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Topical Questions

Volume 609: debated on Tuesday 3 May 2016

Ministers and officials across government continue to work around the clock to support Britain’s steel industry—I have updated the House on progress several times and will continue to do so, whenever appropriate; our two major pieces of legislation, the Enterprise Bill and the Trade Union Bill, are moving closer to the statute book; and we are on the verge of naming the National Environment Research Council’s new polar research vessel. The final decision on that will be made by the Minister for Universities and Science—Joey McJoface, as we like to call him.

In The Sunday Times this week it was reported that meetings are taking place in France to look at how people could take advantage of getting business from the UK in the event of a Brexit vote. Does the Secretary of State agree that remaining in the EU is vital for British trade, particularly in the automotive and aerospace industries, and for the health of the British economy as a whole?

Yes, I agree with the hon. Lady on that. She mentioned the automotive and aerospace industries, two of our strongest manufacturing sectors in the UK, which rely heavily on a supply chain that is international—much of it is in Europe. Equally, she could mention our services industries, which account for 80% of our GDP.

T6. Does the Secretary of State accept that the proposals to allow waiters and waitresses, rather than restaurant owners, to actually receive tips given to them will be warmly welcomed? Does he not think that the House of Commons should show a lead, because in our own restaurants the agency workers and part-time workers who serve Members and their guests do not receive tips? (904792)

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. May I begin by thanking and paying a huge tribute to everybody who works in this place, especially those in our catering services? They often have to work the most unsocial hours and often do so in the most difficult of conditions, as they suddenly have a huge influx of us going into the Tea Room or wherever it might be. We perhaps underestimate the work they do. My right hon. Friend makes a very good point and I would be more than happy to take this up with the House authorities. In the meantime, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on rightly launching this consultation, as when someone, in any facility, pays a tip, they expect the person to whom they want that tip to go to receive it—all of it. I think this will allow us to begin to see real progress, so that we do the right thing on this.

Two Select Committees of this House are now preparing to examine the collapse of BHS into administration last week, putting at risk 11,000 jobs. Sir Philip Green bought the company for £200 million, took hundreds of millions of pounds out of it in dividend payments for his own family and then sold it for £1 to a bankrupt with no retail experience. What does the Business Secretary think are the issues for public policy as he contemplates the current situation? Does he think this represents responsible ownership?

The hon. Lady is right to raise that issue. As she said, two Select Committees are already looking into it, and considerable concern has been expressed in Parliament. I share some of those concerns, which is why I can inform her that today I have written to the chief executive of the Insolvency Service and instructed her to commence an investigation immediately. She has agreed to do so, and I will make both those letters—mine and hers—available in the Libraries of both Houses later today.

That is good news and I certainly welcome the steps that the Business Secretary has taken. During Sir Philip Green’s stewardship of BHS, the pension fund went from a surplus to a black hole of £571 million. What options do the Government and the pensions regulator now have to ensure that Sir Philip Green pays his fair share of that huge liability? Does the Secretary of State agree that the Pension Protection Fund was designed as a lifeboat for staff pensions, not a funding stream for the owner’s luxury yacht?

Hopefully, the hon. Lady will understand that it would be wrong of me, and of anyone else, to single out any particular individual. That is for independent investigators to look at by examining the evidence in front of them. She will also know that, when it comes to defined benefit pension schemes, there are many in deficit, and just because one is in deficit does not necessarily mean that there has been some kind of wrongdoing. As I have said, I have instructed the Insolvency Service to commence an investigation, but she should also be reassured that the pension regulator will be looking into this matter.

T10. There are 850,000 dementia sufferers in the UK, and that number is set to double over the next few years. What is the Minister doing to encourage British scientists to be as innovative as possible in delivering on improved care for those suffering from dementia? (904796)

We took the decision to protect the science budget, enabling us to invest and put the UK at the front of tackling diseases such as dementia. In addition, a Government investment of £150 million has been announced by the Prime Minister to establish a dementia research institute. I am pleased to confirm that two leading charities, the Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK, have now pledged a further £100 million towards the project. The Medical Research Council will be looking for an inspirational director to lead the institute and bring together the collective experience that exists in the UK and worldwide.

T2. Guidance issued by the Government on 8 February on the use of Government-funded research for lobbying caused great concern in the field of higher education and indeed among academics in my constituency of Wirral West. Can the Minister confirm that all grants given out under the remit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will be exempt from the anti-lobbying clause? Will he also confirm that he is seeking a similar exemption for research grants given out by other Government Departments and agencies? (904788)

Yes, there has been concern from academic communities and I can confirm that all grants issued by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the academies will not be covered by that clause.

T7. I am proud that, of the south-east’s 348,000 apprenticeships, Rochester and Strood has provided 7,410, the fourth largest number. I am also grateful to companies such as BAE Systems that makes an annual commitment to 12 higher level apprenticeships in my area. How can the Secretary of State provide further support to my constituency’s small and medium-sized businesses to offer more local people the opportunity of a quality apprenticeship? (904793)

The performance of businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency is truly remarkable and leads the way in the south-east. I hope that she is aware that we offer smaller employers who have never had apprentices before a grant to help them with their first five apprenticeships. I hope that she will be able to communicate that to them and ensure that they take up that grant.

T3. Given the similarity of recent events at British Home Stores with what happened to Hull-based Comet four years ago, when British taxpayers were left with tens of millions of pounds to pay out in redundancy payments, will the Secretary of State ensure that the report that he commissioned on Comet and the Comet scandal is published? (904789)

The hon. Lady will know that the report was commissioned by my predecessor. I will take a close look at what she has said and get back to her.

Given the hope of renewed trade links between the UK and Iran, which will be dependent on good communication, does my right hon. Friend consider that now is the right time to withdraw accreditation for Persian GCSE and A-level?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of trade with Iran. She will know that that is why the Government have announced a trade mission that will take place soon. If more people in the UK speak Persian, that will help. I will happily take up the matter with my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary.

T4. I welcome the fact that BHS administrators have entered consultation with USDAW, the retail union, for the lack of consultation was in part to blame for the pension fund going from a £5 million surplus to a £571 million deficit. In the light of that, will the Secretary of State consider the case that there should be enhanced employee rights, in particular in this aspect of companies law? (904790)

As I said earlier, it would be wrong of anyone to jump to conclusions about the pension fund and the reason for the deficit. The right way forward is for independent regulators to take a look.

I am a champion of the Sutton Trust and the inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility into access into leading professions. What is the Department doing to support our leading professions to work with schools and universities to build up the schools base, so that more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds can access our top professions?

We have established the Careers & Enterprise Company to make sure that all young people know about the opportunities available to them through our higher education reforms. We are also giving students more information than ever before about their course choice, and we have introduced degree apprenticeships as a new route into the professions. We want to see universities playing their part too, which is why I have asked the director of fair access to continue to focus on access to the professions in his work with universities.

T5. A total of 11,000 BHS employees face an uncertain future over not just their jobs, but their pensions. Where will the Secretary of State place responsibility for filling the pension fund black hole? Will it be with the taxpayer or with the owners of the company, who paid themselves more than £400 million in dividends while the pension fund was driven into the ground? (904791)

The hon. Lady will know that if, sadly, defined benefit pension funds have trouble, we have the Pension Protection Fund in place, but of course we should always examine why a pension fund may need recourse to the PPF. That job should be done by independent regulators, not politicians.

The HCF CATCH training facility in my constituency was established 10 years ago as a partnership between the local authority and the private sector, since when 800 apprentices have passed through its doors. May I invite my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or the Skills Minister to visit it? Does he agree that such a partnership is the way forward?

I feel sure that my hon. Friend is slightly disappointed to have just a Lincolnshire neighbour coming to visit him, but if he can put up with me, I would be delighted to do so.

T8. In the Secretary of State’s discussions with Tata, will he have time to raise Tata’s involvement in the outsourcing of up to 800 jobs from British Airways, including its centre in south Manchester, which supplies jobs to my constituents and has already announced 80 redundancies? As The Daily Telegraph revealed last week, this is another example where Tata’s actions threaten our national security along with our jobs, so will the Government step in to protect both? (904794)

If the hon. Lady wants to send me more detailed information about that, I will gladly take a closer look.

Why should 100% of British businesses have to comply with EU regulations when less than 10% of them export to the EU?

I touched earlier on the importance of the single market. It is the largest single market in the world, with 500 million consumers, and it brings huge benefits to British businesses in growth and jobs.

T9. Will the Secretary of State reconsider the decision to scrap bursaries for nurses? First, that will deter mature students and people from black and minority ethnic communities and disadvantaged communities, and secondly, while nurses are training, they spend 50% of their time doing practical work, looking after people. It is unfair that they should pay to provide services to others. (904795)

What I share with the hon. Lady is a determination to ensure that the groups she mentioned and other groups that have been discussed today have the maximum opportunity, particularly in the NHS. That is one reason why we are making great steps towards developing a new nursing apprenticeship, which will offer people a way into the profession, gaining that qualification while they are working and earning.

Alas, there is no law against selling a company to a bunch of clowns, which is a great pity for the employees and pension holders of British Home Stores. However, there is an expectation that the public should be able to look to the advisers in such a sale—the lawyers and accountants—to live up to their responsibilities and to do their duty. Will my right hon. Friend look carefully at the templates and responsibilities for advisers in transactions so that we do not see another great British company sold to a bunch of muppets?

I can reassure my hon. Friend of that. He has spoken eloquently on this issue a number of times, and he knows it well. We will learn lessons from the collapse of any company, but especially one as important and as large as BHS. As I said earlier, there will now be an investigation by the Insolvency Service, which I have instructed to start today, and we will certainly draw lessons from the outcome of that and other investigations.