4.56 pm

Naomi Long: I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for the thoughtful and informed contributions that they have made today, which have highlighted the scale and scope of the issue before us. I especially thank those who co-sponsored the application to the Backbench Business Committee and the Committee itself for facilitating this important debate this afternoon.

With the right to freedom of religion or belief goes the important right to live one’s life free of religion if one so chooses. That issue is often overlooked, but I remind the House of the persecution of atheists in countries such as Indonesia. Rights are not a fixed quantity: their extension to others does not diminish our own. On the contrary, the extension of rights strengthens and secures access to them for each of us. As many hon. Members have reflected, the challenge of freedom of religion and belief is often accompanied by a challenge to other civil liberties and by failing, corrupt and unstable states. It is therefore not only morally and ethically right that we should defend religious liberty, but it is in our national interest to do so.

I thank the shadow Minister and the Minister for their responses to the debate. I am very encouraged that the Minister has read the report by the all-party group and the recommendations, which I commend to him and his colleagues as a means of practical action on this matter. Many Members mentioned that the debate was timely and talked of recent developments in this area. Sadly, the same could be said whenever this debate was scheduled because the abuse of freedom of thought,

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conscience and belief is relentless. I encourage hon. Members to ensure that those of us who enjoy the freedom to speak do so relentlessly in this House and elsewhere on behalf of those whose rights are denied.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

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Thames Valley, Berkshire

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

5 pm

Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): Thames Valley, Berkshire is a geographic area that covers all eight parliamentary constituencies in the county of Berkshire, and also the region covered by our local enterprise partnership. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) and the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) are in their places to participate in the debate. Others, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) who is a huge supporter of local business and enterprise, would have liked to have attended this debate but cannot do so owing to other commitments.

Outside London, Thames Valley, Berkshire is the economic powerhouse of the British economy. It is home to 42,000 businesses, including the European and global headquarters of more than 200 Fortune 500 companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, Vodafone, Telefonica, Fujitsu, Mars, Johnson & Johnson and Honda, to name a few. We also have companies from some of the world’s fastest-growing economies investing heavily in the region. Chinese telecoms company Huawei moved its European headquarters to Green Park in my constituency last year, bringing hundreds of jobs and many hundreds of millions of pounds worth of inward investment.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that critical to inward investment in the Thames valley is our connectedness to Heathrow? Does he agree that we should support the airport and improve its connectivity from the west to reap all the benefits that Heathrow brings for inward investment into the Thames valley?

Alok Sharma: I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. I agree with her and I am on the record as supporting Heathrow. We will see what the Airports Commission comes up with. The one thing that would be absolutely detrimental to the local area is any decision by the Airports Commission that in any way downgrades Heathrow. That would be bad for business and bad for Thames Valley, Berkshire.

The area has the highest share of inward foreign direct investment projects across all LEP areas except London. Foreign-owned firms account for 40% of the sub-region’s total turnover, and approximately one fifth of employment is in foreign-owned businesses. On that metric, the share of Thames Valley, Berkshire’s employment by foreign-owned businesses is about 10% higher than the LEP average across the country. In the most recent UK competitiveness index, Thames Valley, Berkshire came out as the most competitive LEP area in England.

Thames Valley, Berkshire also leads the way in exporting, something I know the Minister’s Department, and the Government as a whole, have had a real focus on. A survey, carried out a couple of years ago, of UK businesses with 10 or more employees, found that more than 36% of such businesses based in Thames Valley, Berkshire are exporters. This is a real achievement, and one we are all building on.

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I want to put on record my thanks to the Thames Valley, Berkshire local enterprise partnership, UK Trade & Investment and others for sponsoring and supporting the export seminars that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury and I have run for small and medium-sized businesses in Berkshire. These have been incredibly well received by the companies that have attended.

We also have a balanced economy in our sub-region. We are not over-dependent on any one sector. Although the Thames valley is best known for its technology focus, which underpins Britain’s contribution in software, telecoms and pharmaceuticals, we also have significant employment created by financial services, distribution and retail sectors. As a sub-region, Thames Valley, Berkshire works hard, attracts overseas investment, drives exports, creates jobs and generates significant tax revenues for the Exchequer. I do not think I am being immodest on behalf of Thames Valley, Berkshire when I say that if every other region of Britain could match our area’s growth and innovation, the Bank of England would be forecasting significantly higher growth this year for the British economy than the current 3.4%.

As part of rebalancing the whole of the British economy, both by geography and by sector, the Government have been absolutely right to focus on major growth initiatives, such as the regional growth fund and enterprise zones, in areas of the country that need support. Clearly, the Government’s policies are working. We have seen that in the growth figures for the previous quarter that have just come out.

I do not want to give the Minister the impression that we in the Thames valley have not benefited from Government investment—on the contrary. As the Prime Minister saw for himself a few days ago, the £895 million Reading station and related rail upgrade work is proceeding at pace and under budget.

Dr Phillip Lee (Bracknell) (Con): My hon. Friend represents Reading, to which my constituency is connected directly. Is it not fantastic news that Crossrail is being extended to Reading, a rail line that will give access to Heathrow, as the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) has highlighted? The eastern spur to Heathrow, along with Crossrail, points to the real need for the Airports Commission to decide on Heathrow as the hub. I would like to see four runways there, not just three.

Alok Sharma: Having lobbied for Crossrail to come to Reading, I was delighted when that announcement was made a few weeks ago. I agree with my hon. Friend. We want to ensure that we have a strong Heathrow. It is the hub airport in the country and I would like it to continue that way. He raised the issue of whether there should be an extra runway, or an extra two runways. Those are matters for the Airports Commission to ponder and debate internally, but, as I said earlier, I want to ensure that no downgrading of Heathrow results from future decisions, and I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees with me.

My hon. Friend also mentioned access to Heathrow. The western rail access to Heathrow link, rail electrification, the M4 smart motorway scheme and the Theale station upgrade are all examples of Government infrastructure

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projects that will benefit my constituents, and constituents throughout Thames Valley, Berkshire. I am sure that other Members can give examples of successful investment projects in their constituencies. The key to the continued success of Thames Valley, Berkshire will be the delivery of all those major projects on time, and—as is currently the position in the case of the Reading station project—under budget.

My main purpose in initiating the debate at this time—apart, of course, from my wish to draw attention to the obvious merits of Thames Valley, Berkshire as a successful business area in which to invest—was to raise the issue of the allocation of moneys from the 2015-16 local growth fund. As the Minister knows, Thames Valley Berkshire local enterprise partnership has submitted its strategic economic plan to his Department, giving details of key projects that require support from the fund. The total ask is really quite modest, certainly in comparison with what I understand is being requested by other LEP areas. We are talking about approximately £30 million on top of the £14.5 million that has already been committed.

The LEP’s estimate, which it tells me is conservative—I have not looked at the model myself—is a return of £11 for every pound that is invested, on a net present value basis. The LEP estimates that support from the fund will help it to deliver 10,700 new homes and more than 21,000 new jobs in the area. I know that the Minister, and the Government in general, will welcome that information. The LEP also tells me that the fund’s support will lead to the leveraging of £120 million of private sector investment. For all those reasons, its submission is strongly supported by local authorities, local Members of Parliament and—most important, in my view—local business.

The vast majority of the LEP bid and pre-committed capital is money for high-priority transport-related projects such as the proposed Green Park railway station in my constituency. The station would be constructed on the Reading-Basingstoke line, at the heart of the Green Park business park, and would provide a major boost for businesses and workers in the area. Other high-priority projects include the South Reading mass transport scheme, the A332 Slough junction improvements, the Kings road link scheme in Newbury, and mass rapid transport schemes in Wokingham and Bracknell.

There is also a project to establish a one-stop-shop growth hub which would serve as an information and connection gateway for businesses in Thames Valley, Berkshire, and a project led by further education colleges throughout area to refurbish existing buildings in order to create a hub that can be used by students and the corporates for early-stage prototyping. That will lead to an improvement in science, technology, engineering and maths skills, which I know the Government are championing.

I believe that Thames Valley Berkshire LEP has submitted a very credible proposal, so let me end my speech by asking the Minister four questions. First, what is the timetable for decision-making on the allocation of the local growth fund? Secondly, when will LEPs be informed about fund allocations? Thirdly, will the decision on allocations be made primarily on a value-for-money metric? As I said earlier, Thames Valley Berkshire LEP has estimated an 11-times return on investment, and we hope that that will be taken into account in the measurement

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of its bid against those submitted by other LEPs. Finally, will LEPs be required to provide further supporting information before any final decisions are made about an allocation, or have the Department and the Minister sufficient information to be able to complete their analysis?

Thames Valley, Berkshire is an economic powerhouse, and the Minister can rest assured that any funds allocated to us will be used effectively. I look forward to his response.

Fiona Mactaggart rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Has the hon. Lady sought the permission of the Chair, the Minister and the hon. Gentleman to make a speech?

Fiona Mactaggart: I did write to the hon. Gentleman, yes. I omitted to write to the Chair, for which I am very apologetic.

Madam Deputy Speaker: If the Minister and the hon. Gentleman indicate their assent, the hon. Lady can have a couple of minutes.

Alok Sharma indicated assent.

5.9 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry—even after 15 years in this place, one can omit various bits of its rituals.

I am very glad that the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) has secured this debate, and I share in his celebration of what we are able to achieve in Thames valley, Berkshire. Ours is a story of success in difficult times, a success that has brought inward investment into the UK, and I am glad that we have been able to show how three MPs from different parts of the county share the view that Heathrow is critical to our county’s and the country’s future.

That raises an issue that I hope the Minister can respond to, or perhaps encourage his colleagues in the Department for Transport to respond to: the proposed smart motorway on the M4. We really welcome the western rail access to Heathrow, which will make an enormous difference. Companies investing in Slough tell me that it is uncertainty about the future of Heathrow that inhibits their ability to persuade their international boards to invest; knowing that Heathrow’s future is secure would mean better international investment.

I am concerned about the proposed smart motorway because what it means for those living next to the motorway is genuinely unclear. There is a real lack of clarity regarding its impact on people. Early consultation is going on, but frankly, it is a bit foggy. It would be really helpful if the precise impacts on the homes of those living very close to the motorway could be made clearer.

Secondly, we need to celebrate the work of the private companies that I recently visited—UCB is an example—and which are investing in our pharmaceutical industries. Such investment is really important in growing our economy. We still have not got as far as our competitor economies in recovering from the events of 2007 and 2008, and we urgently need to do so. The Thames valley

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can help us in that regard, and the Minister could create an environment in which businesses in the Thames valley could really do so.

5.13 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on securing this debate. This is an opportune time to talk about what the Government are doing to support local growth. In the UK economy as a whole, the Thames valley, Berkshire area is an economic powerhouse. It has a gross value added of some £30 billion, approximately 2% of the UK total. It is a place where small businesses are thriving. Business start-up rates are high—the 5,010 new enterprises formed in 2012 now represent 12% of the area’s businesses—and survival rates are higher in the Thames valley than those for England as a whole.

It is not just about small businesses: major companies also know that this is an efficient, connected place to be doing business. The area has the most advanced sub-regional knowledge economy in the UK outside inner London, and the highest proportion of foreign-owned businesses across all the local enterprise partnership areas. It enjoys a higher employment rate than the south-east and England overall, and the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance is low. So this is a place that is working now, and creating more new opportunities every day. Just because the area is doing well, it does not mean this Government do not want it to do better. That is why the area is benefiting and will benefit from the full range of this Government’s local growth policies: a city deal, the Growing Places fund and, soon I hope, the area’s growth deal, to which my hon. Friend referred.

The area’s city deal, signed in October 2013, centres around giving Berkshire’s young people the skills they need to access local job opportunities and helping local businesses to get the work force they need to support their growth. Some £2.4 million from the Youth Contract is being invested to boost youth employment, and that will support 4,500 young people over the next three years by providing a single access point to employment and skills opportunities for all 16 to 24-year-olds across the Thames Valley, Berkshire area, tailored to what they need to find a job. In practical terms that means addressing the skills gap and working with businesses to increase the range of opportunities available, and a key part of that is developing better pathways into work through agencies working better and more collaboratively. That will be underpinned by an innovative new mobile web platform—Elevate Me—funded by O2 and developed with young people themselves. On the business support side of the deal, Thames Valley, Berkshire recently secured £1.23 million of business growth fund money to support the development of its business growth hub. The hub will provide support and advice to small and medium-sized enterprises right across the area, providing a one-stop shop of business services to drive growth.

Overall, the city deal aims to deliver a 50% reduction in youth unemployment within three years. That is already heading in the right direction, with the number of 16 to 24-year-olds claiming jobseeker’s allowance down from 3,305 in May 2010 to 1,700 now, but of course there is still more to do. Trialling new, innovative approaches to find local solutions to local problems

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such as youth unemployment is exactly what city deals are about. Everybody will feel the benefits, from young people playing their full part in a prosperous economy to businesses looking to expand.

Let me deal with the transport issue and the Growing Places fund. The area has received £14 million from that fund. The local enterprise partnership has allocated £7.3 million of that to a new SME escalator fund, specifically responding to the concerns of local small businesses about access to finance by investing in SMEs that have varying investment needs and those that have the potential to deliver substantial growth across the area. SMEs are the linchpin of the area’s economy, and this is exactly what the Government want to see: local partners identifying a need and seeking to address it with targeted support.

The connectivity of the area is vital to growth, and the Government’s investment in transport infrastructure reflects that, too. Public investment of more than £800 million will double passenger capacity at Reading station by 2015—that includes some £425 million of Government funding for station and platform remodelling, as my hon. Friend recognised. There is £375 million of Network Rail funding to deliver track and signalling works, and of course some £4.3 billion has been allocated for electrification of the Great Western line as far as Newbury, Didcot and Oxford by 2016, and then on to Wales by 2017. That money will also fund the introduction of 100 new electric trains and bi-mode inter-city trains.

Continued investment in local infrastructure is crucial to the long-term success of Thames Valley, Berkshire. I recall the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) impressing on me the importance of the airport link when I visited the Mars facility in one of my earliest days as a business Minister. I also know that the area has strong views about the importance of Heathrow expansion. I was pleased to see the interim report published in December, which is a significant step forward in the commission’s work in assessing options for meeting the international aviation needs of our country, and we will respond to the report by June. In the meantime, I note what my hon. Friend and the hon. Lady have said, and what has been said earlier about the need for a third runway and, indeed, a fourth runway. I will of course be contributing to that response later in the summer.

Let me end by looking briefly to the future and the potential of the local growth fund, about which my hon. Friend has asked me some detailed questions. We have committed to giving local enterprise partnerships, including Thames Valley, Berkshire, both the funding and the freedoms that they need to deliver growth, putting power into the hands of those who know what the area really needs. We have already challenged them to set local strategies for spending the £5.3 billion European structural and investment funding between 2014 and 2020. That is a challenge they have already met, and now we are going further, by negotiating a growth deal for 2015-16 with every area in England.

That deal will give Thames Valley, Berkshire a share of the total £2 billion annual local growth fund to spend on local projects that it has prioritised, such as transport infrastructure and further education capital projects.

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Like others, Thames Valley, Berkshire is also negotiating with Government for the wider freedoms and flexibilities that it needs to encourage growth.

As far as the specific plan submitted is concerned, Thames Valley, Berkshire submitted its six-year strategic economic plan to the Government in March. That plan places a strong and welcome emphasis on international competitiveness and the need to keep pace with major international competitors. It also highlights, quite rightly, the area’s high-tech sector strengths, referring to the locality as “tech valley”, and the science, technology, engineering and maths skills that are needed to maintain that position. In this context the overarching priority of the LEP is to secure better access for its businesses to talented people and bright ideas, and to use both human and intellectual capital more effectively. The LEP anticipates that its plan will deliver higher economic output, amounting to around £700 million by 2020.

Those are worthy, well set out and important aims. I cannot predict the outcome of the negotiations that are now under way. As my hon. Friend will know, the process is highly competitive. The fund that is available is approximately three to four times over-subscribed by the 39 local enterprise partnerships. What I can say is that the most successful partnerships—those that will earn a greater share of the local growth fund—are those that will have strong, deliverable strategic economic plans that are evidenced by strong partnership working, robust arrangements for accountability, and effective collaboration across local enterprise partnership geography.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading West quite reasonably asked me four specific questions, so let me now try to answer them. He asked about the timetable. Following negotiations, we hope to get every local enterprise partnership in the best possible position for the deal. The final decision will then be taken by Ministers and the partnerships will be informed about the allocation. I expect that we will be in a position to make those announcements in early July. That deals with his two questions on the timetable.

My hon. Friend asked whether the decisions will be made on a value-for-money metric. The allocations will be made on an assessment of each strategic economic plan and based overall on the criteria we have published in our growth deal guidance. Those criteria include value for money but they also include the ambition and rationale of the plan and the deliverability and degree of risk that lie behind it. Value for money is certainly one of the key criteria but it is not the only criterion on which the plans will be judged.

Finally, my hon. Friend asked me whether local enterprise partnerships will be required to provide further information before the final decision. We are seeking clarification from a number of the local enterprise partnerships as part of the negotiating process and I do not think that he should read anything sinister or benevolent into that. This is a negotiation. It is a deal between the Government and the local enterprise partnerships and there are a number of aspects on which we are requiring further information from individual local enterprise partnerships. As I have said, the growth deal for Thames Valley, Berkshire will be announced before the summer recess and the focus will then move to gearing up for delivery.

In conclusion, we attach great importance to the Thames Valley, Berkshire economy. It is a key part of the UK economy and its wealth creation. We are committed

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to giving areas such as Thames Valley, Berkshire the funding and the freedom they need to maintain their leading position in the UK economy and I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome the announcement that we are due to make in July.

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Question put and agreed to.

5.26 pm

House adjourned.