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Capital Expenditure

13. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What estimate he has made of the level of capital expenditure by further education colleges in (a) south Bedfordshire and (b) England in the last 12 months; and if he will make a statement. [310588]

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): In the financial year 2009-10, the Learning and Skills Council will invest £800 million in the development of 66 further education college capital projects across England. They will cost a total of £2.45 billion, and will receive just under £1.8 billion of Government investment in this and the next spending review. The Bedfordshire and Luton area has benefited from £52.8 million in LSC
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capital grant support since 2001, although in the last 12 months there has been no capital expenditure in South-West Bedfordshire.

Andrew Selous: I am glad that the Minister made the last point, that central Bedfordshire got nothing. Also, the college took on 250 extra students in September for whom it has no funding. I spoke to the principal this morning, and she told me she believes that she is expected to implement the January guarantee with no money. The local learning and skills council thinks that there is some money, but does not know how to access it. Can the Minister help?

Kevin Brennan: I shall certainly be happy to look into that. I know that the hon. Gentleman's local college, which has changed its name, has received £740,000 in support for the capital project development costs that it was not able to go ahead with as a result of the programme. However, I am certainly happy to look into the point that he makes about the January guarantee.

University Funding

14. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What his policy is on the future level of funding of universities; and if he will make a statement. [310590]

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): The Government have presided over huge investment in higher education. Spending has risen by some 25 per cent. since 1997, which has significantly increased income and variable fees. Next year, my Department will allocate some £13 billion to higher education, taking into account spend on institutions and students.

Ann Winterton: Universities face total budget cuts of £2.5 billion, and the Business Secretary has said that he will slash funding next year by £535 million. How will those savage cuts affect the quality of teaching and research? In addition-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that one question will do. I am extraordinarily grateful, but we need to make progress.

Mr. Lammy: I think that "savage cuts" were the 38 per cent. fall in the unit of resource between 1991 and 1997, which left universities in this country on their knees. What the Government proposed in the grant letter to universities just before Christmas was in fact a saving of 1 per cent.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Will the Minister join me in welcoming today's launch of the Centre for Low Carbon Futures at the universities of York, Sheffield, Leeds and Hull? Will he look at the £49 million of Research Councils UK money that those universities have received in the past three years for work in this field, and then write to me to let me know what sort of support the research councils, the Technology Strategy Board and the European Commission could give the centre over the next five years or so?

Mr. Lammy: I am very happy to confirm that I will do that. My colleague the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber will be there. This is a fantastic example of
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collaboration that cuts to the heart of the future of our economy. I congratulate everyone in the region who is involved, and I undertake to come back to my hon. Friend on what further we can do to support it.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): A number of us were present with principals and vice-chancellors when the Minister spoke to the all-party university group. He spoke about the need for universities to search for cheaper models in the current financial constraints. One principal described that as a potential assault on quality. Will the Minister be mindful of the distinct Scottish ancient universities component, with the four-year honours degree and the three-year ordinary masters degree, in relation to whatever financial constraints are now going to be upon that sector?

Mr. Lammy: I recognise the right hon. Gentleman's particular expertise as rector of Glasgow university-a very good university-and all that he does to champion higher education. When I spoke to the vice- chancellors, I think I was referring to the excellent progress that we have made on, for example, foundation degrees as a route into higher education and on part-time higher education courses, which have been mentioned already. We must continue to make progress in this area, especially against a backdrop of tighter fiscal spending.

Topical Questions

T2. [310601] Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr. Pat McFadden): Last week the Department published a growth paper setting out what we needed to do to drive forward economic recovery. The priorities included promoting enterprise, better access to finance, securing much-needed infrastructure investment and making the most of the transition to a low-carbon economy. Those are the priorities as we come out of the recession that will ensure that the recovery is sustained in the long term.

Peter Luff: Can a member of the ministerial team reassure me that today's important round-table discussions with institutional investors about how to vote their shares during hostile takeover bids are not just a flash-in-the-pan response to the hostile bid by Kraft for Cadbury, which is unwelcome, but will be the start of an important debate about how institutional investors behave, which is not always in the long-term interests of the UK?

Mr. McFadden: The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the meeting today between the Secretary of State and institutional investors. We should not see the meeting purely through the lens of a single takeover battle. It is important for the long-term health of the economy that we have long-term commitment from institutional investors. That will be at the heart of the discussions that take place today.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): Ceres Power in my constituency is developing a fuel cell that reduces our reliance on carbon by 50 per cent., but it needs to know
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that the Government are supporting it. Can my hon. Friend the Minister assure me that proper provisions are in place to ensure at this critical stage that the development progresses and we move forward such excellent technologies?

Mr. McFadden: It is always difficult to comment on one case on the hoof, but with the Department of Energy and Climate Change we have published a low- carbon economic strategy. We have put considerable Government resources behind that, a significant part of which is support for the development and manufacture of low-carbon vehicles here in the UK. Low-carbon industries are an essential part of our economic future, and that is why we have put in resources behind them.

T4. [310603] Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): What assessment has the Department made of the impact on small businesses of a recent decision of the Payments Council representing the high street banks to phase out the use of cheques? Is he aware that that move is opposed by the Federation of Small Businesses? Does he agree that a large number-

Mr. Speaker: Order. We are in topical questions. May I appeal for short questions and short answers? I want to get through as many colleagues as possible.

Mr. McFadden: It is time for a confession: I am a cheque user. If that is old-fashioned, I am afraid that I cannot make an apology for it. I understand that cheque use has declined more widely, but I certainly hope the transition is managed as sensitively and as carefully as possible-for small businesses and for us cheque users.

T3. [310602] Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): The development of electrical vehicles in the north-east has been a huge boost for manufacturers such as Tegrel, which is producing a charging station in my constituency. Will the Minister assure me that the Government and the regional development agency One NorthEast will continue to support such work; and that we will support RDAs, unlike the Opposition?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Ian Lucas): The north-east is a real hub of low-carbon technology development in the automotive sector. Nissan and Smith Electric Vehicles, which I have already visited, are at the forefront, and the investment at Nissan's battery factory is going ahead. I should be very interested in seeing the company to which my hon. Friend refers.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): Will the Minister of State confirm that manufacturing, as a proportion of total GDP in this country, has declined by no less than 9 per cent. during this Government's period in office? That is the fastest rate of decline in our history. How can the Government's new industrial strategy, and their claim that they will revive this country's manufacturing capacity, be taken seriously when they have scandalously neglected the subject and the whole sector for their entire period in office?

Mr. McFadden: Manufacturing is still immensely important to the UK economy and to the region that I have the honour of representing. In the past 18 months
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alone, we have given significant support to the aerospace sector, to new nuclear and to other low-carbon manufacturing industries. It is sad that that support, through the strategic investment fund, was described by the right hon. and learned Gentleman's colleague, the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), as a disgrace. We do not think it is a disgrace; we think it is essential, and that is why we are committed to supporting manufacturing in this country.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Now that the Scottish Parliament has taken steps to overturn the October 2007 ruling on pleural plaques, can we have a guarantee that we will do the same thing here, for the rest of the British Isles, as speedily as possible and before the election?

Mr. McFadden: I do not know whether my hon. Friend was present when my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) asked me about that matter a short time ago, but I appreciate that hon. Members wish to see a solution to it. I understand that a meeting involving hon. Members, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Justice will take place in the near future, and I am sure that they will have heard the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

T5. [310604] Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I attended the fifth anniversary breakfast of the Givers Gain business networking organisation this morning. The small and medium-sized enterprises there said that they are being crippled by red tape. What plans does the Secretary of State have to reduce the regulatory burden on SMEs?

Ian Lucas: For the first time, this Government have published the forward regulatory programme-the regulations that the Government will bring forward. The process with this Government, unlike any previous one, has been open, so our engagement with small businesses and the bodies that represent them has been very close indeed. We are always open to hear from businesses about particular regulations, and I always listen to what they have to say.

Jacqui Smith (Redditch) (Lab): An increasing number of sub-postmasters face action for the misappropriation of funds that, they believe, is based on shortcomings in the Horizon computer system. Given those numbers, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time for the Post Office to review those cases and that system so that sub-postmasters can be confident that the computer systems that are put in place are there to support them, not to put their livelihoods at risk?

Mr. McFadden: I have received representations about that issue from hon. Members on behalf of sub-postmasters in their constituencies. The Post Office tells me that it has looked into all those complaints, and says that it has faith in the integrity of the Horizon system. However, I am sure that if there are further complaints, the Post Office will properly examine them, as it should do.

T6. [310605] Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): Myerscough college in my constituency is an excellent mixed FE and HE college that awards degrees by third-party universities. In the light of the current financial situation and the fact that the Higher Education
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Funding Council for England has been supportive, yet unable to fund the HE capacity, will the Minister consider a review of HE funding in FE colleges to ensure that money gets to the front line as quickly and efficiently as possible?

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): We have increased funding by 25 per cent. In "Higher Ambitions" we set out the importance of HE provision in FE colleges, which extends the reach of higher education to those from non-traditional backgrounds and, often, poorer socio-economic groups. I am happy to look into the specifics of the hon. Gentleman's college, but the Government's commitment in this area is clear.

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Will the Minister take this opportunity to put an end to the exploitation of and discrimination against young people at work who are under 22 and who, if they are earning the minimum wage, earn almost a full pound less than their adult counterparts? For me, and surely for him, this has to be an issue of equal pay for equal work.

Mr. McFadden: As my hon. Friend knows, the Government decide the minimum wage rates on the basis of recommendations from the independent Low Pay Commission, which has on it representatives of employers and employees, as well as independent experts. The commission has recommended that youth rates are justified for the minimum wage. We, too, want to see maximum employment chances for young people. I can tell my hon. Friend that this year the commission recommended that the adult rate for the minimum wage kick in at the age of 21 rather than 22. That recommendation has been accepted by the Government, and it will come into force in October.

T7. [310606] Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The Government have scandalously neglected manufacturing in Wellingborough, which has resulted in unemployment increasing from 1,407 to more than 3,000-an increase of 114 per cent. Would any of the Ministers like to come to the Dispatch Box and apologise to the people of Wellingborough?

Mr. McFadden: As I said, we are giving considerable support to manufacturing; this was set out in the paper on growth that we published last week. I have to say that there is a stark contrast between our commitments on aerospace, on low-carbon vehicles and on advanced engineering and the utter silence and utter absence of a manufacturing or an industrial policy from the Conservative party.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Like so many others on this side of the House, I welcome the decision on pleural plaques reached in the Scottish courts. However, we need a UK-wide response to this, because it would be absolutely ridiculous if we found that people living in one part of the country who may have contracted this condition in another part of the country fall foul of different compensation schemes.

Mr. McFadden: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. There is not much to add to what I said earlier. The Government understand the desire for a response to these issues, not only on pleural plaques but on wider respiratory conditions.

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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): The pay package for the chief executive of Royal Mail last year was £1.3 million; for the managing director of the letters business, it was £849,000. If the Government really believe in redistribution of wealth, how about starting with those two salaries?

Mr. McFadden: The rewards are indeed high; the hon. Gentleman is quite fair in saying that. The transformation and modernisation task at Royal Mail is enormous, and for those rewards we want to see modernisation carried through-delivered-to give us the healthy, efficient and modern Royal Mail service that we need in order to maintain the universal service that is at the heart of our postal system.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I am encouraged by what the Minister says about pleural plaques, but can he be categorical? I know that his Department has inherited some of the liabilities from the previously nationalised industries. Can he say that his Department would not object to a change in the law that would overturn the decision on pleural plaques that was made in the House of Lords on 17 October 2007?

Mr. McFadden: These decisions will be taken across Government. As I said, I understand that hon. Members are looking for a response soon. A meeting will take place soon involving the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Justice, which leads on this issue.

T8. [310607] Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace), and given the strain on public finances, will the Minister confirm that excellent colleges, such as the college of West Anglia in King's Lynn and City college in Norwich, will continue to have the flexibility to respond to local needs and priorities?

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): Yes. In fact, we are introducing more flexibilities for colleges as a result of our skills strategy, including, for "good" and "excellent" colleges, the ability to do so via cross-budgets, in a way that was not available before.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): It is pleasing to see that the Government have accepted the idea of the ombudsman for the grocery trade and I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on all he has done to push that forward. Will the Government now just accept the private Member's Bill of our hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)?

Kevin Brennan: Of course, that is ultimately a matter for the House, but the consultation will take place following the introduction of the code on 4 February. That consultation is on not only one model but whether the ombudsman or enforcer will be housed within an existing institution, so at this point I cannot commit to my hon. Friend's suggestion.

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