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House of Commons

Thursday 24 May 2012

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]


Canterbury City Council Bill

Motion made ,

That so much of the Lords Message [21 May] as relates to the Canterbury City Council Bill be now considered.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Tuesday 12 June.

Leeds City Council Bill

Motion made,

That so much of the Lords Message [21 May] as relates to the Leeds City Council Bill be now considered.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Tuesday 12 June.

Nottingham City Council Bill

Motion made,

That so much of the Lords Message [21 May] as relates to the Nottingham City Council Bill be now considered.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Tuesday 12 June.

Reading Borough Council Bill

Motion made,

That so much of the Lords Message [21 May] as relates to the Reading Borough Council Bill be now considered.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Tuesday 12 June.

City of London (Various Powers) Bill [Lords]

Motion made,

That so much of the Lords Message [21 May] as relates to the City of London (Various Powers) Bill [Lords] be now considered.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Tuesday 12 June.

City of Westminster Bill [Lords]

Motion made,

That so much of the Lords Message [21 May] as relates to the City of Westminster Bill [Lords] be now considered.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Tuesday 12 June.

24 May 2012 : Column 1264

Transport for London Bill [Lords]

Motion made,

That so much of the Lords Message [21 May] as relates to the Transport for London Bill [Lords] be now considered.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Tuesday 12 June.

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): What steps he has taken to reduce the burden of regulation on (a) small and medium-sized and (b) other businesses. [109146]

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Mark Prisk): The Government take a comprehensive approach to cutting the burden of red tape. We have capped the cost of new regulation, identified hundreds of existing regulations to be scrapped, and introduced a moratorium on regulation for all micro-businesses.

Stephen Hammond: Small businesses in Wimbledon tell me that the two incentives to growth are access to lending and deregulation. Will my hon. Friend be a little more explicit about what the red tape challenge might bring those businesses in my constituency?

Mr Prisk: Progress on the red tape challenge is very important. We have now reviewed some 1,500 regulations, and Ministers have agreed to scrap or substantially overhaul 59% of them—some 887 regulations. That will make a real difference to businesses in Wimbledon and, indeed, elsewhere.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister take it from me, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on management, that we must stop feeding this anti-regulation red tape movement and concentrate on good management of small businesses? Forty-three per cent. of managers in the country are rated as poor. Let us do something about management, rather than going on about red tape.

Mr Prisk: We cannot ignore the fact that 11,000 elements on the statute book impose a burden on many businesses. We need to tackle that, and I am sorry that the last Government failed to do so. Indeed, they produced six new regulations on every working day. But is the hon. Gentleman correct in saying that we need to think about the calibre of management of small businesses? Yes. Bad regulation and red tape need to go, but we need to think about the wider issue as well, I shall certainly take that from the hon. Gentleman, as he asked.

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Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): My hon. Friend has already outlined many of the measures that we as a coalition Government are taking to reduce the regulatory burden, but does he agree that a fire-at-will policy might be counter-productive and would not produce the increased productivity and growth that we need so much?

Mr Prisk: The element of the Beecroft report to which my hon. Friend refers is one of 23 separate measures. We want to ensure that we consider these matters on the basis of good evidence. That is why there is a call for evidence, and once we have had a look at it and weighed the pros against the cons, we will make a decision.

Mr Speaker: Before we continue these exchanges, let me say that ordinarily when the Secretary of State is absent, the fact of the absence is explained at the start of Question Time. I can hear Members inquiring about it. I know that the Secretary of State is absent because I have received a letter from him, but let me say for the record that it would be desirable to be told at the outset, and, in general terms, that it is of course highly undesirable for the Secretary of State to be absent on these occasions. It must not become a regular practice.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Does the Minister believe that a person who has made a donation of more than £500,000 to the Conservative party and made more than £100 million from equity deals is a fit and proper person to determine Government policy and workers’ rights?

Mr Prisk: Let me first respond to what you said, Mr Speaker. I apologise if I have not made it clear that the Secretary of State is promoting British business in Germany. I know that that is something that all parties have wanted to do. However, the Secretary of State will note, and we will note, your admonishment.

As for the question from the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), I think that we need to be very careful when it comes to the kind of allegation that he is trying to make about that particular individual. It is important to have good employers—good people who actually understand the market. That is an important contribution, regardless of whatever the hon. Gentleman’s prejudices may be.

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): It is clear that this Government do not know what they are doing on growth: one day it is regulation, and the next day it is deregulation. This week, Baroness Wilcox pronounced in the other place that the groceries code adjudicator regulations were a “pro-growth measure” on the same day that the AWOL Secretary of State called the deregulatory Beecroft proposals “bonkers”. Does that not demonstrate that Downing street’s obsession with Beecroft is not intended to promote growth, but is simply another example of this Government’s incoherent and incompetent approach to the economy, putting old Tory ideology before any credible strategy to get people back to work?

Mr Prisk: I am sorry that we are getting platitudes like that, because this is an important issue. We want to ensure that there is a concerted approach on regulation—capping the costs of new ones, scrapping existing ones,

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and thereby helping small businesses. That is what we are doing. The Labour party failed to do that in 13 years in office. It is no good Labour Members wishing things; we are acting and they are not.

Business Confidence

2. Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the effect on business confidence of the economy entering recession. [109148]

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): Business confidence has held up so far this year, and is well above its 2008-09 lows. The CBI business confidence index came in at plus 22 in April, one of its highest readings in the past five years.

Mr Hamilton: Does the Minister accept that consumer confidence is extremely important? If Beecroft’s fire-at-will measure is implemented, as proposed by some Members on the Government Benches, that confidence will sharply decline. I say that as someone who was unemployed for two and a half years; people cannot plan ahead or do anything, and it brings added jeopardy to families. This is therefore extremely important: if we want confidence, we must get rid of the Beecroft report.

Mr Willetts: It is very important to maintain confidence in the British economy, and people can take confidence from the fact that employment is up, and that inflation is down so their living standards are protected. They can take confidence from the fact that exports are up, and they can take confidence from the fact that public borrowing is down so interest rates are down. Those are the reasons why we are confident in the British economy.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): May I tell the Minister that the chief executive of Northamptonshire chamber of commerce has said that

“the news the economy was in recession paints an “unduly pessimistic picture”

as far as Northamptonshire is concerned? Mr Griffiths says the news is contrary to what he is hearing from his members, and his local quarterly economic survey shows a far “more positive picture”. He believes that that gives a

“more accurate indication of the underlying trends in the economy.”

Mr Willetts: There are great examples of business success across Britain, in both small and large companies. The coalition is committed to ensuring that we deliver growth and prosperity in the future.

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): Back in the real world, has the Minister seen this week’s report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, showing that more than half of manufacturers have no confidence in the Government and think the Government are performing badly, and only 14% think the Government are doing well? In the same week, the CBI said manufacturing output will fall sharply in the next quarter because of contracting demand, producing a double-dip recession made in Downing street. Does the Minister believe the manufacturers, who wish to engage with Government to create a long-term industrial strategy, or does he side with his Cabinet colleagues, who believe business should merely stop whingeing and work harder?

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Mr Willetts: I agree with what the director general of the CBI said the other day. I thought he put it very well:

“We have always said that the path back to sustainable economic growth will be a long and difficult one, with many bumps along the way. To re-balance our economy towards exports and investment will take time and patience.”

We are absolutely committed to rebalancing towards exports and investment, and in my conversations with engineering businesses and others across the country it is clear they understand that that is exactly what the Government are doing.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Will the Minister join me in congratulating businesses across North Wiltshire, who are reporting extremely good conditions? Honda has just announced a new line, the excellent automatic hand dryer I used a short time ago in a House of Commons lavatory was made by none other than Dyson of Malmesbury, and a number of enterprise awards have been given to firms in the constituency. The picture is actually not bad at all. Will the Minister congratulate those companies?

Mr Willetts: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a spirit of innovation in our country of which we can be proud. It is one of the reasons that our exports to the emerging economies of India, China and Brazil—which are the most competitive and important economies of the future—are shooting up, even while, sadly, we are held back by the economic problems of the eurozone, brought on by membership of the euro, a policy advocated by the Labour party.

Motor Industry

3. Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): What steps he is taking further to develop the motor and components industry. [109149]

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Mark Prisk): Over the past 18 months, the United Kingdom automotive sector has secured more than £4 billion-worth of investment, including the decision by General Motors to build the next generation of Astras in Ellesmere Port. Through the Automotive Council, we are working hard to rebuild the UK’s supply chain and to encourage exports further.

Mr Spellar: I am astonished that the Secretary of State has not turned up today. Not only is it bad form, but I actually wanted to praise him—although that might have been bad for inter-coalition relations. He has shown a bipartisan continuity of policy in support of the motor industry, which is so important for encouraging long-term investment. As that policy is increasingly successful, as the Minister has indicated, will he now focus strongly on the supply chain, where too many components are still imported? Will he get his officials to work with the industry to get the main-tier suppliers to develop capacity in the UK, so that there is a major benefit to the British economy, British jobs and British workers?

Mr Prisk: It is rare that a Minister gets the opportunity to receive the praise intended for a Secretary of State, so I will just stand here for a moment or two.

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I entirely agree with the principle mentioned; this House has an opportunity to put manufacturing beyond party politics. I want to do that, as does the Secretary of State. We are putting in £125 million specifically to target the supply chain, and I want to make sure that that is available shortly. We are working well with Birmingham city council and others, and I look forward to being able to develop things further.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): I grew up in a village just outside Coventry, a city that had half a dozen car manufacturers in the 1970s, at a time when the industry was being decimated by strikes, led by trade unionists such as Red Robbo, over demarcation disputes and excessive wage claims. Does the Minister agree that much of the recent success of the industry is due to a more sensible and flexible approach by the work force?

Mr Prisk: Absolutely. I again pay tribute to many of the work force in the motor industry. They have demonstrated the willingness to show that British workers are highly productive and that we can compete, and they are also flexible. That is the good news story. There are history lessons, and I hope that the Labour party has now learnt them.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): May I put on record my thanks to the newly labelled socialist Secretary of State, and indeed to the Minister, for the work they did in securing the future of Ellesmere Port’s Vauxhall plant? Does the Minister agree that the teamwork that involved, which started with Lord Mandelson’s creation of the automotive alliance, and involved the Unite union, the management and so on, is the way to take this industry forward?

Mr Prisk: I absolutely agree with that, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, too, for his work on this issue. I do not want us to be too self-congratulatory, but it is important that we work together. I am proud to see British factories not only able to compete, but to win against stiff international competition.

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): The success at Ellesmere Port this week, with unions and management combining and “out-Germanning” the Germans, proved that that is the route to success, rather than the more one-sided Beecroft proposals.

Mr Prisk: I knew it was going too well. The important point is to make sure that the work force are flexible and working together. I am very happy to work with the trade unions when we are bidding for British jobs.

Post Office Network

4. Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): What recent progress he has made on securing the future of the Post Office network. [109150]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Norman Lamb): Significant progress has been made on securing the future of the post office network. In particular, Post Office Ltd has become an independent company, with its own strengthened board; signed a long-term agreement with Royal Mail, cementing their commercial relationship for the next 10 years; won

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new contracts from central and local government; and achieved greater network stability, with net closures of just two post offices in the year to March 2012, which is the lowest figure for 25 years.

Harriett Baldwin: Will the Minister congratulate villagers from Alfrick in my constituency, who have raised £60,000 in a community share offering and found 60 volunteers to reopen the community post office? However, does he agree that asking each of those 60 pillars of their community to go through a Criminal Records Bureau check is a little excessive?

Norman Lamb: I absolutely congratulate the villagers who have managed to achieve that. I have seen a similar story in Norfolk, and it is a fantastic community spirit that manages to achieve that. I tend to agree that asking every volunteer in the village to undergo a CRB check seems over the top.

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I welcome what the Minister says, but does he not share my concern that there are still problems when main post offices are moved into other businesses? A constituent of mine went to the main post office in Arbroath, by far the largest town in my constituency, to renew his photographic driving licence, only to be told that it could no longer provide that service and that he would have to go to Dundee. Does the Minister not accept that such incidents undermine efforts to stabilise the post office network?

Norman Lamb: I hear the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the transformation being undertaken through pilots in both main and local post offices has been received incredibly positively by customers, with 90% satisfaction rates, and by the sub-postmasters and postmistresses who are delivering those services.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): Does the Minister share my concerns about the lack of vetting of staff who will be operating the new Post Office Local network and that that will result in a reduction in the level of assurance that customers can expect?

Norman Lamb: I do not think that that concern is fair. The response from customers has been incredibly positive. More than 200 Post Office Locals have been piloted so far and the response we are getting is very positive. If we can make post office services more accessible, particularly by extending opening hours, increases in the number of sales can be achieved. There has been an increase of 9% in sales and in the number of customers coming into the post offices, so that is a real success story.


5. Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): What recent progress he has made on the recruitment of business mentors. [109151]

The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): The value of mentoring guides all we do. After all, it is at the heart of the Government’s flagship apprenticeship programme. Business mentoring is just as important and “Get Mentoring” is a fantastic example of businesses working together. No

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fewer than 11,000 volunteers have already signed up and, buoyed by that, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his personal commitment and support for this exciting initiative.

Andrew Stephenson: As ever, the Minister is backing Britain and backing business, but as he often says, we can always do more. What does he expect the increase to be in the number of mentors during the final part of this year?

Mr Hayes: I do not know, Mr Speaker, whether you have yet had the chance to see my hon. Friend’s local newspaper, the Burnley Express. In that paper, he says:

“Mentoring is a great way for business leaders to invest in and give back to their communities.”

The truth is that we intend in the short term—by the end of this year—to grow that number from 11,000 to 26,000 mentors.

Mr Speaker: We are obliged to the Minister.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): I am sorry to introduce a note of caution into this backslapping, but given that women make up only 12.5% of FTSE 100 boards, what steps is the Minister taking to get more women business mentors?

Mr Hayes: I agree with the hon. Lady. It is important that mentors are drawn from across the business community and that everyone, regardless of who they are and from where they start, gets their chance to prosper as a result of the scheme. As a result of her question, I will look again at what more we can do in that respect.

Adult Training and Employment

6. Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con): What funds his Department makes available for training and employment for adults. [109152]

The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): Despite the pressures and challenges, this Government protected the adult and community learning budget. In the wake of adult learners week, Mr Speaker, I know that you will want me to congratulate all those who are involved in giving people a second chance. Overall, funding in adult and further education will be £3.8 billion in 2012-13. The expansion in provision will be focused on young adults, the low-skilled and pre-employment training for the unemployed. The reason for that is that this Government are committed to redistributing advantage. We are a Government driven by social purpose.

Alec Shelbrooke: What specific help can my hon. Friend’s Department make available to those not in employment, education and training, such as a constituent of mine who has a job lined up as an electrician but cannot afford the £600 training course he needs to undergo in order to gain the latest addition to the qualifications? He has been out of the trade for only 18 months.

Mr Hayes: My hon. Friend is right that we need to allow people to access education at the point that is right for them. That is why continuing education is so important and why the apprenticeship programme is

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both for young people entering the labour market for the first time and for those who want to upskill and reskill. I strongly support, as he does, the expansion of that programme in both quantity and quality.

Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): The ability of mature students to access further education courses in order to access higher education courses is vital both for social mobility and for upgrading the nation’s skills. As things stand, anybody taking that route incurs debts at the FE course level and, potentially, at the higher education course level—in effect a double whammy. What is the Minister going to do about it?

Mr Hayes: The hon. Gentleman will know that loans in further education are restricted to older learners and those learning at higher levels precisely because of my determination that the people I have described are protected from additional cost. The information that we have garnered from our early research suggests that the overwhelming majority of people would not be deterred from engaging in the way that he describes.

Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): The Minister rightly praised adult learners week, but the truth is that Ministers plan to scrap grants to nearly 400,000 adult learners, including apprentices, forcing them to take out personal loans of up to £4,000 a year. His own Department’s research shows that only one in 10 learners said they would definitely do courses on that basis. Do we not face a complete shambles, with blocked social mobility and a lost generation of adult learners? The Minister’s boss, the Secretary of State, told the Association of Colleges:

“We don’t know how it’s going to work.”

Can the Minister give a guarantee now? Will we have more adult learners on loans or not?

Mr Hayes: I guarantee this: the scheme we have built to deliver the most apprenticeships in our history, of the highest quality, will not be altered. I also guarantee that adult and community learning, which was constantly threatened when Labour was in government, will be secure and safe under this Government, with £210 million a year for adult and community learners: second-chance education delivered by this Government.

Business Community

7. Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the Government’s relationship with the business community. [109153]

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): The Department has an honest, constructive and positive relationship with business based on the shared belief that enterprise and Government working together can get us out of recession—not more taxation, regulation and borrowing. Ministers also have one-to-one strategic relationships with key international companies.

Susan Elan Jones: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Will he tell us why he does not agree with the chair of GKN, Mr Mike Turner, who is calling for a more active “industrial strategy”? Why does he not listen to him? Surely Mr Turner knows something about business.

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Mr Willetts: I have great respect for Mike Turner of GKN. We do believe in the importance of an active industrial strategy, and we have seen the fruits of our approach in the announcement only the other day of the new investment by General Motors. We have also seen it in the announcement of investment by GlaxoSmithKline. We are up for working with business to deliver the industrial strategy and that is what we are doing.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): May I inform my right hon. Friend that relations with business in rural north Yorkshire are excellent but could always be improved? In particular, what can we do to promote the local enterprise partnership in rural north Yorkshire, east Yorkshire and York?

Mr Willetts: I am sure that there is always more we can do to promote LEPs, but they are already playing a crucial role in the allocation of the regional growth fund. I very much look forward to visiting Norfolk later today when I will have the opportunity of announcing further investment in that important county.

Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): In the time that Ministers in this Government had dozens of meetings with Google, one of the few British IT companies to achieve global status, Autonomy, has been taken over and today tragically destroyed. May I suggest to Ministers that instead of spending so much time cosying up to American giants that just want to protect their monopolies, they should talk to people such as Mike Lynch, the founder of Autonomy, to understand why it is so difficult for British innovative companies to get the long-term finance on their own account that they need to become global leaders?

Mr Willetts: Let us make it absolutely clear. My fellow Ministers and I talk on an even and equitable basis with Autonomy and Mike Lynch, of course, and with HP and Google. Indeed, we have set up a council to plan our strategy for e-infrastructure and high-performance computing in which their advice is greatly valued. Yes, it is very important that we invest in high-technology companies, but I cannot believe that a former Secretary of State is actually saying that we should have direct controls to stop a company such as Autonomy being taken over.


8. Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the employment circumstances of apprentices on completion of their placement. [109154]

The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): My Department has recently led an extensive survey of 5,000 apprentices. The results, published on 15 May, show that 85% of the apprentices who completed their apprenticeships in the past 12 months are employed; 4% are self-employed and 3% are in further education or training.

Duncan Hames: That is very welcome news. The success of apprenticeships will be judged not just by the growth in their number but by the difference they make to apprentices’ future employment. Reports on the future

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jobs fund found that 14 months after starting their placement, nearly half the participants were back on benefits. Will the Minister ensure that he continues to conduct evaluations of the new apprenticeships?

Mr Hayes: Absolutely. The survey that I have just mentioned—the biggest survey, producing the best ever results in terms of satisfaction—showed that 92% of apprentices were satisfied with their apprenticeship, and that 88% of the businesses that took on apprentices felt they had gained a business benefit. That information is critical to guiding our policy, described last week by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, which I went before dutifully, as a flagship. My apprenticeship policy: our victory.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Hackney community college does excellent innovative work on apprenticeships, but along with other further education colleges it faces a 7% cut this year. Earlier, the Minister waxed lyrical about increasing social mobility, and in my constituency and others in east London, further education is a crucial way for adults who missed out to get back on track, often even before they get to the apprenticeship stage. What message does the Minister have for my constituents, as the college has to cut back further?

Mr Hayes: The message is plain: further education has never been given the priority in the past that it has been given by this Government. It is about the flexibilities and freedoms to respond to need in the hon. Lady’s constituency and elsewhere. Further education, once the Cinderella sector, when I became the Minister found its Prince Charming.

Mr Speaker: I sometimes think that the Minister of State would like dedicated oral questions for himself alone, but I am not aware that the House has any plans to provide such, so I hope he can contain his disappointment at that news.

Business Growth

9. Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): What support his Department is giving to small and medium-sized businesses to enable them to grow. [109155]

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Greg Clark): To drive growth, we are reducing the cost of lending to small businesses by keeping interest rates low and through specific measures such as the national loan guarantee scheme. We are also stripping away red tape, including a three-year moratorium on domestic regulation for micro-businesses.

Henry Smith: Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress the Government have made in reducing the burden of EU regulation on small and medium-sized enterprises?

Greg Clark: Yes. My hon. Friend will be aware that in Brussels the Prime Minister secured an agreement from the EU Commission that any future regulation should be assumed not to apply to small businesses unless a case were proved that it needed to do so. The Prime Minister has secured a significant step forward.

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13. [109160] Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): The most recent Bank of England survey says that smaller firms continue to report that they are unable to obtain credit and that it has become harder to secure long-term funding. That issue is raised by Members on both sides of the House every month at BIS questions. The Government may have introduced some measures to provide finance to small businesses, but they are clearly not doing enough. Is it not time to develop some new policies?

Greg Clark: All Members of the House recognise the need to encourage banks to lend to small businesses. There is some good news; the volume of lending to small businesses in 2011—the latest year for which figures are available—was £75 billion, a rise of 13%, but there is more to be done. With my colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, we are doing everything we can to encourage banks to lend to small businesses.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): Will the Minister join me in congratulating Advanced Insulation, a firm in my constituency, which has just won the Queen’s award for enterprise? Does he agree that such firms are emblematic? We need to demonstrate that we are good at innovating and exporting, and that that is the direction of travel for economic growth.

Greg Clark: I will indeed join my hon. Friend in congratulating that company. In fact, a record number of the recent Queen’s awards, announced last month on Her Majesty’s birthday, were for small businesses, which shows that this country’s small businesses have a huge amount to contribute to the future success of the nation.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): Yesterday I met 35 small businesses that borrowed money to fuel growth but now feel that they were mis-sold interest rate swap products by their banks. There is a real urgency to investigate that issue before more otherwise healthy companies are brought down. Will the Minister join us in calling for banks, while they are investigating whether these products were mis-sold, not to foreclose on companies that are falling behind because of these products?

Greg Clark: If the allegations are correct, the companies will need assistance to cope. An investigation on that is about to conclude. I will take the matter forward with the hon. Gentleman and am happy to discuss it outside this place with his Front Benchers.

Caravan Manufacturing (Hull)

10. Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): If he will assess the commercial prospects of the caravan manufacturing industry in and around Hull. [109156]

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Greg Clark): The Government recognise the important contribution of caravan manufacturing to Hull and the importance of the caravan industry in other areas. I am aware of the concerns across the country about the effects of the proposed VAT changes. Although that is clearly a matter for the

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Treasury, as the hon. Lady understands, she will know that I, as Minister for cities, have a personal commitment to and interest in the future success of Hull. If she or other Members would find it helpful, I should be happy to visit Hull over the next few weeks to meet manufacturers.

Diana Johnson: If the coalition really is supportive of Hull and caravan manufacturing, can the Minister explain why the Treasury thinks that putting VAT at 20% on static caravans, which we know will result in a 30% drop in the market, less money going to the Treasury and 7,000 job losses across the country, will help manufacturing in my city?

Greg Clark: As I think the hon. Lady knows—I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) and other Members across the House who have raised concerns about the impact of the proposal—the consultation has been extended. She and others have had meetings with Treasury Ministers and clearly made a forceful case, because the extension has been made. I know that Ministers are seriously considering this matter. I will be happy to meet her and manufacturers. I know the importance of the caravan industry; when I was growing up I spent my holidays in a static caravan on the north-east coast. I am keen to do what I can.

Russell Group

11. Mr Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): When he last met representatives of the Russell group; and what matters were discussed. [109157]

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): I met vice-chancellors from the Russell group on 8 March at an event at Nottingham university. We discussed university access, research and international issues.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for that reply. On access, particularly for international students, he must be aware of how loudly alarm bells are now ringing in the Russell group and the tertiary education sector right across the UK because of the plummeting number of applications from international students as a result of the Home Office’s net migration targets. As this is worth nearly £8 billion a year to UK plc, can he not put pressure on his Home Office colleagues to see sense?

Mr Willetts: The latest evidence from UCAS shows that applications to British universities from outside the EU are going up, but it is absolutely right that we should back our very successful higher education sector. It is not a business, but it does have a lot of exports and the 400,000 students who come here from abroad to study can be regarded as an export success. That is why there is no limit on the number of genuine students who can come to the UK to study. There is no cap on their numbers.

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): I want to reinforce the point that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy) just put to the Minister. The new visa regime is causing huge instability and sending a very discouraging signal internationally. Given how important the HE sector and the Russell group are

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to trade, and given that it is such an important exporter, will the Minister speak to the Immigration Minister and urge him to change these rules?

Mr Willetts: Of course we are in close contact with the Home Office on the implementation of these rules, but the key point is that there is no cap on the number of overseas students who can come to Britain. I take every opportunity on trade missions abroad, as do the Prime Minister and other members of the Government, to communicate very clearly in crucial counties such as India that there is no limit on the number of legitimate students with the appropriate qualifications who would be very welcome to come here and study at British universities.

Exports (Far East)

12. Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): What steps he is taking to promote exports to the far east; and if he will make a statement. [109158]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Norman Lamb): Through UK Trade & Investment, we are promoting exports to Asia and to the far east by campaigning for better market access and by improving market conditions for UK businesses. For example, we are lobbying for the start of formal free trade agreement negotiations between the European Union and Japan, and for the successful conclusion of an ambitious EU-Singapore free trade agreement this year. We also provide targeted support services for UK businesses.

Nicholas Soames: Will the Minister join me in welcoming the exceptional work of the Prime Minister, the Trade and Investment Minister, the Foreign Secretary and all those other Ministers who are doing a great deal to promote British trade to the far east? Does the Minister agree that it will do our cause no good if senior business men in the far east, wanting to come here and take part in business exchanges, find it difficult to get a visa to do so? May I urge him to take every step to resolve that question?

Norman Lamb: I absolutely share my right hon. Friend’s comments about the incredibly valuable work undertaken by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. During the Prime Minister’s recent visit, deals worth £546 million were secured from south-east Asia, but I understand the concern that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) raises about visas, and I will certainly look into them.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Has the Minister read last week’s pamphlet, by one of the most brilliant and prescient Members among us, which states:

“It is noteworthy that other developed countries have re-oriented their export profiles more effectively than Britain has done, raising doubts about whether we are keeping pace with our EU partners in promoting British commercial interests in the emerging economies”?

That sentence was written by the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), who is sitting behind the Minister. Could they swap jobs, so that we have a trade Minister who knows what to do?

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Norman Lamb: I will ignore that abuse.

Mr Willetts: Hear, hear. Rise above it.

Norman Lamb: I will rise above it, absolutely.

Exports to the far east are growing very significantly. UK exports to China have grown by 15% over the past year, for example, and we are working hard to secure a free trade agreement with Japan, which would deliver significant benefits to the UK.

Mr Speaker: Iain McKenzie. Not here.

Higher Education (Economic Growth)

15. Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the contribution of the higher education sector to economic growth. [109164]

17. Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): What recent assessment he has made of the contribution of the higher education sector on economic growth. [109166]

20. Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the contribution of the higher education sector to economic growth. [109170]

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): Higher education contributes to growth. We have just had universities week, celebrating our universities’ contribution to the Olympics, to the economy and to national life, and estimates by Universities UK indicate that higher education contributes more than £31 billion to our GDP. University education is of course, however, also worth while in itself—in ways that cannot be measured by economists.

Paul Blomfield: The Minister acknowledges the importance of higher education as a major export earner. Does he therefore agree with his hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), who wrote an excellent piece in the Financial Times last week, arguing that we should catch up with our competitors and stop classifying students as migrants, as part of a strategy to win a bigger market share for our world-class university system?

Mr Willetts: I absolutely support the objective in that statement of winning a greater market share for our higher education sector, and we can be very proud of the international demand from students wanting to study at our higher education institutions. There is no cap on the number who come here, and we will do everything possible to correct any misunderstandings around the world that may be inhibiting people from applying.

Mr Thomas: At a time when many mainstream universities are extremely worried about where sufficient funding for research, which is vital to Britain’s long-term economic growth, will come from, why does the Minister think that a multi-million pound VAT cut for commercial universities is a good use of public funds?

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Mr Willetts: One reason why we have protected the science and research budget and, for the first time, included the research funding going to universities via the Higher Education Funding Council for England is so that our universities can be confident that they have secure and protected research funding for the life of this Parliament.

Mr Jones: Durham university is not only world-class but, along with the other four universities in the north-east, a key driver of the regional economy. What assessment has the Minister made of the visa changes and the capacity of Durham, and those other four universities, to attract overseas students, especially when we read in the press that students from India and other countries are choosing Canada and the United States, rather than the UK?

Mr Willetts: Let us be clear about what the Government have done. We have tackled abuse in bogus colleges and the issue of overseas students who, sadly, did not have the necessary academic qualifications to benefit from coming into higher education in this country. That abuse had to be tackled. We now have a clear message that legitimate students are welcome, with no cap on numbers, to come from anywhere in the world to study at British universities. I work very closely with our universities, including the university of Durham, on trade missions to get that very positive message out across the world.

Energy Pricing

16. David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change on the potential effect on process manufacturing of the Government’s policy on energy pricing. [109165]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Norman Lamb): The Secretary of State regularly meets the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to discuss energy and climate change policies, including their impact on manufacturing. We are committed to ensuring that manufacturing remains competitive, and in the autumn statement we announced a package worth £250 million to reduce the impact of policies affecting the cost of electricity for electricity-intensive industries most at risk of carbon leakage.

David Mowat: In January, the Department of Energy and Climate Change published figures showing that 18% of electricity costs for business go towards supporting the renewables industry. Last week, in the Financial Times, the chief executive officer of Solvay said that high energy prices are a bigger issue for his business in the UK than the eurozone crisis. What assurance can the Minister give us that as we decarbonise, we do it as cheaply as possible to ensure that we minimise value destruction and the number of jobs lost?

Norman Lamb: I give the hon. Gentleman that absolute reassurance. In terms of global carbon emissions, it makes no sense for a business to relocate to another country, so we will do everything we can to ensure that businesses remain competitive.

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Topical Questions

T1. [109171] George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): My Department has a key role in supporting the rebalancing of the economy and businesses to deliver growth while increasing skills and learning. May I repeat, Mr Speaker, that the Secretary of State has a long-standing commitment to be in Berlin and Düsseldorf and therefore regrets not being able to be with us today?

George Freeman: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK’s life sciences in areas such as biomedicine, clean energy and agriculture offer a huge potential opportunity for us to drive a sustainable recovery here in the UK by supporting sustainable development in the developing world, and that our science base, not least in Norwich research park in my county of Norfolk, has a key part to play in that revolution?

Mr Willetts: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, I will be visiting Norwich research park later today and will be able to announce £250 million of research funding going into life sciences across the country. Alongside the commitment to human health that we have already made, this will be a commitment to research in animal health, plant breeding and the agricultural industries of the future.

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): This Government inherited an economy that was growing, with unemployment falling and a recovery settling in. The revised GDP estimate for the first quarter of this year, far from being revised up, as some expected, has just been revised down. With the country in a double-dip recession created by this Government, 50 businesses going under every single day, and over 2.6 million people out of work, this shambolic Government have been squabbling over a report produced by a millionaire Tory donor that suggests that all would be well were it not for people’s rights at work. Why on earth are they going along with this nonsense instead of, for example, implementing the active industrial strategy that we need?

Mr Willetts: Let us be clear: this coalition Government also inherited an economy that had been hit by a major financial crisis because of Labour’s failure to regulate financial services, and unsustainable levels of Government borrowing which the head of the International Monetary Fund said earlier this week caused her to shiver when she thought what would have happened if they had not been tackled. We are committed, rightly, to reducing the burden of red tape and regulation on the economy, and alongside that we are constructively investing in and supporting the industries of the future.

Mr Umunna: This is a no-growth Government with their head in the sand. They blame businesses, they blame the people who work in them, and now they blame the eurozone, when countries such as Germany and France are not in recession and we are. They said that they would increase lending to small businesses, but there has been a net contraction in lending to small businesses in every single month of this Government.

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They said that they would support different industries, from defence to renewables, but they have failed to do so. They boasted that their regional growth fund would create more than half a million jobs, but the National Audit Office tells us that it has created less than a tenth of that. We have always known that Tory-led Governments are heartless. Do today’s figures not demonstrate that they are hopeless too?

Mr Willetts: That pre-prepared speech had nothing to do with the reality of the industrial strategy being pursued by this coalition, which is delivering big increases in exports to the big markets of the future. Exports to China are up 18%, exports to India are up 29% and exports to Brazil are up 11%. Employment is up, inflation is down and public borrowing is down. [ Interruption. ]

Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) is usually such a measured and emollient fellow. He must calm himself.

Mr Willetts: We are committed to working with all our partners across the British economy, including business, to ensure that there is investment in the high-tech businesses of the future. The recent announcements of investments in General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover and GlaxoSmithKline show that the strategy is bearing fruit.

T6. [109176] Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): Last week, UK Trade & Investment put on an extremely useful event for businesses in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). Subsequently, my constituent, Simon Chater, has expressed concern about the cost to small and medium-sized enterprises of using the overseas market introduction service. Will the Minister confirm that UKTI is doing all it can to support SMEs that are seeking to export, including working with other Departments to identify new markets?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Norman Lamb): I was delighted to hear about the event in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), who has made arrangements with 70 MPs to hold similar events around the country. We have to do a lot to encourage SMEs to export. The level of exports from our SMEs is below the European average, so we need to tackle that. Many UKTI services, including its initial consultations, are free. It has a particular focus on helping SMEs to increase their exports.

T2. [109172] Mr Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne East) (Lab): The Government have recently designated Tyneside a centre for offshore renewable energy. In welcoming that designation, I ask the Minister to set out the economic development advantages of such a designation. What assistance can the initiative expect from UKTI, which operates under BIS? Will Ministers urge senior officials to visit Tyneside, and to promote this Government initiative at home and abroad?

Mr Speaker: Even former Chief Whips are supposed to ask only one question.

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The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Mark Prisk): The right hon. Gentleman raises an important industry and an important location. The local enterprise partnership is doing very well in that area and we are encouraging offshore energy through the work of UK Green Investments. If there were additional points in his comprehensive question, I know that the relevant Ministers will be happy to deal with them.

T7. [109177] Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): The Government’s introduction of the national careers service is welcome. The Business Secretary has made it clear that there must be face-to-face careers advice for targeted groups of adults. Will the Department try to win the argument across Government, including in the Department for Education, that face-to-face careers guidance is vital for everybody, and that mentoring for all young people in an important complementary project?

The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): It was Odysseus who entrusted Mentor with the guidance of his son, as now the nation’s sons and daughters are entrusted to me. To that end, we have set up the first all-age careers service in England’s history. It is right that schools should have a statutory duty to secure independent and impartial advice and guidance. The right hon. Gentleman is correct that face-to-face guidance is an important element of that. I commit to having further discussion to see what more we can do to ensure that such guidance happens.

T3. [109173] Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): It is six years this year since the collapse of Farepak. The victims have still not received any of their money back, even though the administrators’ costs to wind up the company far outstripped the minimal compensation that they will eventually receive. Does the Minister understand just how frustrated Farepak customers and agents are, and does he have any positive progress to report?

Norman Lamb: This whole saga has been a nightmare for those affected by it, and I have enormous sympathy with them for the plight that they have suffered, which has dragged on for so long. The hon. Lady and I have had one attempt to meet, and I am happy to meet her and work with her to assist those who have been affected.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): When it comes to growth in small businesses, I commend the Minister for Universities and Science for the energy and intelligence with which he has enacted high-tech policies for high-growth industries. However, we must be careful not to pick individual winners within those sectors. Does he agree that backing Britain’s successful high-tech sectors is the key to releasing economic growth and securing the jobs and competitive international advantage that we should enjoy?

Mr Willetts: I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that we act on the advice that we get about the big, general-purpose technologies of the future and do not randomly hand out grants to particular businesses, as happened all too often in the past.

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T4. [109174] Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): I am an avid viewer of “The Apprentice”, and I enjoy trying to work out who is next in Lord Sugar’s firing line. As television it is brilliant, but it is far removed from the real world of people trying to find work, stay in work and prosper in it. Can a Minister explain to me how making it easier to sack people will create the jobs that my constituents in Lewisham so desperately need?

Norman Lamb: The clear message that should go out is that the best way to get the best out of employees is to recruit well and invest in staff, and in that way to maximise productivity. I remain far from convinced that taking protection away from 25 million employees in the UK would do much for confidence in this country.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Is the Minister aware that Harlow has the highest business growth in the United Kingdom and a new enterprise zone that will open next year and create 5,000 new jobs? Will the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is responsible for cities, visit Harlow, even though it is a town, and see what more we can do for jobs and growth?

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Greg Clark): It would be a pleasure to go back to Harlow with my hon. Friend. We are about to conclude the first round of city deals, but I will make an announcement shortly to invite other places across the country, especially those that have prospects of high growth, as I know Harlow does, to put their innovative ideas forward.

T5. [109175] Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): Will the Minister for Universities and Science reassure the House that the introduction of any student premium to offset the impact of tuition fee increases, as proposed earlier this week by the Deputy Prime Minister, will not be at the expense of the funding that is provided for the widening participation premium and currently allocated to universities by the Higher Education Funding Council for England?

Mr Willetts: I have just written to the Office for Fair Access and HEFCE to ask them to assess the effectiveness of the very large amount of money that is now used for that purpose through the widening participation premium and universities’ access funding. We fully recognise that the different strands of money have different purposes, and that some of it is there to meet universities’ particular needs through WPP funding.

Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): As someone who benefited from a similar scheme in the 1990s, may I ask the Minister to update the House on the progress of the new enterprise allowance scheme? Will he ensure that it is yet another flagship programme, like the new apprenticeship schemes?

Mr Prisk: I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that the scheme is a great way of ensuring that we provide microfinance and experienced business advice. That is what the allowance is specifically designed to do. We have examined past models that have worked, and this one will help thousands of unemployed people become self-employed people.

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T8. [109180] Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Can the Government clear up the confusion on their own Benches? What part of the Beecroft report do the Government accept, and what part do they reject?

Norman Lamb: The Government are implementing many elements of the Beecroft report. In fact, Adrian Beecroft has already had discussions with officials in my Department and his report includes a lot of measures that the Department was already considering implementing. A call for evidence is out on no-fault dismissal, and it is right to examine the international evidence. We will report after that evidence has been collated.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): May I urge Ministers to ignore the canned melodrama of the shadow Business, Innovation and Skills Secretary on the Beecroft report? Will the Minister confirm that the current call for evidence from very small businesses in Britain will be objective?

Norman Lamb: I can absolutely confirm that. It is always right to base policy on evidence—[ Laughter . ]

Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister is seeking to respond in a very professional way. Whether Members agree with him or not, they ought to hear him.

Norman Lamb: I am very grateful, Mr Speaker.

It is interesting to note that the evidence gathered from Germany suggests that there was very little change to the level of employment in small businesses after the reforms.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): The Million+ group of universities has concluded that the new fees regime to be imposed on mature students will deter many thousands of them from going to university. That will damage their life chances, and it could damage the universities, but it will also restrict the talent available in our economy. Will the Government think again about fees for mature students?

Mr Willetts: Many mature students are part-time students, to whom this Government have for the first time extended loans to cover the cost of fees. That is one of the many features of our higher education reforms of which we are very proud.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): I am sure the House will join me in celebrating the fact that SMS Electronics in Beeston in Broxtowe has been a lucky recipient of a Queen’s award for enterprise. Many small businesses tell me and others that they need less regulation and oppressive red tape if they are to grow. Will a Minister please confirm something that I was told today: that under the previous Government, there were six new regulations every working day?

Mr Prisk: There were six regulations every working day under the previous Government. I am proud to say that instead of having 1,500 Labour regulations every year, this Government have reversed the pattern. There were just 89 last year. That is real progress, and good for businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency and across the country.

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Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Do the Government accept the evidence from R3 that businesses in administration find it expensive or impossible to trade because of the ransom tactics of suppliers, particularly on-suppliers. Will they address the shortcomings in the Insolvency Act 1986, which fails to provide firms with the protections they would have under chapter 11 in the United States?

Norman Lamb: I will look into the issue the hon. Gentleman raises and will be happy to discuss it with him.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): I am sure all hon. Members welcome the publication of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which sets out some great initiatives, including the green investment bank and the fight against red tape. Will the Minister work with local government to ensure that it applies regulations judiciously as opposed to ferociously?

Mr Prisk: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The primary authority scheme, which was started by Labour, will be extended under this Government to ensure that the enforcement of regulation, which is often just as burdensome as the red tape itself, will be appropriate in that locality.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Sixty redundancies have been announced today at the open-cast mine at Kirkconnel. It is in the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, but it will affect my constituency in east Ayrshire. What are the Government doing to support the coal industry?

Mr Willetts: Earlier this week we produced our energy strategy, which involves ensuring not just a fair deal for consumers, but sustaining investment in energy in Britain.

Mr Speaker: Order. I do not want the Minister to lose his handkerchief. It is about to fall out, but I am sure he can rescue it.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): May we have an answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) from a Conservative Minister? Why is it easier to hire people if it is easier to fire them?

Norman Lamb: It is important that we have a business environment in this country that attracts inward investment. However, interestingly, surveys show that employment protection is not one of the barriers that those seeking to invest in the UK see.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): From today’s answers about regulation, it appears that, in the Government’s eyes, progress has already been made. Why, then, has growth slowed so far that we are now back in recession? Does that not show that all this deregulation is not working and that we need measures to increase demand?

Mr Willetts: Growth has slowed because of the problems in the eurozone driven partly by levels of regulation much greater than those in Britain.

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Business of the House

11.34 am

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): Will the Leader of House please give us next week’s business?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Sir George Young): Next week’s business would not take very long, but the business for the week commencing 11 June will be:

Monday 11 June—Second Reading of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill.

Tuesday 12 June—Second Reading of the Defamation Bill, followed by motion on a European document relating to the proceeds of crime.

Wednesday 13 June—Opposition Day [1st allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 14 June—There will be a debate on mental health. The subject for this debate was previously suggested by the Backbench Business Committee.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 14 June will be:

Thursday 14 June—Debate on piracy off the coast of Somalia.

Ms Eagle: I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. Twenty four years ago today, Parliament passed legislation introducing section 28 into law. It was a nasty, discriminatory law that caused a lot of bullying and misery. After a fierce three-year battle, in the teeth of Tory opposition, we repealed it in government. Last week, I asked the right hon. Gentleman about the Government’s position on equal marriage. In reply, he spoke eloquently about the importance of equality, but by an unfortunate oversight—I am sure it was an oversight—he omitted to answer my question. This morning, the Government’s position has become clear. Lacking the courage of the Prime Minister’s convictions and threatened with a growing revolt in the Cabinet, they have decided to grant those opposed to equal marriage a free vote, meaning that the Government’s flagship policy on equal rights will become law only with Labour support. Will he arrange for the Home Secretary to make a statement to say when legislation will be introduced, because there was no sign of it in the Queen’s Speech?

The Prime Minister was no doubt delighted to receive from Steve Hilton his leaving gift, a copy of the Beecroft report, which is the worst attack on workplace protection in a generation. His gratitude was clearly short lived, because only a few days later No. 10 was briefing The Daily Telegraph:

“No one really has any idea what went on with this report, it was very much Steve Hilton’s project. The whole thing is a bit dodgy and we wish it had never happened”.

Liberal Democrat and Conservative Ministers have spent the last few days fighting over it, and the shambles has continued with the report’s author attacking the Business Secretary by calling him a “socialist”. Only a hedge fund boss and Tory donor could call someone who voted for a tax cut for the richest 1% a socialist. Where was the Business Secretary today, by the way? He was in Berlin. Will the Leader of the House prevent Secretaries of State from being out of the country when there are

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questions to answer in the House? It is perfectly reasonable for them to arrange their trips at other times of the week.

Yesterday, the Government published the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. The Leader of the House announced a moment ago that the Bill will be the first thing we consider on our return. The Bill contains a small section on employment law. Will he reassure the House that the Government will not bring forward amendments to the Bill to implement more of the Beecroft report?

The senior Liberal Democrat BackBencher, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), introduced a petition this week opposing the Government’s decision to impose a caravan tax. I thought I must have missed him in the Division Lobby when the Opposition tried to prevent the Government from introducing this unfair tax, but according to Hansard he voted for it. The Liberal Democrats voted for the pasty tax and pretended to oppose it in their constituencies, and now they campaign against the caravan tax, which they voted for. Is there any bit of this bungled Budget that they are prepared to support in their constituencies?

These Liberal Democrat tactics are clearly infectious, because four Conservative Back Benchers have started doing the same thing: they have introduced petitions opposing the caravan tax that they voted for. Will the right hon. Gentleman find time for a statement to remind his Back Benchers that if they want to campaign in their constituencies against Government policy, they should at least vote against it when the matter is before this House? People are beginning to notice.

Ministers have recently been complaining that the country has not been working hard enough. We have to wonder what planet they are on. Families up and down the country are struggling to make ends meet, worried about job security, worried about how they will afford rising fuel and food bills, and angry that the Government are doing nothing to help. Can the Leader of the House confirm that when Ministers complain that the country needs to work harder, they are in fact thinking about the Prime Minister? We learn this week that his aides say that he spends

“a crazy, scary amount of time playing Fruit Ninja”.

We have a Chancellor who is trying to do two jobs—both badly—while the Prime Minister fills his time slicing fruit on his iPad.

On a day when the Office for National Statistics has announced that the double-dip recession is worse than we thought, Liberal Democrats and Conservative Ministers are slugging it out in public. The Conservative party is fighting among itself on equal marriage and House of Lords reform. Government Back Benchers are denouncing in their constituencies the measures that they voted for in Parliament. Does the Leader of the House not think that instead of losing his temper and ranting at the Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister should just get a grip?

Sir George Young: I wait patiently for questions about next week’s business, but they are pretty hard to find. Let me go through the issues that the hon. Lady touched on.

The Government are consulting on equal marriage, which the Labour party did not consult on, or indeed do anything about, when it was in government for 13 years. The consultation is under way; it has not finished.

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Along with other issues that involve matters of conscience, it seems to me perfectly proper that this matter should be subject to a free vote on this side of the House, and that is what we plan to do.

We had a statement on Beecroft on Monday. We have also had BIS questions, a large chunk of which were all about Beecroft, and I am not sure that the Leader of the House can usefully add to what has already been said.

The hon. Lady asked about the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which has been published. The Bill, which will be debated when we come back, sets out the Government’s proposals on the subject. Of course the Government will listen to the House if it proposes amendments to the Bill. For her to ask me to rule out any Government amendments is to say that we should be denied the opportunity of listening to the views of the House, including those of Opposition Members, so of course we will be in listening mode on that issue.

On VAT on static caravans, the Chancellor announced a number of measures in the Budget to address anomalies and loopholes. We extended the consultation period on the measures to 18 May, and we are now considering the consultation responses, including the petitions that hon. Members have presented to the House. The Government will respond on the issue of static caravans later in the summer.

On not supporting in the Division Lobbies that which Members may have supported in early-day motions, I would just remind the hon. Lady of the incident with the post office closures in the last Parliament. We tabled a motion that very closely resembled early-day motions that had been signed by Government Members, and then, miraculously, they were not in the Lobby when the Division was called. I therefore think she needs to be cautious about that.

As for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s temper, I am amazed that the hon. Lady has the audacity to raise that, in the light of the somewhat irrational behaviour at times of the previous Prime Minister.

Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): May we have a debate—[ Interruption. ]

Mr Speaker: Order. The House is getting a little over- excited. First, it is seemly if it does not do so. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Procedure Committee, is an extremely senior Member of the House—one might say he was a cerebral and celebrated figure—who should be heard with courtesy.

Mr Knight: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am obliged; I did not realise.

May we have a debate on reducing unnecessary animal suffering? Has the Leader of the House seen the recent remarks made by Professor Bill Reilly, the ex-president of the British Veterinary Association? He said that it was “unacceptable” to slit the throats of cattle, lambs and chickens without first stunning them. Given that this unacceptable practice is rife and is even used in cases when the customer does not require it, when are the Government going to take action?

Sir George Young: I refer my right hon. Friend to the reply that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) last week. I

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explained that the Government’s view was that it was much better that an animal be stunned before slaughter, but that there were certain sensitive religious issues involved. There is some evidence that the incidence of non-stunning exceeds that required for religious reasons. I do not recall the exact words that I used a week ago, but I think I am right in saying that I told my hon. Friend that the Government had the matter under review. I will ask the Home Secretary to write to my right hon. Friend to bring him up to date with our proposals.

Dame Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware that, while we are not seeking to reduce the hours that the House works, many of us wish to rearrange them. Has he any information on when the Procedure Committee will report on this issue? When it does so, will he ensure that there is a full debate on the matter, with amendable motions, on the Floor of the House?

Sir George Young: That question would have been better answered by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight). The Procedure Committee is conducting an inquiry into our sitting hours, to which the shadow Leader of the House and I have given evidence, and I understand that it is making good progress. I hope that it will produce its report before the summer recess and that the House will find time to debate it. I also hope that the report will be structured in such a way as to enable the House to vote on a series of options, so that Members’ preferences can be indentified before we move on to the next stage.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Good news, Mr Speaker! Since I asked my question last week, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has now put the minutes of many of its board meetings on its website. They reveal a lack of attendance by most of its members. Indeed, at the meetings on 30 January and 8 March, no board members attended, other than the chairman. They participated by telephone instead, and one assumes that that enabled them to qualify for their £400 daily allowance. Given that the meeting of 8 March

“had been convened in order to consider the outcome of the consultation on MPs’ pension contributions and to approve IPSA’s corporate plan for 2012/13”,

does the Leader of the House agree that, at the very least, we as Members should have a debate on what the IPSA board is up to?

Sir George Young: IPSA is an independent body set up by the House to adjudicate on our pay and pensions. There might be an opportunity to address the issue of membership when the terms of office of some existing members run out and the question of reappointment, or the appointment of new members, arises. My hon. Friend’s intervention shows the effectiveness of Back-Bench Members in getting results at business questions. I remind him that he had an opportunity, I think earlier this week, to cross-question members of IPSA about their performance. No doubt he took that opportunity when it presented itself.

Margaret Hodge (Barking) (Lab): The Leader of the House might have seen an article in The Daily Telegraph today that contained a leak of written evidence that

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had been given in confidence to the Public Accounts Committee. All the members of my Committee will be extremely distressed at this, as the evidence was very sensitive and the leak could cause damage to those who provided it and to the companies involved. In the circumstances, will the Leader of the House confirm that he and the officials of the House and the Government will co-operate fully with the leak inquiry that I have instituted on behalf of the Committee?

Sir George Young: As a former Chairman of a Select Committee, I know just how damaging leaks can be to those Committees’ cohesiveness and effectiveness. The right hon. Lady will know the process that can be instituted to conduct a leak inquiry. It is initially a matter for her Committee, but if I remember rightly, the matter can then be taken to the Liaison Committee. Of course the Government would co-operate if any leak inquiry then took place.

Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con): I am sure I am not alone in having my postbag filled with correspondence from constituents concerned about planning decisions. In Staffordshire Moorlands, in particular, there is great concern about some changes to roads in Leek that involve the removal of a roundabout. This planning decision was taken in December 2010 under Labour’s failed planning laws, so will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the Localism Act 2012 and the national planning policy framework and on how, as a localist document, it will help to ensure local people feel that their voice is being heard in future planning decisions?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for a good example of the improvements that I believe will be derived from our new localism agenda. I think we debated this back in March. For the first time, local people can produce neighbourhood plans, which will become a formal part of the planning system. Although I cannot promise another debate, there will be an opportunity later today, if my hon. Friend so wishes, to participate in the Whitsun recess debate to raise this matter. Our reforms strengthen local planning and we want local people to decide what they need and how their needs should be matched.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): There is growing bewilderment in Europe and concern among the Danish presidency that the UK is dragging its feet on proposals for Rio+20 that the Government had previously advocated. Will the Leader of the House obtain a clear commitment—perhaps from No. 10 or the Cabinet Office—that no instruction to that effect has been given to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, so that the Prime Minister, who has been appointed by Ban Ki-moon to do the follow-on from Rio, might look extra good afterwards by ensuring that expectations of the outcomes from Rio are dampened?

Sir George Young: I doubt whether there is any substance in the hon. Gentleman’s allegations about a somewhat sinister conspiracy to dampen expectations

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in the hope that the outcome might then look better. I will seek the necessary assurances and convey them to him.

Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): I know the Leader of the House is a keen cyclist—possibly the most celebrated cyclist in the House. May we have a statement on what support the Government can give to Yorkshire’s bid to bring the grand départ of the Tour de France to our great county?

Sir George Young: Modesty forbids me from endorsing the claim that I am the most famous cyclist in the House. I enjoy seeing many of my hon. Friends and many Opposition Members at the bicycle shed after the last Division of an evening. I applaud my hon. Friend, who I believe is in touch with the all-party cycling group, which, under the guidance of its chairman, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), has decided to endorse the Yorkshire bid. As a Government Minister, I have to be a little cautious in case a rival bid should come forward from another county—possibly Hampshire. Although the Government are neutral, I commend my hon. Friend’s initiative.

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): The membership of the Backbench Business Committee has now been elected and waits to be endorsed by the House when we return on Monday 11 June. We hope to have our doors open for business as usual on the following day, Tuesday 12 June, at 1 pm. Will the Leader of the House suggest a way by which I could make such a public service announcement in a business question?

Sir George Young: I think that, in a sense, that question contained its own answer. I am delighted that all the parties co-operated—and I include you, Mr Speaker —in ensuring that the Backbench Business Committee was established pretty quickly at the beginning of the new Session. I am delighted that it is up and running. Any Members with bids should indeed turn up at 1 o’clock on Tuesday 12 June in order to put their submissions to the hon. Lady’s Committee.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): I was pleased to see that unemployment in Vale of Glamorgan fell during the last quarter. I know that the Leader of the House will be more than familiar with Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of the rock group Iron Maiden, who has committed to creating 1,000 jobs in my constituency in the St Athan enterprise zone over the next 18 months. May we have a debate on enterprise zones and their success or otherwise in creating new employment opportunities so that best practice can be shared across the whole United Kingdom?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and delighted to hear of the initiative to which he has referred. On our first Monday back, there might be an opportunity to develop this further in the context of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. One thing we wanted to do with enterprise zones was to encourage investment and employment growth in those parts of the country that had suffered from the recession. I am pleased to hear that that initiative is now having success,

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with companies locating in enterprise zones, taking advantage of the tax breaks and other incentives available there.

Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): Given that my hospital trust has still not been allocated its budget despite the fact that the Government have carried out three financial appraisals of the hospital, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, may we have a debate on the incompetence of Health Ministers?

Sir George Young: There will be an opportunity on Tuesday 12 June, shortly after the House returns, to put questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. In the meantime, I will make some inquiries to see why the hospital trust in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency has not apparently had its allocation for the current year.

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): The Chancellor wisely established the Office of Tax Simplification in order to try to deal with the extraordinary, infamously long and complex tax code handed to us by the previous Government. My right hon. Friend may know that, this week, the 2020 Tax Commission launched an excellent report, brought forward by the Institute of Directors and the TaxPayers Alliance. May we have a debate on this report, on tax simplification and, overwhelmingly, on the performance of the Office of Tax Simplification?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us of the imperative of simplifying the tax system. He will know some of the initiatives that we have already taken. The Finance Bill is before the House, so there may be an opportunity to table amendments to introduce some of the initiatives recommended in the publication he mentioned. There may be an opportunity for a further debate when the Finance Bill returns to the Floor of the House. I applaud the work of the Office of Tax Simplification, and I hope that in future Budgets, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be able to make further progress in making the tax code easier to understand.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware of early-day motion 55, which strongly opposes the concept of regional pay for public sector workers:

[That this House notes the Chancellor of the Exchequer’ s decision to give Government departments freedom to localise public sector pay; beli eves this will undermine pay review bodies by shifting wholesale to local bargaining in the public sector; further believes pay review bodies nationally are a b etter way of delivering flexibili ty while keeping a lid on costs; considers the Government’ s plans will set hospital against hospital and school against school; opposes unfair discrimination against nurses, teachers and civil servants according to where they live when they are doing the same job; recognises that many successful large national companies use national pay bargaining for their staff pay; further recognises that with record unemployment and more than five jobseekers per job vacancy across the UK there is li ttle evidence the public sector is crowding out the private sector; further beli eves this policy will offer nothing to private sector workers in low pay regions; fears this policy will instead remove substantial sums from the regions and devolved nations

24 May 2012 : Column 1292 with the least, and reduce spending power and harm local economies as a consequence; and calls on th

e Government to suspend this poli

cy until a full and independent assessment takes place on the economic impact of the policy and to engage meaningfully with all s

takeholders affected by this poli

cy across the UK prior to implementation.


He will also be aware that a significant number of those sitting on the coalition Benches have signed up to it. May we soon have a debate—in Government time, but on a free vote—so that we can work out whether the Cable tendency in the coalition is going to oppose regional pay, which would be of enormous advantage to the nation?

Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman will know that we have asked a commission to look at the whole issue of regional pay, so I think it would be premature to have a debate before that work is completed, which I believe is expected in the autumn. Thereafter it might be worth while to have a debate on the issue. So far as tensions within the Government are concerned, let me remind the hon. Gentleman that he was a member of a Government where the tensions within a one-party Administration were far greater than any tensions in the present two-party Administration.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): May we have a debate on freedom of speech, following on from the news that the Law Society in its conference arm last week banned the session on marriage that was to be addressed by the distinguished judge Sir Paul Coleridge and the Marriage Foundation? Does my right hon. Friend, like me, deprecate this suppression of debate on an area of great public policy importance?

Sir George Young: I am not sure that it is the responsibility of a Minister to comment on that, although I understand my hon. Friend’s views. I will share his concern with my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor or my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—just to see whether there is a role for Government to play in this.

Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware that British Airways won the contract to buy British Midland Airways. Many of us have concerns about that, but little did we know that in Northern Ireland, the east midlands and Scotland, hundreds and hundreds of people are being made redundant because TUPE does not apply. Will the Leader of the House allow us a debate so that Members affected can put their views to the appropriate Department—whether it be the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills or the Department for Transport? If that cannot happen, will he arrange a meeting between appropriate Members, British Airways and the appropriate Department?

Sir George Young: I will certainly use whatever influence I have to promote a meeting along the lines that the hon. Gentleman suggests. Of course I understand his concern that TUPE does not apply in the particular circumstances that he outlined. I will share his concern with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to see whether there is a role for her to play in bringing this to a satisfactory conclusion.

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Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): May we have a debate on the positive impact that the Government are having on Merseyside, given the delivery of the Cruise terminal in Liverpool, the Government’s role in securing the future of Vauxhall at Ellesmere Port, and the historic signing in China this week of an agreement on significant investment in the Wirral enterprise zone?

Sir George Young: I am surprised that the shadow Leader of the House did not mention some of the good news for Merseyside, given her interest in the area. This is an example of our attempts to redirect growth away from, for example, the City of London, and to ensure that parts of the country that have had a rough time get the benefit of growth. I am delighted to learn of the success that my hon. Friend has described.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): As the Leader of the House will know, tonight there is to be a jubilee party for all who work in the House. Does it concern him that members of staff here are increasingly worried about their inability to deliver a first-class service to Members of Parliament who represent the people in their constituencies because of cuts, including job cuts, and the fact that this place is being run as though it were a business rather than a service in a democracy? Indeed, the very security of the Palace of Westminster is of concern to the people who work here. It is about time we woke up and did something about this. May we have a debate on it?

Sir George Young: I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to those who work for the House. I am aware of their concerns, and I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that my fellow members of the Commission are aware of them as well. Earlier this week I had a meeting with a staff representative, who shared some of those concerns with me.

We want to keep our staff on side. Genuine discussions are taking place between the management board and representatives of those who work in the House, so that they can be aware of what we are planning and have an opportunity to influence decisions before they are made. Ultimately this will be a matter for the Commission, but we share the hon. Gentleman’s interest in maintaining a good relationship with those who work here.

Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): Boxley’s Butchers, based in Wombourne, has won many prizes over the years for its fantastic produce, including, most recently, the diamond jubilee pork pie. May we have a debate on how we can encourage the supply and sale of more local produce from all our constituencies, including Boxley’s pork pies, here in the House of Commons?

Sir George Young: Boxley the Butcher could be straight from Happy Families.

I congratulate Boxley’s on what is obviously a high-quality product, and congratulate my hon. Friend on promoting it. The House is a good showcase for food and drink. My hon. Friend may know that last October all nine Members representing Norfolk constituencies held a celebration of Norfolk food and drink in the Palace of Westminster. He and fellow Members representing his county may wish to follow Norfolk’s initiative.

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Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): I shall be working hard in Dudley next week, but given that we are back in recession, and given the other huge challenges facing the country, is it not completely wrong that the House is not sitting then? That may suit our chillaxing—whatever that means—Prime Minister, and it may suit the part-timers and moonlighters on the Government Benches who prefer to line their pockets as barristers and business men instead of doing the full-time job that their constituents sent them here to do, but I think that it reflects really badly on the standing of the House that we shall not be here for another week. And while we are on the subject, is it not about time—

Mr Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman is saying “Is it not about time that we sat next week?” I have got the gist, and I think that the Leader of the House has as well.

Sir George Young: The House decided without a Division that it would not sit next week or the week after. I am not quite sure where the hon. Gentleman was when we made that decision; perhaps he was not here. Let me make a serious point, however. When the House is not sitting, Members of Parliament are working. Moreover, if the hon. Gentleman compares the first three years of this Parliament with the first three years of the last Parliament, he will see that this Parliament will be sitting for longer.

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): High-cost debt has been a huge problem for many families for years, and now payday lending is growing fast as well. May we have a debate on the new feasibility study by the Department for Work and Pensions on helping credit unions to upscale and modernise so that they can offer a real, reasonably priced alternative?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend is right: credit unions and community finance organisations have a key role to play in helping those on low incomes to balance their books, particularly when they do not have access to bank accounts. I believe that a week ago a written ministerial statement announced a feasibility study setting out the way forward for credit unions. We are listening to representations made on the basis of that, and will announce our decisions shortly thereafter.

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): May we have a statement on gun law? It is some time since the Home Affairs Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), issued a report on firearms control. There were some terrible events in my constituency on new year’s day, and I think it is time that we had an opportunity to question the Home Secretary on the Government’s intentions and on how we can best protect public safety.

Sir George Young: The Government would normally respond to a Select Committee report within a given number of weeks—I think that it is eight weeks—and I hope that we responded in time to that report. However, I will raise the hon. Gentleman’s concern about gun law with the Home Secretary, and will ask her to write to him setting out our proposals in that important area.

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Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): One of my hon. Friends has already raised the issue of animal welfare. May we have a debate on animal cruelty, and, in particular, on the sentences given to those who wilfully seek to kill domestic pets? A case was brought to me by Mrs Angela McDowell of St Anne’s, whose pet had been deliberately poisoned with anti-freeze in milk. The person who was found guilty received a lenient sentence.

Sir George Young: I understand my hon. Friend’s strong views. I do not know whether he will be able to raise the issue of animal cruelty at greater length during the debate on the Adjournment later today, when my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will be in a position to respond. If he cannot do that, I will raise the issue again with the Home Secretary. There is an outstanding commitment in respect of circus animals, which the Government will want to honour in due course, and that legislation may provide an opportunity for the House to deal with other issues involving animal cruelty.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): On a day on which we have discovered that the double-dip recession is worse than it was expected to be, may I ask whether we can have a debate on the two great challenges with which the Prime Minister has been wrestling over the last 12 months, so that we can learn which of them he found more daunting—Angry Birds or Fruit Ninjas?

Mr Speaker: I see that the Leader of the House is struggling to identify a governmental responsibility, and I must say that I share his struggle. I think that we will move on.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): May we have a debate on the Government’s support for Serbia’s plans to accede to the European Union, given its lamentable record on human rights? That record is exemplified by article 359 of its penal code, which has been used to incarcerate my constituent Mr Nick Djivanovic since 28 March 2011. A country that continues to use a measure crafted by Marshal Tito to incarcerate political prisoners has no place in the European Union which it aspires to join.

Sir George Young: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. As he will know, any country applying to join the European Union must meet certain standards on human rights and other related matters, and there can be no question of an accession when those basic standards have not been met. I cannot promise an early debate, but I will pass on to the Foreign Secretary my hon. Friend’s deep concern about the issues that he has raised.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): May we have a debate on how many Liberal Democrat Ministers it takes to represent this country abroad? Things are surely getting a little bit shoddy when a whole string of Ministers do not turn up for their questions in the House. The Police Minister, the Home Secretary, the Justice Secretary, the Culture Secretary and the Business Secretary have all not turned up for questions. It is just not good enough. This is the priority: they should be answering questions here, because otherwise we cannot do our job.

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Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman was a Minister in, I believe, the Foreign Office, and he will know that in order to represent this country’s best interests, Ministers occasionally have to go abroad. The Business Secretary is fighting for British industry in Germany and helping to win jobs for this country. It is perfectly appropriate for Ministers to represent this country abroad occasionally, even if it means being absent from the House. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman went abroad occasionally when he was a Foreign Office Minister.

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): Last night I learned that the plaque marking my father’s grave has been stolen, along with a huge number of other plaques in Beckenham cemetery. I am sure that all Members share my utter contempt for people who would steal, and trade in, such memorials. The Government have taken some action in relation to the scrap metal industry, but may we have a debate on what other measures might be needed, and in particular the proposal raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s question on whether this should be an aggravating factor in sentencing?

Sir George Young: I am very sorry to hear of what happened to my hon. Friend’s father’s tombstone; I understand how distressing that must be. He will know what the Prime Minister said at yesterday’s PMQs. We have already taken some steps in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, but we recognise that other measures may well be needed. The Government are actively considering what further steps we might take, such as increasing the penalties and having a better regulatory regime for scrap metal, in order to avoid distressing incidents such as that which my hon. Friend described.

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): Please may we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Wales on why this week, out of the blue, she published a Green Paper on redrawing the Welsh Assembly boundaries, even though the Prime Minister assured the Welsh First Minister that there would be no change in the electoral arrangements without the agreement of the Welsh Assembly?

Sir George Young: A Green Paper is a Green Paper; it is a consultation. If the hon. Lady has views on this matter, I am sure she would be able to respond to the Secretary of State for Wales, but I will draw her concerns to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and ask her to write to her.

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): Following the question from the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the Leader of the House now knows that matters that were before the PAC in private have been leaked to a national newspaper. They were taken in private on the advice of both the Speaker’s Counsel and the Clerk of Committees, and they were not able to be verified. Will the Leader of the House confirm that an inquiry could be conducted by either the Clerk of the Committee or the Chairman, and will he also confirm the penalties available for those found guilty of a breach of parliamentary privilege?

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Sir George Young: On the latter point, I can, because I was Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, which has taken action against Members who have leaked Select Committee documents. Members have been suspended from the House for doing so. The other issues are more a matter for the House than for the Leader of the House. I am sure that the Chair of the PAC has noted what my hon. Friend has said about the process of instituting a leak inquiry.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): Members across the House are growing increasingly concerned about the evidence of interest rate swap mis-selling by banks. Members are hearing about firms in their constituencies that are being put out of business because of such hedge fund products. May we have an urgent debate on this issue, and ensure that banks do not foreclose on businesses while investigating whether mis-selling took place only then to have to go back and make compensatory payments after that business has collapsed?

Sir George Young: I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. Earlier this week we had a debate on the Financial Services Bill before it went to the other place, and in the Queen’s Speech there is a commitment to legislate on banking reform, so there may be an opportunity in the near future to address these issues.

Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): Great Yarmouth has inherited historically high unemployment rates, so it is pleasing to see that since March unemployment in Great Yarmouth has fallen by 3%. Schemes such as enterprise zones, the youth contract, apprenticeships and work experience are clearly having a positive impact in my constituency. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate to discuss how we might take such schemes even further, so as to have higher falls in unemployment in the future?

Sir George Young: I am pleased to hear of the drop in unemployment in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The youth contract kicked in last month; hopefully, it will provide half a million new opportunities for 18 to 24-year-olds to find work through subsidies to employers. On the Monday when we return, there may be an opportunity to develop this theme further in the context of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. Like my hon. Friend, I am heartened by the recent fall in unemployment, the increase in employment and the progress that is being made in regenerating his part of the country.

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): Is the Leader of the House as excited as I am about the prospects of Leicester’s singing sensation, Engelbert Humperdinck, at this week’s Eurovision song contest? Will he find time for a debate—or, perhaps, some other parliamentary procedure—so that Members who are fans of “the Hump” can express their support not only for his singing, but also for his extensive charity work?

Sir George Young: I applaud his extensive charity work. There is an opportunity to raise this topic later today: in the upcoming debate on matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment almost any issue may be discussed with my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, who is in his place. So if the hon.

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Gentleman stays on in the Chamber for just a little longer, he can develop that theme at greater length—and perhaps even put it to song.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I believe that this House has not had a dedicated European affairs Question Time since 1985. As what emanates from Europe affects our national life and economy so greatly, will consideration be given to reintroducing that?

Sir George Young: If we were to do that, it would displace the Question Time of another Department. At present, Question Time is focused on departmental responsibilities, but responsibilities for Europe stretch across various Departments. In the last Parliament, there were cross-cutting questions in Westminster Hall, at which Ministers from a range of Departments answered questions on cross-cutting issues. I have to say that I think that was a failure, which is why it was discontinued. Against that rather unpromising background, I am not sure I can give much encouragement to my hon. Friend.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): The Equality and Human Rights Commission is being all but annihilated, and the Government now intend to repeal significant sections of the Equality Act 2010. How will this be done? Will it be the subject of a debate on the Floor of the House, and will we have the chance to vote on it?

Sir George Young: I think I am right in saying that the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill contains clauses on the EHRC, so there will be an opportunity for the hon. Lady to say a few words about this matter when we debate that Bill on the first Monday when we return.

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): Please may we have a debate on the progress being made in tackling the deficit, and has the Leader of the House found time to review the International Monetary Fund scorecard given to the UK in the late 1970s?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend raises a good point. In my first Parliament, the IMF visited this country and the report it produced then sharply contrasts with the report it has just produced. Speaking from memory, the then Chancellor, Denis Healey, had to put to his Cabinet colleagues a freeze on all public sector capital investment that was not already committed, a freeze on all uprating of benefits and substantial reductions in capital expenditure. One simply has to contrast what the IMF said then, two years into the term of a Labour Government, with the benediction it gave to the policies we have been adopting when it came here this week.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): May we have a debate on one of this country’s treasures from the era of the industrial revolution: our network of canals and waterways? Unfortunately, litter and debris can be a considerable problem in our canals, but I am pleased to be able to say that in Stalybridge we have agreed a regular monthly clean-up, paid for by the local supermarket. By putting in place similar arrangements, we can open up these assets to an even wider group of our fellow countrymen.

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Sir George Young: This is the big society in action. I commend what is happening in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and I hope other groups will also do what they can to improve the environment in our canals and rivers. I cannot promise an early debate on this topic, but there will be an opportunity to raise it later today in the debate on matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): The overwhelming majority of the British public will have been delighted with the Prime Minister’s response to the question about votes for prisoners from the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) during yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions. Can the Leader of the House confirm that, as far as the Government are concerned, this matter is closed and that the Government will accept the verdict of this House in its vote in the previous Session and will not introduce any further legislation or proposals to give prisoners the right to vote?

Sir George Young: As my hon. Friend said, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave a robust response yesterday to the question he was asked on prisoner voting. We welcome the fact that the Court has accepted our arguments that each state should have a wide discretion on implementation. We will be considering the judgment carefully and its implication for the issue of prisoner voting in the UK.

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): As a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, I was concerned to learn this morning that the Government have plans to waste thousands of pounds on destroying buzzards’ nests in an attempt to protect game birds. Will the Leader of the House investigate the possibility of a debate on how the Government are protecting and preserving the UK’s native wildlife species?

Sir George Young: Like the hon. Lady, I saw those reports in the press today, and I understand her concern about the implications for the buzzard. I will raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and ask her to write to the hon. Lady.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): The 177,000 additional apprenticeships delivered by this Government—an increase of 63%—have been a real benefit to young people in Pendle, where unemployment fell again last month. May we therefore have a debate on the importance of apprenticeships and giving all our young people the best possible start in life?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I believe that he asked a question on roughly the same lines in Department for Business, Innovation and Skills questions, but it is a question worth putting twice. I say to him, and to all hon. Members, that we should do all we can to promote apprenticeships in our own constituencies and remind employers of the extensive help available to firms that want to take on apprentices. He mentioned the rise of 177,000 or 63%, which is a huge achievement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his colleagues at BIS.

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Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): May we have a debate on the good proposal that Aung San Suu Kyi addresses us all in Westminster Hall? But could we make that a day to reflect on all the other political prisoners, perhaps by putting up their portraits and showing a video of them. I am thinking of Leyla Zana, a Turkish parliamentarian—one of us; a Member of Parliament—who has been condemned to 10 years in prison because she speaks up for Kurdish issues. I am thinking of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Nobel peace prize laureate, who is in the gulag. I am thinking of Dau Van Duong, a Catholic pro-democracy activist who is with his friends in the Vietnamese communist gulag. Interestingly, neither the Prime Minister, nor the Foreign Secretary has had the guts to speak out for these people in recent trips to China and Vietnam. Can we get their portraits up and show a video, so that the whole world knows that, whatever the Government do on human rights, we as MPs believe in these people, support them and want to give them maximum publicity during this great lady’s visit?

Sir George Young: I listened to what the right hon. Gentleman said, as did you, Mr Speaker, because many of these issues are more issues for the House—in fact, for both Houses—than for the Government. All I can say to him is that his suggestions have clearly been heard by the Speaker, and it lies more with the Speaker than with the Government to take them forward.

Mr Speaker: That was a very skilful sidestep.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Unemployment in Tamworth fell by 3.3% last month and, pleasingly, youth unemployment is at a 12-month low. So may I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) in calling for a debate on job creation, so that we can explore what further measures the Government can take to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises, such as Forensic Pathways in my constituency, to recruit still further?

Sir George Young: I am delighted to hear that unemployment has fallen in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As I said in response to an earlier question, there may be an opportunity to discuss the issue further when we debate the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which contains a number of measures to promote employment. He will know that we have a national loan guarantee scheme to get cheaper loans, that we have the most competitive business tax system in the developed world by cutting corporation tax and that we are cutting red tape. He will have heard in the exchange with BIS Ministers the other steps we are taking to promote employment in all parts of the country.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): I understand that private assurances have been given to coalition Members by Treasury Ministers that the caravan tax issue will return to the Floor of the House. Can the Leader of the House confirm that that is correct? A number of coalition MPs who voted for the caravan tax presented petitions against it on Tuesday this week, and I would like them to be given the opportunity to vote against it on the Floor of the House.

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Sir George Young: A large number of hon. Members presented petitions on behalf of their constituents, which is a perfectly proper thing to do. It is a matter for the House authorities what amendments are selected when the Finance Bill comes back to the Floor of the House and, indeed, what amendments are proposed in Committee. On the hon. Lady’s direct question, I have no knowledge of any private undertakings that may have been given on this subject.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): Following the theme of caravans, a company in my constituency lost a day’s production because a mobile home and two caravans turned up and camped on its premises. The people involved told my constituents that they needed £500 in cash or more vehicles would be coming to join them. The police were sympathetic to my constituents’ case, but said that this was a civil matter. May we have a debate about the sanctions against intentional trespass?

Sir George Young: I am not a lawyer, but what my hon. Friend has described sounded to me a little bit like criminal behaviour—trespassing on someone’s land and then demanding money to go away. I would like to share this issue with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to see whether there is a combination of civil or criminal penalties available to cover the circumstances that my hon. Friend has described. I understand how disruptive it must have been to have that presence in an industrial estate.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): A number of my constituents have had visitor’s visas refused—they are from India and Pakistan—with alarming regularity. They are missing important family occasions such as

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funerals and weddings, and they cannot appeal because that takes too long. They have been running up costs of up to £1,000, despite cast-iron guarantees that they will return. Will the Leader of the House ensure that we have an urgent debate on whether the policy is being applied in the same way throughout or perhaps even an explanation from the Minister for Immigration?

Sir George Young: This is a matter for the Home Office, but I am sure we have all had constituents who have had their applications turned down and then found that the process of appeal is somewhat lengthy. In some cases, the best thing to do is simply to reapply, having taken on board the reason why the refusal was given and sought to overcome it the second time around. I will share the hon. Lady’s concern with the Minister for Immigration and ask him to write to her.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): We in this House enjoyed the Humble Address presented to Her Majesty the Queen, but we should recognise that when we are away from Parliament we will be celebrating her diamond jubilee and that that is something we hold in common with a quarter of the world’s population, through the Commonwealth. May we have a debate in Government time when we return about the United Kingdom’s special relationship with the Commonwealth?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend makes a very positive suggestion. It may be that in the first instance it is appropriate to approach the Backbench Business Committee to see whether it can organise a debate on the Commonwealth, as I would be misleading her if I said that in the very near future the Government will be able to find time for such a debate.