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Topical Questions

Volume 588: debated on Thursday 20 November 2014

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.