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House of Commons

Thursday 24 October 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—

Small Business

1. Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): What steps he is taking to support small businesses. [900668]

3. Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): What steps he is taking to support small businesses. [R] [900670]

4. Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): What steps he is taking to support small businesses. [900671]

14. Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): What steps he is taking to support small businesses. [900686]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): We are doing more than ever to support small business. More than 7,000 start-up loans have been drawn down since the scheme’s launch in September 2012. Over the past year, UK Trade & Investment has helped 31,800 businesses to export, the growth accelerator scheme has supported more than 9,000 small businesses, and the regional growth fund has helped a further 3,000.

Rehman Chishti: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Will he clarify how many businesses have been backed by the Government’s start-up loan scheme, and are there any plans to extend it further?

Vince Cable: We estimate that something of the order of 7,000 start-up loans have been drawn down since the scheme’s launch in September 2012, a significant number of them in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. To sustain it, we have made available an extra £34 million from September, to bring the total to £151 million.

Nigel Adams: Business creation is on the up and unemployment is down by almost 30% in Selby and Ainsty since the election. However, many small companies are struggling with crippling business rates. In some cases, rates are almost the cost of the rent they are paying. What can the Government do to encourage local councils to engage with small businesses to assist them with their rate costs?

Vince Cable: The hon. Gentleman is right that the trend is a positive one. Half a million small businesses currently get rate relief and a third of a million pay no rates at all. Under recent changes whereby local councils give discounts, as they are now encouraged to do, half of that will come from the Government.

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Dr Huppert: Arthouse cinemas such as the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse are much smaller and completely different from massive chain multiplexes. Despite this, the Competition Commission wants to force the sale of the excellent Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. The Leader of the House said in response to a question I asked that

“there is no cause for the Competition Commission to seek to intervene”.—[Official Report, 10 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 314.]

Will my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary talk to the Competition Commission and encourage it to work on real local monopolies and not this issue?

Vince Cable: As an avid cinema-goer and, indeed, someone who used to go to that cinema, I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend, but the process is this: the Competition Commission has come to a resolution and the next step has to be to go to the Competition Appeal Tribunal. I suggest to my hon. Friend that, since the Cambridge law faculty has some of the best minds in the country, including that of his predecessor, it may want to take on this issue on a pro bono basis.

Mark Pawsey: Having run a small business, I understand exactly the burden of regulation that small businesses have to deal with, and I know how pleased small businesses in Rugby are about the Prime Minister’s commitment to make this Government the first in history to cut the overall amount of regulation. Will the Secretary of State confirm that his Department will lead the efforts to cut burdens that hold back small businesses from growing and taking on more staff?

Vince Cable: We are totally committed to that task. Under the red tape challenge—the one in, two out system that my colleague the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) is leading admirably—we estimate that we have probably already saved business about £1 billion a year, and there is a commitment to extend that process.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his Government colleagues about the impact of energy prices on small businesses? Does he support the Prime Minister’s call for a cut in green taxes? Does he support the call by my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) for a price freeze? Does he support Sir John Major’s call for a windfall tax? Or is he in favour of doing nothing at all?

Vince Cable: We have made it clear that doing nothing is not an option. We fully understand the implications of rising energy costs for business, particularly energy-intensive businesses. We have framed compensation arrangements and payments have already been made under the European Union emissions trading scheme, and state aid approval is now being sought for compensation for the carbon price floor for energy-intensive companies.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): What more can the Secretary of State do to encourage small businesses to apply for Government contracts?

Vince Cable: A great deal has been done at central Government level to ensure that we reach our target of 25% of Government contracts going to small and medium-sized enterprises. Considerable progress has been made in reducing the bureaucracy of pre-qualification

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questionnaires. The problem remains at the decentralised level—local government, hospitals and so on. Efforts will be made through legislation to simplify that process.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): The No. 1 issue for small businesses in my constituency is the high level of business rates. I urge the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues to support our proposal for a business rate cut, followed by a freeze.

Vince Cable: As I have said, there is an extensive programme of business rate relief, which extends to half a million companies. That is a very good programme, but there is an issue with how we will continue to pay for it, given the many other claims on Government spending.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): May I press the Secretary of State further on business rates? Does he not recognise that in his constituency, as in mine, businesses are raising the issue of the rising cost of business rates? Businesses in my constituency welcome the proposal to save them £450 by cutting and freezing business rates. Would that not be welcomed in his constituency?

Vince Cable: I am aware of this problem in the town centres of my constituency, and I am sure that it is a problem across the country. I repeat that there is an extensive programme of business rate relief. The Government have given local councils the freedom to offer discounts on business rates and we provide a 50:50 matching contribution.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): Labour is the party of small business—[Laughter.] Conservative Members may laugh, but their party believes that a business that has 300 members of staff is not that large. That shows how out of touch they are. Some 99% of businesses are smaller than that.

Under this Government, 1.5 million businesses have seen business rates rise by an average of £2,000. Our plan to shelve the Government’s 1% corporation tax cut in 2015 and direct all that money towards reducing business rates has won support among organisations from the Federation of Small Businesses to the British Retail Consortium. Does the Secretary of State not realise that many businesses are being crippled by business rates? Why does he not just follow our lead and end the business rate nightmare now?

Vince Cable: The hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten the record of the last Government. I distinctly remember that in one of the last pieces of legislation that I dealt with in the previous Parliament, the Government started to impose business rates on empty property. That was a few months before the collapse in the commercial property market.

Royal Mail

2. Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): How many and what proportion of employees of Royal Mail opted out of the allocation of free shares. [900669]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): Of the approximately 150,000 employees who were eligible for free employee shares,

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only 372 opted out of the scheme. Therefore, 99.75% of employees have accepted the shares that we offered them.

Mr Hollobone: Is not the number of posties who have opted out of the scheme remarkably low? Despite the threats of industrial action and union militancy, is it not clear that the vast majority of Royal Mail employees have accepted the invitation from Her Majesty’s Government to take part in the biggest employee share scheme of any major privatisation?

Vince Cable: Yes, it is a very positive story. The engagement of almost every employee of Royal Mail is extremely encouraging. I seem to remember that under the last Labour Government we lost in the order of 2 million working days through industrial action in every single year. This is a big change for the better.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): May I remind the Secretary of State that before this privatisation every one of my constituents had a share in Royal Mail? It has been revealed that only a tiny number of people in most constituencies now have any shares at all and that the Prime Minister’s hedge fund friends own a lot of them.

Vince Cable: On the contrary, the share register is dominated by large long-term institutional investors, most of whom hold the savings of millions of our citizens.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): This afternoon, I am due to meet for lunch that great Welsh export and one of the world’s best rugby players, George North. As the Secretary of State knows, George North was bought by Northampton from the mighty Scarlets at a very reasonable price during the summer. Does he think that the hedge funds feel the same as Northampton Saints, because they have acquired the Royal Mail crown jewels at a cut price?

Vince Cable: No; in fact, the offer was framed in such a way as to ensure that the shares were acquired predominantly by long-term institutional investors. A few hedge funds are involved and, indeed, some hedge funds take a long-term view.

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): Many small businesses and consumers across the country rely on local delivery offices such as the one in Feltham to pick up parcels and important letters. Will the Secretary of State confirm that there is nothing to prevent Royal Mail from selling off its local properties across the country and moving them to out-of-town locations that will be far more difficult to reach?

Vince Cable: I think I know the sorting office that the hon. Lady is talking about, because it is the one that serves my constituency. It was rebuilt and re-equipped three years ago, I believe, so it is wildly improbable that the Royal Mail will now want to sell it.

Adults: Skills

5. Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): What steps he is taking to improve adults’ basic skills. [900672]

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The Minister for Skills and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): It is our priority that all adults throughout England have the English and maths that they need to build successful careers and support their families. We have put English and maths at the heart of our schools reforms and fully fund basic English and maths courses for adults who lack those skills.

Mr Buckland: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Will he join me in congratulating Swindon organisations such as Uplands Educational Trust and Enterprise Works that are providing training and support opportunities to adults with disabilities? What plans does he have to ensure that that provision can be enhanced and increased?

Matthew Hancock: I am delighted to hear about creative enterprises such as Enterprise Works and Uplands Educational Trust in Swindon. I know that for many people with disabilities, school or adult education is a rewarding experience that helps them gain life skills. My hon. Friend is a passionate and effective champion of that, and I look forward to talking to him in more detail about those enterprises and others to ensure that we support disabled people as much as possible.

Mr Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): I know that the Minister will be as concerned as I am that unemployment among young adults is still more than 1 million, and that the number of apprenticeships among adults under the age of 19 is now below the level in 2010. Can he assure the House that in the next set of figures the number of apprentices under the age of 19 will increase? While he is at it, will he explain why he voted against Labour’s plans to use the power of public procurement to increase precisely those vitally needed apprenticeships?

Matthew Hancock: Of course we do use public procurement to increase the number of apprenticeships, not least in Crossrail, which is the largest public procurement and construction project in Europe at the moment. It is true that we had to take action to remove some low-quality provision in the 16-to-19 space when we introduced rules to ensure that every apprenticeship was a job, which it had not previously been. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would welcome the improvement in quality. We also have a programme in hand to increase the numbers. Participation in apprenticeships is at the highest level ever, which I would have thought all parties would be able to support.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Young adults in north Northumberland who have left school without the basic skills to which the Minister referred do not have ready access to further education, because there are no college facilities within a reasonable distance of them. Will he work with potential providers to ensure that the gap is filled?

Matthew Hancock: I have visited Northumberland college, which serves my right hon. Friend’s constituency, and it is an impressive institution. Of course, it is important to ensure that adult skills are available throughout our country, and as the recent OECD study showed, spreading English and maths skills is vital to ensuring not only that we can improve our competitiveness as a country but, most importantly, that we can allow everybody

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to participate. Improving technologies in teaching will help, but we must ensure that there is access to basic skills throughout the country.

Green Investment Bank

6. David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): What projects will be eligible for funding from the Green Investment Bank. [900674]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): The UK Green Investment Bank has a total of £3.8 billion of funding to finance green projects in sectors within its approved remit, and to date it has committed £714 million, including for waste recycling facilities, energy from waste plant, offshore wind farms and energy efficiency projects.

David Mowat: I thank the Secretary of State. It is impressive how quickly the bank has got up and running. However, the scope envisaged during the Committee stage of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, and indeed in the Bill’s green purpose, included low-carbon industries such as the nuclear supply chain. I understand that that did not get EU state aid clearance. Are we going to appeal against that so that we can go back to the original mandate?

Vince Cable: The hon. Gentleman is right that European state aid restrictions mean that the sectors involved are narrowly defined, and I understand his concern for the nuclear industry supply chain. However, following the announcement of the new reactor this week, and the commitment by the companies involved to provide more than 50% of procurement to British companies, the nuclear supply chain has a really excellent future anyway.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): The UK Green Investment Bank has indeed been a success so far and part of its success is in bringing in co-investors from the private sector for projects that it supports. Although I do not expect the Secretary of State to admit this, he will know that the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday of a review of green taxes has already thrown up uncertainty about long-term investment in the green economy. Does the Secretary of State recognise that if the Government are prepared to give long-term price guarantees to new nuclear, they should also give long-term security to the whole green economy?

Vince Cable: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his positive comments. He is absolutely right: for every £1 the UK Green Investment Bank puts in, something in the order of £4 of private funding goes in parallel with it. I agree that if we are going to get long-term investment in renewable energy there has to be stability in policy.

Minimum Wage

7. Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): What changes he is planning to make to the national minimum wage. [900677]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): I am asking the Low Pay Commission to consider what conditions would be needed to allow

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the minimum wage to rise in the future by more than current conditions allow and without damaging employment.

Robert Halfon: As the Government are supporting hard-working people, does my right hon. Friend agree that we should help lower earners more by raising the minimum wage—by adding regional minimum wage top-ups, increasing the threshold for national insurance or taking people who get the minimum wage out of tax altogether?

Vince Cable: I commend the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done on low pay. Indeed, I think he is a member of the Prospect union and has campaigned for the work force in his constituency. I think that the best way forward is the one that we have chosen: lifting the personal allowance, which has so far taken 2.7 million people out of tax. As a consequence, almost 40% of adult minimum wage workers have seen real increases in their take-home pay since 2010.

University Students: Liverpool

8. Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): What steps he is taking to increase the number of students from Liverpool who go to university. [900678]

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): We have placed increased responsibilities on universities to widen access. Universities and colleges plan to spend more than £700 million a year by 2017 on broadening access, and our highly successful student finance tour is running again this year, providing students and parents with information about the student finance available.

Steve Rotheram: The Minister will be aware that we face a difficult task in attracting people from deprived areas in Liverpool to universities and that we also face a challenge in retaining students who have graduated from higher education institutions. What steps does he plan to take to make it more attractive for graduates to stay in the city of their learning?

Mr Willetts: We are seeing an increase in the percentage of people from deprived areas who are applying to university and last year saw a national record overall. The figures in the Liverpool local authority area also show continuing increases in the percentage of people from poorer backgrounds applying to go to university. Of course, one of the great attractions of having a leading university in the city is that many graduates then stay.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: The question is purely on the subject of students from Liverpool, not elsewhere in the north-west. If the question is about Liverpool, it is in order. If it is not about Liverpool, it is out of order.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): Will the Minister join me in welcoming the fact that 16% of students from Liverpool go on to the top Russell Group universities, making it one of the top 10 local authorities in the country?

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Mr Willetts: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and congratulate him on his commitment, particularly to education as it affects Liverpool.

Mr Speaker: I call Mr Simon Hughes, from the distant territory of Southwark and Bermondsey.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): When I visited Liverpool to do some work for the Government on access to education, I was clear that one thing that students there wanted was the opportunity for scholarships to help with living costs. Will the Minister update us on the roll-out of the scholarship programme for young people from deprived backgrounds in Liverpool and elsewhere?

Mr Willetts: We have been able to help people from deprived areas in Liverpool and across the country through the fact that the combination of the value of the maintenance grant and the maintenance loan is higher now for people from poorer backgrounds applying to university than it ever was before.

Royal Mail

9. Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effect on postal services of the privatisation of Royal Mail. [900679]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): The universal postal service is protected under the Postal Services Act 2011. The service is unaffected by the sale of Royal Mail and can be changed only with the agreement of Parliament.

Karl Turner: Does the Minister share my concern that following the fire sale of Royal Mail, private hedge fund shareholders will no longer be prepared to fund the not-for-profit universal service obligation?

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman should be aware that that is not an option for Royal Mail, which remains the universal service obligation provider, and it is the duty of Ofcom as regulator to ensure that it complies with that obligation. If any future changes are to be made, it is up to Parliament to agree to it, and I do not see that happening. In fact, we go beyond minimum EU requirements in having a six-day-a-week universal service delivery.

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): Does the Minister share my regret at some of the scare stories that were put round by campaigners against privatisation, and will she confirm that the Ministry of Defence pays for Royal Mail post overseas to forces, not Royal Mail?

Jo Swinson: My hon. Friend is quite right to say that it is unhelpful when scare stories are put out. For example, free services for the blind are included in the universal obligation and will continue. As he rightly says, free mail for the armed forces is funded separately by the Ministry of Defence, which will continue with that. There is no need for people to be scared by those kinds of stories, which were unfortunately put out by some critics of what is happening.

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Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): The Minister needs to talk to her colleague, the Minister for Skills and Enterprise, the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), as well as her hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales). When I raised with the Minister for Skills and Enterprise the issue of the USO being reduced from six to five days, he said at the time that that would need primary legislation on the Floor of the House. He later wrote to inform me that it would need only a statutory instrument to be passed upstairs for that to change. Would the Minister like to correct the record on behalf of her colleague?

Jo Swinson: The Postal Services Act 2011, which the House voted for, puts in place a universal service obligation of six days a week. It is therefore something over which Parliament has control. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that were there to be a Labour Government again, they would in some way threaten that universal service, but I assure the House that the Government are certain that the universal service obligation should stay as it is.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that rural communities continue to be served well by the postal service, post privatisation?

Jo Swinson: The universal service is particularly valuable to rural areas, where it can be a lifeline. That is why it is important for it to be entrenched in the Postal Services Act 2011. For other postal services such as access to posting parcels and so on, the Government have promised to ensure that we maintain the network of more than 11,500 post offices. That is in stark contrast to the closure of thousands of post offices across the country by the previous Government, including in rural areas. We are ensuring that people across the country have good access to postal services.

EU Membership

10. Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): What representations he has received from manufacturers on the case for continued UK membership of the EU with regard to their business and investment plans. [900680]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): Ministers and the Department frequently receive representations from manufacturers, and others, in support of continued UK membership of the European Union and the single market. A recent example is the report by the Engineering Employers Federation, “Manufacturing: Our future in Europe”.

Jonathan Reynolds: Manufacturing is vital to my constituency, the country, and to increasing exports and getting our economy back on stronger ground. Does the Secretary of State agree that the constant doubts cast over our relationship with the EU by Members of his Government are harmful to our manufacturing industry, which wants certainty so that we can invest and grow for the future?

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Vince Cable: I agree that there should not be any doubt about our continued membership, but evidence suggests that so far that has not done any harm. Britain remains very much the No. 1 country in Europe for inward investment, which last year rose by 22%, despite falling globally by 18%.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Is it true that what businesses want in relation to the EU is free trade? Given that we have a £45 billion a year trade deficit with the EU, is it not perfectly obvious that whether we remain in or out, we will keep free trade? Does the Secretary of State seriously believe that BMW, Mercedes and such companies will say, “Well, it’s the principle that’s important. We don’t want to export to the UK anymore”?

Vince Cable: The car companies the hon. Gentleman has cited, and indeed others, particularly the Japanese, have made it clear that they expect Britain to remain in the single market, and they attach enormous importance to being able to frame its rules.

Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): The Secretary of State knows the vital role Nissan plays in the north-east economy, but do not recent comments from Nissan on the importance of our ongoing membership of the EU, and the potential impact of any tariffs if we are not in the EU, underline the risk and uncertainty the Government’s policy is creating?

Vince Cable: Nissan has been very clear on the subject—on its behalf, the Japanese Government have made exactly the same point that they do not want the re-imposition of tariffs. However, there is no evidence so far that our policy is discouraging Nissan. Its investment in the UK continues at a high level. I continue to welcome that.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Is the House seriously going to believe that the Secretary of State believes that, if this country were not in the EU, we would not have a free trade agreement with it? Does he expect the House to believe him?

Vince Cable: I know the hon. Gentleman’s position, but that is the not the issue. The issue is certainty. There is a lot of risk in the business world. Reopening the matter creates massive uncertainty for employers and makes it even more difficult for them to invest.

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): The Secretary of State has referred to the publication from EEF, the manufacturers organisation. The report states that 85% of EEF members said that membership of and staying in the EU is good for their businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) mentioned the comments of the chief operating officer of Nissan, who has said that the threat of import tariffs between the UK and the rest of Europe in the event of an exit could be an “obstacle” to further investment by the company in this country. Who has more influence over Britain’s manufacturing policy: Britain’s manufacturers or the United Kingdom Independence party?

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Vince Cable: It is fair to say that our manufacturing companies have a great deal more influence and we agree with them. I would add one point: it is not just about manufacturing. A recent survey by CityUK suggested that 60% of banks in London are here because we are part of the single market.

Beneficial Ownership

11. Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): What plans he has to publish the Government’s planned register of companies’ beneficial ownership. [900681]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): The UK has committed to implement a central registry of company beneficial ownership information, accessible to law enforcement and tax authorities. We recognise the potential benefits of making the information available publicly and have consulted on that. That consultation closed in September and we are now analysing the responses. We will issue a Government response in due course.

Emily Thornberry: The Prime Minister has expressed his personal support for a public register and is supported in that by four former Labour Home Secretaries, the British Bankers Association and anti-corruption non-governmental organisations, but, as my mum used to say, fine words butter no parsnips. Will he take the opportunity of the open government partnership summit, which I understand will happen later this month, to confirm that the Government will have an open and public register of beneficial ownership of companies?

Jo Swinson: The hon. Lady is right to mention that the Prime Minister has shown a great deal of leadership on that, not least at the G8 summit in June, where he also said that he has a huge amount of sympathy with the idea of making that information fully public. I am sure she will appreciate that we are analysing around 300 responses to the consultation. I am certain that more information will be forthcoming to the House and beyond as we set out what we plan to do to introduce a register of beneficial ownership, which we have committed to do within this Parliament.

Small Businesses

12. Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): What initiatives local enterprise partnerships are taking to support small businesses. [900684]

The Minister for Skills and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): The Government believe that local businesses are best placed to make the case on their needs. Local enterprise partnerships have consulted with small businesses to develop their strategic economic plans, which will help to give them access to the local growth fund and support skills, housing and infrastructure.

Duncan Hames: I thank the Minister for that reply and, while I am at it, for his support for investment in the further education college estate. Does he agree that, whether through the regional growth fund, Europe,

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city deals or local enterprise partnerships and the single local growth fund, supporting initiatives that help small businesses to grow and provide more jobs is critical?

Matthew Hancock: The Government are a passionate supporter of small businesses. The fact that 4.9 million businesses exist—a record number—is partly a response to the improvement in the environment for small businesses, supported by LEPs and the skills system, which we have done so much to put in place.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Our LEP around the Humber is supporting and wants investment by Siemens in Hull. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), will the Department do everything possible to talk to the EU about changing the rules that restrict the ability of the Green Investment Bank to invest in great projects such as that with Siemens, which are so important to our area?

Matthew Hancock: Yes, of course. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency. Many people raised the issue of Siemens, which would invest not only in the UK, but, through the supply chain, in many small businesses. I will look in detail at what he says.

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): May I congratulate the Government on the great news that 102,000 new businesses were created last year, bringing the total to an all-time record of 4.9 million? Does the Minister agree that many first-time entrepreneurs and start-ups find that compliance with a whole raft of Government red tape, often designed in Europe and gold-plated in Whitehall, is a genuine barrier? Will he meet me and representatives of entrepreneurial start-up companies to see what we might do to ease the burden on start-ups in particular?

Matthew Hancock: I am always delighted to meet my hon. Friend, so I would love to do that. We are always looking at how to ease the burden further. We have reduced the burden on business enormously. The one in, two out rules are in place and are working, but there is always more to do.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Is the Minister aware of the huge disparity in the attitude of local enterprise partnerships to rural areas? Some are fully engaged and interested, but others appear to think that rural Britain is simply the inconvenient gaps between cities. Will he disabuse them of that notion?

Matthew Hancock: I certainly will. Local enterprise partnerships are led by local businesses and, in large part, respond extremely effectively to the needs of local businesses. In some areas of the country, they are almost wholly reflective of the rural economy—that is true of East Anglia, which is largely rural. I take on board the point that that does not always happen everywhere, and I will ensure that it does.

Royal Mail

13. Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the value for money for the public purse of the recent sale of shares in Royal Mail. [900685]

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The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): Our overarching objective is to put Royal Mail in a position to be able to deliver the universal service on a long-term and sustainable basis. When considering value for money, we will assess the sale proceeds together with the long-term value of the taxpayers’ retained stake in the business and the reduced risk to the taxpayer of a stable company with access to private sources of capital.

Clive Efford: The shares were sold at £3.30 each and this morning they are selling at £5.32. Does the Minister agree that the taxpayer got a raw deal in the share sale, and does he accept full responsibility?

Michael Fallon: It is not unusual to see some share price volatility in the immediate aftermath of a sale. Let us be clear: this sale was popular, oversubscribed and successful. When the Labour Government tried to sell Royal Mail, they failed.

Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister tell us how much money was paid to Lazard for so comprehensively undervaluing Royal Mail?

Michael Fallon: The fees paid to the Government’s advisers will be disclosed in the normal way to the National Audit Office, which is of course looking at this sale as they looked at the Northern Rock sale, but they compare favourably to the fees paid to advisers by the Labour Government in the sale of QinetiQ 10 years ago, when 10 senior managers were allowed to walk away with £107 million and no shares were sold to the public.

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): The Minister claimed that value for money for the taxpayer was central to the Government’s fire sale strategy for the national institution that is Royal Mail. Given that many investment banks valued the company at £1.7 billion more than the sale price, that the sale was oversubscribed 20 times over and that the share price has steadily risen to more than 60% of its initial value, why did the Minister reject raising the price range when he knew the offer was oversubscribed? Does the Minister agree with the Secretary of State that the loss of more than £750 million to the taxpayer is froth and ill-informed?

Michael Fallon: It is far too early to judge the long-term performance of the Royal Mail share price. With any initial public offering there will be volatility in the price and it is too early to make a judgment. As far as the banks are concerned, a whole number of banks were consulted on the value of Royal Mail. The value established was, I think, around the mid-point of the range of the advice we received.

Regional Growth

15. Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to promote regional growth. [900687]

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): The Government believe that local businesses and civic leaders are best placed to understand what drives growth in their area. Resources

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available to local enterprise partnerships have been increased to at least £20 billion until 2020-21, and LEPs will be able to access funding and powers to support growth through local growth deals. Furthermore, the regional growth fund is projected to deliver more than 500,000 private sector jobs, leveraging in more than £14 billion of private sector investment.

Peter Aldous: The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), and I, along with 12 other colleagues from Suffolk and Norfolk, wrote to the Minister earlier this week emphasising the advantages for promoting growth that assisted area status for Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth will bring to the two counties. Will my right hon. Friend give full consideration to the strong and compelling bid submitted by the New Anglia local enterprise partnership?

Michael Fallon: I certainly undertake to do that. I have seen my hon. Friend’s letter, signed by several colleagues, and I have also written this week to all Members setting out the benefits of assisted area status and explaining the process and timetable for revising the map for the period 2014-2020.


16. Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): What steps he is taking to promote provision of apprenticeships. [900689]

The Minister for Skills and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): There were almost 860,000 people undertaking an apprenticeship last year; that is more than ever before. We have raised standards, introduced higher apprenticeships, made it easier for employers to engage and created the £1,500 apprenticeship grant to encourage more employers to recruit an apprentice for the first time.

Caroline Lucas: Will the Minister’s Department do even more—a bit of ambition here—to help young people in my constituency taking part in schemes run by City College and organisations such as Proactive and make it his policy that suppliers winning public contracts worth more than £1 million should be required to offer apprenticeship opportunities on those contracts?

Matthew Hancock: I would be delighted to work with the hon. Lady to promote apprenticeships in Brighton. I might point out that in her constituency the number of apprenticeship starts has doubled since 2010. We have taken action to ensure that quality is improved as well, but the more we can do to improve and widen the opportunities for people to go into apprenticeships the better.

Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): The scandalously low number of women in engineering apprenticeships is a missed opportunity for young women themselves, engineering employers and the wider economy. Does the Minister share my concern about the continuing and powerful evidence of gender stereotyping in schools, particularly co-educational schools, and the low number

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of engineering companies taking action to improve work force diversity, revealed by the Institute of Engineering and Technology only this week?

Matthew Hancock: Absolutely. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend on this subject and look forward to following his leadership in driving up the number of women in engineering apprenticeships.


17. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the potential effect on UK artists and creators of introducing a private copying exception without compensation. [900691]

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): This change will allow people to make personal copies of content they have bought. For example, it will allow an individual to copy their CDs on to an iPad. Many people already do this without realising it is illegal under copyright law. Most people think it is reasonable and should not be prevented by copyright. The Government agree and our new law will recognise this. This change will not allow people to obtain copies unlawfully, and British creators will continue to be rewarded when people buy copies of their works.

Kerry McCarthy: So far, the 22 EU member states that have introduced private copying exceptions have all introduced corresponding levy schemes on MP3 players and other copying devices to compensate artists for the loss of income. Why will the UK not do the same?

Mr Willetts: The reason is very simple: those European countries have introduced far wider exemptions than we are proposing. Many of them allow content borrowed from friends, families and libraries to be shared very widely. That damages creators, so they need to provide compensation, but our proposal is carefully targeted to protect what happens, as we all know, in almost every family in the country without doing damage to creators.

Topical Questions

T1. [900658] Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (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.

Chris Bryant: One of the biggest difficulties for all businesses in the country, whether a small retail outlet or a major manufacturer, is the cost of energy. The Secretary of State is a bit of a leftie. [Laughter.] I say that as a compliment, obviously, and he seems to be taking it that way, although the gentleman with the jumper on, the Minister for Skills and Enterprise, who is protecting everybody from the cold over there, seems to disagree. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister, with the former Prime Minister or with us about what we should do about energy prices?

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Vince Cable: I do not think that either the Leader of the Opposition or the former Prime Minister has quite got it right, but I have stressed that, for industry, which is our concern in this Department, the way forward is to ensure that energy-intensive industries are properly compensated and enabled to compete on a level playing field, and we are pursuing that.

T2. [900659] Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Can the Minister give the House a progress report on how the Government are dealing with the scourge of the payday loan companies?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He rightly highlights the fact that there have been significant problems in the payday lending industry; thankfully, significant action is also being taken to match that. Twenty-five payday lenders have left the market since March as a result of strong action by the Office of Fair Trading, with the Competition Commission undertaking an investigation, and earlier this month the Financial Conduct Authority published a suite of new proposed rules, which will limit roll-overs, cap the number of times that a lender can use a continuous payment authority and introduce strict new rules on advertising to ensure that people do not get ripped off.

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): The Secretary of State has said that growth must be better balanced and less reliant on rising house prices, but this week he has warned of dangerous and unsustainable house prices in London and extreme problems of affordability across the country on his Government’s watch. Does he therefore not agree that it would make sense to review how the second part of his Government’s Help to Buy scheme operates now, as opposed to in a year’s time, given the attendant risks posed to more balanced growth?

Vince Cable: I am delighted to see that the hon. Gentleman has progressed beyond his recent role as a share tipster and is now returning to more important and central concerns. The central point is that the growth we are experiencing is balanced. We are now beginning to see serious growth in manufacturing and the construction sector, and the next big step will be to see improvements in investment. As far as the housing market is concerned, the Chancellor has acknowledged that the Bank of England needs to watch the process very carefully.

Mr Umunna: But the right hon. Gentleman promised an export and investment-led recovery, yet as growth returned over the summer, exports fell, and the Office for National Statistics says that growth has been concentrated in household expenditure, rather than investment, which is £2 billion lower than it was a year ago. We all know that he is a keen dancer. In failing to prevail over the Treasury, is not the risk that, rather than marching to the tune of the makers, he is dancing to the Chancellor’s new song of house inflation?

Vince Cable: I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree that there is no harm in the trend we are observing, which is that consumers are now more confident and are therefore spending and generating demand—I think we have both agreed over the last three years that the

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generation of demand is a key part of recovery. As far as exports are concerned, there is rapid growth in British exports to the big emerging markets, such as Russia, China, India and Brazil—indeed, I am going to Russia next week to pursue this course.

T3. [900660] Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Tamworth borough council is doing its bit to back small business Saturday by promoting “created in Tamworth” and offering free market stalls to business people and free parking to customers. Do the Government agree that local authorities have a hugely important role in helping rather than hindering small business growth, not least by offering more free parking?

The Minister for Skills and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): We in Government are huge and enthusiastic supporters of small business Saturday, which has cross-party support. I encourage local authorities of all political persuasions to follow the lead of Tamworth and introduce policies that can help to support small businesses across the board, and especially on Saturday 7 December, small business Saturday.

T5. [900662] Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): I was disappointed by the Minister’s response to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) earlier and surprised at his lack of basic geography, so I am going to give him another opportunity. I understand that we are all just “the desolate north-east” to Government Members, but I remind the Minister that Northumberland college is indeed in south-east Northumberland and up to 50 miles away from parts of north Northumberland. Once again, what will the Minister do to meet the basic needs of young people in north Northumberland?

Matthew Hancock: I know the geography well, not least because I have visited Northumberland college in the last few months—[Interruption.] Hold on. Transport issues are important. If the hon. Lady is saying that we need to ensure that we get basic skills provision into all areas, including rural areas, I entirely agree with her, but if she is saying that the best thing to do is to ignore large rural areas, I disagree. I would have thought that we could work together on this sort of thing.

T4. [900661] Jessica Lee (Erewash) (Con): Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating engineering and manufacturing firms in Erewash, including F. C. Laser and TecQuipment, which are continuing to grow and to recruit apprentices? In addition, F. C. Laser has recently won the D2N2 award for the most promising business in 2013, proving that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Erewash and creating many jobs.

Matthew Hancock: I commend my hon. Friend’s work in supporting small businesses and jobs in Erewash, through supporting enterprise. This is all about ensuring that companies can start up and grow and that they can employ people as easily as possible. I hope that our employment allowance, which comes in next April and which will give every company that employs people a £2,000 tax break, will help to take that a step further.

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T6. [900665] Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Small businesses in my constituency have been flagging up the importance of local enterprise partnerships focusing more on skills training and apprenticeships, and on the fact that that could be better promoted if all LEP boards included at least one specialist education representative. What does the Minister think of that idea, and will he consider making it a prerequisite for LEPs receiving Government funding?

Matthew Hancock: Unusually, I agree with both the suggestions that the hon. Lady has made. I look forward to working with her to support skills and small businesses through the LEP in Brighton.

T7. [900666] Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): Manufacturing in the midlands is going through a renaissance, but the challenge is to create the skills necessary to meet future needs. Will the Minister join me in welcoming Tomorrow’s Engineers week, and tell the House what more can be done to enthuse young people, particularly young women, about engineering?

Matthew Hancock: Yes, I am an enthusiastic supporter of Tomorrow’s Engineers, and the Government are backing that project in every way that we can. Tomorrow’s Engineers is about demonstrating that engineering is part of the future of our economy, and that it is an exciting career for someone to get into, whether they are a man or a woman. It is where the future of our economy is going, and providing the necessary skills is a vital part of what we are doing.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): The Secretary of State has spoken proudly about the new businesses that have started up, but can he tell us how many businesses closed last year, and how many jobs were lost as a result of those closures?

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): I shall be happy to write to the hon. Lady with the number of deregistrations, but overall there are more businesses being created than are being closed. We have, I think, 400,000 more new businesses than we started with two and half years ago.

T8. [900667] Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): What steps are the Government taking to address skills gaps, create jobs and increase productivity by improving the information given in schools about vocational job opportunities, particularly local ones?

Matthew Hancock: We are making the skills system more rigorous and responsive to need, but schools have a duty to secure careers advice. I want that advice to be inspirational and impartial, and to include more mentoring, especially from people who have real jobs, so that we can help each child to reach their potential.

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): Last week, I attended the Hounslow enterprise showcase, organised by Dawn Edwards and Isabel King from the Real Business Club, which was run with the support of the local jobcentre and Hounslow chamber of commerce. I spoke to three women from my constituency who were

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looking for advice on how to start or grow their businesses. Does the Secretary of State think that we need to do more to support women-led businesses, particularly as research shows that the UK has a higher gender gap in entrepreneurship than many of the OECD countries?

Vince Cable: Yes, we acknowledge the importance of women in business. Indeed, one of the initiatives that we are leading involves ensuring that women are properly represented on the boards of our leading companies, thereby creating role models for people starting their own companies. I agree that there is a gender gap and I agree that we need to do a lot more about it.

Mr Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): In the past three years, the UK car industry has gone from strength to strength, but there is always more to do. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what further work is planned, in conjunction with the Automotive Council, particularly with regard to new engine and powertrain technologies?

Michael Fallon: Let me first pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who had responsibility for this industry in the Department for three years. The automotive strategy, published earlier this summer, included a focus on the new automotive investment organisation to attract more suppliers into the UK, work to tackle the skills base by recruiting nearly 2,000 additional graduates into engineering, and further work to strengthen the supply chain throughout the industry.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): The Secretary of State will know that there is serious concern among our universities about many of the provisions of the Immigration Bill and their impact on international student recruitment. What discussions has he had with universities on the issue and what representations has he made to the Home Office?

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): What we are seeing is a continuing increase in the number of overseas students applying to come to study in Britain. We all make it clear whenever we visit overseas markets that there is no cap on the number of legitimate overseas students coming to Britain; they are very warmly welcome.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I understand that in 2014-15 the local LEP is going to have a sizeable budget to distribute for infrastructure. Will the relevant Minister explain how we can access that budget and what the criteria will be?

Michael Fallon: Local enterprise partnerships have been invited to submit their growth plans not simply for the first year of devolved budgets, which is 2015-16, but for the expenditure of structural funds—both regional funds and social funds—from July next year for the next seven-year period. We will examine each of the local growth funds and work with individual LEPs on particular growth deals to suit each area.

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Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of the funding for lending scheme on investment in small businesses?

Vince Cable: The funding for lending scheme has had a very significant impact on the mortgage market. It has had a much lesser impact on small business, but it has recently been adapted, and I believe it has been used by some of the new competitor banks such as the Aldermore. We certainly welcome that.

Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): Yesterday evening, I had the pleasure of attending the formal launch of the transport systems catapult, which is going to be based in Milton Keynes. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this will be an important innovation to reaffirm the UK’s leading role in transport technology development?

Mr Willetts: This is a very important event—investment in our transport infrastructure to make it smart and innovative. It is backed with £50 billion of BIS money, with support from the Department for Transport—and, most importantly, with substantial business support as well.

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be aware of my concern about the legal requirements when a company goes into administration. Will he look at making it a mandatory requirement for administrators to prioritise the wider social consequences of the sale of a company rather than allowing asset strippers to destroy jobs and local communities?

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman rightly outlines the devastating impact on communities that can happen when companies go into administration. Those involved in dealing with the administration of a company have a variety of different issues to prioritise. We are making sure that the problem is looked at in a range of ways. We are simplifying insolvency processes and considering some of the issues rightly raised by Members—about pre-packs, for example, with an ongoing review. We are looking at fees, too, which have sometimes meant that people cannot get as much of their money back as they should in these unfortunate circumstances. The Government are taking forward all those issues.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): This week marks the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking Robbins report. Will the Minister for Universities and Science confirm that this Conservative-led Government will continue the spirit of Robbins and ensure that higher education is open to all?

Mr Willetts: My hon. Friend is absolutely right; indeed, today is the day, 50 years ago, when the then Conservative Government accepted the Robbins report. We are marking the 50th anniversary with more funding going into universities, with more students and with more applications from students from disadvantaged backgrounds than ever before, so we can be proud of our record on higher education.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): A report published today by the 1994 Group of universities shows that, although the overall figures for post-graduate study in

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the United Kingdom look healthy, that is mainly due to a 90% increase in the number of overseas students. What are the Government doing to support British post-graduate students?

Mr Willetts: That is an issue, which is why the Higher Education Funding Council for England has provided an extra £25 million of support for next year’s post-graduate students. We will increase that amount to £75 million for the following year, because we do not wish to see people who could benefit from post-graduate education missing out.

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Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): As the chemical industry is Britain’s leading exporter, I warmly welcome this week’s launch of the chemicals growth partnership. Will the partnership convene specially to discuss the issues presented by Grangemouth?

Michael Fallon: Despite the serious news about Grangemouth, the sector as a whole remains optimistic about, in particular, the potential for future growth. The launch this week focused on energy costs, innovation and supply-chain development, and the partnership has published an action plan, which I know my hon. Friend has seen.

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Business of the House

10.30 am

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): Will the Deputy Leader of the House give us the business for next week?

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Tom Brake): My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is sorry to be absent again this week. He is recovering well at home following his back operation last week, and is confident that he will be in his place and carrying out his duties in the House next week.

The business for next week will be as follows.

Monday 28 October—I expect my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to update the House following the European Council. That will be followed by the Second Reading of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill [Lords], which will be followed by a motion to approve an instruction relating to the Local Audit and Accountability Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 29 October—Remaining stages of the Pensions Bill, followed by a motion to approve a European document relating to reform of Eurojust and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, followed by a motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution relating to the Citizenship (Armed Forces) Bill.

Wednesday 30 October—Opposition Day (9th allotted day). There will be a debate on education, followed by a debate on the future of the probation service. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 31 October—Remaining stages of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill.

Friday 1 November—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 4 November will include the following.

Monday 4 November—Second Reading of the National Insurance Contributions Bill.

Tuesday 5 November—Second Reading of the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Bill, followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 6 November—Opposition Day (10th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion; subject to be announced.

Thursday 7 November—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee, followed by a general debate relating to the commemoration of the first world war.

Friday 8 November—Private Members’ Bills.

Colleagues will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will adjourn on the following dates during 2014.

The House will rise for the February recess at close of play on Thursday 13 February, and will return on Monday 24 February.

The House will rise for the Easter recess at close of play on Thursday 10 April, and will return on Monday 28 April.

The House will not sit on Monday 5 May.

The House will rise for the Whitsun recess on Thursday 22 May, and will return on Monday 2 June.

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The House will rise for the summer recess on Tuesday 22 July, and will return on Monday 1 September.

The House will rise for the conference recess on Friday 12 September, subject to its agreeing future sitting dates for private Members’ Bills, and will return on Monday 13 October.

The House will rise for the November recess on Tuesday 11 November, and will return on Monday 17 November.

The House will rise for the Christmas recess on Thursday 18 December, and return on Monday 5 November 2015. [Laughter.] I mean Monday 5 January 2015.

Ms Eagle: I thought for a minute there that time had reversed and was going backwards, but the Deputy Leader of the House has put us straight. May I again pass on my best wishes for the speedy recovery of the Leader of the House? We hope to see him back in his place next week—no discourtesy is intended to the Deputy Leader of the House, who has filled in entirely, as we would have expected him to, with great aplomb.

May I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for giving us next week’s business and also next year’s recess dates, especially around the conference recess? I understand why the Scottish referendum has disrupted the usual arrangements but it does seem a bit strange that we have had to make changes to accommodate the 2014 Liberal Democrats conference. At the rate they are losing members, next year they could hold it in a telephone box over the weekend.

This business statement once again shows we are kicking our legislative heels in the Commons while the other place is yet again stuffed full of legislation. The Government still have to find time for us to discuss the Offender Rehabilitation Bill even though it completed its Lords stages months ago. It has now taken Labour to announce an Opposition day debate for the Government’s underhand privatisation of the probation service to be discussed at all. This is now the third time I have had to ask: can the Deputy Leader of the House confirm when this Bill will return to the Commons?

The Chancellor’s inadequate Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill has been substantially changed by last-minute amendments in the Lords, making it a very different and much longer Bill from the one we debated here originally. Given the importance of banking regulation to everybody’s living standards, will the Deputy Leader of the House now give us an assurance that sufficient time will be allocated to debate what will be essentially a very different piece of legislation when it finally returns to this place?

In the last two weeks, three of the big six energy firms have announced price rises of around 10%. To stand up to this abuse of market power, Labour will freeze prices until 2017, but the Government’s energy policy is in chaos. In opposition, the Prime Minister hugged huskies and pretended to be green, and only last year he was boasting that his green levies were bigger than ours, but last week his Back-Bench climate change deniers were agitating to abolish them, reducing bills by hitting the poorest hardest and abandoning energy efficiency altogether, and yesterday, in a blind panic, the Prime Minister announced that he had given in to them. The Deputy Prime Minister looked like he had swallowed a wasp, and Lib Dem spinners dismissed it as a “panicky U-turn”

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which will not be allowed to “dictate Government policy.” So I think we now know what the new Tory policy is, but can the Deputy Leader of the House tell us what the Government’s policy is?

Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister said we were living in

“some sort of Marxist universe” —[Official Report, 9 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 152.]

for suggesting a 20-month energy price freeze, and he said it was not possible to intervene in a market to set prices. This week, his Government signed a nuclear deal with the Chinese which sets prices not for 20 months, but for 35 years. On Tuesday Sir John Major announced his conversion to a windfall energy tax and worried about the silent have-nots who have to choose between heating and eating this winter. Meanwhile, No. 10’s advice to those who are cold was to wear a jumper. It speaks volumes when the Tory ex-Prime Minister responsible for the creation of the big six energy companies sounds more in touch than the current Prime Minister. So will the Deputy Leader of the House arrange for an urgent statement to clarify Government policy on energy, and can we have a statement from the Prime Minister on whether he thinks Sir John Major is living in a Marxist universe too?

The Conservative party in the 1992 Parliament is remembered for being one of the most disloyal in its history, but I have been looking at the numbers and it turns out that the current crop of Government MPs are three times worse than they were then, and I think the Patronage Secretary’s expression says it all, because he has to deal with them. It sounds like the Prime Minister needs to listen to his predecessor not only on energy prices, but also on how to control his rebellious Back Benchers. While Sir John told them to put up or shut up, the current Prime Minister just caves in.

We know that for 39 out of the 40 months since the election prices have grown faster than wages. Will the Deputy Leader of the House now admit what we all know: that it was the Chancellor’s city bonus tax dodge that accounted for the surge in earnings in that one isolated month? So while living standards are falling bonuses are soaring, and the Chancellor creates a bonus tax loophole for his mates. Will the Leader of the House therefore arrange for a statement from the Chancellor about why he prioritises his millionaire friends over tackling our cost of living crisis?

Last week, I asked the Deputy Leader of the House why he is campaigning against the closure of his local hospital, despite being in the Government responsible for it. Today, the Deputy Prime Minister will criticise the free schools policy, despite being in the Government responsible for it. I know that it was the final of “The Great British Bake Off” this week, but when will the Liberal Democrats realise that they cannot have their cake and eat it?

Tom Brake: Last week, the shadow Leader of the House asked what I am thinking when I am sitting alongside the Leader of the House. I must ask her today what the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) might be thinking as she sits alongside the shadow Leader of the House—she may be wondering whether it is vanity that has prevented the shadow Leader of the House from letting the hon. Lady who

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shadows me speak in questions, or perhaps the shadow Leader of the House was worried that her hon. Friend might outshine her at the Dispatch Box.

I am pleased that the shadow Leader of the House referred to the 2014 Liberal Democrat conference. I recommend that she attends, because I am sure that she would welcome the very open policy debates we have. She alleged that the Government were kicking their heels on legislation. As I read out, we are to debate pensions, high-speed rail and national insurance contributions—if she thinks those are minor issues, she needs to think again. She referred to the Offender Rehabilitation Bill and of course there will be an opportunity for it to be debated on the Opposition day she has provided. I reassure her that the Bill will be brought forward as soon as possible: as soon as parliamentary time allows.

The shadow Leader of the House referred again to Labour’s price freeze con. We all know that bills would go up before it, that the Leader of the Opposition has said that he could not guarantee things during the freeze if global prices went up and that the prices would go up afterwards. So we all know where that would lead. We had the nuclear statement at the beginning of the week, and I hope that she would have welcomed the fact that, finally, we are getting some investment in our energy industry. She may not be aware that over the next 10 to 15 years about 60% of our energy generation is going to be switched off as plants come to their end, so there was a need for the Government to take urgent action to address that. I would have thought that she would have welcomed that action.

Clearly we want to help families with the cost of living. The Government have introduced a number of measures that will do that: 25 million basic rate taxpayers are going to be £700 better off next year; we have capped rail fare rises; 3 million people will be taken out of paying income tax altogether; we stopped the 13p fuel duty rise that would have occurred under Labour; and we have capped the council tax. So this Government have a very proud record of tackling cost of living issues.

Finally, I would like to thank the shadow Leader of the House for again giving me the chance to mention at the Dispatch Box the save St Helier hospital campaign, which I am leading.

Sir Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): May we have a debate on making better use of natural resources, particularly daylight? Is the Deputy Leader of the House aware that this weekend we are to undertake the flawed ritual of putting our clocks back by one hour, thereby plunging the UK into darkness by mid-afternoon? May we have the opportunity to examine the case for changing to British summer time and double summer time—putting our clocks forward an hour? That would make the afternoons lighter, it would reduce the number of road accidents and it would boost tourism.

Tom Brake: Clearly, we are all in favour of making better use of daylight. I know that the House has considered the issue on a number of occasions, and I am well aware of the arguments that my right hon. Friend is putting forward about the benefit that would

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be derived, particularly for the tourism industry and road safety. He may wish to consider raising the matter in a Westminster Hall Adjournment debate.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Would the acting Leader of the House agree that if we had a debate in the Chamber on the orchestrated campaign of intimidation against The Guardian, that would be an opportunity for some of us to point out that if it had not been for the Snowden disclosures, the monitoring of the German Chancellor’s mobile phone by US intelligence would not have been known? Surely the message about Snowden should be, “Let’s have more disclosures.” What The Guardian is publishing is undoubtedly in the national interest.

Tom Brake: Clearly, I do not agree that there is an orchestrated campaign against The Guardian. Clearly, there is a need for the issues of public interest that The Guardian wants to highlight to be balanced with the security implications of any material it puts into the public domain.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): During the summer recess, I met Stuart Wyatt, a constituent who suffers from multiple sclerosis. He told me that he and many others would like to use cannabis for medical reasons. Although I do not think that we should legalise cannabis at all, I do recognise that the pain of some who suffer from MS and other neurological conditions could be relieved by it. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health on the role of cannabis in relieving pain and how it could be given on prescription?

Tom Brake: I thank my hon. Friend for that question, which he has put in measured terms. I understand why he has put it on behalf of his constituent. He may be aware of Sativex, a cannabis-derived mouth spray licensed in the UK in 2010 as an additional treatment for moderate to severe spasticity in multiple sclerosis. He may also be aware that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is updating its clinical guideline on the management of MS in primary and secondary care. Sativex is one of the new interventions that NICE has identified for inclusion in its updated guidelines, which it expects to publish in October 2014.

Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): May I support the call made by the shadow Leader of the House for a debate on energy, so that the Government can clarify whether they are in favour of the warm homes programme, the renewable energy programme, Labour’s cap or John Major’s windfall tax? Those points need to be clarified. May we have that debate?

Tom Brake: Obviously, the Labour party has Opposition days that it could use to secure such a debate. Earlier there was a statement about the nuclear industry and in the course of a number of exchanges, including Prime Minister’s questions and Business, Innovation and Skills questions earlier today, we have made clear the Government’s position on energy and why we do not believe that what the Leader of the Opposition proposes is a sensible or feasible approach.

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Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): It is a year since Paul Silk made recommendations for further fiscal devolution to the National Assembly for Wales. Why are we still waiting for the Government’s response to those recommendations? May we have a statement about the Government’s intentions and, better still, legislation?

Tom Brake: I know why my hon. Friend is pursuing the matter vigorously; it is clearly of great interest to him and his constituents. The matter is still under discussion in Government. The most sensible thing for me to do is ensure that we write to him setting out the current position.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): On 26 May 2011, the then Health Secretary, whom we wish a speedy recovery, wrote to me about a decision by West Midlands strategic health authority to reduce nurse training. He replied that it believed that

“a reduction in commissions is necessary to avoid a significant oversupply in the nursing workforce.”

Last week it was revealed by Nursing Times that a massive one in three hospitals is going abroad actively to recruit new nurses. May we have an early statement so that the new Health Secretary can override his incompetent bureaucrats and expand nurse training opportunities for our desperate and deserving youngsters?

Tom Brake: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question, and I will certainly draw the matter to the attention of the Leader of the House when he returns, as he may want to consider it further. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have provided an extra £12.7 billion of investment in the NHS. He may also be aware that 4,000 more clinical staff have gone into the NHS and that there are 23,000 fewer administrative staff. Specifically on the west midlands, however, I will ensure that the Health Secretary responds to him.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): Last Saturday presidential elections were once again postponed in the Maldives when President Waheed and his puppet interim Government of the previous elected President refused to step aside. Will the Deputy Leader of the House make time for a debate so that MPs on both sides of the House can voice their support for free and fair elections in that country?

Tom Brake: The annulment of the first round of Maldivian elections held on 7 September, and the continued delay in holding new elections, are of concern to the Government and to the Foreign Secretary, as he made clear in a statement last week. It is important that elections take place to a timing specified by the Maldives elections commission and in accordance with the Maldives constitution. Ministers and officials are in touch with candidates and are strongly encouraging them to engage in a process that will deliver inclusive, free and fair elections, and a smooth transition of power. My hon. Friend may be aware that we have Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions on Tuesday when he could raise the matter again.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): Britain has an enormous and ongoing trade deficit with the rest of the European Union, including a goods deficit of more

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than £1 billion a week, mainly with Germany. That is equivalent to 1 million exported jobs. The situation is conclusive evidence of a substantially misaligned exchange rate, so will the Deputy Leader of the House make Government time available for a full debate on the exchange rate?

Tom Brake: I am afraid that I cannot provide the hon. Gentleman with an opportunity to discuss that in Government time, but he might want to make representations to his party’s leadership about whether it could be the subject of an Opposition day debate. I know that he has strong views on the European Union, and I wonder whether he feels that coming out of the EU would help or hinder the trade deficit.

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): In January 2012, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a wonderful speech about how to reconstruct an inclusive, just and popular capitalism. He called for a new co-operatives Bill, but that has not yet appeared. I cannot imagine that the Liberal Democrats are opposing it, but I cannot think of any other explanation, as the Secretary of State for Education and Cabinet Office Ministers have supported such a Bill. Will the Deputy Leader of the House see to it that time is provided to bring forward that important new Bill on co-operatives?

Tom Brake: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had an opportunity to raise that issue during today’s Business, Innovation and Skills questions, as that would have been a good opportunity to flag it up. However, I will ensure that he gets a written response to his very specific question.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): My constituents are getting angry and frustrated about the rocketing cost of High Speed 2. At a time when we are expecting winter weather and more flooding, may we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport on what he is doing to ensure that the line between Penzance and London is resilient in the face of floods and can be kept open beyond Exeter?

Tom Brake: I assure the hon. Lady that the cost controls around HS2 are very firm. This substantial and important project is going to provide the biggest boost to our rail network since the Victorian era. On the specific issue about her locality, the Government have set aside substantial investment to ensure that other projects around the country are delivered. She may wish to raise the matter at Transport questions on 7 November.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): Could time be found for a debate on human rights in Russia, given that tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of the imprisonment of Amnesty prisoner of conscience Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was imprisoned in a gulag in the Arctic circle for having the temerity to disagree with the President?

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the Minister for Europe issued a statement marking the 10-year anniversary of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest and met his son on 10 October to discuss the situation. The Government have significant concerns about the processes used to convict Khodorkovsky and continue

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to call for him to be released on schedule next August. The promotion and protection of human rights is a key priority in our bilateral relationship with Russia and we regularly raise it at all levels.

It may be appropriate to add that, since I announced the business statement, I have been informed of further business. On Thursday 31 October, there will be a debate in Westminster Hall on the oversight of the intelligence and security services.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary is very good at updating the House about the situation in the middle east. Yesterday, 300 al-Qaeda-affiliated prisoners organised an attempted break-out from the main prison in Sana’a in Yemen. When can we have a statement on what assistance we are giving to the Yemeni Government?

Tom Brake: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that pertinent and timely question. I cannot guarantee that there will be time for a debate or a statement, but I will ensure that the Foreign Secretary hears his concerns and responds directly to him. He will also have an opportunity to raise the issue directly with the Foreign Secretary during Question Time next Tuesday.

Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): May we have a debate on charging by general practitioners? Vulnerable people in my constituency are being charged up to £130 by their GPs to provide medical information that is needed for Atos assessments. That is money they can sorely afford to spend and this important issue is affecting some of the most vulnerable in society, so may we please debate it?

Tom Brake: Clearly that is a significant issue that I am sure presents a real financial challenge to some people. I would like to think that GPs would be careful about levying such charges when it is clear that the person might not be able to afford them.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): May I challenge the Deputy Leader of the House to come back to the House some time in the near future and explain exactly how the Government are devising policy? Yesterday’s announcement by the Prime Minister on green measures and fuel prices caught everyone unawares. Today the Deputy Minister is making a speech about education and suggesting that we should regulate with regard to qualified teachers in our schools, but only last week the Minister for Schools signed off on cuts that could deregulate the oversight of qualified teachers. The Government’s approach, and not least that of the Liberal Democrats, seems to be inconsistent, so could we have an explanation of exactly what is going on?

Tom Brake: I will give the hon. Gentleman an explanation immediately. The Deputy Prime Minister has said that parents want and expect their children to be taught a core body of knowledge by good, qualified teachers or teachers seeking qualification—the quality of their teaching is checked by Ofsted—and to get a healthy meal every day. The Government believe that every child should have access to a good choice of excellent local schools. The hon. Gentleman may know that three quarters of free schools provide good or outstanding education, compared with just 64% in the public sector.

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Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): I recently met my constituent Angela Lavelle, who suffered from breast cancer. She told me how chemotherapy affects eyesight, leading to a greater risk of cataracts, and the teeth, leading to problems of rapid decay, which results in the need for more frequent check-ups. Unless patients are in receipt of benefits or on a low income, they have to meet those extra costs. May we have a debate to discuss what help we can give these cancer sufferers?

Tom Brake: I am sure the hon. Gentleman and everyone in the House will welcome the extra funding the Government have put into cancer treatment. I will ensure that the Health Secretary responds to him on the specific issue of the extra costs that his constituent has to meet.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): On energy prices, may we have a debate or a statement in which we may raise the concerns of households that are off the gas grid and heavily dependant on home heating oil? That is a particular problem in rural areas and regions such as Northern Ireland, where 70% of households are dependent on home heating oil. The costs are extremely high and people are suffering in fuel poverty. Such a debate or statement would allow us to explore the help that is available for those households.

Tom Brake: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for highlighting the significant issue of the additional fuel costs that are faced by those who are off the grid. Although I cannot assure him that there will be an opportunity to debate the matter, I will ensure that what he has said is passed on to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change so that my right hon. Friend can set out how we are helping those who are in the most difficult financial position of all.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): May we have a debate on reforming the Official Secrets Act? Breaches of the Act over the past decade in the Royal Navy and the Secret Intelligence Service have attracted only light custodial sentences. Is it not about time the Act was reformed to ensure that there is sufficient deterrent against treason in this country?

Tom Brake: I am not aware of any opportunities that there will be to raise that matter shortly, but the hon. Gentleman could apply for an Adjournment debate on the subject. If he feels that there is cross-party concern about the issue, he could also seek a debate from the Backbench Business Committee.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): May we have a comprehensive statement to the House about the health service in Shropshire? There is a debate about A and E services between Telford and Shrewsbury, which nobody in the county wants, and there is an emerging crisis in the ambulance service, particularly with regard to response times. May we have a comprehensive statement from the Government about those health services, because they are very important to people in Shropshire and particularly to those in Telford and Wrekin?

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight his concerns about his local health service. He mentioned A and E and the ambulance service, and I am sure that

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he will welcome the fact that the Government are investing £250 million in each of the next two years to support those A and E departments that are under the most pressure. He may also welcome the fact that, for the first time, the Government have put in place measures to examine waiting times. I will ensure that a response is sent to him about the specific issues that he has raised about the health service in Shropshire.

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con): Last week, when I gently asked the Deputy Leader of the House about the forthcoming announcement on nuclear, he said that I would have to wait for the announcement. The announcement has now been made, so I will ask my question again. Bridgwater college is training the top engineers who will be needed to fulfil our promises not only, as somebody put it, to the Chinese and the French, but to the United Kingdom. Sedgemoor district council in my constituency must have a major part of the inward investment that the country needs to ensure that the supply chain for this enormous project is fulfilled. May we have time to discuss training, skills and inward investment for the United Kingdom in relation to the biggest infrastructure project that we have seen for a generation?

Tom Brake: The UK is determined to become a low-carbon economy, which is why our energy policy requires a mix of renewable, clean coal, gas and nuclear energy. As a result of the announcement on Monday, I am sure that the Government will want to work with employers and training providers to ensure that UK plc derives the maximum possible benefit. We believe that the nuclear industry is cost-competitive with other generation technologies. However, as the hon. Gentleman identified, we must ensure that we derive the maximum benefit from the project so that we can use those skills as the industry develops around the world.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): On 18 April, I raised the issue of a fake internet jobs scam that was exposed by BBC Radio Humberside. Today, Radio Humberside has reported on another racket in which jobseekers are tricked into calling an expensive 070 phone number and completing a long questionnaire for a fake company called SB Millers, which is run by Sean Dixon of 33 Epsom road in London. Please may we have a debate on how we can stop these rackets that exploit desperate people who are looking for work and prosecute the criminals behind them?

Tom Brake: The hon. Lady rightly highlights that problem in the Chamber today and I hope that it will receive publicity to ensure that people are more widely aware of that scam. I am sure that she has raised the matter with her local trading standards officers to see what action they can take. Thanks to her, we are all aware of the potential problem, and I am sure we will all want to keep an eye out to ensure that our constituents are not affected in the way that hers have been.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): There has been an outrageous slur from the Opposition that Liberal Democrat Ministers are not supporting the Prime Minister. If we closed our eyes today, we could hear the Deputy Leader of the House sounding exactly like a Tory

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Minister. Just to ensure that there is no doubt, will he arrange for the Deputy Prime Minister to make a statement next week that he fully supports the Prime Minister’s desire to roll back green energy regulations?

Tom Brake: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman had an opportunity to listen to the Deputy Prime Minister on LBC, but he might have found clarification on that point. Perhaps Mrs Bone had an opportunity to listen to that interview and will be able to report back to him. The coalition Government have made it clear that we are committed to being the greenest Government ever, and we will not do that at the expense of the environment or of jobs in the emerging industries. At the same time, however, we are aware of the pressures that people face due to their energy bills. That is why we have legislated, for instance, to ensure that people are offered the lowest tariff, and it is why we have measures in place to address the winter peak in fuel costs, with £135 available to 2 million people.

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): As the Deputy Leader of the House has demonstrated, creative inventiveness has its place in parliamentary debate, but there is a time and place for everything, and it can be taken too far. In light of that, will it be possible to have a debate on the errors—inadvertent, of course—the misrepresentations, inadvertent, and the all-too-frequent inaccuracies, inadvertent, of the Prime Minister in his attempts to answer PMQs?

Tom Brake: I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but there is clearly not such an opportunity beyond the Prime Minister’s weekly attendance at the Dispatch Box, when he puts across the Government’s position on matters of all natures forcefully and effectively. Of course, the Prime Minister is a more regular attendee at the House to make oral statements than his predecessor.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): May we have a debate on how we can continue to build on the legacy of the amazing London 2012? This Saturday, the next major international sporting tournament in this country, the rugby league world cup, will begin with Australia against England and Wales against Italy. Will the Government give it their full support? As a London MP, will the Deputy Leader of the House be going to the semi-final double header at Wembley on 23 November?

Tom Brake: I am not sure whether my hon. Friend was offering me tickets for the game on the 23rd; if so, we can discuss it later. He is right about the rugby league world cup, which could well be the best attended ever. He is also right to highlight the importance of sport, which can tackle some of the health issues that we face and may be used to work with young people to help to build their leadership and team skills, as it is by Cricket for Change, an organisation in my constituency.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Deputy Leader of the House agree that Parliament and the parliamentary estate should be open to people of all backgrounds and to all our constituents, and that that should not depend on how wealthy or influential they are? Is he aware that the proposed massive increase in the cost of using rooms in the House and on the parliamentary estate will put many charities, third sector

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groups and small organisations off coming here to hold events? May we have an early debate on the chaotic management and running of this place?

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question and I think that he is sufficiently experienced to know that that is perhaps not a matter on which I can respond. We can both agree that we want the parliamentary estate to be as open as possible to anybody, but he will also be aware that at the same time Parliament is under a lot of pressure to ensure that it covers its costs. The commercial implications of such matters must therefore also be considered.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): Last Saturday night and into Sunday morning, I went out on patrol with Humberside police officers, the excellent police and crime commissioner for Humberside, Matthew Grove, and the magnificent street angels into the streets of Cleethorpes to view the night-time economy. It became evident that a review of the current licensing laws is necessary. Will the Deputy Leader of the House find Government time for a debate on such matters?

Tom Brake: I am afraid that I am not in a position to announce time for such a debate. The hon. Gentleman might want to try to secure an Adjournment debate. I am sure that colleagues on both sides of the House will have strong views about their own nightlife and the impact of licensing laws on it. He rightly highlighted the work done by the street angels on his patch, and I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the street pastors in Sutton, who play a similar role.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): Tomorrow is wear it pink day in aid of the Breast Cancer Campaign. LivinginBL, one of the excellent local newspapers in Bolton West, is organising many activities to raise money and awareness. Will the Deputy Leader of the House join me and many thousands of people throughout the country and wear it pink tomorrow?

Tom Brake: I hope to be able to help the hon. Lady. When I go home this evening, I will have to check what pink items there are in my wardrobe, and subject to there being a suitable pink tie, pink shirt or, indeed, pink wig, I might well be able to join her tomorrow. It is a fantastic campaign and I am sure that many MPs will have taken advantage of the photo opportunity provided, wearing pink glasses, pink wigs or other pink items. It is an effective way of drawing attention to an effective campaign.

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): In the light of a recent conviction in my constituency for the mistreatment of horses, and alongside the Welsh Assembly’s recent proposals on the issue, may we have a debate on tackling fly grazing and the abandonment of horses, which sadly happen all too often in my constituency and across England and Wales?

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. He will be aware that that is an issue not just in rural areas but in urban and suburban areas such as mine, where horses are often left on local playing fields. I am afraid that I cannot provide any time immediately for that matter to be debated and I will have to refer him

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to the opportunities provided in Westminster Hall. If there is a greater appetite for such a debate, he could perhaps refer the matter to the Backbench Business Committee through cross-party representation.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): May we have a debate or statement on the Government’s discretionary housing payment policy? Since April, 1,307 households across the public and private rental sectors have applied to Redcar and Cleveland borough council for the discretionary housing payment. Only 358 households have been awarded it, not because eligibility criteria have not been met but because the fund is exhausted, which means that nearly three quarters of households will not receive anything. May we have a statement or debate on the policy, as families in my constituency are in dire straits as a result of this Government’s bedroom tax and other cost-of-living measures?

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that in response to concerns expressed by local authorities the Government made additional moneys available for the discretionary housing payment. I am sorry that on his patch the funds are, he says, exhausted, but I am aware that a number of other local authorities did not fully access the money made available to them. He will understand the reasons why the Government have proceeded with the changes to the spare room subsidy, and if he has concerns about the policy, we need to hear whether the Labour party would provide additional funding or simply deliver the same as the Government’s programme.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): We recently had the intolerable situation where a triple killer, who murdered his last victim while he was on the run from prison, was not given a whole-life tariff by the judge, because the judge said that that would breach a European Court of Human Rights ruling. I know the Deputy Leader of the House is on the wishy-washy wing of the coalition Government—quite a crowded wing—but will he arrange for a debate and a vote in this House, so that the House can make it clear that we expect judges to impose whole-life tariffs where they see fit, and ignore the views of the pseudo-sham judges at the European Court of Human Rights?

Tom Brake: I thank my hon. Friend for that, but I do not think I would describe myself as wishy-washy in any shape or form. I hope he will acknowledge that there is separation on this issue, and that Members of Parliament and the Government generally should be a little reluctant to interfere in decisions taken by judges.

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): In contrast to the previous question, will the Deputy Leader of the House allow a debate on the state of prisons in England? He is probably aware that many inmates have completed their tariffs but cannot be released until they complete an offender behaviour programme, but waiting lists are currently more than five years long. Does he agree that it makes no economic or moral sense to keep people locked up who are eligible for release and incarcerated only because of a paucity of suitable courses?

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Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that sensible question and for highlighting the state of prisons in England. That matter was raised during questions last week, and the Government rightly set out that the priority is safety and security in prisons. I agree, however, that if there are people who are in a position to be released but have no access to an offender behaviour programme, the matter needs to be addressed. I will ensure that the Ministry of Justice writes to the hon. Gentleman on that subject.

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): One in six men in the country, and in this Chamber, will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lives—it is the single biggest killer of middle-aged men. With November looming, will the Deputy Leader of the House join me in expressing support for the Movember campaign? Movember was started by two patients, and has now raised more than £200 million and become the world’s biggest charity in the field. Will the Deputy Leader of the House signal his support and consider becoming a fellow Mo Bro, and can we have a debate in the House on the importance of male health awareness and the involvement of patients in research?

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman may be alarmed to hear that I took part in Movember three years ago, but the general view of my trucker-style moustache was that it was best never seen again, and I am afraid that this year I will not be participating. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman intends to sport a dramatic moustache—a Mexican moustache perhaps—during November, but I agree that Movember is a fantastic campaign that has caught people’s imagination. Men are not very comfortable talking about prostate cancer and their health in general, and the campaign has highlighted an issue that men of my age—and the hon. Gentleman’s age—need to be aware of and concerned about.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): May we have a debate on reducing VAT on energy bills? Every 1% reduction in VAT means £300 million saved for hard-pressed householders. Will my right hon. Friend lobby the Prime Minister to ensure that regaining control of our VAT rates is the No. 1 part of renegotiation on our relationship with the European Union?

Tom Brake: I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that under the EU directive covering VAT it would not currently be possible for VAT on gas and electricity supplies to be reduced below 5%. We know that rising energy prices are hitting many households hard at a difficult time, which is why in response to an earlier question I set out exactly what the Government are doing about the issue. The Government’s view is that the best way to keep everyone’s bills down is to help people save energy, and to ensure there are fair tariffs and to encourage competition, which is exactly what they are doing. If the Government were to pursue the approach that the hon. Gentleman suggests, they would also have to say where the extra money would come from to make up for the loss in VAT.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): Has the Deputy Leader of the House seen the recent European Parliament ruling on e-cigarettes, which determines that an e-cigarette

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is not—I repeat not—a medicinal product? Given that the Government remain committed to increasing regulation in the UK, may we have a Department of Health statement on what action it will take to enable smokers who are looking to reduce their dependency on tobacco to continue to use e-cigarettes?

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman is right to ask the Government to set out our position. We were disappointed that the European Commission’s proposal to regulate products including e-cigarettes as medicines was not supported by the European Parliament. The Government believe they need to be regulated as medicines. As he is aware, in the meantime licensed nicotine replacement therapies are available to help to reduce the harm of smoking to smokers and those around them, as recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): The Care Quality Commission has raised concerns about maternity services in my local Medway hospital. May we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Health on Government policy on maternity services and what is being done to get more midwives into our hospitals?

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for flagging up his concerns about his local hospital in Medway. He will be aware that the Government are taking action on midwives. He might also be aware that there is a record number of midwives in training. There will be 1,300 or so additional qualified midwives by the middle of this academic year in comparison with the beginning of the Parliament.

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): Earlier this month, the OECD published a report showing that young adults in England have among the lowest results in the industrialised world in international literacy and numeracy tests. The report showed that this is the only country in the survey in which results are going backwards, with higher numbers in the elder cohort than in the younger cohort. May we therefore have a debate on standards in schools, focusing on why such a high proportion of academies and free schools are classed as outstanding?

Tom Brake: Like the hon. Gentleman, I was quite depressed at what the report said on the progress young people are making. Clearly, literacy and numeracy are the foundations on which all further achievement in education depend, and are critical for work and everyday

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life. We need to do more work to raise the quality of English and maths throughout the country. Our reforms to schools and further education will improve the quality of the teaching work force, reward the best providers and ensure that learners are stretched to achieve the best they can. He might have heard the Minister for Schools set out in his statement last week exactly what we are doing to ensure that standards in all schools are improved.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Like most of my constituents in Kettering, I believe that if a foreign national commits a crime they should be sent back to their country of origin and banned from re-entering the UK. That very sensible policy platform is outlined in my Foreign National Offenders (Exclusion from the United Kingdom) Bill, which is scheduled for debate tomorrow. Are the Deputy Leader of the House and Her Majesty’s Government inclined to support that sensible policy?

Tom Brake: I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill and his concern about foreign nationals who commit crimes. We will listen to the debate on his Bill, but I cannot reassure him today from the Dispatch Box that the Government will support it.

Mr Speaker: I call finally Mr Christopher Pincher.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I know my place; regrettably, you appear to know it, too. Be that as it may, may we have a debate on entrepreneurship? Tomorrow, I am meeting Tom Robinson, who at the age of 22 is one of Tamworth’s youngest entrepreneurs. He began by selling T-shirts from a market stall and is graduating to selling them from his first shop in the town centre. A debate would allow hon. Members to discuss what help we give and what more help we could give to young entrepreneurs such as Tom to help them to get their businesses off the ground.

Tom Brake: Clearly, we left the best question till last. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, Tom Robinson, on the effective entrepreneurship he is deploying to promote his business. From small things grow much larger businesses. The Government are clearly committed to helping entrepreneurs. We have made significant funds available—loans-wise—to young people who are setting up businesses. We are growing jobs in the private sector and have the largest number of businesses registered, and business confidence, construction, manufacturing and exports are all up. We are beginning to see the economy as a whole moving in the right direction.

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Points of Order

11.25 am

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would like to raise the issue of access to the House at busy times. Even on a day like today, when we are about to debate interest rate swap derivatives, there is a lot of interest among angry constituents. Have you noticed that recently the queues to get into the House for meetings with Members of Parliament have sometimes been an hour and a half to two hours long? That is new. Will you get someone to look into why these queues are so long? I am told it is not a matter of security, but something else. The House should be more accessible.

Mr Speaker: I certainly shall, and I shall revert to the hon. Gentleman and, as necessary, to the House. I am not sure with what frequency queues are lasting that long, but if it is a regular phenomenon as opposed to an exceptional one that is very unsatisfactory. The hon. Gentleman is nodding to suggest that it is a regular phenomenon. If that is so, it is disturbing. I will look into it and I will come to back to him and, if necessary, to the House.

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Newspaper reports today say that the New Zealand Government have agreed to reduce their universal service obligation for post from six days to three, following heavy lobbying from New Zealand Post on the unsustainability of the USO. The Minister with responsibility for Royal Mail told the House in Business, Innovation and Skills questions last month that changing the USO in this country required primary legislation. That was later changed in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), but the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) refused to correct the record during BIS questions this month. Is there any mechanism by which we may have the Minister clarify the position in the House on how the USO can be changed?

Mr Speaker: I cannot say that I am familiar with the minutiae of public policy in New Zealand; nor is that a matter properly for the Chair. Ministers, in common with all other Members, are responsible for the accuracy of the statements they make to the House. If a Member thinks that an error has been made, there are opportunities outside the Chamber and through the Order Paper to pursue such a matter. Meanwhile, the Government Chief Whip and other members of the Government are on the Treasury Bench and I trust they will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s point of order.

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Backbench Business

Interest Rate Swap Derivatives

11.27 am

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House considers the lack of progress made by banks and the Financial Conduct Authority on the redress scheme adopted as a result of the mis-selling of complex interest rate derivatives to small and medium businesses to be unacceptable; and notes that this lack of progress is costly and has caused further undue distress to the businesses involved.

I am surprised to be back here 15 months after the first debate on this important issue. I appreciate the Backbench Business Committee—the Chair is in her place—once again offering time to debate it. The first debate made a significant difference. Prior to that debate, the Financial Conduct Authority and the banking sector were refusing to acknowledge that there was an issue that needed to be dealt with. A few days after the first debate, that changed and a pilot scheme was announced.

Members who have followed this issue carefully are aware that the pilot scheme found that approximately 91% of cases investigated between July 2012 and January 2013 had a technical mis-selling, so the process has highlighted the mis-selling of these products. The House should take some comfort in knowing that securing the second debate has also resulted in a significant concession from the banking sector. Members of the all-party group on interest rate mis-selling have argued long and hard that the redress scheme had a central flaw, which is that the technical redress for the mis-selling of interest rate swap derivatives and the consequential losses were linked within the redress scheme. That gave the banks in question a significant advantage, because small businesses facing heavy cash-flow problems were inclined perhaps, under the scheme as it stood, to accept an offer of technical redress without fighting hard over consequential losses, simply because they were desperate for the cash.

As a result of the announcement of this debate last week, HSBC said on Tuesday that it was separating the technical redress from the consequential losses, and other banks have followed. My first call today, therefore, is for the rest of the banks involved in the redress scheme to follow HSBC’s and RBS’s lead. It is several months too late, perhaps, but it is the right decision, and we want to see the other banks following.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the FCA is still dragging its feet and that this has gone on for far too long? I am helping Ged Fitzpatrick, who has a care home in north Wales and who recently suffered a heart attack. I am sure that that had something to do with the stress of this process, which has gone on for far too long.

Guto Bebb: Bully-Banks surveyed its members and found that the health impact on them had been significant. I accept that the FCA still has ground to make up, but despite its stating in September that linking both payments was the right thing to do, I am pleased that yesterday it welcomed the decision to separate them. I would rather see a sinner repent, even late in the day, than no changes whatsoever.

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): I wish to express my gratitude to the hon. Gentleman for his leadership on this issue. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are very grateful. Like so many colleagues, I have a firm in my constituency—it does not want to be named—that has been in this situation. I was able to get the redress payment paid and was about to get compensation in hand, when the FCA intervened to say, “Oh well, the 8% simple interest paid for the redress payment is sufficient compensation for the consequential losses.” Does he accept what must be blindingly obvious—that no bank seeking redress for a loss that it had unfairly suffered and then seeking compensation for consequential losses would dream of ever seeing the two rolled up together? What is sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander.

Mr Speaker: We all look forward to the publication of the right hon. Gentleman’s thesis on this subject, but in fact I think we have just heard it.

Guto Bebb: I accept the right hon. Gentleman’s point. This is clearly an important step forward, however, and we should take comfort from the fact that this place can influence the behaviour of the banking sector. I will be discussing consequential losses later in my speech.

It is fair to say that the 91% finding in the pilot scheme has been replicated in the work done within the redress scheme. The figures released by the FCA in August and September on the individual performance of banks—something for which the all-party group called—have clearly shown that 93% of cases in the redress scheme involved actual mis-selling. So again we have proved that there is an issue that needs to be dealt with.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I echo the praise from the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) for my hon. Friend. Does he have sympathy, as I do, for companies with more than 50 employees that are not financially sophisticated and which were mis-sold these products, often as a condition of loans to do business, but which now find themselves described as the sort of people who should have been able to see through the sophistry and misrepresentation of the salesmen of these products?

Guto Bebb: My hon. Friend mentions the sophistication test, and I will be coming to that; it is indeed something that concerns me and the all-party group.

We have found consistently that banks are admitting a mis-sale in about 93% of cases. Had we found, in the consumer mortgage market, that 93% of mortgages had been mis-sold, would we have allowed nine months to pass between those findings and the situation we now face? We have to ask the question: is it right that these businesses should be treated differently because they are small businesses, when we have found that there has clearly been mis-selling?

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): I have many constituents, some of whom are outside this place today, whose businesses are in limbo while they wait for this interminable delay to be sorted. They are unable to press on and employ the people they want to, to grow their businesses, pay their taxes and help to grow the economy, which is what we all need to happen. That is the bigger point in this debate: the impact on the wider economy.

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Guto Bebb: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which those on the Front Bench need to take seriously. These businesses have been unable to invest because they simply do not know whether they are financially feasible. Time and again, I have heard stories of people with investment plans who, rather than implementing them and growing their businesses, have been closing elements of their businesses, making staff redundant and just trying to survive.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman mentioned the situation facing small businesses. Does he agree that some small companies are afraid to challenge their banks because their loans could be cancelled?

Guto Bebb: That concern has certainly been raised, but I keep receiving assurances from the banks that that is not the case. I want to take those assurances at face value and would still recommend that anybody who has been sold one of these products should undoubtedly go and talk to their banks. If the banks are unsympathetic, they should come and talk to their MPs, because we can and should intervene.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Guto Bebb: I will take one quick intervention, but then I will have to make some progress.

Stephen Mosley: Is it not the case that some customers do not know that they have been sold swap agreements? Some people have been sold hidden swaps and do not know about it. Does my hon. Friend not think that the banks have a duty to inform customers themselves if they sign people up to such agreements?

Guto Bebb: I am grateful for that intervention. I will come to hidden swaps later—“embedded swaps” is the technical term; “hidden swaps” is a fairer way of describing them—because they are a big issue and we need to address them.

The setting up of the redress scheme was the reason why we called this debate. It has taken months to reach an agreement to ensure consistency across the 11 banks involved. Originally we were told that Christmas was the deadline for completion. However, at this point in time there are 30,000 businesses in the cohort—I think that that figure is an underestimate, because of embedded swaps, for example, and the way the sophistication test works—so frankly the Christmas target will not be met.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab) rose

Guto Bebb: Before I take any further interventions, it is worth making this point. I was recently involved in a mediation meeting with one of the banks and one customer, whom I cannot name, even with parliamentary privilege, apparently. The bank in question made it clear that it could not promise a date for paying redress before 2015. As such, although the intention of achieving consistency is correct, we have to put pressure on the FCA to ensure that we move at a faster pace.