Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this debate to make my maiden speech. I regard it as both a privilege and an honour to represent the constituency of Inverclyde. My constituency has been served extremely well by many accomplished individuals; however, I am only the second Member for Inverclyde to have been born in Inverclyde. The first was, of course, David Cairns.
My two immediate predecessors in my seat, which has often had its boundaries changed, were Dr Norman Godman and the late David Cairns. Dr Godman served in the House for 18 years, and his hard work and enduring commitment to the peace process in Northern Ireland earned him a great deal of respect and admiration. David Cairns was an excellent MP for Inverclyde; his parliamentary career was cut all too short by his sudden death, and I am well aware of the great respect that all parties had for David, as did the people of Inverclyde, as reflected in the large majority he held in the 2010 general election. If I can serve my constituents half as well as David, I shall be doing well indeed.
Like David, I was born, and for a time grew up, in a small part of Inverclyde. It is, I think, unique that an area of Greenock known as Broomhill should produce two MPs virtually from the same street. Back then Greenock’s population was growing, and my parents, guilty of participation in the ’60s baby boom, moved to a bigger home in the new housing being developed in the south-west of Greenock in the appropriately named Fancy Farm. Its housing was truly both modern and very fancy indeed, boasting electric underfloor heating, and even a rear door to the home.
My constituency is now composed of the towns of Greenock, Gourock and Port Glasgow, as well as the villages of Inverkip, Wemyss bay, Kilmacolm and Quarriers. We are surrounded by some of Scotland’s most stunning natural beauty. From the Lyle hill in Greenock, one can look down to Gourock’s Cardwell bay and watch the ferries head off to Argyll. Stunning views can also be enjoyed from the amazing engineering feat that is the Cut—a waterway cut into the hillside some six miles in length, with a precision gradient that offered steady and constant water power to our industries of the 19th century.
As anyone who recently visited Inverclyde in the by-election will confirm, at times it seems we do get more than our fair share of rain—an abundant energy source, water. From the Cut we can look across the Clyde and see the Gareloch, the Holy loch and Loch Long. Beyond the Rosneath peninsula lies Ben Lomond and the majestic Lomond range. To the west there is the unmistakeable figure of the Sleeping Warrior of Argyll, and to the south lies the Burns country of Ayrshire.
Our history is the history of the River Clyde—the lifeblood of my constituency. We continue to be a maritime people, either seafarers or shipbuilders, and two of our most historic sons are connected in that way. One of them, the great inventor and scientist James Watt, who captured the power of steam, was sought after by leading authorities in industry; the other, the pirate Captain Kidd, was just sought after by the authorities!
Shipbuilding was, not surprisingly, our dominant industry over the last 300 years. We built the finest ships ever to set sail. Even today, many years after shipbuilding is all but gone from my constituency, Clyde-built ships can still be seen travelling the oceans—testament to quality in design and craftsmanship. It took us a long time to recover from the devastation of the closure of our shipyards. The cruise ships that visit the deep ocean terminal in Greenock no longer carry the label “Clyde built”, but are increasing in number year on year, bringing tourists into the west of Scotland. Again, the River Clyde seems to be playing its part in—we hope—delivering a new industry, tourism.
Only two weeks ago Inverclyde welcomed the tall ships race, a four-day celebration of all things maritime, and our young people took the opportunity to volunteer to help with that great event. Indeed, some sailed on the tall ships as crew to the next port of call. We have found that they return the better for the experience, motivated and energised, and ready to contribute positively to our communities.
Inverclyde has also shown its resourcefulness and determination to apply itself to new emerging industries and technologies. The 1980s saw us pioneer the mass production of the personal computer, adapting our skills to revolutionise the speed of communication across the globe once again, as once our ships did. A Labour Secretary of State for Scotland had the good sense some 50 years ago to persuade IBM to set up a plant in Greenock. IBM Spango Valley, which lies between Greenock and Inverkip, was to write itself into history as the venue where the world was first introduced to the mass-produced personal computer. So Inverclyde embarked on a new journey building and exporting computers, earning itself the title of the export capital of Scotland. A short distance from Spango, over the hill in Larkfield, ground-breaking work on processors by National Semiconductor pioneered the way for much of today's hand-held technology.
Unfortunately, with the decline in electronics Inverclyde again finds itself in the shadow of rising unemployment. Notwithstanding the delivery of new school buildings, new housing and modern leisure facilities, unemployment stubbornly remains our biggest challenge. On average, more than 30 people are chasing every job vacancy in my constituency, and an even higher average number of young people do so. That is an appalling and depressing level of unemployment. To retain and attract population growth we need employment, and a variety of employment, giving opportunity and hope, especially to our young people.
Full employment is a great and fine principle, as enunciated in the House by Keir Hardie when he spoke of the right to a job. The people of my constituency ask for the right to work: they are social people, who truly believe in a society in which all have a job, and they believe that it is the duty of Government to deliver full employment.
The number of tourists on the last cruise ship that visited Greenock was greater than the combined number of votes—3,000—for the Government’s candidates in Inverclyde’s by-election. It would seem that the people of Inverclyde need a lot more convincing that their ship has indeed come in.
Let me first pay tribute to Mr McKenzie and commend him on his maiden speech. It was good to hear from a Member who, like me, was born in the constituency that he represents. Given his description of his constituency’s stunning natural beauty, it clearly has similarities with Cleethorpes.
I will be as brief as possible, Mr Deputy Speaker. The economy of northern Lincolnshire could be described as “stuttering” at the moment. It has taken many knocks, but it has the potential of a new dawn from the renewables sector. Despite its name, Cleethorpes is a highly industrialised constituency, containing Immingham docks and much of the Humber bank. Associated British Ports operates the Grimsby-Immingham docks complex, which is the largest in the country. However, expansion and regeneration are being held back by transport infrastructure that is in urgent need of improvement.
The northernmost town in my constituency is Barton-upon-Humber, which is just 20 minutes’ drive from the centre of Hull, but Humber bridge tolls are a tax on jobs. The free movement of labour is restricted. It is totally unrealistic to expect someone in Barton to accept a job in Hull paying the minimum wage, and even more unrealistic to expect people to take part-time work.
The hopes of all local people are resting on the current Treasury-led review, which is due to report in November. The business community and local people are encouraged by the work of the review team, and by Ministers’ determination to deliver a sustainable solution that may well be based on a social enterprise model. It is essential to have lower tolls in the relatively near future; we do not want promises that may never materialise.
In the East Halton and Killingholme area of my constituency sits the site of the proposed south Humber gateway development—in which Able UK Ltd has invested £100 million—alongside the largest undeveloped deep-water channel in the UK. It is thought that £1.5 billion of private sector development may follow, much of it in the renewable sector. That would offer an opportunity to develop a cluster for the sector, involving the construction of wind turbines. The ports of Immingham and Grimsby are ideally located for the service and supply of offshore wind farms—and offshore is where we want them to be, rather than in the countryside.
A major problem with the gateway development is the bottleneck in the planning process. It has been caused by a number of Government agencies, notably Natural England. Such agencies, including the Environment Agency, must appreciate that planning issues are commercial issues, and that they must move at the same speed as the demands of investors and developers. The current leisurely pace is not acceptable.
Northern Lincolnshire has taken a bit of a body blow in recent times, with the announcement of 1,2000 job losses. Many of those jobs were done by my constituents at the Tata Steel works in Scunthorpe. It is encouraging that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills will be visiting the steelworks tomorrow. It is also encouraging that the Prime Minister has taken an interest, and we eagerly await a meeting with him. I hope, however, that Ministers will be able to give us some confidence that not only the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, but the Government as a whole, will support the local infrastructure. The highways, particularly the A160 route to Immingham, urgently need an upgrade, and it is desperately important for that to be included in the first phase of the next building programme. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure me that he will press our case with transport Ministers at the earliest opportunity.
The area is building itself up for the renewables sector. There are great training prospects at the Grimsby institute, Lincoln university and other institutions—
Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Mr McKenzie on his eloquent and passionate maiden speech. Having made a maiden speech myself only two months ago, I can imagine the relief that he is feeling now that he has got through it and sat down, but his speech was excellent. I am also pleased that I am no longer the new boy in the House.
I welcome the equality impact assessment that was published yesterday. I think that some Opposition Members would have preferred it to have appeared a little earlier, but we are none the less grateful for its publication in time for this debate. I also thank other Members who have secured debates on English for speakers of other languages—commonly known as ESOL.
As many Members will know, Leicester is a richly diverse city, and for that reason the changes in ESOL provision are causing much concern in areas throughout the city, including my constituency. Five thousand learners in Leicester, 2,000 of them in Leicester South, have benefited from ESOL provision in the past year, with some degree of fee remission. A total of 1,500 learners were enrolled in the Leicester adult skills and learning service, 84% with fee remission, of whom 75% were not receiving work-related benefits. As the equality impact assessment showed, many of those people are women. That does not surprise me, because when I visit providers, such as Highfields youth and community centre, I am particularly struck by the number of low-income women, usually from Asian or African—particularly Somali—backgrounds, who are benefiting from ESOL provision.
Women have told me moving stories about how they would never leave the house before they went on ESOL courses, but had to wait for their husbands to come home. Other women have told me of wanting to help their children at school. Given that Leicester has one of the highest levels of child poverty in the country, I think that the ability of a mother to help her child at school is vital. As we know, education is the fastest route out of poverty for many of those children.
I have also heard stories of men and women who have moved into work, and even started their own businesses, after taking ESOL courses. As a result of the state’s investment in them, they are now investing in the local economy by employing people. Although
I understand that ESOL provision will be maintained for those receiving jobseeker’s allowance and other active benefits, colleges and providers fear that following the cuts they will no longer be able to sustain courses this September.
For example, on the St Matthew’s estate there is a course just for Somali women. Its providers are worried that the course will have to end this September if the Minister does not change his mind. Although I have not met the Minister directly, I know he has met many Members, and I appreciate that he has listened on this topic. In his statement yesterday he made some concessions, such as saying he wanted to provide more support, but there is still a lack of detail, so will Minister say more today about how he expects the new changes he is working on with the Department for Communities and Local Government to develop? Also, will the new scheme be unveiled by September or August?
We talk a lot about community cohesion. Indeed, when the Home Secretary launched the Prevent strategy a few weeks ago she said that this Government would
“do more than any Government before us to promote integration”—[Hansard, 7 June 2011; Vol. 529, c. 53.]
I therefore ask the Minister this: has he discussed the impact of his ESOL changes with the Home Secretary? In cities such as Leicester ESOL is absolutely vital to community cohesion and integration. I am worried that the ESOL changes would not serve to back up the Home Secretary’s grand statement that this Government will do more than any other to promote integration. Will the Minister give us more detail in his summing up, and will he at least delay the changes in ESOL provision planned for this September? If not, I will be worried about the consequences for my constituency.
We in Swindon have had our challenges. For the past five years there has been an annual drop in footfall in the town centre of about 22%. Swindon has dropped 10 places to 65th in the league table for the best places to shop, with our neighbouring competitors Bristol in 12th place, Reading in 15th, Bath in 22nd, Cheltenham in 27th and Gloucester in 107th. In 2010, 17% of retail units were empty and local Labour politicians had seemingly given up on any hopes for town centre regeneration. But fear not: all is not doom and gloom, because we have seen some dramatic recent improvements.
The local council has introduced cheaper car parking, focusing on a flat £2 for four hours. That has reversed the fall in footfall; there is now a 10% increase. Crucially, there has been a significant increase in dwell time as well. Instead of shoppers popping in to do one task, such as banking, they are now staying and spending.
Café Roma in the Brunel centre has reported an 18% increase in its business, and I salute it for helping refuel our shoppers. The new £10 million central library has been delivered on time and on budget. There has been significant private sector investment, which shows that there is a belief in our town centre, with a £20 million investment in the Parade, and new BHS, Topshop and River Island stores opening. The dirty old canopies have been removed from the Parade and replaced at the Brunel centre, and we have a refurbished Debenhams. Some £2.8 million has been invested in public open space, improving the shopping experience to Canal walk, Regent street and Wharf green.
In Swindon, the town centre business improvement district company, which is responsible for helping traders improve their business, is making a real difference, such as through marketing support for retailers, the town centre website, the four-page monthly promotional newsletter in the Swindon Advertiser, the events it organises—including the 2010 Christmas campaign, partnered with Walt Disney World, when 20,000 visitors came to the turning on of the Christmas lights—and additional street cleaning and security. I wish the company all the best luck on its re-election campaign for a further five-year term in early 2012. There has also been a significant fall in the number of empty units. The vacancy rate in the Brunel shopping centre is now only 4%.
Turning to the future, as developers once again gain confidence and access to funding, it is essential that we are first in the queue to secure further regeneration, in particular for Union square, a £350 million scheme which is one of the largest non-Olympics construction programmes in the past 10 years; and the College site, which was delayed at the last minute due to Labour’s wrecked economy. To help achieve that, Swindon borough council set up the arm’s-length urban regeneration company Forward Swindon.
We must also embrace the Mary Portas high street review. In particular, I fully support Mary’s mantra that customer service is king. For example, the Forum, an independent clothes store in the Brunel centre, has traded from strength to strength for over 20 years. It has managed to survive the economic cycles and relentless competition as it focuses on providing an alternative with exceptional customer service.
We can all play a part in delivering Swindon town centre regeneration. As the local MP, I will continue to champion all that is good about Swindon, and through my work on the all-party parliamentary groups on retail and on small shops, I will continue to push opportunities for retailers. Swindon borough council must remain committed to town centre regeneration as set out in the central area action plan. Local traders must continue to focus on customer service and offering alternatives to our neighbouring competition. Finally, as local residents, where possible we need to continue to support and use our town centre, building on the encouraging recent increase in footfall.
It is fortunate that today’s debate follows yesterday’s ministerial statement accompanying the publication of a new equality impact assessment on courses of English for speakers of other languages. Like my hon. Friend Jon Ashworth, I welcome its publication and I am pleased that the Minister has asked the Association of Colleges, together with Lord Boswell and Baroness Sharp, to advise on how funds can be targeted. However, I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that this is too little, too late.
Colleges have already planned their provision for September. ESOL learners who are no longer eligible for fee remission will have already decided whether they can afford to enrol on courses or continue their studies, and ESOL tutors will have made plans for the future. My first questions to the Minister are as follows, therefore: when does he expect to receive the report that he has commissioned, and why does he not delay these changes to allow him time to respond?
Not all Members will have had the opportunity to read the equality impact assessment, so it may be useful to highlight some of the key findings. Last year, there were 187,000 adult ESOL students, 68.1% of whom were female. The vast majority of them came from black or ethnic minorities. Some 42% of women enrolling on ESOL courses last year received fee remission because they were in receipt of income-related benefits. A further 2% of women and 7% of men were asylum seekers. If those learners were enrolling this year, they would have to pay hundreds of pounds towards their course costs. That is why 75% of colleges have scaled back ESOL provision. In the most basic terms, people on low incomes will no longer be able to afford to learn English. BEGIN —Basic Educational Guidance in Nottinghamshire—published its own equality impact assessment in April. It found that 73% of adult ESOL clients were from black and ethnic minorities, 83% were not on active benefits, and 84% could not afford new or higher fees.
The Government’s report summarises the evidence they received, stating that those required to contribute from August 2011 would be unable to afford to take up ESOL provision, that people will be increasingly reliant on their own families and communities to interpret for them, and that this change would deter people from accessing public services. It also stated that people would be unable to obtain work or make progress in the workplace, that parents would be unable to support their children’s learning at school, and that more would need to be spent on translation services. Members should note that the Government did not engage in an open public consultation, and by the report’s own admission it is “speculative”.
I therefore have a number of questions. The Department says that public funding should not substitute for employer investment and I agree, but what measures are the Government taking to ensure that employers do contribute to the cost of training for their workplace? What measures is the Minister taking to ensure that women learners who care for small children or dependants are not penalised for their caring responsibilities? The document also refers to the single learner support fund, but how much is available, and how much of this will be available to ESOL students? The report states that informal learning opportunities are expected to be available for older Asian learners, but what evidence supports this view?
The needs of asylum seekers do not appear to be addressed in any meaningful way, despite significant concern expressed by the Refugee Council. I know from my own discussions in Nottingham that it is vital that those who have been subject to persecution are not isolated and excluded due to lack of English. How can asylum seekers be expected to cover half their course fees when they are unable to work?
I would like to thank the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning for the constructive way he has kept colleagues on both sides of the House informed about this matter, but I have to say that, despite his good intentions, I fear his Government have fundamentally misunderstood the importance of ESOL to the communities we represent, and I urge him to think again.
I declare a lifelong interest in this subject and refer Members to the Register of Members' Financial Interests. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, because I want to talk about a tale of British craftsmanship at its best, our failure to compete and a remarkable industrial revival.
The automatic watch is almost the same now as when it was invented in 1770 and it has often triumphed over computers. For example, in 1970, after Apollo 13 was crippled by a ruptured oxygen tank, Jack Swigert’s Omega Speedmaster was famously used to time the critical 14-second engine burn, allowing for the crew’s safe return. Even today, the Omega Speedmaster is still the only watch to have been worn on the moon.
Secondly, I wish to discuss British craftsmanship. London led the world, changing the course of history in the 17th century by manufacturing accurate clocks that allowed us to sail throughout the world, trade, make maps and acquire the British empire. British companies such as Smith and Son, George Graham, Josiah Emery, and J. W. Benson forged the first clock-making industry, despite outbreaks of the plague and the great fire of London. Many hon. Members will know the story of John Harrison, a self-educated English clock maker who solved the problem of longitude and was eventually awarded thousands of pounds from Parliament.
Sadly, in the 18th and 19th centuries Britain lost its expertise. The decline of our watch industry is a British parable, just like the tin can.
My hon. Friend shares with me a love of watches. I know that he is also passionate about apprenticeships, so does he have anything to say about their importance in this area?
I will answer my hon. Friend in my later remarks, and I thank him for his intervention.
The decline of our watch industry is a British parable, just like the tin can and the car assembly line: we invent but others capitalise. In 1800, London was producing some 200,000 watches a year, which were exported not just to Europe, but to Russia, the middle east and even China. However, we became trapped by tradition. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, the Swiss started to make machine-made copies of London clocks and flooded the market with cheap products. Britain responded with protectionism and price controls. We failed to compete, and our expertise was lost to Switzerland, America and even the far east.
However, there has been a revival in recent times. In 1923, the British National Physical Laboratory produced quartz oscillators, and we all know about the production of the atomic caesium clock in 1955. These are the foundation of telecommunications, satellites and space travel. Famous British household names in horology have resurfaced: Dent & Company; and J & T Windmills, which even has a factory in Essex. Today, we have one of the greatest living names in horology, George Daniels, a British man who invented the coaxial escapement, which is the first practical new watch escapement in 250 years; it is a smoother watch movement that almost eradicates friction, and it was commercialised in 1999 by Omega. Those who have done the most to support this revival in Britain are the British Horological Institute and the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. We have lost out to Switzerland and the far east, but we still have repair shops, a wealth of academic study and some ultra-high-end manufacturing.
So what is to be done? I welcome the Government’s policy on apprenticeships and the work of the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, who is in his place, in his promotion of craft. As I mentioned in my early-day motion 623, our funding for skills qualifications must be open to small specialist courses for industries such as horology. I strongly welcome what the Government did last year to extend funding for BHI certificates in clock and watch servicing, and repair, and I am grateful to the Leader of the House for his letter of support in that campaign.
However, there is a wider issue to address: many smaller qualifications are being discontinued because they are not profitable enough for awarding bodies. There are now just three horology training facilities in the UK: Birmingham City university; West Dean college; and the British School of Watchmaking. In Harlow, we are very lucky to have the Eversden family of watchmakers, and they show that in an age of digital technology there is still a public demand for the crafts of old. As George Daniels proved, there is still a demand for British horological genius. I hope that all possible support will be given to the watch-making and clock-making industry, which was once dying but is now showing signs of life in Britain today.
In the four minutes available to me, I wish to say a few words about the extractive industries in Africa. The UK has an important role to play, because some of the large mining companies from across the world are listed in London, and that brings a certain amount of responsibility to those companies. Most people recognise that, and I have had the good fortune to have long conversations with representatives of a number of mining companies based in the UK, which, naturally, operate mainly in Africa and across the rest of the world. Most of them seem to approach their role responsibly. New measures that are emerging, such as the Dodd-Frank legislation in the United States, which increases the transparency on payments made to Governments in some of those countries, are generally accepted as very important by most of the mining organisations that I have encountered.
I will not go into that today, but it is good that there has been some response by all the other companies. As they have seen that debate unfold to some extent in the newspapers and in the media, they have asked to have a chat with me and some of my colleagues who are interested in the issue. I think that these matters are taken very seriously across the industry.
The Secretary of State for International Development recently made a speech at the London business school about the importance of ideas that Paul Collier, an academic, has reflected on over the years. He wrote a very famous book called “The Bottom Billion” and what he says epitomises the argument that many others have put. He says that we should help these African states, which are potentially very rich in minerals but are very poor otherwise, to benefit from extracting the stuff that is beneath the ground and sometimes beneath the sea. Of course, such countries cannot always can do that for themselves and need assistance from outside companies. Standards of governance apply to those companies, both in London, if they are listed in the UK—or in any stock market, for that matter—and in the countries concerned. The transparency with which payments are made is increasingly crucial.
For example, I discovered recently a number of cases in the Congo—I shall not give the names of companies or particular mines—where it seems that a mine may have been expropriated by the Government or may already have been owned by the Government and sold on. The World Bank has an understanding that it will be told the price for which state assets are sold, because that allows us to see how much is actually going back compared with the worth of the asset. It is clear that how much has gone to the treasury from a number of sales in the DRC in the past couple of years have been far from explained. I suspect that it is a very small amount compared with the large sum—hundreds of millions—that has been made available to private entrepreneurs.
The World Bank has an understanding with countries such as the DRC that when assets are sold to mining organisations it is known how much was paid for them. That is not happening in the DRC as far as I can tell at the moment. The UK Government, to their great credit and following on from the Labour Administration, make a very large contribution each year to the DRC and to other developing countries, such as Rwanda next door. The UK Government are doubling the sum at the moment and the Labour Administration ramped up expenditure too, moving towards a figure of 0.7%, but the amount that we give in aid is dwarfed by the amount that is not accounted for when such assets are sold on. It is completely pointless giving aid to a country if we cannot be sure that we are going to get the benefits, because money is simply being extracted from another place by the sale of assets. I hope that both our Administration and the European Commission, which will introduce regulations soon, will look very carefully at that.
I very much welcome this debate and the opportunity to speak about the importance of the growth of business to our economy. In doing so, I should express a personal interest, in that I have a majority holding in a small private company.
The Government have set the stage well for business growth, in that we have at least avoided being where Greece and Ireland are and where Portugal is teetering on the brink of being. Our economy is fundamentally sound and growing. That is happening against a backdrop of our having inherited the worst budget deficit in the G7 and against the more recent headwinds of the spikes in the oil price—it has increased by 60% in the past year—and the eurozone crisis, which we are all facing at the moment. Although some of the Labour Members who are shaking their heads may disagree with that, I am sure we can all agree that if we are to move away from a debt-driven, public sector-reliant economy into manufacturing and exporting, creating private sector jobs will be vital. I welcome the fact that the Government have done that over the past year, creating 500,000.
We must do whatever we can to support business and I welcome the fact that the Government have intervened in a number of critical ways. The first is Project Merlin, which aims to get the largest five banks lending another £190 billion to small and medium-sized businesses. I know from such businesses in my constituency that that is vital and I urge the Government to maintain that progress.
I also welcome what the Government are doing about red tape through the one in, one out rule on regulation, through embracing the recommendations of Lord Young’s review, which is extremely important, and through the work done by my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning on apprenticeships, on which this Government have a particularly proud track record, much of which is down to the personal commitment that he has shown in this vital area.
I also think that Government should get out of the way of business. It is important that we get taxation on businesses down and over the next four years, as hon. Members will know, the corporate tax rate will fall by 5%, but that is not good enough. We need to do even more. When our local and national tax rates combined are compared with those of other countries in Europe they show that we are doing pretty well: in Germany, they are at 30%, in France at 34% and we are at 26%. However, when we look further afield, as we must when we consider the competitive pressures of the future, we see that places such as Hong Kong and Singapore have combined rates of 16% to 17%. I urge the Government to keep pressing firmly in that direction.
Let me make two more important points. First, although we have avoided the worst excesses of what Labour planned to do with national insurance, although it is expensive to lower national insurance as it is one of the three great revenue raisers of taxation and although I recognise and applaud the fact that the Government have introduced national insurance holidays in most regions of this country for new business start-ups, we must do more. It is a tax on jobs and we must start to get the figures down.
Secondly, micro-businesses—those that employ 10 or fewer employees—represent 96% of the businesses in this country and employ 700,000 people. We must get the number of onerous regulations for that group down. In particular, we should consider paternity and maternity rights and the idea that employees can leave the work force for 26 or up to 52 weeks a year and that their jobs must be held open. That needs to be considered and perhaps relaxed for those businesses, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the concerns that have been expressed on both sides of the House about the impact of the Government’s plans to reduce funding for English for speakers of other languages courses, plans which undermine the Prime Minister’s own vision for community cohesion. Members will remember that earlier this year he said in Prime Minister’s questions
“we will be putting in place…tougher rules” to ensure that
“husbands and wives, particularly from the Indian sub-continent” do
“learn English, so that…they can be more integrated into our country.”—[Hansard, 2 February 2011; Vol. 522, c. 856.]
It is deeply irresponsible to talk tough on language skills while removing the opportunities to develop them.
“should result in a very small overall impact on protected groups.”
That is not an assessment that those of us who are familiar with ESOL provision would have made and I welcome the fact that the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning did not accept that either and commissioned an equality impact assessment.
We have been wanting that impact assessment to be published for quite some time and were assured in the Westminster Hall debate on
“published in good time—certainly before the summer recess”.—[Hansard, 3 May 2011; Vol. 527, c. 211WH.]
I am sure that the Minister would have wished it otherwise, but the assessment was published only yesterday, 24 hours before the start of the recess. Better late than never, but what does it tell us? On gender, nationally 68% of ESOL learners over the age of 19 are women and in my city, Sheffield, the figure is even higher, with 83% of the 3,310 ESOL learners being women. That is a much higher proportion than the 50% of women learners in further education as a whole. On ethnicity, as would be expected a higher proportion of ESOL learners identify themselves as black or minority ethnic than those in FE overall.
In Sheffield, our local college is advertising a 34-week ESOL course, starting in September, at a cost of £715. Contributing half of that sum, as would be expected under the new rules, is simply unaffordable to those who depend on those courses so the college is planning for a “huge drop” —these are the college’s words—in numbers. Women who will be affected have written to me and they describe movingly how they rely on ESOL courses to interact with each other, with society and with their children.
I am pleased that the Minister has acknowledged the negative impact, reflected in his Department’s own assessment, of the introduction of the changes. I welcome the fact that he is considering, in partnership with the Department for Communities and Local Government and in consultation with the Association of Colleges, ways in which the Government can militate against that impact. I hope he will explain more about his plans to the House today and, crucially, the timetable for their introduction.
The problem is that the new rules for ESOL funding take effect in just 12 days, so I urge the Minister to give us an assurance that before the start of the new college year he will put in place measures to avert the unfair impact or, if he cannot do that, as my hon. Friend Jon Ashworth said, he will tell us that the new rules will be put on hold.
I want to raise an issue on behalf of my constituent, Mrs Noureen Shah. She is one of several people caught in the same nightmare and my right hon. Friend Mr Spellar and my hon. Friend Valerie Vaz have constituents who are also affected.
Mrs Shah was persuaded in 2006 to invest in the Cube, a development in the Westside district of Birmingham. It includes offices, an hotel and 244 apartments. Mrs Shah paid a deposit of about £65,000—her children’s legacy—and like other investors she was told that the properties would be completed in 2008. Gateley solicitors say that that is not the case and, apparently, buried in the large contract is a clause that covers delays. That is just as well, because the building contract was not let until
Early in 2010, the developers, the Birmingham Development Company, went bust and PricewaterhouseCoopers was called in as the administrator. The company was eventually restructured as Aruna Project LLP. Nearly half the investors cannot raise a mortgage because of the collapse in the value of the properties, but director Neil Edgington of Aruna is not too concerned, telling Property Week in April 2011,
“I’m sure some”— that is, some investors—
“will need more of a nudge than others. Some people will need a bit of encouragement via the legal route”.
Such intimidation has been the hallmark ever since. Lloyds TSB claims that it is
“working closely with administrators to ensure all outstanding cases are handled fairly”,
but it appears that “fairly” means that the Cube, which started out on the loan book of HBOS, is going to be paid for by bankrupting and evicting from their own homes the small investors who have been foolish enough to believe the sales pitch.
Lloyds and Aruna are now using the solicitors Gateley to threaten those small investors. It is a disgrace, and I would appreciate it if the Secretary of State would agree to have a look at what has happened in this case.
I declare my interest as a former college principal. As such, I am well aware of the need for local practitioners to make sense of the impact of decisions taken here on real people in the world out there. At least in the skills Minister we have someone who is truly committed to and genuinely cares about learning and learners. Unfortunately, the original decision regarding eligibility for free access to ESOL learning was probably taken to make the high level numbers add up, without the consequences being properly thought through.
The Minister’s written statement yesterday, however, makes it clear that he intends to take steps to address the shortfall in the equality impact assessment also published yesterday. I welcome this and thank him for contacting me this morning to ensure that I was apprised of the context of both documents.
A reasonable proportion of ESOL learners at North Lindsey college in Scunthorpe are currently working and already pay for their courses, so they will be unaffected by the changes. However, a significant number of North Lindsey’s adult ESOL learners, who are in low-skilled, poorly paid jobs in local factories, currently benefit from free tuition, but will not do so in future. Many of the college’s ESOL learners are highly motivated parents who learn English in order to help their children with homework and to not be reliant on them to be translators when accessing public services, such as the health clinic. Many of these mainly women learners will not be able to access ESOL and could therefore become isolated, rather than more integrated into our local community.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published the equality impact assessment yesterday, just in the nick of time to deliver the Minister’s promise that it would be published before the recess. Paragraph 53 of the assessment indicates that the policy changes
“may have a disproportionate impact on some groups or sub-groups of learners.”
Paragraphs 30 and 35 confirm that there are more minority ethnic groups and women studying ESOL than there are among FE students as a whole.
I ask the Minister to consider delaying the removal of fee concessions until a major change in the benefits system—the reclassification of claimants on to employment support allowance—is completed. The Government’s target timetable for this change is four years. The delay would allow current ESOL students on income support to remain in free provision, rather than be at considerable risk of dropping out of education for several years.
To ensure that parents are enabled to give the best possible support to their children, the Government might also consider giving all parents with children aged 0 to 7 fee concessions, regardless of their benefit status. This is essential if we want to prepare them to take an active part in their children’s education and be ready for work later on. These changes would not impact on Government budgets this year as the funds are already allocated to colleges. It is the restrictions and the changed policy in relation to ESOL that is preventing colleges from meeting those needs.
None the less, like my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), for Leicester South (Jon Ashworth) and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), I welcome the Minister’s commitment to work with the Department for Communities and Local Government on developing new forms of community-based learning of English and working with the Association of Colleges to determine how best to target funds at settled communities where language barriers prevail. The involvement of Lord Boswell and Baroness Sharp, who are well respected and have much expertise, is also welcome.
I begin by thanking the Chief Whip for indulging me this one time by allowing me to speak. As the House is aware, in the Whips Office we take a vow of silence, so I am particularly pleased to be given this opportunity to respond to Members in the area of business, innovation and skills, and to thank everyone for their excellent contributions. I feel a little like Garbo in her first talkie, when the next day’s headlines were, “Garbo Talks”, although when tomorrow’s press reports that “Brooks Talks”, I suspect it will not be about my performance at the Dispatch Box.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for organising today’s debate, in particular my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone for organising the format, which I understand from my hon. Friend Mr Bone is known as the Hollobone format, in which there is a rapid-fire series of short debates and short replies—a sort of political speed-dating, in which the Member raises his or her questions and sees whether or not he or she fancies the relevant Minister’s replies. I shall therefore do my best to make the Government as attractive as possible in relation to all the areas covered in the debate.
Before I begin my formal response to hon. Members’ contributions, I congratulate Mr McKenzie on his excellent maiden speech, which was delivered with warmth and a deep understanding of the community he represents.
Let me respond first to the hon. Members for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and for Leicester South (Jon Ashworth), all of whom rightly drew attention to the important issue of English provision to speakers of other languages. I know that hon. Members have previously campaigned on this issue and have highlighted the importance of English language provision to members of their respective communities. I am sure that they will agree that, although the ability to speak English is important to ensuring integration, if employers wish to recruit abroad—I address this point particularly to the hon. Members for Nottingham South and for Sheffield Central—they must not expect the state to pick up the cost of teaching their workers English. The reforms will target public funding to those in the greatest need and will ensure that higher standards are set for providers, thereby making ESOL provision work better for learners, employers, and taxpayers.
I am sure that hon. Members will have seen the second impact assessment, and yesterday’s written statement by my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, in which he further clarified our policy in this important area. Members will be aware that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will work with the Department for Communities and Local Government to formulate a strategy specifically to target vulnerable communities and particularly women and families who rely on community-based English language learning to help them gain access to public services and to communicate with their children’s schools. That point has been stressed by all the hon. Members who spoke on this issue. The Government are anxious to ensure that women and families do not lose out on this important provision.
My final point on this issue is that my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning has listened to and worked with the Association of Colleges and other key providers to make sure that we make rapid progress in this area—we hope by September when we reconvene—to ensure further and better integration in our communities.
I thank my hon. Friend Robert Halfon, who has demonstrated his lifelong interest in horology and has done much to promote that sector. I particularly appreciate his concerns about horology training facilities in the UK and the need for small, specialist courses, and I agree that we must support specialist British industries such as the watch-making and clock-making industry. I add that, although there is a British watch maker called Newmark, we are not related. My hon. Friend rightly cited the importance of the Government’s internship programme, and I assure him that the Government are exploring the opportunities for the craft sector to engage with the apprenticeship programme. I have met my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning to discuss this matter, and he will write to my hon. Friend about the progress that the Government are making to boost craft apprenticeships so that Britain will become the international centre of excellence in horology that he so rightly wants it to be.
On regulation, Eric Joyce should be commended for his continued attention on the behaviour of the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation, which he has mentioned in this place in the past. I particularly thank him for drawing my attention to the need for greater transparency and good governance, especially for companies dealing with developing countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Government expect and the law requires all UK directors of companies to adopt high standards of business conduct. We rightly focus on bad behaviour and we certainly do not condone criminal offences such as bribery or phone hacking. We need to help directors and shareholders through a strong system of corporate governance. Overall, the current system works well but needs to evolve continually to meet new challenges.
I thank my hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson for highlighting the importance of having a strong town centre and a vibrant community, as well as for continuing to be a strong champion for Swindon and for mentioning the importance of supporting retailers and small businesses in his area. I agree that having a successful and buzzing town centre helps to create and maintain jobs in shops and offices. A vibrant town centre creates a positive image that attracts new businesses and employment. Indeed, we should applaud the work of independent groups such as Forward Swindon and InSwindon which, in conjunction with the local council, have sought to revitalise growth and prosperity in the town centre.
I thank Steve McCabe for focusing on Lloyds TSB and the sale of flats in the Cube in Birmingham, and for highlighting the concerns of Mrs Shah and other small investors. He raised the inability of flat owners to secure mortgages, and I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be made aware of his concerns.
My hon. Friend Martin Vickers is right to raise the important issue of Tata Steel and the development of north Lincolnshire. He mentioned the importance of renewable industry in Lincolnshire and the need for improved transport links. The pan-Humber local enterprise partnership has focused on strategic opportunities growth based on renewable energy, ports and logistics, and chemicals among other things. The Humber LEP is bidding for an enterprise zone to support the creation of renewable clusters in the area. I shall of course pursue that matter with the relevant Ministers to ensure that the demands of local people and investors can be met. On Tata Steel, the recent meeting between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Members to discuss the issue was cancelled, and will be rearranged, as is the case with a visit by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. The Prime Minister has expressed disappointment at job losses resulting from reductions at Tata Steel, but he is working hard with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to bring a taskforce together to ensure that we do everything possible to mitigate the impact on local jobs and communities.
My hon. Friend Mel Stride is right to emphasise economic growth. He mentioned the importance of not driving growth with debt, and the need to reduce unnecessary regulation. Growth remains at the centre of the Government’s strategy, and the growth review will work throughout this Parliament to address barriers facing industry. The Government’s role is to create the conditions conducive to private sector investment and to make long-term choices, not offer short-term fixes. We continue to listen to businesses to understand how to help them.
Finally, on maternity and paternity leave, Government proposals will allow both parents to take an active, caring role while retaining their attachment to the workplace. Our proposals allow more flexibility, because one size does not fit all firms or families. We will work with businesses to help them to adapt to these changes. My hon. Friend made a specific point about national insurance, and I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is made aware of his concerns. Once again, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for arranging this debate, all the speakers for their contributions and wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all Members a relaxing summer break.
“Members are expected to attend throughout the debate for which they are grouped.”
That includes listening to the Minister at the end of the debate, so it is regrettable that some Members who participated in the debate that has just concluded are no longer in the Chamber. I am sure that the Whips will inform them.