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Business, Innovation and Skills

Volume 590: debated on Thursday 8 January 2015

The Secretary of State was asked—

Minimum Wage/Living Wage

1. What steps the Government are taking to increase the value of the minimum wage and encourage firms to pay the living wage. (906858)

On our return to Business questions after the break, may I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all Members a happy new year? I am sure that the thoughts of everybody in the House this morning are with France and, in particular, with the relatives and friends of those who were killed and injured in the appalling terrorist atrocity yesterday.

Last year, the Government announced the first above inflation increase in the national minimum wage since the 2008 banking crisis, benefiting more than 1 million workers. Since 1 October 2014, full-time minimum wage workers have seen an annual cash increase of £355 in their pay packets, and we expect real-terms increases to continue as the economy recovers. We support employers paying the living wage where it is affordable and not at the expense of jobs.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. He will know that for every £1 that employers pay above the minimum wage to lift workers to the living wage, the Treasury reaps 49p in reduced benefits and increased tax revenues. Why will his Department not consider using that increased revenue to incentivise businesses to pay the living wage for the first 12 months, as Labour is proposing with its make work pay contracts?

It is precisely because of that revenue wedge that the Government have invested so much resource in lifting the threshold so that low-paid workers are not caught in taxation. That has substantially alleviated the pressure on the living standards of low-paid workers.

It is really very important that minimum wage legislation is enforced, as those in receipt of the minimum wage tend to be at the bottom of organisations and among the lowest paid. What sanctions are being used on those at the top of organisations who receive the highest pay—the board directors—when minimum wage legislation is not being followed?

There is a legitimate concern about high pay as well as low pay, which is why the Government introduced reforms of executive pay, with a binding vote on executive pay by shareholders, significantly strengthening the Government’s powers to ensure that shareholders exercise proper responsibility over top pay.

The Secretary of State talks about relieving pressures on the living standards of the lowest paid, but is he aware that the all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty in Britain found, to its surprise, that a number of people using food banks were on the minimum wage? Might he not therefore use whatever powers he can to press those sectors of industry that could pay the living wage, such as banking and finance, to do so?

I suspect that relatively few people are on the minimum wage in the banking and finance sectors, but we support the living wage for those companies that can afford it and are not putting people out of work. My responsibilities are more in respect of strengthening the minimum wage and making enforcement tougher. We are doing that and we are signalling to the Low Pay Commission that we respect its independence but are looking forward to real-terms increases in the minimum wage in the future.

In a debate in Westminster Hall on the widespread abuse of employment practice for care workers, the Secretary of State’s colleague, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), said that he was pressing the Department for stronger enforcement against illegal practices. What is the Secretary of State’s Department doing about it?

I worked actively and closely with my colleague in the Department of Health on this issue. There are two issues involved: minimum wage enforcement and ensuring that we have tougher legislation to deal with some of the practices that operate in that sector, such as zero-hours contracts. At the moment, we are looking more widely at employment rights for groups of people who are classified as workers but who do not currently enjoy those rights. The care sector is one such group.

Copycat Websites

Copycat websites con people out of hard-earned cash. They undermine trust in online services and we are committed to stopping them. We need to work with search engines, to take enforcement action, to improve the consistency of Government websites and to educate consumers.

The top advertised search result for the European health insurance card if someone searches for “health card” or “national health card” is a site that charges £49 for its so-called services. Will the Minister act to put a stop to that practice by giving similar powers to those of Transport for London and blocking transactions from that site, tackling the problem at source?

We have taken a lot of action. We have worked closely with the search engines to ensure that they implement their terms and conditions on copycat website advertising, and the click-through to Government websites has increased by 30%. There is a problem with blocking transactions for websites that charge. A lot of Government services are free and we would not necessarily know whether other websites were charging. We know what Transport for London has done and we continue to keep the issue under review.

In fact, I was recently online to renew my European health card. I discovered that most of the top Google search results were sites that made people pay, but a lot of consumers do not realise that they can get the card free. There is an urgent need for the Government to take action to ensure that at least Government-provided services are clearly signposted on websites so that people know they are on a genuine website and not one that will rip them off.

I completely agree with the hon. Lady. I hear complaints from my constituents about such websites. We have referred the issue to the Internet Governance Forum and convened a round table of digital traders to discuss strengthening terms and conditions, and we work with Nominet, the UK’s internet registry services provider, to look at ways of prohibiting the registration of such domain names.

May I associate the members of the Opposition Business, Innovation and Skills Front-Bench team with the Secretary of State’s remarks? We wish you a happy new year, Mr Speaker, and express our sympathies to the families of those killed in Paris.

The Minister seems not to get the point. Many of those services are meant to be free, but the sites imply that people have to pay for them. The Mayor of London obviously does not believe that the Government’s action on copycat websites is good enough because he has introduced legislation to tackle rip-off congestion charge sites. Does the Minister believe the Mayor was right to do that? If so, why is what is good enough for London not good enough for the rest of the UK?

I always support the Mayor of London, because he is one of the most brilliant Mayors of London this country has ever seen. He has frozen the Mayor’s precept and introduced Boris bikes. However, it took me an hour and 10 minutes to get to Westminster from Hammersmith on the tube, so perhaps today I am about 99% supportive of the Mayor rather than 100%.

I completely agree with the hon. Lady’s sentiment that we must stamp on these copycat websites. I progressed the issue myself because of complaints from my constituents. That is why I am so pleased that we have made progress with strengthening search engine terms and conditions and started to move away from copycat websites having prominence and seen an increase in people using Government websites.

Apprenticeships

We have achieved our ambition of 2 million new apprenticeships since 2010. The apprenticeship grant for employers is helping smaller business to take on new apprentices. From April 2016, employers will not be required to pay employer national insurance contributions for apprentices under the age of 25.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the nearly 800 people in my constituency who started an apprenticeship last year? However, it is not just about quantity; it is also about quality. What steps is he taking to raise quality as well as quantity?

I am delighted to congratulate those who started apprenticeships in my hon. Friend’s constituency this year. There has been a 40% increase since 2009-10 in the number of people starting apprenticeships in his constituency. They are higher-quality apprenticeships than those that existed under the previous Government. They have to last at least 12 months, and they have to be a real job with a real employer. That is a key part of the economic plan that is improving conditions for young people in his constituency.

The most recent figures show a fall in the number of apprenticeship starts in the north-east. What explanation can the Minister offer for that concerning trend and what does he intend to do about it?

The previous Government created a great number of Mickey Mouse apprenticeships in order to massage the figures. There were apprenticeships for which people did not need an employer, and apprenticeships that lasted way less than 12 months. Under this Government, there is substantial growth in real apprenticeships—those that last more than 12 months and that give people real skills that will improve their earnings. That is why the number of people not in education, employment or training is lower than it has ever been.

The Government should be congratulated on what they have achieved with regard to apprenticeships, but the Minister will be aware that in rural and economically challenged areas such as mine in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, it is quite difficult to advance apprenticeships, particularly in small and micro-businesses. What will the Government do to ensure that small and micro-businesses can enjoy this success?

It is incredibly important that apprenticeships are created not just by the largest employers who obviously have the resources and capacity to engage with the scheme. That is why we introduced the apprenticeship grant for employers, which is specifically focused on small businesses and pays them £1,500 for the first new apprenticeships that they create. We are also looking at ways of making it easier for small businesses to get the Government’s money and to decide with whom they want to work as a training provider. But it is critical—only about 10% of employers are creating apprenticeships; if we could just double that, we could more than double the number of apprenticeships.

Should we not give the Minister the opportunity to withdraw his unfortunate remarks about Mickey Mouse apprenticeships, which really are very disrespectful to all those who worked hard and did a good job in important apprenticeships in the years to which he was referring? Is it not true that most of the increase under this Government, which Members from all parts of the House welcome, has taken place not among 16 to 18-year-olds but in the 20-year-olds-plus group, and we now need apprenticeships that will encourage the younger group into them?

It gives me great pleasure to disagree with literally everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. I certainly will not withdraw my suggestion that the last Government was conning young people. An apprenticeship that lasted less than 12 months and did not even have an employer was a fraud on them, because it was not preparing them for a life of work or giving them relevant skills. It is a bit strange for the Opposition to suggest that nobody over the age of 24 deserves any investment in new skills or any chance to acquire a new ability. I welcome the fact that people over the age of 24 are taking up apprenticeships more than ever before.

One of the benefits of the real apprenticeships that the Government have brought in is that they provide long-term avenues into work. I recently visited a small business in Worcester that was taking on its 13th apprentice. Every single apprentice that had been through had been given a full-time job by that business. But there is still a challenge in persuading careers advisers that apprenticeships provide real value. What can my hon. Friend do to encourage them to support apprenticeships more generally?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is often careers advisers and teachers who, perhaps for the best reasons in the world, just do not understand the opportunities out there in apprenticeships, or the fact that someone can now get a degree through an apprenticeship or rise to almost any position in the senior management of a company. It is no longer about a young lad under the bonnet of a car; it can still be that, but it can also be about a young woman who has just got a first-class degree at BAE Systems through a higher apprenticeship. We are trying to get that message out in every way we can.

This Government have contrived to create a country where this generation of young people is now the first generation for a century to be poorer than the generation before them. Young people now face an unemployment queue that is three quarters of a million long; graduates now face £44,000-worth of debt; and from figures published by BIS before Christmas, we learned that the number of apprenticeships for the under-24s has not gone up but down. Social mobility in this country is in reverse, and we need more apprenticeships for young people, not fewer. The Opposition have an ambition that by 2025 as many people should be going into an apprenticeship as are going to university. Is that an ambition that the Minister will match?

What I hope to hear from the right hon. Gentleman is whether that pledge, which we have costed on a reasonable basis, received the approval of the shadow Chancellor. My understanding is that the shadow Chancellor has not approved the approximately £700 million of extra spending, entirely unexplained, that it would cost to support that ambition. The Government are very clear what our ambition is. We will create 3 million new apprenticeships in the life of the next Parliament. Those apprenticeships will be for all people who would benefit from them. Unlike the Labour party and the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson), we do not discriminate against people over the age of 24.

Net Trade

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer, but last month the Office for National Statistics said that exports had remained largely flat for the past four years, and the Office for Budget Responsibility and the British Chambers of Commerce both downgraded their forecasts for net trade this year, so can he confirm that with this failure on economic rebalancing, his targets for Britain to double our exports to £1 trillion by 2020 and to get 100,000 more firms exporting from Britain will be missed?

It is a pity to hear the Opposition setting their face against the desire to double exports to £1 trillion. Of course, the eurozone on our border is in deflation and has had a series of recessions over the past four and a half years. Over the past three months our trade deficit has narrowed, so things are improving. This is undoubtedly hard work, but it is hard work that we will pursue.

Low-carbon Economy

The Government have taken strong action to create a low-carbon economy, including setting up the Green Investment Bank and a catapult centre dedicated to new renewables, and electricity market reform. Through the Department’s industrial strategy, we are working with industry to increase green jobs via sector-specific strategies for the offshore wind and nuclear industries.

Although I welcome the Government’s commitment to green energy and a low-carbon economy, surely there must be a better way of achieving that than hydraulically fracturing for fossil fuel such as shale gas, which causes huge environmental disbenefits.

I am aware of the hon. Lady’s concern about the areas of outstanding natural beauty in Yorkshire, which she represents. There is indeed an expression of interest, but there are very strong environmental and safety protections around shale gas drilling, and I am sure she will look forward to the extra development that this will produce in her constituency in due course.

The Environmental Audit Committee says that our investment in renewable energy is growing at half the rate it needs to grow at to meet our future energy needs. What is the Secretary of State doing about that?

My understanding is that investment in renewable energy is double what it was in the previous Parliament. There are certain aspects of new renewables where we lead the world, including offshore wind.

Does the Secretary of State realise that if we are to have a low-carbon economy, he and his Government have to start taking investment in higher education seriously? I chair the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s committee on sustainable production. If we do not put more money into postgraduate education, and if we do not support higher education and get away from this crazy system where all higher education relies on a mountain of student debt, we are heading for terrible trouble.

That is a rather creative stretch to the low-carbon economy, but specifically on postgraduate education, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have just introduced a postgraduate loan scheme for the first time.

Apprenticeships

We are keen to look at ways that procurement of major infrastructure projects such as HS2 and new nuclear power plants can drive investment in construction and engineering skills. High Speed 2 will create up to 2,000 apprenticeship opportunities and Crossrail is on track to deliver its target of at least 400 apprenticeships during construction.

In their response to a Business, Innovation and Skills Committee report on this issue, the Government said that they were

“working on guidance to encourage best practice amongst local authorities”.

This National Apprenticeship Service guidance was subsequently published in July. It was eight pages long, and the first six pages were devoted to problems in securing this policy and case studies of failed projects. Does the Minister agree that if we are to realise the policy’s full potential, we need a far more robust and proactive approach by the Government?

I certainly agree that there is more to be done, which is why I have had several meetings with Lord Deighton, the Commercial Secretary to the Treasury, to work out exactly how we can make it an integral part of the procurement process for all major infrastructure projects that there is a clear commitment by all successful bidders to invest in skills training and in the creation of apprenticeships.

I recognise that the Minister is new to this place, and that point scoring has its place, especially at this stage in the political cycle, but a previous answer of his did not match the seriousness of the situation. He referred to real apprenticeships leading to real skills, but we still have a huge skills shortage across the economy—for example, in construction, engineering, health and haulage, to name but a few areas. Will he make it a contractual requirement that bidders for national and local contracts have proper ratios of training places, and will he enforce those provisions if bidders fall short?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to clarify that. I think that it should absolutely be part of the procurement process for all major infrastructure projects that bidders are expected to make appropriate investments either in some form of skills training or, ideally, from my point of view—I am the apprenticeships bore—in the creation of apprenticeships. I hope that he, having criticised our record, will welcome the enormous number of apprenticeships that have been created in his constituency —50% up on 2009-10.

Is this Government policy applicable to all Departments? Will the Minister specifically have a word with the Ministry of Defence, which perhaps does not know about it?

I have the greatest respect for my hon. Friend and am always nervous about implying that his comments are in any way unfair, but the armed forces in fact create more apprenticeships every single year than any other organisation in the country. I want this to be an integral part of the procurement for major infrastructure projects and, to the extent that the MOD is involved in such projects, it will absolutely apply to it, but the MOD is leading the way in creating apprenticeships, and we should pay credit to it for that.

Manufacturing: Renewable Technologies

Our industrial strategy and our energy policy support manufacturing of renewables. I welcome the recent announcement from MHI Vestas that it will manufacture the blades for offshore wind turbines in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Of course, as with any other area of our economy, the best support we can give renewables manufacturers is to stick with our long-term economic plan.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend welcomes the recent announcement that MHI Vestas is to restart manufacturing 80-metre offshore wind turbine blades, which, as he said, will be designed, built and tested on the Isle of Wight. Will he assure me that he will continue to support those manufacturing jobs, in which the island is fast becoming a globally important player?

I pay tribute not only to my hon. Friend for the work he has done to bring that investment to the UK, and specifically to the Isle of Wight, but to all hon. Members who have worked to make Britain one of the best players in the world in the manufacture of renewables technology. That complements our energy policy. The tie-up between getting the industry and the energy policy right is absolutely vital, and he has played an important role in that.

Zero-hours Contracts

8. If he will take steps to ensure that employees working on zero-hours contracts who are in practice working regular hours over an extended period have the right to a fixed-term contract. (906868)

Under flexible working legislation brought in on 30 June 2014, all employees with 26 continuous weeks of service have the right to request flexible working from their employer. Employees on zero-hours contracts can request a change in their contracts, which could of course include a request to move to fixed hours.

Over Christmas, Radio Nottingham carried reports of a zero-hours worker at SportsDirect who was so worried about missing a shift that he went into work despite being critically ill. I have heard from constituents working in health and social care who dare not raise concerns about health and safety or quality of care for fear of losing all their hours. Is it not now absolutely clear that the only way to end that exploitation is to vote Labour on 7 May?

Unsurprisingly, I disagree with the perspective at the end of the hon. Lady’s question. I agree that there are serious issues with zero-hours contracts. Although they work well for many people, as backed up by Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development surveys, there are other examples—she highlights some from her constituency—where that type of contract is not used as it should be. That is why we are taking action through the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill to ban exclusivity clauses and why we are going further, with the development of sector-specific guidance to show what the proper and responsible use of these contracts looks like.

The Minister will be aware that in parcel and distribution services there is not only widespread use of zero-hours contracts but, as we have seen with the collapse of City Link, increased use of self-employed contractors, who have ended up with no rights to redundancy, with losing pay, and with being increasingly abused. How will the Minister regulate the sector so that we halt this race to the bottom in labour conditions?

The hon. Lady raises a genuine point. The Government do recognise this as an area of concern, particularly as regards different employment statuses. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary announced a review of employment statuses so that there can be greater clarity about the issues and we can see whether we need to make changes to the way in which different employment statuses are currently set out. The review is ongoing and we expect it to report over the next couple of months.

EU Membership

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the UK’s EU membership on businesses and the UK economy. (906870)

The European single market gives British firms access to 500 million consumers and, as our largest trading partner, is responsible for almost half this country’s exports. There is a clear direct benefit to British businesses from European Union membership.

Britain has an enormous and persistent trade deficit with the EU, equivalent to about 1 million lost British jobs. The growing crisis in the eurozone will only make the position worse, and there is no end in sight to its economic problems. What are the Government going to do to protect Britain’s economic interests in this dire situation?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not share the consensus among Opposition Members about the benefits of British membership. I am sure that if he occasionally crosses the border into Luton South and visits the vehicle production institution, he will recognise the EU’s importance to the industry and of its having the European Union negotiate access to bigger markets such as north America, as it currently is.

In a recent article in The Times, a host of senior Cabinet members, including the Foreign Secretary, the Chief Whip, and even some Ministers in the Secretary of State’s own Department, stated that they would campaign for an “out” vote in any EU referendum. In the same article, another Cabinet member was reported as saying:

“It would be a continual distraction from…work on the economy”.

Given that, as the Secretary of State said, the EU is one of our largest trading partners, what is his view on the impact on UK trade and jobs in the event of, first, an EU referendum, and, secondly, exit from the EU?

That unnamed member of the Cabinet was probably me; I did take a different view. None the less, I do have common ground with my Government colleagues in believing that the European Union needs to be reformed in quite radical ways. We need to deepen the single market, to reach trade agreements with other countries, and to reduce much of the bureaucracy that surrounds commercial activity.

Government Procurement (Supply Chains)

10. If he will make greater use of Government procurement to increase innovation and develop supply chains. (906871)

The Government are making greater use of public procurement to increase innovation and develop supply chains. The small business research initiative has provided the most innovative companies with 1,900 contracts worth £235 million, and it will be expanded. The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill implements the reforms proposed by Lord Young radically to simplify Government procurement, such as by making contract opportunities available on a single website to which all businesses can have access.

Given that the Government’s recent science and innovation strategy does not cover departmental research and development, when will the Government outline their plans on the vital role that Whitehall Departments must play in supporting innovation? In the light of his response, perhaps the Minister will place in the Library a short audit of how Departments are responding to the points he mentioned.

The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. If he reads the science and innovation strategy—I invite him to do so and will send a copy—he will see that it makes several references to this matter, including the fact that the SBRI covers a number of Whitehall Departments and will expand. It also recognises the important work of research and development within each Government Department and makes proposals to advance that.

Apprenticeships

12. What assessment he has made of recent trends in the number of apprenticeship starts for people under 19; and if he will make a statement. (906873)

In 2013-14 there was a total of 119,800 apprenticeship starts for people under 19—5,300 more and a 4.6% increase compared with 2012-13.

Last month, the Government’s own apprenticeship pay survey showed that one in four young apprentices are not receiving the legal minimum wage they are entitled to. In 2013-14, how many 16 to 18-year-olds did not receive the £2.68 per hour they are entitled to?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out very clearly what we are doing to improve enforcement of the national minimum wage. One of the things that is clearly happening is that, given the complexity of the different rates—the rate changes both if someone becomes an apprentice and as they get older—many employers simply get it wrong because people’s ages change as they go through an apprenticeship scheme. That is one of the reasons we have written to the Low Pay Commission strongly suggesting that it should simplify the system and improve the minimum wage rate for 16 to 17-year-olds in apprenticeships. That would deliver a £1 increase, but it would also simplify the system, which would improve enforcement. I am happy to write to the hon. Lady with the detail on the figures she desires.

Small Businesses

There are a record number of small businesses in Britain—760,000 more than in 2010—and they are employing more people than ever before. As in any other area of our economy, the best support we can give small businesses is to stick with the long-term economic plan.

I commend the Government for what they have done for small businesses, especially on business rates, which has helped local businesses in my constituency of Brentford and Isleworth. One of the issues that still faces small businesses is late payment. I know some of that will be addressed—by negotiating fairer contracts—in the Government’s Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the unfair practices of late payment and supply chain bullying are unacceptable?

Yes, I do. We are working incredibly hard—in fact, no Government have done more than this one—to tackle late payment. Changes coming into effect at the end of this month will ensure that 30-day payment terms are driven down the supply chain from public sector purchases. There have been 9,400 business start-ups in my hon. Friend’s constituency during this Parliament—one of the highest figures across the whole country, thanks in no small part to her hard work.

A Minister told one of my hon. Friends earlier that the Government would review employment law. Will the Minister for Business and Enterprise also review company law, certainly in relation to City Link? I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) will support me in saying that we should review company law as well as employment law. What happened at City Link, with redundancies being announced on Christmas day, was an absolute disgrace. How would people feel if that happened to them?

The timing of the announcement was clearly very difficult, but we are doing all we can to support those affected by the decision. Both the Secretary of State, who was constantly in touch with the company and the unions over Christmas, and I are working hard to support those affected.

One of the things that the Government could do to support small businesses is to support Labour’s plans to outlaw pay to stay agreements. We very much welcome the fact that, on the back of pressure from the Opposition, Premier Foods has ceased its pay to stay arrangements. The Government say that such arrangements are unacceptable, but at the same time they refuse to outlaw them. Does the Minister consider some forms of pay to stay acceptable, or are the Government so hostile to any form of regulation that they are willing to stand by while unacceptable business practices evolve and to leave small firms at the mercy of their big business customers?

I know that the hon. Gentleman likes to chip in to this debate, but recent events have clearly demonstrated the power of transparency in relation to late payment to small business. As he knows, we are radically improving the position through the small business Bill. When the contracts came to light, the company was held to account and did a U-turn. [Interruption.] They were brought to light by the Federation of Small Businesses, to which I pay tribute for its work in highlighting the issue.

Engineers

The Government are making a series of interventions to increase the number of British engineers—from trailblazer apprenticeships in engineering, manufacturing and automotive sectors to national colleges in advanced manufacturing, high-speed rail, nuclear, oil, gas and wind, with £30 million of funding to address employers’ skills shortages in engineering and £200 million of capital investment in science, technology, engineering and maths teaching facilities in higher education.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. What more is he doing to inspire younger people, particularly younger women, to take up engineering careers?

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s interest in the issue. Harrogate college recently benefited from significant investment in vocational education. He asks how we promote the message about engineering, particularly to women, who are massively under-represented in the sector. I pay tribute to the STEM network of volunteers; there are about 28,000 of them, and 40% are women. We hope that through that process of campaigning, and visits to schools and education institutions, we will gradually turn this unsatisfactory situation round.

The UK automotive industry has had another good year, which is welcomed across the House, but it now needs to recruit even more engineers. What is the Automotive Council UK doing to promote the industry to the next generation of engineers?

The Automotive Council UK is one of the success stories of industrial strategy. There is a great deal of commitment from industry and, indeed, on both sides of the House. The talent retention scheme is working well: if engineers are lost in particular sectors of the economy, they are speedily re-employed elsewhere and the skills base—which, as my hon. Friend implies, is inadequate—is maintained.

Apprenticeships

Some £l70 million has been made available between 2014 and 2016 to fund more than 100,000 additional payments of the apprenticeship grant to employers, and the Government’s planned investment in apprenticeships in the current financial year totals £1.5 billion.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the news that in Gillingham and Rainham there were 450 intermediate, 230 advanced, and 20 high-level apprenticeship starts in 2013-14, meaning that 700 young people gained invaluable skills and experiences for future careers? Will he join me in congratulating businesses such as Jubilee Clips and Delphi in my constituency on providing excellent engineering apprenticeships?

Businesses such as those my hon. Friend mentions are leading this country into recovery and ensuring that that benefits everyone in his constituency. Since 2009-10, there has been a 73% increase in the number of new apprenticeships in his constituency, and that extraordinary figure is testament to local employers, colleges, and the local Member of Parliament.

Mandatory Origin Marking

17. What position his Department took at the Competitiveness Council discussions on 4 December 2014 on the product safety and market surveillance package and the provision of mandatory origin marking on consumer products manufactured or imported. (906879)

The UK’s position on the product safety and market surveillance package remains unchanged: we oppose the inclusion of mandatory country of origin marking in the consumer product safety regulation. The issue was briefly raised at the Competitiveness Council meeting on 4 December, but no formal discussion or decisions were taken.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but I am disappointed. On the grounds of public health and putting British manufacturing on a level playing field, we desperately need to hold a consultation and do the necessary research to make the case for compulsory country of origin marking, so that when we turn over a cup or saucer we know exactly where it was manufactured. Why cannot the Government abandon their opposition to that deregulatory measure?

The hon. Lady is a long-standing campaigner on and advocate for that issue. I do not believe it is a product safety matter, but she is right to say that there is a genuine issue that businesses in her constituency and other parts of the country are concerned about. We are looking into the matter in more detail and we expect a UK study on country of origin marking to complete by next month. The Commission has announced its own study on origin marking, which we will consider closely.

Pay to Stay Agreements

18. If he will bring forward legislative proposals to prohibit firms from being asked to make pay to stay agreements to remain or become approved suppliers by large firms. (906880)

The Government are radically increasing transparency over late payment, drastically shortening public sector payment terms, and consulting on changes to tackle pay to stay arrangements.

The business practices of Premier Foods in charging firms for the privilege of being a supplier have been condemned as unethical and an example of predatory capitalism. Will the Minister join me in condemning the way in which City Link management treated its work force, and will he say what the Government are doing to support City Link workers? Does he support a full inquiry into this dreadful affair, including into the circumstances leading up to the announcement, so that lessons can be learned and we do not have any repeat of such events?

The administrator will report on City Link. On the issue of Premier Foods, the practices were hard to defend, as I said earlier. In fact, the company found them impossible to defend when they came to light. The extraordinary increase in transparency will help to make sure that we can see which companies have good payment practices and which have the worst. We can then compare them and hold to account those companies with bad practices. More than that, we are consulting on changes to such contracts and we will have the results of that consultation shortly.

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.

May I press the Minister further on the question of apprenticeships? Not only did the pay survey expose some concerning trends, it also showed that one in five apprentices do not actually receive any training. Given that most people’s idea of an apprenticeship is a placement that combines on-the-job work experience and a specific training programme, I find that deeply concerning. What percentage of the Government’s apprenticeships are not really apprenticeships at all?

There is confusion because sometimes employers will call something an apprenticeship that we do not recognise as an apprenticeship and for which we provide no financial support. They are free to do that: we do not own the trademark of an apprenticeship. We make a choice, however, about which apprenticeships we support, and we have a clear policy that we enforce—they have to last longer than 12 months, they must pay the minimum wage for apprenticeships, and they have to involve training. If the training is not external—some big employers will have internal training arrangements—they have to be Ofsted inspected, like every other training provider.

T5. What plans do the Government have to strengthen the prompt payment code to stop larger organisations taking advantage of their suppliers? (906887)

We are strengthening the prompt payment code. We want more companies to sign up to the code and I am writing to all the FTSE 350 companies to encourage them to do so. If a company changes its payment practices for the worse and to the detriment of small businesses, I want to see a situation in which they will be kicked off the prompt payment code so that they cannot wear that badge of pride.

Following on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), does the Secretary of State agree that to hear that your job has been put at risk of redundancy not from your employer, but while watching the television news with your family on Christmas day—as was the case with the City Link workers—is an utterly appalling way to be treated?

I certainly agree that for the 2,300 workers involved it was a very sad and dispiriting event. The company can answer for its behaviour, but the fact is that it was no longer viable and was put into administration. [Official Report, 16 January 2015, Vol. 590, c. 9MC.]

With so many unanswered questions for employees and contractors of City Link, the entire affair stinks. Why, for example, if the firm was technically insolvent on 22 December, as has been reported, was it planning to trade until 26 December? Is it true that contractors were told that rumours of it going into administration were false? Why was a new subsidiary set up on 9 December?

The administrators will do their work and no doubt make a D1 filing with the Department. Given the numbers involved and the public interest in the administration, will the Secretary of State commit to conducting a full and proper inquiry into the matter, as he did with Comet? Those who have lost their jobs and contractors who are owed money deserve nothing less.

The difference with the Comet case is the allegation of serious misconduct by directors, and that may or may not be the case with City Link. In six weeks, the administrator will make a report to our Insolvency Service and, depending on what that says, we may want to initiate an investigation, but let us wait and see the findings of that. [Official Report, 16 January 2015, Vol. 590, c. 10MC.]

T6. There have been more than 500 apprenticeship starts in my constituency in the past year, but I want to increase that figure. What more can we do to ensure that businesses support, and schools promote, apprenticeships? (906890)

The level of creation of apprenticeships in my hon. Friend’s constituency is fantastic, but more can always be done. The best possible advocates for apprenticeships in schools are the people who have just finished doing them. They are discovering that they are getting great jobs with better pay than their peers. Getting recently graduated apprentices back to their schools to talk to young people about the choices they are about to make is the most powerful way of persuading them of this opportunity.

T2. Five hundred of the City Link redundancies are in Scotland. Does the Secretary of State share the outrage of the Scottish people at the way the workers have been treated and the fact that the taxpayer is expected to pay for part of the multimillion pound redundancy bill? What is he doing to help the workers and their families, in Scotland and across the UK, who have been devastated by this news? (906884)

The taxpayer is, of course, always responsible for statutory redundancy and this case is no different. I have talked to the head of the union and the secretary-general of the Trades Union Congress on how to deal with the implications for the labour market. The labour force is very widely distributed across the UK with no major concentrations, but where there are, and if there are people who really need help with finding employment and reskilling, we are certainly willing to do the maximum we possibly can to help.

T7. The ringing of tills, especially among small independent shops, should always be welcome in this nation of shopkeepers. In the last week of December, Worcester’s high street saw a 13% increase in footfall. That is very welcome. Small shops in Worcester are looking forward to the £1,500 discount to business rates this year. May I urge the Minister, as the Government consider further reform to business rates, to ensure that small businesses continue to benefit? (906891)

I am delighted to hear of that improvement in Worcester, which is no doubt in part, though not all, down to the work of my hon. Friend. Business rates raise revenue and revenue is necessary, but the review has to ensure that they work better. The £1,500 discount for retailers is a step forward, but this is a major opportunity to improve the way the tax works.

T3. The Department for Work and Pensions’ proposals for universal credit will involve more than half a million self-employed people having to submit new and different monthly accounts. The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is responsible across government for reducing red tape. What discussions is he having with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the DWP to do something about this? He probably has time, given the delay to universal credit, but this is a matter of considerable concern for people trying to set up their own businesses. (906885)

There is a series of discussions between officials in my Department and in DWP, and at ministerial level, to do precisely that. The advent of universal credit will help to make work pay. It is a very important change in our welfare system, but it has to be done in a way that supports small businesses which, after all, employ many, many people. The Government’s ongoing work will ensure that that happens.

As of last week, one could go into an Asda supermarket and buy four pints of milk for 89 pence. Milk, with all the work and care that goes into its production, should not be cheaper than plain water. Is it time to look again at the remit of the grocery code adjudicator to give her the opportunity to look at whole supply chains, especially when they greatly disadvantage primary producers?

The grocery code adjudicator’s remit is set out clearly in primary legislation, but it is important that the Government keep these issues under review. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has engaged significantly with milk producers on this issue. My hon. Friend highlights a real problem concerning the sustainability of those who produce this vital resource.

T4. What does the Minister have to say to members of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, who consider that his requirement for disabled students to contribute £200 towards their computer equipment funded by the disabled students allowance is unacceptable and discriminatory? (906886)

As the hon. Lady knows, we have reflected carefully on some of the representations made about the proposed package, and we continue to consult on the details and will come forward with a full response in due course. It is fair to say, however, that disabled groups and their representatives have recognised and welcomed the changes.

Given our huge trade deficit with the EU, will the Secretary of State tell us why he is so certain that were we to leave the EU, it would stop free trade with us? Or is it that kind of woolly thinking that has led to his removal as his party’s economic spokesman at the general election?

I actually remain as our economics spokesman, but that is a minor internal matter.

I think that most Conservative Members fully support British membership of the EU; they might wish to see it reformed, as I think we all do, but membership is fundamental. It is difficult to imagine that Britain could independently negotiate trade agreements with the US, India and other countries with the same authority as the EU.

T8. In the Government’s opinion, at what level of RAB—resource accounting and budgeting—charge does the student loan system become unsustainable? (906892)

As the hon. Lady knows, probably the most respected expert in the world on this subject, the OECD, has been clear that “the UK higher education system is excellent for individuals and for the Government” and offers the “most sustainable” system in the world. The system is in robust good health and works well. It offers good value for the taxpayer and students.

Will the universities Minister confirm that overseas students will continue to receive a warm welcome in this country, and will he assure me that we will not expect them to leave the country after they graduate and apply for a post-study work visa from abroad?

That is not the Government’s policy and I do not agree with the suggestion. I take great pride in the fact that the brightest and best people in the world want to come and study at our excellent universities. It is great news that we heard just before Christmas that we have record numbers of overseas students applying for admission to university in this country next year. When they come here, they will receive the most cordial of welcomes.

Most companies pay the national minimum wage, but increasingly we have seen more companies not wishing to pay it and developing numerous professional scams—making individuals pay for uniforms, non-payment of mileage, bogus employment and bogus apprenticeships. What will the Government do to police the national minimum wage effectively in respect of these companies?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very serious issues and alludes to today’s TUC report, which I look forward to reading in detail. We have expanded the resources available for the enforcement of the national minimum wage; we have increased the penalties; we have introduced the naming and shaming scheme; and we will continue to clamp down hard on those companies that break the law. Many of the practices he outlined, which would seem to be in the report, are already against the law. The pay and work rights helpline in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will also help to clamp down on these employers.

Just before Christmas, Alstom Grid announced its intention to construct a state-of-the-art factory and research facility in Stafford— a vote of confidence in this country’s skills, openness to investment and industrial strategy. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute not only to Alstom—soon to merge with GE—but to Staffordshire county council, which had the foresight to construct a state-of-the-art business park, in which Alstom will be the first investor?

I happily join the hon. Gentleman in that tribute. I have been to Alstom and seen its advanced electrical equipment manufacturing—it is one of the best in the world—and it is a tribute to the policies we have pursued that it wishes to expand its investment here.

Given that Brent crude has dropped to $50 a barrel—40% of what it was—I am surprised there was not one question on the Order Paper about the effect of that on the supply chain, which is the responsibility of the Secretary of State; I know he knows this. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), the new leader of the Labour party in Scotland, is calling for a summit to cover not just offshore but the supply chain factors affected by this collapse in the oil price. Will the Secretary of State join that summit and help not just the offshore industry but the supply chain, which is also affected?

We understand the importance of that question. One of the sectoral groups in our industrial strategy is specifically concerned with the oil and gas supply chain. The companies around Aberdeen in particular are among the world leaders and could be seriously hit by the contraction of investment. Certainly, we will be getting that group together quickly and making an assessment of what it means. It is important to think long term, of course, as much of the industry does; temporary fluctuations in price are not necessarily as damaging as the hon. Gentleman might believe.

In 2010, the European Union sold to this country £28 billion more in goods than we sold to it. By the end of 2013, this massive figure had risen to £56 billion. Over that period, however, unemployment in this country has fallen significantly. Does that not destroy the Liberal Democrat myth that 3 million UK jobs are dependent on EU membership?

What an extraordinarily primitive view of economics to believe in narrow bilateral balances of trade! One thing that should be said is that we are dealing, of course, not just in goods, but in services, where Britain has a major competitive advantage.

Does the Secretary of State approve of, and will he support, the campaign of the all-party group on manufacturing to find a great export in each of the 650 constituencies? Will he back that? It is a cross-party initiative; it has raised the profile of British exports; and I think it is a very good idea.

I am very happy to support it. I remember that a couple of years ago, the hon. Gentleman asked every individual MP to identify companies in their constituencies that had made major manufacturing innovations. I praise the work that this all-party group is doing.

The Secretary of State has agreed to see my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) and me on Monday on the question of City Link. We are grateful for that and look forward to meeting him. Will he take the opportunity now, at probably the last question of this Question Time, to make clear personally how much he deprecates the cynical and disgraceful behaviour of the owners of City Link and put that on the record? No behaviour like this can be justified in the 21st century—it belongs to the 19th century, if it belongs anywhere at all. Will he make that clear today?

Giving lectures in that way is probably not helpful. I need to establish the facts about what has happened. Very serious allegations have been made, and we need to get them properly investigated. It needs to be said for the record, of course, that this is a company that was losing money under a variety of ownerships for as long as five years, so its future has been in question for a long time.