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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 605: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2016

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Automotive Industry: Evolving Technologies

1. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that the British automotive industry is able to develop and benefit from evolving technologies. (903369)

The UK automotive industry is already a great success, but we want to make sure that it stays at the cutting edge. We are committing almost £l billion to help develop next-generation technologies. This will make the UK the go-to location for connected and autonomous vehicles, for example, and it will facilitate automotive research and development.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. We read yesterday of his enthusiasm for driverless cars, but what specific encouragement and incentive will he provide for the more mature and greener technology of hydrogen fuel cells?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of driverless cars. Britain already leads in that area, and yesterday I announced some £20 million of awards. Green energy and greener cars are also important. That is why, in the spending review recently, we announced more funding for research from Government.

20. Will the Secretary of State confirm that since 2013, when the Prime Minister announced his intention to hold a referendum on our EU membership, foreign direct investment in the British automotive industry and new technologies has been at record levels, because foreign companies are confident that British cars will be well made, whether we are in the EU or outside? (903390)

Actually, I can confirm to my hon. Friend that not only has foreign investment continued across British industry, including the car industry, but the auto industry has just had a record year, with more than £64 billion of turnover and 80% of cars being exported. [Interruption.]

Order. Dr Hunt, you were not taught to behave like that at your very expensive public school.

That was a very funny joke, Mr Speaker.

The Environmental Protection Agency in America is suing Volkswagen for installing defeat devices that cheat emissions testing in millions of cars. What work is the Secretary of State doing with manufacturers in Britain to ensure that such devices are not installed, so that we can look forward to a future of greener cars where all cars are properly tested at MOT and the public are safe in the knowledge that more and more people will not die unnecessarily from pollution?

That is a good question. It should be very clear to all companies that if they engage in such cheating or bad practices, the Government will crack down hard on them. We will work with our colleagues in the European Commission and elsewhere to make sure that all rules are applied. We in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are working on introducing real emissions testing, with the Department for Transport and colleagues in the European Union.

In the mid-’90s, I stood up in this Chamber and said that some day, there would be self-drive cars, and everyone thought I was mad. I am reliably told that by 2020, autonomous-drive cars will be available in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Much of that work is being undertaken in Paddington by Nissan. When will my right hon. Friend visit Nissan and other British manufacturers, such as Jaguar Land Rover and Toyota, if he has not already done so, to talk to them about autonomous-drive cars?

I have had a lot of thoughts about my hon. Friend, but madness was not one of them.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the new technology of driverless cars, in which Britain is a world leader. Yesterday at MIRA, a world-class facility in Nuneaton, we announced £20 million of funding. That will fund some eight research and development projects in areas across the country, including in the midlands, and 14 feasibility studies. With work like that, his dream of a driverless car to carry him wherever he wants to go will come true by 2020.

Floods: Effect on Businesses

We have made £50 million available to support flood recovery across the north of England following Storms Desmond and Eva, and we have already allocated £11 million to local authorities to support the 4,500 businesses impacted. Local areas also have the discretion to provide grants to any local businesses that have been affected.

Floods have an impact on the entire local business community, which is calling for more support. At my business flood meeting in York, it called for a business recovery package, including help to maintain a customer base and to trade expediently. Will the Secretary of State look into that, and will he attend a roundtable with flood victims so that a full business recovery package can be put in place for the entire business community, not just businesses that were flooded?

The hon. Lady is right to raise this matter. Many businesses have been affected, and when something like this happens it affects the whole community. We are already looking into that. She will know that the money already made available can be used to support businesses in creative ways. On top of that, there is a £2,500 grant to help all businesses affected, and they can apply for a further £5,000.

A large number of businesses in Carlisle were affected by the floods. However, they affected not just businesses but the rugby club, the squash club, the tennis club and the cricket club in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State look at providing support for those organisations as well as for businesses?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about how such a disaster can affect the whole community, and he gives some excellent examples of that. Money has been made available to local authorities to provide such support for both businesses and others, and I will look further at the suggestions he makes.

The Association of British Insurers puts the average cost of flood damage at £50,000 per business property, yet the average pay-out under the repair and review scheme has been just £1,666. That is well down on the £5,000 promised, with many businesses yet to receive a penny. In an Adjournment debate last week, we heard about the damage caused in Leeds during the last Parliament and the promises that have not been kept in relation to that. Will the Secretary of State make sure that the Prime Minister keeps his word that “money is no object” when it comes to support for businesses that have been hit hard by the recent floods?

Of course the Prime Minister will keep his word. It is partly for that reason that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster recently met the Association of British Insurers to discuss this issue, understand the scale of the problem and find out what more can be done. BIS officials have also met the ABI, which will make a difference. The hon. Gentleman may also be interested to know that, in the Enterprise Bill, we will bring forward measures later today to make sure that all businesses are paid on time by insurance companies.

Many of the businesses in my constituency that were flooded are lessees and do not own their own property. They would like to avail themselves of the generous support available from the Government, but landlords may not want to engage with that system. I know one particular landlord who is not interested in Government support. What support can the Government offer to lessee businesses that are looking to them for such help?

My hon. Friend is right. In such circumstances, those businesses should of course be helped as well. We know that many of them are already applying directly to councils, to which we have provided funding. They are eligible for the £2,500 grant, and they can apply for the further grant of £5,000. They will also benefit from the three-month business rate holiday.

Businesses: Support

In particular, our start-up loans scheme has provided more than 35,000 loans, worth over £192 million, and we are now putting support into growth hubs. Those are just two of the many things we are doing to encourage small businesses and give them the support they need.

I thank the Minister for that reply. What help can business people in my constituency expect from local growth hubs?

We all take the very firm view that the 39 growth hubs we have created are a really good way of making sure that small businesses get the support they need at the local level. We also take the view that the people who know best how to advise and assist businesses are business people themselves. We think that is done much better the more locally it is done, rather than doing it all from Whitehall.

Most of the lending from banks is going to medium-sized firms, but a lot of smaller firms—particularly those with fewer than 50 employees, which include start-up firms—are struggling to get long-term loans. What discussions will the Minister have, or has she had, with banks to ensure that we get better lending for small businesses?

Under our terms, any business that employs fewer than 250 people is a small business, but that does not matter, because the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Obviously, we meet the banks and encourage them. One interesting thing is the number of businesses that are looking at alternative sources of funding, such as crowdfunding and angels. Those sources are growing as businesses begin to see the benefits of them.

Small businesses in my constituency very often start up in rural areas. What steps is the Minister taking to co-ordinate with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on broadband connections, particularly in rural areas, which allow businesses to market themselves online?

I very much agree that this is a big problem, and not just in rural areas. The lack of superfast connectivity concerns many businesses. It has been raised by the Federation of Small Businesses, and properly so. We have put aside £1 billion to assist the programme, but I absolutely agree that more can be done. My hon. Friend can be sure that this matter is at the top of Business Ministers’ priorities. We are working hard to ensure that every business quickly gets access to superfast broadband.

What additional funding and support will be made available to encourage persons with disabilities to start small business enterprises? Will the Minister meet the all-party parliamentary group for disability to discuss the matter?

The short answer is yes, absolutely. I very much look forward to doing so, because I have no doubt that there are better things and more things that we can do. I am very happy to have those discussions.

Is the Minister aware that one of the biggest sources of capital for start-up businesses is the bank of mum and dad? Given that, will she seek in her Budget submission to have the restrictions on family investment in companies under the enterprise investment scheme and the seed enterprise investment scheme lifted?

Goodness me, it would be very dangerous for me to promise that I could deliver on that, but my hon. Friend certainly makes a very good point. Many people would not be able to start up small businesses without support not just from their parents, but from other members of the family. He makes a good point, and we are very happy to take it up.

A lot of start-up businesses in Merseyside are either in manufacturing or use buildings on former manufacturing sites, which are very large. I rarely visit such a start-up without it mentioning business rates. What representations has the Minister made to the Treasury in that regard ahead of the Budget? Will we see some relief for all the start-ups in Merseyside that are working hard in manufacturing?

As the hon. Lady knows, a full review of business rates is being undertaken. She can be absolutely assured that I and other Ministers make the case for businesses. My views are very much on the record—I think that we really do need to look at investment in plant and machinery. Everybody can be absolutely assured that we do not hesitate in putting forward our very strong views about business rates on behalf of all businesses.

Steel Industry

We are taking clear action to help the steel industry. We are cutting electricity costs, tackling unfair trade, updating procurement guidance, introducing flexibility in emissions regulations and reviewing business rates. That is what the steel industry has asked for and what we are delivering.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The Foreign Secretary said of China the other week in this Chamber that

“it is through the prism of steel that their claims to be treated as a market economy are likely to be judged in the European Union.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 694.]

Equally, the Ministry of Defence has recognised the strategic importance of the steel industry with the support that it has given to Sheffield Forgemasters. When will the Secretary of State follow suit? In particular, when will he pull his finger out and start battling for British steel with companies such as EDF?

The hon. Lady may be interested to know that it was the Secretary of State who asked for an emergency meeting of the European Council to discuss this issue of unfair trade for the first time and to make sure that when the EU takes action, it does so appropriately and in a speedy fashion. The EU is considering the issue of market economy status. When it puts forward a proposal, we will take a careful look at it. Even if a country does have market economy status, that does not stop the EU taking action, as is shown by the examples of Russia and the US.

As you are aware, Mr Speaker, I have concerns about a written answer that I received last week from the Ministry of Defence. It stated that

“the Ministry of Defence (MOD) does not hold a complete, centralised record of steel procurement for projects and equipment, either in terms of quantity or country of origin, over the past six years.”

Why on earth should we believe the Government’s promises on procurement when they do not even keep records in the Ministry of Defence, and what will the Secretary of State do about it?

We are the first country in the EU to take advantage of new procurement rules. When it comes to defence needs and other infrastructure projects, we should use British steel whenever we can. For example, the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are 94% British steel—that is 77,000 tonnes. Last week I visited Crossrail, the biggest infrastructure project in Europe, and almost all of it is British steel.

22. Under current rules, steel companies pay the highest energy taxes in Europe. Those taxes are then used to subsidise wind farms, which are made from cheap imported steel. Does the Minister agree that our policy needs to change? (903392)

I agree about the importance of energy costs, and that is an issue that the steel industry has raised time and again. We had previously announced a system of compensating for part of the cost, but we went further after listening to the industry. We needed to make a change, and we have made a change, which is a full exemption.

In her letter to me about procurement associated with Hinkley Point C, the Minister said that

“there are few companies globally that have the capacity to make the ultra-large forgings required for nuclear power plants. It is widely understood and accepted in the nuclear industries that the UK does not have the capacity.”

Given that Sheffield Forgemasters says that it does have that capacity, and that it has supplied such forgings to nuclear plants elsewhere in the world, has the Secretary of State asked the Minister what evidence was used to make that statement? Does he think it appropriate to scrutinise the rationale behind such a sweeping statement that dismisses world-class British steel manufacturers?

I do not think the hon. Gentleman is up to date on his information, and if he were to speak to Forgemasters—I am sure it would be more than happy to speak to the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee—it would admit that it has challenges meeting all orders for different types of steel. The important point that we all agree on is that wherever possible, when steel can be supplied by British companies, that is exactly what we should use.

Last year we became aware of Tata Steel’s intentions to mothball two of its sites in Scotland at Dalzell and Clydebridge, with the loss of hundreds of jobs. Those two sites have a proud history and they are far from being, as the Small Business Minister shamefully described them, “bits and bobs”. Further job losses have recently been announced at Texas Instruments, and at every opportunity I and my SNP colleagues have pressed the Government to produce a coherent strategy for an industrial plan. Once more I ask the Secretary of State to bring that strategy for our manufacturing sector before Parliament.

As the hon. Lady will know, we work with many industries. I attend industry and sector councils, and we have strategies, including the metal strategy, of which I am sure she is aware. She will also be aware of the actions that we have taken, such as cutting energy costs, providing flexibility on EU emissions regulations, changing procurement guidance and looking at business rates, all of which will help the steel industry across the United Kingdom.

If the Small Business Minister is right about Sheffield Forgemasters, why was it so furious about her words? Why did it make clear that it could supply 80% of the components necessary for Hinkley Point C? Should she apologise to the House, or can the Secretary of State do that on her behalf? What explains the answer that she gave to Parliament—ignorance, or lack of faith in UK steel?

The Small Business Minister has absolutely nothing to apologise for, and she was accurate in her statement. As I did the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), I encourage the hon. Gentleman to speak to Forgemasters himself. As I am sure he agrees, whenever we can use British steel for defence purposes, it is important that we do.

Adult Learners

5. What estimate he has made of the likely change in the number of adult learners between 2016 and 2020. (903373)

Overall funding for adult learners will increase by 30% in real terms between 2016 and 2020. As a result, we expect to see many more adults taking advantage of the opportunities presented by apprenticeships and further education courses.

I have received a number of representations from local colleges in Coventry worried about their future because of budget cuts. What assurances can the Minister give them that funding will be maintained?

I am delighted to be able to reassure the hon. Gentleman that, while concerns were indeed expressed to us in a debate in this House about the possible threat of such cuts, the Chancellor did not cut funding for adult learners in the spending review. In fact, he increased it. As I said, by the end of this Parliament, it will be 30% higher in real terms and at its highest level in cash terms ever in our history.

Does the Minister agree that we need to understand local needs, particularly industry needs such as photonics and tourism in my constituency, to ensure that adult learners have the best opportunities to get the skills they need for employment in them?

I do. I had an excellent meeting with my hon. Friend and the leaders of his local college. Their plans are very exciting. We very much want to make a move towards greater local involvement in the commissioning of adult skills provision, so that local industries can be supported.

Is the Minister planning any particular response to the Government-commissioned Foresight report of 2014 on lifelong learning and continuous training by Dr Martin Hyde and Professor Chris Phillipson? If so, when are we likely to see that response?

All our policies are a response to that report and many other reports that have rightly highlighted the need for continuing investment in adult education through people’s long and ever-changing working lives. One of the most significant measures we are taking is the introduction of an apprenticeship levy to double the level of funding for apprenticeships—apprenticeships that are available to adults in their 30s, 40s and 50s, not just to young people.

The 30% increase the Minister refers to covers quite a lot of apprenticeships, but the position for non-apprenticeships in higher education and further education is not looking good. He has not been able to give any detail for those estimates over the next four years. In the past four years, however, very large numbers of adult learners in HE—part-timers—are down 42%. The equality impact assessment shows that scrapping maintenance grants will impact badly on them. Research from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shows that adult learners are often highly debt-averse, which my own experience as an Open University tutor confirms. We welcome the measures for part-time student loans for 2018-19, but why has nothing concrete been done to address the decline in the meantime? May I ask the Universities Minister, through the Skills Minister, about the “Higher Education” Green Paper, which is currently a blank canvas on adult learners’ needs? Please make it good by addressing them and the economic benefits they will bring.

That was a strange question, because the hon. Gentleman had to admit that there were a lot of things he welcomed to try to sneak in a question. It was a little puzzling that he seemed to dismiss our investment in apprenticeships as if it did not provide opportunities for adult learners. The truth is that apprenticeships provide the best opportunity for adult learners, better than any alternative, and we are also extending the possibility of student finance to part-time learners. I hope he welcomes that.

Higher Education: STEM Subjects

Record numbers of students secured places on science, technology, engineering and maths courses this year at our universities, and thanks to the decision we have taken to end student number controls, there is no longer any cap on the number of people wishing to study STEM subjects. The number of full-time students accepted to study STEM subjects in England is up 17% since 2010.

Will my hon. Friend join me in celebrating the work and role science and discovery centres play in inspiring young scientists and engineers? Will he tell the House what plans he has to improve their reach, raise awareness of their existence and support their important work?

I certainly will. Our science centres do a fantastic job engaging with over 20 million people each year. That complements the work we are doing to boost STEM subjects in schools. Last week I was delighted to announce a £30 million Inspiring Science capital fund in partnership with the Wellcome Trust. It will allow science centres to make big investments in cutting edge exhibitions and education spaces, and reach all sorts of people who think science is not for them.

Many small businesses in my constituency need STEM graduates. What are the Government doing to connect them with small businesses, and to encourage them to start their own businesses as well?

The Government’s productivity plan set out their agenda for even greater collaboration between universities and business, and we are supporting degree apprenticeships, the first of which were in STEM occupations, such as aerospace and automotive engineering. Small businesses are essential to this agenda. In 2015, the National Centre for Universities and Business reported that 60% of work placements for students on STEM courses were in small businesses.

Not content with cutting social security support for disabled people, including those in work, the Government have moved on to cuts to the disabled student’s allowance. What is the estimate of the reduction in the number of disabled students doing STEM subjects and the impact on the disability employment gap as a result of that?

The disabled student’s allowance continues to exist, and is available to all students who need it. Universities must step up to their obligations under the Equality Act 2010 to make their learning environments fit for disabled students, and that will continue to be the case.

The Migration Advisory Committee recently proposed that employers pay an annual charge of £1,000 for every skilled worker brought into the UK from outside Europe. Given that recent figures show a 40,000 annual shortfall in STEM skilled workers, has the Minister considered what effect the proposal would have on the science community and high-tech businesses?

We are, of course, considering the Migration Advisory Council’s recommendations, and will come forward shortly with our response, but through our tier 1 exceptional talent visa, we provide many opportunities to highly talented scientists to work in the UK and contribute to our economy.

Apprenticeship Levy

7. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on implementation of the apprenticeship levy. (903375)

Last October, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury set up a working group with Scottish Finance Ministers to plan the implementation of the apprenticeship levy, and I am going to Edinburgh this Thursday to meet Roseanna Cunningham and Ministers from the other devolved Administrations.

The apprenticeship levy will apply to businesses across the UK, including Scotland. Will the Minister clarify the means by which Scotland’s share of the funds raised will be calculated?

That is, of course, a matter for the Treasury, but the hon. Lady will be aware that the system of Barnett consequentials will ensure that Scotland, as well as the other devolved Administrations, receives a share of the tax raised across the UK to support apprenticeships—I hope—and any other policy the Scottish Government want.

The Minister has underlined the advantages of apprenticeships for older people, but it is striking that the number of younger people taking them up was less last year than three years previously. What is he doing to draw young people’s attention to the attractions of apprenticeships?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that apprenticeships offer a fantastic opportunity to young people, but we should not get hung up on whether people are doing one at 16 or 17, or at 18, 19 or 20. We want them to do one when it is best for them, in terms of the impact on their skills and future earnings, and also best for their employer—remember that apprenticeships are jobs, and not all employers feel comfortable taking on a 16-year-old to do some jobs. We want to ensure that young people get an education in college that enables them to make the best of an apprenticeship whenever they do one.

The all-party group on the visitor economy is currently taking evidence on apprenticeships in the catering industry. We have discovered a dearth of apprenticeships in that area. How will the apprenticeship levy assist the recruitment of chefs and others in the catering industry and help to pump-prime apprenticeships and training?

Obviously, larger employers in the catering industry will be paying the levy, and will therefore have a direct incentive to spend the money in their digital accounts on apprenticeships. Issues with seasonal work in this and other industries mean that employers cannot always commit to an apprentice for a full 12 months, so we are considering piloting an apprenticeship that could last 12 months out of, say, 15 or 16 months to make it more accessible to the seasonal industries.

In December I asked the Secretary of State about the concerns of the oil and gas industry about the apprenticeship levy and the fact that it might mean that there is a double charge, given that some are already paying levies to training bodies. I am grateful that the Minister will meet me and representatives in March, but in the meantime what research has he done and what meetings has he had with industry bodies about this, and will he commit to a date to produce that information?

I am constantly having meetings with all sorts of business groups, large and small. I know that representatives from major oil and gas companies have been in those meetings. I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady and the industry, and to carry on meeting any industry, to reassure them that the apprenticeship levy is an opportunity not a threat.

Regional Growth: Midlands Engine

I was delighted to help launch the midlands engine prospectus in December, setting out our programme of action to deliver our long-term economic plan, which aims to add an extra £34 billion to the midlands economy by 2030.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his commitment. Excellent universities, a history of manufacturing and some world-class businesses make the midlands a great place to set up a business, but those businesses need to export more. Will he say what he is doing to help businesses—particularly manufacturing businesses, such as Invotec in my constituency—to do better business abroad?

In my hon. Friend’s constituency, UK Trade & Investment has provided support for some 250 businesses in the past years, including for companies such as Invotec, which have been given support to help export to India, Russia, Japan and other places. He will know that my noble Fried Lord Maude made a statement in the other place last week, which talked about the new whole-of-government approach to exports. My hon. Friend may also be interested to know that, later this year, I will lead the first-ever midlands business trade delegation overseas.

A key driver of any midlands engine will be Goodwin Engineering in my constituency. This is a world-class steel foundry business hit hard by the Government’s massive incompetence over steel policy. It is very keen for a swift decision to be made on the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. Can we have news on that decision and, more broadly, something approaching an industrial policy?

The hon. Gentleman can have news—but not today. These are the sort of decisions that we need to consider carefully. When it comes to major infrastructure, he will be pleased to know that the Government’s infrastructure plan involves over £90 billion and that we are going ahead with it.

One of the key drivers of regional growth in the midlands has been the success of new small businesses, which rely on getting access to telecommunications as swiftly as possible. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the potential impact on midlands growth due to the length of time some businesses have to wait for telecoms companies to connect them? Will he press those companies to sharpen up and speed up their act?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. As a midlands MP myself, I have met many businesses from my own constituency that have experienced the same problem. It is something that both BIS and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have discussed with BT and others. Although there are examples of improvement, a lot more needs to be done.

One hundred and twenty thousand companies in the west midlands are linked to the steel industry. Will the right hon. Gentleman say what steps he is taking to preserve those skills for future growth?

The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of skills in that industry. The first thing is to do everything we can to help it. Of course, the crisis has inevitably led to job losses, but the measures I referred to earlier will help to protect some of those jobs. We are also talking to a number of companies in the supply chain to see what we can do with skills training to ensure that those skills are transferable.

I can assure the House that the midlands engine is firing on all cylinders, but it does need fuel in the tank. Will the Secretary of State confirm that more than £2 billion was raised in venture capital in the UK last year, which was up 50% on the year before?

My hon. Friend talks about venture capital and the importance of attracting more and more investment across the nation, and of course in the midlands, too. I am sure he would be interested to know that over the last four years, the gross value added of the midlands region has increased by 15% or £27 billion, while the number of jobs has increased by almost 300,000.

The hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) asked about the creation of a midlands engine. I can assure the Minister that thousands of such engines are being built by Jaguar Land Rover in Wolverhampton, just outside my constituency.

The apprenticeship levy is very welcome, although there are still some kinks to be ironed out. Will the Secretary of State say a little more about how the Government will encourage the establishment of proper apprenticeships in the manufacturing industry?

Yes, Mr Speaker, in the west midlands the levy will lead to significant new investment in apprenticeships. Companies such as Jaguar Land Rover have welcomed that initiative, and intend to pursue it with gusto. We are also setting up a new standards board, which will be led by the industry. I think that is important, because it will ensure that everyone takes part and we secure the right skills outcome.

Start-up Manufacturing Businesses

As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made clear, the Government continue to turn around the historic decline in manufacturing that took place under the last Labour Government. In the autumn statement and in the speech that my right hon. Friend is making today, we are setting out our commitment to manufacturing. There will be £300 million for the high- value manufacturing catapult centre—[Interruption.] Perhaps Labour Members would listen. That £300 million programme will benefit the seven catapult centres in the United Kingdom.

We have doubled capital allowances for manufacturing companies, and we have put £1 billion into the aerospace and automotive industries at the Advanced Propulsion Centre, which includes a range of measures for small businesses. That is probably why the all-party parliamentary manufacturing group, which is chaired by the hon. and distinguished Gentleman, has said:

“British manufacturing is currently enjoying a resurgence, together with a reinvigorated interest in industrial policy.”

That report was published before the last Budget. In fact, the manufacturing sector is astonished at the way in which this Secretary of State has waved the white flag at the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He has sneaked out the abolition of the Business Growth Service, sneaked out the abolition of the Manufacturing Advisory Service, and sneaked out the end of the GrowthAccelerator programme. Where is the industrial policy of this country, and what happened to the march of the makers?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the march of the makers is working. That is why we are leading the fastest-growing economy in Europe; it is why, interestingly, unemployment in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is down by 60% and youth unemployment is down by 10%; it is why we continue to finance small businesses, which have received £2.5 billion through the British Business Bank and £35,000 in loans; and it is why we have doubled small business rate relief. From now on, 405,000 businesses will pay no rates at all. It is for those reasons that our economy is growing fastest—and that comes after 13 years during which manufacturing, under a Labour Government, fell to an historic low.

Many barriers, including energy costs and regulatory burdens, prevent manufacturing businesses from starting up. What discussions has the Minister had with the Chancellor about his policy of requiring businesses to return information about taxes to HMRC four times a year? Does he share my fear that that will increase the costs of businesses, impose extra work on them, and divert them from their job of actually manufacturing things?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Business Secretary, and this ministerial team, take the need to reduce small business regulation very seriously. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is giving a speech to the Federation of Small Businesses today on precisely that subject.

The Government’s track record in this regard is incredibly strong. We have increased small business rate relief, we have taken £10 billion-worth of red tape from small businesses through the Enterprise Bill, and we are raising the rates of finance for small businesses. That is why we had a record 5.4 million new businesses in 2015, which means that 25% more businesses have been created since we came to power.


We are giving employers the opportunity to design high-quality apprenticeships that meet their needs, and more than 1,300 employers are already involved. We are also establishing the employer-led Institute for Apprenticeships to improve standards and safeguard quality.

Businesses have, on the whole, welcomed the apprenticeship levy, but many are worried about how it will be implemented. Is my hon. Friend considering any sort of pilot scheme, involving a small number of businesses of all sizes, to ensure that when it is rolled out, it is rolled out smoothly and efficiently?

I thank my hon. Friend for organising one of the best attended and most interesting meetings of the all-party parliamentary group on this subject. I am doing many meetings of that kind both privately and, like that one, publicly to discuss the implementation of the levy. We will be publishing later in the spring the details of how the levy will work. There are all sorts of thorny questions, but we are talking to business about all of them.

It is timely for me to accommodate, on this question, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry).

14. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does my hon. Friend the Minister welcome the 2,580 apprentices that have been started in my constituency since 2015, and will he join me in welcoming the “100 in 100” campaign of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), which encourages MPs to go out to their employers in their constituencies and get them to take on apprentices? (903384)

I do welcome that; all the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) is marvellous, but this is a particularly marvellous aspect of his work. I say to all Members on both sides of the House that it is a simple scheme about going out and encouraging employers in their constituencies to create 100 apprenticeships in 100 days. I urge all Members of all parties to take it up, and we will do everything we can to help.

15. Thank you, Mr Speaker. The six Cornish MPs are also leading on this and my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) will be launching the “100 in 100” campaign in Cornwall. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) for establishing that, and may I ask the Minister to pledge his support to Cornish campaigning for apprenticeships? (903385)

I certainly will, and I look forward to visiting Cornwall during national apprenticeship week to celebrate that. In my hon. Friend’s constituency there were 82.5% more apprenticeship starts in 2014-15 than in 2009-10, and I am sure he will be able to go on and double that.

In my constituency I am working with UCAS to launch a “UCAS for apprenticeships” pilot. This new portal will make it easy for local small and medium-sized businesses to take on a school-leaver, and end the divide between those applying to university and those looking for an apprenticeship. Will my hon. Friend join me in supporting this exciting local initiative backing the aspirations of north Yorkshire’s young people?

Many of the best policies are designed by Back-Bench Members and piloted in their constituencies, and I want to salute my hon. Friend for creating this scheme so soon after arriving in this place. We will watch it very carefully and look to see whether we can roll it out across the country.

Sunday Trading Laws

16. What recent discussions he has had with shop workers and their representatives on Sunday trading laws. (903386)

Officials met USDAW, the TUC and the GMB back in August, and I am very much in favour of the policy of devolving down to local authorities the powers to extend Sunday trading laws if they wish, and if it suits their local area. We may hear more about this from the Secretary of State later when introducing the Enterprise Bill; I hope so.

I take it from that that we can expect an announcement on Sunday trading very soon, but with small traders worried that their only advantage over the supermarkets is the ability to have convenient store Sunday hours and over 91% of USDAW shop-floor workers saying they do not want to work longer hours on a Sunday, just who is going to benefit from these changes?

What has been really interesting in the consultation that was carried out was the large number of local authorities who welcomed the ability for them to have powers to see what would suit their area. So if a local authority took the view that an extension of Sunday trading hours was not right for it for whatever reason, it would not have to do it. That is the beauty of this policy. It devolves the powers down to local authorities so they decide what is best for them in their areas, and I can assure the hon. Lady that a number of Labour councils welcome such a devolution of powers.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Given that the Sunday trading laws were relaxed in the run-up to the Olympics, and given that the sky has not fallen in in Scotland where there are no restrictions, will the Government please crack on and relax the Sunday trading laws as quickly as possible?

I have made my position clear, but the ideal is that this is not about the Government imposing this on anybody. It is about giving local authorities the power to decide what is best in their area for all their shops, of whatever size, and of course for their shoppers and their consumers. If they do not want to do it, it would not be mandatory, but they have the choice because we take the view that they know best.

Topical Questions

Britain’s high-end manufacturing continues to lead the world, and 2015 was the most successful year ever for our aircraft industry, with delivery numbers up 44% since 2010. Jaguar Land Rover is now Britain’s biggest car maker; it produced nearly 500,000 cars last year, which was three times as many as in 2009. And just yesterday, the latest figures showed that manufacturing output grew once again in January. Britain’s high-end factories are working, more Britons are working than ever before and this Government’s long-term economic plan is working too.

We are hearing that Lord Heseltine has a big plan for the redundant SSI steelworks site on Teesside. If so, what is it?

It is absolutely right that we look at all options to generate more employment in that area, and that is exactly what Lord Heseltine has been working on. He has been working with businesses and local business leaders, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that. I notice that his own constituency has seen a sharp fall in unemployment of more than 40% in the past five years under this Government, and it is those kinds of policies that we will continue.

T2. Despite progress having been made, many small businesses, particularly those in rural areas, are struggling because of poor broadband speeds. Does my right hon. Friend think that the time has come for Ofcom to consider splitting BT and Openreach or, if it feels that it cannot do that, refer the matter to the Competition and Markets Authority? (903395)

Many individuals and businesses share my hon. Friend’s frustrations and the concerns that he has raised about BT’s perceived lack of investment and that perceived conflict of interest. I take these issues very seriously indeed. It is of course right that independent regulators should look at this issue, but let me assure him that I have discussed this directly with the head of Ofcom. I will be looking very carefully at the findings of its review and if we need to take action, we will.

Does the Business Secretary believe that the Google tax deal reached by his right hon. Friend the Chancellor is fair and proportionate?

I think it was a very important deal, not least because it leads to a change in behaviour. It sends out a message that if you do not pay your taxes properly and according to the rules, action will be taken.

Well, I am not sure from that answer whether the Business Secretary thought it was fair and proportionate, but at the weekend he said that it “wasn’t a glorious moment”, even though the Chancellor had hailed it as a success. Which is it? It cannot be both. Does the Secretary of State not understand how unfair this cosy sweetheart deal with a company that seems to regard paying its fair share of taxes as a voluntary activity must seem to Britain’s millions of small businesses that are now expected to do their tax returns quarterly and have no opportunity to meet Ministers 24 times to negotiate their own private little tax deals?

When the hon. Lady’s party was last in office, some companies were regularly getting away with 0% tax rates, but Labour took no action whatever. Since the change in Government in 2010, we have closed 40 of Labour’s tax loopholes, which has helped to generate an additional £12 billion in taxation.

T6. I know that the Secretary of State and his Department are working hard to support our vital steel industry, but may I ask him what specific steps the Government are taking to ensure the future sustainability of the Tata Steel plant at Port Talbot and to ensure that Welsh steel is used in Government projects and procurement? (903399)

I pay tribute to the great work that my hon. Friend is doing to support the workers in his constituency who have been affected by last week’s unfortunate announcement of redundancies at Port Talbot. However, as the Secretary of State has already outlined, we have delivered on four of the five asks by the industry and we continue to work with Tata. When the consultants have finished their work at Port Talbot, Tata will come to us and we will continue our discussions. We will do all we can to ensure that steel continues to be produced not just at Scunthorpe but at Port Talbot.

T3. The Government have set a target of trebling exports by 2020. Can the Secretary of State explain how delaying a decision on UK airport capacity supports that aim? (903396)

It is absolutely right that we make a decision on aviation capacity in the south-east, and the Government were right to appoint an independent panel to look at this. It has come back with its findings. It is right that we look carefully at those and we recently made a statement on that. There is no doubt that when the decision is made, it will be one of the contributory factors that will help us to achieve that target.

I apologise to the Labour Front Benchers, too.

The backbone of the north-west economy is built around small and medium-sized enterprises, so will the Secretary of State outline what help his Department is giving to small businesses across the north-west?

My hon. Friend is right to talk about SMEs being the lifeblood of the economy in terms of the employment and growth that they produce. We have taken a number of measures, including cuts to tax and to regulation. Later on today, I will be opening the Second Reading debate on the Enterprise Bill, when we will announce a number of new measures.

T4. The welcome new procurement guidelines for steel are worthless unless they have an impact on procurement practice. What are the Government going to do to ensure that this is delivered properly? How will they ensure that all Departments and government contractors follow these guidelines? How will the Government assess their impact? (903397)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and he will of course know that 98% of Network Rail’s tracks are made in his constituency. He can be assured that we will make sure there is real delivery on those procurement changes. May I just pay tribute to the councils of Corby, Sheffield, Powys, Cardiff, Rotherham and his own in North Lincolnshire, all of which have signed up to the new agreement to make sure that in their procurement they use sustainable and brilliant British steel?

T10. More than 4,000 people have started an apprenticeship since 2010 in Fareham, which is great news for people who want to learn new skills and for productivity. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) on his work in this area and in encouraging people from Fareham to attend my apprenticeships fair on 12 February at Fareham College? (903403)

If I could, I would spend every day at an apprenticeships fair in one of my hon. Friends’ constituencies—or, indeed, in an Opposition Member’s constituency. I was in Carlisle last week with my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) at his fantastic skills show, and I urge everyone in Fareham to attend the one set up by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes).

T5. Tidal lagoons present a “crucial industrial opportunity for the Northern Powerhouse”,so writes Yorkshire’s Allerton Steel. Port Talbot’s Fairwood Fabrications Ltd says that “rare opportunities to redeploy skills should be seized with both hands before being lost to the region altogether”. Does the Minister agree that when the British steel industry identifies a new market around which it could build a recovery, it is time the Government sat up and listened? (903398)

As we said, we have been listening. Five asks were made and we have delivered on four of those, with the fifth being the subject of a review—I hope we will see delivery on that in due course. We are doing absolutely everything we can do to ensure that steel continues to be produced at both Scunthorpe and Port Talbot. I have to say that more jobs were lost under Labour Administrations than have been lost under Conservative Governments.

The proposed tube strike this weekend will add misery to the Monday morning commute of many of my constituents, yet the strike will be conducted on the basis of a mandate dating from June 2015. Does the Minister agree that such disruptive action should be undertaken only on the basis of a fresh mandate from union members?

Conservative Members are very clear that it should not be possible to call a strike on the basis of an out-of-date mandate, and we are legislating to stop that. We are clear and our candidate to be Mayor of London is clear on that, but Labour wants to oppose this measure and support tube strikes that will prevent people who are paid a lot less than tube drivers from getting to work over the weekend.

T8. Will Ministers confirm what recent meetings they have had with devolved Administrations, local authorities and other public bodies on their proposed anti-Trade Union Bill? Can they confirm that the proposals, particularly those on facility time and check-off, have no support across the public sector? Is it not time to dump those proposals? (903401)

No. I am simply sorry to see yet another party of opposition standing up for illegitimate strikes that cause huge disruption for people who are trying to work hard, trying to get their kids to school and trying to get to work on time. I am glad to say that the Conservatives will be standing up for working people, not trade union bosses.

Despite the Government’s excellent record on apprentices, disabled people still face significant barriers. The Alliance for Inclusive Education has raised specific concerns about the requirements for maths and English. Will my hon. Friend the Minister review those concerns and write to the alliance and me to assure us that he is taking all steps to ensure that disabled people can take advantage of apprenticeship opportunities?

This is such an important issue that I hope that I can go one better and invite my hon. Friend to come and meet me, along with the people who have such concerns. I have had other such meetings, not least with my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), on similar issues. It is very important that we get this right.

T9. Has the Secretary of State read the report from the Centre for Cities, which shows that a large number of Britain’s towns and cities are low-skill, low-wage economies? What is he doing to ensure that there is joined-up thinking across Government to ensure that we tackle not just education and skills but the transport links to access those new jobs? (903402)

I have not seen that particular report, but now that the hon. Gentleman mentions it I will be pleased to take a look. He is right to identify skills as a key issue in helping to create jobs and increase productivity. That is why, for example, we have introduced the apprenticeship levy and are putting forward plans for that. It will make just the kind of difference that he is looking for.

I thank the Minister for Skills for supporting the apprenticeship awards at Grosvenor House last week. We gave out awards to small and large businesses and to brilliant apprentices, as well. Would it not be great if next year we had awards for the public sector, with all the permanent secretaries at next year’s awards, after today’s Bill goes through the House, and if we saw the public sector really getting behind apprenticeships?

Mr Speaker, you will have noticed that my hon. Friend has a badge shaped like a capital A on his lapel. I am sure that we could all think of many things that that could stand for, but in his case it stands for apprenticeship ambassador. He is a fantastic ambassador for apprenticeships and I am sure that, during next year’s awards, the public sector will be able to show itself as a supporter of apprenticeships.

Does the Minister agree that the practice of cash retention, especially within the construction industry, should cease?

It was a great pleasure to take part in last week’s debate, in which the hon. Gentleman made some very important points. We are having a review, but it is a lengthy one, and he knows that I have undertaken to do everything I can to bring that forward and see that we ensure that we take a modern look at an outdated practice.

With the US presidential elections exciting audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, it is looking increasingly unlikely that the transatlantic free trade deal will be signed under the Obama Administration. This year, however, we might be able to sign a free trade deal between the EU and India. Will the Minister welcome the resumption of talks two weeks ago, after they were stalled for two years, and do everything he can to secure a deal this year?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The TTIP deal is worth £10 billion to this economy, and it is surprising that the Opposition are not supporting it more loudly. We are driving exports with India. As the Leader of the Opposition is in the Chamber, it might be interesting to ask whether the shadow Chancellor still actively campaigns for the overthrow of capitalism.

With Hartlepool Tata, Hartlepool Caparo, Air Products, Johnson Matthey, SSI Redcar, Boulby Potash and oil and gas industry job losses, Teesside is being hit hard. May I ask the Minister to meet me and other Tees MPs to discuss the future of the SSI site? May I also tell the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise that between 1987 and 1992, in Redcar alone, the Tory party sacked 20,000 steel workers?

I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and any colleagues, and I have met him before, to discuss this important issue. He will know of all the action we have taken, and are taking, to help the steel industry. However, he makes it sound as if, when Labour were last in office—over 13 years—they actually helped the industry. Production halved, and the number of employees fell by thousands—that is Labour’s record. It is left to this Government to actually support the steel industry.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in a briefing on Friday to Department for Business, Innovation and Skills workers whose jobs are at risk in Sheffield, one of the main reasons given for closing their office was:

“because phones and computers don’t work”?

Is the Secretary of State, who is responsible for innovation, seriously saying that the Department responsible for sending people to space cannot find a way to communicate properly with an office 150 miles up the road? Will he now reflect on the way this farcical announcement was made and on the lack of empathy shown to those workers?

No one takes these decisions lightly. Of course, a number of people and their families are affected, and we need to do everything we possibly can to help. However, we have an obligation to taxpayers to make sure that we spend their money wisely, and that means making sure that all Government Departments are run efficiently and effectively. Even after this change, my Department will have more people—the vast majority of people—outside London, and that is the right thing.