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Topical Questions

Volume 594: debated on Thursday 26 March 2015

My Department plays and has played a key role in supporting the rebalancing of the economy through business to deliver growth while increasing skills and learning.

The Secretary of State has kindly met me several times, along with local companies from my constituency, to discuss development. In most of the cases, I have been grateful to him for a positive outcome. Jobs are good, but I would ask for his comments on the so-called drop in unemployment in Stockton where just over one third of those no longer claiming jobseeker’s allowance have found a job. Does he have any idea where his Tory colleagues have hidden the hundreds of people from Stockton who have not been that fortunate?

As it happens, I am going to Teesside today on my last ministerial visit. I look forward to hearing more about the detail on the ground. There is a very positive story in the adjacent seat of Redcar, which is what I shall be celebrating.

T3. Alstom in my constituency has announced that it will build its replacement automation research and development and manufacturing centre on the new business park in Stafford, which is a far-sighted investment both by Alstom and by the county council, which constructed the park. Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that that demonstrates the importance of providing the infrastructure and incentives so that we retain manufacturing investment in the west midlands at the same time as attracting it from overseas? (908359)

I do agree with my hon. Friend and I pay tribute to him for his steadfast work in promoting manufacturing. On that subject, I can also announce to the House that we will make a £62 million investment today in ultra-low emission taxis, including support for roll-out by local authorities of charging stations. As a result, instead of being moved to China, production of the next generation London black cab is being secured for Britain in Ansty, with a £250 million investment by Geely in the London Taxi Company creating 1,000 new jobs and apprenticeships.

This is indeed the last departmental questions of this Parliament and, Mr Speaker, it has been good to see you in your place at all of them. I have enjoyed my exchanges with the Secretary of State and note that during his time no fewer than nine Conservative minders have been sent to ensure, as his former deputy, the Defence Secretary, has intimated, that he does not slip his electronic tag. In all seriousness, despite all the efforts to promote certainty for business, does he agree that the biggest uncertainty facing business in this country is his Tory Prime Minister’s decision to flirt with EU exit and that the biggest mistake for his party would be to go along with it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courteous question on the last day of this Parliament and, for once, I agree with him. It would indeed be disastrous if we were to leave the European Union. There would be a prolonged hiatus before the referendum was held and many options could follow it, all of which would be very damaging for employment in this country. I and my party will certainly not go along with that.

I know that the Secretary of State does not think that his party’s former president and current foreign affairs chief, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), has much credibility, but I think that that hon. Gentleman was right to say that an in/out referendum at the arbitrary date of 2017 would

“damage the national interest, compromise our negotiating position and be bad for the economy and jobs”.

Both the hon. Gentleman and the Business Secretary fear that their leader will once again sell out his principles, this time on the EU, and they are worried about our future membership. There are many other reasons to do so, but is not the truth that the best and only way to clear up this uncertainty for business and the country is to vote Labour in 42 days?

I have a longer memory than the hon. Gentleman; I first became involved in debates on the European Union in the mid-1970s, when I was campaigning in favour and the Labour party was against it. I am glad that it has finally seen the light, but my party has been consistent throughout.

T4. Last week Len McCluskey set out plans for illegal strikes. The Conservatives condemned it and the Leader of the Opposition said nothing—Labour is bankrolled by Unite. I just wonder whether the Secretary of State and his party condemn the threat to the rule of law or sit on the fence. (908361)

Of course we condemn threats to the rule of law. I simply point out that the level of strikes in this country is the lowest it has been for a generation.

T2. Has the Secretary of State seen this week’s report by Open Europe, which indicates that unless rights at work in this country were to be completely destroyed, leaving the European Union would cause permanent damage to the British economy? Is not the real risk to businesses and workers at the next election the United Kingdom Independence party-Tory alliance that would destroy our place in the European Union? (908358)

I am beginning to recognise a theme, albeit a very welcome one. I do not wish to spoil the harmony on the Government Front Bench, having worked very well with my Conservative colleagues on restoring the economy, but we happen to disagree fundamentally on the future of Europe.

T6. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his excellent stewardship of the Department over the past five years. Greater attention must be given to Britain’s defence industry when placing orders. Price and competition are all very well, but in the defence interests of the UK, and to support the skilled jobs we have, does he agree that in a changing world we should not put at risk the skills, supply, maintenance and servicing of our defence capability? (908363)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He refers to a recent decision by the Ministry of Defence to award a contract to a British company in Germany, rather than a German company in Britain. In general our industrial strategy has been widely adopted across Government, but we probably have not gone as far in integrated defence procurement in that process.

T5. The Secretary of State will know that the north-east is the only region with a balance of trade surplus, so he will appreciate the importance of exports to the regional economy. Is not it a major cause of concern that rhetoric from Ministers pushing Britain towards an EU exit risks damaging jobs, investment and exports in the north-east? (908362)

No, far from it. The rate of job creation in the north-east is faster than the national average, and that has happened since we made it clear that there needs to be a referendum so that the British people can decide on our future position in the EU.

May I take this opportunity to welcome the recent announcement that Blackpool airport has been designated a joint enterprise zone with the one at Warton? What steps is the Minister taking to encourage businesses to move to enterprise zones such as the one in my constituency in order to stimulate further regional growth?

I certainly congratulate my hon. Friend, along with colleagues, on his lobbying for that important expansion of that new enterprise zone. We are seeing across the country that enterprise zones are one of a number of policies that are attracting and driving jobs. Very large numbers of jobs are being created, reversing the pattern under the previous Government.

T7. In the time that he has been in government, East Berkshire college has lost 40% of its Government funding, and the courses that have been hit, while apprenticeships have been protected, are technician-level courses, so we will not have the nursery nurses, the lab technicians or the IT technicians that business and industry desperately need. What is he going to do about it? (908364)

What we are doing is investing more in apprenticeships than any previous Government, and apprenticeships create lab technicians and nursery nurses—[Interruption.] They do. They are very successful, and they are much more valuable than full-time college courses. An apprenticeship for a nursery nurse or a lab technician is a much better way to go for a young person than any other.

Although the Department has created many opportunities for business, one of the biggest concerns in my constituency is late payments to small business. What steps have the Government taken to address that problem?

We are taking unprecedented steps to tackle late payment, including in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, which we hope will become an Act today. A change in culture is needed to make 30 days payment terms the norm and 60 days the maximum. We are changing the prompt payment code to reflect that and to say, “If you don’t sign up to that and practise what you preach, you’ll get kicked off the code, so we can change this culture for good.”

T8. Over 9,000 people have phoned the RBS telephone helpline on the enterprise finance guarantee scheme. Does the Secretary of State—not the Minister—agree that whoever holds his position after the election should order an urgent investigation into the use of the enterprise finance guarantee scheme by RBS? (908365)

That process is already under way. I have met representatives of RBS to discuss it. They have acknowledged that there are failings in the way in which they operated the scheme, and they have given assurances that anyone who was a recipient of the loan and who has been disadvantaged by the way RBS handled it will receive recompense.

May I warmly congratulate the Secretary of State on his very substantial record during his five years in office, and invite him particularly to welcome the agreement across all three parties on the importance of Government support not just for science and research, but for innovation and the eight great technologies?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. We worked extremely well together and I thank him for his contribution to that. One of the legacies was the creation of the catapult network. We built on the initial foundations of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. It has now become internationally recognised as an excellent way to promote innovation.

T9. Newcastle United football club and City Link share an owner, and the fans of the one and the workers of the other have suffered as a result. Indeed, the Scottish Affairs Committee recently berated him for his attitude to this House. Following the publication of its report, will the Secretary of State follow the example of my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State and call for steps to tackle false self-employment, which damages workers and leaves them without proper protection and support? (908366)

The hon. Lady raises very important issues. We are already looking at the issue of self-employment. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is doing so from a tax perspective, and we are also doing so in the employment status review because it is important that people have the protections they need as employees and that unscrupulous employers do not try to evade their employment responsibilities.

May I say thank you to colleagues on both sides of the House for their engagement in the debate on my portfolio issues in the past two and a half years? I never expected to become a Minister when I was elected in 2005. I have enjoyed it immensely and I hope I have made a difference in protecting consumers, improving corporate responsibility and modernising workplaces.

Amen to that, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State will know that advanced manufacturing businesses have exceeded the Government’s expectations with their high value bids for the supply chain initiative for their sector. Will he ensure that the over-programming necessary to accommodate those bids does not cause any further unwelcome delay in enabling those businesses, including one in Chippenham, to make great strides in creating jobs in this valuable sector?

We are just missing the baby, and the family will be complete. I am aware of the difficulties that my hon. Friend has had with the AMSCI bid. I have taken a close personal interest in it and I hope it will be resolved within the next few weeks.

The Skills Minister seems reluctant to answer questions about cuts in adult learning opportunities amounting to 35%, so there are a million fewer adults receiving such training. East Durham college in my constituency has warned that if the Government continue, adult further education will, in effect, be a thing of the past. Why are the Government undermining lifelong learning and hindering opportunities for adults to retrain and obtain qualifications that they need to meet the demands of the labour market?

I am not denying anything, but the Opposition seem incapable of recognising that, first, this Government have created more jobs than any Government in the entire European Union, so many of the adults that the hon. Gentleman is talking about are now in work and happily so, and secondly, that we have invested more money in apprenticeships, and apprenticeships are the best and most productive form of training. I note that his college’s performance on apprenticeships is woeful and is declining at a time when we are offering colleges more money every year to help adults also into apprenticeships.

Recently, Georgie Hall, my 23-month-old constituent, lost her short fight against meningitis. Her parents Matt and Paula Hall are understandably devastated. Given the impasse over the meningitis B vaccine, can my hon. Friend the life sciences Minister use his best offices to resolve the issue between GlaxoSmithKline and the Government? Will he consider looking at a new framework for drug procurement to avoid this type of impasse and future tragedies like the one that the Hall family has suffered?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on this issue, which he has raised with me on more than one occasion. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in passing on our condolences to Matt and Paula Hall for the loss of their daughter Georgie from this terrible bacterial disease.

I can confirm that I have asked the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation for recommendations on a national immunisation programme and will use my offices in the Department of Health as well as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to drive negotiations with the company on a fair price. It is also right to point out that we have launched an accelerated access programme for the quicker adoption of innovative medicines in the NHS, which will also help.