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Science Education (Universities)

6. Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): What recent representations he has received on the future of science education in universities. [310580]

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): I met university vice-chancellors on Tuesday and I reaffirm the Department's commitment, made in "Higher Ambitions", to science and engineering.

Alistair Burt: On 3 November, the Minister denounced as a caricature that he did not recognise the question I put to him here on the disconnection between school and university science, which was leading to remedial courses for undergraduates who were inadequately prepared at school for university. Has he since had a chance to see the remarks of Dr. Richard Pike, the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, who has made this far from novel or original point yet again, concluding with the phrase:

If the Minister will not recognise my description of the problem, perhaps he will recognise Dr. Pike's.

Mr. Lammy: What I recognise are the figures published today, which confirm that there has been a 12 per cent. rise in A-level entries for maths and further maths and a 3.8 per cent. rise for physics, as well as a 3 per cent. rise in undergraduates taking science subjects and a 7 per cent. rise in postgraduates doing so. I suggest the hon. Gentleman goes back to the very foundation of science: the evidence. He should look at the figures for what
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young people are doing and recognise that there have been massive advances for science subjects as a result of funding from this Government.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): When vice-chancellors are under financial pressure, they find that the greatest savings in universities can be made by closing science and engineering departments. That is what has happened in the past, and that is what is beginning to happen this year. Will my right hon. Friend keep a very close eye on the way in which vice-chancellors make their savings?

Mr. Lammy: I hope my hon. Friend recognises that we have sought to ensure that the money is in place, particularly to prioritise science, technology, engineering and maths. We set that out most recently in "Higher Ambitions". Our university science departments are key to our "New industry, new jobs" agenda for sectors such as the life sciences, biotechnology and advanced manufacturing, which will have to be centre stage to our economic recovery. I recognise that this is an important issue, therefore, notwithstanding the research and assessment exercise results, which might lead some vice-chancellors to decide to withdraw from certain areas and prioritise others.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): The largest research council, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, has already been forced to cut research grants by 10 per cent. and fellowships by 25 per cent. and to withdraw from 27 significant projects. The Government have allocated no money whatever to their ring-fenced science budget beyond this year, yet last night the science Minister confirmed-this has been confirmed again here this morning-that £600 million will be cut from the science budget over the next two years. Can the Minister explain how a specific sum-this £600 million-can be cut from a budget that has nothing in it?

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman has got his facts wrong, which is unusual. It is not £600 million from the science budget; it is £600 million up to 2013 from the entirety of the just under £13 billion higher education budget from which we have asked savings to be found. We are committed to the science ring fence and the 10-year framework for science, and it is wrong to caricature the STFC, to which we gave £40 million just last year, in that way.


7. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What estimate he has made of the number of people who have completed training courses under the unionlearn programme since 2006; and if he will make a statement. [310581]

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): Since 2006, trade unions, supported by unionlearn, have helped over 570,000 workers access a training course, including over 80,000 with poor basic literacy and numeracy skills. Detailed information on completions is not collated centrally, but Leeds university business school is currently
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undertaking a comprehensive analysis of learner outcomes, which will provide robust evidence of the percentage completing courses.

Tony Lloyd: Will my hon. Friend confirm that those 500,000-plus learners through unionlearn include many people who would not have accessed skills training without it, which is why it is so popular with employers-it is in the national interest and the interest of companies? Also, has he received representations from other parties about whether they are prepared to commit to unionlearn?

Kevin Brennan: I can confirm my hon. Friend's first point. Interestingly, in yesterday's debate, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) said he was very much in favour of unionlearn because it was so cost-effective. I do not know whether that is a pledge, but one thing is clear: this is a Labour Government policy that the Conservative party opposed, but which is now endorsed by its Front-Bench team as very good value for money.

Student Maintenance Support

8. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): What plans he has for the future of student maintenance support; and if he will make a statement. [310583]

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): The independent review of higher education funding and student finance will analyse the challenges facing, and opportunities for, higher education and their implications for student financing and support. It will make recommendations to Government on the future balance of financial contributions by taxpayers, students, graduates and employers, and the Government will not pre-empt the outcome of the review.

Andrew Stunell: May I direct the Minister to the issue of maintenance allowances, which is the subject of my question? Is he at all satisfied with the future direction, given that 28,000 students are not receiving their maintenance allowances, including several hundred in Stockport, who, even after Christmas, are stranded without the money they deserve?

Mr. Lammy: That is why I set up the independent review led by Sir Deian Hopkin. I think that we all recognise that serious issues have arisen in relation to the Student Loans Company's performance this year. Its chair and chief executive have apologised, and I am pleased that it has now dealt with the backlog. Many thousands of applications continue to come in, as many students have been delaying seeking their finance. What is important is for next year's process to be far better than this year's, and that is the undertaking that the chair and chief executive have made.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Forty-three per cent. of students in higher education are part-time students, and future growth will largely come from part-time and mature students. Is there not a powerful argument for raising the cap on full-time undergraduate fees in order to develop a unified system, giving part-time students the same access to financial support that full-time students enjoy?

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Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend puts his point forcefully. I shall not be drawn on the outcome of the review, but I can say that he is right to underline the position of part-time students and to call for better equity. That is why we have asked Lord Browne to examine the position of part-time students, in particular.

Grocery Ombudsman

9. Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): What plans he has to respond to the Competition Commission's recommendation for the creation of a grocery supply chain ombudsman. [310584]

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): My Department published the Government's response to the Competition Competition's recommendation for the creation of a grocery supply chain ombudsman yesterday. The Government have accepted the need for independent enforcement of the grocery supply code of practice, and we will consult on the detail of the body and its powers.

Andrew George: As I chair the grocery market action group, perhaps I should declare an interest. I have been campaigning for this for the best part of 10 years. Therefore, I warmly welcome the Minister's announcement yesterday-I have to say, it was not before time. What timetable does he envisage for the implementation of this vital recommendation, bearing in mind that although the grocery supply code of practice will be unenforced, it will be implemented on 4 February?

Kevin Brennan: On the time taken, the Competition Commission made its formal request to the Government only last August. In the meantime, I have met the hon. Gentleman and his group, the British Retail Consortium, the National Farmers Union, the Food and Drink Federation, Consumer Focus, Divine Chocolate and the Office of Fair Trading, so a proper consultation has been taking place. The formal consultation will start shortly after the code comes into force on 4 February. How quickly we can implement the measures depends on the solution and whether or not it needs legislation, and that will ultimately depend on the design of the body.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Of course we welcome movement on this from the Government, but we need real teeth and real power. The power of the supermarkets puts pressure on the farmers, and we want fair farm-gate prices and a purchasing policy for local communities. That would provide the teeth and the power we need. We need that commitment from the Minister.

Kevin Brennan: Of course the purpose of the enforcement body is to enforce the code, which has been broadly welcomed by everyone as having the teeth necessary. We just need to ensure that it is independently enforced, and we have accepted the case for that. Ultimately, we accepted it on the grounds that the Competition Commission made it clear that it believed that in the long term this was in the interests of shoppers and consumers, because it would provide the kind of certainty in the supply chain that will produce better prices and choices for them.

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Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Does the Minister regard the appointment and powers of this ombudsman to be complementary to or in addition to the existing powers of the OFT and the Competition Commission, which, as he will know, have held almost continuous inquiries into the supermarket sector over the past decade or so?

Kevin Brennan: The powers of those bodies remain as they were previously in the event of there being matters that they need to investigate. The job of the independent ombudsman will principally be to enforce the code, but we are also consulting, as part of how we design the body, on exactly what the powers will be.

Agency Workers

10. Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): What plans he has for legislation on the regulation of agency workers; and if he will make a statement. [310585]

The Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr. Pat McFadden): The Government want to get the legislation to implement the agency workers directive on to the statute book by the end of this Parliament. We will shortly table the relevant regulations and publish the Government's response to the recent consultation.

Mr. Mullin: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, but it is a pity that this has been left until so late in the day. How confident is he that the matter will be dealt with before Dissolution?

Mr. McFadden: That is the aim. My hon. Friend says that it has been left until late in the day, but if he looks across Europe he will see that we are legislating ahead of many other countries. I do not accept that there has been an unacceptable delay, but it is our aim to get this provision on the statute book by the end of the Parliament. As I have said, we will be publishing the relevant regulations shortly.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): In October, the Government announced that this regulation would not come into force until 2011 to avoid harming Britain's recovery after the recession. Here we are, however, rushing it through Parliament just weeks before a general election. A cynic might wonder whether this is anything to do with the Labour party's pressing need for election funds from its trade union paymasters, who demanded this measure as part of the infamous Warwick agreement. Will the Minister take this opportunity to reassure those cynics that nothing could be further from the Government's mind and that they would never put short-term, grubby party political interests ahead of doing the right thing for the country?

Mr. McFadden: Our aim in bringing forward these regulations is to abide by the agreement that we reached in Europe to ensure fairness for agency workers and flexibility for employers. That was the basis of the TUC-CBI agreement, and it stands in stark contrast to the Opposition's pledge to downgrade the employment rights that have been agreed in Europe. There will be a very clear choice on this matter when it comes to the election.

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Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Does the Minister accept that this change has long been campaigned for? There have been two series of consultation and there is now no impediment to ensuring that agency and temporary workers get the justice for which they have been calling for so many years.

Mr. McFadden: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this has been under discussion for some time. It took a long time to get agreement in Europe. We were able to reach agreement on the basis of an agreement in the UK between the TUC and the CBI. We then successfully negotiated for that to be reflected in the European directive. That was something we could do only because this country, under this Government, is properly engaged with our European allies. I dread to think how we would negotiate in Europe if the Opposition, who are isolated in Europe, were trying to negotiate with 27 other countries.

Libel Laws (Science Sector)

11. Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the effects on the science sector of libel laws. [310586]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Ian Lucas): Ministers at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have held no recent discussions with ministerial colleagues on the effects of libel laws on the science sector. The Justice Secretary leads on the issue of libel law. Professor Beddington, the Government's chief scientific adviser, and officials are in discussions with colleagues from the Ministry of Justice to ensure that science and engineering receive appropriate attention in their consideration of libel law.

Dr. Harris: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. He will be aware that Professor Beddington has set out his concerns and will, I hope, be feeding them into the Government review. However, does the Minister accept that there is genuine concern among publishers of medical journals, for example, about the chilling effect of the threat of libel actions? Would he, or one of his colleagues-perhaps the Minister for Science and Innovation-be willing to meet a delegation of scientists so that they can effectively feed in scientists' concerns to the Ministry of Justice?

Ian Lucas: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The Department is aware of the concern in the scientific community relating to the chilling effect to which he refers. As I said in my response, the Ministry of Justice leads on this matter. I shall refer his remarks to it, and I undertake to ensure that its Ministers are aware of what he has had to say today. I shall keep in touch with him on this matter.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): May I suggest to my hon. Friend that he as a Minister should have an early meeting with the Justice Ministers on this issue? It directly affects his Department because these wretched libel laws will restrict the publication of scientific research, which will have an effect on research and development and, in particular, on manufacturing in our economy, which is his responsibility.

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Ian Lucas: I fully accept that science, innovation and manufacturing are at the heart of this Department's agenda. This is a very important issue: it is important that we have responsible, intelligent and creative scientific debate, and the review is taking place under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice because we want to ensure that we have the correct legal environment for that debate to happen.

Venture Capital

12. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet small business organisations to discuss Government funding for venture capital projects. [310587]

The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination (Ms Rosie Winterton): The Minister for Trade, Investment and Small Business and the City Minister regularly meet the Small Business Finance Forum, which brings together the banks, small business representative organisations and the Government to discuss the economic situation and the availability of finance.

Mr. Bellingham: Will the Minister turn her attention to the Capital for Enterprise Fund, which made its first investments in May last year? Will she confirm that her Department has put up £50 million in total, and that annual management and administration costs will come to £2.5 million? In other words, over 10 years, the fees to the City and advisers will swallow up half of the Government's total contribution. Has she secured a good deal, or has she been taken for a ride?

Mr. Speaker: Order. There were at least three questions there, but one short answer will suffice.

Ms Winterton: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is saying that he would rather that there was no Capital for Enterprise Fund. Since 2000, this Government have committed £400 million to a range of venture capital funds, which has attracted £551 million of private sector investment. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he does not want such measures to be taken? Does he not want the new measures that will arise from the 2009 pre-Budget report? If we followed the advice of the Opposition, none of these funds would be available to help small business in these difficult times.

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