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House of Commons

Thursday 18 July 2013

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Technology Exports

1. Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): What assistance his Department provides to UK technology companies with exports; and if he will make a statement. [165958]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): My Department helps UK technology exporters through UK Trade & Investment. In 2012-13, UKTI helped more than 3,000 companies with technology-related exports, and it is set to help more than 3,500 in 2013-14.

Sir Bob Russell: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer. He will be aware of my concern that officials in his Department are perhaps not operating a level playing field, in that American companies exporting products from their country are treated more favourably than companies in this country producing exactly the same products. Will he give me some clarification as to what is going on?

Vince Cable: First, I should explain that the Minister for Universities and Science, my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), who might have answered this question, is currently at Chequers for a Cabinet away day. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) is an assiduous defender of his constituents, their companies and their jobs. He has discussed this matter with me, and I have pursued it. It is not the case that Britain is more difficult than the United States when it comes to clearing export licences, but I have none the less established that we should dispense with some procedures relating to quarterly reporting, and we will do so. We will also work with the company in question to try to establish whether an open general licence can operate in this case.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): A survey by the Federation of Small Businesses has found that only one in five of its members uses UKTI services. What steps will the Secretary of State take to encourage UKTI to work more closely with small businesses?

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Vince Cable: The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that our overall export performance would improve considerably if more British companies were exporting. The big contrast with Germany is that roughly twice as many of its small and medium-sized enterprises are involved in exporting. UKTI has been substantially reformed in the past couple of years, and it now has a much more small and medium-sized company focus. It has activities around the country, and we have a lot of evidence that its outreach is substantially improving. I hope that it will reach the companies in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency too.

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): At the last Business, Innovation and Skills questions, the Secretary of State admitted:

“The figures on exports are not great”.—[Official Report, 13 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 470.]

Since then, the UK trade deficit has widened to the point at which it is now the largest trade gap in the European Union, and the widest it has been since 1989. Following on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), will the Secretary of State tell the House whether he is happier with export performance this month? What changes to policy or priorities will he now make to facilitate an export-led recovery, or does he not think that changes are necessary?

Vince Cable: Monthly variations are not the issue, but there is an underlying problem. British exporters are currently doing extremely well in the big emerging markets. We have rapid export growth to countries such as Russia, China, India and Brazil, for example, but exports to the eurozone are weak, for obvious reasons. We accept that there are underlying weaknesses. We have not had the recovery of export volume growth that we would expect following a substantial devaluation. Much of this relates to the way in which supply chains were hollowed out in the long period of manufacturing decline, but we are trying to rebuild them through the industrial strategy.

Automotive Industry

2. Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): What recent support his Department has given to the automotive industry. [165959]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): The automotive industrial strategy was launched on Friday by the Department in association with the Automotive Council. In partnership with industry, we will invest around £1 billion over 10 years in a new advanced propulsion centre.

Mr Jones: I met a number of business people from the motor manufacturing supply chain recently, and the main theme of the meeting was skills, and what we could do to help to increase the skills in the sector, in which there is now a real resurgence. Will my right hon. Friend explain a little more about his strategy? Will he tell us what part skills will play in it, and what more we can do to help the supply chain?

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Vince Cable: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Automotive Council has identified skills shortages as a key problem. As a result of the adoption of the strategy document, the industry has committed itself to a significant growth in the number of apprenticeships. We have already seen a considerable increase, but he is right to suggest that this is an issue not simply for the big original equipment manufacturers but for the supply chains, and a lot more needs to be done to make the car industry seriously competitive through skills.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): Will the Secretary of State comment on the success of the sector and the impact on the supply chain? On Friday, I had the benefit of meeting a small business in my constituency, Automotive Insulations, which supplies products to, among others, Jaguar Land Rover and Bentley. It is looking to move to a new 60,000 square foot building, to employ a further 60 people and to generate £1 million- worth of investment over the next few years.

Vince Cable: This is indeed a very successful industry. Over the last couple of years, we have had commitments to something in the order of £6 billion-worth of new investment. One factor has undoubtedly been the confidence that the Government are fully supportive of the industry and are working with it through the Automotive Council. The confidence factor is indeed spreading into the supply chain. There are very good economic reasons why a significant amount of the supply chain that has been offshored should now be onshored—and that process is beginning. We want to do everything we can to encourage it.

Regional Growth Fund

3. Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the performance of the regional growth fund. [165960]

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): The regional growth fund is a success. Last week, I published our first annual monitoring report, which shows that job creation in rounds 1 and 2 is on track. With our accelerated timetable, we have now completed the contracting process with all but a handful of beneficiaries in rounds 1, 2 and 3. Last week, I also announced that in round 4, 102 selected bidders will have access to over £500 million. Overall, this Government have committed over £2.6 billion to areas that most need private sector-led growth and employment.

Eric Ollerenshaw: We have now had four rounds of the regional growth fund, and the north-west has done very well out of it, for which I am grateful to the Minister. Will he confirm that the Government will continue to use this as a mechanism to narrow that north-south divide, which of course grew so much wider under the previous Government?

Michael Fallon: I thank my hon. Friend for his important report on the north, and I congratulate him on his appointment as a small business ambassador. The spending review last month confirmed that there will be further rounds of the regional growth fund in 2015-16 and in 2016-17, totalling over £300 million in each case.

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Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): If the regional growth fund is to be at all successful, it must not only create jobs but improve the skills base in our country. What checks has the Minister put in place to make sure that this actually happens?

Michael Fallon: The regional growth fund makes grants not simply to projects and individual companies, but to programmes organised by local enterprise partnerships and other private sector organisations, many of which focus on improving the level of skills in these particular areas.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Would my right hon. Friend be kind enough to accept an invitation to visit the site of the proposed junction 10A on the A14 near Kettering, which has attracted the interest of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government? An investment of £30 million in the regional growth fund could trigger private sector investment of more than £1 billion.

Michael Fallon: Happily, I have not fully finalised my summer plans, so I shall add to them this visit to a motorway junction. [Laughter.] My hon. Friend makes a serious point: there is clearly a bottleneck that needs to be removed. I will see if I can accept my hon. Friend’s invitation.


4. Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): What steps he is taking to encourage traineeships. [165961]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Skills (Matthew Hancock): Following the spending review, we have extended the traineeships programme to young people up to the age of 24. Yesterday, we published the framework for delivery, and the first traineeships will start next month. We have already had strong interest expressed from employers such as Mercedes and Brompton Bicycle Ltd. We very much look forward to taking the programme forward.

Mark Menzies: Skills delivery is at its best when it is led by employers and by businesses. Can my hon. Friend assure me that that will remain the case throughout?

Matthew Hancock: Absolutely. It is vital to make sure that the skills system is focused on the needs of employers so that people who go through that system go on to get an apprenticeship and a good job. That is exactly what the traineeship scheme is designed to achieve.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): The Government suggested that trainees might be eligible for jobseeker’s allowance while they are undertaking their traineeships. Has the Minister sorted out the details with the Department for Work and Pensions because, at the moment, someone studying for more than 15 hours a week would not be eligible for the benefit?

Matthew Hancock: The hon. Lady makes an important point because the link to the benefits system, particularly for those aged over 18 who are in traineeships, is vital. In the framework for delivery set out yesterday, she will

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have seen the details, ensuring that eligibility for JSA and eligibility to get a traineeship are aligned. Of course, with the introduction of universal credit and changes in the jobcentres, we are making it easier for people to get training while also looking for work. Work experience is a vital part of that and a vital part of traineeships.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): Employers are being encouraged to provide travel support for young trainees. Will the Minister look closely at the issue of young people living in remote rural areas, and ensure that they, as well as those who happen to live near their employers, are given fair access to traineeships?

Matthew Hancock: Not only will I look at that issue closely but I have already done so, because it is a vital aspect of traineeships. Traineeships are there because far too many people leave school or college without the skills that they need to secure a job or apprenticeship. Of course we are reforming the school system to sort out that problem, but we must also ensure that everyone has an opportunity to acquire the character traits and skills that they need in order to get a job, and transport is a vital part of the practicalities of making that happen.

Universal Service Obligation

5. Graeme Morrice (Livingston) (Lab): What steps he is taking to protect the universal service obligation under plans for the privatisation of Royal Mail. [165963]

12. Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): What steps he is taking to protect the universal service obligation under plans for the privatisation of Royal Mail. [165974]

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): The Government’s overarching objective is to secure the future of the universal postal service. The minimum requirements of the universal service are enshrined in primary legislation, which means that the six-days-a-week, one-price-goes-anywhere service to every address in the United Kingdom can only be amended by Parliament. That protection will continue to apply following any sale of shares in Royal Mail.

Graeme Morrice: The Government’s Royal Mail privatisation has been opposed by a broad coalition, including employees of Royal Mail, the Countryside Alliance, the National Federation of SubPostmasters, and even the Conservative think-tank the Bow Group. Moreover, the results of a recent poll showed that the vast majority of the British public oppose it as well. Is it not time that the Secretary of State abandoned his plans for the fire sale of Royal Mail in the face of that overwhelming opposition?

Michael Fallon: Last week’s announcement confirmed our plans to allow this very successful British business access to private capital for the first time, and to deliver what Parliament agreed more than two years ago, namely that 10% of the company should be in the hands of the work force.

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Chris Williamson: Despite those assurances, the public have seen that previous ideologically driven and badly executed privatisations have led to substandard services and price increases. The fact is that the polls show that the vast majority of the British public oppose this privatisation. Why is the Minister riding roughshod over the wishes of the British people?

Michael Fallon: Parliament has already decided that Royal Mail should have access to private capital. We are implementing that decision of Parliament, and the decision to put 10% of the shares in the hands of the employees. The level of service is protected under the Postal Services Act 2011, and any change in ownership does not affect control over the price of stamps or the future of the six-days-a-week service.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): It is clear that there are none so deaf as those who do not want to hear. My right hon. Friend has stated on many occasions—but perhaps he will reiterate it for the benefit of the House—that, regardless of ownership, Royal Mail will remain the designated universal service provider.

Michael Fallon: Yes, and my hon. Friend need not take my word for that. It is in the statute. It is a duty of the regulator, Ofcom, to ensure that the service is protected, and that can only be changed by a vote in Parliament.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s reassurances, but my constituents in the remoter reaches of west Cornwall, and indeed on the Isles of Scilly, want to be reassured about the delivery of not only first and second-class letters and postcards, but packages. They fear that the cost of those services will become prohibitive. What can be done to protect my constituents from exorbitant charges?

Michael Fallon: The best protection that I can offer my hon. Friend is to ensure that Royal Mail’s finances are put on a sustainable, long-term footing, and that it has access to the capital that it needs in order to innovate, compete and respond to changing technologies. Its parcels business is already growing rapidly, but it is in a competitive marketplace, and we need to free it so that it can operate like any other commercial company.

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): As the Minister will appreciate, a universal service depends not only on deliveries but on uplift points, and there are serious concerns about the post office network and in particular whether post office locals will all be able to provide the parcel service. If that comes to pass, what powers do Ofcom or the Minister have to intervene to make sure that service is available?

Michael Fallon: I am proud to be part of a Government who have put an end to the post office closure programme we saw in the last few years. That has been brought to an end, and the post office network is being put on to a better footing, but the regulator Ofcom has all the powers it needs to ensure that the universal, six-days-a-week, everywhere-in-the-UK service is fully protected in the future, irrespective of any change in ownership.

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Royal Mail

6. Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): What progress he has made on a sale of shares in Royal Mail. [165965]

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): On 10 July the Secretary of State laid a report in Parliament and made an oral statement setting out our decision to sell Royal Mail shares through an initial public offering in this financial year. Shares will be available to both institutional and retail investors, and 10% of the shares will be available free of charge to eligible employees so that they have a real stake in the business.

Richard Graham: As my right hon. Friend the Minister has already heard this morning—and there are postcard campaigns to confirm it—a large amount of misleading information is being given to my constituents in Gloucester and elsewhere in the country: claims that the Royal Mail and the Post Office are the same entity, and that the Queen’s head will go, the universal service disappear and prices rise. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those of us who want to see Royal Mail succeed deplore this campaign of misleading information and want the innovation from new capital investing in new equipment, such as to track parcels that will enable Royal Mail to succeed in the way all of us in this House want?

Michael Fallon: Given that Parliament has already decided that this is the right future for Royal Mail, I hope the Opposition will now join in dismissing some of the unnecessary scaremongering, and make clear what would happen if there was ever the horror of a future Labour Government: do they intend to renationalise the Royal Mail?

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): It is not misleading to say that when the share-owning democracy of Mrs Thatcher was launched in the ’80s and ’90s and all those public utilities were sold off and many of the employees received shares—just like the possibility of that on this occasion—the net result is that those public utilities, almost without exception, are now owned by as many as 30 countries. What guarantee has the Minister got that this will not happen to Royal Mail as well?

Michael Fallon: In a public offering it is not possible to prevent others from subscribing for the shares, but we hope that Royal Mail, given now the freedom— later this year, we hope—to access private capital, will be put on to a longer-term sustainable footing and will be able to develop its business not just here in Britain, but overseas.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I remember what happened when Rolls-Royce was privatised and the work force were given shares—I did not accept any, by the way. Within about two years those shares will be sold. This is only a sop to the work force.

Michael Fallon: I have yet to hear whether the Opposition want to renationalise any of these businesses—Rolls-Royce or British Telecom or British Airways. I think they at least owe it to the 130,000 employees of Royal Mail to make clear whether they would renationalise the business.

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Employment Law Reform

7. Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): What recent progress he has made on employment law reform. [165966]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): We are making good progress on our review of employment law. On Friday the Government published an update including a call for evidence on whistleblowing and outlining that the new employment tribunal rules of procedure will come into effect on 29 July. We are also making changes through the Children and Families Bill to extend the right to request flexible working to everyone and introduce a radical new system of shared parental leave.

Mary Macleod: In the last few weeks two Opposition Front-Bench Members have been to my constituency to talk to businesses, and I am so glad they are taking their lead from the Prime Minister, who was there in 2011 to talk to small businesses about simplifying employment legislation. Will the Minister build on the great work this Government have been doing in simplifying the process of doing business for entrepreneurs by reducing the amount of red tape and admin?

Jo Swinson: I commend my hon. Friend on her work championing small business in her constituency and beyond. She is absolutely right that we need to drive through the implementation of the reforms we have already outlined. She will be pleased to note that the CBI-Harvey Nash employment trends survey shows a significant improvement in employer perceptions of the burden of employment law. That is good for British business and good for job creation, too.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): According to the OECD, the UK already has one of the most lightly regulated labour markets among developed countries; only the USA and Canada have lighter regulation. Why on earth are we trying to water down employment rights even further?

Jo Swinson: The first thing I would say to the hon. Lady is that our lightly regulated employment market is an asset to the British economy. It helps the economy to grow and it is one of the reasons why, despite the very challenging economic circumstances we have seen and despite the fact that unemployment is still too high, we have seen employment rates bear up rather better than in some other countries. It is important that we simplify employment law—I would have hoped that there would be cross-party agreement on that—but of course it is also important for a functioning economy that we ensure that basic protections remain in place for workers.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con) rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. In conformity with long-standing convention, the hon. Gentleman cannot come in a second time on substantive questions. His enthusiasm and appetite are appreciated and he can try his luck during topical questions.

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Lending to Small Businesses

8. Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): In how many of the past 24 months net lending by banks to British small businesses has (a) risen and (b) fallen. [165967]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): The Bank of England now publishes monthly estimates for lending by UK banks to small and medium-sized companies. Those figures show for the 24 months up to May 2013 an increase in net lending in two months and a decrease in the others. The Government are working to increase the lending available to SMEs through the new business bank and, with the Bank of England, through the funding for lending scheme.

Tom Blenkinsop: Does the Secretary of State agree with the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), that there is no evidence that the funding for lending scheme is helping small business?

Vince Cable: The funding for lending scheme primarily benefits mortgage lending, but changes were made in April to make it accessible to asset-based finance, for example. Several of the new challenger banks are now taking advantage of it, and it is beginning to make an impact on SME lending.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): I visited the bank recently and was told that all people who come to it are given a fair hearing and that small business men are getting the loans they need. Is it not the case that what got the banks into this mess was irresponsible and over-optimistic lending and that what we need now is prudent and responsible lending to small businesses?

Vince Cable: Of course, we need prudent, responsible lending, but I subscribe to the view, which I hear frequently around the country, that many SMEs find it difficult to access finance from the banks and that we cannot just let the situation remain as it is. That is why we are in the process of establishing the business bank, which is currently marketing £300 million. There is substantial interest in investing in that project.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): In the last period of time, it has been quite understandable that there have been problems with getting loans from banks, but another problem has been with small and medium-sized businesses being paid in time. It has been suggested that some £30 billion is outstanding in payments from big business to small business. What steps are being taken by the Secretary of State to help small business get moneys paid on time by big business?

Vince Cable: My colleague the Minister of State has launched an initiative to ensure rapid settlement, particularly down the supply chain. We name the big companies that do not settle their debts properly in that way. We also have a programme of supply chain financing, the advanced manufacturing supply chain initiative, which will help the settlements to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

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Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): Two years ago, there was a crisis in small business lending. We have just heard from the Secretary of State that in 22 of those 24 months, it has got worse. The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales is the latest to acknowledge that the Government response to the SME funding crisis is totally inadequate, using a British investment bank that funnels existing inadequate schemes through our uncompetitive banking system. Is it not time that the Secretary of State admitted that the Government will never deliver the scale of change needed and threw his weight behind Labour’s plan for a new generation of local banks with local decision making, based on the key features of the German Sparkasse model? Let us get the real change that British small businesses desperately need.

Vince Cable: I am a great fan of the German Sparkasse system, and it is a pity that we never had it in Britain. If the hon. Gentleman looks back on the record of the previous Labour Government, he will recall that in 2000, they had a report prepared for them on the inadequacies of British business lending and the enormous problems created by the fact that four banks accounted for all the business. The Government of the day, despite urging from myself and others, did absolutely nothing about the problem. As a result, we went into the banking crisis with massively over-concentrated ownership and damaged banks that are no longer able to perform properly. We are seeking reform, supporting new challenger banks though the business bank, and dealing with a problem that should have been dealt with a decade ago.


9. Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the take-up of apprenticeships. [165968]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Skills (Matthew Hancock): There were 520,000 apprenticeship starts in the academic year 2011-12. That is almost double the number in 2010. Our priority is to make apprenticeships both widely available and the very best quality, rooting out poor provision and enforcing a minimum duration. As we speak, 750,000 people are on an apprenticeship, which is a record: it is more than at any time in our history.

Mr Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for that response. As he knows, I have a lot of engineering companies in my constituency, the largest being GE Aviation, which has more than 100 apprentices. Nevertheless, those companies find it difficult to recruit young people. Is the Minister satisfied that schools have adequate incentives to promote the concept of apprenticeship schemes, and will he consider awarding them recognition status marks for each apprenticeship that is taken up?

Matthew Hancock: We introduced a new duty on schools to provide independent and impartial advice in September, and Ofsted is looking at, and will report on, how well that is being implemented. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who brings together companies in his constituency to promote skills and working together, so that even though companies compete locally and nationally

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with their products, they come together on the skills issue to make sure that they give new skills to young people, rather than poaching from each other.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): The Minister’s Department has found that one in five apprentices currently receives no training. There has also been a reported rise in employers’ non-compliance with the national minimum wage for apprentices. Does he agree that for apprenticeships to be of value, apprentices need decent training, and need to be paid a decent wage? What is his Department doing to ensure that that happens?

Matthew Hancock: Yes, I do, and we are taking action.

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): Will the Minister join me in welcoming the initiative of Worcestershire housing associations, which created an 18-to-30 apprenticeships and job fair, bringing together local employers and the National Apprenticeship Service? Does he agree that the huge increase in apprenticeship take-up is one of the reasons why youth unemployment in Worcester is down 30% from its peak under Labour?

Matthew Hancock: It is very good news that youth unemployment is falling—there was a 20,000 fall announced yesterday—but it is still too high, and there is still much more to do. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work, and the work of others across the House, to make sure that apprenticeships and traineeships are available in future to help with that.

Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): Does not the Minister’s rhetoric on apprenticeships hit the buffers in reality? No amount of his crowing or tweeting alters the latest facts: there is a 13% drop in 16 to 18-year-olds starting apprenticeships, and a 6% drop across the board. He has failed to take up our plans to create thousands of new apprenticeships via Government procurement, and he has also failed to get a deal with Department for Work and Pensions Ministers. The Association of Colleges said yesterday that 14 to 19-year-olds taking up his new traineeships, so that they can move on to apprenticeships, are not likely to have any money to live on. When will he stop dithering and start delivering?

Matthew Hancock: We are delivering the new traineeships from next month. Given the need, after years of inaction, to bring together support for work experience and skills for those approaching the job market, I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that. I would have thought that the Opposition would have supported the rise in the number of apprenticeships to record levels since the election.

Payday Lenders

10. Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): What the outcomes were of his Department’s summit meeting with payday lenders on 1 July 2013; and if he will make a statement. [165970]

11. Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): What the outcomes were of his Department’s summit meeting with payday lenders on 1 July 2013; and if he will make a statement. [165972]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): The Government’s payday lending summit provided an excellent opportunity to deliver a strong message to the payday industry to get its house in order. It focused particularly on the Financial Conduct Authority’s priorities for reducing consumer harm when it becomes the regulator in April, ahead of its consultation on its credit rulebook this September.

Jonathan Reynolds: I welcome the Minister’s answer and the summit, but let us be honest—the Government have consistently ducked clamping down on predatory pricing and extortionate interest charges, despite the amendment secured last year in the House of Lords that gives the regulators the ability to control costs and loan duration. Notwithstanding the spin of holding a payday lenders summit, when is the Minister going to promise to act so that families across the country can be protected from these predatory activities?

Jo Swinson: Significant action is being taken. The Office of Fair Trading has referred the industry to the Competition Commission because of widespread non-compliance. It is taking its own enforcement action, which has already resulted in a third of the lenders that have responded so far—the rest are due to do so this month—leaving the market altogether as a result of the tough action being taken. We have given the FCA stronger powers to enable it to ban products, impose unlimited fines and order money to be paid back to consumers who have been ripped off. That is a pretty comprehensive package of action to clamp down on this unscrupulous and irresponsible lending behaviour.

Ann McKechin: If other jurisdictions, such as Florida, already have effective real-time recording systems that stop borrowers accumulating unpayable debts, why cannot we have such a system here, now?

Jo Swinson: Such systems rely on the industry to be able to update them. The industry is looking at and working on that. We have credit reference agencies, which work well in many of the credit markets, but the real-time issue that the hon. Lady raises is a genuine one and more difficult to set up than the systems in place. We are encouraging the industry to address that, because it will help to improve affordability assessments.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Is this issue not also about the level of household debt—households running into debt and not knowing how to manage a household budget? Much more information should be available to take people away from payday lenders.

Jo Swinson: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We are introducing financial education in schools, which is an important development to make sure that people have the tools to make decisions, but it is also important to note that half of the people who take out a payday loan are already showing signs of financial stress. So although we need to tackle the problems of payday lending, we also need to tackle the problems that get people there in the first place, and make sure that they have good access to the free and

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confidential debt advice available. I encourage anyone in financial difficulty to seek help sooner rather than later.

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): A recent report by the Office of Fair Trading accused payday lenders of causing “misery and hardship”. The Minister herself said that

“the scale of unscrupulous behaviour . . . and the impact on consumers is deeply concerning”

and that the Government

“wants to see tough action”.

Despite an amendment in the other place last year, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) referred, to give the regulators the ability to curb costs, the Minister is still failing to act. The public will note with interest that a major donor to the Conservative party, Adrian Beecroft, has a significant interest in this industry. Is that what is holding the hon. Lady back from stronger regulation? She is in severe danger of becoming known as the Minister for APR.

Jo Swinson: The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is no, because the Government are taking significant action. I think he misunderstands; the OFT report shows the biggest set of problems in the industry. I know that much of the focus ends up on the APR headlines, but the surveys and the consumer organisations working with the issue day in, day out show the problems around issues such as affordability assessments, continuous payment authority abuse and abuse of the way in which roll-overs are used. The FCA has said specifically that it is looking to plug any gaps in regulation in all those areas when it takes on the role of regulator next April. We do not have to wait very long to see its draft rule book, which will be published this September.

Supply Chains

13. Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the value of supply chains to the UK economy. [165976]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Skills (Matthew Hancock): In the UK and across the world, supply chains are diverse, complex and global. Their value is huge and their importance is vital. Support for supply chains is studded through our policy and underpinned by the industrial strategies.

Neil Carmichael: In contrast to the Labour Government, this Government are clearly doing something to build capacity in our supply chains. I welcome that and I see evidence of it in my constituency. May I stress the importance of making sure that supply chains are developed in our regions to ensure that we have a truly balanced economy, not just between manufacturing and services, but across our regions?

Matthew Hancock: Absolutely. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on promoting the importance of supply chains, not least because of the high proportion of manufacturing in his constituency. We will make sure that they stay at front and centre of what we do in the Department.

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Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): One of the biggest infrastructure projects in this country over the next 20 years will be the construction of High Speed 2. That, through the supply chain, has potential benefits for businesses and workers not just along the route of HS2, but throughout the entire UK. What steps is the Department taking to engage in discussion with the Department for Transport to ensure that those supply chain benefits are indeed available throughout the entire UK?

Matthew Hancock: There are continual discussions between the Department and the Department for Transport about making sure that great benefits accrue not only when we build important infrastructure, but during its construction. We must ensure that there is good value for money, but value for money should be considered in the broadest possible sense.

Economic Growth (Humber)

14. Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the prospects for economic growth in the Humber sub-region. [165977]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): We are working hard to support the Humber local enterprise partnership to deliver the priorities for growth set out in their plan for the Humber. In round 4 of the regional growth fund £21.3 million was allocated to two successful bids from the Humber, one of them from the local authority in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Martin Vickers: The local economy is experiencing something of a renaissance. Only yesterday, I and colleagues from neighbouring constituencies met a representative from Scunthorpe-based Wren Kitchens, which is looking to take over the former Kimberley Clark factory at Barton-upon-Humber, which closed earlier this year with the loss of 500 jobs. The hope is that, within two or three years, those jobs will be replaced one-for-one. It is a major site and there were fears that it would turn into a rusting hulk. Will my right hon. Friend, or one of his ministerial team, commit to visiting the factory when it opens in the near future?

Vince Cable: I praise my hon. Friend for the work that he has done. He has already taken me to his constituency and shown me the plans for the area. The Kimberley Clark closure was a major blow and it is good to hear that it is being replaced. Last week I was with the Humber local enterprise partnership when it met in Hull. We discussed some of these plans, particularly the enormous potential of the energy sector in the North sea. I am certainly very happy to visit that factory in due course.

Economic Development (North-East)

15. Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): What steps he is taking to promote sustainable economic development in the North East. [165980]

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): I welcome the most recent reduction in unemployment in the north-east. Across

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the region we have offered support of £330 million to 101 projects and programmes through the regional growth fund with the potential to safeguard or create 66,000 jobs. We are also working with the North Eastern local enterprise partnership to agree a local growth deal based on Lord Adonis’s recent report.

Chi Onwurah: The north-east has real strengths in sustainable process energy and transport industries, but lacks the funds and the skills to support them. Since the demise of the regional development authority, there has not been an effective champion to bring this about. The regional growth fund is not getting the money through quickly enough. What is he going to do to change that, so that the skills and the finances are available to industry in the north-east?

Michael Fallon: If I may say so, the hon. Lady is taking a rather pessimistic view of her region. There is plenty of money flowing from the regional growth fund to projects, two of which I have visited on the Tyne. There is plenty more support to come through the structural fund allocation, which has also gone to the local enterprise partnership, and through the invitation that has gone to the region to bid for the single local growth fund from 2015-16.

Science and Society

16. Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): What outcomes his Department is seeking through its science and society budget. [165981]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): Our science and society programme successfully engages people of all ages and backgrounds with science. It includes 25,000 science, technology, engineering and mathematics ambassadors providing positive role models for students to increase and widen participation in science; the biggest ever Big Bang Fair in March this year; and public dialogue supported through Sciencewise to inform public policy.

Hugh Bayley: The Science Museum Group, which includes the National Railway museum in York, has had its budget cut by a quarter over the last two spending reviews. It does immensely important work in encouraging young people to take an interest in science, leading to careers in science. Will the Minister meet people from the museum to consider how the science and society budget could be used to fund some of their outreach work, especially with young people?

Jo Swinson: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the science budget has been protected because we absolutely recognise the importance of science and research to the future economy and in encouraging people to take on science. The lead sponsor Department for the Science museum and museums generally is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and colleagues in DCMS will have been engaging significantly with the Science museum and others. I am sure that the relevant Minister will be very happy to meet—

Hugh Bayley: Will you meet them? It is your budget.

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Jo Swinson: I will happily do so. I am answering on behalf of a colleague, but I will happily have that meeting.

Hugh Bayley: Thank you.

Mr Speaker: Order. We are ahead of ourselves, notwithstanding the sedentary chuntering. All relevant personnel are present and correct so we will proceed with topical questions.

Topical Questions

T1. [165983] Hazel Blears (Salford and Eccles) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): My Department plays a key role in supporting the rebalancing of the economy through business to deliver growth while increasing skills and learning.

Hazel Blears: The Secretary of State will be aware that legislation is in place, supported by the Government, to ensure that when commissioning public services we seek social value as part of a wider value-for-money framework. That means local jobs, local supply chains, apprenticeships and local labour. How will the Secretary of State ensure that in his area, through the regional growth fund and massive investment in infrastructure, we get the same kind of social value to support our regional and local economies and get young people back to work?

Vince Cable: I recognise the considerable value of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, and I acknowledge the right hon. Lady’s role in promoting its take-up. The Department has a unit that is currently promoting social enterprise, which lies at the core of this issue. Some 68,000 such enterprises now employ 1 million people, and I was at the launch of that unit last year. For our overall policy, we try through the industrial strategy to ensure that procurement is strategic and takes into account long-term training and innovation requirements.

T2. [165986] Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): My right hon. Friend is well aware of the scandal of mis-selling interest rate derivatives to small businesses, but despite the establishment of the Financial Conduct Authority redress scheme in January, not a penny has yet been paid out to small businesses. On Tuesday, one small business was offered a redress package for a technical fault of £1.3 million, but the offer was made on condition that no payments would be made by the bank in question unless the business also settled the consequential loss claim. Will my right hon. Friend take up that issue with the FCA and ensure that technical redress is paid prior to any agreement on consequential losses?

Vince Cable: My hon. Friend is right that this is a major scandal and it is being pursued through negotiation with the banks. As he rightly says, there are major anxieties about the terms of the settlement and some of the products currently excluded from it. I will see the head of the FCA next week to pursue the matter

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in some detail on behalf of my hon. Friend and his colleagues, and I acknowledge the enormous work he has done in the background to bring these problems to proper attention.

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): Businesses, particularly on the high street, have found the trading environment very tough while the economy has flatlined for three years under this Government. Does the Business Secretary agree that increasing parking enforcement charges at this time would be nonsensical and drive customers away from businesses in our town centres at the very time they need that custom?

Vince Cable: Of course there has been a major problem in many of our high streets as a result of the recession, and particularly as a result of the development of internet commerce, which has changed the pattern of shopping. As the hon. Gentleman knows, parking charges are primarily an issue for local authorities, but the Department has developed a strategy with the retail sector to help it develop areas of growth, including export business.

Mr Umunna: The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), said this week that the Government are consulting on proposals to increase the maximum parking enforcement charges that local authorities may levy outside London—a competence for which they are responsible. Apparently, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government thinks that would be a bad idea, but he is in no position to lecture given that Conservative councils impose higher parking charges than others. We are clear that massively hiking parking enforcement charges at this time for businesses and their customers amounts to a stealth tax on our high streets. Why does the Business Secretary not stand up for our businesses and kill off that proposal?

Vince Cable: I already have responsibility for one of the biggest Departments in Government, and taking over responsibility for parking charges from my colleagues and local councils would be an exercise in departmental imperialism that I will not embark on. I note the hon. Gentleman’s question and I am happy to talk to my colleagues in government about it, but he is missing the bigger picture of how we help the retail sector adapt to the massive technological changes that are taking place, and the perverse fiscal incentives that currently operate.

T3. [165987] Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): What efforts are the Minister and his Department taking to support small and medium-sized businesses in Lancashire in the export market?

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): My hon. Friend might know that more resource has been made available to UK Export Finance. It is important now to ensure that more and more SMEs understand that export finance assistance is not just something for the large companies, such as Rolls-Royce and BAE, but available to SMEs up and down the country. We will market our efforts there more intensively.

T7. [165992] Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Does the Business Secretary agree that the target, set by the Treasury on a moving basis, to be met

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before the UK Green Investment Bank can actually become a green investment bank—that public sector debt must be falling as a percentage of GDP—presents serious challenges for people planning green and low-carbon investments for the future? If so, will he take the opportunity of the recess to seek an urgent meeting with the Chancellor to see whether he can change that formula, so that the UK Green Investment Bank can actually become a green investment bank in the not-to-distant future?

Vince Cable: I think the hon. Gentleman might have missed some recent announcements. The UK Green Investment Bank is now succeeding and expanding rapidly, having already committed £700 million or more. In the spending reviews for 2015-16 and 2017-18, the Treasury has committed to providing an extra £800 million of funding and to beginning borrowing, initially through the national loans fund, in order to meet the objective I think he wishes to achieve.

T4. [165988] Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Boomerang Plastics is an innovative recycling start-up based in Tamworth and looking to expand, but one of its challenges is finding the right space to expand. What are Ministers doing with the Department for Communities and Local Government to encourage developers to construct the right sorts of business parks and to encourage local authorities to offer the right sorts of planning rights to allow firms such as Boomerang to find the space to grow and expand?

Michael Fallon: My hon. Friend raises an important point. It will be for his local enterprise partnership, as part of its local growth strategy, to ensure sufficient space for the development of business parks, so that companies can grow successfully without constantly having to move from their premises and can expand next door.

Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): There is considerable concern among the further education college sector about the potential low take-up of the post-24 advanced learning loans and the impact that that will have on people’s finances. What assessment has the Minister made of this issue, and what help will he give to those colleges, if indeed there is such a low take-up?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Skills (Matthew Hancock): Since we launched the loans in April, there has been a robust take-up, and we are working hard to ensure not only that colleges are aware of the opportunities presented by loans to help over-24s to learn at higher levels, but that people are aware of the opportunities available to improve their skills.

Mr Speaker: Sir Malcolm Bruce—not here.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): It has now been confirmed that the chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, the lobbyist for the large pub companies, made two false statements to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and said on television that the Government had figures for pub closures, which they do not. The opponents of much needed reform are conducting a campaign of misinformation. What assurances can I get from the

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Minister that the claims being made, which are simply not backed up by evidence, will not be taken into consideration when the decision is made?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): My hon. Friend, who has been a strong campaigner on this issue, will know that the Government have conducted a consultation on the proposed statutory adjudicator and code for pubs, which has had more than 1,100 written responses, while we have had more than 7,000 responses to the online survey. Clearly, ploughing through and analysing all that information is taking a little time. He raises concerns about the issues with the Select Committee, but obviously Select Committees can ask further questions of witnesses, if they have concerns. I am happy to meet him, however, to discuss his concerns further.

Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State have any plans to look at the Insolvency Act 1986? Hedge funds appear to have the ability to acquire companies, to empty them of their assets, to appoint administrators of their choosing and to proceed without fear of being pursued vigorously. That certainly seems to be what is happening at Coventry City football club. Will he look at the situation and the framework of the law?

Vince Cable: Yes, we are doing just that. I spoke on Monday about that question in the general context of trusted business. We are, indeed, looking at the insolvency provisions. We are looking at insolvency practitioners’ fees, at some of the potential conflicts of interest that arise in that industry and at the regulatory framework.

T6. [165991] Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): Small businesses in Congleton and across the country struggle with the burden of regulations from Brussels. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the work of the business-led taskforce on EU regulation, which he is chairing?

Michael Fallon: Yes, the Prime Minister and I met the taskforce last week, and I will be meeting it again tomorrow. We have issued a call for evidence, which gives companies large and small the opportunity to provide us with concrete examples of European rules and regulations, including new proposals, that pose unnecessary barriers to the growth of British businesses and need reform. I encourage all hon. Members to ask businesses in their constituencies to submit examples and evidence to the taskforce.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Ministers are considering responses to the consultation on the recasting of the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive. There are real concerns that the interests of large producers will prevail, so would Ministers be prepared to meet me and representatives of the independent recycling organisations, which have deep concerns, to discuss their concerns?

Michael Fallon: Yes, I would be happy to do that. I know that the consultation has instigated a number of concerns across the sector. I have spoken at one of the conferences involved, and I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady.

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Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): HSBC has shut its branch in Masham and is now doing the same in Pateley Bridge, deep in the Yorkshire dales, in one of the most rural counties in England. In discussions with senior bank executives, will my right hon. Friend make the case for rural areas, lest we get into a banking-free, financial services-free zone in our most remote locations?

Vince Cable: I note what my hon. Friend has said. Of course, it is worth recalling that banking services are being disseminated through the post office network, and one of the consequences of our being able to save that network from large-scale closures is that banking services are available now even in the most remote rural areas.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State say what discussions he has had with the Home Office about the introduction of cash bonds for student visas, which has had a lot of negative press coverage overseas? Does he agree that the introduction of such bonds, either for student visitor visas or for tier 4 visas, would further damage international student recruitment?

Vince Cable: I am in constant contact with the Home Office about such matters. It is worth pointing out that the concept involves offering the possibility of a bond to people who have otherwise been rejected in the course of a visa application, so if it operates according to that spirit, it should ease, rather than make more difficult, access to visas.

Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): May I thank my right hon. Friend for his Department’s decision to locate the world’s first Transport Systems Catapult centre in Milton Keynes? Does he agree that it will help to establish this country as one of the world’s leading development centres for transport systems?

Vince Cable: The Government have every reason to be proud of the catapult programme, which is now expanding quite rapidly. We are thereby able, through the Technology Strategy Board, to concentrate research excellence in particular locations. Some, such as those for renewable energy and advanced manufacturing, are now at an advanced stage of development, and I am delighted to hear that my hon. Friend is pleased with the location of the automotive centre.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State get together with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to have a look at the way in which the Football League applies its regulations to private ownership of football clubs, because there is a diabolical mess at Coventry at the moment?

Vince Cable: Coventry seems to have some problem in that area. I come from the city of York, which went through this misery, as many towns have done in the English league. I can certainly have a look at that; it is not immediately clear to me where I fit into the picture, but I am interested in football and want to see it healthy.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): On employment law reform, does the Secretary of State agree that there would be a significant boost to our country’s small

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businesses if the cost of attending employment tribunals was reduced, given that, according to his Department, the average cost of successfully responding to and defending a claim is £6,200?

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue. It is fair to say that employment tribunals are costly in terms of time, money and stress for everybody involved, both employers and employees, so what we are trying to do through our employment law reforms is reduce the number of cases going to tribunal. We are streamlining the rules of procedure, which should also help to reduce costs, but the really important savings will come from getting more cases resolved through early conciliation, which is what the Government are pressing ahead with.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): This morning the Globe group of parliamentarians held a seminar highlighting the risk of financial instability as a result of the overvaluation of fossil fuel reserves internationally and nationally without taking account of international climate change commitments. Will the Government contact regulators to ensure that they take into account the risks of instability and ensure that we

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do not see the bursting of a carbon bubble in the way we saw dotcom bubbles burst and other collapses in the markets?

Vince Cable: That falls well outside my area of competence, but I have a personal interest in it. One thing I learnt from my years in the oil and gas industry is that it is very unwise to predict movements in the price of oil, whether up or down. The hon. Gentleman raises an important and fundamental question that I am interested in and will pursue if it is relevant to my Department.

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): Brompton Bicycle Ltd in Brentford is a brilliant example of British manufacturing and engineering. It has been growing at 25% a year over the past three years, sells 40,000 bikes a year and exports 80% of what it makes to 44 countries. Will the Minister meet me and Brompton Bicycle Ltd to talk about how it can find the funding to buy new premises in order to grow even further?

Michael Fallon: I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and Brompton Bicycle. I am already aware of how successful and ambitious a company it is. We will do what we can to help it expand further.

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Business of the House

10.32 am

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House give us the business for some time in the middle of September?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr Andrew Lansley): The business for the week commencing 2 September is as follows:

Monday 2 September—Launch of the second report from the Procedure Committee on private Members’ Bills, followed by a debate on a motion relating to the future for postal services in rural areas, followed by a debate on a motion relating to the all-party parliamentary cycling group’s report, “Get Britain Cycling”. The subjects for these debates have been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 3 September—Second Reading of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill.

Wednesday 4 September—Opposition day [6th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 5 September—A general debate on high-cost credit, followed by a general debate on the north-east independent economic review report. The subjects for these debates have been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 6 September—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 9 September will include:

Monday 9 September—Consideration in Committee of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill (Day 1).

Tuesday 10 September—Consideration in Committee of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill (Day 2).

Wednesday 11 September—Conclusion in Committee of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill. The Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to name Opposed Private Business for consideration.

Thursday 12 September—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 13 September—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 9 and 12 September will be:

Monday 9 September—General debate on an e-petition relating to age-related tax allowances.

Thursday 12 September—General debate on UK trade and investment.

As this is the last business questions before the summer recess, may I, on behalf of the House, thank all its staff for their hard work? I hope that they have a good and very well-deserved break before we return at the beginning of September.

Ms Eagle: I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for the first two weeks in September.

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It is Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday today, and I am sure that all Members across the House will want to wish him well as he fights his illness in hospital.

Last week I said that this Government have a blind spot when it comes to women. The Leader of the House told me that he did not agree, so what does he have to say about yesterday’s mocking of the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), who was miaowed and clawed at behind her back while speaking in the Chamber because of the outfit she was wearing? Does he think that this boorish behaviour by his Back Benchers is acceptable?

As the House adjourns for the summer recess this afternoon, may I take this opportunity to thank you, Mr Speaker, and all the House staff for the support provided to Members and their staff throughout the year? We are very grateful to all House staff for the support that they give us.

Before everyone heads off to their constituencies for the recess, I would like to give some end-of-term awards. The Man of the People award goes to the Chancellor for his posh burgers and mockney accent. The Bungle of the Year award goes to the Defence Secretary for his spectacularly bad attempt at making a statement to the House on Army reserves. The most contested category, Smear of the Year, was this week snatched by the late entry by the Health Secretary, ably assisted by his barnacle-scraper, Lynton Crosby.

With the Lords due to sit until the end of July and the Commons not due to return until early September, it is clear that this Parliament is no more joined up than this Government. With the two Houses now completely out of kilter, it is practically impossible for Joint Committees to meet. Does the Leader of the House really think that that is a desirable state of affairs, and will he make sure that this practice is brought to an end?

I note that we are to discuss the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill in the first two weeks back. The Bill is not even 24 hours off the press but it is already being derided by campaigners, charities and lobbyists alike for failing to regulate over 80% of the industry. The Government’s Bill is a cheap, partisan attack on Opposition funding. It is constructed solely to divert attention from the real lobbying scandals of their dodgy donors dinners in Downing street.

It has been a bad week for Australians both in the Ashes and in No. 10. At Prime Minister’s questions on Wednesday, the Prime Minister once more pointedly avoided answering the question of whether he had discussed the plain packaging of cigarettes with Lynton Crosby. The Leader of the House may remember saying when he was Health Secretary:

“The evidence is clear that packaging helps to recruit smokers, so it makes sense to consider having less attractive packaging. It’s wrong that children are being attracted to smoke by glitzy designs on packets.”

Why has he changed his mind on this issue? I wonder whether he agrees with the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who tweeted yesterday:

“I’ve seen how election strategists drive current policy & simply untrue to suggest otherwise. It’s why we must know who else pays them”.

Quite so. It is clearly now in the public interest that the House is given full information about Lynton Crosby’s influence. At a minimum, he should publish his client

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list immediately. Will the Leader of the House support our calls for an inquiry into whether the ministerial code has been broken?

In his hysterical attacks on trade unions in the past few weeks, the Prime Minister has been emulating Senator McCarthy, but this week it has been more like Big Brother from “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. In that masterful novel, George Orwell wrote that the Party’s slogan was:

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

I think that we might just have found the Conservative party’s new motto.

We may be living in Tory Orwellian times in which the Government think that Newspeak trumps reality, but we will not let their propaganda go unchecked. They can make all the claims they like about the NHS, but we know that it was they who did not act on 14 failing trusts. They can pretend that plan A is working, but we know that we have had a weaker recovery than during the great depression and that long-term unemployment is at a 17-year high. They can blame anyone other than themselves for as long as they like, but the British people will not be fooled. If the Conservatives want to play Orwellian games for the next two years, they can carry on as they did last week, but they should not think for a minute that they will get away with it.

Mr Lansley: I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House. I am not sure whether, in the midst of what she said, there were any requests relating to the future business, but I will try to answer the points that she raised.

Most pleasurably, I join the shadow Leader of the House in sending our congratulations to ex-President Mandela on his 95th birthday. He is an inspiration and an extraordinary man. The extraordinary nature of his capacities is further illustrated by the promising progress in his health. That is something in which we can all take pleasure.

The hon. Lady asked about the relationship between sittings in this House and in the other place. I am happy to discuss the operation of Joint Committees with colleagues across both Houses. That is something that we should certainly look at. However, it is for this House and the other place to determine when they sit. The other place does not sit in September, whereas we rise earlier for the summer and sit in September. We have different approaches, but they are not necessarily disjointed because there are differences in the flow of business in the two Houses that make them perfectly sensible.

The hon. Lady talked about the lobbying Bill, which was published yesterday. It will indeed have its Second Reading and pass through Committee in the first two weeks back in September. I was surprised by what she said; I do not understand how the Bill can be an attack on Opposition funding since it says nothing about Opposition funding. The only thing that is in the Bill—

Ms Eagle: Come on!

Mr Lansley: It is not in the Bill. Let me make that clear to the hon. Lady.

I wrote to the Leader of the Opposition earlier this week because he said in a speech that he wanted the participation of trade union members in the political

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funds of trade unions to be a deliberate choice. If that is what he wants, the Bill is available as a legislative framework to enable it to happen. If he believes in it, he should be willing to legislate for it. We have made him that offer and he should respond to it. In practical terms, if he wants to take up that offer and demonstrate that he means what he says, he needs to come back to us in the next three or four weeks to enable those amendments to be available for the Committee stage in September.

The hon. Lady talked about the NHS. I have listened to the exchanges, but the shadow Leader of the House should not have entered into the argument about our not doing anything in relation to the 14 trusts. I know about the matter because I have been Secretary of State for Health and shadow Secretary of State for Health. I was shadow Secretary of State when the then Secretary of State and Minister of State stood at the Dispatch Box and told us that Mid Staffs was an isolated incident and that nothing comparable was happening anywhere else in the NHS. They dismissed the idea that there were systemic problems in the NHS—they waved it away. I stood at the Dispatch Box for the Opposition on 30 November 2009 and asked why the then Secretary of State was dismissing the problems at the Basildon and Thurrock hospitals and saying that nothing would be done about them.

When I was Secretary of State, I stood at the Dispatch Box and made it clear that we were taking responsibility by moving NHS trusts towards foundation trust status not on the basis of their finances and governance, but on the basis of achieving quality. I said that we would use the NHS Trust Development Authority to make that happen. Agreements were put in place with NHS trusts to make that happen. I am sorry, but I will not take any lectures from the Labour party on that issue.

I will also not accept lessons from the Labour party on standardised packaging, which again relates to my former role as Secretary of State for Health. I saw what the Leader of the Opposition wrote to the Cabinet Secretary yesterday. I am afraid that it proceeds from a complete misunderstanding or misapprehension of the position. As Secretary of State for Health, I made no bid to the then Leader of the House for a place for such legislation in the Queen’s Speech for this Session. Why was that? As I said in the consultation that I launched on standardised packaging, I had an open mind. My successor as Secretary of State and other Health Ministers have come to the Dispatch Box and said that the Government have continued not to make a decision. As there was no bid from the Department of Health for a place in the Queen’s Speech, there cannot, by definition, have been any decision to take it out. I am afraid that this has all proceeded from a misunderstanding.

To be more cheerful, I hope the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) enjoys the sunshine in Wallasey over the summer. When she is thinking about the Opposition day debate, I am sure she will find that she still has a number of possible subjects to choose from in September. Perhaps she will choose to have a debate to celebrate the Government’s cutting net migration by a third, or a debate to celebrate the fact that the latest unemployment figures are down and employment is up, with 1.3 million more new jobs in the private sector. We are creating jobs in the private sector nearly five times as fast as jobs are being lost in the public sector. Perhaps she will choose a debate to celebrate the crime survey statistics published

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this morning that show a year-on-year reduction of 9%, taking the figures down to their lowest level since the survey began. That is all being achieved under this Government.

Finally, the hon. Lady talked about a motto. Let me remind her that at the Labour party conference last year, its motto was apparently going to be “one nation”. I have looked, but in this calendar year in this Chamber the Leader of the Opposition has never uttered the words “one nation”. We know why he has not done so. The Labour party is not a one-nation party; it is a trade union party, not the party of one nation. It is owned by the trade unions and it does not represent the people of this country.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. As usual, I am keen to accommodate the interests of hon. and right hon. Members, but may I remind the House that we have two statements to follow from Chairs of Select Committees, and thereafter two well subscribed debates scheduled to take place under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee? That means there is a premium now on saving time. We require economy from Back and Front Benchers alike, first to be exemplified, I hope, by Mr Robert Halfon.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is now 13 months since the brutal murder of my constituent Eystna Blunnie, and her unborn daughter, who died at the hands of her ex-boyfriend. Domestic violence continues to be a worrying issue in Essex, with a 14% increase in prosecutions in 2011-12. The Crown Prosecution Service has acknowledged that it should have done more in this case. May we have an urgent debate on domestic violence to stop such tragedies ever happening again?

Mr Lansley: I am sure the House will join my hon. Friend in his shock, and that of his constituents, at what happened to his constituent and her unborn daughter. It was a sad and tragic event. It is precisely for the reasons he describes that the Government are doing everything they can to provide support to victims of domestic violence and abuse. The Home Office has produced the violence against women and girls action plan, including a ring-fenced budget of nearly £40 million for multi-agency risk assessment conferences operating over 250 areas across the country. We want an end to all violence against women and girls, and we expect every report to be taken seriously, every victim to be treated with dignity and every investigation to be conducted thoroughly and professionally.

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): When will the Leader of the House bring forward his proposals for improving the Government’s e-petition system by bringing it in-house and establishing a petitions Committee?

Mr Lansley: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I hope to be able to bring forward proposals on the basis of consensus. I welcome the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s report, which is published today. However, I do not share its view that petitions could fuel cynicism. I think it is demonstrable from the Hansard Society’s latest audit of political

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engagement that the public recognise that the House is debating the issues that matter to them more. The petitions process and the work of the Backbench Business Committee have been instrumental in making that happen. I note, for example, that of the 21 petitions that have reached the 100,000 signature threshold, 20 have either been debated or are scheduled for debate. We can do more and I have said that we can. I am sure we can do that not by transferring petitions to Parliament, with the Government standing back and leaving the process alone, but by engaging together so that the public can petition their Parliament while also seeking action and a response from their Government. I am sure we can work together to make that happen.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): In the light of the poll just published by the Bruges Group, which shows that 71% of those expressing a preference said that Britain would be better off being a member of the European Free Trade Association than remaining a member of the European Union, may we please have a debate on the potential benefits of becoming a member of EFTA?

Mr Lansley: My hon. Friend will know that if we make progress and get the European Union (Referendum) Bill—which is currency before the House, but which the Labour party, not having voted against it on Second Reading, is now seeking to frustrate by filibustering in Committee, although I am sure Labour will not succeed in that—we will enable a debate not only in this House but in the country so that the people can make a decision. From my point of view, one of the instrumental questions in that debate will be about how the people of this country believe in free trade and see its advantages. That can be achieved, not least through a renegotiation of our membership of the European Union. As my old boss of many years ago, Lord Tebbit, said, he voted for a Common Market in 1975 and he would like to have one.

Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on football governance? Football League appears to be incapable of sticking to its own rules and policies. It has allowed Coventry football club to be taken away and moved to Northampton without having seen a plan for its timely return, and it allowed player registrations to be moved out of the company registered with the league itself through the golden share, against its own rules. If Football League is incapable of sticking to its own rules, the Government should look into that. Will he find time for a debate?

Mr Lansley: I heard what the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) had to say to the Business Secretary. He and other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), have raised these issues at Business questions in the past, and I know they raise strong feelings. I cannot promise a debate in Government time, but I know that on a number of occasions there has been a compelling case, for many reasons, for the House to consider football governance. It is also something that Members might like to approach the Backbench Business Committee about. I will also talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and see what she can do to respond to hon. Members on this issue.

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Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): Yesterday the Minister for Schools announced a welcome increase in the pupil premium, targeted at children in difficult circumstances. However, Somerset county council is proposing cuts to its school transport budget, which will hit low-income families, and wants to ask schools to cover 50% of the school transport costs for those young people from the pupil premium they receive. That seems particularly mean and insensitive at a time when those Conservative councillors are giving themselves a 3% pay rise, so will the Leader of the House allow time for a debate? Does he agree that it is unacceptable to claim the pupil premium for that purpose?

Mr Lansley: My hon. Friend invites me to enter into a debate on decisions that are properly those for Somerset county council. If she wants to raise this issue on behalf of her constituents, it would be appropriate to do so on the Adjournment, so perhaps she can seek that opportunity. However, I entirely share the sense of achievement that yesterday’s statement takes us to the point where we are fulfilling the coalition agreement to provide an additional £2.5 billion in support of the pupil premium for the benefit of the most disadvantaged pupils. [Interruption.] I would have thought that that would be something to celebrate on the Opposition Benches, but I was struck by how few Opposition Members were able to come to the Chamber yesterday and express even a sense of appreciation for the resources being provided to support some of the children who are most in need of additional support in our schools.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Leader of the House take the time to study early-day motion 336, tabled in my name, on Crossrail step-free access?

[That this House strongly welcomes the construction of Crossrail but notes with concern that seven stations on the new Crossrail line, Seven Kings, Manor Park, Maryland, Hanwell, Langley, Iver and Taplow are not planned to be step-free to platforms; notes that despite the assurances given by the Mayor of London (MoL) to the London Assembly on 14 March 2012 that full disabled access will be a facility at each of the Crossrail stations in Redbridge, no estimates have been made of the costs and benefits and no plans put forward by the MoL or Transport for London (TfL) to introduce step-free access at Seven Kings station; calls on the Government and TfL to ensure that funding is made available urgently to ensure step-free access at Seven Kings; considers that the lack of planned step-free access on parts of Crossrail undermines the Government’s aim that by 2025, disabled people have access to transportation on an equal basis with others; believes that in the context of an ageing population, the benefits of accessible transport to disabled and older transport users, parents and non-disabled transport users outweigh the costs of installing lifts; further believes that the exclusion of disabled and older passengers from their local Crossrail station contributes to the marginalisation of disabled and older people in public life; and further calls on the Government, Network Rail and TfL to make Crossrail a truly accessible rail line.]

In that context, may we have an early debate on the failure of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to keep his promise that there would be step-free access at Seven Kings station in my constituency, and on the decisions

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taken by Transport for London over the past three years to stop work on the lifts at Newbury Park underground station?

Mr Lansley: I will of course look at the early-day motion to which the hon. Gentleman refers. These matters are specifically the responsibility of the Mayor of London, so I cannot promise a debate on them, but in order to help him I will convey his remarks to the Mayor and see what his reply might be.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): May I add my congratulations to Nelson Mandela on his 95th birthday? He is a truly remarkable man.

May I tempt the Leader of the House to give us a date for the Water Bill? We were expecting its Second Reading this month, but I note from the business forecast that it is not even scheduled for September. We have heard alarming reports today of possible disruption to our water supplies if there is a drought, and we are still awaiting the reservoir safety guidance from the Government, so it would be helpful if we could have a date.

Mr Lansley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. It is always difficult for me to resist temptation, but in this instance I am afraid I cannot offer her any guidance on future business beyond what I have already announced. As she knows, however, it is a signal achievement that we have brought forward the Water Bill, including the much sought-after provisions that will enable flood insurance to be obtained by those at risk.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): A recent report has shown that the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust was the fourth worst performing trust in terms of accident and emergency services, yet five of its chief executives have left over the past 10 years and received substantial pay-offs. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is wrong to reward failure? When may we have a statement on these matters?

Mr Lansley: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has been assiduous in coming to the House to make statements on how he is trying to secure the best quality of care for patients and tackling failures, some of which are of very long-standing. The right hon. Gentleman will know that I have visited Leicester University hospitals in the past, and I am very familiar with the circumstances that he has described. I will not go into detail, but I will say that if we are going to make the progress that we need to make in many of our hospitals, we need to bring new leadership to the fore in the NHS. Some of our measures to promote a leadership college in the NHS were particularly designed to bring more clinicians to the point at which they will be able to take chief executive posts across the NHS. There are some excellent examples, including Julie Moore at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, and we need more like her who are in a position to give the hospitals the leadership that they need.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Plymouth university’s Peninsula medical and dental schools have been a great success, and the university is keen to expand its excellent health student offer by establishing a new school of pharmacy to help to address health inequalities in the region. Some might say that

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we are producing too many pharmacists in the UK, but may we have a debate on pharmacy schools, to give us a better understanding of which regions are losing out?

Mr Lansley: I have had the benefit of visiting the Peninsula medical school, and seen some of the work being done there alongside Derriford hospital and the dental hospital in Truro. I wish it well in its work. We are working towards reforming pharmacists’ pre-registration training in line with the recommendations of the modernising pharmacy careers programme board. I cannot promise a debate at the moment, but my hon. Friend is right to suggest that there is a case for a discussion on pharmacy numbers and training. The House has not considered the matter for some time, and it would be relevant to do so.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): Thousands of people —including, I hope, everyone in this Chamber—will be heading off shortly for their holidays and are likely to use the motorways. May we have a statement about the regulation of motorway service stations, because all of us who regularly use the motorways know that getting refreshments there is an enormous rip-off. Buying petrol there is an enormous rip-off. Somebody should be regulating these motorway services; it is most unfair to people with families who simply cannot afford to eat at them.

Mr Lansley: I can feel a John Major moment coming on, if the right hon. Lady recalls that.

I will mention the issue that the right hon. Lady has quite properly raised with my colleagues in the Department for Transport—not least because they might have a better answer than I do. For both the public services and the private sector, we always need to look where there is any degree of monopoly of supply. It is important for such issues to be looked at from time to time by the Office of Fair Trading.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Some months ago, I asked the Leader of the House for a statement on very slow departmental responses to parliamentary questions. My right hon. Friend worked his magic back then, so I wonder whether he could apply the same lubricant to the Ministry of Justice, which is now six weeks overdue in responding to constituent inquiries, including a named day question.

Mr Lansley: My hon. Friend will know the importance I attach to prompt responses to Members and I have sent the Procedure Committee some of the latest data on performance in the last Session. I can tell my hon. Friend that his question to the Ministry of Justice has been answered today.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Major health problems of diabetes, dementia, cancer, heart and stroke challenge us all. Health is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland. Would the Leader of the House agree to a statement or a debate to facilitate an exchange of information from the devolved Administrations to enable a joint strategy for all to be developed for all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

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Mr Lansley: I know from personal experience that the devolved Administrations and the four countries of the United Kingdom work closely together on health matters and co-ordinate closely, while respecting the devolution settlement. I will see what plans Ministers from the Department of Health have on the specific issues that the hon. Gentleman raises and ask them to respond to him.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Doctors and other professionals are held to account for failures in their performance. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate to discuss how senior, highly paid council officers can be held to account for the profound damage they cause to education and other services when they leave a trail of incompetence and then just wander away?

Mr Lansley: I can see how people might feel strongly about particular instances of that, but this is happening in the context of a democratically elected organisation. Councils are accountable to their electors, and the officers of any council are directly accountable to the members of that council and the leadership of that council. It is really to councillors themselves and the leaders of a council that my hon. Friend should look on this matter.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): The Leader of the House may be aware of the disappointing increase in the number of service personnel diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Given that we sent these service personnel into dangerous conflict areas, we must have a duty of care to look after them when they come home. May we have a debate to assess the size of the problem and what we can do to help our service personnel in their moment of need?

Mr Lansley: I am aware and I know many Members are very much aware and concerned about issues relating to the mental health of service personnel and veterans. The Prime Minister commissioned a report from my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison)—the “Fighting Fit” report—and we have implemented every single one of its 13 recommendations. That puts us in a much stronger place to provide support, and I know that my colleagues in the Department of Health and in the Ministry of Defence will continue to respond on this issue.

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): With all secondary schools in Brentford and Isleworth being either good or outstanding, I want to commend the work that head teachers and the Secretary of State for Education have done to improve standards. A recent CBI report last month, however, said that 39% of businesses were struggling to recruit STEM workers. May we have a debate on creating a better career service in schools and on how to engage more businesses in education so that we get the right skills for the future?

Mr Lansley: No doubt my hon. Friend will recall a recent debate on careers services that was initiated by the Backbench Business Committee. I agree with her about the importance of this issue. I think that the promotion of traineeships by my colleagues at the Department for Education will be of particular benefit

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in improving the skills, for employment purposes, of people who are as yet unable to gain access to apprenticeships or college education, but we are also supporting employee engagement in skills through, for instance, the employee ownership of skills pilot. Thirty-seven companies were successful in round 1, and Government investment of up to £90 million was matched by £115 million of private investment.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): May we have a debate about the relationship between general practitioners and the Department for Work and Pensions? My constituent Fiona Howells is in a really difficult quandary. Atos has decided that she should no longer receive any benefits because, it says, she is fit for work. She is appealing against that decision, which is fair enough, but she has been told that she must provide evidence from her GP. She has been to her GP, who has told her that Bro Taf local medical committee has declared that GPs are not in a position to administer or police the benefits system, and consequently should write no letters—no letters at all—for their patients for tribunal purposes. That strikes me as very callous and unfair. It means that not only are people’s crutches being kicked away, but the carpet is being pulled from underneath them.

Mr Lansley: If the hon. Gentleman has not already raised the issue with the DWP, I shall be glad to secure a reply relating to those circumstances. However, the management of the processes involved in medical assessment for benefits has improved following the Harrington reviews. The Government are continuing to consider the important “fitness for work” report by Dame Carol Black and David Frost—which concerns, in particular, issues relating to GPs and helping people back into work—and hope to introduce measures as a result.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): It has not been a bad week for the Australians when it comes to rugby league. They won the women’s, armed forces, police and student world cups in the festival of world cups, while France won the wheelchair world cup. There are exactly 100 days to go until the men’s rugby league world cup, which will be the first major sporting tournament in this country since the London 2012 Olympics. May we have a statement from the Sports Minister about Government support, and will the Prime Minister agree to adopt “Jerusalem” as the anthem for England?

Mr Lansley: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding us about both those rugby league world cups. I look forward to watching the men’s rugby league event in the autumn. He may wish to raise the other issues during Culture, Media and Sport questions on the Thursday of the week when we return from the recess.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Further to our exchange last week about a debate on Prime Minister’s questions, may I ask whether we could, during that debate, consider renaming them “Prime Minister’s answers”? The Prime Minister seems to think that the possessive apostrophe means that his job is to ask the Leader of the Opposition and other Members questions rather than to answer them.

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Mr Lansley: I thought that the Prime Minister gave excellent answers to questions yesterday, but if there is a problem with Prime Minister’s questions, the hon. Gentleman might like to worry about who is on his own Front Bench rather than on ours.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): May we have a statement on the revolving door that exists between the Financial Conduct Authority and the financial sector that it is supposed to regulate? It was announced today that Julia Dunn had moved from the FCA to Nationwide, and on Monday it was announced that Christina Sinclair was moving from the FCA to Barclays. Many small businesses that were mis-sold interest rate derivative products need to be reassured about the fact that the designer of the redress scheme has moved to one of the main sellers of those products.

Mr Lansley: I will of course raise my hon. Friend’s concerns with my hon. Friends at the Treasury. As he will, I hope, have seen in the course of the debate on the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill, they are very exercised about these matters and are determined to ensure the highest standards of conduct in the banking and financial services sector, following up on the parliamentary commission.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): We would be outraged if a black person was refused membership of a sports club based on their skin colour, so please may we have a debate on why it is acceptable for Muirfield to ban women from joining its club, and does not that bigoted bunker mentality make the British Open less than open and less than British?

Mr Lansley rose

Chris Bryant: Just say yes.

Mr Lansley: Before I even have a chance to say anything—

Mr Speaker: He is incorrigible.

Mr Lansley: Yes, Mr Speaker, the hon. Gentleman is incorrigible.

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady: I think it is entirely reprehensible. We may not be able to have a debate about it, but she has raised the issue and she is right to do so.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): May we have a debate about the procurement policies of Government agencies? Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy, but are often excluded from tendering for public sector contracts, although there is some good practice, and I am sure the Leader of the House would wish to join me in paying tribute to Rugby borough council who last week received an award from the Federation of Small Businesses in recognition of its small-business friendly procurement policy.

Mr Lansley: Yes, I do take this opportunity to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Rugby borough council on its award from the FSB. The point he raises is very important, and that is why we are taking forward recommendations in Lord Young’s report to simplify

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and standardise bidding, payment and advertising of contracts, and to reduce complexity costs and inconsistency when trying to sell to more than one local authority. That will include the abolition of unnecessary bureaucracy such as prequalification questionnaires for small tenders. We hope to ensure greater access for SMEs to all the procurement that is available across the public sector.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): Following yesterday’s performance by the Prime Minister—and bearing in mind that when we return in September for three days of the second week we will discuss not any of the issues around lack of growth in our economy, but how our politics is done—can we have any confidence at all that he and this Government will take seriously the real concerns about the way the Conservative party is funded? My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) made it clear that the Labour party is going to deal with its issues; when are this Government going to deal with their issues around party funding?

Mr Lansley: I am quite interested that the hon. Gentleman says he wants to talk about issues relating to funding in September. I have just announced business relating to transparency of lobbying, non-party campaigning and trade union administration. That will be at the forefront of business here. The point he makes is that he does not want to talk about growth in the economy, and his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition did not raise issues relating to growth in the economy and employment. Why? Because we are seeing growth: we are seeing increases in employment and we are seeing unemployment coming down because we are seeing a healing economy, one that is in complete contrast to the earlier 7.2% reduction in gross domestic product, a consequence of the bust that happened under the last Government.

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Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Payday lenders Wonga lend £1 million a year in Blaenau Gwent borough, so may we have a debate in Government time on support for the better value credit unions, to help vulnerable families?

Mr Lansley: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Backbench Business Committee has selected a general debate on high-cost credit to take place on Thursday 5 September, and I am sure that will afford him an opportunity to make his points.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): May we have a statement regarding the changing of the goalposts in relation to Remploy employees being able to make social enterprise bids in Coventry and Birmingham? Why have they been lumped together and put out to private tender?

Mr Lansley: The hon. Gentleman will recall that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), has made two statements in relation to Remploy in recent weeks, but I will of course raise the point he mentions with her.

Bill Presented

Representation of the People Act 1981 (Amendment) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Thomas Docherty presented a Bill to amend the Representation of the People Act 1981 to amend the period of imprisonment which disqualifies a person from membership of the House of Commons; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 September, and to be printed (Bill 99).

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Backbench Business

Communities and Local Government Committee Report: Private Rented Sector

11.14 am

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the publication of the First Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee, on Private rented sector, HC50.

I am delighted to present the report of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government on the Floor of the House and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving me this opportunity, the first for our Committee. I thank all the Committee members for their unanimous support for the report, the Committee staff, particularly Kevin Maddison, for their excellent work, and our specialist adviser, Professor Christine Whitehead.

Why did we carry out the inquiry? We had two main reasons. First, the private rented sector is growing. In 1999, fewer than 10% of households rented privately. By 2011-12, the figure was more than 17%. More households now rent privately than are in the social rented sector. Secondly, the sector is home to a growing range of people, including, increasingly, families with children. In view of that growth and the changing nature of the sector the Committee thought it was the right time to consider how the sector could better meet the needs of those who live in it.

We make the point consistently that many landlords do an excellent job and our efforts should be targeted at the rogues who let substandard accommodation, often to those in real housing need. During our inquiry, we visited Germany. We are not calling for the German system to be adopted en bloc in this country but there are lessons to learn. We saw the advantages that a mature market brings for landlords and tenants: widespread understanding of rights, good-quality housing and a broad equilibrium of supply with demand.

In England, in contrast, the rapid growth of the sector has left in its wake regulation and legislation that was introduced in response to problems from decades ago. Our report identified a number of areas in which we believe action is required. First, we call for better, simpler regulation—not more of it. More than 50 Acts of Parliament and 70 pieces of delegated legislation relate to the sector. The result is a bewildering array of regulation that few landlords or tenants have a hope of understanding. That needs to be consolidated in a much simpler, straightforward regulatory framework. We have seen what the Government have done to simplify planning regulation: why cannot they do the same thing in this case? That is an obvious question to ask the Government and the Minister for Housing, who I see in his place on the Government Front Bench.

Once a new regulatory framework is in place, we need to publicise it. The Government should work with landlords, tenants and agents groups on a campaign to promote awareness of the new framework once it is produced. We call for a standard, easy-to-understand tenancy agreement on which all agreements should be based. Included with that should be a factsheet setting out clearly the respective rights and responsibilities of

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the tenant and landlord. We heard far too much evidence that people simply do not understand their rights and responsibilities.

We also say that councils should have the freedom they need to enforce standards and the law. First, they need more flexibility over the introduction of licensing schemes. We heard evidence that these are over-bureaucratic and restrictive in the way they can be used. Secondly, councils should have the power to require landlords to be part of an accreditation scheme. We saw an excellent scheme in operation in Leeds, but the landlords who were part of the scheme and tenants drew attention to the fact that those landlords who caused problems were generally not a member of the scheme. Such schemes should as far as possible be self-funding, with extra charges for those who do not comply. We must ensure that the overall burden of costs shifts to unscrupulous landlords and we call for a review of the level of fines and consideration of the use of penalty charges as ways to improve standards and act against bad practice.

In addition, we were concerned about public money, through the housing benefit system, being used effectively to subsidise landlords who do not meet legal requirements. We therefore propose that local authorities should be able to recoup housing benefit when landlords have been convicted of letting substandard property. To ensure we have a balance and that we are consistent, tenants should also have the right to reclaim rent paid in similar circumstances from their own resources.

A real concern—we probably had as much evidence about this as about anything else in our inquiry—was the need to crack down on sharp practice by some letting agents.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Betts: Of course, and I welcome a fellow Committee member.

Mark Pawsey: Does the Chairman of the Select Committee agree that one of the most compelling pieces of evidence that we received on that issue came not in a formal evidence session but when we met tenants? A person told us that if he and a colleague were to visit an estate agent’s office where people were selling houses on one side of the room and letting properties on the other, one set of agents would be regulated and the other set would not, despite the fact that both parties going into the agency were looking to do the same thing: find their own home.

Mr Betts: Absolutely, and the hon. Gentleman anticipates my next point. In the report, we welcome the Government’s commitment to a redress scheme, and we hope that our report helps to shape it, but we felt that we could go a little further. On the exact point that he makes, it is quite surprising to people who look at the issue afresh that letting agents are subject to less regulation than estate agents. We believe that they could be put on exactly the same basis. A key point is that the Office of Fair Trading has powers to ban estate agents who behave badly; the same power should be introduced for letting agents.

We also looked at the fees charged by letting agents and found that many of them were unreasonable and unclear. The first step has to be transparency. Wherever

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a property is advertised to let—in a window, on a website or in a newspaper—it should be accompanied by a full breakdown of the fees that a tenant is likely to have to pay. No more hooking the tenant with a property that they like, and then, once they are interested and are looking to sign the tenancy agreement, letting the hidden fees come out, little by little—drip, drip. We are talking about costs that the tenant never anticipated, and that can run into the hundreds of pounds. Also, there should certainly be no more charging the landlord and the tenant for the same service; that is completely and utterly unacceptable, and should be banned.

An important step in bringing the market to maturity and aligning supply with demand would be to meet the clear need for longer tenancies. The common industry standard is six months. That might be suitable for many mobile, younger people; it is certainly not adequate for the many families in the sector who want a secure home. One renter who came to give evidence to us told us that their 10-year-old daughter had already moved house seven times in her life. That is simply not acceptable. If families move home, it means moving school, and we need to tackle that sort of insecurity.

We need to look at and remove the barriers, real and perceived, to longer tenancies. Limitations in mortgage conditions need to be lifted. We were encouraged by the news that Nationwide building society has begun to allow longer tenancies; we welcome that. We have to ensure that letting agents work with landlords and tenants to make sure that they are aware of the different options for tenancy length. Too many letting agents seem to be hooked on getting repeat fees for short lets. They are almost like the football agent who benefits from constant transfers, rather than players staying at a club for a long period. In return for offering longer tenancies, landlords should be able to evict tenants who simply refuse to pay a lot more speedily.

We looked at safety standards. Safety is absolutely paramount. Landlords who let out death traps must face the consequences. The gas safety regime has gone a long way to making homes safer, but electrical safety is still a blind spot. The Government should develop an electrical safety certificate for private rented properties. It would confirm that wiring had been checked and was in good order, and we think that the check should take place at least every five years. We also call for a requirement that all private rented properties be fitted with a working smoke alarm and a carbon monoxide detector with an audible alarm.

Placing homeless households was another issue to which we gave consideration. Councils can now discharge their duty to homeless households by placing them in the private rented sector without their consent. When councils do this, they must ensure that the accommodation is suitable. As a matter of good practice, they should inspect properties before using them to house homeless families. We are aware that some councils are placing homeless households away from their local area. Where this is necessary, there should be a statutory duty of full discussion, including sharing appropriate information with the receiving authority and, of course, with the prospective tenant.

The Government need to look at how the housing benefit bill is spent in the private rented sector. There are obvious concerns in all parts of the House about the

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rising bill. We heard from Blackpool about how the market has failed there because housing benefit levels are set artificially high, as the calculation of local housing allowance, which determines benefit levels, includes surrounding rural areas where rents are higher. We heard wider concerns about the interaction between housing benefit and rents. Housing benefits can drive rents up across an area, which in turn leads to upward pressure on local housing allowances, creating a vicious circle and increasing costs for the taxpayer, who picks up the bill. We recommend that the Government conduct a wide-ranging review of the local housing allowance.

We looked at the issue of tax evasion. Very often the tax authorities and councils operate in different worlds. We called for greater co-ordination between councils and the tax authorities, which could go a long way to cracking down on tax evasion, both capital gains tax and income tax. It would be especially effective in areas where a licensing or accreditation scheme was in place and details about the landlords were known. We call on the Government to promote a more joined-up approach to tackling tax evasion, which would benefit us all.

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): I warmly congratulate both the Chair of the Select Committee and the all-party Select Committee on this very important report which, while recognising the very important role that the private rented sector has to play in meeting housing need, calls for it to change, introducing greater security, more predictable and affordable rents, and higher quality and effective regulation of the letting agents. Do the Chair and the Select Committee share my hope that the Government will respond quickly and constructively to the Select Committee’s recommendations?

Mr Betts: I welcome my hon. Friend’s welcome for the report. He is right to make it clear that all members of the Committee signed up to the report, based on the evidence we heard. We very much hope that the Government are not only listening, but will respond positively.

The Minister for Housing (Mr Mark Prisk): I tried not to intervene earlier, but I want to make it clear that we welcome much of the evidence and ideas in the report. As the Chairman of the Select Committee knows, we are making major progress in terms of investment and righting the wrong arising from the absence of any redress scheme, which was the case before. We have now corrected that. I look forward to having a conversation with the Chair and other Committee members to see how we can push matters further forward.

Mr Betts: Agreement is breaking out on the Front Benches as well as in the Committee. We welcome that as well.

Mark Pawsey: Does the Chair of the Select Committee agree that it was pleasing that we did not receive any evidence at all from anybody calling for any form of rent regulation or rent control? We recognise that there are problems with some landlords and that people would like to see lower rents, but at no time was a convincing case put to us in respect of rent control.

Mr Betts: The hon. Member is right. We concluded that rent control was not feasible. We were concerned that it could drive some good landlords out of the

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sector and deter new investment. We certainly agree with the Government that we need to get more investment in the sector. Where we looked at rents, it was in the context of housing benefit and landlords not getting away with receiving rent for substandard properties which they were prosecuted for.

Renting can be an attractive alternative to owner occupation, but we need a mature market that meets many more renters’ needs. We need to drive bad landlords out of the sector altogether and to bring all property up to an acceptable standard. The Committee believes that the measures set out in our report will help to achieve this vision. We look forward to the Government’s response and hope that they will respond positively to our recommendations.

Question put and agreed to.

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Political and Constitutional Reform Committee: Wright Reforms

11.29 am

Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the publication of the Third Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, on Revisiting ‘Rebuilding the House’: the impact of the Wright reforms, HC 82.

I am delighted to see you, Mr Speaker, in the Chair for this debate, which has some historical resonance. In 1642, our legislative predecessors fought a bloody civil war to control Executive power. They would be aghast at how their hard-won victory had been eroded and overturned and at how the Government are still not directly elected yet control a legitimately elected Parliament, right down to the minutiae of its daily agenda. They would be surprised at the mindset of many individual Members of Parliament, many of whom remain blissfully unaware of the difference between being in an independent Parliament rather than an Executive sausage machine.

The third report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee does not propose a new civil war, or even a proper separation of powers, but we do reserve the right to heckle the Executive steamroller.

I report to the House that we have examined the work of the Wright Committee, named after its Chair, our distinguished former colleague, Dr Tony Wright. I declare an interest, as a member of that Committee. Wright urged major change, calling on the House to give Back Benchers more say in setting the House’s agenda. Wright recommended the establishment of two new Committees: the Backbench Business Committee and a House Business Committee, which would itself have Back-Bench representation. Wright also proposed the introduction of elections for Chairs and for members of Select Committees, and called for various improvements to the petitions system.

The Wright Committee’s proposals were initially blocked by the then Labour Government—the heirs to Tom Paine and the Fabians had long since given themselves up to Sir Humphrey. But then a new Government—yet to be reprogrammed, and with a radical Leader of the House—acted swiftly to implement some of the key proposals.

It is important briefly to recap on some of those proposals, as many new Members may take as obvious what in fact took years to achieve. They will need to work hard to retain these minor improvements and to have a sense of what their generation needs to build for those parliamentarians who come after them.

The election of Select Committees by Members of Parliament in a secret ballot, rather than their being appointed, was one of the biggest steps forward. The second achievement was the election of Select Committee Chairs by MPs in a secret ballot of the whole House, meaning that they now speak for Parliament and their colleagues, not for the Government or the alternative Government. Our report welcomes the consequent advances in the effectiveness and quality of Commons Select Committees, which is broadly recognised by those who gave evidence to us in our proceedings. Yet the report says that some issues remain and must be addressed if the momentum towards an even more effective set of Select Committees is to be maintained.