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Topical Questions

Business, Innovation and Skills – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 13th January 2011.

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Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham 10:30 am, 13th January 2011

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

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?

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Labour, West Bromwich East

The House will have noticed in recent weeks the Secretary of State's remarkable transformation from Chairman Mao to Mr "Has Been". Will he tell me how he is enjoying the long march of government?

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

That must be about the 10th repetition of that joke. It was nothing like as good as my original.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat, Carshalton and Wallington

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?

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

The new enterprise tsar, Lord Heseltine, said in Cardiff this week that 400,000 new jobs will be created in the private sector in the next five years. Will the Minister tell us how many of these jobs will be created in Wales?

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

The Welsh position with respect to regional development is different from the position in England, but I will be going to Wales shortly, together with the Secretary of State for Wales, to talk about how we can promote manufacturing and enterprise there.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard Conservative, Blackpool North and Cleveleys

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?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes The Minister for Universities and Science, The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Chuka Umunna Chuka Umunna Labour, Streatham

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?

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

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?

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

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?

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Andrew Bridgen Andrew Bridgen Conservative, North West Leicestershire

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.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

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?

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

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?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes The Minister for Universities and Science, The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I was a former competition Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, so will the Secretary of State tell me whether he regards the conversation he had with journalists before Christmas about the BSkyB case as a serious breach of the ministerial code?

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I did indeed express regret for the comments made, but they were not considered to be a breach of the ministerial code.

Photo of Mary Macleod Mary Macleod Conservative, Brentford and Isleworth

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?

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie SNP Chief Whip, SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

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 6 December, which is quite unacceptable. Is the Minister aware of this problem? What has he done and what discussions has he had with Royal Mail? Will he assure the House that the "Way Forward" system will not be implemented in any other large sorting offices until each and every one of these problems is resolved?

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

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?

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Steve Rotheram Steve Rotheram Labour, Liverpool, Walton

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?

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Conservative, Rossendale and Darwen

Will the Minister update the House on what steps his Department is taking to encourage investment in industrial small and medium-sized enterprises in east Lancashire, which are so vital to job growth in my Rossendale and Darwen constituency?

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of John Cryer John Cryer Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

The Business Secretary continually tells us that the economy is steaming along very nicely and that everything is wonderful. If that is the case, why are wage settlements running at a rate far below price inflation?

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

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?

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury)

It is clearly embarrassing for the Business Secretary that he has failed to deliver robust action on banker bonuses and to deliver the net lending targets. If he cannot persuade the Chancellor to fulfil those coalition agreement promises, will he resign?

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

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.

Photo of Zac Goldsmith Zac Goldsmith Conservative, Richmond Park

Following the coalition's commitment to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies via the Export Credits Guarantee Department, has any progress been made on agreeing a definition of such subsidies?

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I believe that officials are discussing the matter with other Departments that are involved in it. I will certainly write to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Adrian Bailey Adrian Bailey Chair, Business, Innovation and Skills Committee

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?

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science)

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.