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House of Commons Hansard
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Business, Innovation and Skills
15 March 2016
Volume 607

The Secretary of State was asked—

SMEs: Competitiveness

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1. What steps he is taking to help small and medium-sized businesses become more competitive. [904085]

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Britain is one of the top 10 places in the world in which to start and run a business. We are boosting skills, boosting productivity, raising the quantity and quality of apprenticeships in England, cutting tax and regulations and building stronger trading links with emerging markets.

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My rural North Yorkshire constituency is home to many businesses with strong local roots but global aspirations. May I ask the Secretary of State what his Government are doing to help small and medium-sized companies become exporters?

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My hon. Friend is a distinguished entrepreneur and speaks with a great deal of experience, and I take what he says very seriously. I can reassure him that my Department is first in leading cross-Whitehall work on exports. UK Trade & Investment is one of those entities that connects UK businesses to export opportunities around the world. Indeed, the UK export hub is continuing to travel across the country, meeting first-time exporters face to face. It has already visited Yorkshire, and, indeed, it is in Yorkshire today.

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How on earth are small and medium-sized businesses going to be competitive if, in 100 days’ time, they find that their access to those level playing field markets will be firmly thrown away and that that door will be shut in their face? What will the Secretary of State do to be much more vocal in highlighting the phenomenal risk to our businesses if we end up losing access to some of those important markets?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue. There are many risks with that decision. It is my personal belief that the uncertainty that could be created will be bad for business and bad for jobs and growth. However, there is a lot that the Government have done and will continue to do to support businesses. For example, they have cut the corporation tax rate, which I hope he welcomes.

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I have yet to speak to a businessman from a small or medium-sized enterprise who has said that what they want is more regulation, either from this place or the European Union. Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the thing that would most help small and medium-sized enterprises become more competitive both in this country and around the world is for this country to leave the European Union?

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I think that my hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of red tape regulation, as it can strangle businesses. That is why we are proud that, in the previous Government, we made a £10 billion cut in red tape for businesses and we are committed to make a further £10 billion cut, which I know that he welcomes.

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Small and medium-sized enterprises in York are struggling to be competitive. With the cuts to local authorities, business rates are soaring by 11%, and that is on top of the additional costs that SMEs are paying. I will, if I may, ask a question on behalf of Frank Wood, chair of York Retail Forum, who says, “Do you want the high street without any shops?”

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I think that what Frank would want is a high street full of customers. That means making sure that our economy remains strong. Our economy grew faster than any other G7 country last year, and that was because of our long-term plan, of which we will hear more tomorrow from the Chancellor.

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Is it not vital that my right hon. Friend’s target of 100,000 new businesses exporting by 2020 is met by lighting that spark in small and medium-sized businesses to export for the first time and, above all, to keep exporting?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Not enough British businesses export. More than double the number of businesses export in Germany compared with that in the UK, so we can do more and that is at the heart of the Government’s strategy.

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I am sure that the Minister will agree that a big part of helping small and medium-sized businesses become more competitive is ensuring that there is access to a skilled workforce. In National Apprenticeship Week, the Young Women’s Trust has shown that some employment sectors are hardly welcoming any young women. Fewer than 2% of construction apprentices and 4% of engineering apprentices are female. Will the Minister tell me what his Department is doing to encourage more young women into apprenticeships?

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The hon. Lady raises an important issue. We want all people, and that means more and more women, to benefit from our apprenticeship programmes in England, Scotland and elsewhere. In the past few years, we have tripled the number of women in England who take up apprenticeships in engineering, and that is something that Scotland can look at as well to see how we achieved that. I also think that trying to get more women to think about these subjects should start at a much earlier age. We should not point the finger just at colleges and others; we should start at a much earlier age to try to encourage women to look at lots of different careers.

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The Minister will be aware, I am sure, of the great work that the Scottish Government and our Education Minister, Cabinet Secretary Angela Constance, have been doing, but I would suggest that he also needs to work very specifically on the issue of pay for women apprentices. Their male counterparts can be paid as much as 21% more an hour, so what steps are the Minister and his Government taking to ensure that good apprenticeships offer fair and equitable pay for all?

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I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that under this Government the gender pay gap has fallen to its lowest since records began. Of course there is still much more to do, and at the heart of that is the fact that we will always require a strong economy, so I hope she will support tomorrow’s Budget.

Exports

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2. What steps he is taking to help businesses increase their exports. [904086]

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We are mobilising the whole of Government to improve the UK’s export performance. A refocused UKTI will be at the centre of a co-ordinated approach and relevant Departments will share their expertise to get British businesses exporting.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but the reality is that the UK export story is one of declining market share in the global market. Does the Secretary of State agree with the assessment of the British Chambers of Commerce, and will he accept its calls for urgent and practical support for UK businesses to export?

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What I do accept is that more needs to be done to get British businesses exporting. That includes the work of UKTI, but it also means that all Government Departments have a role to play. For example, UKTI works with the Great British Food Unit, an operation started by DEFRA. So I think a lot of Government can get behind exports by working more closely together.

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If the UK left the single market, my understanding is that the highest tariff that could be applied on UK manufactured goods would be the World Trade Organisation’s simple average most-favoured nation applied tariff, which for non-agricultural products is 4.19%. Can my right hon. Friend write to me to confirm that is correct, and to provide a factual context for the so-called risks of leaving the European Union? Can he also write to me to confirm that that number is lower than the annual fluctuation in the euro/sterling exchange rate for each of the last three years?

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In answer to my hon. Friend’s first question, of course I can check that tariff and write to him. He raises an important point about trade, and he has clearly raised the issue of tariffs, but he will be aware that there are lots of non-tariff barriers as well, particularly for services. It is important to look at those too.

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The Secretary of State’s word will do little for the 40 skilled staff of the Metabrasive steel foundry in Stillington in my constituency, which will close in May. So will he listen to the Materials Processing Institute and back its proposals for a materials catapult, which will provide productivity and innovation benefits for the production of metals, ceramics and other materials and promote our competitiveness and exports?

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I am sorry to hear that that firm in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency may close. We should do everything we can to try to protect jobs like that, and certainly research has an important role to play. We are looking very carefully at that proposal and he will hear more shortly.

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Spartan Global Services in Cannock exports refurbished computers to businesses across the globe. Can my right hon. Friend outline what is being done to reduce barriers to exporting, and to encourage more businesses like Spartan to take up the opportunities that exports offer?

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My hon. Friend has raised this issue before, and I know that many companies in her constituency could do a lot more if we had fewer barriers. One suggestion is that we should get on with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal between the EU and the US. That would be the world’s largest free trade agreement. It would be worth some £400 to each household, and it would certainly help companies like the one in her constituency export more to one of the world’s largest markets.

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Will the Secretary of State have immediate discussions with his Cabinet colleague in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs regarding the need to ensure the export of pork from both Britain and Northern Ireland to Taiwan, which has been awaited since August 2015?

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That is a very important issue. Food and drink is our biggest manufacturing industry, but a lot more can be done in terms of exports. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has taken this very seriously, and I will particularly look into the issue the hon. Lady has raised about Taiwan.

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We have a massive trade deficit with the European Union but the balance is positive with the rest of the world. We have just celebrated Commonwealth Day. A relatively small amount of our trade is with the Commonwealth. As my right hon. Friend is refocusing his Department, will he embark on project Commonwealth so that we can export far more of our goods to our cousins abroad?

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My hon. Friend is right about trying to do more with the Commonwealth. The links are strong and there has been a focus for many years on some countries, such as India. We have seen a big increase in exports and tourism, but there is always more we can do, so it is right to raise the issue.

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19. The deficit in trade goods was £123 billion in 2014 and manufacturing now accounts for only 8% of jobs in our economy. The SNP Scottish Government have boosted exports by 36% since 2007, and recently launched the manufacturing strategy for Scotland. What are the Minister and the UK Government doing to support manufacturing? [Interruption.] [904106]

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A most extraordinary noise has just radiated around the Chamber. Is it a singing tie? That is very irregular. [Interruption.] No, it was not the Minister.

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If I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly, he suggested that the SNP should get the credit for the rise in exports in Scotland. Scottish businesses have worked very hard to achieve that and I do not think anyone would credit the SNP with that. Where Government policy is important is in making sure that we have a stable, strong economy, and that is down to the economic plan that comes from Westminster.

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I call Alison McGovern.

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I warn the Secretary of State not to be too gleeful about the long-term economic plan—

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This is question 3.

Small Business: Lending Trends

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3. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of lending to small businesses by (a) banks and (b) alternative finance institutions in the last five years. [904087]

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I was about to get a warning. Maybe I will get it in a moment. The stock of bank lending to small businesses fell after the financial crisis but is now recovering, with four consecutive quarters of positive lending. Peer-to-peer business lending is becoming increasingly important as an alternative to bank finance. It has grown from £20 million in 2011 to nearly £1.5 billion in 2015.

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I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. Given the Secretary of State’s proximity to the Chancellor, perhaps he does not need a warning. Perhaps he has already given a warning about the Budget, as he probably knows that in the north-west we have seen just half the business investment in SMEs of that in London. Clearly, something has gone wrong with the long-term economic plan if we are not seeing rebalancing, so what conversation have the Secretary of State and his Ministers had with the Treasury about its attack on other financial institutions—for example, building societies?

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The hon. Lady is right to raise the importance of credit throughout every region of the UK for everyone who thinks a vibrant growing economy is important. We talk regularly with the Treasury about these issues—for example, about the work we do through the British Business Bank, which has provided more than £2.4 billion of financing over the past four years, helping some 40,000 businesses, many of them in the north-west.

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When people take the decision to start their own business, it is on the back of a great idea or they have skills which are useful, but for most people turning a great idea or skills into a business requires expert advice. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that that advice is available to potential entrepreneurs?

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First, I know my hon. Friend speaks with experience. He is a very successful businessman and no doubt he has talked to many businesses about this. One of the ways we try to help is through the growth hubs. We have made sure that every local enterprise partnership in England has a growth hub and we have increased the financing that goes into that, so locally tailored advice is available to local companies.

Broadband

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4. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on improving access to broadband for businesses. [904088]

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I call Minister Ed Vaizey.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that lovely introduction. As you have been so kind and welcoming to me, I would like to tell you that 4 million homes now have superfast broadband. I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to maintain and secure the UK’s place as a world leader in broadband.

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I am glad that the Minister thinks it is lovely simply to have his name announced.

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Although I welcome the progress the Government are making on rolling out broadband, it is clear that many businesses are not happy with the service that they are receiving from BT. What discussions is my hon. Friend having with BT to ensure that it is delivering for businesses across the country and specifically in Basildon and Thurrock?

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I do not want to labour the point, Mr Speaker, but I do not think you understand fully the effect your words have on me—you have absolutely made my day. However, in answer to the question, let me say that the Secretary of State recently announced that we will have a review of business broadband, because we do understand how important broadband is for businesses. Ofcom has also recently published its digital communications review, which will impose minimum quality requirements on Openreach that are much tougher than currently exist.

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The Government claim to champion the critical contribution that small businesses make to our economy, but Ofcom’s latest figures, which the Minister did not mention, show that half of small businesses in business parks cannot get 10 megabits of broadband, a quarter cannot get 5 megabits and one in 10 cannot even get 2 megabits. My local chamber of commerce tells me of businesses where staff have to go home if they want to send an email. Responding to me in a debate last week, the Minister said that the Government’s broadband roll-out had been “an unadulterated success”. If that is success, what would failure look like?

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Failure—[Interruption.] As usual, my hon. Friends have anticipated my answer: there, on the Labour Benches, is the picture of failure. We have had to write off £50 million from the failed Labour scheme to deliver broadband in South Yorkshire. If a Labour Government had been elected, they would be two years behind us in the roll-out of superfast broadband; they had a target of 2017 to get to 90%—we have already reached it.

Balance of Trade: Services

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5. What estimate he has made of the UK’s balance of trade in services. [904089]

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The balance of trade in services has increased from a surplus of £54.3 billion in 2010 to a surplus of £88.7 billion in 2015.

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The Secretary of State’s answer highlights the fact that, while exports in goods are vital, especially to manufacturing cities such as Gloucester, our surplus in services might be more vulnerable if we leave Europe. What assessment has he made of sectors such as insurance and investment managers, whose businesses are passported across Europe, and other service sectors, such as advertisers, accountants, animators, designers and film producers?

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My hon. Friend speaks with experience: he is a distinguished former pension fund manager—a very important service that the UK industry provides. He is right that the EU’s financial services passport means that financial services firms authorised in the UK can provide their services across the EU, without the need for further authorisations. That is, of course, a significant benefit that they receive. Services represent almost 80% of our economy, and access to the world’s largest single market helps them to create thousands of British jobs.

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The Secretary of State must know that however good the growth in services exported from this country is—and we all applaud it—it must go hand in hand with an increase in manufacturing. Is he not worried that Syngenta—one of our leading agritech companies—will be taken over by ChemChina, backed by the Chinese Government? What will that do for our competitiveness and our supply chains? Why will he not meet a cross-party group of MPs that has begged to meet him?

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Of course the hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of manufacturing in our economy, which is why it has increased in terms of output, employment and value since 2010. The company he mentions, Syngenta, has itself said that there should be no change in its footprint in terms of employment—in fact, we expect that to increase. Also, when it comes to foreign investment in British industry, I see that as a vote of confidence. Since companies such as Jaguar Land Rover have received foreign investment, employment has gone up threefold, and that is great for British manufacturing.

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Our strong performance in services is still not enough to offset the difficulties we are having with our trade with the European Union, with which we now have an annual trade deficit of £62 billion. Given that non-EU trade exports have increased by 30% since 2010, is not it clear that the best future for this country is to be outside the European Union, so that we can negotiate free trade agreements with China, India, Brazil, the Commonwealth and the rest of the world?

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I agree with my hon. Friend that it is clear that trade agreements can lead to more trade with those countries and reduce any other barriers. Through the EU we have access to over 50 trade agreements at the moment, whereas other countries such as the US or China have 14-odd trade agreements. I agree that we need to focus a lot more on trade, but the trade agreements to which we have access today are very valuable in terms of global trade, not just with the EU.

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Is the Secretary of State aware that productivity in our flagship service industry—financial services—has fallen behind similar productivity in the United States, in France, and even in Italy? Can he explain that? Is it something to do with the regulations that his Government have imposed on financial services?

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I am not sure whether it is to do with regulations, because all the other markets that the hon. Gentleman mentions have also had to look at regulations after the financial crisis. However, he rightly highlights a general productivity problem across British industry in all sectors, where we are some 25 points behind with our G7 competitors. That is why we have a productivity plan, working with industry to turn that around.

Consumer Protection

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6. What steps he is taking to protect consumers from faulty and unsafe products. [904091]

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Last year we passed the Consumer Rights Act 2015, which established a defined period of 30 days in which consumers can reject faulty goods after purchase, ending the possibility of consumers becoming trapped in a cycle of recurring faults.

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My constituent Mr Clive Davison has raised a concern about the delay in having his faulty Hotpoint tumble dryer fixed. There is real concern about this, given the risk of fire with these products. What are the Government doing to ensure that consumers such as my constituent receive speedy assistance?

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I understand that this risk was assessed as low; nevertheless, it is very important that the company deal with it. My hon. Friend’s local trading standards service has informed us that it is satisfied that the company is taking this matter seriously. I am sure that the company will want to pay particular attention to this constituent since his case has been raised in the House of Commons.

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The Minister referred to the Consumer Rights Act. When the Bill that became that Act was going through the House, I tabled a number of amendments to address the issue of unsafe and faulty electrical goods, and the then Minister gave a series of assurances and arguments that now appear to be hollow when we see the campaigning work by Electrical Safety First and by the Daily Mirror. We were told that the issue would be kept under review—is it under review?

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Absolutely. I will make sure that I have a conversation with the hon. Gentleman to understand what continuing concerns he has and to make sure that we address them.

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Today is World Consumer Rights Day. The Consumer Rights Act was trumpeted as bringing a new era of simplified, clearer consumer laws. However, most trading standards services have cut their staff by at least 40% since 2010. How can consumers enforce these new rights, and how can rogue traders be brought to justice, in the light of these cuts?

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I am afraid that it is rather typical of the Opposition to assume that unless there is public money, and public money that is always growing, it is impossible to enforce rights. Trading standards services are merely one of the enforcement mechanisms for consumer rights. Consumers can enforce their own rights, as established by the Consumer Rights Act, and trading standards services are working more efficiently across the country.

Prompt Payment

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7. What steps his Department is taking to help small businesses receive prompt payment from their customers. [904092]

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Of course, we know that for small businesses late payment is a serious problem and continues to be so. That is why we are creating the small business commissioner, whose fundamental guiding principle will be to tackle this problem, because we want to change the culture. It is good to see that some of the larger companies have already changed their late payment policies quite significantly in favour of smaller businesses, in some instances reducing the period to 14 days, especially for micro-businesses. From October, larger companies will be under a duty to report their payment policies.

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We welcome the creation of a small business commissioner as part of the Enterprise Bill, but given that last year’s National Audit Office report showed that four Departments were failing to meet the Government’s payment deadlines, why were public sector contracts not included?

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I have particularly asked that we have a full look at how we ensure that in all Government contracts, at all levels, late payment is not a problem and that sub-contractors, in particular, do not breach our very clear rules about late payment and the terms and conditions that it is only right and fair to have in all contracts, particularly Government ones. It is not enough to say it; they should be doing it as well.

Brexit: Exports

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8. If he will make an assessment of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on exports from its (a) aerospace and (b) automotive sectors. [904093]

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It is absolutely the case that our country will be stronger, safer and better off remaining in the European Union. United Kingdom automotive industry exports to the EU were worth £15 billion in 2014, while aerospace exports to the EU amounted to £5.8 billion. Our membership allows us to continue to attract international investment to the United Kingdom, as well as to work with all the countries in the EU through the various agreements that we have with other countries throughout the world.

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Toyota UK and Airbus UK are two anchor companies heading huge supply chains in north-east Wales that employ tens of thousands of people. Does the Minister agree that it would be absolute madness to throw those anchors away by risking leaving the European Union, and placing jobs in Wales and the rest of the UK at risk?

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It is a pleasure to agree with the hon. Gentleman, who might now become my hon. Friend on this matter. We are undoubtedly, as I have said, better remaining a member of the European Union, not just for the sake of the larger companies but because, as he rightly identifies, the effects extend all the way through the supply chains, which often encompass the smaller companies. I encourage him to urge the leader of the Labour party to make sure that it puts its full weight behind the “stronger in” campaign. He would be better off doing that than engaging with CND rallies.

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The right hon. Lady knows that planes have the great ability to cross borders without pesky border controls. I have found her to be a champion for Bombardier and the C Series in my constituency, so will she confirm that she will continue the discussions with UK Trade & Investment and secure sales for the C Series aircraft, irrespective of what happens on 23 June?

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Of course. It was a great pleasure to come to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and specifically to see Bombardier’s excellent C Series plane and the construction of its wings. I am delighted to say that I am doing everything I can—indeed, we all are—to make sure that UKTI is properly used by all industries, especially the one that he represents, to increase sales, including those of the C Series plane. It is an excellent plane.

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Since 1995, Europe’s share of commercial aviation manufacturing has risen from 16% to 57% of the world market because of the co-operation between France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom. Would the Minister not be better off having a word with some of her own colleagues than worrying about the Labour party, which is united in its support for remaining in the European Union? Does not that statistic provide a practical and potent example, which she can use with her Back Benchers and supporters, of why it is absolutely in the UK’s long-term interest to remain in the European Union?

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As I have already said, we are indeed stronger, safer and better off in the European Union. I am delighted that the leader of my party, the Prime Minister, is leading the campaign for us to remain in the European Union. If I may say so, I was told only yesterday that the majority of Conservative MPs support the Prime Minister in Stronger In. However, I will make the point yet again that, unfortunately, the leader of the Labour party is failing in his duty to play a full part. He goes on CND rallies instead of supporting Trident, for example, and instead of getting out there and supporting Stronger In.

Regional Growth: Midlands

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9. What steps he has taken to promote regional growth in the Midlands. [904095]

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10. What recent steps he has taken to promote regional growth in the Midlands. [904097]

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I continue to promote the long-term economic plan for the midlands engine, which aims to add an extra £34 billion and 300,000 jobs to the midlands economy by 2030. Just last week, I opened a new factory and also an innovation centre in the midlands.

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In National Apprenticeship Week, we can all welcome the creation of over 2.6 million apprenticeships since May 2010, including 500,000 in the midlands and 5,140 in my constituency of North Warwickshire. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming a report published today by Universities UK? It shows the potential for new degree apprenticeships to help to meet the needs of employers in my constituency and across the whole country, and to encourage more universities to deliver these important degree apprenticeship courses.

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Yes, I will. Let me congratulate my hon. Friend on the hard work he has already put in during his short time in his new role. He will know that there has been an increase of 137% in apprenticeship starts in his constituency in the past five years. He is absolutely right to raise the importance of degree apprenticeships, because he knows this is about quality, not just quantity. I welcome the report from Universities UK today on this issue, because we will do everything we can to support more degree apprenticeships.

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My constituents in Lincoln, along with the people of Lincolnshire, are grateful for the Government’s investment so far in diverse areas such as our transport infrastructure and apprenticeships, which are delivering clear business benefits. Will my right hon. Friend advise me whether I should be hoping for any further investments, like those that he and I have previously discussed with our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the Budget tomorrow?

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My hon. Friend is an incredibly powerful advocate for the people of Lincoln. His energy is legendary: he is like the Duracell bunny. Let me congratulate him on the success he has already achieved on behalf of his constituents in securing local investment. Like him, we are all waiting to see what the Budget holds.

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I think that was intended as a tribute. It will doubtless be communicated by the hon. Gentleman to the good burghers of Lincoln the length and breadth of his constituency.

Laser Pens

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11. What progress his Department is making on regulating the sale of laser pens. [904098]

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It was a great pleasure to meet my hon. Friend yesterday to discuss his campaign, which I completely and fully support. We had already begun to look at this very important problem to see whether we need to change the legislation. As a result of the meeting, as my hon. Friend knows, I have undertaken to contact trading standards officers, and the primary authority in particular. We need to look at what is in effect the illegal sale of these pens to children. Laser pens have a role but should be bought by those who intend to use them for perfectly proper purposes. The idea of selling them to children seems perverse. We are doing other things, including looking at how we can change some of the EU directives and regulations.

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As the Minister knows, I told her about the case of a seven-year-old boy in my constituency who was almost blinded last year by a laser pen he had purchased at a Christmas fair. The problem is that laser pens are very dangerous but are being marketed to children as toys. Will the Minister further update the House on what the Government are doing to stop this form of marketing?

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I cannot see how that can possibly be legal—actually, I am of the view that it must be illegal—which is why we are contacting trading standards officers and also, of course, the police. I know that my hon. Friend has already contacted his local trading standards officers, who in turn have contacted the police, and an investigation is taking place. As a result, I am confident that the message will be put out so that we can stop the import of laser pens, which is another reason I want to work with the European Union. I cannot see how on earth it can be right that it is legal to sell these pens as toys, because they are clearly not.

Apprenticeships

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12. What recent assessment his Department has made of trends in apprenticeship completion rates. [904099]

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As we raise the standard of apprenticeships by making them longer and more testing, it is not surprising that there has been a slight drop, to 69%, in success rates. That is why we are ensuring that 20% of the payment to trainee providers is paid only on completion.

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There has been a drop. The Minister knows my concern that achieving his quantitative apprenticeship target might be done at the expense of quality, and there is a falling completion figure, as he said. There seems to be a particular problem in London in this respect. Does he have any further proposals for improving the position on apprenticeship completions?

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I think that the right hon. Gentleman, who is a very consistent champion not just of apprenticeships but of high-quality apprenticeships, should in some sense actually be encouraged. The steps we are taking—to insist, first, that an apprenticeship must last a minimum of 12 months, and secondly, that the training content of the apprenticeship is relatively rigorous—are flushing out poor-quality training provision, which is having a temporary effect on completion rates. As he knows, we propose to put employers in charge of the money. They will commission the training provision, and they will have a very strong interest in ensuring that as many apprentices as possible complete the programme.

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With 19,800 higher apprenticeship starts in the past year—an increase of more than 115%, which includes nearly 3,600 in my constituency—may I congratulate the Government on what they have done so far, and urge the Minister to go further and faster?

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I agree with my hon. Friend, because although that figure is encouraging, it is a tiny percentage of the total number of apprenticeship starts every year. We want more higher apprenticeships and more degree apprenticeships—as championed by the Secretary of State—so that people see that they can start an apprenticeship at any level and go anywhere.

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21. What assessment has the Minister made of the potential impact of post-19 loans on the take-up and completion of training options? [904108]

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We are delighted that we have been able to extend the availability of those loans, which secure the same level of subsidy as general student loans. They are now available not just to people over 24, as before, but to those over 19, and at levels 3 and above for any programme of study. We believe that that is a real opportunity for people to invest in their own skills development and futures.

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May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s advocacy of national apprenticeship week, which of course the Labour Government started? It is worrying to learn that the number of people who completed apprenticeships in London last year, compared with the number who started them, is only 50%. Across England, similar statistics show that only 52% of people completed their apprenticeships, which is a drop of 6% on the previous year. The latest number of apprenticeships started in leisure, travel and tourism is down by 40% on 2010, and as the Financial Times told us, and as we heard today, only 4% of female apprentices take up engineering. Does the Minister agree that women—50% of the population—and the service sector must be crucial elements for his 3 million apprenticeship target? How will he have the muscle to achieve that, given the 23% cut in apprentice service staffing in the past nine months alone, and with more cuts to come?

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I think the Opposition will find that they are on a hiding to nothing if they try consistently to pick holes in and talk down the apprenticeship programme, which is dramatically successful and dramatically popular. Of course some people will not complete their apprenticeship, because an apprenticeship is not just a training programme; it is a job, and sometimes employers will decide that someone is not suited to continuing in that job. We want standards to go up and we want more numbers. Frankly, it would be good to have a bit of support from the Opposition for a programme that they claim to have invented.

BIS Office: St Paul’s Place, Sheffield

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13. What plans his Department has for the form of the consultation on its decision to close its office in St Paul’s Place, Sheffield. [904100]

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The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is consulting for 90 days with staff and trade unions, including on firm proposals to move policy directorate roles to London, potentially resulting in the closure of the Sheffield office. BIS is also consulting on how it can avoid making redundancies, and no decisions will be taken before the end of the consultation on 2 May.

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I thank the Minister for confirming that no decision will be taken on the closure of the office before the end of the 90-day consultation. The chief executive of Sheffield Council has written to the permanent secretary to point out that moving 247 jobs from Sheffield to London will add around £2.5 million to the annual operating costs of the Department, and he has offered to work with him to consider alternatives. Will the Department take up that offer before a final decision is made?

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The Department is in consultation with staff, trade unions and local authorities. The savings from those changes will result in £350 million across the spending review period, or 30% to 40% of such budgets. That important saving comes from the consolidation of 80 sites in seven centres of excellence.

Broadband

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15. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of coverage and quality of broadband provision for SMEs. [904102]

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I will carry on from where I left off, and explain that broadband for business is going well, and we anticipate that about 80% of businesses will have access to it by the end of 2017. We have passed our 90% target for broadband for the UK as a whole.

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I thank the Minister for his response, but my constituent in Upper Denby is struggling to run a business with broadband speeds of no more than 1.8 megabits. He is not due to get superfast broadband until July 2017 at the earliest. Broadband in 2016 is a necessity, not a luxury. Will the Minister make a commitment to escalate the superfast broadband programme, so that businesses in my constituency can operate on a level playing field with their competitors?

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The hon. Lady makes an excellent point and I am pleased that her constituency will achieve levels of 96% broadband coverage. The point she makes, which I would like to emphasise to the Opposition spokeswoman, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), is why we have brought forward Labour’s target by two years. We have achieved by the end of 2015 what Labour planned to achieve by the end of 2017.

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Many of my rural and farming constituents are looking to diversify, and are setting up their own businesses and working from home. Frustrated with the wait for BT to deliver superfast broadband, many have been left in the position of digging their own trenches and working with Broadband 4 the Rural North to deliver superfast broadband so that they can run their businesses. What message does the Minister have for my constituents who have been left in this situation?

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My message to the hon. Lady, as opposed to her constituents, is that people have to make up their mind. One moment I am being berated because BT has a monopoly and now I am being berated because people are choosing a different provider. Broadband 4 the Rural North is a fantastic community broadband programme. We encourage lots of competition for BT and I am pleased that B4RN is thriving and providing an excellent service to her constituents.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [904075]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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We are discussing with Cabinet colleagues exactly how we might treat universities with respect to that proposal.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Last but not least, Mr Alan Mak.

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

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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.