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House of Commons

Thursday 11 June 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

Committee of Selection


Independent Review of Home Education


Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Minister of State was asked—

Human Tissue Legislation

1. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): If he will direct the Office for Life Sciences to review the arrangements for pharmaceutical and medical biotech businesses to access samples of human tissue. [279000]

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): The Human Tissue Authority is currently assessing the impact of human tissue legislation and regulation on tissue-based research. This is of course primarily a matter for the Department of Health.

Jo Swinson: I thank the Minister for that reply, but lack of access to human tissue samples is impeding research in the fight against cancer and other diseases. Most human tissue removed in surgeries is currently incinerated, but with patient consent it can be put to very good use. Will the Minister ask the Office for Life Sciences to look into creating a database to record what samples are available where across the country to help academics and biotech companies to achieve scientific breakthroughs?

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Lady is right that bioscience is hugely important. For research on Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia, access to human tissue can mean real advances. The Office for Life Sciences is co-ordinating activity and I am pleased that the Department of Health is among the group of Departments represented. She will also be aware that in March this year the HTA announced a project to assess the impact of tissue legislation and regulation on tissue-based research.

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Extremist Activity (University Campuses)

2. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the levels of extremist activity on university campuses; and if he will make a statement. [279001]

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): The assessment of the law enforcement agencies is that there is some extremist activity on a small number of campuses. Where it occurs it is serious, but the assessment is that it is not widespread. Following the issuing of guidance to universities on this matter last year, we continue to work with the higher education sector to help it to reduce the risk of extremist activity on its campuses and to protect the safety of students and staff.

Andrew Rosindell: According to the British high commission in Pakistan, half of those granted student visas go missing when they come to the United Kingdom. What discussions is the Minister having with universities and the authorities to ensure that that ends, and ends soon?

Mr. Lammy: I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that there has been a change to the visa regime, which means that so-called bogus colleges have largely been closed down over the past year. Now, only 1,600 colleges have been granted a registration, compared with 4,000 previously. I am in regular discussion with my colleague in the Home Office, and the hon. Gentleman will know that the Home Affairs Committee is also looking into the issue. My colleague in this Department and my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration will give evidence before it.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, but I gently suggest that his civil servants might be allowing him to become a little complacent. If he talks to Jewish students about the intimidation on campuses earlier this year, in which Islamist organisations fuelled by outsiders intimidated Jewish students, not allowing them to meet or make their case, he will learn that it was a grave and worrying moment. Will he meet a delegation from the Union of Jewish Students and the Community Security Trust to discuss these issues? We cannot allow the notion that there is no problem to gain ground.

Mr. Lammy: I have already met the Union of Jewish Students and I have set up a group within the Department that includes representatives from the universities to discuss these issues. We will meet regularly to continue to make an assessment of the anti-Semitism that can exist on campuses and to do all the appropriate work to minimise those threats and those issues for Jewish students. That kind of xenophobia and racism have no place in the national life of this country.

Small Businesses

3. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): What plans he has to reduce the level of regulation on small businesses. [279002]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Ian Lucas): Since 2005, we have reduced the administrative burden on business by £1.9 billion and are on track to deliver our promise of a 25 per cent. reduction worth £3.4 billion by 2010. We plan to adopt new simplification targets for 2010 to 2015 which will address regulatory costs for all businesses, but especially small businesses.

Mr. Bellingham: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment and promotion, which were well deserved. He has always taken an interest in small businesses. He will be aware that the First Secretary has made a number of encouragingly pro-business speeches recently. In fact, he said that both the Government and Europe should get off the back of small businesses. He seemed to be implying that the Government now want to come out of the EU social chapter. Is that the case? Will the Minister also confirm that it is still his Department’s intention strongly to resist the job-destroying agency workers directive?

Ian Lucas: First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, which are greatly appreciated. I ran a small business myself for a period and I know the importance of good regulation for small businesses. Some regulation is good, but the Government are keen to reduce and eliminate unnecessary regulation. The type of regulation that is acceptable to the Government should support workers. The minimum wage is a form of regulation of which we are very proud. We all support that type of good regulation, but we will always eliminate bad regulation. We are always listening to businesses to hear what they have to say, so that we can do that as often as possible.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): As my hon. Friend will be aware, reducing the imposition of regulation on small business is important, but another important factor is ensuring that finance is available for small businesses. He is aware that the enterprise finance guarantee is working well and is getting money for small businesses to where it should be. Is he satisfied that there is sufficient money in that scheme to ensure that, as we are at the turning point of the recession, the vital resource of money for small businesses will be available for some time to come?

Ian Lucas: It is, of course, extremely important that such finance is available for small business. I noted, as I sat as a Whip in the Chamber, how the Opposition have stopped talking about the ineffectiveness of so-called Government schemes. Those schemes are working. It is always important to listen to business and to hear what it has to say about the availability of resources. If there are shortages, we will certainly listen to what small businesses have to say.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): May I, for the second time in less than 24 hours, congratulate and welcome the Minister and extend that welcome to the rest of his ministerial colleagues on the Front Bench, pausing only to regret that the majority of the team—and its most powerful members—sit in another place? I invite him to reassure the House of the Department’s commitment to regulatory reform, and particularly to the deregulation of small businesses. I urge him to
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reconsider the provisions of my private Member’s Bill, which would remove the requirement for a small business to apply for rate relief so that it would be applied automatically, instead. I withdrew that Bill voluntarily on the basis of assurances from the Government that, to be honest, have not been met.

Ian Lucas: I thank the hon. Gentleman again for his kind words. As I mentioned previously, I ran a small business, so I know the frustrations caused to businesses by the imposition of what they perceive as unnecessary regulation. I can assure him that I will do all I can to remove unnecessary regulation for small businesses, because I bear the scars of having to go through lots of forms that I could not understand.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment to a key role in the empire of Mandelsonia. It is good to see him on the Front Bench.

In tracking the concerns of small businesses, we are seeing the cost of compliance moving up their list, and that is a worry to many who recognise the role of small businesses in creating most of the jobs that will pull us out of recession over the next 18 months. Will he assure the House that the dropping of regulatory reform from the original title of one of the component Departments does not mean that there will be a relaxation of attention on this important area for small and medium-sized enterprises?

Ian Lucas: As the Minister responsible for regulatory reform, I can assure him that I do not intend that its importance should drop in any way. It is a vital part of creating a more efficient and competitive economy and I will do all I can to take the agenda forward.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): I, too, welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. I lose track, but I think that he is the seventh or eighth Minister whom I have shadowed in the last few years and I genuinely hope that he lasts longer than his predecessors.

Despite the Minister’s claims and his welcome experience in small business, red tape is strangling enterprise. Let me give him an example. To install new microgeneration technologies in this country, a business must comply with not one, two or even three regulators but five separate regulators, three of whom make separate charges. Is that burden of regulation intentional, or is it just the result of ministerial incompetence?

Ian Lucas: It is never the Government’s intention to create difficulties for anyone. Our intention is to make progress. I should be very glad to have more information about the specific example to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, and I shall gladly look into it. I thank him for his kind words, and assure him that I intend to be here for a very long time.

Scientific Research

4. Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): How much funding his Department is providing for scientific research in 2009-10. [279003]

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The Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr. Pat McFadden): My Department will invest some £5.5 billion in research funding in 2009-10. This is made up of the science research budget, which will reach almost £4 billion next year, and the Higher Education Funding Council quality-related research grants.

Dr. Harris: The Minister will recognise that science is long term and involves dedication. Does he accept that there is consternation in the science community that, since the latest reshuffle, neither of the words “universities” or “science” appears in the name of his Department? Moreover, the Science Minister and the Secretary of State are both in the House of Lords and therefore unaccountable to this House. The Science Minister is also forced to take on defence duties as well, and there is a real fear that the needs of strategic, long-term science will be subordinate to business. How can he reassure the science community on all those points?

Mr. McFadden: I am afraid that I must disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I believe that our Science Minister brings an enormous wealth of expertise from his industrial background that is to the advantage of both the country and the Government. As for the Department, it makes absolute sense to bring together our leading-edge scientific research and support for business and the fields of higher and further education. The economic situation that we face requires all those things to be brought together, in the interests of scientific research and the country’s economic future.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know that the investment in science that the Government have made in the north-west of England has paid real dividends, in that it has attracted high-quality science and protected and developed businesses at the leading edge of our economy. Will he assure the House that investment will continue to be made outside the golden triangle of the south-east, and that there will be real investment in science in the regions?

Mr. McFadden: The investment over recent years in the north-west has been extremely welcome, and is a reflection of the fact that the science budget has trebled since 1997. We have maintained our commitment to the science budget, and that stands in contrast to the signals given yesterday, when we were told that the Opposition are planning a 10 per cent. cut across the board in such funding. The sort of choice that the country will face in respect of science funding is therefore quite clear.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): May I return to the point made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)? Notwithstanding the Minister’s proper defence of the Science Minister’s credentials, will he accept that there is very real consternation in the universities in general, and the science community in particular, about the fact that the words “universities” and “science” have been deleted from the name of this mega-Department? What can he do truly to reassure us?

Mr. McFadden: The hon. Gentleman has been in the House a very long time, and I have to remind him that it is not unknown for science to be a responsibility of this Department. That was the case until a couple of years
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ago, so I do not see the need for consternation about its return to the Department. That synergy was there before, and it will still be here in the future.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): The leading scientific research undertaken at places like Loughborough university, and the development of resulting products, will be vital if we are to bring our economy out of the current recession. However, although the global figures always sound impressive, is my hon. Friend aware that there is often a shortfall at local level in the amount of funding available for the development of leading scientific projects, and especially for bringing them forward to market? Will he ensure that greater emphasis is placed in future on those technologies that will make a real impact on the economic situation of the east midlands region as a whole? Will he argue the case that, far from being reduced, funding should be increased, as the technologies being developed will create jobs both locally and internationally?

Mr. McFadden: I know that my hon. Friend is a real champion of science funding, research and educational opportunity. His point about the application of science and bringing research to market is well made. We are hugely committed to that. It is one reason we have backed the science budget and why it is in such a different state today from the science budget that we inherited when we came into office. I assure him that that commitment will remain in the future.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): May I welcome the Minister for Business to his wider range of responsibilities? Of course, investment in science, technology, engineering, maths, and also in the arts and humanities for the digital economy, is essential if we are to emerge from the recession even stronger. In just a matter of weeks, there will be hundreds of thousands of graduates leaving our universities in the bleakest job market for a generation. Now is an ideal time to expand the research opportunities for them, so that they can learn, invest and build our future, rather than have a taste of the dole queue.

Mr. McFadden: We are acutely aware of the graduates who will come out of universities in the coming months. The predecessor Department, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, announced measures on the expansion of internships and so on to try to expand opportunity for people in that position. I quite agree with him that research should not just be about science; we have also expanded funding to the economic and social research budget, which has gone up from £105 million in 2004-05 to £166 million in the last financial year. Once again, there is a stark contrast between that commitment, and pledges for a 10 per cent. cut across the board from the Conservative party.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), one of the key areas in the north-west for science development is the Daresbury laboratory and business park. Its output is key to science, invention and research and to products being brought to market. It is key to have the space and the willingness to develop that through factories and other facilities. There is an important point to be made about Daresbury:
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it is one of the key areas in the country with the room to do that. I ask my right hon. Friend to make sure that he keeps that in mind when he is looking at funding for science, as Daresbury science and business park is one of the key areas in the country for that.

Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend makes his point very well. The excellence at Daresbury is well recognised. I know that he is a strong advocate for it, and I can assure him that that is understood in Government. His points about the spin-offs and benefits from that are absolutely correct.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): There are clearly many unanswered questions about science funding in the future. Just two years ago, the Prime Minister announced with a great fanfare that he was creating a new Department called the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which basically separated science from business, yet less than two years later he has abandoned that new Department and taken us back to the future, with all the resultant costs and confusion. The question is: was he wrong back then, or is he wrong today? Like Thomas More, I see no further alternative.

Mr. McFadden: I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman has been living for the past two years, but I have to tell him that there have been some changes in the economy in that period. We face a worldwide economic downturn, and in those circumstances it makes absolute sense to bring together science, business, and higher and further education. We now have a Department in which educational opportunity, science and innovation and support for business all work together for the benefit of the country’s economy. That can only be a good thing, and I would have hoped that he supported it. Perhaps he should address his concerns to his party’s Treasury spokespeople, given the 10 per cent. cut in the Department’s budget that his party would make if it had its way.

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