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My Department is the Department for growth, and has a key role in supporting business to deliver growth, in rebalancing the economy by bringing enterprise, manufacturing, training, learning and research closer together, and in the process creating a stronger, fairer British economy.
Business leaders in my constituency are concerned about the effects of rising costs, such as fuel prices. What support is being given to businesses to help them with such pressures in these difficult times?
In response to the business question, the crucial issue is ensuring that we deal with issues within our purview-in other words, cutting corporate taxes and dealing with business rates, which we plan to do. On the fuel question, which I understand as a former businessman, we are monitoring the situation closely and will bring back our proposals on the fair fuel stabiliser in due course.
Over the Christmas and new year period, some of my constituents received no post for up to a fortnight. Does the Minister agree that this is not acceptable, and could he talk to the Royal Mail about whether residents should be allowed to present themselves at a sorting office, providing they have identification, to collect mail that has been stockpiled there?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter with me; it was the first time I had heard about it. Although it is an operational matter for Royal Mail, there are certain procedures it must adhere to. For one, it must ensure that the right letters and parcels get to the right people. Of course, in normal circumstances, a "sorry you were out" card is left for the person, if they are out, after which they go and show their identification. However, it seems common sense that in exceptional circumstances, when Royal Mail cannot deliver, an individual should be able to go to their local delivery office. I know that my hon. Friend has contacted Royal Mail to raise this issue. I have looked into it overnight, and it appears that that particular office has experienced high levels of sickness in recent weeks. However, I will liaise with him on the matter.
Last night I had the pleasure of meeting three community learning champions from Blackpool at an event promoted and organised by NIACE-the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education-but funded by this Department. Does the Minister of State agree that money spent on informal adult learning needs to be valued and assessed for the benefits that it brings, because of its life-changing impact, and that money spent on informal adult learning is money that does not need to be spent on either the welfare system or social care?
I think it was Yeats who said that education is lighting a fire, not filling a pail. I want the light of adult learning to burn brightly across the whole of Britain, which is why, against expectations and the predictions of our critics, we protected the adult learning budget, of more than £200 million, in the spending review. That light will burn as long as we are in government, and as long as I am the Minister.
The Business Secretary campaigned under the slogan "A fair banking system-change that works for you". Eric Daniels, the outgoing CEO of the part-publicly owned state banking group Lloyds, will reportedly be taking home a package of £4 million in the current pay round-£2 million by way of bonuses and £2 million by way of incentives. Does the Business Secretary regard that as acceptable, and if not, what action will he be taking?
I am amazed that Opposition Members keep dragging up issues relating to the contracts of senior executives in the semi-nationalised banking sector that they negotiated without proper support for the companies to which they are due to lend.
Phoenix trading, whereby directors in financial difficulty set up a new business and then buy back their assets at a knock-down rate-that is, for less than the bad debts that they walk away from-is a serious issue for small businesses that supply those goods in good faith, both in my constituency, and, I am sure, those of many other Members. In reply to my parliamentary question, the Government said that no legislation was planned, but what comfort can they provide to small businesses? Will the Minister meet me to discuss the various tools that his officials could use to provide such comfort?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter. Pre-packs, which is the name of the process that he is talking about, are a way of dealing with companies that are already insolvent. In some circumstances they can work well. However, I recognise the concerns that he has raised about the process, especially when the sale is backed to connected parties, such as the phoenix-type companies that he talked about. I am currently considering the responses to a consultation that the previous Government held on improving transparency and confidence in the pre-pack approach to administration. I plan to make an announcement on that in the near future, and I would certainly be happy to meet him.
My hon. Friend Gavin Shuker and I have been in correspondence with the Secretary of State about the future of the General Motors van plant in Luton. I thank him for his reply, which we received this week. It seems from press reports that, as of yesterday, there are still uncertainties about the future of the van plant. Will he now intervene directly with the company to ensure that a new vehicle comes to Luton for the period after 2013?
Yes, I know that this is an extremely important part of the British car industry; indeed, it is a highly productive and successful one. I have spoken to Mr Reilly about the issue, and I think that this part of the industry has a very good future.
Does the Secretary of State agree that although the 50p rate of tax may be necessary in the short term, it will have a detrimental effect on economic growth in the UK in the medium to long term? It scares away foreign investors, acts as a disincentive for home-grown entrepreneurs to start businesses and offers a massive incentive for some of our brightest and best business brains to leave this country and pay less tax elsewhere.
When I was in opposition I spent quite a lot of political energy arguing against a 50p tax rate. However, in the present context we have to understand that the burdens of the very difficult period through which we are passing have to be shared fairly, and that is why the tax remains in place.
What assessment has the Department made of the impact on competitiveness, particularly in rural areas, of the delay, from 2012 to 2015, in the target date for a universal broadband service?
I think that that is a question that the right hon. Gentleman may now wish to direct to my colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
The competition for university places becomes more intense every year, as increasing numbers of young people apply for university. The Minister visited Northampton college in my constituency during the recent election campaign. Can he elaborate on any plans that would allow students to study for a degree or do a vocational course at their local college, such as Northampton college, rather than applying for university?
I enjoyed my visit to Northampton college. It was not the first time that I had been there and I am delighted that my hon. Friend continues to champion its cause. We are determined to drive up the status of vocational qualifications and colleges play a vital role in that. Like my hon. Friend, I also want more HE taught in FE, because that is a key way of widening access to those who currently do not benefit from a university or from higher learning.
The businesses of London play a key role in building a strong economy for the future. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and a west London business to talk about challenges and priorities and how to create new jobs and growth for the future in west London?
My travel diary is beginning to grow a little, but west London is a little closer and I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and the businesses in her area.
In my Dundee East sorting office, the deployment of the Royal Mail's "Way Forward" system has been described variously as shambolic and chaotic. Hundreds of people have complained directly through my office. Even this morning, one constituent was waiting on parcels sent on
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this point, of which I am aware. Royal Mail accepts that there were initial problems with establishing the new delivery system in the Dundee East delivery office and I am sure that it will learn from them. Following a review, a recovery plan was put in place, but I am afraid that the severe weather hindered it. Royal Mail has apologised for the disruption to services and taken a range of measures as a matter of urgency to ensure that households and businesses in Dundee East receive all their mail. For example, 70 extra staff and managers have been drafted in to help the recovery following a major push last weekend. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to report back to me that his constituents and businesses are seeing an improvement.
May I pay tribute to the excellent work of the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr Prisk and the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Mr Davey, in reducing the burden of red tape on British small businesses? Will they update me on progress made in one of the biggest areas of burden-that of employment law-and on any exciting steps that might be taking place in the coming weeks?
My hon. Friend will know that we have today announced the abolition of the default retirement age, which is a deregulatory measure. In the very near future we hope to announce the next stage of our employment law review, and I am sure he will welcome that.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Denham, the shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills highlighted the confusion relating to ministerial responsibilities, following the comments by the Secretary of State on the issue of BSkyB. Does the right hon. Gentleman regret the loss of these responsibilities to his pro-Murdoch colleague?
I can indeed explain the allocation of responsibilities. The responsibility for competition and policy relating to media broadcasting, digital and telecoms lies with the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. Our two Departments have worked together very closely in the past and will continue to do so. The precise allocation of responsibilities will be set out in a written ministerial statement very soon.
I am pleased to say that we are not only going to extend the manufacturing and advisory service for all businesses, including the excellent ones in my hon. Friend's constituency, but improve it so that we can help the productivity and competitiveness of small businesses in Lancashire and, indeed, across the country.
The British economy is indeed recovering. It was in an appalling state, but economic growth is now strong. It will become stronger as a result of the work that the Government are doing in stabilising finances, and real wages will appreciate on the back of that.
We have heard today about some excellent initiatives involving skills training, apprenticeships and mentoring for business. What concerns me is that many owners and managers of small and medium-sized enterprises spend their days with their heads down, concentrating on their businesses. What we need to do is communicate the opportunities to them. What can the Minister do to reassure me that the 4,000 SME owners in my constituency will hear about those initiatives?
Not only have we put the information online, but we are working through the excellent trade bodies representing small businesses to feed it out to them. I urge Members, when talking to members of the small business community, to tell them what is being done to help their businesses to grow and prosper. That is the job that we need to do, and I hope that Members will support us in the task.
That is an utterly absurd question. The hon. Gentleman knows that after the massive banking crisis that happened under the last Government as a result of poor supervision of an overweight banking sector, this Government are trying to introduce measures to make it more stable and to contribute to the real economy. That will happen; it did not happen under the last Government.
I believe that officials are discussing the matter with other Departments that are involved in it. I will certainly write to the hon. Gentleman.
The cuts in higher education funding will begin at the beginning of the next financial year, in April 2011. The university year will not end until the summer, and the new income streams from tuition fees will not arrive until some indeterminate time in the future. There is a disconnection in the cash flow to higher education. What is the Minister doing to prevent it from damaging higher education?
As I explained earlier, we are of course providing an alternative source of income for universities as graduate contributions come in. There will be a reduction in the teaching grant in the coming year, just as there will be public expenditure savings across many Departments, but universities will be able to go through that period, and we expect that at the end of the current Parliament, they will have a higher total income than they have at present.