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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 588: debated on Thursday 20 November 2014

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—


Our industrial strategy sets the long-term direction needed to give manufacturers confidence to invest and compete internationally. We are encouraging technology commercialisation, exports, investment, improving skills, and building UK supply chains. I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in congratulating Cumbria local enterprise partnership, which has been awarded £5 million under regional growth fund round 3 to support specialist manufacturers.

A flourishing sawmill on the edge of Carlisle employs 120 people. Those in the timber industry are concerned that they are not included in the proposed relief scheme for the indirect cost of renewables, despite being accepted as an energy-intensive industry under the climate change agreement. That could give a competitive advantage to imported timber. Will the Minister look at the industry’s case and report back to me?

I will certainly look at that—indeed, we already are. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the more general issue of energy-intensive industries, and we have sought to achieve relief through compensation under the European Union emissions trading system and the carbon price floor. We have recently consulted on how to extend that relief in respect of renewable obligations and the feed-in tariff. That consultation has just ended and will incorporate industries depending on their energy intensity and trading capacity. We will announce the results shortly.

The steel industry is vital to manufacturing in the United Kingdom. Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to tell the House exactly what has been happening with Tata Steel’s proposed sale of its long products division?

Members across the House are concerned about the future of the long products division in Tata Steel. As the hon. Gentleman may know, I have had discussions with Cyrus Mistry in India, chief executive of Tata, and I recently met Mr Klesch, who has an interest in taking on that business. We are in close touch with Members across the House on the progress of those discussions, and I will report back when developments arise.

While the Secretary of State is right and the Government have set out a national industrial strategy, will he put on record his praise for the job creators, innovators, and entrepreneurs in Shropshire who have created more than 1,000 jobs in the last year in agri-engineering, food manufacturing, car parts manufacturing, and the manufacturing that is being brought back from Europe and put into Shropshire?

The hon. Gentleman describes a powerful trend. I am delighted that it is operating in his constituency and I congratulate the firms concerned. He refers to the process of onshoring production that had gone overseas, and I believe that around one in 10 British manufacturers are now considering that process. I have recently come back from India where I met a company called Amtek that is bringing car supply chain and production back to the UK—it may even be in the hon. Gentleman’s county.

My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy) has already mentioned the importance of the UK steel industry, which underpins much of our manufacturing industry. Is the Secretary of State also aware of cheap imported steel being dumped into domestic markets, failing British standards and raising question marks about quality, traceability and reliability? Reinforcing steel used in the UK is certified under the CARES scheme. Is he confident that that scheme is working as well as it could be? What steps is he taking to ensure that such steel is tested, compliant with British standards, traceable and safe?

That issue has been brought to my attention by British producers and it is a legitimate question. I am in the middle of an inquiry into whether the testing process operates effectively and takes proper account of different standards as between UK producers and those overseas. We have no ideological view on anti-dumping. It is a matter of proof and fact and operates through the European process, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

Small Businesses

The British Business Bank is now fully operational and has facilitated a total of £2.3 billion of new lending and investment to more than 21,000 businesses. The growth accelerator scheme supports just under 20,000 firms, and 22,600 start-up loans have been drawn down, totalling more than £199 million. More than that, we support small businesses by delivering on our long-term economic plan.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in 2012 research by Experian for the BBC said that Harlow had the highest rate of business growth in the whole of the United Kingdom? I am holding my own business awards to honour some of Harlow’s best businesses. We have had more than 300 nominations and I will be announcing the result on small business Saturday. Will he congratulate the businesses that have been nominated and recognise the incredible contribution they have made to Harlow’s community?

I do congratulate the businesses that have been nominated and all the businesses that have contributed to a fall in unemployment in Harlow of more than 40% in the past year. My hon. Friend’s jobs fairs have contributed to that and I have no doubt that his support for small business Saturday, which all Members should support, will help to ensure that businesses can thrive in Harlow and elsewhere.

Under this Government, small businesses have been hit by a £1,500 rise in business rates. With so many of our small businesses up and down the country on our high streets under pressure, especially at this time of year, why will the Secretary of State and the Minister not back Labour’s plans to cut and freeze business rates to help our small firms?

We have gone further than that: we have cut by £1,000 business rates for all small retail premises. It is crucial to ensure that business rates work in the long term. They raise a lot of revenue and we have to be aware of that fact. There will be a review in the run-up to 2017, when there will be a planned revaluation. I understand the impact of business rates and we have to ensure that they work better.

Access to banking support is vital for small businesses, yet in my constituency NatWest is closing its Stubbington branch and later this month HSBC will close the last bank in Lee-on-Solent. Will the Minister urge those banks to do more to keep these important local services open?

Yes, of course. The changes in banking and the way most people bank—their use of technology—has an impact on how banks operate. Having visited Stubbington and Lee-on-Solent with my hon. Friend only this week, I know how important these issues are locally. Ultimately, this is a commercial matter for the banks, but we have to ensure that banking services are available in all communities, not least to make sure that vulnerable people have access to services if they cannot use the technology.

Access to start-up finance is clearly very important for small businesses, but businesses also need growth funding. They need to be able to consolidate and expand their businesses. Businesses in Telford often tell me that they want to take the next step forward but find it difficult to secure finance. What more can the Government do to support them?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The 22,000 firms that have received start-up loans have been supported, but the new British Business Bank, something that we have not had before, has supported £2.3 billion of financing, a lot of it to the scale-up firms that he is talking about. Ultimately, we need a strong banking system. After the chaos the banking system was left in, we have been turning that around with stronger regulation. Banking balance sheets are starting to improve and move in the right direction, but it has taken an awfully long time to turn the mess around.

As we head towards small business Saturday, which enjoys the support of the entire House, one group of small businesses that will be feeling better supported and be looking forward with more optimism are the nation’s tied pub tenants. The run-up to Tuesday’s vote saw the Government mired in confusion, as last-minute changes and amendments were proposed and dropped with alarming speed. Will the Minister tell the House what steps he will be taking to ensure that this important change is delivered in a way that works for everyone who cares about Britain’s great pubs?

We are considering and reflecting on the will of the House as it was expressed this week, but be in no doubt that it is this Government who support pubs and publicans more than possibly any Government before: the first cut in beer duty in decades, two cuts in beer duty, and support through ensuring there is community support for pubs. We will not rest in our support for British pubs.

Net Trade

3. What estimate he has made of the contribution net trade will make to GDP over the next four years. (906135)

In March, the Office for Budget Responsibility expected net trade to make a roughly neutral contribution to growth until 2018. However, since GDP data methodology has recently been revised we will not have a fully updated view until December, with the OBR’s new forecast.

Recent statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that the UK’s trade deficit has risen to £2.8 billion in September, up from £1.8 billion in the previous month. In the light of that, will the Secretary of State confirm that since the Government’s direct loan facility was launched a year ago to help businesses to export, only one firm has benefited from such support since it was announced?

The hon. Lady is horribly out of date; dozens of companies are now benefiting from that new suite of credit facilities, which is one of a range of activities we are putting in place to support British exporters. When we entered office, about 27,000 companies were helped by UK Trade & Investment, but that is now up to 50,000, and the impact is already being felt in the big emerging markets, such as China and India, where there is very rapid export growth.

The Investment Management Association told me last week that Asian investors were increasingly looking to mainland Europe because of the uncertainty over the UK’s membership of the European single market. What effect will this uncertainty have on the Secretary of State’s trade forecasts?

My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of inward investment to job growth in the UK. Indeed, many manufacturers and banks in the City of London have made it clear that the expectation of being able to export to the European single market is fundamental to their decision to locate here.

Will the Secretary of State welcome the contribution that will be made to trade by the Ladder for the Black Country, a brilliant apprenticeship scheme established by the Vine Trust and the Express and Star, which is working with hundreds of businesses to provide thousands of apprenticeships and give young people the jobs and skills they need to develop careers? Is this not exactly the sort of scheme that should be copied nation-wide?

On the basis of that quick précis, it sounds as if it is. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have seen a rapid expansion of apprenticeships, which we are very proud of, as they are fundamental to meeting the demand for skills, particularly higher skills. I would be interested to hear more about his local programme and to see what we can do to help.

Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the recent news that record amounts of British food and drink are now being exported—something that I was doing before I came to this place—and that great British food is now available in more than 150 countries?

Yes, it is often forgotten when we talk about manufacturers that the food and drinks sector is the largest by a considerable measure. It is a considerable success and we are supporting it, not just through the work of UKTI, but through our work on agri-tech industries, innovation and the skills strategy.

The Government promised an export-led recovery, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) mentioned, the trade gap is widening and exports are going backwards. Why, then, have the Government, mid-year, slashed the budget for the trade show access programme that helps small businesses new to exporting or new to markets to gain access to international trade shows? I have had sight of a private letter from the trade association, the Sponsors Alliance, to the Prime Minister asking him to reverse this dreadful decision. Will the Secretary of State support this plea from small businesses and not slash the funding they desperately need to support their exporting activities?

First, there is no question of the budget being slashed; it has been substantially increased, and the question is how much it should have been increased by. I am aware of the concerns of trade associations, however, and have met them and discussed the matter with them, and we are endeavouring to ensure they have the maximum support.

I call Mr Chris Ruane. He is not here; therefore, the grouping with Question 12 falls, and questioner 12 will have to come in at that point.

Minimum Wage/Living Wage

5. What steps the Government are taking to (a) enforce payment of the minimum wage and (b) encourage firms to pay the living wage. (906137)

9. What steps the Government are taking to (a) enforce payment of the minimum wage and (b) encourage firms to pay the living wage. (906142)

16. What steps the Government are taking to (a) enforce payment of the minimum wage and (b) encourage firms to pay the living wage. (906149)

20. What steps the Government are taking to (a) enforce payment of the minimum wage and (b) encourage firms to pay the living wage. (906155)

The Government are taking tough action on employers that break minimum wage law. We have made it simpler to name and shame employers that do not pay the national minimum wage properly, and have increased the financial penalty that employers pay for breaking the law. The Government will always support and encourage businesses to pay higher than the national minimum wage, where they can.

The Sunday Mirror has reported that Greencore, which has a factory in Hull, is recruiting 300 Hungarians to undercut local jobseekers and is resisting a 6p an hour pay increase. It is part of a growing trend of low-paid work that removes people from the official jobless figures, but not from poverty. An estimated 300,000 workers earn less than the national minimum wage. How can Ministers claim to be serious about promoting the living wage, when they fail to enforce the minimum wage properly?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the importance of businesses and employers paying the national minimum wage properly. We absolutely agree. We have invested extra money in enforcement and are helping more employees. Indeed, last year, £4.6 million of arrears was secured for workers who had not been properly paid. We have also increased the penalties and the resources to enforce the penalties, and we are now naming and shaming companies that offend.

Two weeks ago while campaigning in my own constituency for the living wage, I met a mother who told me that her son had been offered part-time work paying just over £2 an hour. With the Office for National Statistics showing yesterday that the proportion of jobs not paying the minimum wage has increased under this Government, does the Minister not regret failing to adopt the proposal from the Opposition to increase the fine for non-payment to £50,000 so that we could have proper enforcement of the minimum wage in this country?

The key is not only increasing the fine to £20,000, but enabling that fine to be levied per worker rather than per employer. The fine, which is of course linked to the amount of arrears, covers all but three cases found over the last year. None of the others would have reached the £20,000 maximum. We will be fining employers more when they break the law, because those responsible employers who abide by the law deserve to know that those who break the law will be properly punished.

Seatruck, which operates domestic ferries between Aberdeen and Lerwick and Ullapool and Stornoway, pays its Estonian national seafarers as little as £3.66 an hour, while it benefits at the same time from the tonnage tax scheme operated by this Government. Is it not about time that we tackled the people who are undermining the national minimum wage, particularly for seafarers, by ensuring that regulations are tough enough to capture this group of people?

The hon. Lady raises the issue of seafarers, which has been raised by other hon. Members. I know that my predecessor, when I was on maternity leave, was dealing with this issue, and we continue to look at it. I reiterate to all hon. Members who have constituents concerned about not being paid the national minimum wage that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will investigate every single complaint made to the pay and work rights helpline on 0800 917 2368. If people will please report instances of where the national minimum wage is not properly being paid, we can investigate and enforce it to ensure that people get what they deserve.

When many large employers are making vast profits but charging the taxpayer by paying their employees the minimum wage, and when families are hit by the cost of living crisis, why will the Minister not follow Labour’s lead and our plans to incentivise employers to pay a living wage through “make work pay” contracts?

I do not think the proposals put forward by the Opposition stack up. Providing only a small incentive for only a 12-month period is unlikely to change behaviour, but it is important to encourage employers to pay more than the minimum wage where they can. It is important that we are cutting income tax by £800 for low and middle earners so that they can keep more of their hard-earned cash. That is why this Government will continue to build the stronger economy we need so that people can properly prosper.

Export Support Services

United Kingdom Trade & Investment uses the brilliant “Exporting is GREAT” marketing campaign to raise awareness of the benefits of exporting and to encourage small businesses to export. Last week was UKTI’s national exporting week. Over 150 UKTI trade officers from posts around the world provided export advice to more than 5,000 companies.

Since this Government came to office, UKTI has done a lot to support companies in my constituency to export, but what specific assistance can be given to the smallest firms, such as the members of Crawley federation of small businesses, to give them the confidence to make the most of lucrative export markets?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the goal of making sure that exports are done not only by big multinationals but by small businesses wherever they can. Some 89% of UKTI customers are small and medium-sized enterprises and nearly one in five is new to exporting or has been exporting for less than a year. I think we should do all we can to encourage this trend.


Is the Minister aware that the Construction Industry Training Board and the National Construction college in my constituency have trained a record number of apprentices over the last year? Is he also aware that the current governing statute is not fit for purpose and needs to be updated so that it can enter into joint ventures with both the public and private sectors, training even more apprentices? Will he look at this important reform and have it on the agenda when he meets the chief executive officer, the chairman and hopefully me as well?

As my hon. Friend knows, a triennial review of the training board is currently drawing to a conclusion. The issue that he raised is certainly one of those that will be considered, and one which I will discuss with the board’s members, not least because my hon. Friend has drawn it to my attention so insistently.

Will the Minister consider what more can be done to use and benefit smaller training providers such as Power in Partnership in my constituency? Such providers focus on helping young people who may not be attracted to a classroom-type environment into training and then into apprenticeships. Surely we can do more in this regard.

I entirely agree. It is important for us to provide training opportunities through a range of organisations, including social enterprises, businesses and charities, as well as institutional further education colleges and the like. It is particularly important for us to provide training that is linked to work, either through the new programme of traineeships developed by my predecessor, who is now Minister for Business and Enterprise, or through apprenticeships. If there is anything that I can do to help any specific institution in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I shall be delighted to try to do it.

Will the Minister speak to his colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions about helping apprentices who are made redundant when a firm fails? A local training provider in my constituency has taken on apprentices who are in that position and is helping them through it, but is experiencing difficulties and is unable to give them any income. There seems to be a gap in the system.

I met the Minister for Employment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), only yesterday to discuss a range of issues, and I should be happy to discuss that issue with her as well. There needs to be tight co-ordination between our two Departments, and we try to achieve it.

Student Loans

I thank the Minister for that admirably concise response.

On Monday, the Higher Education Commission published a report which effectively endorsed the statement in the report from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee that the current finance system for higher education was unsustainable. The Government rejected the Select Committee’s report. In the light of the overwhelming evidence backing the report, will the Minister tell us what he is going to do about this?

I do not agree with that report. Our system of student finance is in rude health. The OECD reviewed higher education systems throughout the world, and concluded that the

“UK is…one of the few”


“that has figured out a sustainable approach to higher education finance”

and that

“that investment…pays off for individuals and tax payers.”

This year more students are going to university than ever before, and that would not have been possible without the reforms that we introduced.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the resource accounting and budgeting charge is not a fixed cost, a cost that is being incurred today or public expenditure, but, essentially, a highly speculative forecast of what income tax receipts might be up to 2050? He is right: we have a system that is in rude health, with more people applying to universities, more funds for universities, and more applications from low-income families.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We take a very cautious view of the RAB charge. The OECD is amazed that we take such a conservative view. For example, we take no account of the fiscal benefit that results from people paying more taxes because they earn more as a result of having a degree. The average salary of a non-graduate is £21,000, but the average salary of a graduate is £33,000. The graduate’s salary means extra tax for the Treasury, but that is not taken into account. We are expanding student numbers, and we have a record number of students with the most disadvantaged backgrounds. It is a tribute to the work done by my right hon. Friend that we are able to say that.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that the system is going bust, the Select Committee says that the system is going bust, and the Higher Education Commission says that the system is going bust. When will the Minister get the message? Let me ask him about uncapping student numbers this year. We were promised that the ceiling would be removed from places this year, next year and the year after. Earlier in the week, when I asked the Minister how he would pay for that, I received the immortal answer:

“The Department…has indicated that it will not be possible to answer this question within the usual time period.”

Will the Minister tell the House now how he will pay for lifting the ceiling on student numbers this year? If he cannot answer that question, we shall have to conclude that it is a case of “Never mind a long-term plan; he has no plan at all.”

First of all, the IFS did not say that the system was unsustainable. We have one of the best systems of student finance in the world, and it is achieving the results that we on this side of the House all want to see. I will give the right hon. Gentleman the answer to his question on how the removal of the cap is being paid for. The Treasury has allocated £550 million to pay for it, and it is fully funded. This has enabled us to implement the Robbins report, which was produced 50 years ago and recommended that anyone with the capability and desire for a university education should be able to have one. We are the first Government in 50 years who have been able to implement that.

Boardrooms (Ethnic Minority Representation)

We believe that it is in the best interests of business to tap into the widest talent pool, resulting in a diverse and representative business leadership. I have therefore asked Trevor Phillips to start a new private sector-led campaign that will seek to address the lack of ethnic diversity in boardrooms. The purpose of the campaign will be to achieve success similar to our work on addressing gender diversity in boardrooms.

Some people, like me, believe that all appointments should be made on merit. Some believe in political correctness, and think that merit is unimportant and that boardrooms should represent the population at large. The Secretary of State seems to be in a league of his own as a politically correct champion who believes neither in merit nor in representation; instead, he believes that ethnic minorities should be over-represented in the boardroom. Will he explain why that is the case and why he, as a Government Minister, will not give out the message that jobs should be given on merit alone, irrespective of people’s race, religion or any other factor?

I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman in his place. I thought he might have been in Rochester today, waiting to defect. On his question, I certainly do believe in merit; I do not believe in quotas. I know that he has written 19 letters to Mr Trevor Phillips on the subject of race and political correctness, which leads me to believe that he might have a problem with the concept of racial equality.

Skills Training

11. What steps he is taking to ensure that the UK’s system of skills training is relevant to the changing structure of work. (906144)

The important thing is to put employers in control of the training system, as far as possible. We are doing that by putting employers in control of designing apprenticeship standards and of the funding that goes towards apprenticeships, and by ensuring that all vocational and technical qualifications have business recognition if they are to be approved for state funding.

I have a little secret, which is that I had a hand in the all-party Higher Education Commission’s report, which was soundly rejected even though it was based on good evidence. I also had a hand in “Still in Tune? The Skills System and the Changing Structures of Work”, which was published today. It is a good, cross-party report which points out that it is not just the employers but the people who receive the training who have the real stake in that education, because it will last them the rest of their lives.

As usual, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The people who receive the training are the customers; they are the people on whose behalf we are making the investment, and it is crucial to take their opinions into account. However, that does not dilute the crucial importance of employers being the judge of whether training is worth anything or not.

Will my hon. Friend acknowledge the work being done by university technical colleges in training young people for trades and apprenticeships? Will he recognise the work of the Burnley UTC, which is training young people from the age of 14 to be engineers and to work in the construction industry?

My hon. Friend does valuable work as one of the Government’s apprenticeship ambassadors. He has probably single-handedly persuaded more companies to offer apprenticeships to young people than anyone other than my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who is also an apprenticeship ambassador. UTCs are crucial, and we have many more coming through the pipeline. The Burnley UTC is absolutely a jewel in the crown.

Last month, I attended the groundbreaking ceremony at Humberside airport, where BAE Systems has invested £5 million in a training academy. The project is supported by North Lincolnshire council and the regional growth fund, and provides opportunities for 60 apprenticeships each year. Does the Minister agree that this is just the sort of project where the Government and local authorities should support private industry, in training for the future?

I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local council on supporting that project and, in particular, I congratulate BAE Systems, which provides some of the best apprenticeships anywhere in Europe. A young lady recently secured a first-class degree through her BAE Systems apprenticeship. That is what apprenticeships can offer and we need to create many more of them.

Workplace Insecurity

12. If his Department will undertake an assessment of the main causes of insecurity in the workplace. (906145)

The workplace employment relations study, which the Department funds, shows that employees’ views on job security are related to their individual circumstances and also the underlying economic conditions of the time. Job satisfaction increased between 2004 and 2011, but, unsurprisingly, insecurity rose during the recession. However, the additional 1.4 million people in employment since 2010 will have improved that situation.

The Minister will know that many of those people are in very insecure employment. Will she investigate the experience of workers at the former Aquascutum factory in Corby? It briefly became The Clothing Works, under a man named Roger Gawn who has now been disqualified as a director, and has now become Korisby Ltd. Workers there tell me that they are waiting for up to eight weeks’ pay. One of them got in touch with me the other day and said that when they raise this with the new bosses, they are told, “Get on with it or leave.” How can that be right?

I do not know the specific facts of that case, but I am happy to look into it because, from what the hon. Gentleman says, that does not sound right. I will be happy to make sure that the appropriate authorities can look into the matter, investigate and take any action that is necessary.

If my hon. Friend’s Department did carry out such an assessment, does she not agree that it might well find that the biggest risk to the security of British business is the election of a Labour Government, which would mean more spending, more borrowing and higher taxes?

I certainly agree that that would be a particular risk to British business. I wonder whether my hon. Friend might also agree that another risk to British business would be on the question of whether or not Britain left the EU.

Has the Minister seen the recent campaign by the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians about the activities of umbrella companies, where workers are often having to pay for their own holiday pay through deductions and also national insurance employer contributions. What action is she going to take to ensure that job security and workers’ security is increased by acting on umbrella companies?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Work is already being undertaken by the Treasury on the tax-specific issue of what happens with umbrella companies. He may be aware that last month my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary announced an employment status review so that we can look in more detail at the different types of employment status and at how that system is working, between worker and employer, and with the use of self-employed contracts and umbrella companies. We are looking forward to the results of that review, which will be covering these issues.

Technology Cluster (Cambridge)

We are doing an enormous amount but, as I know you want Ministers to be brief, Mr Speaker, I shall simply highlight the £500 million Greater Cambridge city deal; the £71 million local enterprise partnership growth deal, which is investing in a biomedical innovation centre and agri-tech growth initiative; and, of course, the research partnership investment fund, which is investing £25 million in a therapeutic immunology and infectious disease institute.

I thank the Minister for all that. The Cambridge tech sector is doing well, directly employing 53,000 people and bringing in £13 billion, but we could contribute much more to the UK if given further support. May I press him to support our call for more localised power and funding towards a Cambridge promotions agency, and to implement the recommendations in Sherry Coutu’s scale-up report, which came out this week and contained advice for the whole country?

The hon. Gentleman can always press me on those issues, and he rightly highlights the extraordinary success of technology in Cambridge, with 1,500 companies, two $10 billion companies and 10 $1 billion companies. Of course, we will look at Sherry Coutu’s report with interest.


We have a record number—about 840,000—of people doing apprenticeships, and we are on track to hit and exceed our target for this Parliament of 2 million apprenticeships. We are doing that by putting employers in control of the design of the standards and of the funding.

Apprenticeship starts in my constituency increased from 420 in 2009-10 to 1,020 in 2012-13, helped by community groups such as Whitwick Community Enterprises, which takes on an apprentice every month and runs two courses a months for NEETs—those not in education, employment or training—to get them work ready. Will the Minister congratulate community groups on the efforts they are making to halve youth unemployment in my constituency? What more can we do to empower such groups?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing to the attention of the House the fact that it is not just businesses that create apprenticeships, and that community groups like Whitwick community group can play a vital role. They are directly contributing to a very good piece of news we have had this morning, which is that the number of young people not in education, employment or training has fallen again, by 136,000 since last year.

A sure-fire way to increase apprenticeships in the UK would be to treat the apprentices fairly in terms of wages. They have had an increase in the last five years of 23p per hour. They get £2.73 per hour in wages. It is an absolute outrage. Is it not time that we matched the fine words and rhetoric with decent pay for our young people?

Of course the hon. Gentleman is right, which is why we introduced the apprenticeship minimum wage, which did not exist until we did so, but he is also right that we need to make sure that the level is fair. Nevertheless, the chief value of an apprenticeship for the young person is the training and the preparation it gives them to create a career, so we need to strike the right balance: we need to make sure we set this at a fair level, but also encourage more employers to create apprenticeships, so that more young people are in education and in training and not on benefits.

Swindon and Wiltshire Strategic Economic Plan

15. What progress his Department has made on facilitating projects identified in the Swindon and Wiltshire strategic economic plan. (906148)

We are making great progress. I know you want Ministers to be brief, Mr Speaker, so I will simply highlight the £129 million we have invested in funding to support a number of projects, including the first phase of a new science park at Porton and a new service to help military service leavers.

That is very welcome indeed. Project 16 in the local enterprise partnership strategic economic plan is the reopening of Corsham station. How does the Minister see LEPs working with their neighbours, local authorities and industry on projects which, by their nature, require a solution that extends well beyond their boundaries?

It is important for LEPs to work together, and that is why I was so pleased to attend a meeting along with my hon. Friend last night with the Secretary of State for Transport, to highlight the importance of a potential Oxford to Bristol rail link. I know that my hon. Friend disagrees with the Minister for consumer affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), on pub issues, but I will endeavour also to enlist her support for this important project.

Salary Deductions (Toilet Breaks)

18. What steps he is taking to prevent employers deducting money from staff salaries for toilet breaks. (906152)

The Government would strongly encourage all employers, as a matter of good management practice, not to make deductions in pay for necessary and unavoidable interruptions to work. Employers who do not pay for toilet breaks may find themselves in breach of the Equality Act 2010 or of individual employment contracts.

I thank the Minister for that reply. A young constituent of mine was alerted, having just been sent details of his salary to his mobile phone. He was not told what the deductions were for. When he inquired, he was told they were for toilet breaks. The company tells me it makes ad hoc deductions for breaks away from the work station. Does the Minister agree that this is unacceptable, and if ad hoc deductions are made, they must be detailed and explained?

Absolutely: workers have rights to rest breaks, which there is a requirement for under law, and if deductions are made from pay, they have to be very clearly outlined—and if they take somebody below the national minimum wage, the employer could find themselves in breach of that law. I very much encourage the hon. Lady’s constituent to seek advice from the pay and work rights helpline on 0800 917 2368, and I am very happy that she has raised this issue and awareness of it in the House.

Will the Minister update the House on how many businesses to date have taken up her Government’s unpopular and much derided shares for rights scheme, taking away people’s rights at work in exchange for shares?

There is an interesting link between the issue of toilet breaks and that question, but in answer to the point about the employee shareholder policy, there is no requirement for companies to inform the Government when they have undertaken that model of employment, and therefore accurate figures would not be available to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question.

I was, frankly, too generous, but the Minister, being the accomplished parliamentarian that she is, was ready with an answer.

Machrihanish (Spaceport Proposals)

19. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on proposals for Machrihanish to become the site of the UK's first spaceport. (906154)

The Government set out in July their ambition to start hosting commercial spaceflights from the UK by 2018. The activity is being driven by a cross-Government team that reports to me as well as to Ministers in the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Transport. We have undertaken a public consultation on the potential locations—including the one in my hon. Friend’s constituency—and the criteria that will be used to select the location of a spaceport. Our response will be published shortly.

I thank the Minister for his answer. When the Government take the decision on the location of Britain’s first spaceport, will they take into account the fact that Machrihanish, with its 3 km runway, all the facilities of the former RAF base and a location that is far from densely populated areas, satisfies the criteria perfectly and is clearly the obvious choice for Britain’s first spaceport?

My hon. Friend has taken the opportunity to make a strong case for Machrihanish. He will not be surprised to hear that some of his hon. Friends make equally persuasive cases for their own constituencies. It shows that this competition has captured the public imagination and is a great one to have been launched.

Topical Questions

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

The town of Barnoldswick in my constituency won a great British high street award in November, and the town of Colne, where shop vacancies have more than halved in the past two years, has been branded “the capital of cool” by Tourism Lancashire. What recent support has my right hon. Friend’s Department provided to small business to help them to continue to grow and thrive?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the active role he plays in supporting his local commercial community. As the Minister for Business and Enterprise, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), described a few moments ago, we are actively involved in supporting small business through the start-up loan scheme, through credit flows to the business bank and by creating a deregulatory and favourable tax environment.

It is essential that we give our towns, cities and regions the tools to be the masters of their own economic destinies to drive jobs and growth. The Secretary of State has said that he established local enterprise partnerships to help achieve that, and the LEP network was set up to support them and take forward their shared programme. Will he update us on their progress?

Enormous progress has been made by the local enterprise partnerships since they replaced the regional development agencies, which, by common consent, were remote and wasteful. The most significant recent development was the growth deals, which all the LEPs now have and which have been enhanced by the specific programmes that have been developed for Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and other centres.

I am sorry, but the Secretary of State simply does not appear to know what is happening on a supposedly key part of the Government’s programme. I have here a letter from the chair of the LEP network. He says that the network will close in two weeks and that the CEO has resigned because there is no support to do the job. He says that the network is

“seriously under resourced for such a critical role at such an important time”

and that it is

“now officially overwhelmed and preparing to throw in the towel.”

Four years ago, the Secretary of State said that the regional policy was Maoist and chaotic. Does this not demonstrate that very little has changed?

It demonstrates nothing of the kind. The LEP network is working exceedingly well. LEPs are voluntary organisations; some are outstanding and innovative and others struggle, as this one has done. It is much better that we have a regional network that is business-led and is related to the geography of the area, which was manifestly not the case with the regional development agencies.

T2. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that the family brand name Weetabix is closing its packet printers Vibixa in my constituency, with inevitable consequences for more than 100 employees and their families, after the company was denied the sales force that could have widened its customer base? Does he agree that when a profitable company closes a profitable subsidiary, it should offer the best possible redundancy terms to its employees, some of whom have served Weetabix for more than 35 years, and not something barely above the statutory minimum? (906161)

I share my hon. Friend’s concern. I am sure that everyone’s thoughts will be with those individuals who face this very difficult decision at this time of year. He is right to highlight the fact that the statutory minimum is indeed just that; it is a minimum, a floor. It is not the best scenario. One would not expect a profitable employer that cares for its staff to go for the minimum when it can afford to pay more to recognise long-standing service.

T3. The position of chief scientific adviser to the President of the European Commission has been abolished. Professor Glover has held that position with distinction for the past four years. One cannot have evidence-based decision making without scientific advice, so will the Government make the strongest representations to the European Commission to reinstate the position? (906162)

I pay tribute to the work of Anne Glover, who has been a force for enormous good in Brussels. I am concerned at these reports and it is my view and that of the Government, which I think the hon. Gentleman shares, that it is important to have strong and robust scientific advice at the heart of European policy making. That has been provided in the past and I very much hope that it will be provided in the future.

T5. Every day in my constituency, 200 eastern European men assemble outside the local B&Q superstore on Honeypot lane. They tout their services aggressively for casual labour to people visiting the superstore, take money in cash and have no deductions for tax or national insurance for the work they do. What steps can be taken to ensure that people are employed properly and that the necessary deductions are made to support state aid? (906164)

Clearly, we are concerned about such scenarios, where people not only evade taxation law but do not have proper employment rights. I will happily look into the specific case that my hon. Friend raises and see how we can ensure that the rules are properly enforced.

T4. Is the Minister responsible for employment relations, consumer affairs and equalities, and the only woman in the Department, ashamed that since her Government introduced tribunal fees we have seen an 84% fall in equal pay claims, putting barriers in the way of justice at a time when the gender pay gap is increasing? So much for the sisterhood. (906163)

Although I share the hon. Lady’s desire for gender equality, I have to put her right on a couple of points. I am not the only woman in the Department: Baroness Neville-Rolfe plays an important role in the other place. The gender pay gap is falling and fell significantly in the figures announced only yesterday. That is good news, but of course more needs to be done. That is why we are ensuring that we support women in the workplace through initiatives such as “Think, Act, Report” and through our reforms of flexible working and shared parental leave. It is this Government who are introducing such initiatives, which her Government failed to do.

T6. The decision of this House on Wednesday to vote to scrap the pub tie caused £350 million to be wiped off the share price of pub companies yesterday, and it continues to fall today. That of Punch Taverns in my constituency fell by 17% in one day. Jobs and businesses are at risk. What discussions is the Department having with those companies and what help is the Secretary of State offering? If he is not offering help, why not? (906165)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, Parliament has spoken and we respect its views on the subject. All I would say is that the Federation of Small Businesses commissioned a study that pointed in a very different direction from the one he is describing. Of course, there has been extensive consultation with all the different parties on this issue.

T7. The Secretary of State has frequently said that he wants fairness for people on zero-hours contracts. Will he now, even at this stage, reconsider the amendments he opposed in this House this week, which would have given greater protection to people on zero-hours contracts, including care workers? (906166)

We had extensive debates on these issues in Committee and on Report. The Government have introduced legislation that will now go to the other place to ensure that exclusivity clauses are banned. We have also made a commitment to introduce sector-specific guidance to promote best practice in the use of these contracts. That is action from this Government where the hon. Lady’s Government failed to act.

With several hundred job losses already announced in the north-east of Scotland as projects come to maturity in the North sea and costs rise, what are the Government doing to encourage further investment and exploration and to underpin many vital jobs across the UK?

The hon. Gentleman raises a vital point, not least because of the fall in the oil price we have seen in the past few weeks, which is good news for the consumers at the pump but tough in Aberdeen. With the Wood review, we are reviewing and making more business friendly the regulation of offshore oil drilling, and we also have a review of the fiscal regime, because our goal is to get every economic drop out of the North sea.

Yesterday the Prime Minister had a meeting with north-east Lincolnshire Members of Parliament about the Scunthorpe steelworks site and the wider Tata long products divisional issue. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for steel, I twice asked to attend that meeting and was twice refused. Will the Secretary of State please talk to the Prime Minister to see whether the APPG for steel can have a conversation with him so that the industrial divisional issue is not missed just because of the geography of Scunthorpe?

A meeting took place with the Prime Minister, me and several steel MPs yesterday. That shows that the Prime Minister, other members of the Government and I are happy to keep Members up to date on this issue. We will establish a link with the community unions so that they can be kept fully informed too.

The Secretary of State said this morning that appointments should be made on merit, yet to an earlier audience he said that boardrooms should have 20% of people from ethnic minorities, which led Lord Bilimoria to say, “I think for Vince Cable to say 20% is the right target when the ethnic minority population is 14% is going too far.”

I know that the Secretary of State is a Liberal Democrat and therefore used to holding two different opinions at the same time, but may I try to pin him down to one? Does he believe in quotas in boardrooms or appointment on merit?

I do not believe in quotas for ethnic minorities, women or any other group. I have never ever said anything about 20%. If he reads the correspondence from Trevor Phillips, he will acknowledge that I never endorsed that view. However, there is a problem, which I hope the hon. Gentleman acknowledges, that more than half of the boardrooms in the UK have no non-white representation whatever. Only one in 16 senior managers comes from our very talented ethnic minority groups, and they should be better represented.

The Secretary of State mentioned earlier the importance of regional networks. I wonder whether he thinks the same when it comes to banks? Regional banks have the advantage of understanding their local community and economy and their customers. When banks are not lending to small businesses in my constituency and others around the country, are not regional banks the answer to the problem of getting the growth and support that small business needs?

We warmly welcome challenger banks offering a service to small business. If they can be organised on a local and regional basis, so much the better. There is an organisation called Cambridge and Counties, which is performing this role in the east of England, and I know that Airdrie bank does so in Scotland. We would like to see many more. The liberalised process of licensing means that these things can come on stream rapidly when they are put forward.

Regrettably but inevitably, the pubcos trade association, the British Beer and Pub Association, is providing misleading information to the media and MPs about the London Economics report commissioned by BIS, including presenting figures for an immediate free-of-tie option for all tenants, which clause 2 is clearly not; it is gradual. The association’s presentation is therefore false. What assurances can I get from Ministers that they are aware of this, will scrutinise it and will ensure that civil servants also know that these misleading claims are just that?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the long and successful campaign that he has fought on this subject. I am inclined to let the matter rest, rather than continue a debate that he has won.

Yesterday Royal Mail said again that there was a danger to the universal service obligation from increased competition. That is very worrying, especially to people in rural areas. Will the Secretary of State press the regulator to take stronger action to look at the state of competition and take appropriate action to ensure that the USO is not put in danger?

I do not press regulators on this or other issues. The simple truth is that the USO is embodied in law. It would have to be changed by both Houses of Parliament. Royal Mail was put in the private sector to enable it to compete, and although it was little observed at the time, for the first time in decades it has been able to raise hundreds of millions of pounds in the bond market to reinvest. There is a success story there.

The latest Office for National Statistics bulletin showed that manufacturing production had increased by 2.9% over the same time last year. These are encouraging figures. What more can I tell manufacturers in my constituency about further action that will be taken to support them?

There will be continued further action to support manufacturers, and not only on the skills front, where it is vital to increase engineering skills. In April there will be a further cut in corporation tax to help companies to employ more people—something that is opposed by the Labour party.

I thank the Secretary of State for his engagement with the all-party group for the steel and metal related industry. Its members are from across the whole of the UK and they are concerned about the Tata Steel situation. May I implore him again—this was raised earlier—to ensure that his Department’s engagement with the Klesch group is predicated on trying to secure as many of those jobs as possible for the long term? People in the steel industry in my constituency and across the UK are very concerned, given the Klesch group’s record in other parts of Europe.

I can give the hon. Gentleman exactly that assurance. We should listen to what he has to say. Of course, we are concerned that the British steel industry should succeed.

With the extraordinary technical achievement of the Rosetta landing last week and the announcement of crowdfunding for Lunar Mission One this week, will the Minister responsible for science take this opportunity to congratulate the British space community on its scientific excellence and its enterprise?

I will indeed do that. I had the great pleasure of visiting Stevenage earlier this week to congratulate in person many of the scientists and engineers who worked on that brilliantly successful Rosetta mission. They demonstrated the Mars Rover, which is going to be the next source of excitement.

My ministerial colleague quite rightly calls on me to mention the signal role played by Harwell and, indeed, many other space and scientific establishments across the country. It was a great day for UK science.

In response to my earlier question, the Secretary of State boasted that a number of firms were already benefiting from the Government’s direct lending facility. Will he name the firms, in addition to Carillion, that have benefited to date?

I cannot name the firms, but I am happy to write to the hon. Lady with the names. UK Export Finance, which she asked about, is now providing a substantial range of export finance facilities, which were not available before and are contributing substantially to export growth.