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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 597: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2015

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Small and Medium-sized Businesses

1. What steps he is taking to support small and medium-sized businesses to become more competitive. (900630)

Our business growth service provides expertise to ambitious firms who want to grow and become more competitive, and over this Parliament we will make extensive cuts to red tape which will save businesses £10 billion.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Headromance is a Havant-based hair salon launched in 2012 by two young entrepreneurs. It now employs 10 stylists and five apprentices. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the measures this Government have taken to support the growth of apprenticeships?

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to his place. I am not sure I would have much need of the services of Headromance—I am sure that applies to the shadow Business Secretary too—but that does not stop me warmly congratulating its owners on their success and in particular on backing apprentices. As my hon. Friend knows, during this Parliament we want to see apprenticeship starts rise to 3 million, and we have a number of measures in place to achieve just that.

I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests. Many small and medium-sized freight businesses struggle with the cost of training drivers. Have the Government any plans to look at this afresh with a view to helping people train to become lorry drivers in the UK?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, it is very important for the Government to listen to all industries about their skills and training needs, including for freight drivers. Of course, the option of apprenticeships is open to that industry, but we must look at other measures too.

The business rates system is one of the major barriers to competitiveness for small and medium-sized enterprises. What plans do Ministers have to reform and alleviate some of that burden?

My hon. Friend will know that the Chancellor announced a full review of business rates in the last Budget. It is important to note that although that will be a proper full review looking at what sensible changes can be made, it will stay fiscally neutral, so it will not be possible to satisfy everyone.

Brighton and Hove is the most entrepreneurial city in the country but still lags behind the region for productivity. What is the Secretary of State doing to increase productivity among small businesses?

There are a number of actions that Government can take, and some of them were taken by the coalition Government and are now bearing fruit, such as cutting taxes and the employment allowance. During the lifetime of this Parliament, there will be a big focus on productivity, and there will be further measures, including on deregulation.

The last Labour Government had an appalling record on regulation, introducing something like six new regulations a day. What does my right hon. Friend think that did for the productivity of small and medium-sized companies in the UK?

I welcome my hon. Friend to the House, and he is absolutely right: the last Labour Government had an appalling record on so many things, including regulation, and the more we can keep the red tape challenge going, and our policy of one in, two out, the more we will help businesses.

In Northern Ireland 99.9% of small businesses are the core of the industrial base. They create some 347,000 jobs. What can the Secretary of State do to ensure that those jobs can be retained and more jobs can be created?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the importance of small businesses, particularly in the context of Northern Ireland. He will know that many of the policies that impact on small businesses in Northern Ireland are devolved, but there are a number where we can make an impact through the UK Government. One is foreign investment, which has been going up in Northern Ireland, and we will continue to focus on that.

Self-employed People (Regulation)

The enterprise Bill will help to save businesses £10 billion through further deregulation. We have committed to launching a review into tackling the specific disadvantages faced by the UK’s 4.5 million self-employed.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. As the self-employment ambassador, the issue of the IR35 constantly crops up when self-employed people write to me. Can we meet to see how we can simplify this?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work he has done and continues to do as self-employment ambassador. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss how we can make the system fairer, quicker and simpler for the self-employed. He will know that tax policy, in particular, is an issue for the Treasury, and I will bring it to the attention of my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary.

The number of self-employed people is growing, but they are often disadvantaged and face additional burdens when applying for a mortgage or to set up a pension scheme for themselves. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that these barriers are not erected and do not attack the self-employed?

The hon. Lady is right to point out that issue. She may know, as I am sure she read it carefully, that the Conservative party had a very pro-business manifesto. We have rightly committed ourselves to having a review of the challenges faced by self-employed people and their businesses, and that would include looking at the issue she raises: access to mortgages.

The self-employed in Kettering and across the country are the unsung heroes of the economic recovery, yet their terms and conditions, with no sick pay, no holiday pay and inadequate pension provision, are akin to those on zero-hours contracts. What will the Secretary of State do in this Parliament to ensure that the rewards for the self-employed, with their enterprise and endeavour, are properly recognised?

My hon. Friend, as usual, is spot on. He should know that this review will look at precisely those issues. A number of challenges are faced by the self-employed and it is about time the Government took a careful look at them. That is exactly what we will be doing.

The Government’s universal credit plans are set to burden 600,000 self-employed people with additional red tape requiring them to provide a new set of monthly accounts. Given that the Secretary of State is responsible for cutting red tape, what is he doing about that? What is he doing to put self-employed people first?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the universal credit plans are essential to make sure that work pays, and I would have thought he would support that. On the issues that it might raise for small businesses and the self-employed, it is important that we look at the net burden of regulation on businesses and keep reducing it.

Industrial Strategy

3. If he will implement an active and interventionist industrial strategy to assist economic growth in the UK. (900632)

The biggest challenge facing the economy is improving productivity, and that challenge varies by sector. Dialogue with business, including through the sector councils, as part of our industrial approach, is key to addressing this issue.

As a member of the last Labour Government, I am very proud that the Labour party, in government, established the Automotive Council, which has provided the framework for the most successful decade in UK car production for a very long time. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will not, on the altar of ideology, endanger that success?

I look forward to working with the Automotive Council. In fact, I have already had a meeting with it and I told it something the hon. Gentleman would agree with, which is that the automotive industry is one of the brightest stars in the constellation of British business.

May I reassure my right hon. Friend that if he does wish to follow a more liberal policy than his predecessor, he will have plenty of support from Conservative Members?

I can tell my hon. Friend that we will have active dialogue with various industries, across sectors, and we will make sure that we are listening and seeing what the Government can do.

Given tomorrow’s eagerly awaited announcement by the Teesside Collective on its ambitious industrial carbon capture and storage proposal, will the Minister, with his colleagues, ensure that industrial, energy and climate change policies are aligned and that every other assistance is given to the collective in bringing about an early realisation of this vital project?

I have listened very carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and if he would like to furnish me with more information about the Teesside Collective and how we can help, I would be happy to take a look.

The Government’s northern powerhouse strategy has the potential to offer huge benefits to north Wales. What discussions has my right hon. Friend’s Department had with the Welsh Government with a view to developing it?

As my right hon. Friend will know, this is a one nation Government. We want to make sure that, as the economic recovery continues, it includes every part of the UK, and that will of course include Wales. We are more than ready to talk to the Welsh Government. I have had a number of discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, who at this point is a lot more interested than the Welsh Government in economic development in Wales.

The Chancellor says that he supports modern industrial policy and the Prime Minister has said that he wants an active industrial policy, but, according to the Financial Times, the new Business Secretary has told officials in the Department that they should not talk about industrial policy. Now we hear him talking about an “approach”. Can he tell industries around the country whether he still has an industrial policy and, if so, what on earth it is?

I think I have already answered the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I am happy to repeat that answer. This Government will have an active dialogue with all industrial sectors. We will listen to their needs on skills, infrastructure and training, and work with them. That includes the sector councils. We will also make sure that we are open to new industries, to competition and to disruptive industries, and that we become the most open economy in the world.

Strategic Support (Industries and Sectors)

4. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s strategic support for industries and sectors. (900633)

In preparation for the forthcoming spending review, I am assessing the effectiveness of BIS policies, including strategic support for industry. We will continue an open dialogue with business, including through sector councils.

A long-term industrial strategy is vital for my constituency, which boasts a major chemical process complex in Wilton. Recently, the workforce have been taking to the gates because they believe that long, hard-won, nationally agreed terms and conditions are being undercut on the site. What assurance can the Minister give me, and what steps is he taking to make sure, that nationally agreed terms and conditions are being applied on such sites, and that the British workforce are not being undercut by recruitment from overseas?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. I know that a number of industries, including the one that she has mentioned, are important to Redcar. I am more than happy to take a closer look at the issue that she raises. I am afraid that I do not know the details of it, but if she would like to furnish me with them, I or my right hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise will take a closer look.

Steel producers are an important employer in Corby. Will my right hon. Friend meet representatives of the steel all-party parliamentary group, who are working closely together, to talk about strategic support, especially on carbon taxation?

I welcome my hon. Friend to his place and congratulate him on his work to help the steel industry to meet those challenges. I will be more than happy to meet him and representatives of the APPG and see what more we can do, especially on the high energy costs that the industry faces.

I have previously suggested a strategic support mechanism for the open-cast coal industry—a carbon tax exemption for specific sites. An independent economic analysis suggests that an exemption with a value of £195 would produce a net income to the Treasury of £57 million and would also allow the sites to be restored. Will the Secretary of State consider that urgently and work with the Treasury to include the exemption in the July Budget or, following a previous offer, meet me to discuss it?

Steel is a very important industry, employing thousands of people in Britain. It is important to see what we can do to help, so I or my right hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise will be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman.

What plans, if any, do the Government have to make local enterprise partnerships more democratically accountable? They have more funds than the regional development agencies, but are less accountable.

It is right that LEPs are business-led, but it is also important that they include democratically elected people, and that is how they are working. It is important to review LEPs after a few years of operation and to ensure that they are truly accountable.

Productivity

Productivity growth ultimately comes from business and the hard-working people of Britain, but the Government can, of course, help. That is why my Department is working closely with the Treasury on a forthcoming productivity plan.

The Minister is right about the reliance on individual workers to drive up productivity and about what the investor community can do as well, but he will know that the Office for Budget Responsibility has said that if productivity per worker was 4% higher during this Parliament, that would have a significant effect on reducing the national debt, and correspondingly, that if it was not, the national debt could rise. Does he agree with this rather gloomy assessment and, if so, what does he think the figures for individual growth per worker will be by the end of this Parliament?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the UK has had a long-running productivity challenge, which was made all the worse by Labour’s great recession. An increase in productivity is the surest way to raise real wages and I can assure him that it will be a major focus of this Parliament. We will shortly publish a productivity plan which I hope will reassure him that the Government take this very seriously.

Does the Secretary of State agree that in challenging the productivity problem, we need to address our minds to skills and making sure that we have the appropriate pipeline of skills running through the education system to the businesses that desperately need them?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on becoming Chair of the Education Committee. He is right to talk about the link between better skills and increased productivity, and I hope that in his new role he can make a valuable contribution to that.

Given that we are five years into the long-term economic plan and regrettably our productivity is 17% lower than the average among G7 economies, with growth in the EU 5% over the same period, why does the Minister believe that productivity will rise during the lifetime of this Parliament, since it fell during the last Parliament?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. She is right to point out the challenges of productivity, which have been a long-term challenge for this country. I hope she recognises that over the past five years the previous Government did a huge amount to turn around the economic fortunes of this country. We are the fastest-growing country in the G7, and just today we saw the Office for National Statistics revise growth figures for last year. That means thousands of jobs throughout Britain, including Scotland, making us the jobs factory of Europe.

The Scottish Government, of course, are focused on growing our economy, using our four Is—innovation, internationalisation, investment and inclusion. Will the Minister support the Scottish National party call for a change to remove the sudden decrease in the investment allowance from £500,000 down to £25,000 from 1 January 2016 to help continue our success?

If the SNP wants to help business in Scotland, it should look at deregulating much more. In many of the areas that are devolved to Scotland, whereas the UK Government have been working hard to cut regulation, the Scottish Government have been working hard to boost regulation. Deregulation is one of the best ways to help productivity and growth in Scotland.

Superfast Broadband (Rural Areas)

6. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the importance of superfast broadband to rural businesses. (900635)

There have been no recent discussions between the Business Secretary and the Culture Secretary, but as the Secretary of State for Business was the Secretary of State for Culture and therefore responsible for the broadband programme, a meeting is not necessary at this moment.

The second phase of the connecting Devon and Somerset superfast broadband programme has not been signed this week, and this could have an enormous negative impact on the economy of my constituency, Taunton Deane. For example, one business, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, has recently moved from Staple Fitzpaine, taking eight rural jobs with it because it had no broadband. Please will the Minister intervene urgently to ensure that this vital service is provided not just for Taunton Deane, but for the whole of Somerset?

I am delighted to welcome my hon. Friend to her place. Within weeks of arriving here, she is already proving that she will be a champion for her constituents, particularly on this issue. I am delighted that 52,000 premises in her constituency have superfast broadband. Another 10,000 will get it and I will continue to work with her and all MPs in Devon and Somerset to ensure that the broadband roll-out programme goes to plan.

Has the Minister had any discussions with the devolved institutions about co-operating on rural broadband? The providers are UK-wide and there are opportunities for such discussions.

We work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive on the issue. Something like £23 million is helping to roll out superfast broadband in Northern Ireland and get it to the level it should be at.

My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) was right to mention rural businesses. Does the Minister agree that it is important for BT and others to streamline the way in which local authorities can provide match funding to help the final 5%?

Yes. The success of the broadband programme so far means that focus is now turning to the final 5%, and in the next few months we will announce our plans to deliver for them. I am delighted that some £14 million has helped Hampshire get to 89%, and phase 2 will take it to 96%.

Does the Minister think that it is acceptable that in half the Government’s enterprise zones firms do not have full access to superfast broadband?

It is important that we get superfast broadband to as many businesses as possible. I was delighted that last week we were able to say that 25,000 businesses have taken advantage of our excellent voucher scheme.

Small Businesses (Lincolnshire)

7. What assessment he has made of the effects in Lincolnshire of the Government’s policies on small businesses. (900636)

Between 2010 and 2014 the number of private sector businesses in the east midlands increased by 28,000. Last week it was an absolute pleasure to meet representatives from local enterprise partnerships right across the midlands, including from Lincolnshire. There was such enthusiasm to make the midlands the engine that we want it to be, replicating the northern powerhouse —[Interruption.] I am sorry that Opposition Members find that funny; I thought that they would have welcomed the northern powerhouse, as their Labour colleagues in those local authorities do. In any event, we know that small businesses are at the heart of our long-term economic plan.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. She will want to join me in welcoming the latest figures, which show that employment in the north-east, the north-west and the east midlands is growing faster than in London. Will she ensure that that record of seeing growth and prosperity outside London continues, reflecting this Government’s one nation approach?

I completely endorse my hon. and learned Friend’s sentiment and absolutely agree with him. Between 2010 and 2014, 58% of net new jobs were created outside London and the south-east, whereas between 2004 and 2010 the figure was only 37%. That is further evidence that our long-term economic plan is working.

Order. The Minister has broadened the question a bit, which she is perfectly entitled to do, but not to the extent that it would encompass Northern Ireland, Merseyside or even west Yorkshire. Those Members will have to await their opportunity.

I have listened carefully for the past half an hour to find out exactly what the Tory Government are trying to do about places in the east midlands such as Bolsover, which is very close to Lincolnshire, because when the Labour Government were in power, both myself and Gordon Brown, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, were the northern powerhouse. I asked him for 40 million quid to flatten the pit tips at Markham Vale, and he gave it me. Then I asked for some more money for an interchange straight up the M1 into Markham pit yard, and I got that as well. We were fixing the roof while the sun was shining. We don’t want none of this claptrap about the Tory northern powerhouse. [Interruption.]

I thought that we were about to call for a Division during that so-called question. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman what his real record is. The real record is one of the longest and deepest recessions in our country’s history. The real record is bringing this nation to the verge of bankruptcy. Instead of talking down the east midlands—and I am an east midlands person through and through—the hon. Gentleman should be talking it up, and rightly so. From my experience, we will see the creation of a midland engine that will give us the long-term growth and the jobs of the future that his party failed to deliver.

Considering the growth of business opportunities in our county and particularly in the city of Lincoln, will the Minister build on the recently announced £130 million investment in the University of Lincoln, a chief component of the midlands engine, and grant us enterprise zone status?

I am very happy to provide a triumph for Lincoln, given that it is the city of my birth. In any event, I am very happy to meet him to talk about the future of the university and the real role it can play. As I have said—forgive me for repeating it, Mr Speaker—I have met all the representatives of the LEPs from right across the midlands. Indeed, we talked about Lincoln University and the real desire to create a midlands engine, and rightly so.

Business Regulation

As we have heard, the Government are committed to reducing the regulatory burden on all businesses. The one in, two out initiative has put a real brake on the introduction of new regulations. Through the enterprise Bill, we will target regulators’ actions as part of our commitment to cut a further £10 billion of red tape for the benefit of businesses.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. There are many pubs in my constituency, as well as the Shepherd Neame brewery and the Whitstable brewery. These local businesses are important as employers, and for their role in rural communities. Outdated bureaucracy is one more hurdle for them to overcome. For instance, pubs are required to advertise changes in their licence, costing about £500 a time, and many local authorities require licence fees to be paid by cheque, rather than allowing more modern methods of payment. What steps will the Government take to reduce the burden of bureaucracy on pubs and breweries?

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place and thank her for her question. She provides examples of exactly the sort of regulation that we are seeking to look at and, indeed, to remove if necessary. That is why I will shortly announce a new Twitter account, @CutRedTapeUK, which no doubt—[Interruption.] It is all right. I am familiar with Twitter—oh, yes—and hashtags. I am trying to make the very serious point, which may be lost on Opposition Members, that we want to hear from businesses, and indeed from anybody, about the red tape, regulation and the burden it imposes, notably on small businesses, so that we can cut it.

20. The summer sporting and music calendar is in full swing, but fans are being let down by shady ticket sellers. This week, Taylor Swift fans are disappointed after the company from which they have bought tickets online disappeared without trace. When can we have better regulation of the secondary ticket market so that fans are not ripped off? [Interruption.] (900649)

I have heard of Taylor Swift, too. We are doing a review of that because we recognise that there is a problem. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is straining to hear above all the chuntering on the Benches in front of him. I think my hon. Friend the Minister for Skills has responsibility for that—we are aware of the problem and we are doing a review—but I am more than happy to meet him to talk about it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that key to reducing regulation will be renegotiation in Brussels, so will she #congratulate the Secretary of State, who is sitting right by her, for his brilliant speech last night to the CBI, telling it that to argue against Brexit is madness before we have actually renegotiated anything?

I think I should just say yes, Mr Speaker, but I would add that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was actually talking about all businesses, not just those here.

I am sure that businesses will tell the Minister on Twitter what they told Ernst and Young, which is that the number of regulations has gone up, not down, under this Government. Is not the reality that this Government are all talk and no action when it comes to getting rid of regulations?

I am tempted to say, “The hon. Gentleman would know, wouldn’t he?” I am really surprised at his churlish attitude, and I absolutely do not agree with what he has been told. We know, because it was properly evaluated, that under the previous Administration we actually achieved £10 billion of savings for businesses by cutting red tape. The hon. Gentleman should welcome and praise that.

Small Businesses (Prompt Payment)

The Government are leading the way in paying their suppliers promptly. We have already legislated to “cascade”, as it says here, 30-day terms throughout public sector supply chains. We have also legislated for new transparency measures in the public and private sectors, which will allow full public scrutiny of payment performance. We will go further and consult on our proposals for a small business conciliation service.

There are many roofing businesses and other small and medium-sized enterprises in Falkirk, and the time and effort involved in chasing late and incomplete payments is a serious burden on them. What plans do the Government have to ensure that the onus is on large contractors to pay, as opposed to SMEs having to chase?

I completely take the point, and I thank the hon. Gentleman and welcome him to his place. As he will understand, smaller businesses are often reluctant to take action through law. That is why we are considering a conciliation service, which could provide a genuine answer. I would be delighted to come to Falkirk at some stage on my travels and meet some of the companies in question to assure them that we are on their side.

According to the Federation of Small Businesses, half of small firms were paid late last year. What progress has the Minister made in ensuring that large firms do not take advantage of small businesses in their supply chain and risk livelihoods in the process?

I take a firm view that it is absolutely scandalous when people do not honour the terms and conditions of their contract and pay late. That is not acceptable, particularly in the modern world. I hear terrible stories about supermarkets; one can only imagine what would happen if someone went shopping on a Saturday and then said at the checkout, “I think I’ll settle my bill in about 120 days.” Obviously they would be told that it was not acceptable, and it is not acceptable for large businesses to treat smaller businesses in that way. That is why we take the problem so seriously.

I very much welcome the tone that the Minister is taking, which is in sharp contrast with the feebleness of the Government’s efforts on late payments over the past five years.

Some 2,500 businesses go bust every year not because of a failed business model but simply because they have not been paid on time. Some £46 billion is now owed to UK firms, a figure that rose throughout the Government’s previous term. Will the Minister take serious action, and does she agree that the last Government’s actions were inadequate? What message will she send to businesses that do not pay on time about the actions that the Government will take?

I hope that I have sent a strong message. I could not be clearer—it is completely unacceptable. [Interruption.] There is no need to add extra regulatory burdens. The law is quite clear: if two parties have come together and settled terms and conditions through a contract—forgive me for sounding like the lawyer I am, Mr Speaker—and one party then breaks the contract by not paying on time, legal action is available to the other party. As we know, the problem is that small businesses are understandably reluctant to go to law. I am exploring other options, including the continuation of naming and shaming.

Business Competitiveness

The World Bank recognises the United Kingdom as one of the best places in the world to do business, ranking us eighth. We committed in our manifesto to make the UK No. 1 in Europe and in the top five worldwide in the Doing Business rankings by 2020.

Does the Minister agree that for millions of small businesses that never export to the European Union, either because they simply serve the domestic market or because they export only to countries outside the EU, the regulations imposed by Brussels are a burden that damages their ability to compete?

I absolutely recognise, and the Government recognise, that EU regulations can hit small and medium-sized businesses particularly hard, which is not right or fair. A key priority of our European better regulation agenda is continuing to ensure that the European Commission honours its commitment to introducing lighter regimes for SMEs and exemptions for micro-enterprises where appropriate.

Surely the Minister realises that if we want our businesses to be more competitive, we have to look to skills. Has she seen Professor Alison Wolf’s report “Heading for the Precipice”, which is a damning comment on the lack of skills training in this country and the crisis in further education and adult skills?

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is a fact. He does not like to hear the facts. There were 2 million apprenticeships under the previous Government, and we are determined to achieve 3 million. That is the way we upskill in our country. He should look at the Labour party’s record in government; it was pitiful compared with ours.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) is supposed to be a statesman in the House—[Interruption.] Order. He should be setting an example. It is not a two-way debate. He blurted out his question and he must listen to the answer.

Business Support

I am more than happy to answer questions.

More than 30,000 people have benefited from more than £155 million worth of loans expert business advice provided by the Start-Up Loans company, and around 70,000 unemployed people have set up their own businesses with the help of the new enterprise allowance scheme. The business support helpline provides free expert advice to help people start their own businesses in England.

North West Hampshire is literally pullulating with people such as Joanne Bishop of Atalanta Jewellery who pluck up their courage and their savings to start their own business. They often have a skill or an idea that they want to put into action, but they lack the expertise to do so, and are often faced with the might of the state. Will the Minister outline what she and her Department will do to provide support to entrepreneurs in future, particularly in taking on the Government?

I think “pullulating” is a parliamentary word, Mr Speaker, but I think it was a new one on both of us.

We take that issue seriously and various schemes are available, including the business support helpline. I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend, who I welcome to his place, to discuss the issue. Ensuring that once people have started a business they can continue to grow it and get support, is an issue we take seriously.

I have been advised by a scholarly source that “pullulating” means to breed rapidly or abundantly. We are immensely grateful to the hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) for his dexterity in the English language.

Like me, the Minister will no doubt be concerned that only one in five of those new start-up businesses is led by women. I know that she is keen on Twitter accounts, but let me give her a better idea of something that her own Department came up with, although sadly her predecessors refused to implement. Will she commit to monitoring selling to businesses led by women in the supply chain, and help to get British women back into business?

We know that more women are employed now than ever before. Call me an old-fashioned feminist but—[Interruption.] I understand that Opposition Members could call me far worse than that. I support the many wonderful initiatives that have been introduced to encourage women to come into business and set up their own businesses. It is striking, however, that all the meetings I have had with big businesses have been very male-dominated. We find an abundance of women in the small business sector—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady shakes her head but that is a fact, and that is because women have so much talent.

Science Sector

In the previous Parliament the Government demonstrated our commitment to science by protecting the science budget, even as we were forced to make discretionary savings of £98 billion elsewhere. Over the next five years, as we saw in our manifesto, our commitment to science will run through it like the words in a stick of rock. We have reaffirmed our commitment to investing £1.1 billion of science capital, rising every year until 2021, including £2.9 billion on grand challenges.

Thornton science facility was handed by Shell to Chester University, which is attended by many of my constituents. With large, high-skill employers such as Airbus, Bentley and others in the north-west, what more can my hon. Friend do to link employers to educational institutions and encourage the uptake of STEM— science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects?

I agree with my hon. Friend that Thornton science park deserves national recognition as an exciting regional centre for innovation, enterprise and higher education. I also welcome the strong leadership from the University of Chester in drawing together an impressive range of partners from business and academia. We need to see more such collaboration between universities and business all over the country.

Does the Minister appreciate that many of our great scientists at places such as the Babraham Institute and the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge are civil servants and stuck on the civil service pay freeze, and are being offered much better terms abroad? Will we compete? It is time to do so.

All parts of the public sector have been obliged to contribute to the national savings effort undertaken in recent years, but I would note to the hon. Gentleman that research councils have been exempted from those constraints and, as a consequence, have been able to compete around the world in attracting the best scientists to this country. They are doing so extremely effectively.

Our universities are critical to the strength of our science base, but following the tripling of tuition fees in the last Parliament, four out of five students no longer think that their courses are value for money. The Minister’s predecessor said that he saw no case for raising tuition fees in this Parliament. What does the Minister think? Will tuition fees go up in this Parliament? A simple yes or no will do.

Due to the financial situation we inherited, we are of course forced to review all BIS spend—as all Departments are reviewing their spend. As our manifesto made clear, the Government are committed to continuing to ensure that we have a stable and sustainable funding regime for our universities and higher education institutions. They are secure and financially stable, and we will continue to ensure a fair balance of interests between taxpayers and students.

Low-skilled Jobs

13. What recent estimate he has made of the proportion of jobs in the economy which are low-skilled. (900642)

15. What recent estimate he has made of the proportion of jobs in the economy which are low-skilled. (900644)

We are focused on increasing the number of jobs at all levels of skill and on investing in 3 million apprenticeships, which will help people to improve their skills and command higher wages.

The Welsh Labour Government have created more than 17,000 job opportunities for 16 to 24-year-olds to develop skills and earn the minimum wage through their flagship scheme Jobs Growth Wales. Some 82% have been taken on by private firms, which has led to apprenticeships, further education and permanent work. Jobs Growth Wales has also enabled more than 270 young entrepreneurs to start new businesses. Does the Secretary of State have plans to roll out similar schemes this side of Offa’s Dyke?

We welcome efforts by all parts of the UK to grow jobs and apprenticeships, and we have our own policies here. We will produce 3 million apprenticeship starts at all levels over the next five years, but we welcome anything else that the Welsh Government do to create jobs and apprenticeships.

Thanks to Labour’s groundbreaking commitment to tackling climate change, investment in wind energy in Grimsby has created much needed high-skilled jobs in our local economy. With 25% of our young people not in education, employment or training, support for that industry is essential for my constituents’ future, but the Government have now announced the removal of subsidies for onshore wind. What effect does the Minister expect that to have on investor confidence in the offshore wind sector?

It is not my area but, as the hon. Lady said, the cut in subsidies is for onshore wind. Her constituency is focused on offshore wind, where the Government’s support is committed and going up. I welcome the high-skilled jobs that that support is bringing to her constituency, which has seen a 38% fall in the number of people claiming benefits since 2010.

Topical Questions

May I first pay tribute to my predecessor, the equally hirsute former Member for Twickenham? As part of the coalition Government, Dr Cable did a great deal to support British business.

Speaking of former members, I see that last month Lord Sugar resigned his membership of the Labour party, citing its negative business policies and general anti-enterprise approach. It seems that while the Government are busy creating 3 million more apprenticeships, Lord Sugar has told the Opposition that they are all fired.

As a small businessman—I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—I welcome the Government’s work in the past four years to roll back the red tape that has dogged small businesses. Now that the Government are firmly in control of the Department, can Ministers reassures us that they will redouble their efforts? In particular, will they develop measurable targets, for cutting red tape and administration for small business, against which we can measure success?

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. We will continue to work very hard to cut regulations, building on the very successful red tape challenge in the previous Parliament and the policy of one in, two out. Cutting regulation for businesses is like a tax cut for those businesses. The only difference is that it does not cost the Exchequer anything, so we should cut as much regulation as possible.

Britain has the worst productivity in the G7, bar Japan. Proper adult skills provision, not just apprenticeships, plays a vital role in addressing that, but the adult skills budget has been cut by 35% in the past five years. Now the Chancellor tells us that a further £450 million is to be taken out of the Department’s budget, which could lead to the end of further education as we know it. In the light of these very real concerns, what assessment has the Business Secretary undertaken on the risks posed for the sector? Will he now guarantee that no college will close as a result of what he and the Chancellor are going to do?

One of the most important things for businesses, and for a vibrant economy, is making sure we continue to deal with the record budget deficit we inherited from the previous Labour Government. The hon. Gentleman knows that himself. He has been busy telling the press very recently:

“to be running a deficit in 2007, after 15 years of economic growth, was…a mistake.”

He understands the importance of this, and it means the Government have to make difficult decisions. He also said very recently to the Financial Times that

“We are starting from square one.”

I think he was talking about the economic credibility of the Labour party. I do not think that was an accurate statement; I think he was—

Order. The Front-Bench exchanges have to be brief. A lot of Back Benchers want to get in. It is very self-indulgent to have these long-winded exchanges from the Front Bench.

When consolidating, you have to make appropriate choices—you do not want to cut off your nose to spite your face. If we want to increase revenue, we need to increase productivity. Look at South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, which the Secretary of State attended: this month it confirmed that 70 staff posts are in danger due to the reduction in its adult learning funding. The principal of that college said:

“we need to reduce our costs in line with the reduction in funding to maintain our solvency.”

Should the alarm bells not be ringing when his own college is citing issues of solvency before we have seen the full scale of what he is going to do to the productive capacity of the economy?

It was an excellent college—[Hon. Members: “Was!”] And it still is. I know many people who attend the college and they speak of it very highly. The important point is that all colleges, not just that college, have the resources they need to do their jobs. We will not put that at risk, especially as they continue to invest in apprenticeships, which are one of the surest ways to give people the training they want and to ensure they have skills that are wanted in the marketplace.

T3. I have been contacted by further education colleges in my constituency that are concerned about the decisions being made in-year to reduce funding. Will my right hon. Friend lay out a strategy that enables colleges to have a five-year programme, even if it means a gradual reduction in funding? (900622)

I know my hon. Friend recognises that difficult choices have had to be made and will have to be made during the spending review to bring the deficit down. It is that process of deficit reduction that has led to the massive growth in employment. I absolutely hear the argument he makes. Long-term certainty would be of tremendous value to colleges, and I will definitely make sure that that argument is made.

T2. Will the Secretary of State tell me what discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport to ensure that business and growth do not suffer as a result of the delay to the electrification of the trans- Pennine line? (900621)

I was disappointed by that recent news, because it is important that we continue to invest in infrastructure—not least for increased productivity and, therefore, jobs growth. I have not yet had a discussion with the Transport Secretary, but I am looking forward to doing so.

T5. Does my right hon. Friend think that the CBI’s poverty of ambition for a radical new relationship with the EU is attributable to the fact that the CBI receives funding from the EU? (900624)

The point I made yesterday to the CBI was not just about the CBI, but was a call to all business groups. The best way to get the EU reforms that many of them seek is for them to help the Government with their negotiations, speak to their partners in other European countries and then make up their minds at the end of the process.

T4. I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that helping businesses to grow and develop is a key aim of the devolution and northern powerhouse agendas. Will he explain, therefore, why the word business does not appear anywhere in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill? (900623)

Not only do I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of business, but my father’s first business began in his constituency, so I understand the importance of this to people in Rochdale and elsewhere. It is important that the word “business” and the importance of business appear throughout Government policy, as they do in the Conservative manifesto and, as I am sure he will hear next week, in the Budget.

T6. Low-paid workers in my constituency will have been pleased to see the first above-inflation rise in the minimum wage since the financial crash, but what more can the Government do to encourage employers to pay the living wage where affordable? (900625)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is tremendously welcome that, as a result of the recovery, it has been possible for the Government to implement this second increase in the minimum wage—and the first that is higher than the rate of increase in both inflation and average earnings—which takes the minimum wage to £6.70. We want any employer that can afford to pay the living wage, without losing jobs, to do so, and we encourage them all to think of doing so soon.

T9. Workers at the Young’s Seafood factory in Grimsby are worried for their futures after Sainsbury’s ended a contract with it. Grimsby already has the 17th highest unemployment rate in the country, and in the past few years it has seen several established companies leave the area, leaving behind nothing to replace them. Given that the Young’s site provides 500 skilled jobs, what support can the Government offer to avoid further losses of skilled jobs? (900628)

Officials from my Department have already met people at Young’s in her constituency, following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). Those meetings are continuing. I assure the hon. Lady, however, that if it is bad news, all the good support she would imagine coming from the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure people can find new work will be put in place. None the less, I am more than happy to meet her and my hon. Friend to discuss the matter.

T7. The Minister knows my background and support for small businesses in High Peak. I am delighted that 135 new businesses were set up in my constituency in the last Parliament, leading to more than 4,000 new apprenticeships. Will he tell me and my constituents what plans he has to build on this record, see unemployment fall and provide more opportunities across High Peak, particular for young people? (900626)

My hon. Friend reminds us that this is a “one nation” recovery that is benefiting all parts of the country, including his own stunningly beautiful constituency. We are determined over the next five years to create thousands more businesses, millions more jobs and millions more apprenticeships for his constituents and the constituents of all hon. Members.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment and wish him and his ministerial team every success? On Thursday, he announced the sell-off of part or all of the UK Green Investment Bank, but it is unclear what proportion will be sold off. When it was established in 2012, the bank’s impact assessment said it was the only option that addressed market failure and barriers. How have these market failures been fully addressed and how will the Government’s sketchy plans for the most active green investor in the UK not undermine market confidence?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being elected Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee and look forward to working with him. Since it was set up three years ago, the UK Green Investment Bank has been very successful. In fact, this year, for the first time, it is expected to turn a profit. I want to make it stronger and even more successful, however, and one of the best ways to do that is to ensure it can access both private capital and private equity—

T8. I welcome the Government’s work to encourage businesses to take more people on by reducing the burden of employment law, helping more people in my constituency to get into work. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give me that he will further reduce the burden of regulation, thus helping businesses in Mid Dorset and North Poole and across the country? (900627)

I welcome my hon. Friend to his place. As he has heard, it is an absolute priority for the Government to continue the great work we achieved over the last five years, with £10 billion-worth of saving by deregulation and a promise of £10 billion more to come in the next five years. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and others—via Twitter or whatever—so we can find out where the regulations are that do not need to be there, get rid of them and make sure that we keep Britain working.

Having failed to rule out a hike in university tuition fees during this Parliament, can the Minister rule out at least that there will be no changes either to tuition fee levels or the terms of repayment on student loans for existing students and graduates? Yes or no?

The hon. Gentleman has previous experience as president of the National Union of Students, so it is valuable to us to have him here. He will know that the OECD has praised the UK as being one of the only countries in the world to have come up with a sustainable way of funding higher education, and this Government have every intention of continuing to ensure that our higher education system is funded successfully and sustainably over the years ahead.

T10. Small businesses are a substantial part of the local economy of my constituency. I was pleased to welcome the news that, since launch, 22 people have already taken up start-up loans worth nearly £140,000 to start new businesses in Cannock Chase. However, relatively speaking, this is low. What steps are the Government taking to encourage more people to take advantage of this scheme in areas such as my constituency? (900629)

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place. We know that start-up loans have led to considerable success. One thing I am keen to do is to ensure that we keep all small businesses, especially entrepreneurs and people looking to start up their business, well informed and absolutely aware of the various schemes available to them. I know the British Business Bank, through its website and other media, can provide that information, and I want to make sure that it is working, so that in the real world, people have access to funds, to schemes and the advice they often need when starting up their business.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the great concern about the Government’s failure to meet export targets. With UK Trade & Investment’s own surveys saying that more than a quarter of businesses reckon that there is no business benefit from UKTI, how does he propose to deal with this problem?

We have seen some growth in exports over the last five years, but not enough. This remains a challenge, which means looking carefully at UKTI and improving what it does. That is exactly what the Minister for Trade and Investment, Lord Maude, is doing. The hon. Lady may know that we have seen record inward investment, which is also important and a job of UKTI to promote. It has now topped £1 trillion—the highest in Europe.

The Secretary of State will know that from this September, companies will have two years in which to introduce the new general data protection regulations, estimated to cost £2 billion. Will he ensure that his Department does all it can to minimise costs and to make industry aware, so that they can comply within the timescale?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question; he makes an important point. I know my diary is going to get busy, but I would very much welcome a meeting to discuss this with him because—[Interruption.] I do not know why Labour Members seem to be complaining about Ministers meeting Back Benchers—I would be happy to meet even the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne). I look forward to working with my hon. Friend on this important matter, of which we are aware. We must make sure that we do this properly.

Has the Secretary of State had an opportunity to consider last week’s report from the Northern Ireland Consumer Council, which highlights the barriers to online consumers getting postage to Northern Ireland, the islands or the highlands of the United Kingdom? What steps can the Secretary of State take to create, dare I say it, a “one nation” consumer market where the inhibitors and the barriers are removed once and for all?

I have not yet had an opportunity to look at the report, but now that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned it, I shall certainly do so, and I shall then be able to respond to him on the issue that he has raised. He may be interested to know, however, that just today it was reported that consumer confidence throughout the United Kingdom had hit a 15-year high, which means that the Government’s long-term economic plan is working.