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Topical Questions

Volume 607: debated on Tuesday 15 March 2016

It is a busy week for the Department. We are in the middle of British Science Week, which will see millions of people attend thousands of events across the country. Yesterday, I helped to launch National Apprenticeship Week and met some remarkable young people learning the skills needed to do the jobs of tomorrow. Tomorrow, of course, is Budget day. We will hear from the Chancellor about our long-term plan to make Britain the best place in the world to start and to grow a business.

The Secretary of State will remember the several visits he made to my constituency, so he will be delighted to know that on Thursday this week the Telford International Centre is hosting a national apprenticeships show, including local employers Capgemini, Stadco and Juniper Training. Telford has had a dramatic fall in youth unemployment. Will he join me in congratulating Telford businesses, colleges and the many other people who have helped youngsters to get the first step on their career ladder?

I am pleased to see my hon. Friend is wearing an apprenticeship badge today to mark this important week. I recall fondly a number of visits to Telford and meeting local businesses. I join her in warmly congratulating those local businesses, colleges and training providers on the work they have done to boost apprenticeships, which are up 120% over five years in her constituency. That means thousands of young people being helped to achieve their full potential.

It is National Apprenticeship Week, British Science Week, Global Consumer Day—and the Ides of March. Today, the CBI has released a survey showing that 80% of its members support the case that staying in the EU is best for jobs, growth and investment. They are right, are they not, Secretary of State?

The best outcome of the referendum for business, jobs and growth in Britain is that we remain. That provides us with the opportunities we need. The uncertainty of a leave vote would be the enemy of jobs and growth.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that response. It was not heard brilliantly on parts of his Back Benches. Is his lukewarm response for remaining not now irritating both sides of his divided party and damaging the Government’s case to remain in the EU? When the Prime Minister launched the Conservatives’ “in for Britain” campaign, the Business Secretary conveniently had a prior engagement, announcing that:

“with a heavy heart and no enthusiasm, I will be voting for the UK to remain a member of the European Union.”

He asserted that he would remain a “Brussels basher”, but is he not really increasingly seen in his own party as a Brexit betrayer? With 100 days to go to the EU referendum, does the overwhelming case for remaining in the EU not deserve a Business Secretary who can campaign with his heart as well as his head?

It is a shame that that is the best the hon. Lady can come up with. One would think she would want to make a positive case. I think she should focus on speaking to her own boss and asking him about the contribution he wants to make to this debate.

T3. I was a comprehensive school girl who left school at 16, so social mobility is very important to me, and I am pleased to be involved in the new inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility into getting people from diverse backgrounds into top professions. Will my hon. Friend tell me what steps the Government are taking to ensure that more people, regardless of their background, can secure further education or employment? (904077)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to set out the Government’s support for our apprenticeship programme. We have committed to doubling spending on it and to see the number of apprenticeships rise to 3 million this year. They are a crucial platform for providing opportunity and social mobility in areas too often left behind in the past.

T2. Small care home providers in my constituency are telling me that their businesses will not be viable from April because they face the living wage increase but no chance of an increase in fees from Hull City Council. Given Hull’s low council tax base, even the 2% social care levy will not close the funding gap. What advice can Ministers give to these small but valuable businesses in my constituency? (904076)

I have had a number of meetings with various providers of social care. I do not entirely accept the hon. Lady’s assessment that the increase in council tax specifically to create extra funding for social care will not be able to address the higher costs resulting from the national living wage. I note that, in a week when we had a significant increase in the national minimum wage and a month before the national living wage comes in, the Opposition are attempting to say that these interventions will actually be damaging for the people they represent, rather than substantially boosting their incomes.

T8. Like many in the House, I welcome the Chancellor’s moves to develop a northern powerhouse, but my constituents are also interested in the Secretary of State’s work to drive forward the midlands engine. Will he assure me that tomorrow’s Budget will contain welcome news for my constituents and people across the west midlands? (904084)

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are absolutely committed to a long-term economic plan for the midlands engine, and he will know that I was involved in the launch of the midlands engine prospectus. We are looking for a £34 billion increase in the local economy and 300,000 jobs by 2030, which will benefit his constituents as well as mine.

T4. I welcome the Minister’s reiteration last Wednesday of her and the Department’s view that they will abide by the will of the House of Commons regarding the pubs code, which currently includes an outrageous measure whereby tenants have to surrender the length of their lease for the market rent only option. To ensure that she abides by the will of the House, will she see that that measure is taken out at the final stage of drafting? (904078)

As I have said before, I will undertake to be true to all we promised we would do when this matter was considered last year during the passage of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, and that is what we will do. I hope that the hon. Gentleman might now adopt the words of the British Institute of Innkeeping, which has welcomed the appointment of Mr Paul Newby as the Pubs Code Adjudicator, saying he has fantastic integrity and that he will be both feared and respected by pub companies. It sounds to me like a job well done.

Given the large number of young people interested in becoming self-employed or setting up their own business, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps are being taken to help the next generation of entrepreneurs achieve their ambitions?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, because as he will know we have had a real look at how the self-employed work and the sorts of changes that might be made to improve their conditions and to ensure greater fairness with those who are not self-employed. As somebody who was self-employed for many years, I am fully aware of this issue. We are looking at the excellent report that has been produced and seeing how we can encourage more people to start up their own business and, if they are self-employed, ensure they get a better deal.

T5. In February, the Cabinet Office announced its intention to insert a new clause into grant agreements for charities. Many universities, including my local University of the West of Scotland, are worried that that will prevent them from being able to advise Government, Parliament and political parties. Will the Minister confirm whether universities will be exempt from any new clause, and if so, what form the exemption might take? (904081)

The Secretary of State will know that the beer and pub industry in the west midlands employs 86,000 people in 5,000 pubs, has 124 breweries and contributes £1.3 billion in tax. Given his support for the brewing industry when he was in the Treasury, when he led the call for the duty cut, will he outline what his Department is doing to support the beer and pub industry—and will he pick up the phone to the Chancellor and ask him for another cut?

My hon. Friend has been an excellent advocate of that industry, helping it to grow and create thousands of jobs. He will have just heard from the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise, my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) about the Pubs Code Adjudicator, which I think is a very positive development. I have heard my hon. Friend loud and clear on the desire for a further cut, and I know he has made his representations to the Chancellor. When I was Economic Secretary to the Treasury, I recall getting a beer named after me—Sajid’s Choice, which was a fine brew—so there are many reasons to cut beer duty.

T6. As Government spend on small and medium-sized businesses topped £2.1 billion last year, I wrote to the Government to ask how much was spent in the north-west and particularly in Oldham. With an average UK spend of £188 per head of population, why does the north-west get just £29 per head of population and Oldham, at the heart of the northern powerhouse, just £15? (904082)

I am happy to discuss the figures with the hon. Gentleman, but as we know, we have a Chancellor and indeed a Government who are absolutely committed to the northern powerhouse, with hand and with heart—and that is what we continue to do.

As Ministers know, the steel industry is a very important employer in Corby, and with the final pre-Budget discussions taking place, would Ministers impress on the Chancellor that a business rates holiday for the industry would be very welcome news?

We will always continue to fight for our steel industry. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I understand the need to look at business rates and particularly plant and machinery, and we continue to put these important arguments forward. Whether or not we will be successful, we can only know tomorrow.

T7. Last week, I met a large number of companies that are currently involved in securing and maintaining the former SSI site in my constituency. They expressed extreme and urgent concern about the environmental situation on the site, particularly in view of the hazardous waste, which they believe is affecting the environment. Will the Minister commit to an immediate and urgent environmental review of the site, ahead of the implementation of the mayoral development corporation? (904083)

I am always keen to make sure we do the right thing by the site. I shall be revisiting Redcar on 21 March, as I promised to do, six months on from the unfortunate closure. The hon. Lady makes a good point. I am keen to ensure that we have this mayoral development company, but it must not be a white elephant. If we need to take decisions now to secure a proper future for it, we will do that.

Businesses in my constituency are continually telling me that their plans for expansion are hampered by excessive and over-regulation, much of which emanates from the European Commission. Will the Minister give an assurance that the Government will always fight on behalf of businesses rather than regulators?

My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for small businesses, and I am delighted that in the last Parliament we reduced the cost of regulation on small businesses by £10 billion. Furthermore, we are committed to turbo-charge our deregulation initiative: it is not just one in, one out; it is one in, three out.

A recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers highlighted innovation as a key driver of growth across the global economy. It also found that UK companies were less innovative and less focused on innovation as a driver for growth than the global average. With UK gross domestic product growth revised down by OECD and the IMF, is it not time that the Minister paid greater attention to supporting innovation in our economy?

Since 2010, the UK has risen from 14th to second place in the global innovation index, behind only Switzerland. We continue to support innovation in this country through Innovate UK and our expanding Catapult network.

The most promising sector in the British economy at the moment is life sciences, yet historically start-ups in this sector have had difficulty attracting venture capital. Will the Minister update us on progress he is making on getting this vital resource into this vital sector?

That gives me a chance to congratulate my hon. Friend on his leadership as deputy Mayor of the MedCity initiative in London. The life sciences sector is growing fast. Last year, we hit a 17-year financing high, with more than £1.7 billion raised for early-stage companies. The challenge now is to make sure that those emerging businesses grow into substantial global companies, which is where my focus lies.

I welcome National Apprenticeship Week, which gives us a great opportunity to praise all apprentices, and to promote apprenticeships as a means of securing training skills and jobs for the future.

In a statement on apprentices last Thursday, the Minister of State said:

“We do not expect all companies that pay the levy to use up all the money in their digital accounts”.—[Official Report, 10 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 454.]

What does that mean in practice? Can large and small companies take up any unspent levy? What estimate have the Government made of the number of companies involved, and of the proportion and value of the levy that will not be used by larger firms?

As ever, the Chair of the Select Committee has asked some penetratingly good questions, but I fear that I must ask him to wait until tomorrow, when he will hear more, as he will during the next few weeks.

Does the Minister agree that we need to give more training support to small businesses to encourage them to hire women who are re-entering the labour market after significant career breaks post-children?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We are focusing strongly on the issue, and we are working on it with the Women and Equalities Minister. We want to ensure that women have the same opportunities as men to re-enter the work force, and we will treat that as a big priority.

The Government have pledged to halve the disability employment gap. What is the Minister doing to ensure that disabled people have access to apprenticeship opportunities and can fulfil their potential?

It gives me great pleasure to be able to agree entirely with the hon. Lady. This is incredibly important. The current rate of participation in apprenticeships is not too bad—I think it is about 8.8%—but we can always do more. We need to ensure that the requirements for the qualifications, particularly in English and maths, that some people have to acquire as part of their apprenticeships do not discriminate against those who are disabled.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, given that Conservatives In is keen to promote the economic case for our remaining in the European Union, it is excellent news that the CBI has said that 80% of its members support the EU?

Absolutely. It is incredibly important that an organisation of the CBI’s standing is backing the Stronger In campaign. Indeed, we hear an increasing number of voices from business standing up for British companies, and not just saying how bad it will look if we leave—pointing out that what Brexit offers is very little and very confusing—but making the positive case for our staying in a reformed European Union, which is in our better interests.

Further to an earlier question, the Minister will know that we have many young entrepreneurs with innovative ideas in our universities throughout the United Kingdom. What more can the Government do to encourage them to stay in this country and produce their goods?

We continue to support innovation all over the country. Scotland is doing particularly well at present, with an 11% share of Innovate UK’s budget. Its population and GDP shares are both 8%, so it is punching above its weight, and I hope it will continue to do so.

What is my hon. Friend doing to deal with the appalling anti-Semitism at the Oxford University Labour club? We are now also hearing about an anti-Semitic play being performed at York University. Those are both appalling examples of disgraceful, blatant and rabid anti-Semitism.

I have, of course discussed the matter with the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, and also with the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Anti-Semitism has no place in our universities, or anywhere else in our society. Last November, we asked Universities UK to lead a review of harassment and hate crime in higher education; the Union of Jewish Students is represented on that body. We expect university leaders to deal with anti-Semitism without hesitation, taking disciplinary action and involving the police whenever that is necessary.

In this glorious week of the Cheltenham festival and St Patrick’s Day, will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the Irish business community in Britain, and to all who work to promote trade between our two countries? Will he also acknowledge, and pay tribute to, the fact that the relationship has been cultivated within the European Union—and long may that continue?

On behalf of the Secretary of State, it is a great pleasure for me, as the son of a national hunt jockey who had a winner at Cheltenham, to join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the Irish racing industry on what it does for the global economy and indeed for the UK economy.

Havant is a national centre for aerospace and engineering excellence. Will the Minister join me in congratulating everyone involved in the ExoMars space programme?

I certainly will. The UK space industry is indeed booming, with average growth rates of 8% over the past eight years. The ExoMars rover has been built in Stevenage, and I look forward to seeing the results from the Mars methane sniffer once it has completed its seven-month journey to Mars. I would like to tell the House that this morning I received an update from the UK Space Agency to say that a signal has now been received at mission control, so we can safely say that the launch has been a success.