Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 602: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2015

My first and foremost priority in recent weeks has been to do what I can to help the steel industry. I pushed for and was granted an emergency meeting of the Council of Ministers, which took place in Brussels yesterday and led to a number of actions being agreed. I reiterate our support for the people in Redcar, Scunthorpe, Lanarkshire and elsewhere who have lost their jobs recently. This is an extremely difficult time for all who are affected. I say to them: we are resolutely on your side.

Many businesses in the construction sector in my constituency are still suffering from excessive levels of retention being taken by prime contractors. What more can the Secretary of State do to encourage the phasing out of retention before the 2025 deadline?

My hon. Friend raises an important point that a number of people have made to me recently. Cash retention is a common practice that can provide insurance for customers against poor workmanship. However, the scope for misuse is clear. That is why the Government have commissioned a review of the practice. We will see what action we can take.

Further education has already been weakened by five years of Government funding cuts, so why are Ministers having hasty, half-cocked area reviews that threaten forced course and college closures? Figures released by the Library today suggest that the Chancellor is demanding at least £1.6 billion in FE cuts, and a new Green Paper proposes free-for-all providers that would threaten colleges’ higher education teaching. Are Ministers doing anything to stop FE being the spending review’s whipping boy?

We have discussed this issue previously. As I have said, we want an even stronger FE sector that provides even more opportunities across the country, and local area reviews are essential for that. We need to understand local needs much more carefully, and local reviews will achieve that. We will then be able to offer more opportunities.

T3. Many English Members of the House, while unable to recall individual results in the tournament, were extremely proud that England hosted the rugby world cup this year. What does my right hon. Friend estimate is the positive economic impact of hosting the rugby world cup? (902074)

Independent consultants—EY, the old Ernst & Young—estimated pre-tournament that the rugby world cup would attract more than 460,000 international visitors to England and Wales, which is the highest ever number for a world cup. That, apparently, would add up to £1 billion to the United Kingdom’s GDP, which is excellent, and we will know whether that figure was accurate sometime in May, when the impact statement has been done. By way of an anecdote, my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), who represents the birthplace of this great game, says that one business in his constituency reported a 250% increase in turnover, purely as a result of this great tournament.

T2. Wyke sixth-form college in Hull does a vital job for young people in a city that has struggled with educational attainment, and the FE colleges and other post-16 provision in Hull are deemed to be either good or outstanding. Will the Minister guarantee that that vital provision in developing the skills agenda in the city will be protected, and not decimated by the cuts that his Government are likely to propose? (902073)

We all share a sense of the importance of sixth-form and further education colleges to all our communities, and we all rely on and value those institutions. We need them to be stronger, however, and the area reviews are about enabling those institutions to form arrangements with each other that strengthen them for the future. This will be of less relevance for sixth-form colleges, but for further education colleges, the funding going into apprenticeship training is growing fast. Those colleges have a great opportunity to win a lot of that funding for the future.

T4. I wish a happy Diwali to you, Mr Speaker, and to everyone celebrating it. Given Narendra Modi’s visit this week, will my right hon. Friend describe the various trade, educational and bilateral arrangements that will be announced, and say what Narendra Modi is looking forward to seeing during this visit? (902075)

I commend the work that my hon. Friend has done over many years to boost ties between India and Great Britain. A number of commercial announcements will be made during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister. Those will demonstrate the full breadth of the relationship between us and India, and will cover healthcare, energy, financial services and creative industries. That will help to boost both of our economies. Later next month, I will lead a trade mission to boost education exports alongside the Minister for Universities and Science.

T6. In his Green Paper, the Minister says that he wants to improve access to higher education for the most disadvantaged students. Will he match that rhetoric with action and protect the student opportunity fund, which does so much to support young people from across the country in realising their full potential? (902077)

Yes, indeed. In the Green Paper, we set out various proposals on which we want to consult with the sector. I have also announced the creation of a social mobility taskforce, which is to report back to me by Christmas with proposals on how to meet the Prime Minister’s ambitious target of doubling the proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds who attend university by 2020.

T7. The Government are making large infrastructure investments in my area, through projects such as the dualling of the A303 and Hinkley Point. I am trying to encourage large-scale inward investment. How can my hon. Friend help us to build on local skills and research and development? (902078)

Through our growth deal with the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership, we have invested £6.5 million in the Hinkley Point training agency. Yeovil college and its partners can bid for that funding to build capacity and deliver skills training for Hinkley Point. The LEP is leading work with partners, including Yeovil college, to develop an action plan to deliver the construction skills that the area will need.

T9. The Minister appears to be a little shy about telling us exactly when the compensation scheme for energy-intensive industries such as steel is likely to be introduced, or whether it will be ahead of the original planned date. While she is thinking about that, will she also give thought to other industries, such as chemicals, ceramics, paper and cement, with a view to providing sufficient compensation for them? They face greater competition, uniquely, because of the high cost of additional UK Government energy and climate change electricity taxes. (902080)

At yesterday’s excellent meeting held by the Secretary of State in Brussels, the presidency agreed that this matter should be prioritised. We are now waiting for the European Union to sign off on it, and we are told that it will be in a matter of weeks. We are doing everything we can to advance that.

T10. I welcome the Government’s ambition for 3 million apprenticeship starts in this Parliament—three times the number under the last Labour Administration. As the numbers rise, will the Minister ensure that those apprenticeships provide the high-quality skills that our young people deserve and our employers demand? (902081)

Absolutely. There is no point having 3 million apprenticeships unless they are high quality and add to the skills of the people who take them up. That is why we are introducing new trailblazer standards, developed by employers: apprenticeships have to last at least a year and involve 20% formal off-the-job training. We are also introducing higher-level and degree apprenticeships.

I was at Caparo Atlas Fastenings in my constituency talking to the administrators last Friday. I am sure that the whole House will send their condolences to the Paul family. Will the Minister say what specific steps can be taken to preserve those skilled jobs for the future, given that infrastructure projects are coming up in the west midlands?

Of course we always listen to what the local enterprise partnerships are asking us to do, if they need any additional support. As the hon. Lady knows, in relation to steelworkers who have unfortunately been made redundant—notably at Redcar, but with more fears for Scunthorpe and Rotherham—we have put in substantial amounts of public money, specifically to ensure that those highly skilled workers get all the opportunities they need to retrain. The amount for Redcar is £16.5 million, and for Scunthorpe it will start at £3 million. We have already started to work with Rotherham and, if we get more bad news, money will be available for that area.

The issue of switching suppliers is particularly acute in the mobile phone space, where just 6% of users change contracts each year, and many people find it difficult to find the best deals. What plans do the Government have to improve switching and price transparency in the mobile sector?

The Government are determined to encourage more consumers to vote with their feet in key markets such as energy, banking and mobile phones. We are currently conducting a call for evidence on a set of six switching principles that will make the process quicker and easier for consumers. My hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy—for digital everything—and I will shortly write to the chief executives of mobile telephone companies to encourage them to co-operate fully with those new principles.

The Caparo group, which has its headquarters in my constituency and is currently in administration, provides high-quality steel products to the supply chains for both the motor industry and civil aviation. Those products are difficult to source from elsewhere. What will the Minister do to ensure that those companies survive?

May I first apologise, because I should have added my condolences to the Paul family on their loss yesterday?

The difficulties in Caparo are not as simple as those involved in the decline in the steel industry, with which we are all familiar. One of the difficulties at the Hartlepool plant, for example, was the decline in oil and gas. We will work with the LEPs—we will work with anyone—to make sure that workers who need extra skills to transfer into new jobs have that opportunity.

What steps will the Minister take to promote reform of the EU regulations specifically on biotechnology and life science?

My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. I was yesterday in Brussels with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to convene a summit with European leaders on biosciences. We are pushing for an enlightened regulatory framework to support EU and UK leadership in the fields of food, medicine and energy for global benefit.

May I ask the Minister why his Department is keeping further education and skills out of the Liverpool city region deal? They are crucial to the Liverpool city region.

I am not directly responsible for city deals, but there are many such deals around the country that have specifically majored on the inclusion of skills—Manchester and elsewhere. I am happy to look into it, but I am sure it was not because we resisted. Frankly, we are very keen for local authorities and local enterprise partnerships to take a bigger role.

May I refer the Minister back to his earlier answer regarding the shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers? Only last Saturday, my surgery was attended by someone who wanted to establish themselves as a trainer for HGV drivers. Will my hon. Friend look again at the support that such people receive, as it could go a long way to more drivers becoming available?

When there is an apprenticeship standard for HGV drivers, the company in my hon. Friend’s constituency will be able to offer training to employers for that apprenticeship, and to secure the funding that the Government will provide through the apprenticeship levy and other public resources.

I welcome the decision the Department has made on name-blind applications to university, but the Minister will know that this does little to deal with prejudices of class and race. Postcode, school and being first in the family to go to university are just as important. What progress is being made on contextual data?

It is a priority for the Government to increase the proportion of disadvantaged people going to university. We have brought forward proposals for UCAS to look at, so that for the 2017 admission cycle, we can introduce name-blind applications—an important step to ensuring that application and admission to university is on the basis of merit.

For British businesses operating in highly regulated sectors such as the legal sector, India remains an incredibly restricted market to break into—in many respects, even more so than China. Will the Secretary of State use this week’s visit as a catalyst to move forward long-standing discussions on the service sector?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. Britain and India do a lot of trade together, and there is a lot more we can do if we put our minds to it. These are exactly the kinds of issues we look forward to raising this week.

As has been well documented in this House, Ministers promised £80 million for retraining and economic development in Redcar. We know now that only £30 million of that will be saved for pension payments. Less than £10 million has been paid out already, and more than 90% of people have received their payments. Will the Minister promise the people of Redcar that what is not spent on redundancies and final salaries will stay in the region and go to the people of Redcar, not be sucked back up to the Treasury?

I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady, who rightly fights very hard for her constituents, that only today I met again with my officials and said that I wanted the remaining money to go in tranches to Redcar, so that people there can determine how it will be spent for the benefit of her constituents.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating Jack Hammond and Ashley Churchman, two inspiring apprentices who addressed a joint Education and Business, Innovation and Skills Committee seminar last week? Does he agree that apprentices sharing their experiences in this way can demonstrate to businesses the real value of employing apprentices?

I certainly would like to congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituents. As she says, there are no better advocates for apprenticeships than those who have completed them—not a bunch of middle-aged people like us—who can go to their schools and preach the virtues of apprenticeships.

In the Scottish Government’s programme earlier this year, the First Minister announced three new innovation centres for Scotland across Europe, one of which will be based here, in the great European capital city of London. How do the Government plan to support that centre, to ensure that Scottish businesses compete on the world stage?

We continue to support innovation across the UK. I was pleased to be in Glasgow 10 days ago, laying the turf for a new innovation centre, the Imaging Centre of Excellence, in the University of Glasgow. Scotland punches above its weight with regard to research funding—it has an 11% share of it, whereas it has an 8% share of the population—and I hope it continues to do so.