Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Performance)

Part of Opposition Day — [10th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 3:47 pm on 2nd February 2011.

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Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science) 3:47 pm, 2nd February 2011

We do not know what would have happened to the British economy if the Labour party had been in office, but I tell the House that if Labour had carried on borrowing in the way it was, we could well have faced a crisis of the kind that happened in Ireland, Greece and Portugal. We will never let Labour Members forget that they were taking Britain to the brink of that type of financial crisis. We have taken our country away from it.

I was about to refer to the investment that we are also making in skills, with support through the capital renewal fund for our FE colleges, steered by my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, and a commitment to 75,000 extra apprenticeships. We can already see the impact of our commitment on apprenticeships: in the first quarter of the year, we had 120,000 new apprenticeship starts, while a year ago, at the same moment, the figure was 100,000. Extra apprenticeships are already coming through because of our practical commitment to vocational training.

Alongside vocational training, of course we recognise the continuing pressure on our universities. That is why we had to reform their financing. Had we not done so, we would have faced reductions in the number of university places or reductions in the financial support for each student at university. Instead, we have been able to maintain our commitment to 10,000 extra places at university and urge universities, with requirements to back this up, to focus on the employability skills of their students. When people emerge from university, they should have had practical experience of the world of work already. So we are focusing on skills and universities as well.

We are protecting the budget for science and research and enabling important capital projects to go ahead, such as the UK centre for medical research and innovation at King's Cross. We are taking practical steps to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of our excellent research effort-speeding up the process of getting a patent and intellectual property protection, which can be too slow. Yes, we are backing research and development, and we are backing the technological application of that by encouraging our new technology innovation centres.

It was a great disappointment when we had the news from Pfizer. I met the global chief executive officer and the UK chief executive of Pfizer on Monday 24 January, when they informed us in strict confidence of their intention to close the Sandwich plant. We did, of course, press them on their decision. They made it clear that it was a decision based on global strategic considerations by the company as a whole, as it moved away from some of the lines of research in which Sandwich specialised. They made it clear that it was not because of any disagreement that they had with this Government's economic policies.

Since then we have been in close contact with Pfizer. I have asked Paul Carter, the leader of Kent county council, to lead a local task force on the matter. The Secretary of State and I will be working hard to try to find innovative alternative uses for that excellent research facility and to back the very skilled people there.

We are doing all this against the background of a serious financial crisis left for us by the previous Labour Government. The shadow Secretary of State, Mr Denham, said, "There are no deficit deniers" on the Opposition Front Bench. He was able to say that only because the shadow Chancellor was not sitting beside him at the time. We know that deficit denial is one of the fundamental problems that the Labour Opposition face if they are ever to become a credible party of government again.

Although the shadow Secretary of State said that he was not a deficit denier, he went on to say that the large deficit had arisen because of the banking crisis. Britain was running one of the worst structural deficits of any advanced western country before the banking crisis. One of the tests of whether people recognise the seriousness of the challenge that they face is their willingness to accept that that was the problem. If they do not accept that that is the problem, they are deficit deniers. It is as simple as that.

Then the right hon. Gentleman seemed to fail to recognise the wide range of business leaders in Britain and elsewhere who have backed our policy to tackle the deficit. He went on to say that we just blamed the snow for the economic problems that we faced. Okay, I will do a deal with the shadow Secretary of State. We do not just blame the snow; we blame the last Labour Government.

It was the last Labour Government who got us into this mess. They left us an economy with the worst deficit, unsustainable spending, the most leveraged banks, the biggest housing boom, unsustainable levels of personal debt and personal saving negative-almost unprecedented in any advanced western country. That is the mess that they left us. That is what we have to sort out. Already, working with the Secretary of State, we are putting in place a growth strategy to emerge from the mess.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was one of the most eloquent and effective people in warning about the mess that Labour was making of our economic situation. He warned about the level of debt. He was quite right to do so. Now, the present Government must tackle it. It was those on the Labour Benches who left the patient dangerously ill. Now they complain as we, sadly, have to deliver the treatment.