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House of Commons

Thursday 14 January 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [ Lords] ( By Order)

Consideration of Bill , as amended, opposed and deferred until Thursday 21 January at Three o'clock (Standing Order No. 20(2)) .

Manchester City Council Bill [ Lords] ( By Order)

Consideration of Bill , as amended, opposed and deferred until Thursday 21 January at Three o'clock (Standing Order No. 20(2)).

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

Consideration of Bill , as amended, opposed and deferred until Thursday 21 January at Three o'clock (Standing Order No. 20(2)).

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Consideration of Bill , as amended, opposed and deferred until Thursday 21 January at Three o'clock (Standing Order No. 20(2)).

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Minister of State was asked-

Royal Mail

1. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): Whether he has had discussions with Royal Mail on job security for its employees. [310575]

The Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr. Pat McFadden): During the dispute before Christmas, we kept in touch with both sides, encouraging an agreement on the modernisation of Royal Mail. Those talks are continuing, and I believe that in the context of falling mail volumes and the greater use of new technology, both Royal Mail and representatives of the work force understand that there are likely to be fewer people working for Royal Mail in the future.

John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, although I am disappointed that he is perhaps not taking a more active part in the discussions. What does he plan to do about the apparently ever-growing pensions deficit? Do the Government not have something
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to do on that? Should they not be helping Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union and its members to ensure that they get a better settlement?

Mr. McFadden: We have certainly helped Royal Mail and its work force by putting considerable finance, on behalf of the taxpayer, into it over the past decade. Just three years ago, we lent the company £1.2 billion to finance its much-needed modernisation. The mediator in the talks taking place now is Roger Poole, with whom I regularly keep in touch. The important thing is that both the work force and management reach an agreement to carry forward the modernisation.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the pension deficit. That is an issue for Royal Mail. We put forward a proposal to deal with it, as part of the Postal Services Bill, but I am afraid that many people were opposed to that package, although we made it clear that it was a package, and not something from which items could be picked out one by one.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Job security for Royal Mail's employees, and indeed the security of its competitors' employees, is threatened by the continuing regulatory uncertainty in the sector. Will the Government use the Digital Economy Bill to introduce the regulatory change aspects in the Postal Services Bill, because those particular issues are not related to the wider issues of the future ownership of Royal Mail?

Mr. McFadden: We do not plan to separate out the regulation part of the postal services package that we proposed, as is the case with the pension proposals, which I just mentioned. The priority for Royal Mail now is that the talks succeed in reaching an agreement on the much-needed modernisation, because mail volumes are falling around the world and new technology is not going to go away. That is definitely in the interests of Royal Mail, its work force and the general public.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to postmen and women, certainly in my part of the world, who were pretty valiant in the cold weather, getting the mail through?

The regulatory aspect of the postal service is critical, as the Hooper report made clear. At the moment, Postcomm is in limbo from having half departed but not arrived at its new destination. What are the Government doing to ensure that in the limbo created by abandoning the Bill the regulatory framework will be improved in the way needed?

Mr. McFadden: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the valiant work that postmen and women do. They underpin the universal service at the heart of our postal system, and we are determined to preserve that for the future. However, I am afraid that I cannot agree with him that the regulatory system is in limbo. It is true that we had plans to change the regulatory system, but Postcomm is in place, it is the established regulator, it has a job to do, and it should continue to do it.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): As the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire
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(Peter Luff) have said, Royal Mail requires structural reform if it and its employees are to move forward. However, the unions and Labour Back Benchers have forced a weak Government to pull the Postal Services Bill, so what, other than a Conservative Government, will deliver any action for reform?

Mr. McFadden: We did not proceed with the Postal Services Bill because the market conditions did not allow us to get the best value for money for the taxpayer. The hon. Gentleman spoke about his plans, but the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) has been clear about those: the Conservatives would privatise the Royal Mail. That is not our proposal and it was not our proposal in the past.

University Centres

2. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): What plans he has for new university centres; and if he will make a statement. [310576]

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): As set out in "Higher Ambitions", we are committed to the enhancement of locally accessible higher education through a new University Challenge initiative. Since 2003, the Higher Education Funding Council England has announced support for 17 new local HE centres. In October last year, the HEFCE announced that six new proposals would be taken forward, including one in Milton Keynes.

Dr. Starkey: The criteria for University Challenge could have been custom written for the University Centre Milton Keynes. We are a city with a large population of young people, but a relatively low participation rate in higher education, and the local centre obviously encourages them to participate. It is based in the heart of our business district and has a proven record. I commend the University Centre Milton Keynes to the Minister and hope that he will ensure that it is at the top of the list for further funding.

Mr. Lammy: I commend my hon. Friend's continued championing of widening participation in higher education in her constituency. Milton Keynes as a city has perhaps done more than any other in the country to widen participation, being the home of the Open university, as well as the new centre. It is right to say that a strong bid was made, and, having seen the site and the proposed plans for the centre, I certainly welcomed it. My hon. Friend will know that, beyond the next spending review, it is hoped that the bid will come to fruition.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): The Government have long had an aspiration for 50 per cent. of young people to go into higher education. Given the right hon. Gentleman's savage cuts in the university sector, can he tell us in what year he expects to meet that 50 per cent. aspiration and what percentage of young people will be going to university next year?

Mr. Lammy: I am pleased to say that we have more young people at university than ever before in our history, and we will have even more next year. However, if the £610 million of cuts to my Department's budget
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were enacted, which was the Conservative proposal 18 months ago, that would mean a reduction of many thousands.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have to exercise a degree of caution as the number of universities proliferates? Universities are at the very heart of many of our communities, with the wealth and employment that they bring-Huddersfield university is the biggest employer in my constituency-but we must ensure that we maintain quality wherever we have a university campus.

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend is right that we must keep an eye on quality. We must never be complacent about standards in higher education in this country. There is a reason why British universities are among the very best in the world, so while we seek to extend the reach of higher education more deeply into communities that have not experienced it, he is right to keep his eye on standards and quality.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): The University Challenge programme was originally launched in rather different economic circumstances from those of today. Is it not the truth that we can now look forward to a period of contraction, limited opportunities for students and, what is more, higher tuition fees after the general election?

Mr. Lammy: It is surprising to hear the hon. Gentleman mention tuition fees in his opening question, given the five positions on that that we have had from the Liberal Democrats over just the past year. I can confirm that there would be severe contraction if it ever came to pass that the Liberal Democrats were in power, because the money that we have seen as a result of our policy would be diminished, and so would the sector.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): Has the Minister had an opportunity to read the piece on universities by Lord Mandelson in today's edition of The Guardian? I am sure that the Minister is familiar with that newspaper's comments and clarifications section, which we all enjoy. May I invite him to write something to that section correcting the record and setting out the figures showing how much further the unit of resource in universities is going to be cut as a result of the Government's proposals? As we look at ways of easing pressures on universities, will he consider our proposal? Does he agree that we should not expect researchers and academics carrying out blue-skies research to produce impact statements-invented records of impact-and that the best thing to do would be to delay the research excellence framework until we have had time to work out whether impact can really be measured?

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman continues his walk on the road to Damascus with this amazing U-turn on policy. I enjoy The Guardian every day, and I enjoy all that is said by the Secretary of State for my Department. I can confirm that the hon. Gentleman got his figures on the unit of resource wrong yesterday. I am surprised, given that the hon. Gentleman recognises the importance of science, technology and research, that he does not recognise the importance of the public being able to see the impact that that research-paid for by taxpayers' money-could have. I am also surprised that he is jumping on yet another bandwagon.

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Pleural Plaques

3. Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Ministry of Justice on his Department's potential financial responsibilities for people with pleural plaques. [310577]

The Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr. Pat McFadden): I have had no recent discussions with the Ministry of Justice on this subject, but I understand that this is a long-running issue and that hon. Members are keen to see it brought to a conclusion.

Mr. Anderson: I thank the Minister for that response. He must also be aware of the huge support for this matter across the House, as demonstrated by the fact that a private Member's Bill on the subject was passed almost unanimously here and has gained support in the House of Lords. Also, an attempt by insurers in Scotland last week to prevent the Scottish law from being changed so that people could get compensation was decisively turned down. Surely some financial responsibility must be taken, at least for the people who worked for British Shipbuilders and other previously nationalised organisations. My right hon. Friend's Department and the MOJ also have a moral responsibility to get together and sort this out.

Mr. McFadden: As I said, I do understand that hon. Members are keen to reach a conclusion on this subject. I also understand that a meeting has been scheduled to take place shortly in which my hon. Friend and others will meet the Secretary of State for Justice and the Prime Minister. The Government are aware that we need to respond not only to this but to issues relating to other respiratory conditions.

Minimum Wage (Tipping)

4. Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): What estimate he has made of the number of people who are likely to be affected by regulations governing the use of tips to make up levels of pay to the national minimum wage rate. [310578]

The Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr. Pat McFadden): The Government estimate that just over 60,000 workers could benefit from the change to the minimum wage regulations. This will prevent tips from being counted towards the national minimum wage. Customers do not expect the tips that they leave to be used to make up the minimum wage, and the changes that we have introduced mean that tips can no longer be used in that way.

Mr. Bailey: I thank the Minister for his reply and I welcome the new regulations. For many young people, waiting in restaurants is their first engagement with the world of work, and it is very disillusioning for them to have the rewards for their hard work taken by unscrupulous employers. Will he ensure that, following the introduction of the regulations, the situation is monitored and that any unscrupulous employers are exposed as a result?

Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Alongside the change in the law that we have made, we need proper enforcement and proper transparency
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in regard to what happens to tips. The public have a right to know what happens to the money that they voluntarily leave to reward the service they receive. The Government have also toughened up the law on the enforcement of the minimum wage, and there are now better arrears systems for employees who are not paid the minimum wage and tougher penalties for the minority of employers who do not pay it. We have also brought together the helplines for different rights at work to form a single pay and work rights helpline, which will make it easier for people to report abuses. The number is 0800 9172368.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): My daughter recently worked in a restaurant, which had an optional service charge of 12.5 per cent., but none of that went to the staff. Is that not scandalous?

Mr. McFadden: That is precisely why, alongside the change in the law to make sure that tips and gratuities cannot be used to make up the minimum wage, we want the industry to promote a code of transparency to ensure that the customer knows exactly what happens to the money they give. If I went into a restaurant and thought that the staff were not receiving anything of the tip, why would I leave one? I want to reward for the service we receive, and that is what the customer wants. That is why we have changed the law and want to see more transparency in addition to it.


5. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What recent estimate he has made of the number of young people in (a) Kettering constituency, (b) Northamptonshire and (c) England who are not in employment, education or training. [310579]

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): In the third quarter of 2009, there were 1,082,000, or 18 per cent., of 16 to 24-year-olds who were not in education, employment or training. That estimate comes from the labour force survey. The latest information for Northamptonshire is from the 2008 annual population survey, which estimates that there were 12,000, or 14 per cent., of people in that age group who were NEETs. However, those figures are not directly comparable with the England figure; the sample sizes are too small to give a constituency estimate.

Mr. Hollobone: In many ways, the severity of the recession has had its hardest impact on young people trying to enter the job market. I know from my own constituents the difficulties that many families across the Kettering parliamentary constituency are facing. What are the Government going to do to get our young people into work so that they can start their careers in gainful employment? If they cannot do that for young people, what training and education opportunities are the Government going to provide?

Kevin Brennan: We have, of course, introduced the September guarantee, which means that every 16 or 17-year-old is offered a suitable place in education and training. We have rebuilt apprenticeships and we have signalled our commitment to apprenticeships for young people with the £2,500 golden hello for employers to
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provide up to 5,000 new places for 16 and 17-year-olds. The Government are doing a great deal to help young people who find themselves out of work, although I should say that the NEETs figures include many people who are not in that position, as only about 37 per cent. are actually seeking work or training.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): When we debated this issue yesterday, the Government appeared totally complacent. With more than 1 million young people not in education, employment or training and with the second highest level of youth unemployment in Europe, this Government have let down a generation of young people. Is the Minister not ashamed? As we face another looming crisis this year on university applications, will he take up our proposals, which have been fully costed and funded, for an additional 10,000 university places?

Kevin Brennan: We are neither ashamed nor complacent, and we will not take up that proposal for the reason I set out in yesterday's debate-because it is not properly funded. Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that the key issue is how quickly young people move out of unemployment and into work. Six month-plus 18-to-24 unemployment is currently 108,800; in 1997, it was 169,000; in 1993, it was 415,000; and in 1985, during the last Conservative Government, it was 600,000-six times as many people in that age group unemployed for six months or more. That is the difference between us and them.

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