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Topical Questions

Volume 590: debated on Thursday 8 January 2015

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.