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Topical Questions

Volume 603: debated on Tuesday 15 December 2015

The recent spending review delivered a strong settlement for many of the Department’s sectors, focusing support on areas that drive up productivity across the UK.

As we have heard, in the past hour Major Tim Peake has successfully blasted into orbit. This morning, the Government launched their space policy, which has achieved lift-off. Launched a short time ago in a museum that is not far, far away, the policy document shows that there are no limits to the UK’s ambitions in this area. To mix intergalactic metaphors, we want to boldly go to infinity and beyond, and our new policy will make it so.

As everyone knows, if we are to improve productivity, we need a good, strong education system. Will the Secretary of State give a categorical assurance that further education institutions, such as Blackburn College in my constituency, will not receive a real-terms funding cut as a result of the cash-terms freeze in adult and 16-to-19 funding?

I agree with the hon. Lady on the issue of productivity and the need to boost skills. There will be area reviews, so I cannot make a promise about any particular institution. However, as the Minister for Skills has said, there will be an increase in FE funding of more than 35% in real terms over the lifetime of the Parliament. In the hon. Lady’s constituency, there has been a 75% increase in apprenticeship starts during the past five years, which I am sure she welcomes.

T3. The Eden Project in my constituency has run a successful apprenticeship in horticulture for the past year. Horticulturalists will become more and more important in meeting our increasing demand for food. What support can the Minister provide to promote horticulture as a worthwhile career for young people? (902690)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We are supporting the horticulture industry under the UK agritech strategy. Indeed, I recently opened a horticultural waste reduction facility. The horticulture sector is leading in the UK on low water, low plastic and low energy farming systems, and on novel uses of insects to avoid the use of pesticides and hydroponics. It is an innovative sector that is developing interesting careers and contributing to our growing agritech economy.

May I start by adding our best wishes and congratulations to Major Tim Peake, who will be the first British astronaut to visit the international space station, ahead of his Principia mission? May I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to Helen Sharman, who was the first Briton to go into space? Let us all pledge to do our bit to inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians and explorers, in the same way that the moon landings inspired my generation.

Most businesses understand that nearly half our exports and 3 million jobs are linked to our membership of the European Union, and most believe, like I do, that it is in the interests of the UK to remain a member. Yesterday, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) described the Prime Minister’s negotiations as “froth and nonsense” and the Prime Minister’s approach to his endless renegotiations has been described today as a “shambles”. Does the Secretary of State agree with UK business or with the Eurosceptics on his side of the House?

I associate myself with the hon. Lady’s comments about Major Tim Peake’s mission. It is an inspiration for us all and will hopefully get more young people interested in science.

On the European Union, I agree with almost all the businesses I have met because they want to see reform. They want to see changes in our relationship with the EU. They want the EU to be more competitive, they want to be able to make easier, quicker and deeper trade deals, they want a deeper single market and they want less bureaucracy. I am sure that the hon. Lady agrees with that too. That is exactly what we are fighting for.

We all want the UK to remain in a reformed European Union, but the Secretary of State’s Eurosceptic interests are well known. It is not like him to be so shy and timid about them, so let ask him more directly: is he prepared to resign from the Cabinet to fight for Brexit in the forthcoming referendum? If he cannot answer that question, how can he claim to be representing the interests of British businesses, which overwhelmingly want to stay in?

When it comes to divisions and resignations, it is her party that the hon. Lady should be worried about. I am prepared to fight for the reforms that I just outlined. Those are the reforms that everyone wants to see. We will fight for them tooth and nail, and then we will put the question to the British people and let them decide.

T4. The Worcestershire growth fund will provide grants of up to £100,000 to businesses that are looking to expand and create jobs in Worcestershire. Will the Secretary of State join me in encouraging as many businesses as possible across Worcestershire to apply for the first round before the deadline this Friday? (902691)

In the short time that my hon. Friend has been a Member of Parliament, he has done a lot to champion small businesses in Worcestershire. I have seen that at first hand. The Worcestershire growth fund represents an excellent funding opportunity and I certainly join him in encouraging companies in his constituency and mine to apply.

T2. The illegal money lending team has commenced 330 prosecutions against illegal loan sharks and had £63 million written off for the most vulnerable in our communities. The decision to cut a third of its £3.6 million budget may not have crossed the Secretary of State’s desk at the time, but he has had plenty of time to review the decision and it will have a big impact, so why does he continue to dodge questions about this short-sighted cut? (902689)

We are not dodging any questions. If the hon. Gentleman had attended Prime Minister’s questions last week, he would have heard my right hon. Friend the Chancellor say that he was looking at the possibility of introducing a levy to continue to fund this action against loan sharks. That is the Treasury’s policy to take forward and the hon. Gentleman will have to ask the Treasury if he wants further details about it.

T5. A few days ago in North Devon, I met the new cohort from the Petroc College Care Academy, which has a unique programme providing part-time apprenticeships at the local healthcare trust. Will the Minister join me in congratulating them, and does he agree that it is an important programme for training the next generation of our healthcare professionals locally? (902692)

I absolutely join my hon. Friend, and I thank him for raising the matter. The Care Academy programme is doing great work, and Petroc College in his constituency is pioneering 18-week placement courses so that young people can discover the interesting range of careers in the health and care sector. It supports the local economy as well as our national skills base.

T6. Several organisations, including Electrical Safety First, welcomed the recent product safety review conducted by the Department and headed by Lynn Faulds Wood. We must work to prevent ineffective product safety recalls and improve traceability better to protect customers and business in the UK. When will the Department publish the review? (902693)

I have met Lynn Faulds Wood and I thank and commend her for her work. I will have a further meeting with her to see when we can publish the review and make the progress that we all want.

T7. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the objectives of his recent visit to India, and how best local businesses in my constituency can tap into that market? (902694)

Yes, I will. The recent visit was to build on the momentum generated by Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit. Along with the Minister for Universities and Science, I went to India to promote getting more Indian students to come to the UK and study. I took 30 vice chancellors, including two from Dorset. That is just the kind of export that we want.

T8. Last week, The British Chambers of Commerce downgraded its forecast for overall GDP growth, citing weaker than expected trade. On Thursday, the Office for National Statistics released data, which showed that the gap between imports and exports grew from £3.1 billion in September to £4.1 billion in October. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the measures that he is taking to support export growth, given that his current plans are clearly not working? (902695)

The hon. Lady knows that there has been export growth in the past five years, including to some of the fastest growing markets in the world such as India and China, which came up earlier. We obviously need to do more, and that is why we have several measures in place, some of which I have mentioned. Those kinds of changes, such as increases in exports, are leading to falls in unemployment throughout the country and generating jobs, including a 53% decline in jobseekers’ allowance claimants in her constituency.

T10. As Tim Peake blasts off today, we are reminded again of the exponential value of science funding well spent. For that reason, the Science and Technology Committee intends to continue our work of testing science spending plans. Will the Business Secretary reassure the House that the welcome increase in science funding will be ring-fenced? Will he accept our invitation to appear before the Committee in January to go over that in detail? (902697)

First, I accept the invitation—thank you very much. I also take the opportunity to commend my hon. Friend for her leadership of the Science and Technology Committee and the way in which has made the case so well for science. I can confirm that the ring fence is protected in real terms, not just cash terms. I also confirm our manifesto commitment to spend £6.9 billion on science infrastructure over the next six years. I am sure that she will agree that, this Christmas, batteries are included.

T9. I previously raised with the Secretary of State the Teesside Collective’s industrial carbon capture and storage ambitions, which will not only contribute massively to the climate change agenda, but secure existing industries and attract investment. In the light of the Paris agreement, will he meet me and industrialists leading that key initiative to explore how we might bring that important project to fruition? (902696)

I hope that I do not disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I am more than happy to have a meeting with him. He knows the terms on which we always have our meetings: not to shout at me. [Interruption.] Only in the House. I hope that he will join me in congratulating the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change on her outstanding achievement on behalf of our nation in playing a full and important role in securing the excellent way forward to ensure that the planet that we leave for our children will be better than the one that we inherited. Yes, I will have the meeting.

As the Minister well knows, Carlisle and Cumbria have experienced devastating floods recently. As part of the recovery, it is vital that confidence is restored as quickly as possible, especially in the business community. Will the Minister confirm that she and the Department will do everything to support Cumbrian businesses, and wherever possible, ensure that people know that Carlisle and Cumbria are open for business?

Yes indeed, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and all Members of Parliament affected by this issue for their great work. I will go to that area on Tuesday, and I hope to visit Carlisle as well as Cockermouth, Kendal and Keswick if possible. I am delighted that we were able to secure £5 million funding for all businesses affected by the flooding, which will make a huge improvement. We have done that very quickly, and the money will be available quickly and—most importantly—in time for Christmas, so that all those businesses and shops can be open for businesses.

The Secretary of State mentioned simplifying and clarifying the business environment in this country, as well as paring back bureaucracy and identifying a further £10 billion reduction in red tape over this Parliament. Why did the autumn statement propose that small businesses should file tax returns four times a year, rather than annually? Will the Secretary of State outline how that helps small businesses to reduce their costs and burdens? To keep the “Star Wars” quotes going, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

I have not heard that quote from “Star Wars”. [Interruption.] It is really important that we keep deregulating for small businesses, and that was achieved during the previous Parliament. As Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, the hon. Gentleman knows that that measure is a net target, and because of the Enterprise Bill, and many other measures, I am confident that we will see huge net deregulation, running into the billions, for businesses over the lifetime of this Parliament.

The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee had a discussion this week about the phrase “industrial strategy”, which seems to mean all sorts of things to different people. I do not know what that phrase means, but I know that if I did, I would be against it. Will the Minister reassure the House that while he is Secretary of State, this Government will not go about picking winners?

Like my hon. Friend, the Government believe passionately in free enterprise. Free enterprise has motored this economy for decades, and it will continue to lift people out of poverty. We do have a strategy—it is called the long-term economic plan.

I am sure that the space Minister will praise the foresight of the previous Labour Government who established the UK Space Agency. Given that Tim Peake’s incredible mission is launching today, will she say a little more about how she will spread inspiration from that mission to a budding generation of new space scientists, engineers and astronauts, including in Cardiff South and Penarth?

Tim Peake is going to the International Space Station, but I mentioned seven years because—as you know, Mr Speaker—I am not prone to partisanship, and I will always give credit where it is due. I wish that Labour Members would do the same.

We have made huge progress to help great industries such as the steel industry, including our announcement on energy intensive industries, but I notice—let me get this point in when I have the opportunity, Mr Speaker—that nobody has mentioned that or said how good it is. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) are right to say how important it is that we inspire the younger generation—boys and girls—about great future career opportunities, especially in engineering.

Will the Minister update the House about life science clusters as a way to stimulate start-ups, excellence and growth in the sector? Does he have any plans to use devolution city deals for such clusters?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and around the country—not just in Cambridge, Oxford, and London MedCity, but in the Northern Health Science Alliance and the Scottish belt—the UK life science industry is building clusters of excellence and growth for the benefit of our citizens. I am holding discussions with the Chancellor and the Department for Communities and Local Government about how the devolution package could drive and support greater development of those health clusters around the country.

The Minister referred earlier to moneys that have been set aside by the Government for research and development in the aerospace industry. In my constituency, 6,500 people are directly employed by Magellan and Bombardier, and double that number are subcontracted. What discussions has the Minister had with the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure that we can be part of that research and development?

I have not had those discussions, but I am more than happy to hold them with the hon. Gentleman—he knows my door is always open, especially to him. I recognise the huge importance of Bombardier, and the role that it plays in his constituency and the whole of Northern Ireland.