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Topical Questions

Volume 605: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2016

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.