Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and the British Business Bank is supporting over £7 billion of finance to over 91,000 small and medium-size enterprises. Through our business productivity review, published in November, we set out the steps we are taking to boost small business productivity, including: funding a small business leadership programme, strengthening local networks and expanding the knowledge transfer partnership programme.
I thank the Minister for her response. I was at a local business breakfast last week. Alongside the predictable issues of late payment, Brexit-readiness and parking, which I would have expected, I was surprised to hear naturally Conservative people lambasting the Government for refocusing priorities northward post-election, which they see as quite shameless and political. How can the Minister ensure that the good idea of regional rebalancing does not end up clobbering small firms and sole traders in Ealing, Acton and Chiswick? The streets are not paved with gold there and they already feel under the cosh.
I can reassure the hon. Lady that the Government completely back business, whether in the north or the south. We want businesses to grow wherever they are in the UK. That is highlighted by the fact that in her constituency alone there have been 193 start-up loans, representing £1.6 million. It is clear that the Government are willing to support entrepreneurs and all business owners who want to grow, wherever they are.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and welcome him to his place. I am really pleased that, so quickly into being an MP, he is out talking to as many businesses as he can. Clearly, access to finance is a key priority for many businesses. I have already outlined the applications to start-up loans. One interesting element is that applicants for start-up loans are able to have a mentor. He will also know that we have taken action by offering small retailers a third off business rates for two years, starting in April. We are committed to increasing that to 50%.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question and welcome her to her place. I know she has a particular interest in this area, with her experience before coming to the House. The Government are committed to helping small businesses become exporters. Over 580,000 trade internationally already. The Department for International Trade supports that via a range of projects. We want all SMEs who are able to, to take that plunge. My Department will continue to work across Government and with SMEs to identify barriers to ensure we can address them and make it easier for all SMEs to trade internationally.
Small businesses are the backbone of the Cumbria tourism economy. They are appalled, as am I, by the Government’s plan to make sure that there is a £30,000 salary floor for any overseas worker coming to work in the tourism economies of the Lake district or the Yorkshire dales. Does the Minister understand how much damage that will do to an economy in which 20,000 non-UK staff are working now? Will she meet me and people from the hospitality industry to make sure that we have a salary floor that does not cripple Cumbria’s tourism economy?
The hon. Gentleman knows that the tourism economy is particularly important for the UK. While I am happy to meet him, we hear representations from the sector regularly. Despite the earlier comment to the Secretary of State about a reduction in our engagement with businesses, we are actually stepping that up. He will know that we will bring forward plans on immigration and the floor that he mentioned, but I am more than happy to hear his particular point.
One thing that all businesses—large and small—depend on is having a skilled workforce. What is the Department doing to improve skills overall, and particularly engineering skills, on which more and more companies are now dependent?
I welcome my hon. Friend back to the Chamber and thank him for his interest in this area. He knows that, as we leave the European Union, we want to ensure that we have a good distribution of engineering skills—not just in the south-east, but across the country—and help people to increase their skills. I am a great lover of apprenticeships, of what some small businesses are doing with apprenticeships, and especially of our degree-led apprenticeships involving organisations such as BAE Systems—which, I should say, operates in my constituency.