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Topical Questions

Volume 597: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2015

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.