Business, Innovation and Skills
The Secretary of State was asked—
Small Farm Companies
The House legislated to strengthen protection for small farmers and small businesses supplying supermarkets by establishing the Groceries Code Adjudicator. I recently secured Government agreement to enable the GCA to impose fines of up to 1% of turnover on supermarkets found guilty of mistreating suppliers. I was also pleased that the GCA last week launched a formal investigation into alleged breaches by Tesco of the groceries code, and I urge those with evidence to come forward.
I think the Secretary of State and I are at one on this, but he will know of the plight of the many small dairy farmers driven out of business by the abuse of market position by supermarkets and big buyers, and of its impact not just on the face of our countryside, but through the importation of milk that is probably produced to much lower farm welfare standards than our own. Will he therefore consider strengthening the powers of the GCA so that if market position is abused, farmers and others are not penalised by the strength of supermarkets?
I am aware of the Select Committee report that suggested something very similar. Its main recommendation was that we introduce the power of fines, which we have now done, but there will be a review of the GCA within a year of the legislation, and no doubt in the next Parliament those powers can be taken.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for referring to the Select Committee report. Unfortunately, one year might be too late for the many dairy farmers going out of business. Will he undertake an immediate and urgent review into extending the remit of the GCA to indirect supply chains, such as those in the dairy industry, as well as direct supply chains with supermarkets?
The hon. Lady rightly touches on the key outstanding issue, and I certainly believe it would be appropriate to consider the indirect supply chains. I am happy to talk to my colleague the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about that particular issue, but I think she will find that there is a legislative obstacle.
Will my right hon. Friend look at the successful local sourcing policies promoted by the East of England Co-operative Society, with the support of Forward East, which are enabling small food and drink manufacturers to get their products into local stores? He and others might wish to know that on Tuesday 24 February, in the Inter-Parliamentary Union room at lunchtime, they will be able to witness that for themselves.
Technology and Video Games Sectors
2. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Education and Department for Culture, Media and Sport and with the devolved Administrations on ensuring that their policies meet the skills needs of the technology and video games sectors. (907593)
As a joint Minister at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, I often have conversations with myself about this important issue, and on the odd occasion they get dull, I involve the Minister for Skills and Equalities and the Department for Education. I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that we have introduced a new school computing curriculum, are establishing a new national college for digital skills and are co-funding with employers innovative degree apprenticeships.
I try not to speak to myself about this subject, but the Minister will be aware that I have raised on numerous occasions the importance of computer and video games to the Dundee, Scotland and UK economy. I am sure he agrees that there is a skills shortage—not enough graduates are going into the computer games industry. What is he doing with other Departments to address this situation?
The hon. Gentleman is a doughty champion for the video games industry, which is hugely successful in his constituency and throughout the country, and the video games tax relief will also help the industry grow. However, he is quite right to point to the need to focus on skills. The games industry was instrumental in persuading the Government to have computer coding taught in schools, and, because we have a sense of urgency about this, we have introduced new degree apprenticeships so that people at university can work closely with employers on the latest technology.
3. What steps he is taking to increase the number of engineers. (907594)
We are investing in engineering skills at every level in higher education through apprenticeships and in further education, but perhaps the most important initiative is the university technical college initiative. We have opened 30 university technical colleges and a further 27 are in the pre-opening phase.
As we know, we are going to have increasing demand for engineers nationally over the next few decades, and this will be no more acute than in Basildon and Thurrock. Will my hon. Friend therefore work with me to explore the possibility of establishing a university technical college in Basildon to meet our local needs and to encourage and enthuse young people to look at engineering as a valued career?
I would be delighted to do that. I know my hon. Friend has been leading the process of trying to set up a UTC in his constituency. I urge him to make contact with the excellent Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which developed the concept of the UTC and will provide invaluable advice on how to make sure that my hon. Friend submits a successful bid.
The Minister will know that the largest manufacturing industry in the country is food and drink, and that it has one of the biggest export potentials. Will he recognise that engineering disciplines that are ancillary to that industry also have enormous potential, whether it be agricultural engineering, food processing, food storage requirements or food transport? Will he look at technical education from the point of view of where the export potential is, particularly in the developing world?
Mr Speaker, thank you! You have slightly thrown me off my course.
I welcome what my hon. Friend has said, and I hope that he welcomes the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor when launching our long-term economic plan for the south-west, in which he encouraged a proposal to come forward for a university technical college specifically focused on agriculture and related industries. I hope that my hon. Friend will be involved in promoting that.
This year, China will produce something like 2 million graduates in engineering and engineering-related subjects. Engineering firms in my constituency tell me how difficult it is to recruit engineers, particularly female ones, and that when they train them up, they often lose them to larger firms. What can the Minister do to make sure we have a better join-up between business requirements and education so that engineers stay in this country and produce for our economy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the desperate need for more engineers, but we have been making good progress. Since 2010, the number of people starting an engineering-related apprenticeship has gone up by 52%, and since 2013 the number of people starting an engineering degree has risen by 6.5 %. If we can get a better supply coming through the pipe, companies will be less inclined to poach from each other and will actually invest in developing the talent themselves through an apprenticeship.
Universal Service Obligation (Mail Deliveries)
4. What steps he plans to take to safeguard the universal service obligation for the delivery of mail. (907597)
The universal service obligation is not an optional extra—it is a fundamental duty enshrined in law and only Parliament could change that. In addition, it is the responsibility of the postal regulator, Ofcom, to ensure services are available throughout the UK at an affordable and uniform price, six days a week.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but is it not time that we looked at how Ofcom carries out its remit, possibly through a judicial review of that remit? Ofcom has been dragged reluctantly to review the actions of the cherry-pickers such as Whistl, which wants to pick mail up in the 8% of the UK’s geographical area that covers 42% of the mail thereby undermining the ability of Royal Mail to deliver, yet Ofcom attacked the standard of wages and conditions of the Royal Mail workers rather than deal with the problem of cherry-picking of the universal service obligation, which could be irrecoverably damaged.
There is agreement on both sides about the importance of the universal service obligation, and I do not think there is any evidence that the regulator is failing to fulfil its duty. It looked in detail at the case the Royal Mail put forward last summer and concluded that the market is operating as it should at the moment. It is committed to a further review later this year, and is also looking at the issue of access pricing. These issues are continually under consideration because the USO is so important.
I am disappointed that you did not tell the House the middle names of this Minister, Mr Speaker, but perhaps we can look forward to that later.
It is nearly 18 months since the botched privatisation of Royal Mail. There are reports almost weekly of its being under pressure from the impact of Amazon’s increased use of its own delivery network, and from rivals which are cherry-picking the most profitable services. As the Minister has just said, Ofcom recently concluded that other firms did not have to match Royal Mail’s costly standards in the delivery of the universal service obligation. Given that Labour warned time and again that privatisation would ultimately threaten the USO, and given that the National Federation of SubPostmasters called it a “reckless gamble”, will the Minister look again at the USO, and give a cast-iron guarantee that it will be secure under this Government?
This Government have already given that cast-iron guarantee by legislating for it in the Postal Services Act 2011. Parliament has set it very firmly in stone. Unless the hon. Gentleman thinks that any future Labour Government would be minded to change the position, I hope that Members on both sides of the House can feel confident that the universal service obligation is secure.
As I said earlier, Ofcom, the regulator, has significant powers to obtain information from other operators in the market. It monitors operators’ plans regularly, and looks at the information every month. Operators must also inform the regulator of their future plans. That will remain under review, and a formal review will take place later this year. I think that what I have said should reassure the House that the universal service obligation is here to stay.
That is obviously a slightly different issue from the USO, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that Royal Mail has reviewed the time of collections from post boxes in which fewer than 50 items of mail were being deposited each day, as part of an overall review of its service. In a positive move which I think Members should welcome, it has maintained all those collection points rather than decommissioning some of them, although collections will be less frequent. It has also ensured that there will be an alternative posting point within half a mile of post boxes from which there are fewer collections or an earlier final collection, from which mail will be collected later.
Under the industrial strategy, we encourage a long-term approach to procurement, including apprenticeships and other forms of training.
May I point out, with respect, that the Labour Government used spending on public procurement to boost apprenticeship opportunities, especially in the case of big projects such as Crossrail and the London Olympics? Given that the European Union procurement rules do not prevent that, will the Secretary of State explain why Ministers are not supporting Labour’s plans to use public procurement to create new apprenticeship opportunities?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that under the last Government the numbers of apprenticeship starts was half the number that we have seen in the current Parliament, and that these are also significantly longer and higher-level apprenticeships. As for procurement, if companies can build in apprenticeships—which we encourage them to do—that is of course desirable, but it is a very crude mechanism which adds to the barriers facing small business and the cost to the Government. The experience of trying to build conditionality into section 106 agreements suggests that many companies regard the process as token, and do not invest in sustainable apprenticeships.
I recently visited Mathias & Sons, a work clothing manufacturer in my constituency. It is hoping to secure the contract to provide clothing for workers at the Hinkley Point C development. What can the Government do to ensure that important small businesses like that obtain contracts for such huge developments?
I believe that congratulations are due to the hon. Lady, who has become engaged—perhaps this morning, but certainly recently.
As for procurement and Hinkley Point, the leading contractors have committed themselves to a substantial UK content, and we hope that that extends to apprenticeships. We are endeavouring to frame the pre-qualification questionnaires in such as way that apprenticeship training is encouraged in UK procurement.
Big projects such as Crossrail and HS2 are UK-wide. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that businesses throughout the UK, including small businesses, have an opportunity to benefit from the procurement and Government spending that is associated with that type of work?
I gather that senior politicians, including me, have been queuing to go down into Crossrail to admire its progress. One of Crossrail’s key achievements is to substantially advance apprenticeships and, above all, UK content; there is a wide distribution throughout the UK. If we can replicate the experience of Crossrail with other big infrastructure projects, that would be an admirable step forward.
More students entered university this year than ever before in our history, with the biggest rise coming from the poorest areas. Universities will see their teaching resources grow from around £8 billion in 2011 to around £10 billion next year. Graduates are earning 40% more than non-graduates. The taxpayer gets £300,000 extra in tax receipts alone over the average graduate’s career. All this is why the OECD said last month:
“England has got it right on paying for higher education. Among all available approaches, the UK offers still the most…sustainable approach to university finance.”
In a recent parliamentary debate, the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), who I am delighted to see in his place, said that the system needed some tweaking. The public need to know what tweaking the Government have in mind. If the Conservatives are in power after the election—[Interruption.] I know it is unlikely but if that is the case will the Minister guarantee that there will be no increase in the fee cap, no decrease in the loan repayment threshold and no change in the interest rate on loans?
Our universities need to benefit from the confidence and stability that our reforms have introduced. I am perfectly happy with all the arrangements that we have. The uncertainty comes from the Labour party’s proposals, about which the university vice-chancellors are deeply concerned. They said that they would mean
“cuts to universities that would damage the economy, affect the quality of students’ education, and set back work on widening access to higher education”.
At a time when confidence is needed, the Labour party is proposing chaos.
Actually, the UCAS figures published recently show that there are 7,000 fewer British applicants to our universities than there were in 2011. Figures from the Library show that we are wasting and writing off £1 in every £2 that we invest in the higher education system, and our students will not pay back their debts until they are in their 50s. We are educating fewer of our young people and we are wasting more of our money.
The Chancellor forecast that there would be 60,000 extra students this year, yet the UCAS data show that there are only 12,000 extra applicants for this September. Does the Minister want to explain to the House why, if his system is so good, he has just missed his growth target by an incredible 80%?
That is total nonsense. We have more students than ever before in this country. We have been able to take the cap off the number of students able to go to university, a historic decision that implements the recommendation of the Robins report of over 50 years ago. In terms of putting people off going to university, the big concern of the vice-chancellors is that the Labour party’s proposals would specifically damage the prospects of poorer students and risk the quality of education for all. It is time that the right hon. Gentleman, who has failed to come up with a policy for all this time, said, weeks before the election, what Labour’s policy on higher education is.
Enterprise Finance Guarantee Scheme
The enterprise finance guarantee is an important part of our support for viable businesses looking to get access to finance where they do not have sufficient collateral or a track record. We regularly review its performance and have found that by increasing access to finance it helps jobs and growth.
For over a year, I have written and tabled parliamentary questions asking for a review of the scheme. On 14 January, the Secretary of State met RBS. On 15 January, RBS announced a review of its scheme. Given that it controls about 40% of the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, that it is calling for a review and is looking at the matter internally, is it not about time that the Minister did that himself?
We constantly review the scheme to ensure that we get the best possible deal. The majority of the enterprise finance guarantee goes through other banks, which, as far as we know, are performing impeccably. On the RBS aspect, we have met RBS to discuss that. It is reviewing the matter, and we will make sure that it works in the future. The big picture is that the scheme is working well and helping small firms to access finance.
Following a year of my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) raising this issue, RBS has admitted that there has been mis-selling of the EFG scheme.
Rebuilding confidence in our banking sector will be one of the key tasks facing the next Labour Government. From interest rate swaps to tax evasion and now mis-selling of EFG loans, the Government have been slow to act and slow to investigate whether there are problems. Does the Minister now accept that only through investigating and repairing mis-selling in Britain’s high street banks will confidence in the sector return?
The hon. Gentleman has a bit of a cheek, because the investigation required, and the sorting out of confidence in banks, was an enormous issue that we had to take on in 2010. We have regulated and passed legislation throughout this Parliament to ensure that there is more confidence in the banking industry. Of course, there is more to do, but considering how far we have come over the last five years, the hon. Gentleman ought to be saying we have done a good job and be helping us to do that.
The regional growth fund provides support to key industries in England, creating and safeguarding jobs. I am pleased to announce today that regional growth fund support over the next two years will be expanded by nearly £300 million, including more than 60 new schemes. Some 90% of the funding announced today will go to projects and programmes in the manufacturing sector, helping companies to expand, develop new products and new markets and create long-term skilled jobs.
You do not want to mention, Mr Speaker, that my second name is John, and when I was a young councillor with my first seat in Wales I went around with my full name of Barry John.
May I say to the Minister, “Not bad, but not good enough”? Why can we not have up front, “Manufacturing, manufacturing, manufacturing”? We need a commitment to that across the parties in this House. We have just launched a cross-party manufacturing commission. Will the Minister support it, will he do something about it, and will he come tonight to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ manufacturing conference and hear me speak?
Tempting though that invitation is, I am not sure I will be hearing the hon. Gentleman speak, although I enjoy his contributions in this House. Manufacturing has been enjoying a stunning revival during the last few years, and it is supported by the investments made through the local growth fund and the regional growth fund. Some £1.1 billion of funding has been put into manufacturing. Is there further to go? Of course, but this Government’s strategy is clear: by reviving the sectors in which we have strengths that are famous around the world, we can build the prosperity that will provide the security for our country for many years to come.
Will the Minister confirm that when we talk about “tech” we mean not just the software, but the hardware as well, and that there are enormous prospects for British manufacturing, especially supported through the RGF, to be world leaders in the high-tech industries of the future?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He and I had the privilege to be at the Royal Society last night, where awards were presented for some of the key figures who are translating some of our most brilliant ideas into practice, especially in advanced manufacturing. Across all the sectors there is confidence that the prospects for this country are better than ever. That is a tribute in large part to the work that my right hon. Friend did in office.
The steel unions, supported by steel employers, launched a “Stand Up for Steel” campaign after the debate in this Chamber on the future of the steel industry. With there still being uncertainty about the future of Tata long products, what are the Government doing to stand up for steel, a crucial part of our manufacturing industry that is famous for its innovation and crucial to the future success of this country?
Anyone who was born on Teesside cannot fail to be aware of the importance of the steel industry. It is an important part of our industrial base, and this Government have made significant strides in supporting it. For example, we have reduced the energy costs that would otherwise have been incurred. The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. and hon. Friends have regular discussions with representatives of the steel industry and will continue to support it.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) rightly said that the food and drink manufacturing sector was the largest manufacturing sector in this country. It employs 400,000 people and invests £1 billion in innovation. There is also huge opportunity for further growth through innovation, but the Food and Drink Federation’s calls for a food and drink manufacturing council, with collaboration between the industry and the Government to foster innovation, have fallen on deaf ears. The phrase “food and drink manufacturing” is not even mentioned in the Government’s agri-tech strategy. Why have the Government chosen to ignore this innovative and high-potential manufacturing sector, and how will the Minister make amends?
We have not ignored it. In fact, I had the privilege of attending the Agri-Tech Leadership Council, which involved many of our key players across the food and drink industry and my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) and the Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Lord de Mauley. We met representatives of the industry precisely to plan and implement the strategy that the sector wants to put forward.
Gross lending by the banks to small and medium- sized businesses has increased by 25% over the last year, and recent net lending figures have been positive. This week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced Help to Grow, to boost scale-up finance, building on the success of our start-up loans.
On the contrary, the gross lending is up sharply—around a quarter over the past year—and there are also greater repayments as businesses that are becoming stronger are able to pay down some of their debts. That means that the net figure has been increasing in recent months. We need to look through the individual figures and see the bigger picture of the expansion. However, there is of course much more to do to recover from the banking crash that occurred in 2008.
I know about this issue very well, not only in a ministerial capacity but because Mr Ian Parker is one of the main advocates for a solution to this, and he is a constituent of mine. It is important to get to the bottom of this issue, but it is complicated. There is work going on across the Financial Conduct Authority and the Treasury, as well as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to ensure that we get to the bottom of it and that people get appropriate recompense.
The European single market gives British firms access to 500 million consumers and, as our largest trading partner, is responsible for almost half of this country’s exports. A wide range of economic studies demonstrate the benefits to the UK economy from EU membership.
It is my strongly held view that a UK exit from the European Union would be bad for British jobs, bad for British exports and bad for the British people. When did the Secretary of State last speak to the Prime Minister about the so-called negotiations with other European leaders about EU reform? Does he know what the deal-breaker is for the Prime Minister that would lead to the Prime Minister campaigning against our continued membership of the European Union?
The Prime Minister and I discuss this frequently, and we agree that there needs to be significant reforms and improvements in the European single market, particularly moving on to a digital single market. The hon. Lady is quite right to say that our exit would be massively disruptive, and a lot of actual and potential foreign investors in this country are making it absolutely clear that they are alarmed by that possibility, should there be a change of Government.
Can the Secretary of State tell us: how much this country has handed over in membership fees alone to the European Union since it became a member of the Common Market; what our cumulative trade deficit has been since we joined the Common Market; what our trade deficit was last year with the European Union; in how many years we have had a trade surplus with the EU since we joined the Common Market; what proportion of the world economy the EU made up when we joined the Common Market; and what proportion of the world economy the EU is today?
I will do my best to answer the second, third and fourth of the hon. Gentleman’s six questions, which related to the trade deficit. Clearly, if we look at the trade deficit in terms of services as well as goods, and if we look at capital flows, including inward investment, the position is a very positive one. I do have to record—I am sure he is aware of this—the extreme alarm now being expressed in business circles about the possibility of a Conservative Government, creating a great deal of uncertainty in this area. There is uncertainty about a prolonged hiatus as the conditions which he is seeking have to be negotiated and uncertainty as to the different forms of exit, be it the Norwegian, Swiss or Turkish model. He will have to reflect with his colleagues on the damage now being done by that uncertainty.
I note that the Secretary of State did not answer any of the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), because he is embarrassed by the answers he would have to give the House. It is my strongly held view that Britain would be better off out of the European Union, because we would be able to control our immigration and save the £10 billion a year membership fee. Given that we do have a massive and growing trade deficit with Europe—those countries sell us more than we sell them—is it not a complete myth that trade with Europe would stop were we to leave the EU?
Of course it entirely depends what the alternative arrangements are, and I have never been terribly clear what those people who want to leave are actually seeking. If we had a Norwegian solution, we would still have the immigration movements. If we had a Swiss agreement, there would be a substantial degree of integration. I think that what many Members who want to leave the EU are asking for is an arrangement such as that prevailing with Turkey, under which there is minimal commitment to a single market but very few of the benefits of membership.
UK Space Port
I met Transport and Defence Ministers yesterday to discuss progress on delivering the UK’s first space port. They are both part of the cross-governmental team taking forward the national space flight agenda. The Government have undertaken a public consultation on the eight potential locations, including Machrihanish in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and the criteria that will be used to select the location of a UK space port. Our response to that consultation will be published shortly.
I thank the Minister for that answer. A space port would be a great boost to the British economy. Machrihanish, with its 3 km runway and all the facilities of a Royal Air Force base, and being far from densely populated areas, is obviously the clear choice for the space port. I urge the Government to go on to the next phase of the decision-making process quickly and choose Machrihanish as soon as possible.
Digital Single Market
In homage to the elaborate nomenclature of the Minister for Skills and Equalities, which you have revealed this morning, Mr Speaker, let me quote our greatest romantic poet:
“Nothing is so contagious as enthusiasm.”
I can tell you, Mr Speaker, that our non-paper on the digital single market, which contains an enthusiastic vision for a digital single market, has gone down an absolute storm in Europe, partly because it is online, with interactive graphics.
I welcome the progress we are making on creating a digital single market—and indeed the interactive graphics. Is the Minister aware that the business models of some of our most successful industries, particularly those in the audiovisual sector and sports rights, depend on territorial licensing? Will he confirm that the Government’s policy is to continue to support their right to do that?
Let me say that
“common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom.”
That is Coleridge as well, but nobody understood. My hon. Friend has displayed immense common sense in pointing out that it is important that we stand up for the intellectual property rights of our very successful creative industries. It has to be said as well that we should be mindful of what the consumer now wants, which is to access content in a fair and reasonable way wherever they are based. So we need to work with industry and the consumer to achieve a happy result.
My Department plays a key role in supporting the rebalancing of the economy through business to deliver growth while increasing skills and learning.
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers recently reported that, due to the fall in oil prices, the terms and conditions of people employed in the oil industry have been reduced. Is the Minister aware of that and what steps is he taking to address that exploitation?
The fall in the oil price has had a direct impact on those employed in the industry both in Aberdeen and across the whole country, and there is no doubt that it will continue to have an impact. Nevertheless, the safeguarding of jobs, in some cases with reductions of pay, is an important part of the response and we are working closely with the industry and other stakeholders to try to ensure that we get through these difficult times.
T2. Further to the reply that my hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy gave a moment ago, can he confirm that the Government’s position remains as set out in the response to the consultation on the review of EU copyright law—that any changes should be based on hard evidence? Perhaps I might ask him a second time to be a little clearer—just so that we can be absolutely certain that everyone is aware—that the Government support the right of territorial licensing, as the Prime Minister’s special adviser set out to the creative industries yesterday. (907620)
Yes, that is the case. I should make it absolutely clear that the non-paper that we have submitted to the European Commission represents a vision for the digital single market. It is our firm belief that consumers should be able to access content in a fair and reasonable way wherever they are, but we do support the right of industries with internet protocol to sell territorial licensing.
Following their “Maoist and chaotic” abolition of regional development agencies—the Business Secretary’s words not mine—the Government’s flagship regional growth policy this Parliament has been the regional growth fund, which was mentioned earlier. This might be our last Business, Innovations and Skills questions this Parliament, so can the Secretary of State tell me what percentage of those RGF moneys, announced to great fanfare, have actually made it to, and been drawn down by, the businesses concerned?
I am going off later today to talk about the regional growth fund and its latest successes. Most companies that have received RGF awards are highly appreciative of them. The awards have been highly successful in attracting private investment, which might not otherwise have occurred, and a substantial amount of employment. Of course a significant percentage does not go through immediately because of due diligence. Many of the awards are not completed because the projects proceed anyway or are withdrawn, and that is a consequence of the very careful and prudential way in which we manage money under the regional growth fund.
The fact is that hundreds of millions of pounds of RGF moneys are gathering dust and are nowhere to be seen by many of the businesses that they promised to help. The local enterprise partnerships that were put in place to do the job of the RDAs were left without appropriate budgets or powers, and the local enterprise zones, which we were told would create 54,000 jobs, have so far created less than a quarter of that sum. There has been a lot of grand talk from these Ministers on their plans to rebalance the economy, but as this Parliament comes to an end—never mind the chaos that the Secretary of State talked about—are not the words that best sum up delivery of schemes to boost regional growth, “utter incompetence”?
If the shadow Secretary of State is so critical of the regional growth fund, is he proposing to abolish it? I suspect not. The reason why some money is not spent is that tests of due diligence have not been satisfied. I am sure that he will acknowledge the fact that, under the regional growth fund, public money is spent a lot more efficiently and effectively in drawing in private investment than ever happened under the regional development agencies, which were wasteful and ineffective.
T3. Many people say that LEPs have been a huge improvement on the regional development agencies, but some small businesses that I talk to in Bristol are concerned that their priorities are not always reflected in local growth funds. Will the Minister work with his colleagues to ensure that the priorities of small businesses are reflected in LEPs, and that LEPs are not unduly influenced by major business interests?
It is very important that businesses have a strong voice in the leadership of the local economy. That is what they are achieving through LEPs and it has been one reason why more than 2 million new private sector jobs have been created during this period. My hon. Friend has been an active campaigner for projects in her local area with some success, and I know that she will continue to influence the business and the local authority participants in her LEP.
T4. The Government have a target, signed off at the highest level, I believe, of achieving £1 trillion of exports by 2020, doubling the current figure in five years. When asked at the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, a UK Trade & Investment representative described it as an “energising aspiration”. Is it an energising aspiration or is it a realistic, achievable target? (907622)
The target of £1 trillion of exports by 2020 is the target, and a realistic one. It is an energising target, an aspiration, an ambition and a goal. We can get there as a country and we can reach it, but it will require a huge amount of effort. That is why trade deals such as the EU-US trade deal known as TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, are so important in reaching that aspiration, goal and achievement.
T5. The Minister responsible for life sciences will be familiar with Daiichi Sankyo, an innovative drug company based in Chesham and Amersham. It is launching a novel oral anticoagulant to help prevent strokes more effectively in people who suffer with atrial fibrillation. The uptake of such drugs has been repeatedly blocked by the NHS despite guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence that calls for their use. What can the Minister do to clear that blockage so that the drugs can be used to benefit our patients? (907624)
I am indeed familiar with the great work of Daiichi Sankyo, and that of my right hon. Friend in supporting its investment in her constituency. I recently had the pleasure of going up to open a new facility. She raises an important point, and the appointment of a Minister responsible for life sciences at the Departments for Business, Innovation and Skills and of Health, where I have responsibility for NICE and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, allows us to begin to ensure that our health system better supports our life sciences cluster. The review I recently launched of speedier access for innovative medicines will tackle the issue of uptake that my right hon. Friend has rightly raised.
T6. Ninety-three per cent. of those aged 25 or over who completed apprenticeships last year already worked for their employer. If this is not just a rebadging of existing training programmes as apprenticeships, what is it? (907625)
One of the most extraordinary steps the Opposition have taken is to tell us that if someone is employed by a business we do not care about the process of giving them new skills, and that it is inappropriate for the Government to invest in giving them those skills. It is entirely reasonable for businesses to employ someone for a time and then see that they have the aptitude and potential to complete an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships have to last at least 12 months and they involve a substantial investment by employers, so it is not for us to stand in the way if employers want to invest in upskilling the staff they already have.
The economy in northern Lincolnshire has had much good news in recent weeks, but a bit of a damper was put on that this morning by the announcement from Lindsey oil refinery that there will be 180 redundancies. That follows 90 redundancies announced last week by Cristal Global. Will the Minister assure me that everything possible will be done by his Department and Government agencies to support the workers at this difficult time?
Absolutely. I met Total yesterday and it told me of its planned announcement today. We are working with the company to ensure that if any redundancies occur, those made redundant are supported. They will often be people with skills that are in short supply across the nation, and I look forward to going to my hon. Friend’s constituency to discuss this with him and to working with him.
May I ask the Secretary of State and his merry men and women to pay attention to an important problem? Many of us across the House are in favour of apprenticeships and university technical colleges, but we would be conning the British public if we led them to suppose that apprenticeships and university technical colleges on their own will help us get rid of the dreadful skills shortage in this country. Will the Secretary of State look at this again? The real secret of solving this problem is in the further education sector, in universities having more applied courses, and in making graduates and the people coming out of colleges more fit and ready to work in industry.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This calls for across-the-board treatment. The suggestion that has come from some sources that it would be sensible to cut the fees for engineering and science courses to £6,000 would, of course, massively undermine that, because it would no longer be possible to cover the costs of those courses.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that he has asked Barclays to defer the closure of the St Agnes branch until the new protocol on last bank closures in communities where the post office is not a viable alternative has been agreed, which I understand will be next week?
I have indeed discussed that directly with the chief executive of Barclays, in response to my hon. Friend’s very persistent campaigning and that of her Liberal Democrat opponent, who has been equally assiduous. We recognise the need in St Agnes for a bespoke solution, since the post office is not the ideal vehicle, and I think we are working towards a satisfactory outcome.
As the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) pointed out, there is an announcement today about restructuring by Total of its facility at Lindsey oil refinery. In addition there is uncertainty about the future of Tata Steel Long Products in Scunthorpe. Will the Government ensure that the necessary support is given to manufacturing industry in north Lincolnshire, so that it has a strong and prosperous future?
Absolutely we will. I understand that the changes announced today by Total are set to take place over a number of years, so there will be time to ensure that we get the systems in place to support people who are affected, whether they stay within Total or are looking for jobs elsewhere or are seeking early retirement. We will do all we can to help.
I welcome the introduction of big fines for supermarkets that breach the groceries supply code of practice, but I urge the Government to bring forward the review. We need to extend the code to indirect suppliers such as dairy farmers, who are suffering greatly at the moment. They cannot wait another year. May we have the review much sooner, please?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) has also been raising this issue assiduously. It is one that Members across the House are, understandably, very concerned about. The Groceries Code Adjudicator is already proving to be a great success in her work with supermarket companies, by encouraging them to change their behaviour. We have ensured that she has, and will have, the power to fine as well as to launch investigations—the first, of course, was launched recently. The question whether the remit should be extended needs to be looked at, and I commit the Government to doing that.
Government procurement can be used to drive innovation and to support our small business sector. How can small businesses in my constituency find out what opportunities exist to help them?
We now put all procurement online. Also, from this month, a new rule is coming into place: not only must all procurement from Government be paid within 30 days, but the whole supply chain must be paid within 30 days. It is a big step forward to help small businesses engage in Government procurement.
Will the Minister confirm that one of the best ways of getting funding into innovative life sciences companies is for them to get contracts from the NHS earlier? He just referred to his very important early access review. What are the ambitions for that, and the timetable?
My right hon. Friend and predecessor makes an important point. Since we launched the life science strategy at the start of this Parliament, as set out and led by my right hon. Friend, this country has attracted over £3.5 billion of inward investment into the sector and created more than 11,000 jobs, so something is going very right. He makes a key point: the next step is to ensure that our NHS is driving quicker access. We shall shortly be announcing the chair of the review, and we have already started to gather evidence. My right hon. Friend will have noticed on his recent trip to America the support and the interest that it is gaining overseas for driving our sector forward.
When the Secretary of State’s Department was called the Department of Trade and Industry, he called for it to be abolished, saying:
“The DTI should be wound up because it doesn’t perform a function. It has no real role anymore”.
Interestingly, his solution was not to reform the Department and rename it BIS; his solution was to split the duties of the Department between existing Government Departments —he cited the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education and Skills. Which of his duties does he think should be handled by other Government Departments, or what has changed his mind? Was it a ministerial salary, perhaps?
A business in my constituency received a communication from Royal Mail the week before Christmas, saying that with effect from four business weeks later, the business reply and freepost service that it had used for 10 years was to be discontinued and it would have to re-register. The business was told that if the old address was used, there would be a 20p penalty per item and the item may not be delivered. It will cost the business £10 per customer and £10,000 in lost stationery. Is that reasonable? Should not the Royal Mail respond to my letter? Will the Minister intervene?
Royal Mail should certainly respond to the letter that my hon. Friend sent it, and I will happily take that up on his behalf. The issue that he raises goes wider. The change had been notified earlier to some customers but that may not have happened properly in this circumstance, and I shall be happy to look into it.
There were a wonderful 850 apprenticeship starts in Kettering last year, led ably by Tresham college in my constituency. Is the Skills Minister satisfied that LEPs are working as well as they might with local further education establishments in pushing the apprenticeship agenda?
My hon. Friend is right to suggest that LEPs should take this seriously. Some are doing better than others on this, but our message is clear: they have a key responsibility, working with local businesses and colleges such as the one my hon. Friend referred to, to ensure that as many businesses as possible take up the opportunity of an apprenticeship. because that is the way to build the skills that his constituency and others need for the future.
The Minister gave a progress report on the Government’s dealing with late payment, but, according to a recent small business seminar in my constituency, it remains a bugbear. One international telecommunications company was cited which not only charges a fee to be a supplier, but has 180-day payment terms. What more can we do to name and shame and make transparent these obscene practices, which clobber small businesses?
The single best thing we can do about that is to pass before the end of this Parliament the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, which is still going through the other place. That brings in transparency measures which mean that we will not name and shame just on an ad hoc basis, but have league tables of late payment performance, celebrating the best and admonishing the worst.
I congratulate the Government on the support that they have given to satellite communications and space research companies based at Goonhilly earth station in my constituency, and also on their excellent science and research consultation, which has an excellent section on space research. May I urge Ministers to ensure that Goonhilly is placed at the centre of the development of space research infrastructure in future?
I met my hon. Friend and a delegation yesterday to discuss that. I congratulate him on the stamina he has shown in pursuing the Goonhilly project, which is now part of the regional growth fund. He has raised wider issues about how the space policy can be developed to bring in the private sector, and I shall discuss with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities how we can progress that.
Unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 54% since the last general election. In respect of business, innovation and skills, will my right hon. Friend get his officials to look at the success story that is the Colchester business enterprise agency, a not-for-profit voluntary organisation which has about 50 starter workshop units helping new and innovative fledgling businesses?
Yes, absolutely. The fall in unemployment across the land, in Colchester and beyond, is a vital sign that the long-term economic plan is working. I very much look forward to visiting Colchester soon and look forward to taking up the hon. Gentleman’s proposal.