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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 612: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2016

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Industry Innovation

We want to make the UK the best place in Europe to innovate, to patent new ideas and to grow new businesses. That is why we are creating a supportive business environment—for example, with research and development tax credits and through Innovate UK.

The UK’s position as the world leader in offshore renewables is underpinned by industry and academics from across the European Union working together on innovation projects, and by funding from the European Investment Bank and other European or collaborative research and development funds. Can the Secretary of State give me an assurance that our No.1 position will not be put at risk by Brexit?

The UK is the world’s largest offshore wind market today, and it will still be the largest by the end of the decade, with 10 GW expected to be installed. Despite the decision to leave the European Union, I am confident that we can still co-operate on science and research, as many countries outside the European Union do with their EU counterparts. I believe that that will ensure that this sector remains very strong.

Innovation and research are inextricably linked. Yesterday, when I asked the Prime Minister about the impact on our research institutions of the decision to leave the European Union, he assured me that existing contracts would be honoured. However, researchers are applying for funding on a daily basis. What support can be put in place to deal with the uncertainty that exists today, tomorrow and next week?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there will be no change immediately; the current structures will stay in place for at least two years. Of course companies are concerned about what will replace them, and that is exactly what we are working on now with many researchers, businesses and others. The Minister for Universities and Science is taking this very seriously and he has already been speaking to a number of stakeholders.

A vital component of innovation in business is a superfast broadband connection. Would the Secretary of State consider extending the excellent satellite voucher scheme to allow the pooling of vouchers to enable the establishment of community schemes such as fixed-point wireless?

I will certainly discuss that with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I was pleased to have introduced that scheme in my previous role as Culture Secretary, and it has been making progress. My hon. Friend would perhaps also like to know that infrastructure will be absolutely key to the new national innovation plan, which will be published shortly.

Mr Speaker, you will know well, because you were with me, that I met representatives of the textiles industry and the university in my constituency last Friday. They are absolutely appalled by the decision to leave the European Union. Surely we need more than the rather calm words we have heard this morning. There should be an emergency package to deal with the real concerns of the great exporters and innovators of this country.

Of course there will be a number of companies, whether in textiles or other sectors, that will have concerns, particularly about the short term. That is why my colleagues and I are already in touch with a number of companies and businesses around the country. This afternoon, for example, I will be holding a round table with businesses representing every sector of the economy, and we will be following up on precisely those issues.

The innovation that British industry now needs is a range of innovative trade deals with the world’s super-economies outside the European Union, and we need to act on this now rather than waiting to start until after our exit. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to supercharge the trade unit within his Department to get crack trade officials working on these agreements straightaway?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. With this decision, there are of course short-term challenges, but he highlights the fact that there are also medium and long-term opportunities, one of which is trade. The Department had already thought about that in case the decision went in favour of Brexit. I am pleased that we did that preparatory work and we will now be putting it to use.

Scotland, which voted to remain in the European Union, has secured around £120 million from Horizon 2020, the biggest EU research and innovation programme. Participation in EU research and innovation programmes has enhanced our scientific and business reputation, so what are the Minister and his Department going to do to ensure that similar funding and support options are available post-Brexit?

The hon. Lady may be interested to know that several countries that are not in the European Union are part of research and science collaboration programmes—Israel, for example—so if we choose to do so, it is perfectly possible to continue working with our EU partners on science and research.

Late Payment

I am implementing a package of measures to support a cultural change to tackle late payment, including the small business commissioner, the duty for large businesses to report on payment practices, and support for the voluntary prompt payment code.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer and welcome his work in this area. In addition to late payment, there is the issue of lengthy-term payment. For example, an SME in my constituency is negotiating with a multinational company, which presents an excellent opportunity. However, the terms and conditions of the proposed payment schedule would mean a 98-day wait for payment on a £3 million project, which is something of a disincentive and, indeed, a risk. I recognise and welcome the fact that the market is opening up to SMEs, but does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to keep working to inspire a more level playing field across all aspects of business practice if SMEs are truly to compete?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The reporting requirements that I mentioned will give small businesses the information that they need to make more informed decisions, to negotiate fairer terms and to encourage other companies to improve payment practices. We take this very seriously in the Department and we are determined to change this kind of bad practice.

But one of the worst performers regarding late payments to small and medium-sized enterprises is the public sector. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that Government Departments, agencies and local government promptly pay the small businesses that they use?

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that while that was the case back in 2010, when payment practices throughout the public sector were appalling, there has been a significant improvement throughout central Government and beyond since then. At my Department, for example, we take great pride in paying almost all invoices within seven days.

As the Secretary of State knows, we welcome the move to set up a small business commissioner to help with late payment, but the proposals are modest. Will he assure the many small businesses that will be dramatically affected by any downturn resulting from Brexit that he will put additional support for them in the supply chain to deal with the consequences of any of their customers delaying payment to deal with the problems of Brexit?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the proposals are not modest. The small business commissioner will have significant powers and the ability to help, including by providing general advice and direct services for the smallest of businesses. The commissioner will also be able to consider complaints and to take super-complaints from trade bodies.

Midlands Engine

I continue to promote the midlands engine, which could add an extra £34 billion to the local economy by 2030 and create 300,000 new jobs. I am pleased that Sir John Peace has been appointed chair of Midlands Connect to drive productivity and growth across the whole of the midlands region.

Whether through energy providers, video games companies or manufacturers, Warwick and Leamington’s local economy is a great contributor to the region’s prosperity. What measures are being implemented to build on such successes and to transform the wider midlands engine from concept to reality?

I recall fondly visiting video games companies with my hon. Friend, who does a great deal to help local businesses, including by hosting a business forum last Friday. The midlands engine is already delivering. For example, we have a £5 million trade and investment package, £60 million for research, and a £5 million award for Midlands Connect. I am determined to do more.

The result of last week’s referendum shows that there is deep discontent in many of our market towns and coastal areas, where people feel left out and left behind because they have not seen the benefits of economic growth. What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that the devolution agenda increases jobs, skills and infrastructure investment in some of these peripheral economies, not just in our great metropolitan cities?

The hon. Lady will know that, since 2010, we have seen considerable growth in every single region of the UK, including in the midlands. With our focus on the midlands engine, we want to see even more. She is right to highlight the importance of devolution. In my Department, for example, the devolution of skills will make a big difference.

One of the best ways of bringing in new industries and new jobs to replace the ones that we have lost in the west midlands over the past few decades would be to back Dudley’s exciting plans for an institute of technology, building on the brilliant work that is going on at Dudley Advance. Earlier this year, we were delighted to welcome a visit by the Minister for Skills, and I think that he was very impressed with what was going on. Will the Secretary of State meet a delegation from Dudley to hear about these plans and to discuss them with us in detail?

7. Before the events of last week, I was delighted to hear that my constituent, Sir John Peace, was appointed head of the midlands engine project. Sir John is the founder of Experian, one of the midlands’ key financial service companies, and the chairman of Burberry. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that it is exactly people like Sir John who will be in his thoughts and working with the Department over the summer to ensure that the midlands economy is prepared for Brexit over the next few weeks and months? (905539)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and makes a very powerful point. The midlands is doing well, but it can do better. Trade and investment will be key. I plan to lead the first midlands-only trade mission abroad—to north America in this case—in September, and I would be honoured if companies from his constituency joined me.

Insolvency Regulation (BHS)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Insolvency Service’s investigation into BHS continues. We are always looking to ensure that Britain is an open place in which to do business, but with the proper regulation in place to protect workers and prevent abuses. We recently launched our consultation “A Review of the Corporate Insolvency Framework”—not something that trips off the tongue. Importantly, if there are any early emerging findings arising out of the BHS case, I can assure him that they will be fully taken into account.

I am grateful to the Minister for her response. Nevertheless, I am sure that Members of the House and people across the country were dismayed yesterday when they read that the pensions black hole in this country has reached a high of £900 billion. Can she assure this House, me and my constituents who work at BHS in Clydebank that, after reflecting on last week’s vote and the BHS scandal, the Government are doing everything in their power to assure their pension funds?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Yesterday was a dreadful day on the markets— two of our banks actually had to stop trading. Today, according to the results, is a better day. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, nothing has changed at the moment, so it is really important that we talk up our great country and our great economy, and that we instil confidence and stability on all sides.

The issue of pensions is very important in the context of not just BHS, but Tata Steel. The consultation finished on 23 June. Will the Minister please update the House on where we are with the pensions scheme, and also reflect on the fact that the trade unions and many others have said that putting that scheme into the Pension Protection Fund would be a complete disaster?

The consultation has, of course, now finished. There were concerns, certainly among Government Members, that Opposition Members perhaps had not been as supportive about the future plans for Tata as we would have liked, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, our doors always remain open to him. He has done great work to ensure that we have a sustainable steel industry in south Wales.

Many workers at BHS, such as those in my constituency, will no doubt have been watching in horror as events unfolded. What further support and assurance can the Minister give to the staff at BHS to support them through this difficult time? Furthermore, I have found—I am sure that other Members have, too—that BHS is not willing to engage with me as a local Member of Parliament. What can she do to ensure that it will engage with Members?

I am quite surprised that BHS will not engage, as the hon. Lady puts it; that is not at all satisfactory. We are working hand in glove with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that people are getting the support and opportunities that they need to get jobs. I am pleased that that work continues. In fact, government does continue, notwithstanding last week’s vote.

Counterfeit Electrical Goods

My officials and the Intellectual Property Office have met online retailers to reduce the availability of counterfeits on their platforms and to help to co-ordinate law enforcement action against sellers. The dedicated IP crime unit that was launched by the coalition Government investigates sales of counterfeit goods. In October 2014, the Government rightly introduced a criminal sanction to address intentional copying of products protected by registered design.

Research undertaken by Electrical Safety First has found that 64% of counterfeit products are now purchased online, with sales via social media increasing by 15% every year. Have the Government considered the impact of this trend on consumers and the industry itself?

I thank the hon. Lady for giving me notice of her supplementary question, because I can now give her a proper and good answer; otherwise, she would have just heard me say, “I will happily meet her.” I will happily meet her, but I can also say that the Government, industry and law enforcement are working together to tackle the threat posed by online sales of counterfeit electrical goods. We have something called Operation Jasper, a partnership between trading standards and industry that has been targeting the sellers of counterfeit goods, particularly on Facebook, and has succeeded in removing thousands of listings and users’ profiles.

In my constituency in South Lanarkshire, which is home to the headquarters of the Scottish fire and rescue service, 214 house fires were caused by faulty electrical items in the past five years alone. As trading standards are largely enforced locally, online sales might be harder to tackle, so what is the Government’s strategy for curbing the rising online trade in counterfeit electricals?

I think that I have answered that question, but the hon. Lady makes an important point about some of the dangers from faulty goods, especially those sold online. I was delighted that Lynn Faulds Woods, whom hon. Members will know from her various campaigns over the years to ensure that people are kept safe, has been working with the Government. She produced an excellent report and her work continues in how we are looking at policy to make things better and safer.

Traineeships Programme

I am surprised that you have shortened my name today, Mr Speaker.

The traineeship programme grew by more than 85% in 2014-15. Our first year evaluation showed positive progression rates with 50% of trainees moving on to apprenticeships and work, and a further 17% going on to further learning.

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps the world should know that his full name is Mr Nicholas Edward Coleridge Boles.

Well played, Mr Speaker.

There is still a perception, I am afraid, that traineeships and apprenticeships are somehow second class compared with other career routes. As a former apprentice, I know just how rewarding they can be. This summer, I will be running a skilled trades summer school in my constituency to help young people to realise the advantages of electrical and mechanical engineering, the motor trades and joinery, for instance. Will the Minister meet me and members of Oldham College to talk about how we can raise the profile of those very important trades?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his fantastic initiative, which is particularly powerful given his history as an apprentice—he can preach the reality of it. I have to confess to him that I have never been to Oldham, so I would love to come for the first time to join him.

Traineeships ought to be a route to good-quality apprenticeships, but we know that there remains a substantial gender pay gap for apprentices of more than £1 an hour. Will the Minister suggest how traineeships can be developed to encourage girls and young women into career routes that pay good salaries and have good prospects?

The hon. Lady identifies an important challenge that has been long in existence, and we have a long way to go to correct it. The key thing is to try to persuade young women to go for the kinds of jobs that are open to them and would pay them much better rates: STEM-related careers and engineering-related jobs. Traineeships are often a good way for people to get a taste for a profession but, equally, we need to attack the problem much earlier—at primary school—to shape the attitudes of young girls and make them understand that, like the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), they have a career in technology open to them.

Peter Cheese, chief executive of CIPD, has said that if the Government are serious about improving the quality of apprenticeships and skills, as well as the quantity, they need completely to overhaul the apprenticeship levy. Is he right?

He is right, to the extent that we want massively to improve the quality of apprenticeships, as well as the quantity, and they are not in conflict. But of course, if we are going to do both, we have to have more money to spend. That is why the apprenticeship levy is absolutely critical. It will enable us to take Government spending on apprenticeship training from £1.5 billion a year at the moment to £2.5 billion a year in England by the end of this Parliament, which is essential if we are to get the quality as well as the numbers up.

The Minister has tried to construct a reassurance on traineeships, but the facts that have been dragged from the Government tell a different story. Freedom of information figures published in FE Week show that just 9% of 19 to 24-year-olds and just one in five of all 16 to 24-year-olds went from traineeships to apprenticeships. The Labour party has consistently supported traineeships for getting many more young people into quality apprenticeships, so why have the Government wasted three years, failing properly to promote, explain or target them? Ten days ago, the Minister warned about Brexit uncertainties threatening apprenticeship growth and the levy, so will he now spell out new initiatives to tackle the necessary increase in traineeships, including support to further education colleges and providers who are desperate to press ahead with them; or else risk failing the young generation?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being one of the few people to resist the temptation to resign in the past 48 hours. He and the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), will go down in the history books as brave champions of modern opposition.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is an avid reader of FE Week; it is an interesting publication. He will know that traineeships are not only about pre-apprenticeship programmes. The whole point of traineeships is to take people into apprenticeships, jobs or further training—whatever is best for them—and he would seek to narrow this programme, the great strength of which is its versatility.

Skills Shortages

As has been often discussed, we are introducing an apprenticeship levy, which will have two main outcomes. First, we will dramatically increase spending on apprenticeships. It will also require large employers either to invest in apprenticeships or to see their money used by someone else.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his answer. He will be very aware, as I am, that certain employers have said that they are not happy with the apprenticeship levy and have asked the Government to rethink, but does he agree that the levy is the best way to ensure that businesses invest in their employees’ skills and for the Government to put apprenticeship funding on a sustainable footing?

Forgive me, Mr Speaker; we are all somewhat discombobulated at the moment. I should have mentioned that I am seeking to group this question with a later one.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What we are trying to design with the apprenticeship levy is actually something of an innovation in government: it is a new tax, but the companies that pay the tax will be able to spend it on training that directly benefits them, so it creates a huge incentive for those employers who pay the levy to get maximum benefit from it by creating more apprenticeships, and I believe that it will have a powerful impact in her constituency.

The importance of home-grown skills is clearly now even more important, given the result of the referendum last week. Considering the importance of EU funding to British universities, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that universities and other major providers of skills in the UK are equipped and supported, following last Thursday’s vote?

I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the results of the decision to leave the European Union is that we as a nation will have to do what we have done for hundreds of years, which is live by our wits and our talents, and we need to develop those talents by investing in education, in science, in research and in skills training. He is absolutely right about the crucial role that universities play—obviously, my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science is leading on that—but we are working closely together to get more universities involved in providing degree apprenticeships, so that people can get degrees and rise to high positions through apprenticeships.

One of the messages that has clearly come across to me from my experience campaigning in the referendum is that the free movement of people between this country and the rest of the European Union is no longer acceptable to the people I represent. What contingency plans has the Department got for what it will mean for the British economy to end the free movement of people?

The hon. Gentleman will know that no changes are going to take place any time soon in any of the arrangements with the European Union. We have made a decision that we are going to leave the European Union, but there will be a lengthy process of negotiation to establish exactly what new arrangements will be put in place. However, he is right that one of the chief sources of concern in our communities is the free movement of people, and I am sure he is also right that in his constituency, as in my own, that will have been a motive for many people to vote. That does not alter the fact that whether we are inside the single market or not, whether we have free movement of people or not, investment in the skills of our own people so that British people can get the best British jobs is what we need.

The most recent employment skills survey conducted by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills found that 2 million staff had skills not currently being utilised in the workplace. Can the Minister detail the steps that he is taking to work with businesses to utilise those skills more productively?

I feel as though I hardly use any of the skills that I have acquired during my long life—certainly not in this job. The hon. Lady is right that that applies to many people. It is one of the key reasons why we have resisted pressure to make apprenticeships something only for young people and only for new recruits, because for someone of 45, for example, who is returning to work after a career break or who has suddenly discovered in themselves an interest and a potential that they did not know about, it is right that there is Government support through apprenticeship training to enable them to develop those new skills and go on to a rewarding career.

19. Local businesses in Worcester tell me that they worry about skills shortages and they want to invest in young people. In order for them to do so, it is crucial that young people coming out of school have information about apprenticeships. Does the Minister agree that we need to keep on making sure that inspiring apprentices and their employers get into our schools to talk about the opportunities that apprenticeships can offer? (905551)

My hon. Friend is right. I know that he will be playing a vital role in shepherding through Parliament the Bill that will require all schools to allow other providers of opportunity post-16, whether FE colleges or apprenticeship employers, to come into the school to talk to young people during school hours, so that they are aware of the full range of opportunities out there, including apprenticeships.

One of the ways in which skills gaps in the economy have been filled is with EU nationals. That opportunity could now be lost to Scotland, especially in particular sectors and in rural areas. Can the Minister give an assurance to EU nationals currently filling skills gaps in the Scottish economy that their skills are valued and that they will be able to stay?

I am very happy to do that and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to do so, not just in relation to Scotland but elsewhere in our country. In my Lincolnshire constituency there are certain industries, such as food growing and processing, and the NHS, which would find it very hard to operate without the skills brought in by highly valued migrant workers, not just from the European Union, though importantly also from the European Union. The Prime Minister was very clear yesterday that those people’s position in our country is secure, their working rights are secure, and we remain a member of the European Union. Not only are they secure, but they are valued. We welcome them and we want them to stay here and help us make our society great.

Higher Education

The higher education and research White Paper, and now the Bill before Parliament, set out the steps that we are taking to raise the quality of higher education and to help ensure that all students get the teaching experience that they expect and the employment outcomes that they expect from their time at university.

The University of Winchester is exceptionally strong in degree apprenticeships. It performs consistently well in student satisfaction surveys and regularly tops 90% in graduate prospects figures. Does the Minister agree that these are all key drivers for young people in deciding to make what is a significant investment in higher education, and that Winchester seems well placed for that?

The University of Winchester is leading the way in degree apprenticeships, as in so many other areas. I was delighted, on Friday, to meet its excellent vice-chancellor, Professor Joy Carter, and I will meet her again shortly. Winchester is a good example of a university whose students have excellent satisfaction ratings and excellent employment outcomes, with 95% going on to employment, graduate employment or further study in a very short time.

The University of Sussex down in Brighton gets £9 million of funding from the European Union. The leave campaign was very clear that that funding would be replaced by British Government funding after Brexit. Will the Minister get to his feet and guarantee that that funding will continue? If not, will he bring his brother down to Brighton to explain directly to students why the door of education is going to be slammed in their faces?

This Government, more than any other, understand the importance of science funding. That is why we have protected science spending until the end of the Parliament—a decade of real-terms protection. Our universities and institutes can continue today to apply for EU competitive funding streams under Horizon 2020, and I am sure they will continue to be successful in the future.[Official Report, 5 July 2016, Vol. 612, c. 4MC.]

I praise the Catapult programme run by the Department, but can the Minister give us any indication of the opportunities for it to be rolled out more widely and to be available to people in areas such as Northern Ireland?

Certainly. In our manifesto we committed to rolling out our very successful catapult network, which provides shared facilities that companies, on their own, could not afford to construct. That enables our businesses to maximise the value of research coming out of our university system. In this Parliament, we have already delivered new catapults at Alderley Park in Cheshire and in Cambridge, with the precision medicine catapult. This is an expanding and very successful network, and it will continue to be so.

The Minister’s higher education White Paper rightly bangs on about how important high-level skills are, but the imminent skills White Paper is not even part of his new Higher Education and Research Bill. With those who teach, manage and work in HE fearful of the consequences of Brexit, should he not be prioritising skills strategies for both our community-based and internationally focused universities and using FE colleges as key HE providers? Why is he instead gambling the bank on allowing unknown, brand-new providers to get degree-awarding powers from day one—probationary degrees from probationary providers—risking our universities’ brand reputation overseas, as well as jobs and productivity at home?

I am working closely with my colleague the Skills Minister, whose forthcoming White Paper will have many of the answers to the questions the hon. Gentleman has posed. We are surprised by the tone of scepticism about the potential for new higher education providers to lift quality and enhance the range of high-quality higher education on offer in this country. I am afraid, though, that that is of a piece with the Labour party’s previous opposition to the conversion of polytechnics and to new universities in the 1960s.

STEM Subjects

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Government are fully committed to making the UK the best place in the world to do science. The number of full-time students accepted to study STEM subjects in England is up 17% since 2010. Initiatives such as the STEM ambassadors programme and the new Polar Explorer programme are providing inspiration for young people to consider STEM careers.

To what extent can studio schools, such as the excellent Space Studio in Banbury and the new Bicester Technology Studio school, be used to promote the take-up of STEM subjects later in a student’s career, whether that is at university or as part of an apprenticeship?

That is right: studio schools are pioneering a new and valuable approach to learning and are focusing on equipping students with a wide range of employability skills and academic qualifications. Schools such as the ones my hon. Friend mentioned in Banbury and the one in Bicester that will open in September give students the opportunity to work with specialist employers such as the UK and European space agencies and those in the fields of technology, sustainable construction, engineering and computing.

As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on nuclear energy, I am extremely keen to get more women into the nuclear industry and into studying STEM subjects at school and university, because we cannot meet the skills shortage without attracting more women and girls into engineering. I was therefore really pleased to hear the Minister agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) about the need to get in much earlier, at primary school level, if girls are going to take that subject right the way through to higher education. What specific action are the Government taking to achieve that aim, and how will they take into account the good work that we are already carrying out in west Cumbria?

The Government continue to work with all partners to raise awareness and interest in STEM careers. Initiatives such as the Inspiring Science Capital Fund, a £30 million programme that we launched with the Wellcome Trust, STEM Ambassadors, which is a £5 million-a-year programme, the Polar Explorer programme I have already mentioned, and the industry-led Your Life campaign are providing inspiration for young people to consider STEM careers. I am pleased to say that over 50% of STEM undergraduates are now women.

The Minister will know how important EU research funding is to our universities, particularly in relation to STEM subjects. He will also know that those leading the leave campaign promised that no sector would lose out as a result of Brexit. Forget about the next two years—if I could push him on his earlier answer, what will he be doing to ensure that UK Government funds replace European funding, pound for pound, in supporting research in our universities?

We remain members of the European Union. Our institutions are fully able to apply for and win European competitive funding schemes, and they will continue to be able to do so until such time as we change the basis of our relationship with Horizon 2020.

Land Registry

We recently consulted on options for the Land Registry. The consultation closed on 26 May and we are currently reviewing the responses. Until this is completed, no decision will be made.

Having a Land Registry office in Hull, I note that in the consultation of July 2014, when the coalition scrapped plans to sell off the Land Registry, only 5% of people consulted said that it would be more efficient and effective to do so, and the Government admitted that the case for change had not been made. So what has changed since then?

As I said, no decision has been made. It is clear, however, that the Land Registry has been moving increasingly from the use of paper to electronic means, and these modernisation and efficiency changes need to carry on. Regardless of ownership, this is just the kind of change we want to see.

One of the strengths of the Land Registry is its transparency and independence, but those proposing to buy it have links to offshore tax havens—places that do everything to avoid such transparency and independence. The sale to firms with links to tax havens will undermine the trust of homeowners and mortgage lenders. Is not the truth that this sale of family silver makes a complete mockery of Government claims to be tackling tax avoidance and tax evasion?

It would be entirely wrong to comment on any press speculation, but, as I said, no decision has been made.

Apprenticeships

13. What steps the Government are taking to promote apprenticeships in the arboriculture, forestry, horticulture and landscape sector. (905545)

We are working with employer groups to develop new apprenticeship standards such as arborist and forest operative. If I am ever seeking a new career, I can hardly think of a better one. We are also working on a pilot between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and BIS to support a boost in the number of apprenticeships available in the national parks.

I am delighted that the Government are addressing the skills shortage in this important area with their horticulture and landscape trailblazer apprenticeships. However, what talks has the Minister had with the Department for Education to make sure that courses offered to students provide what businesses actually need so that apprenticeships really work? I am going to welcome him to my constituency to talk about this so that perhaps he can assure me a little more.

That is an excellent question. The advantage I have is that I am also a Minister in the Department for Education; I talk to myself worryingly often. My hon. Friend makes a very important point. When the skills plan is published, which will be soon, we will be guided very heavily by the review recently completed by Lord Sainsbury, who is looking at how we can ensure that the courses that people are offered in college are genuinely the courses that employers want because they provide the skills they need for modern jobs.

I am sure that the people of Taunton Deane are in a state of eager anticipation and high excitement at the prospect of a visit from the Minister.

Wales also offers opportunities for apprenticeships in forestry and horticulture, but employers and colleges in Wales are very concerned about how the apprenticeship levy will work. What recent discussions has the Minister had with Julie James, the Welsh Government Minister, and when does he expect the scheme details to be finalised?

The hon. Lady asks a reasonable question. I had discussions with the Welsh Minister before the elections, which suspended matters briefly. There have been intensive contacts at official level not only between Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Welsh, Scottish and other Governments on how the levy arrangements will work from a tax-raising point of view, but with my officials on how the levy will operate. We will publish more details before the summer recess.

Courtaulds

My thoughts are very much with the workers and their families at this difficult time. Jobcentre Plus has acted swiftly to offer support, including a jobs fair with other local partners for Courtaulds staff and others.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I know that he has a personal interest in Courtaulds. Will he take steps to tighten loopholes restricting companies from moving assets to third-party companies before going into administration, which puts any potential sale of the company in jeopardy?

My hon. Friend will know that my father’s first job was at a Courtaulds mill. I have taken an interest in the company for a long time and what has happened is very sad. Current insolvency law already enables assets to be disposed of prior to the start of formal insolvency and before recovery. It is, therefore, possible to take action against directors for misconduct, if that is what the administrators find. We will look carefully at the report when it is published in three months’ time.

British Steelmaking

Crossrail, Europe’s biggest construction project, uses 7,000 tonnes of almost exclusively British steel. Network Rail sources 96% of its steel rail from Britain and it is all made in Scunthorpe—that is 120,000 tonnes a year for the next six years. We have changed the procurement rules so that wider social and economic factors are taken into account in public procurement, both locally and nationally, giving UK steel every chance to win contracts. In fact, it would be almost impossible not to buy British steel.

North Cornwall has two new possible proposals for branch lines, one in Wadebridge and the other on the Okehampton link. Does my right hon. Friend welcome those proposals, and does she think, in the light of the recent EU referendum result, that it would be beneficial for British steel to be used in every new railway construction across the whole country?

We have changed the procurement rules in relation to Government funding, but there is really no excuse. We know how brilliant British steel is—[Interruption]—especially when it comes to the construction of railway lines. It is the best steel in the world, which is why so many people buy it when they are constructing rail lines.

I welcome the Minister’s comments about UK steel, and Scunthorpe steel in particular. What is she doing to ensure that there is a clear pipeline of infrastructure projects in train so that the correct capacity is put in place for creating the steel for those projects?

I am grateful, as ever, to the hon. Gentleman for his question. One of the things that will certainly take place today is the Secretary of State leading an extremely large meeting, as the hon. Gentleman might imagine, of all the key players in British industry, following last week’s vote. One of the things that we have already discussed is the need to make sure that we address—if at all possible, and if we can really get determination—huge infrastructure projects. Whether it is HS2, a third runway or whatever, it is incredibly important that we make the very best of what has been a very bad decision by the British public, if I may say so.

Topical Questions

Following last week’s referendum result, my Department has been talking to businesses up and down the country, and we will work with them over the weeks and months ahead. To that end, later today I will host a round table with trade bodies and business leaders to consider our next steps. I would also like to take this opportunity to welcome Tim Peake back to earth after six months of education and inspiration aboard the international space station.

I spent last week visiting businesses right across Telford. Notwithstanding short-term market volatility, the gilt market has been strong throughout and equities are back up today. Business leaders in Telford are confident about the future. Having visited Telford on several occasions, does the Secretary of State agree that it has a great future and is a great place to do business?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend; I will visit Telford again and again with her. She will know that unemployment in her constituency has fallen by 60% over the past six years. That is testimony to the strength of local businesses, to her own work and to this Government’s policies. I will work with her in every way to secure Telford’s bright future.

Despite the Secretary of State’s complacency, this is a very difficult time for British business. Over the past 24 hours we have lost our triple A rating and £150 billion has been wiped off the value of the FTSE 350. Will he reassure the many worried workers and businesses that, unlike with Tata, when he was on the other side of the planet, he will be in the boardrooms of Nissan in Sunderland, Hitachi in Newton Aycliffe, Jaguar Land Rover in Solihull and other businesses across the country to share his plan for a secure economic exit as they make investment decisions in the weeks and months to come?

I was hoping to welcome the hon. Lady as the new shadow Business Secretary, but I understand that she is not in that position yet—if her leader is having problems filling it, I am happy to make some suggestions. I assure her that, yes, because of last week’s decision, there are of course some short-term challenges for businesses, but we must also remember that there are medium and long-term opportunities as well, including for the auto industry.

It is clear that the Secretary of State not only does not have a plan, but does not even have a plan for a plan. He cannot say whether he personally wants to retain access to the single market for goods and services. Is it not true that the only plan he has is for his joint leadership bid, and that British businesses and the British job market stand to lose from the economic uncertainty that his party’s divides have unleashed?

I was hoping that the hon. Lady would not play party politics with something as straightforward as this. Many businesses up and down the country are reflecting on last week’s decision, and my job is to reassure them that that decision can be made to work. As well as challenges, there are plenty of opportunities, and when I meet businesses later this afternoon that is exactly the message I will be giving to them.

T2. The Greater Manchester region is a huge supporter of apprenticeships, with 30,000 starts last year alone. I recently met the young apprentices from Thales in my constituency, who are doing excellent and innovative work on the development of underwater sonar systems. Will the Minister outline what additional support his Department is giving to the city region to increase apprenticeship uptake? (905464)

I congratulate Greater Manchester on achieving a 75% increase in apprenticeships since 2010. My hon. Friend will be aware that we have devolved the apprenticeship grant for employers—an incentive payment to encourage employers who have not previously employed apprentices to do so—to Manchester so that the authority there can target it at the particular kinds of employer that it wants apprenticeship growth to come through.

T4. As we head towards Brexit, many EU-derived regulations will no doubt come under the microscope. Some of the most important are the working time regulations, which protect vital safe working limits in the workplace. Will the Government confirm that they intend to retain all elements of the working time regulations? (905466)

The first thing the hon. Gentleman should know is that nothing changes right here and now. For the next few years, there will be no changes—we are members of the European Union, and all our rights and obligations will be respected. In the longer term, this country has always been committed, quite rightly, to workers’ rights. That will not change.

T5. Pendle is home to a number of excellent aerospace companies such as Euravia, Senior Aerospace Weston and Rolls-Royce. What assurance can Ministers give the aerospace sector of the Government’s ongoing commitment following the vote to leave the EU? (905467)

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, later today we will meet the trade council that represents the aerospace industry, and we are fully committed to that. We will continue to work closely with the aerospace growth partnership to tackle barriers to growth, to boost exports, and to grow high-value jobs. In particular that will include support for research and development, which now stands at £3.9 billion for aerospace research.

T9. Fire and rescue services attend up to three fires a day that are a result of faulty tumble driers. Which?, the Local Government Association, Electrical Safety First and other consumer interest groups have all raised concerns about how Whirlpool has handled that problem. Is the Minister comfortable that Whirlpool has merely issued a safety statement and not a total recall? (905472)

I have had a meeting with the hon. Lady, for which I am grateful, and she has really led for consumers on this issue. As I think I explained, an investigation has suggested that the approach taken by Whirlpool was reasonable, and that the nature of the risk was not such that a total recall was required. However, she is right to say that the company needs to get a move on, and it is not right or reasonable to leave people waiting for months and months to have a faulty product, for which Whirlpool should be accountable, replaced.

T6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the duty of Ministers who are loyal to the Crown to promote the British economy and not to talk it down? Will she agree to a joint meeting with me and Ministry of Defence procurement to discuss how we can more effectively promote and develop defence industries such as those in my constituency? (905468)

I agree with my hon. Friend and he is absolutely right: these are obviously difficult times, but it is important that we do not talk down our great British economy and that we instil stability and confidence. He is right to mention our defence industry. As he might imagine, we work hand in glove with the Ministry of Defence on that issue and will continue to do so. I have already spoken to the Minister responsible for procurement in the MOD.

Ah, splendid: the robust Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Mr Iain Wright.

I think that is the kindest thing that anybody has ever said to me.

The Secretary of State fully appreciates that uncertainty lasting for months and years will drain business investment away from Britain. In our Select Committee this morning, Funding Circle told us that an £100 million investment deal with a European consortium will now not go ahead—it has been pulled, and it will not be the only one. Today’s round table is a welcome gesture, but in the face of the current unprecedented uncertainty, what tangible actions is the Secretary of State putting in place to maintain and stimulate inward investment, maintain that funding gap, and steady business nerves?

It is good to see some leadership on business issues on the Labour Benches. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Today’s round table is not a gesture; it is about genuinely listening to businesses and businessmen and women about the issues that they face, and about how to take advantage of the opportunities that will be created. He will know that nothing changes for at least a couple of years, which will give us time to plan for the future, including for inward investment opportunities and new trade opportunities. I would be happy to meet him and discuss that issue further.

T7. A significant amount of public money has been allocated to bring superfast broadband to areas missed out by the commercial roll-out, but because of a bureaucratic logjam it remains unspent while a significant number of small businesses in Cheltenham are left frustrated and unable to grow. What more can be done to unlock that money and get the remaining premises connected? (905469)

May I say how pleased I am to see you in the Chair, Mr Speaker? A rock of stability as the stormy seas of change crash around us—[Interruption.] I was considered the thinking woman’s Boris Johnson—my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip—but I now see that I am my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes).

One great benefit of Brexit is that in the past 24 hours not a single colleague has bent my ear about broadband, and it is a sign of things returning to normal that we are now discussing that important subject. I hear what my hon. Friend says. There are often problems on the ground, and I would like to go to Cheltenham and meet those businesses, plus the council, and see whether we can work together. We often find that on the ground wayleave rights are not being granted, or that something like that is holding back the investment that we need in places such as Cheltenham, which is home to so many high-tech businesses that are now free to trade around the globe.

In 2010, the Post Office chief executive said that in Paisley the cost of the refurbishment of the post office had been £439,000. That money was spent making significant changes to “improve service to customers and enhance the profitability of the Crown network”. Given that it is now planned that the post office will move from this upgraded high-quality unit to the wholly inaccessible and inadequate WH Smith, will the Minister please justify to me and my constituents why the money was spent on refurbishment in the first place?

I will keep it brief, Mr Speaker.

The hon. Lady tabled a named day question on this matter and I have replied to explain that this is a matter for the chief executive of the Post Office, Paula Vennells. She has written a letter to the hon. Lady, which is in the House of Commons Library. For the benefit of the House, I can confirm that through the £13 million investment in our 50 Crown post offices, £440,000 has been spent on the Paisley branch. Through the Crown transformation plan, we have a Post Office that is more stable and closer to breaking even than ever. There are 11,500 branches, 200,000 extra opening hours and 3,800 branches open on Sundays. The people of Paisley have a strong and secure post office.

I commend the Ministers on the Treasury Bench for their pragmatic approach to last week’s result. I think that we are all committed to the UK becoming an outward-looking global trading nation. With that in mind, will Ministers redouble their efforts to support the Australian Prime Minister, who has said that he has instructed his officials to work with New Zealand to prepare a trade deal with the United Kingdom very shortly?

My hon. Friend highlights the opportunities of Brexit and we absolutely should now start embracing those opportunities; free trade agreements with many more countries is just one of them. Australia is an excellent example, and that is exactly the sort of thing we should be working on.

Many of my constituents have no or very little access to computers and the internet. Will the Government continue to press banks and other key providers to retain high street services for customers who receive utility and other bills in paper form on request?

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills does not intervene in the individual billing arrangements of utilities or companies, but there are arrangements in place to make sure that those who need paper bills are able to request and receive them. Those who have disabilities, such as the blind, have protections to make sure that they can receive appropriate billing. If there are particular issues for any particular constituent, I would be very happy to look into them for the hon. Gentleman.

Small and independent retailers in my constituency have, over recent months, experienced extreme difficulty in accessing telephone and broadband services when moving into new premises. I, too, experienced this when I moved into my new community office in Ilkeston. Will the Minister agree to talk to service providers to ensure that the installation of these services, which are so vital in the 21st century, are carried out in a reasonable timeframe?

I have made no secret of my concerns about Openreach’s quality of service. We have had a very successful rural broadband programme, but there seems to be a particular unit in Openreach that targets MPs and makes them extremely angry. They take it out on me and I take it out on Openreach. It needs to improve its terms and conditions, and its new chief executive has made supplying businesses his priority.

Will the Minister finally give a date for the implementation of the pubs code? With licensees currently missing out due to the Department’s mistake and the delay, will she now apply the Burmah Oil principle to ensure that the code is retrospective from the original date, as it clearly can be?

We have re-laid the regulations, and I am looking forward to them passing through their various stages so that we can implement the pubs code as a matter of urgency. I very much hope that it will be implemented by the time the House rises.

Thank you for giving me two bites at the cherry, Mr Speaker.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to new universities coming forward, and I am working hard to further one in my Somerset constituency. Given recent developments regarding the EU, does the Minister agree that it is now even more essential that we enable universities to provide the skills needed to upgrade the workforce and maintain our position in the world?

Yes, indeed. The productivity challenge facing the country is grave, and our universities are a big part of the answer. New universities in higher education cold spots such as Somerset will be a big part of our solution to these challenges.

I understand that the UK Government have yet to confirm whether the allocation of the apprenticeship levy in Scotland will be based on the number of employers in Scotland, or the percentage of the levy paid in Scotland. Will the Minister provide that clarification today? If not, when will he?

As I indicated to the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), I have been in discussions with the Minister representing the Welsh Government in this conversation. These discussions are ongoing. This is a matter for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, not something for which I am directly responsible, but I know that there have been intensive negotiations and discussions. I do not want to pass the buck, but I fear that I will have to encourage the hon. Lady to direct her question to a Minister at Treasury questions, because the Treasury and HMRC are handling these discussions.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

This month it was announced that manufacturing exports from Northern Ireland to non-EU countries increased by 24%, while those to EU countries fell by 4%. What steps can the Minister take to help Northern Ireland firms to exploit opportunities to grow international economic links to promote growth in Northern Ireland, increase employment and help to reduce the UK balance of payments deficit?

It is great to hear—the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—that manufacturing is on the rise in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK. Volumes are up, exports are up and employment is up. There are, of course, further steps that we can take. Someone asked earlier about free trade agreements, and that is something that we can do and exploit now that we have Brexit.