all he can to ensure that Members who are profoundly concerned about the safety of three-parent techniques, whether or not they oppose them in principle, will be given the option to express that view when the matter comes before the House?
[That this House notes the comments of Professor Robert Winston reported in the Independent on Sunday on 15 June 2014 on the premature introduction of mitochondrial replacement techniques; urges the Government to heed his warning that a great deal more research in as many animal models as possible ought to be undertaken prior to such techniques being approved; further notes his view that full and far-reaching assessments must be conducted as to the potential risks to children born as a result of the procedures; and calls on the Department of Health to delay bringing the relevant regulations before Parliament until the international scientific community and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority have declared the techniques safe.]
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. As she knows, mitochondrial donation techniques can give women who carry severe mitochondrial disease the opportunity to have children without passing on devastating genetic disorders. We consulted on the draft regulations that would be required to allow such treatment between February and May. We are considering the responses and will announce our plans as soon as possible. My hon. Friend will understand that such regulations would be subject to debates in both Houses of Parliament and require approval.
My constituent, David McIntyre, served his country for more than 11 years as a soldier in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Afghanistan. As a result of events in his service, he has post-traumatic stress, depression and been assessed as being at risk of suicide. Despite his mental state, he faces extradition to the United States next week to answer charges, which he denies, relating to a commercial matter. Earlier this week, I wrote to the Home Secretary requesting an urgent meeting to discuss this matter, but to date I have received no reply. Will the Leader of the House ask the Home Secretary to respond to my request for a meeting?
I will, of course, be helpful to the hon. Lady and contact the Home Secretary. I am grateful that she has written to the Home Office, so that it has details of this case, and I will endeavour to ensure that she has an opportunity to meet the Home Secretary or the relevant Minister.
On 9 June, I received a written answer from NHS England via the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), stating that no patients from the south-west had been sent for gamma knife treatment at University College London hospitals.
After pressing NHS England further, on Monday 23 June, I had another written answer saying exactly the opposite, admitting that it had paid for treatment of those patients. May we have a debate on the need for absolute honesty and accurate accounting from NHS England when answering Members’ questions, as I am not the only Member who has been fobbed off with inaccurate replies?
My hon. Friend will—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) wants to reply to the questions. I have no doubt he does, but it is my responsibility, and it is Ministers’ responsibility to ensure the accuracy of their responses to Members. My hon. Friend may be aware that the Public Administration Committee is examining the issue of the accountability of public bodies and their responses to Members’ questions. Notwithstanding all that, it is important for NHS England to ensure that it provides my hon. Friend with accurate information. I will ensure, with the Department of Health, that that is the case.
I thank the Leader of the House for the statement about the Modern Slavery Bill. He is aware that there is substantial support on both sides of the House for the measure. Will he therefore guesstimate for us when it will complete its process here before going to the other place, even if this House tweaks it, hopefully, in a couple of important respects?
I do know how much support the Bill has and I appreciate its importance. I am grateful for the work that the right hon. Gentleman and others did during pre-legislative scrutiny to enable the Bill to come forward in the positive fashion that it has. It would probably be unwise of me to engage in speculation about the timing of the passage of legislation. It may even be regarded as presumptuous, as the House needs to consider the Bill and we need to make decisions about the timing of consideration beyond the Committee stage.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the renewal of rail franchises? The Southend to Fenchurch Street line used to be known as the misery line. It is now known as the happy line thanks to c2c, which should have its franchise renewed. That is in stark contrast with Abellio Greater Anglia, whose service is absolutely lousy and whose trains are clapped out, as its managing director will find out in two weeks when he travels on one with me.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. Many years ago, when it was probably a bit more of a misery, I used to travel daily into Fenchurch Street on that line and so was familiar with it. Happily it is better, as he described. He will know that the competition for the Essex Thameside franchise is ongoing and an announcement about the award of the franchise is expected shortly. A new directly awarded franchise has been negotiated by the Government with the incumbent, Abellio Greater Anglia, for 27 months between the end of the current franchise in July and the start of the next competed franchise in October 2016. As is the case with many other franchises, worthwhile and significant benefits to passengers arise from new franchises. The competition for the next franchise will begin in spring next year, and a consultation will be carried out to inform the specification for that.
Wonga’s appalling deception and dishonesty has been laid bare. May we have a statement from the Chancellor on why that company or any of its directors should ever hold a credit licence again, or is the Government’s priority and focus the protection of Tory party friends and donors?
The latter part of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks is uncalled for and inaccurate. He knows that. Members on both sides of the House will have been shocked by what they saw and the Financial Conduct Authority has taken important action on the matter. I am not in a position to say any more than what the FCA has said so far, but I will ask my hon. Friends at the Treasury, in consultation with the FCA, whether they are in a position to offer a written statement to the House.
Last week I attended the “working together” conference organised by National Grid, EmployAbility and Round Oak school in my constituency. The aim of the conference was to share best practice in recruitment and employment practices, and to promote the widespread benefits of employing those with additional learning needs and disabilities. May we have a debate about the importance of ensuring that those with special needs are supported in their search for work?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend was able to attend that conference. It reflects the fact that many of our leading employers across the country, large and small, are recognising the opportunities to support those with learning needs and disabilities in work. In July last year the Prime Minister launched the “disability confident” campaign, which has reached over 1,100 local and national employers throughout the country, increasing the confidence of employers in employing disabled people. I am very familiar with this in my own constituency over the years, through the work of the Papworth Trust. I cannot promise an immediate debate, but I know that the point my hon. Friend made will be much shared among Members and he may find opportunities, not least with other Members, to seek a debate of that kind at some point in the future.
In the light of Mr Justice Saunders’ comments in the Coulson trial, may we have an urgent debate to publish the legal advice given by the Attorney-General to the Prime Minister, who may have inadvertently placed himself above the law?
The hon. Lady will know that successive Governments have never published legal advice offered by the Attorney-General, nor commented on it. All I can say is that what the Prime Minister said the day before yesterday was not intended in any way to prejudice any aspect of the completion of the trial.
The Leader of the House will know that there was insufficient time last week to consider my amendments on Sunday trading. Given that the current law is absurd and prevents land-based companies from competing with the internet, protects the interests of Tesco Express more than any other company in the country and lumps garden centres in, many of which are small businesses and should not be prevented from opening for longer hours when they are often one-man bands, can he find time for us to have a proper debate about these absurdities so the House can consider whether further amendments need to be made?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will recall the answer I gave at previous business questions about the Government’s position, which is that we feel we are currently striking the right balance in the law on Sunday trading. I know that the debate on consideration of the Consumer Rights Bill was abbreviated—it was short—but there was an opportunity for points to be made in the course of it. Of course, if my hon. Friend wishes to bring forward any proposals, he can seek an Adjournment debate to raise issues in the House.
The Leader of the House will be aware that the letters to on-the-runs have aroused great anxiety in Northern Ireland and that efforts should be made to ensure that those letters cannot be allowed to let people evade justice, as appears to have been the case for one person. Without wishing to prejudge the outcome of the statement on 17 July, will the Leader of the House set aside parliamentary time if necessary to legislate on the annulment of those ministerial letters to on-the-runs?
The hon. Gentleman will understand that I do not want to prejudice that statement and I do not think I can comment on his question at this stage. I think it is sufficient for now that the statement will be on 17 July, and separately in this House the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is undertaking its own inquiry, which I can see is detailed, into all the matters surrounding the on-the-runs.
May we have an early debate on childhood obesity? Experts today have advised parents to cut fruit juice out of their children’s diets, after a generation of them have been told that fruit juice is healthy. This is somewhat confusing, and perhaps we should be focusing more on exercise for youngsters born with an iPhone between their hands, and stress that watching tennis at Wimbledon is fun, but getting out there and playing it is even more fun.
The House will recall that we have rightly had many opportunities to debate childhood obesity. My understanding is that the advice was that fruit juice intake should be moderated, rather than excluded from children’s diets. It is important to moderate the intake of all foods in a child’s diet to make sure it is balanced. We are looking for a proper balance between calories in and calories out, and the more we exercise, the easier it is to strike that balance. On a positive note, the latest data have shown a reduction in childhood obesity among pre-school children, and that needs to be sustained. It is only one positive step in what needs to be a long journey to reduce childhood obesity.
Trade union officials at the Cumbernauld office of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs were told yesterday that the regional post-room where 40 people are employed has been earmarked for closure in March 2015, but the decision has yet to be taken. However, they were also told that 170 new jobs are to be created there. Can we have an early debate on this issue so that the Government can clarify for the House the plans for both job losses and job creation in Cumbernauld?
I cannot promise a debate at the moment. As the hon. Gentleman knows, not least from the answer the Prime Minister gave to a question yesterday, the HMRC is rightly trying to ensure that it is as efficient as possible in collecting tax and cracking down on tax evasion and avoidance. In the process, sometimes, changes inevitably have to be made to the structure of the business it undertakes. However, I will ask Treasury Ministers to respond to the hon. Gentleman, in so far as there is any particular information relating to Cumbernauld.
Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate or a statement on civil partnerships, which currently can be dissolved in only a certain number of courts? Only barristers are allowed to make representations, and for a constituent of mine, going to London adds costs. We should be looking for equality of treatment and allow such cases to be dealt with at county courts.
To be as helpful as I can, I will, if I may, ask my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor to reply to my hon. Friend on this issue. However, other Members may also be interested in it, so I will check with him whether there is a way he can inform them about the issue she raises.
Peter Oborne, writing in today’s Telegraph, says that he warned the then future Prime Minister that he would be
“making an extremely worrying statement about the type of government he plans to lead if he allows Coulson anywhere near Downing Street”.
Given these widespread concerns expressed at the time, may we have a statement on the vetting processes used at the time and now, so that we make sure that vetting is of the highest status that can possibly be achieved?
The hon. Gentleman is getting a bit confused. The vetting process is a security vetting process, which is quite distinct from the choice that the Prime Minister rightly makes about whom he employs as his advisers, including in special adviser positions. Those are not the same process and should not be regarded as such. However, as the Prime Minister explained yesterday and as is reflected in the evidence to Leveson, a process of inquiry was of course undertaken when Andy Coulson was first appointed director of communications to the Conservative party. At that time and subsequently, questions were asked and assurances were received, which unfortunately led to—as we completely understand—the Prime Minister giving Mr Coulson a second chance, but it proved to be misplaced.
In addition to the Prime Minister’s statement on Monday, can we at some point have a debate on Europe that would enable those of us who are inherently pro-European to make the point to our colleagues in Europe that, if members of the Council of Ministers are unable to make provision for and find a position for countries such as the UK that do not wish to have the euro and are never going to be part of the eurozone—if we cannot be found an honoured place in Europe, and are unable to protect the inherent national interests of the City of London—inevitably, they are starting to push this country nearer and nearer to the exit door?
We often have debates on this issue. My right hon. Friend is right, both in relation to the statement next week and subsequent debates, that it will be immensely important for us to set out clearly that we must have a reformed relationship with the European Union, one where we can be clear that this country’s interests can be protected. As one who also supports our membership of the European Union, I would say that our national interests have to be protected—the Prime Minister and this coalition Government have done that on issues such as banking union, the EU budget and the fiscal pact, where the Prime Minister exercised our veto. However, we can also promote our interests through membership of the European Union. That is equally part of this debate, and we can promote those interests by completing the single market, promoting competition, deregulation in Europe and ensuring that the EU budget is used effectively to support growth across the EU.
On top of the unfair treatment Hull receives in council funding and other funding that has been cut, this week the Chancellor forgot to mention that Hull is at the end of the HS3 route he was proposing and now we hear that the Deputy Prime Minister is talking about a golden triangle between Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield. In the light of the snubs the Government keep giving Hull, may we have a debate on this? We are doing our very best, getting the city of culture and Siemens into the city, but those are victories that are home-grown, not enabled by the Government.
That is uncharacteristically churlish on the part of the hon. Lady; the Government have been part of that, for example, being part of the negotiation with Siemens. The Chancellor talked at the beginning of this week about the vision for the future and greater east-west connectedness and, as she acknowledged, what he was talking about included Hull as part of that potential connectedness.
Following on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), may we have a debate on the consistency of official advice on nutrition—and indeed on whether we need advice on nutrition at all—given the confusion that will inevitably be caused in the minds of the public following today’s advice that we should not be drinking fruit juice and instead should be drinking water? We have always been told that drinking fruit juice and was part of our “five a day”, but now we are told that we should be drinking water. May we have an early debate about whether we need such nanny state advice?
My hon. Friend will have heard what I said in my reply a moment ago, but the recommendations published today are in draft form. The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition is inviting comments on the scientific aspects of its report, and it will consider those and finalise the report later this year or early next year. I hope that my hon. Friend and other Members will have an opportunity at some point during that process to express their views about how we can best achieve that good advice to parents about the diet they provide to their children.
Other countries do not allow their football academies to take in foreign youngsters under the age of 18. Our home nations do allow that, partly because they want to feed those players into the Premier League, but that means that a lot of our players get dismissed at 16 and 17. The foreign countries are still in the World cup, but we are not. May we have a debate about the future of youth football in this country and the investment the Football Association is putting into our academy structures?
The hon. Gentleman may be in his place next Thursday when Ministers at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will be here and this may be an interesting point for him to raise with them. If he will forgive me, I will not venture too far into this area. I know that the Backbench Business Committee is considering whether to schedule a debate on non-league football. There is widespread interest in the House in football governance and football matters more generally, and perhaps this is something that may be considered on a Back-Bench basis as a priority for debate.
My constituents in Shrewton have recently drawn my attention to a tweet from the Highways Agency that showed that there were no problems with the A303 following the summer solstice at Stonehenge last weekend. When they checked the camera online themselves, the footage was unavailable. Will the Leader of the House make time for a statement soon from the relevant Minister, so that my constituents can clarify whether the Highways Agency is deliberately switching off that important camera, which is a source of data that are highly relevant to decisions in Government?
This is not a criticism of the Leader of the House, but can he give us a date or clarify when the Government will honour their promise to introduce legislation to regulate the Football League? We still have an ongoing saga in Coventry, and the latest one is over Birmingham’s ownership. Is it not about time that this issue was cleared up?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that he was not making a criticism of me. I will talk to my hon. Friends at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about the matter, and he heard what I said about questions next Thursday. None the less, my recollection is that Ministers said not that they would bring forward legislation, but that if football governance, the Football Association and other authorities did not take the necessary steps to reform governance in football, they would consider introducing legislation. They did not make a commitment to do so.
Professor Elliott’s final report on food safety and security, which was set up following the horsemeat scandal, is expected soon. It will have great implications for shorter food supply chains, traceability and labelling. Will my right hon. Friend allow a debate in Government time on these issues once the report has been adopted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?
I will, as my hon. Friend would expect, wait to see what the Elliott review has to say. No doubt my hon. Friends in DEFRA will want to tell the House how the Government propose to respond to it. I cannot promise Government time. As I have often said to the House on the allocation of time in the Chamber, the great majority of Government time has to be devoted to legislation. A significant part of the Government time that was previously available for debate has been handed over to the Backbench Business Committee, so that it can determine where Back Benchers feel the priority lies.
Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on timely responses to parliamentary questions? Since 4 June, I have tabled 24 parliamentary questions, the majority of which are named day questions on the issue of passports, and not one has had a substantive reply to date. Is the relevant Minister perhaps abroad?
It will not be long before I report to the House on the performance as regards parliamentary questions in the previous Session. I hope to do that before the summer recess. That may give Members an opportunity to raise points on the issue, not least here at business questions. On the specific questions that the right hon. Gentleman raised with the Home Office, it sounds like the named day requirement was met with a holding answer. I will ask the Department when it can give him the substantive answer for which he is looking.
I have been a long-time advocate for elected mayors, and I was pleased to hear the Chancellor’s comments on the subject in his speech earlier this week. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on how the Government intend to move forward with that proposal, which would make a significant contribution to delivering our long-term economic plan?
My hon. Friend and I share the view that elected mayors can make a significant and positive difference; we have seen that, not least in London. The legislation is in place to enable this to happen; the question is whether the political will and public consent are available to push it forward.
Does the Leader of the House agree that we need a debate on how Andy Coulson got access to highly sensitive material without proper security vetting? That decision was taken by civil servants who did not even bother to consult the Prime Minister. Do the public not have a right to know just how widespread that despicable practice is across Government?
The hon. Gentleman should get his facts right before he makes that sort of accusation. It is not that there was no security clearance, but that developed vetting had not taken place, which is a substantially different process. Security clearance is distinct from developed vetting.
In the first three months of this year, car insurance premiums fell dramatically, according to the AA, due to legal reforms introduced by the Ministry of Justice to curtail organised whiplash fraud. May we have a debate on measures that the Government have introduced to help consumers and taxpayers—measures such as freezing fuel duties, raising the personal tax-free allowance, scrapping green taxes and enabling local authorities, such as mine in North West Leicestershire, to freeze council tax for a fifth consecutive year?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He rightly goes to points that matter a great deal to people. The fall in insurance premiums has been positive, and it is positive that councils across the country have been supported to freeze council tax, which, in many areas, doubled during the life of the previous Government. Relatively low-income households who pay tax have seen £700 come off their tax bill as a consequence of the coalition Government’s commitment to increasing the personal tax allowance. Under Labour plans, fuel duty was due to increase and escalate, but fuel will now be 20p cheaper than it would have been under those plans. There are so many examples of measures that are making a positive difference to people paying their household bills.
May we have emergency legislation on compensation and compound interest? We should make Wonga pay out not £2.6 million compensation for unfair practice but, at its own outrageous interest rates of 5,853%, £203 trillion. Perhaps then it would understand the misery that it causes.
The hon. Gentleman will recall the steps that were taken in the previous Session to put a cap on payday lending. We responded to some of the issues. It is important for the Financial Conduct Authority to ensure that this perfectly legitimate business is undertaken in a legitimate fashion. When it is not, it is absolutely right that the enforcement action is tough.
The Leader of the House has announced that there will be a general debate on the Floor of the House on Thursday 10 July on a topic yet to be announced. Given the recent and important developments in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Israel, the Palestinian Authority area and Egypt, surely the subject needs to be the middle east and north Africa. During such a debate, we could raise concerns about what it says about modern Britain that more of our citizens appear to have signed up for jihad in Syria than have applied to join the Army Reserve.
In September 2013 the Treasury wrote that Equitable Life policyholders would receive some repayments. My constituents are dying, sadly, and are very elderly, and they have not received a penny. Will the Leader of the House ask a Treasury Minister to come to the House and explain this wholly unacceptable delay?
There appears to be some slow movement in getting passports to the Salvi family, my surrogate family who are trapped in India. They have now been told that they may have to travel 900 miles to Delhi to the high commission for an interview, even though that is not a legal requirement. Please may we have a statement on the action that the Home Secretary is taking to get all the surrogate children home from India?
As the hon. Lady knows from exchanges that we have had here, and from when the Home Secretary and the Minister have been here, intense action is being taken by the Home Office to ensure that it meets the requirements of applicants for passports and travel documents. However, there will be no prejudice to proper rigour in the scrutiny of applications, and of course in some countries that means that people are required to travel to where the appropriate staff are to undertake that scrutiny. I shall ask my colleagues particularly to look at the case raised by the hon. Lady.
Can we have a debate on the responsibility gap faced by British Transport and Home Office police when they find an individual in emotional and mental crisis attempting suicide? They take them to A and E and are told that because the person does not have a mental illness, they will not be admitted. The individual’s life is at great risk and they have committed no crime, yet no one seems to take responsibility for giving them support and assistance during their emotional crisis. Can we look at that gap?