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House of Commons

Thursday 4 March 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

business Before Questions

London Local Authorities Bill [ Lords] ( By Order)

Second Reading opposed and deferred until Thursday 18 March (Standing Order No. 20).

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Minister of State was asked-

Online Fraud

1. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to protect individuals from organised fraudulent online schemes which solicit money and financial details. [320192]

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): On 2 July 2009, the Government published the consumer White Paper, which details plans for more effective enforcement against those who deliberately set out to defraud consumers. I recently announced funding of £4.3 million for the Office of Fair Trading and trading standards to tackle those who use the internet to con consumers.

Ann Winterton: The majority of victims of cyber scams are people aged between 35 and 44, but those aged 55 and over lose most money and are more likely to succumb to scams on more than one occasion. What specifically are the Government planning to do to assist those people to understand the dangers that they are face?

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that it is very important to consider the impact on vulnerable people, including the elderly, of the sorts of scams that we have seen operated on the internet. That is why we are investing in the scambusters team and trying to raise awareness of the problem among older people. She might be interested to learn that my predecessor and former First Minister of Wales, Rhodri Morgan, has just taken up the internet; when he was recently in the office he received an e-mail, which he showed to me, from a woman who said that he was exactly the kind of man she was looking for. I did point out that it was not from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan)-his wife.

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Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Will the Minister examine the OFT's powers to tackle this issue? The electronic version of these scams is new, whereas the paper version is not, but, like the paper one, it is becoming much more sophisticated and much more believable. I am not sure that the OFT has sufficient powers to tackle those scams, particularly when they originate from another country.

Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend raises a good point. The OFT and trading standards have powers under the Enterprise Act 2002 and the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, but we are examining enforcers' powers to tackle online consumer problems to see whether they need to be strengthened, and we are discussing that possibility with the relevant key players.

University Funding

2. Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): When he last met representatives of the Russell group to discuss university funding; and if he will make a statement. [320193]

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): I last met the director general of the Russell group on 23 February, when we discussed higher education funding, among other subjects.

Mr. Kennedy: The Minister will be aware of my association with the university of Glasgow, which is a member of the Russell group. The Beatson institute for cancer research remains at the cutting edge and international forefront of cancer research generally. Given the squeeze on higher education funding, can he assure us that internationally leading research of the type at Glasgow will continue to receive the support that it both needs and, as I am sure he will agree, deserves?

Mr. Lammy: I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman's position as rector of that university and his continuing championing of it in this House. I also recognise that that cancer facility is world renowned. He will appreciate that the Scottish Funding Council and the research council are rightly responsible for science funding more broadly, and that any funding decisions are rightly their responsibility under the Haldane principle.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend ensure that when the research money is allocated there is no further concentration of funding, for example, on the Russell group? Will he confirm that all centres of excellence in research, wherever they may be found across the university system, including in the superb materials science group in the university of Bolton-my own university-are considered equally for funding with the top-level research universities?

Mr. Lammy: Drawing on his tremendous experience, my hon. Friend continues to champion science and research issues in this House. He is absolutely right to say that we should fund excellence wherever it is found, and that is the Government's policy.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Can the Minister give an undertaking that when the Browne committee reports after the election and imposes
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greater debt on students in order to fund universities, that funding will not be removed from universities in terms of their central Government funding? Can he assure us that universities will at least be better off if students have to pay higher fees through increased debt?

Mr. Lammy: I know that the hon. Gentleman is an educated man, but I did not realise that he was a fortune teller. I am not going to anticipate the Browne review.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Will the Minister consider reducing funding to universities that fail to take action to stop the propagation of Jew hate and anti-Semitism on campus?

Mr. Lammy: I recognise that this is a very serious issue. I was pleased to meet the all-party group against anti-Semitism and to meet Jewish students recently to discuss these matters. My right hon. Friend will know that I have regularly brought together universities, students and others in the sector to discuss these matters. I do not believe that this is a widespread problem across British universities, but I recognise that examples of it are patchy. We must remain vigilant and we must not allow anti-Semitism anywhere on campuses in this country.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that the Government have set a target of 50 per cent. of young people going to university, and that this year-the very year to which the target applies-they are fining universities to the tune of £10 million simply because they have recruited more students? Is it not the final absurdity of Labour's target culture that it can set a target and then punish institutions for taking the measures needed to hit it? Why does he not instead match our pledge to offer 10,000 more university places this year?

Mr. Lammy: Because the hon. Gentleman's pledge is bogus and ridiculous. It would involve the Government borrowing more money to help which students pay off their loans quickly? The richest students. That is where his heart lies. The 50 per cent. participation rate is an aspiration that his party has continually opposed. We have got the figure up to 43 per cent., so there are more young people than ever before going to university, including more young people from poorer socio-economic groups than ever in our history, but his party has opposed the measure at every opportunity. This is the most opportunistic volte-face I have seen in the House for a long time.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Excellence should always be invested in. In the north-east, both Sunderland and Teesside universities offer such excellence, so is it not about time that they received research moneys equivalent to those received by the Russell group universities and the greater amounts received by universities in the golden triangle?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend continues to make the case for the north-east and for excellent universities such as Teesside and Sunderland, which do fantastic work, particularly in applied research. She is right that funding must follow excellence wherever it is found. I cannot anticipate decisions that are appropriately the domain of peer review, but she is absolutely right and the Government support that approach.

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Late Payments

3. Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): How many small businesses which supply his Department did not have their invoices paid within his Department's target time in the latest period for which figures are available. [320194]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr. Stephen Timms): In January, fewer than one in 18 supplier invoices to the Department took longer than 10 days to pay. Data are not kept separately for small businesses, but data regarding the invoices of all suppliers are published on the Department's website every month.

Mr. Binley: About 4,000 business failures were caused by late payment last year. How will the Government protect failing businesses as a result of late payment and what sanctions have they promised to impose on businesses that contribute to the problem by delaying payment?

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman will know about the legislation that we have introduced, but, in reality, companies are reluctant to take sanctions against their customers. He is absolutely right to highlight the importance of this issue and to draw attention to those 4,000 businesses. That is why we launched the prompt payment code for government at the start of the downturn. We have committed to a central Government target of 10-day payment of invoices, on which we have a very good record of adherence. In addition, we have taken very successful action to support small businesses through the Revenue and Customs' time to pay initiative. The measures that we have taken have made a big contribution to the relatively low record of business failures during the recession that we have just come through, compared with past recessions.

Royal Mail

4. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): What plans he has for the future of Royal Mail's universal service obligation; and if he will make a statement. [320195]

The Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr. Pat McFadden): The Government are committed to maintaining the one-price-goes-anywhere universal postal service. In the UK, the universal service provides a six-day-a-week letter service and a five-day-a-week parcel service. This goes beyond the minimum requirement in the relevant EU Directive and we have no plans to change the universal service obligation.

Mr. Carmichael: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Is he aware that Postcomm has issued no fewer than 46 licences entitling companies to deliver to the door? Does he accept that that raises a real danger of cherry-picking in urban areas? That would leave Royal Mail having to deliver the universal service to the rural areas, and raise long-term concerns about the sustainability of that service. Are the Government looking at the future in that context?

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Mr. McFadden: As I said, we are determined to keep the universal service. It is an important part of the social glue of the nation, and it is particularly valued in constituencies such as the hon. Gentleman's, which is one of the most beautiful and remote parts of the UK. He referred to competition, but most of the competition developed in mail so far has been in upstream access and not door-to-door delivery. The vast majority of letters-I think around 98 or 99 per cent.-are still delivered every day by the Royal Mail. We express our gratitude to the hard-working postmen and postwomen who do it.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Of course my right hon. Friend is right to show his commitment to the USO, and we are pleased to hear it. Does he accept, however, that the USO ought to be backed up with a very strong post office network with a community bank? The two go hand in hand: will he please show the same commitment on that?

Mr. McFadden: I agree that banking and financial services are already a very important source of revenue for the Post Office, which has some 2 million financial services customers. We recently issued a consultation document asking the public about the extra services that they would like, and also about things such as current accounts, weekly budgeting accounts, children's savings accounts, and so on. Like my hon. Friend, I think that such services offer huge potential for Post Office revenues. Traditionally, people went along to the post office every week to claim their pensions or benefits, but those claimant patterns have been in decline in recent years. That decline is probably likely to continue.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): The Government have ignored the sensible recommendations of the Hooper report and abandoned their own Postal Services Bill, so does the Secretary of State have any policy that is designed to save the universal service-or, for that matter, the future of the Royal Mail?

Mr. McFadden: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for my premature and-at the moment-fictional promotion, but I will stick to the job that I have. The most important thing for the future of Royal Mail is a comprehensive modernisation package that covers the introduction of new technology into the network as well as the number of mail centres, delivery offices and so on. The package should also cover the working practices that will need to alter to accommodate those changes.

For the past couple of months, these very matters have been the subject of intense negotiations chaired by Mr. Roger Poole, the former deputy general secretary of Unison. I am hopeful that a comprehensive modernisation agreement will be reached. If it is, that will be in the interests of Royal Mail, its staff, and the public.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Three major banks still do not let customers use banking facilities at post offices, even though two of them are partly owned by the Government. What progress is being made towards allowing customers of those banks to use post offices? That would provide extra business for post offices, and extra facilities for their customers.

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Mr. McFadden: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising a very good point. We have been talking to the banks about this, particularly in the light of consultation on post office banking. Members of the public may not be aware that some 20 million high street bank accounts are currently accessible through the post office, but I agree that we want that number to rise. We want more banks to allow people to access their accounts through the post office network.

Sector Skills Councils

5. Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the work of the sector skills councils on the skills level of the work force. [320196]

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): Sector skills councils help raise demand for skills, provide authoritative labour market intelligence and ensure that qualifications meet employer needs. Their annual skills assessment sets out how the skills needs of their sectors are being met, and all SSCs have recently undergone a robust and rigorous relicensing process.

Jeff Ennis: The Minister will be aware of the recent Baker Tilly report, which indicated the positive impact that sector skills councils are having on the UK economy. But is he also aware of the memorandum of understanding that is being signed next week by the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils and the Federation of Small Businesses to ensure that qualifications being offered in the future by the SSCs are more relevant to micro and small businesses?

Kevin Brennan: Yes, I am aware of that, and later today I will meet John McNamara, who is in charge of the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils, when I can discuss the points that my hon. Friend raises. He is absolutely right; qualifications should be those that employers find useful, and the involvement of sector skills councils in developing qualifications is one of the features of the skills system that the Government have developed that makes them more relevant to employers and, therefore, to employees and learners.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): This week a delegation from the print industry in the Yorkshire and Humber region told us clearly that sector skills councils are not hitting the mark. Please will the Minister make them more responsive to the needs of employers, particularly to train the up and coming leaders of local businesses?

Kevin Brennan: Yesterday, in the Department, we held a summit at the behest of the sector skills council employers and trade unions in the print industry to consider its future and its needs. If the representatives from the hon. Lady's constituency were not invited to that, perhaps she will let me know. We would certainly like to involve them in those discussions because the print industry has a great future. It is not the old-fashioned industry that it sometimes has a reputation for being. It has lots of small and medium-sized enterprises, and great and exciting technological developments are going on that we need to take advantage of.

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