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Topical Questions

Volume 592: debated on Thursday 12 February 2015

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?

I am delighted to have yet another contribution from the leader of my parliamentary fan club. He has failed to observe that since I made my comments on the DTI a decade ago, we have acquired responsibility for universities, skills, science and much else.

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.