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House of Commons

Thursday 8 January 2015

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—

Minimum Wage/Living Wage

1. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to increase the value of the minimum wage and encourage firms to pay the living wage. [906858]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): On our return to Business questions after the break, may I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all Members a happy new year? I am sure that the thoughts of everybody in the House this morning are with France and, in particular, with the relatives and friends of those who were killed and injured in the appalling terrorist atrocity yesterday.

Last year, the Government announced the first above inflation increase in the national minimum wage since the 2008 banking crisis, benefiting more than 1 million workers. Since 1 October 2014, full-time minimum wage workers have seen an annual cash increase of £355 in their pay packets, and we expect real-terms increases to continue as the economy recovers. We support employers paying the living wage where it is affordable and not at the expense of jobs.

Kerry McCarthy: I thank the Secretary of State for that response. He will know that for every £1 that employers pay above the minimum wage to lift workers to the living wage, the Treasury reaps 49p in reduced benefits and increased tax revenues. Why will his Department not consider using that increased revenue to incentivise businesses to pay the living wage for the first 12 months, as Labour is proposing with its make work pay contracts?

Vince Cable: It is precisely because of that revenue wedge that the Government have invested so much resource in lifting the threshold so that low-paid workers are not caught in taxation. That has substantially alleviated the pressure on the living standards of low-paid workers.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): It is really very important that minimum wage legislation is enforced, as those in receipt of the minimum wage tend to be at

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the bottom of organisations and among the lowest paid. What sanctions are being used on those at the top of organisations who receive the highest pay—the board directors—when minimum wage legislation is not being followed?

Vince Cable: There is a legitimate concern about high pay as well as low pay, which is why the Government introduced reforms of executive pay, with a binding vote on executive pay by shareholders, significantly strengthening the Government’s powers to ensure that shareholders exercise proper responsibility over top pay.

Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): The Secretary of State talks about relieving pressures on the living standards of the lowest paid, but is he aware that the all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty in Britain found, to its surprise, that a number of people using food banks were on the minimum wage? Might he not therefore use whatever powers he can to press those sectors of industry that could pay the living wage, such as banking and finance, to do so?

Vince Cable: I suspect that relatively few people are on the minimum wage in the banking and finance sectors, but we support the living wage for those companies that can afford it and are not putting people out of work. My responsibilities are more in respect of strengthening the minimum wage and making enforcement tougher. We are doing that and we are signalling to the Low Pay Commission that we respect its independence but are looking forward to real-terms increases in the minimum wage in the future.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): In a debate in Westminster Hall on the widespread abuse of employment practice for care workers, the Secretary of State’s colleague, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), said that he was pressing the Department for stronger enforcement against illegal practices. What is the Secretary of State’s Department doing about it?

Vince Cable: I worked actively and closely with my colleague in the Department of Health on this issue. There are two issues involved: minimum wage enforcement and ensuring that we have tougher legislation to deal with some of the practices that operate in that sector, such as zero-hours contracts. At the moment, we are looking more widely at employment rights for groups of people who are classified as workers but who do not currently enjoy those rights. The care sector is one such group.

Copycat Websites

2. Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the effect of copycat websites on consumers. [906860]

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): Copycat websites con people out of hard-earned cash. They undermine trust in online services and we are committed to stopping them. We need to work with search engines, to take enforcement action, to improve the consistency of Government websites and to educate consumers.

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Yvonne Fovargue: The top advertised search result for the European health insurance card if someone searches for “health card” or “national health card” is a site that charges £49 for its so-called services. Will the Minister act to put a stop to that practice by giving similar powers to those of Transport for London and blocking transactions from that site, tackling the problem at source?

Mr Vaizey: We have taken a lot of action. We have worked closely with the search engines to ensure that they implement their terms and conditions on copycat website advertising, and the click-through to Government websites has increased by 30%. There is a problem with blocking transactions for websites that charge. A lot of Government services are free and we would not necessarily know whether other websites were charging. We know what Transport for London has done and we continue to keep the issue under review.

Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): In fact, I was recently online to renew my European health card. I discovered that most of the top Google search results were sites that made people pay, but a lot of consumers do not realise that they can get the card free. There is an urgent need for the Government to take action to ensure that at least Government-provided services are clearly signposted on websites so that people know they are on a genuine website and not one that will rip them off.

Mr Vaizey: I completely agree with the hon. Lady. I hear complaints from my constituents about such websites. We have referred the issue to the Internet Governance Forum and convened a round table of digital traders to discuss strengthening terms and conditions, and we work with Nominet, the UK’s internet registry services provider, to look at ways of prohibiting the registration of such domain names.

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): May I associate the members of the Opposition Business, Innovation and Skills Front-Bench team with the Secretary of State’s remarks? We wish you a happy new year, Mr Speaker, and express our sympathies to the families of those killed in Paris.

The Minister seems not to get the point. Many of those services are meant to be free, but the sites imply that people have to pay for them. The Mayor of London obviously does not believe that the Government’s action on copycat websites is good enough because he has introduced legislation to tackle rip-off congestion charge sites. Does the Minister believe the Mayor was right to do that? If so, why is what is good enough for London not good enough for the rest of the UK?

Mr Vaizey: I always support the Mayor of London, because he is one of the most brilliant Mayors of London this country has ever seen. He has frozen the Mayor’s precept and introduced Boris bikes. However, it took me an hour and 10 minutes to get to Westminster from Hammersmith on the tube, so perhaps today I am about 99% supportive of the Mayor rather than 100%.

I completely agree with the hon. Lady’s sentiment that we must stamp on these copycat websites. I progressed the issue myself because of complaints from my constituents. That is why I am so pleased that we have

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made progress with strengthening search engine terms and conditions and started to move away from copycat websites having prominence and seen an increase in people using Government websites.


3. Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to increase the number of apprenticeships. [906861]

The Minister for Skills and Equalities (Nick Boles): We have achieved our ambition of 2 million new apprenticeships since 2010. The apprenticeship grant for employers is helping smaller business to take on new apprentices. From April 2016, employers will not be required to pay employer national insurance contributions for apprentices under the age of 25.

Stephen Metcalfe: Will the Minister join me in congratulating the nearly 800 people in my constituency who started an apprenticeship last year? However, it is not just about quantity; it is also about quality. What steps is he taking to raise quality as well as quantity?

Nick Boles: I am delighted to congratulate those who started apprenticeships in my hon. Friend’s constituency this year. There has been a 40% increase since 2009-10 in the number of people starting apprenticeships in his constituency. They are higher-quality apprenticeships than those that existed under the previous Government. They have to last at least 12 months, and they have to be a real job with a real employer. That is a key part of the economic plan that is improving conditions for young people in his constituency.

Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): The most recent figures show a fall in the number of apprenticeship starts in the north-east. What explanation can the Minister offer for that concerning trend and what does he intend to do about it?

Nick Boles: The previous Government created a great number of Mickey Mouse apprenticeships in order to massage the figures. There were apprenticeships for which people did not need an employer, and apprenticeships that lasted way less than 12 months. Under this Government, there is substantial growth in real apprenticeships—those that last more than 12 months and that give people real skills that will improve their earnings. That is why the number of people not in education, employment or training is lower than it has ever been.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): The Government should be congratulated on what they have achieved with regard to apprenticeships, but the Minister will be aware that in rural and economically challenged areas such as mine in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, it is quite difficult to advance apprenticeships, particularly in small and micro-businesses. What will the Government do to ensure that small and micro-businesses can enjoy this success?

Nick Boles: It is incredibly important that apprenticeships are created not just by the largest employers who obviously have the resources and capacity to engage with the

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scheme. That is why we introduced the apprenticeship grant for employers, which is specifically focused on small businesses and pays them £1,500 for the first new apprenticeships that they create. We are also looking at ways of making it easier for small businesses to get the Government’s money and to decide with whom they want to work as a training provider. But it is critical—only about 10% of employers are creating apprenticeships; if we could just double that, we could more than double the number of apprenticeships.

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): Should we not give the Minister the opportunity to withdraw his unfortunate remarks about Mickey Mouse apprenticeships, which really are very disrespectful to all those who worked hard and did a good job in important apprenticeships in the years to which he was referring? Is it not true that most of the increase under this Government, which Members from all parts of the House welcome, has taken place not among 16 to 18-year-olds but in the 20-year-olds-plus group, and we now need apprenticeships that will encourage the younger group into them?

Nick Boles: It gives me great pleasure to disagree with literally everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. I certainly will not withdraw my suggestion that the last Government was conning young people. An apprenticeship that lasted less than 12 months and did not even have an employer was a fraud on them, because it was not preparing them for a life of work or giving them relevant skills. It is a bit strange for the Opposition to suggest that nobody over the age of 24 deserves any investment in new skills or any chance to acquire a new ability. I welcome the fact that people over the age of 24 are taking up apprenticeships more than ever before.

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): One of the benefits of the real apprenticeships that the Government have brought in is that they provide long-term avenues into work. I recently visited a small business in Worcester that was taking on its 13th apprentice. Every single apprentice that had been through had been given a full-time job by that business. But there is still a challenge in persuading careers advisers that apprenticeships provide real value. What can my hon. Friend do to encourage them to support apprenticeships more generally?

Nick Boles: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is often careers advisers and teachers who, perhaps for the best reasons in the world, just do not understand the opportunities out there in apprenticeships, or the fact that someone can now get a degree through an apprenticeship or rise to almost any position in the senior management of a company. It is no longer about a young lad under the bonnet of a car; it can still be that, but it can also be about a young woman who has just got a first-class degree at BAE Systems through a higher apprenticeship. We are trying to get that message out in every way we can.

Mr Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): This Government have contrived to create a country where this generation of young people is now the first generation for a century to be poorer than the generation before them. Young people now face an unemployment queue that is three quarters of a million long; graduates

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now face £44,000-worth of debt; and from figures published by BIS before Christmas, we learned that the number of apprenticeships for the under-24s has not gone up but down. Social mobility in this country is in reverse, and we need more apprenticeships for young people, not fewer. The Opposition have an ambition that by 2025 as many people should be going into an apprenticeship as are going to university. Is that an ambition that the Minister will match?

Nick Boles: What I hope to hear from the right hon. Gentleman is whether that pledge, which we have costed on a reasonable basis, received the approval of the shadow Chancellor. My understanding is that the shadow Chancellor has not approved the approximately £700 million of extra spending, entirely unexplained, that it would cost to support that ambition. The Government are very clear what our ambition is. We will create 3 million new apprenticeships in the life of the next Parliament. Those apprenticeships will be for all people who would benefit from them. Unlike the Labour party and the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson), we do not discriminate against people over the age of 24.

Net Trade

4. Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): What estimate he has made of the contribution net trade will make to GDP over the next four years. [906862]

The Minister for Business and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): Our goal is for exports to reach £1trillion by 2020.

Mr Bain: I am grateful for the Minister’s answer, but last month the Office for National Statistics said that exports had remained largely flat for the past four years, and the Office for Budget Responsibility and the British Chambers of Commerce both downgraded their forecasts for net trade this year, so can he confirm that with this failure on economic rebalancing, his targets for Britain to double our exports to £1 trillion by 2020 and to get 100,000 more firms exporting from Britain will be missed?

Matthew Hancock: It is a pity to hear the Opposition setting their face against the desire to double exports to £1 trillion. Of course, the eurozone on our border is in deflation and has had a series of recessions over the past four and a half years. Over the past three months our trade deficit has narrowed, so things are improving. This is undoubtedly hard work, but it is hard work that we will pursue.

Low-carbon Economy

5. Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): What progress his Department has made on creating a low-carbon economy. [906863]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): The Government have taken strong action to create a low-carbon economy, including setting up the Green Investment Bank and a catapult centre dedicated to new renewables, and electricity market reform. Through the Department’s industrial strategy,

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we are working with industry to increase green jobs via sector-specific strategies for the offshore wind and nuclear industries.

Miss McIntosh: Although I welcome the Government’s commitment to green energy and a low-carbon economy, surely there must be a better way of achieving that than hydraulically fracturing for fossil fuel such as shale gas, which causes huge environmental disbenefits.

Vince Cable: I am aware of the hon. Lady’s concern about the areas of outstanding natural beauty in Yorkshire, which she represents. There is indeed an expression of interest, but there are very strong environmental and safety protections around shale gas drilling, and I am sure she will look forward to the extra development that this will produce in her constituency in due course.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): The Environmental Audit Committee says that our investment in renewable energy is growing at half the rate it needs to grow at to meet our future energy needs. What is the Secretary of State doing about that?

Vince Cable: My understanding is that investment in renewable energy is double what it was in the previous Parliament. There are certain aspects of new renewables where we lead the world, including offshore wind.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Secretary of State realise that if we are to have a low-carbon economy, he and his Government have to start taking investment in higher education seriously? I chair the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s committee on sustainable production. If we do not put more money into postgraduate education, and if we do not support higher education and get away from this crazy system where all higher education relies on a mountain of student debt, we are heading for terrible trouble.

Vince Cable: That is a rather creative stretch to the low-carbon economy, but specifically on postgraduate education, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have just introduced a postgraduate loan scheme for the first time.


6. Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to increase the number of apprenticeship places through Government procurement. [906865]

15. Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): If he will make greater use of Government procurement to increase apprenticeship places. [906876]

The Minister for Skills and Equalities (Nick Boles): We are keen to look at ways that procurement of major infrastructure projects such as HS2 and new nuclear power plants can drive investment in construction and engineering skills. High Speed 2 will create up to 2,000 apprenticeship opportunities and Crossrail is on track to deliver its target of at least 400 apprenticeships during construction.

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Mr Bailey: In their response to a Business, Innovation and Skills Committee report on this issue, the Government said that they were

“working on guidance to encourage best practice amongst local authorities”.

This National Apprenticeship Service guidance was subsequently published in July. It was eight pages long, and the first six pages were devoted to problems in securing this policy and case studies of failed projects. Does the Minister agree that if we are to realise the policy’s full potential, we need a far more robust and proactive approach by the Government?

Nick Boles: I certainly agree that there is more to be done, which is why I have had several meetings with Lord Deighton, the Commercial Secretary to the Treasury, to work out exactly how we can make it an integral part of the procurement process for all major infrastructure projects that there is a clear commitment by all successful bidders to invest in skills training and in the creation of apprenticeships.

Mr Spellar: I recognise that the Minister is new to this place, and that point scoring has its place, especially at this stage in the political cycle, but a previous answer of his did not match the seriousness of the situation. He referred to real apprenticeships leading to real skills, but we still have a huge skills shortage across the economy—for example, in construction, engineering, health and haulage, to name but a few areas. Will he make it a contractual requirement that bidders for national and local contracts have proper ratios of training places, and will he enforce those provisions if bidders fall short?

Nick Boles: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to clarify that. I think that it should absolutely be part of the procurement process for all major infrastructure projects that bidders are expected to make appropriate investments either in some form of skills training or, ideally, from my point of view—I am the apprenticeships bore—in the creation of apprenticeships. I hope that he, having criticised our record, will welcome the enormous number of apprenticeships that have been created in his constituency —50% up on 2009-10.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Is this Government policy applicable to all Departments? Will the Minister specifically have a word with the Ministry of Defence, which perhaps does not know about it?

Nick Boles: I have the greatest respect for my hon. Friend and am always nervous about implying that his comments are in any way unfair, but the armed forces in fact create more apprenticeships every single year than any other organisation in the country. I want this to be an integral part of the procurement for major infrastructure projects and, to the extent that the MOD is involved in such projects, it will absolutely apply to it, but the MOD is leading the way in creating apprenticeships, and we should pay credit to it for that.

Manufacturing: Renewable Technologies

7. Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): What steps he has taken to support manufacturing in the renewable technologies sector. [906867]

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The Minister for Business and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): Our industrial strategy and our energy policy support manufacturing of renewables. I welcome the recent announcement from MHI Vestas that it will manufacture the blades for offshore wind turbines in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Of course, as with any other area of our economy, the best support we can give renewables manufacturers is to stick with our long-term economic plan.

Mr Turner: I am sure that my right hon. Friend welcomes the recent announcement that MHI Vestas is to restart manufacturing 80-metre offshore wind turbine blades, which, as he said, will be designed, built and tested on the Isle of Wight. Will he assure me that he will continue to support those manufacturing jobs, in which the island is fast becoming a globally important player?

Matthew Hancock: I pay tribute not only to my hon. Friend for the work he has done to bring that investment to the UK, and specifically to the Isle of Wight, but to all hon. Members who have worked to make Britain one of the best players in the world in the manufacture of renewables technology. That complements our energy policy. The tie-up between getting the industry and the energy policy right is absolutely vital, and he has played an important role in that.

Zero-hours Contracts

8. Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): If he will take steps to ensure that employees working on zero-hours contracts who are in practice working regular hours over an extended period have the right to a fixed-term contract. [906868]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): Under flexible working legislation brought in on 30 June 2014, all employees with 26 continuous weeks of service have the right to request flexible working from their employer. Employees on zero-hours contracts can request a change in their contracts, which could of course include a request to move to fixed hours.

Lilian Greenwood: Over Christmas, Radio Nottingham carried reports of a zero-hours worker at SportsDirect who was so worried about missing a shift that he went into work despite being critically ill. I have heard from constituents working in health and social care who dare not raise concerns about health and safety or quality of care for fear of losing all their hours. Is it not now absolutely clear that the only way to end that exploitation is to vote Labour on 7 May?

Jo Swinson: Unsurprisingly, I disagree with the perspective at the end of the hon. Lady’s question. I agree that there are serious issues with zero-hours contracts. Although they work well for many people, as backed up by Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development surveys, there are other examples—she highlights some from her constituency—where that type of contract is not used as it should be. That is why we are taking action through the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill to ban exclusivity clauses and why we

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are going further, with the development of sector-specific guidance to show what the proper and responsible use of these contracts looks like.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that in parcel and distribution services there is not only widespread use of zero-hours contracts but, as we have seen with the collapse of City Link, increased use of self-employed contractors, who have ended up with no rights to redundancy, with losing pay, and with being increasingly abused. How will the Minister regulate the sector so that we halt this race to the bottom in labour conditions?

Jo Swinson: The hon. Lady raises a genuine point. The Government do recognise this as an area of concern, particularly as regards different employment statuses. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary announced a review of employment statuses so that there can be greater clarity about the issues and we can see whether we need to make changes to the way in which different employment statuses are currently set out. The review is ongoing and we expect it to report over the next couple of months.

EU Membership

9. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the UK’s EU membership on businesses and the UK economy. [906870]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): The European single market gives British firms access to 500 million consumers and, as our largest trading partner, is responsible for almost half this country’s exports. There is a clear direct benefit to British businesses from European Union membership.

Kelvin Hopkins: Britain has an enormous and persistent trade deficit with the EU, equivalent to about 1 million lost British jobs. The growing crisis in the eurozone will only make the position worse, and there is no end in sight to its economic problems. What are the Government going to do to protect Britain’s economic interests in this dire situation?

Vince Cable: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not share the consensus among Opposition Members about the benefits of British membership. I am sure that if he occasionally crosses the border into Luton South and visits the vehicle production institution, he will recognise the EU’s importance to the industry and of its having the European Union negotiate access to bigger markets such as north America, as it currently is.

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): In a recent article in The Times, a host of senior Cabinet members, including the Foreign Secretary, the Chief Whip, and even some Ministers in the Secretary of State’s own Department, stated that they would campaign for an “out” vote in any EU referendum. In the same article, another Cabinet member was reported as saying:

“It would be a continual distraction from…work on the economy”.

Given that, as the Secretary of State said, the EU is one of our largest trading partners, what is his view on the impact on UK trade and jobs in the event of, first, an EU referendum, and, secondly, exit from the EU?

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Vince Cable: That unnamed member of the Cabinet was probably me; I did take a different view. None the less, I do have common ground with my Government colleagues in believing that the European Union needs to be reformed in quite radical ways. We need to deepen the single market, to reach trade agreements with other countries, and to reduce much of the bureaucracy that surrounds commercial activity.

Government Procurement (Supply Chains)

10. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): If he will make greater use of Government procurement to increase innovation and develop supply chains. [906871]

The Minister for Universities, Science and Cities (Greg Clark): The Government are making greater use of public procurement to increase innovation and develop supply chains. The small business research initiative has provided the most innovative companies with 1,900 contracts worth £235 million, and it will be expanded. The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill implements the reforms proposed by Lord Young radically to simplify Government procurement, such as by making contract opportunities available on a single website to which all businesses can have access.

Robert Flello: Given that the Government’s recent science and innovation strategy does not cover departmental research and development, when will the Government outline their plans on the vital role that Whitehall Departments must play in supporting innovation? In the light of his response, perhaps the Minister will place in the Library a short audit of how Departments are responding to the points he mentioned.

Greg Clark: The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. If he reads the science and innovation strategy—I invite him to do so and will send a copy—he will see that it makes several references to this matter, including the fact that the SBRI covers a number of Whitehall Departments and will expand. It also recognises the important work of research and development within each Government Department and makes proposals to advance that.

Mr Speaker: Question 11. Sir Peter Luff is not here. I call Heidi Alexander.


12. Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): What assessment he has made of recent trends in the number of apprenticeship starts for people under 19; and if he will make a statement. [906873]

The Minister for Skills and Equalities (Nick Boles): In 2013-14 there was a total of 119,800 apprenticeship starts for people under 19—5,300 more and a 4.6% increase compared with 2012-13.

Heidi Alexander: Last month, the Government’s own apprenticeship pay survey showed that one in four young apprentices are not receiving the legal minimum wage they are entitled to. In 2013-14, how many 16 to 18-year-olds did not receive the £2.68 per hour they are entitled to?

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Nick Boles: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out very clearly what we are doing to improve enforcement of the national minimum wage. One of the things that is clearly happening is that, given the complexity of the different rates—the rate changes both if someone becomes an apprentice and as they get older—many employers simply get it wrong because people’s ages change as they go through an apprenticeship scheme. That is one of the reasons we have written to the Low Pay Commission strongly suggesting that it should simplify the system and improve the minimum wage rate for 16 to 17-year-olds in apprenticeships. That would deliver a £1 increase, but it would also simplify the system, which would improve enforcement. I am happy to write to the hon. Lady with the detail on the figures she desires.

Small Businesses

13. Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): What recent steps he has taken to support small businesses.[906874]

The Minister for Business and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): There are a record number of small businesses in Britain—760,000 more than in 2010—and they are employing more people than ever before. As in any other area of our economy, the best support we can give small businesses is to stick with the long-term economic plan.

Mary Macleod: I commend the Government for what they have done for small businesses, especially on business rates, which has helped local businesses in my constituency of Brentford and Isleworth. One of the issues that still faces small businesses is late payment. I know some of that will be addressed—by negotiating fairer contracts—in the Government’s Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the unfair practices of late payment and supply chain bullying are unacceptable?

Matthew Hancock: Yes, I do. We are working incredibly hard—in fact, no Government have done more than this one—to tackle late payment. Changes coming into effect at the end of this month will ensure that 30-day payment terms are driven down the supply chain from public sector purchases. There have been 9,400 business start-ups in my hon. Friend’s constituency during this Parliament—one of the highest figures across the whole country, thanks in no small part to her hard work.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): A Minister told one of my hon. Friends earlier that the Government would review employment law. Will the Minister for Business and Enterprise also review company law, certainly in relation to City Link? I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) will support me in saying that we should review company law as well as employment law. What happened at City Link, with redundancies being announced on Christmas day, was an absolute disgrace. How would people feel if that happened to them?

Matthew Hancock: The timing of the announcement was clearly very difficult, but we are doing all we can to support those affected by the decision. Both the Secretary

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of State, who was constantly in touch with the company and the unions over Christmas, and I are working hard to support those affected.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): One of the things that the Government could do to support small businesses is to support Labour’s plans to outlaw pay to stay agreements. We very much welcome the fact that, on the back of pressure from the Opposition, Premier Foods has ceased its pay to stay arrangements. The Government say that such arrangements are unacceptable, but at the same time they refuse to outlaw them. Does the Minister consider some forms of pay to stay acceptable, or are the Government so hostile to any form of regulation that they are willing to stand by while unacceptable business practices evolve and to leave small firms at the mercy of their big business customers?

Matthew Hancock: I know that the hon. Gentleman likes to chip in to this debate, but recent events have clearly demonstrated the power of transparency in relation to late payment to small business. As he knows, we are radically improving the position through the small business Bill. When the contracts came to light, the company was held to account and did a U-turn. [Interruption.] They were brought to light by the Federation of Small Businesses, to which I pay tribute for its work in highlighting the issue.


14. Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): What steps he is taking to increase the number of engineers. [906875]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): The Government are making a series of interventions to increase the number of British engineers—from trailblazer apprenticeships in engineering, manufacturing and automotive sectors to national colleges in advanced manufacturing, high-speed rail, nuclear, oil, gas and wind, with £30 million of funding to address employers’ skills shortages in engineering and £200 million of capital investment in science, technology, engineering and maths teaching facilities in higher education.

Andrew Jones: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. What more is he doing to inspire younger people, particularly younger women, to take up engineering careers?

Vince Cable: I am aware of my hon. Friend’s interest in the issue. Harrogate college recently benefited from significant investment in vocational education. He asks how we promote the message about engineering, particularly to women, who are massively under-represented in the sector. I pay tribute to the STEM network of volunteers; there are about 28,000 of them, and 40% are women. We hope that through that process of campaigning, and visits to schools and education institutions, we will gradually turn this unsatisfactory situation round.

Mr Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): The UK automotive industry has had another good year, which is welcomed across the House, but it now needs

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to recruit even more engineers. What is the Automotive Council UK doing to promote the industry to the next generation of engineers?

Vince Cable: The Automotive Council UK is one of the success stories of industrial strategy. There is a great deal of commitment from industry and, indeed, on both sides of the House. The talent retention scheme is working well: if engineers are lost in particular sectors of the economy, they are speedily re-employed elsewhere and the skills base—which, as my hon. Friend implies, is inadequate—is maintained.


16. Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): What support he is providing to businesses wanting to take on apprentices. [906877]

The Minister for Skills and Equalities (Nick Boles): Some £l70 million has been made available between 2014 and 2016 to fund more than 100,000 additional payments of the apprenticeship grant to employers, and the Government’s planned investment in apprenticeships in the current financial year totals £1.5 billion.

Rehman Chishti: Will the Minister join me in welcoming the news that in Gillingham and Rainham there were 450 intermediate, 230 advanced, and 20 high-level apprenticeship starts in 2013-14, meaning that 700 young people gained invaluable skills and experiences for future careers? Will he join me in congratulating businesses such as Jubilee Clips and Delphi in my constituency on providing excellent engineering apprenticeships?

Nick Boles: Businesses such as those my hon. Friend mentions are leading this country into recovery and ensuring that that benefits everyone in his constituency. Since 2009-10, there has been a 73% increase in the number of new apprenticeships in his constituency, and that extraordinary figure is testament to local employers, colleges, and the local Member of Parliament.

Mandatory Origin Marking

17. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): What position his Department took at the Competitiveness Council discussions on 4 December 2014 on the product safety and market surveillance package and the provision of mandatory origin marking on consumer products manufactured or imported. [906879]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): The UK’s position on the product safety and market surveillance package remains unchanged: we oppose the inclusion of mandatory country of origin marking in the consumer product safety regulation. The issue was briefly raised at the Competitiveness Council meeting on 4 December, but no formal discussion or decisions were taken.

Joan Walley: I thank the Minister for that reply, but I am disappointed. On the grounds of public health and putting British manufacturing on a level playing field, we desperately need to hold a consultation and do the necessary research to make the case for compulsory country of origin marking, so that when we turn over a

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cup or saucer we know exactly where it was manufactured. Why cannot the Government abandon their opposition to that deregulatory measure?

Jo Swinson: The hon. Lady is a long-standing campaigner on and advocate for that issue. I do not believe it is a product safety matter, but she is right to say that there is a genuine issue that businesses in her constituency and other parts of the country are concerned about. We are looking into the matter in more detail and we expect a UK study on country of origin marking to complete by next month. The Commission has announced its own study on origin marking, which we will consider closely.

Pay to Stay Agreements

18. Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): If he will bring forward legislative proposals to prohibit firms from being asked to make pay to stay agreements to remain or become approved suppliers by large firms. [906880]

The Minister for Business and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): The Government are radically increasing transparency over late payment, drastically shortening public sector payment terms, and consulting on changes to tackle pay to stay arrangements.

Grahame M. Morris: The business practices of Premier Foods in charging firms for the privilege of being a supplier have been condemned as unethical and an example of predatory capitalism. Will the Minister join me in condemning the way in which City Link management treated its work force, and will he say what the Government are doing to support City Link workers? Does he support a full inquiry into this dreadful affair, including into the circumstances leading up to the announcement, so that lessons can be learned and we do not have any repeat of such events?

Matthew Hancock: The administrator will report on City Link. On the issue of Premier Foods, the practices were hard to defend, as I said earlier. In fact, the company found them impossible to defend when they came to light. The extraordinary increase in transparency will help to make sure that we can see which companies have good payment practices and which have the worst. We can then compare them and hold to account those companies with bad practices. More than that, we are consulting on changes to such contracts and we will have the results of that consultation shortly.

Topical Questions

T1. [906883] Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (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.

Heidi Alexander: May I press the Minister further on the question of apprenticeships? Not only did the pay survey expose some concerning trends, it also showed

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that one in five apprentices do not actually receive any training. Given that most people’s idea of an apprenticeship is a placement that combines on-the-job work experience and a specific training programme, I find that deeply concerning. What percentage of the Government’s apprenticeships are not really apprenticeships at all?

The Minister for Skills and Equalities (Nick Boles): There is confusion because sometimes employers will call something an apprenticeship that we do not recognise as an apprenticeship and for which we provide no financial support. They are free to do that: we do not own the trademark of an apprenticeship. We make a choice, however, about which apprenticeships we support, and we have a clear policy that we enforce—they have to last longer than 12 months, they must pay the minimum wage for apprenticeships, and they have to involve training. If the training is not external—some big employers will have internal training arrangements—they have to be Ofsted inspected, like every other training provider.

T5. [906887] Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): What plans do the Government have to strengthen the prompt payment code to stop larger organisations taking advantage of their suppliers?

The Minister for Business and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): We are strengthening the prompt payment code. We want more companies to sign up to the code and I am writing to all the FTSE 350 companies to encourage them to do so. If a company changes its payment practices for the worse and to the detriment of small businesses, I want to see a situation in which they will be kicked off the prompt payment code so that they cannot wear that badge of pride.

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): Following on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), does the Secretary of State agree that to hear that your job has been put at risk of redundancy not from your employer, but while watching the television news with your family on Christmas day—as was the case with the City Link workers—is an utterly appalling way to be treated?

Vince Cable: I certainly agree that for the 2,300 workers involved it was a very sad and dispiriting event. The company can answer for its behaviour, but the fact is that it was no longer viable and was put into administration. [Official Report, 16 January 2015, Vol. 590, c. 9MC.]

Mr Umunna: With so many unanswered questions for employees and contractors of City Link, the entire affair stinks. Why, for example, if the firm was technically insolvent on 22 December, as has been reported, was it planning to trade until 26 December? Is it true that contractors were told that rumours of it going into administration were false? Why was a new subsidiary set up on 9 December?

The administrators will do their work and no doubt make a D1 filing with the Department. Given the numbers involved and the public interest in the administration, will the Secretary of State commit to conducting a full and proper inquiry into the matter, as he did with Comet? Those who have lost their jobs and contractors who are owed money deserve nothing less.

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Vince Cable: The difference with the Comet case is the allegation of serious misconduct by directors, and that may or may not be the case with City Link. In six weeks, the administrator will make a report to our Insolvency Service and, depending on what that says, we may want to initiate an investigation, but let us wait and see the findings of that. [Official Report, 16 January 2015, Vol. 590, c. 10MC.]

T6. [906890] Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): There have been more than 500 apprenticeship starts in my constituency in the past year, but I want to increase that figure. What more can we do to ensure that businesses support, and schools promote, apprenticeships?

Nick Boles: The level of creation of apprenticeships in my hon. Friend’s constituency is fantastic, but more can always be done. The best possible advocates for apprenticeships in schools are the people who have just finished doing them. They are discovering that they are getting great jobs with better pay than their peers. Getting recently graduated apprentices back to their schools to talk to young people about the choices they are about to make is the most powerful way of persuading them of this opportunity.

T2. [906884] Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): Five hundred of the City Link redundancies are in Scotland. Does the Secretary of State share the outrage of the Scottish people at the way the workers have been treated and the fact that the taxpayer is expected to pay for part of the multimillion pound redundancy bill? What is he doing to help the workers and their families, in Scotland and across the UK, who have been devastated by this news?

Vince Cable: The taxpayer is, of course, always responsible for statutory redundancy and this case is no different. I have talked to the head of the union and the secretary-general of the Trades Union Congress on how to deal with the implications for the labour market. The labour force is very widely distributed across the UK with no major concentrations, but where there are, and if there are people who really need help with finding employment and reskilling, we are certainly willing to do the maximum we possibly can to help.

T7. [906891] Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): The ringing of tills, especially among small independent shops, should always be welcome in this nation of shopkeepers. In the last week of December, Worcester’s high street saw a 13% increase in footfall. That is very welcome. Small shops in Worcester are looking forward to the £1,500 discount to business rates this year. May I urge the Minister, as the Government consider further reform to business rates, to ensure that small businesses continue to benefit?

Matthew Hancock: I am delighted to hear of that improvement in Worcester, which is no doubt in part, though not all, down to the work of my hon. Friend. Business rates raise revenue and revenue is necessary, but the review has to ensure that they work better. The £1,500 discount for retailers is a step forward, but this is a major opportunity to improve the way the tax works.

T3. [906885] Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): The Department for Work and Pensions’ proposals for universal credit will involve more than half a million self-employed people having to submit new and different

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monthly accounts. The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is responsible across government for reducing red tape. What discussions is he having with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the DWP to do something about this? He probably has time, given the delay to universal credit, but this is a matter of considerable concern for people trying to set up their own businesses.

Matthew Hancock: There is a series of discussions between officials in my Department and in DWP, and at ministerial level, to do precisely that. The advent of universal credit will help to make work pay. It is a very important change in our welfare system, but it has to be done in a way that supports small businesses which, after all, employ many, many people. The Government’s ongoing work will ensure that that happens.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): As of last week, one could go into an Asda supermarket and buy four pints of milk for 89 pence. Milk, with all the work and care that goes into its production, should not be cheaper than plain water. Is it time to look again at the remit of the grocery code adjudicator to give her the opportunity to look at whole supply chains, especially when they greatly disadvantage primary producers?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): The grocery code adjudicator’s remit is set out clearly in primary legislation, but it is important that the Government keep these issues under review. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has engaged significantly with milk producers on this issue. My hon. Friend highlights a real problem concerning the sustainability of those who produce this vital resource.

T4. [906886] Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): What does the Minister have to say to members of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, who consider that his requirement for disabled students to contribute £200 towards their computer equipment funded by the disabled students allowance is unacceptable and discriminatory?

The Minister for Universities, Science and Cities (Greg Clark): As the hon. Lady knows, we have reflected carefully on some of the representations made about the proposed package, and we continue to consult on the details and will come forward with a full response in due course. It is fair to say, however, that disabled groups and their representatives have recognised and welcomed the changes.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Given our huge trade deficit with the EU, will the Secretary of State tell us why he is so certain that were we to leave the EU, it would stop free trade with us? Or is it that kind of woolly thinking that has led to his removal as his party’s economic spokesman at the general election?

Vince Cable: I actually remain as our economics spokesman, but that is a minor internal matter.

I think that most Conservative Members fully support British membership of the EU; they might wish to see it reformed, as I think we all do, but membership is fundamental. It is difficult to imagine that Britain could

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independently negotiate trade agreements with the US, India and other countries with the same authority as the EU.

T8. [906892] Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): In the Government’s opinion, at what level of RAB—resource accounting and budgeting—charge does the student loan system become unsustainable?

Greg Clark: As the hon. Lady knows, probably the most respected expert in the world on this subject, the OECD, has been clear that “the UK higher education system is excellent for individuals and for the Government” and offers the “most sustainable” system in the world. The system is in robust good health and works well. It offers good value for the taxpayer and students.

Mr David Willetts (Havant) (Con): Will the universities Minister confirm that overseas students will continue to receive a warm welcome in this country, and will he assure me that we will not expect them to leave the country after they graduate and apply for a post-study work visa from abroad?

Greg Clark: That is not the Government’s policy and I do not agree with the suggestion. I take great pride in the fact that the brightest and best people in the world want to come and study at our excellent universities. It is great news that we heard just before Christmas that we have record numbers of overseas students applying for admission to university in this country next year. When they come here, they will receive the most cordial of welcomes.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Most companies pay the national minimum wage, but increasingly we have seen more companies not wishing to pay it and developing numerous professional scams—making individuals pay for uniforms, non-payment of mileage, bogus employment and bogus apprenticeships. What will the Government do to police the national minimum wage effectively in respect of these companies?

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman raises a very serious issues and alludes to today’s TUC report, which I look forward to reading in detail. We have expanded the resources available for the enforcement of the national minimum wage; we have increased the penalties; we have introduced the naming and shaming scheme; and we will continue to clamp down hard on those companies that break the law. Many of the practices he outlined, which would seem to be in the report, are already against the law. The pay and work rights helpline in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will also help to clamp down on these employers.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): Just before Christmas, Alstom Grid announced its intention to construct a state-of-the-art factory and research facility in Stafford— a vote of confidence in this country’s skills, openness to investment and industrial strategy. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute not only to Alstom—soon to merge with GE—but to Staffordshire county council, which had the foresight to construct a state-of-the-art business park, in which Alstom will be the first investor?

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Vince Cable: I happily join the hon. Gentleman in that tribute. I have been to Alstom and seen its advanced electrical equipment manufacturing—it is one of the best in the world—and it is a tribute to the policies we have pursued that it wishes to expand its investment here.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): Given that Brent crude has dropped to $50 a barrel—40% of what it was—I am surprised there was not one question on the Order Paper about the effect of that on the supply chain, which is the responsibility of the Secretary of State; I know he knows this. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), the new leader of the Labour party in Scotland, is calling for a summit to cover not just offshore but the supply chain factors affected by this collapse in the oil price. Will the Secretary of State join that summit and help not just the offshore industry but the supply chain, which is also affected?

Vince Cable: We understand the importance of that question. One of the sectoral groups in our industrial strategy is specifically concerned with the oil and gas supply chain. The companies around Aberdeen in particular are among the world leaders and could be seriously hit by the contraction of investment. Certainly, we will be getting that group together quickly and making an assessment of what it means. It is important to think long term, of course, as much of the industry does; temporary fluctuations in price are not necessarily as damaging as the hon. Gentleman might believe.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): In 2010, the European Union sold to this country £28 billion more in goods than we sold to it. By the end of 2013, this massive figure had risen to £56 billion. Over that period, however, unemployment in this country has fallen significantly. Does that not destroy the Liberal Democrat myth that 3 million UK jobs are dependent on EU membership?

Vince Cable: What an extraordinarily primitive view of economics to believe in narrow bilateral balances of trade! One thing that should be said is that we are dealing, of course, not just in goods, but in services, where Britain has a major competitive advantage.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Secretary of State approve of, and will he support, the campaign of the all-party group on manufacturing to find a great export in each of the 650 constituencies? Will he back that? It is a cross-party initiative; it has raised the profile of British exports; and I think it is a very good idea.

Vince Cable: I am very happy to support it. I remember that a couple of years ago, the hon. Gentleman asked every individual MP to identify companies in their constituencies that had made major manufacturing innovations. I praise the work that this all-party group is doing.

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): The Secretary of State has agreed to see my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) and me on Monday on the question of City Link. We are

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grateful for that and look forward to meeting him. Will he take the opportunity now, at probably the last question of this Question Time, to make clear personally how much he deprecates the cynical and disgraceful behaviour of the owners of City Link and put that on the record? No behaviour like this can be justified in the 21st century—it belongs to the 19th century, if it belongs anywhere at all. Will he make that clear today?

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Vince Cable: Giving lectures in that way is probably not helpful. I need to establish the facts about what has happened. Very serious allegations have been made, and we need to get them properly investigated. It needs to be said for the record, of course, that this is a company that was losing money under a variety of ownerships for as long as five years, so its future has been in question for a long time.

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Business of the House

10.32 am

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

The First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr William Hague): The business for next will be:

Monday 12 January—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Stamp Duty Land Tax Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Consumer Rights Bill, followed by a motion to approve a carry-over extension on the Consumer Rights Bill.

Tuesday 13 January—Debate on a motion relating to the charter for budget responsibility, followed by a debate on a motion relating to national policy statement on national networks, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, followed by a motion to approve a carry-over extension on the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, followed by a motion to approve a carry-over extension on the Deregulation Bill.

Wednesday 14 January—Opposition day (12th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 15 January—Debate on a motion relating to contaminated blood, followed by debate on a motion relating to the transatlantic trade and investment partnership. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 16 January—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 19 January will include:

Monday 19 January—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 15 January will be:

Thursday 15 January—General debate on national commissioning of NHS specialised services.

Ms Eagle: I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. In the aftermath of yesterday’s atrocity in Paris, I add my voice to the many who have already expressed their shock and anger at this attack on democracy and free speech. This House, of course, stands in solidarity with the French people and we send our heartfelt condolences to the friends and families of those who were so brutally murdered.

Despite the appalling events of yesterday, I would still like to take this opportunity to wish the whole House a very happy new year and say that I hope the Leader of the House has had a rest over the Christmas period. Judging from the Government’s meagre future business in what is left of this zombie Parliament, the right hon. Gentleman seems to want to extend the period of rest for a few more weeks yet. I hear that the Government Chief Whip, not satisfied with introducing a three-day week for Government Members, has now decided to slim it down to two days for his worried Back Benchers. I suggest that he should be sent as an envoy to the Lords, who this week were forced to debate how to

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reduce the number of peers attending their House because so many coalition cronies have been crammed into it that it is bursting at the seams. Perhaps a two-day week would be the answer for them too.

Before Christmas, the Governance Committee produced a series of responsible and sensible suggestions and proposals for reforms. It is vital for the new management system to be implemented before the end of this Parliament. I note that the Leader of the House did not announce a date for a debate on the report. Will he confirm that we will consider it very soon, and will he ensure that the House has an opportunity to vote to implement its recommendations rather than merely taking note of them?

The general election campaign seems to have kicked off this week, and I am afraid that the Leader of the House has not had the most auspicious of starts. On Monday he flashed his briefing note at the cameras, and inadvertently revealed secret Tory plans to slash the schools budget after the next election. Perhaps he will now come clean and tell us what cuts that briefing note was trying to hide—or was the Liberal Democrat Education Minister right when he revealed that if the Tories win, they will cut the education budget by a quarter?

At the same press conference, the Chancellor told us that the choice at the general election was between competence and chaos, and on that one issue I actually agree with him. So let us see how the Government are doing on competence. Last year began with severe flooding in the south-west, which they did not even seem to notice until the Somerset levels had been under water for weeks and the hue and cry became too loud to ignore. Then we had the fiasco at the Passport Office when tens of thousands of passport applications were delayed, which caused considerable anxiety and extra cost and ruined many holidays. We have had the ongoing saga of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who has been in denial about the fiasco that is universal credit implementation—now very late and hugely over budget. On the deficit, the Government have missed every target and broken every promise, borrowing £200 billion more than they promised at the start of the current Parliament.

The year has ended with chaos on the railways, and our NHS in crisis. Not content with wasting hundreds of millions on botched rail franchise competitions, the Department for Transport topped even that over Christmas, when thousands of travellers were left stranded, separated from their families and herded around stations like cattle—but the railways Minister toasted the success of rail repairs in her Christmas message, and said she was “chuffed” that there was

“light at the end of the tunnel”.

In the last year, the Government have breached half the service standards that they enshrined in the NHS constitution. In A and E, nearly half a million people have been left waiting more than four hours for treatment—the worst waiting time since records began—while the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary are in denial. If all that is the Chancellor’s definition of competence, we have to wonder what on earth chaos would look like.

Will the Leader of the House grant us a debate on the competence of the Government, and, while we are at it, may we also debate the chaos of the coalition election

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launches? First we had the Tory campaign poster, a barren road to nowhere which the Chancellor stubbornly insisted was

“a British picture, a British road”.

Actually, it turned out to be in Germany, which presumably explains why there were no potholes in it. Then we had the Liberal Democrats promising to be the heart and spine of any future Government. Well, while we are all in favour of organ donation, it is surely impossible to donate something that you do not already possess.

And then we had the Leader of the House and his colleagues, the least exciting five-piece ever to take the stage. Their fan base is in decline, and they are all jostling to be the lead singer—except the Leader of the House, who is leaving the band. It was not so much One Direction as No Direction.

Mr Hague: On the solemn note on which the hon. Lady began, I absolutely join her, as will the whole House, in condemnation of yesterday’s terrorist attack in Paris. The people of France are very much in the thoughts of this House and of the British people today. As the Prime Minister has made clear, we will, of course, offer all possible assistance to our colleagues in France. I think this attack will only redouble the determination of people in Britain, France and across the world to defend freedom of speech, because that is clearly what is at stake here.

The hon. Lady said that, despite that, it was appropriate to wish a happy new year. I am not sure why she thought I particularly needed a rest over the new year, but I join in wishing her a happy a new year. It will, however, still be a year for a considerable amount of work in this House. The hon. Lady used the phrase “zombie Parliament”, and I ought to point out that in this Parliament we will actually sit for 734 days, which is more than the 718 days of the five-year Parliament under the last Government, and that in this Session we are considering, including the Bill to be introduced today, 23 Government Bills, compared with 13 main programme Bills under the Labour party in the last Session of the last Parliament. In the penultimate Session of the last Parliament there were 18 Government Bills, whereas there were 20 in this Parliament. I therefore do not think the Opposition have much to crow about in that regard. The Bills we are considering are not only numerous, but they include the Pension Schemes Bill, which is giving people a freedom on retirement that they never enjoyed under any previous Administration, a small business Bill, which is very good for entrepreneurs, and an Infrastructure Bill, which is giving another multi-billion pound boost to our economy, and these are things that the Opposition do not seem to think are necessary or desirable. That is what is happening in this Session of Parliament.

The hon. Lady asked about the very important report on the governance of the House. I certainly intend that that will be debated soon—almost certainly in the week after next, although I have not been able to announce the full business for that week. That will mean that debate can take place after the meeting of the House of Commons Commission, which, as she knows, will also take place that week, on the 19th. I am sure the House will want to make a decision about how to proceed with this, rather than, as she said, just take note of matters. A great deal of work has gone on in the Governance

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Committee. It has been very good work, as I am sure the House will agree, and we do now need to get on with implementing many of the conclusions of that report.

The hon. Lady asked about various aspects of political campaigning and advertising in the last week, including a road in Germany. We know that what the Opposition would lead us to is the road to Greece—not the road to Germany, but the road to the deficit of more than 10% of GDP that they left us with.

I am happy to read out to the hon. Lady the note that the press noticed me carrying:

“In this Parliament, we’ve shown that we can protect the front line by making the Education budget more efficient and effective…But putting the economy at risk because Ed Miliband doesn’t have an economic plan, Labour would put our schools at risk.”

I am very happy to read that out to her, but I do not think she can lecture us about competence when the rebuttal document from the Opposition to what we said on Monday first of all confused a “million” with a “billion” three separate times, which does not inspire confidence as to how they would make any numbers add up, and asserted that one of their spokesmen was only a Back-Bench peer, the noble Lord Rosser, when he turns out to have been on their Front Bench for five years now without them even being aware of it in their own party headquarters. So telling us about competence after such a document may not be a very appropriate way to start the new year. Labour has also been forced to drop 12 policies in their entirety over the course of this week. It is too long a list for me to go through them all—

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Oh, go on!

Mr Hague: Well, the list is too long for me to go through them all, but a proposal to ban food waste from landfill was dropped within minutes of Monday’s press conference. Bringing back Care First—[Interruption.] The shadow Leader of the House says that that has never been Labour’s policy, but according to her colleagues it was. Other policies that were dropped include additional funding for a national refuge fund; justice reforms for 18 to 20-year-olds; a women’s justice board; and reinstating Cycling England. Also, Labour’s opposition to reductions in the Arts Council budget was dropped within hours of Monday’s press conference. So competence has not really been on display from the Opposition this week. I notice that, over the recess, the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery)—I can say this because he is here—gave a very good analysis of the Labour leadership, saying:

“We’ve got an elite which quite frankly frightens me. They haven’t been anywhere or done anything, and when you’ve got an accent like mine, they think, ‘Well, that man doesn’t really know too much’.”

Well, on the basis of that, I think he knows quite a lot. It is time the Labour leadership listened more attentively to the hon. Gentleman’s views on that and perhaps on other things.

Sir George Young (North West Hampshire) (Con): I welcome what my right hon. Friend has just said about an early debate on the governance report. I would be grateful if he could tell us, as a footnote to the question from the shadow Leader of the House, what has happened to the recommendation in paragraph 186, which states:

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“We therefore recommend that the ‘paused’ recruitment process be formally terminated. We believe that this action should be taken immediately.”

In his own White Paper, “The implications of devolution for England”, my right hon. Friend has indicated that he would welcome an early debate and a vote on this matter. When he has narrowed down the options, will he give us an idea of the timetable for this? May we have such a debate before the February recess?

Mr Hague: On my right hon. Friend’s second question, I certainly hope that we can do so, but there will need to be consultation between the parties about the nature of such a debate as well as its timing. However, I certainly hope that we can have such a debate and, if possible, have it before the February recess, although I cannot rule out it having to be later than that.

On my right hon. Friend’s first point, the implementation of that recommendation of the Governance Committee is a matter for you, Mr Speaker, but I know that it will be possible to discuss these things in the forthcoming meeting of the House of Commons Commission and in the debate.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I have been prompted to ask for a debate by something the Prime Minister said this week. He seemed to suggest that there were too many old people in this country, and that that was the reason behind the problems in accident and emergency departments in the national health service. That kind of ageism seems to be creeping into our society.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Quite!

Mr Sheerman: We have debates in the House on many “isms”, and it is about time we took ageism seriously. May we have an early debate on how we can keep the older population in this country happy and healthy? They are very important electors and very important citizens.

Mr Winnick: I’ll vote for that!

Mr Hague: I think all of us, including the Prime Minister, are opposed to ageism, and the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) has just loudly proclaimed his opposition to it. We have just lost the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) from the Chamber but I am sure that he, too, would have agreed strongly with these sentiments. He is an advertisement for great activity in slightly older age.

Of course no one is blaming older people for the problems that have been experienced in A and E departments. We now have almost 1,200 more A and E doctors, including 400 more consultants, than we had in 2010, and they are trying to cope with the pressures. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) makes a good case for discussing ageism and for combating it; I fully agree with him.

Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): A car is a necessity, not a luxury, in the Ribble valley. It is a rural area, as the Leader of the House knows, and many

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hard-pressed motorists are now benefiting from the fact that petrol prices have dropped. They have not dropped enough, however; petrol should now be about £1 a litre. May we have a debate on fuel prices so that we can not only shame those organisations that are not fully passing on the price reductions but propose that if they do not do so now, the Government will consider imposing a windfall tax on their profits?

Mr Hague: As my hon. Friend knows, the Chancellor has stressed the importance of this matter. As the Chancellor said on Tuesday, the oil price is now at its lowest in five years, and it is vital that this is passed on to families at the petrol pumps, and though utility bills and air fares. The Government are closely monitoring whether companies are passing on to their customers the benefits of plunging oil and gas prices as quickly as possible. Let me add that Ofgem has referred the gas and electricity markets to the competition authorities to ensure that those markets are working effectively, and it has made it clear that it will be looking at the relationship between wholesale costs and retail prices as part of its investigation.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): The Leader of the House will know that the Cabinet Office has recently published its list of upcoming triennial reviews of non-departmental public bodies, helpfully pointing out that they will take six months from start to finish. Will he therefore ask the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) to come to this House to explain why the triennial review for the Marine Management Organisation, which closed in October 2013, with publication due in early 2014—a response to a parliamentary question then said it would be published before the end of 2014—has still not been published? This is the subject of a cross-party request for an investigation into the quality of data, and fishers in my constituency are being affected. Will the Leader of the House please explain what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Government are hiding?

Mr Hague: That is, of course, a question directly for the DEFRA Ministers, and the hon. Lady will have opportunities to ask them directly. I am sure she has done so before, so I encourage her to do that again, but I will make it clear to them the concern that she and other Members have about this matter.

Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): Yesterday, my Committee deeply deplored the fact that the Prime Minister, despite promises given, provided a mere written statement regarding the most recent European Council. That is greatly to be deplored, but another matter of grave concern to my Committee is the failure to schedule debates on the Floor of the House and to carry those through. I recently asked a similar question of the Leader of the House and he said that he would try to do something about this. We have only recommended 11 debates, including on matters as important as the free movement of persons—that has not been debated, despite the fact that we made the recommendation one whole year ago. It simply will not do. In the circumstances,

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will he agree to appear before my Committee to explain the situation, because, frankly, we have just about had enough?

Mr Hague: On the first point about a written statement, the Prime Minister has a very strong record in coming to the House to deliver statements, including after the great majority of European Councils. As my hon. Friend knows, this particular Council meeting took place after the end of Parliament’s sitting, so it would not have been possible to come straight to the House about it. I think there are some Councils and occasions when it is appropriate to give a written statement instead, but on the vast majority of occasions an oral statement is made. I understand the point my hon. Friend is making about the range of reports and requests from the European Scrutiny Committee. It has not been possible to schedule those debates as things stand, but of course I am happy to discuss that further with him.

Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): May we have an early debate on compensation for victims of badly installed cavity wall insulation? Many people, including my constituents, have had cavity wall insulation carried out, funded by the obligations placed on energy companies by the Government. When that goes wrong, as it sometimes does, the Government refuse to intervene and the Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency, the industry regulator, is absolutely useless at taking any action. May we have an early debate with Ministers to see what can be done to sort the problem out?

Mr Hague: There will be people caught in a difficult situation as a result of that, and the right hon. Gentleman raises a point that will be important to some people around the country. It would be an appropriate subject to advance for a Backbench Business Committee debate or for an Adjournment debate, but I will also draw the attention of my colleagues at the Department of Energy and Climate Change to what he has said.

Mr Keith Simpson (Broadland) (Con): My right hon. Friend is no doubt aware of the very strong feeling expressed both in this House and in the other place for a speedy report by the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. I accept the fact that, as this is an independent inquiry, he and the Prime Minister have no control over this matter, but I hope that Sir John Chilcot takes note of this concern and expedites the report as quickly as possible. Assuming that he does report by February, Sir John Chilcot will undoubtedly make a press statement and a statement will be made in this House, but can the Leader of the House assure us that we will have a full day’s debate on the report and that there will be a gap between the report’s publication and the debate to allow Members to read the 1 million words that are reported to be in it?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend makes a good point. He is renowned for his reading and his reviews of books, but even he would need some time to read 1 million well-chosen words. Of course it will be important for the House to digest the report before having a full-scale debate on it. Whenever it is published, I certainly expect that to happen, but I cannot undertake—and the Prime Minister made this clear yesterday—that that will be in this Parliament. It may well be something for my successor

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in the next Parliament to deal with, but I am sure that those running the inquiry will have heard the concern in Parliament, which my hon. Friend has again expressed today.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): May we have a statement or a debate led by the Department for Work and Pensions on the guarantees or guidelines that have been given to local authorities for when the independent living fund is abolished? Sadly, no Conservative Members attended a recent lobby meeting to speak to people who are facing this problem. One representative told me:

“When ILF closes in June 2015, none of the 18,000 disabled people who currently receive the independent living fund, nor their families or friends, have any idea whether they will end up condemned to living in a care home or effectively imprisoned in their own home without adequate support.”

There were poignant tales of people who have gone from independent living to being put into care homes by local authorities. May we have a statement and a debate on this terrible tragedy, which has been caused by the Government’s abolition of the independent living fund?

Mr Hague: That is something that can be raised with DWP Ministers at their regular questions. It is a perfectly normal subject for debate, and the hon. Gentleman may wish to pursue all the various means of obtaining a debate—through the Backbench Business Committee and so on—but I will bring this matter to the attention of the Ministers concerned.

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): Affordable housing is a major issue in London, especially in my constituency of Brentford and Isleworth. May we have a debate in this House about that matter and about how we can encourage Government and local authorities to ensure that we have enough affordable housing in planning applications?

Mr Hague: Again, there would be a good case for such a debate. As my hon. Friend knows, the national planning policy framework makes it clear that local authorities should use all the evidence available to them to ensure that their local plan meets the objectively assessed need for affordable housing in their area. The Mayor in London is currently revising the London plan to address a likely increase in the capital’s population and is proposing a minimum of 17,000 affordable homes per annum in the future. Again, as I have said to other Members, it is open to her to pursue a debate in all the normal ways.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): The Times today carries an alarming story that when public registrars report alleged sham marriages to the Home Office, no action is taken in three-quarters of cases. Moreover the Home Office refuses to provide feedback to the registrars. That shocking state of affairs is only too familiar to MPs and constituents when we report cases of immigration abuse. It is no wonder that there is such concern in all communities about the immigration shambles. May we have a debate so that the Home Secretary can try to justify this incompetence and chaos? It would be even better if she could knock her Department into shape.

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Mr Hague: The Home Secretary has done a great deal to knock her Department into shape and continues to do so. The right hon. Gentleman raises a legitimate concern, of course, and I have also seen that report in the newspapers today. I know that the Home Office will want to respond to it and I will draw the Home Secretary’s attention to what he has said. I am sure that there will be opportunities to raise the subject further in this House, including with Home Office Ministers.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): May I thank the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for the cross-party support for the Bill that will enable women who are consecrated diocesan bishops in the Church of England to be nominated for membership of the House of Lords as soon as possible? I thank the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and the usual channels for providing time for that one-clause Bill to be debated on Monday week. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the intention is that if the Commons can cover all stages of the Bill on 19 January there will be time in the other place for the Bill to be passed and enacted during this Parliament so that we can see women bishops in the House of Lords as soon as possible?

Mr Hague: My right hon. Friend has been assiduous in ensuring that the Bill was brought forward in a timely way. He asked a few weeks ago for all of its stages to be dealt with in one day and that is what we will be able to do, subject to the agreement of the allocation of time motion on 19 January. Of course, it is very much the intention that it will be possible for the Bill to receive Royal Assent before the dissolution of Parliament. We would not have introduced it with any other expectation. I am pleased that we have been able to introduce it speedily and I hope that we will be able to consider it speedily, and that they will be to do so in the other place as well.

Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating the Whitefoot and Downham community group here in London on winning the Paul Goggins memorial prize, which was established by the all-party parliamentary group on poverty and the Webb Memorial Trust? As it was the anniversary of Paul’s death yesterday, will he also extend the sympathy of the House to Paul’s family during this very difficult period?

Mr Hague: Yes. What the hon. Gentleman has said will have wide support and will have raised strong feelings across the House and I congratulate the group that won that award. In all parties we have fond memories of the work of Paul Goggins and we remember him again today.

Mr Speaker: I thank the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) for what he has said and the Leader of the House for his reply. Paul Goggins was hugely respected and much loved across the House and what has been said today will offer some comfort and succour to his family. That is greatly appreciated.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May we have a debate on how the honours list is determined? Mr Peter Smith, the Tour de France project co-ordinator for Leeds council,

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was awarded an MBE in the new year's honours list, which was, I am sure, well merited, but does that not go to show what a glaring omission it was that Gary Verity, who brought the Tour de France to Yorkshire, was ignored? In that debate we can perhaps show the strength of feeling in Yorkshire that Gary Verity should receive a knighthood for what he did, which I hope will be addressed as soon as possible. In any such debate, we could also perhaps discuss the merits of a knighthood for Geoffrey Boycott who, as the Leader of the House knows, is a rival to him as the greatest living Yorkshireman.

Mr Hague: Without straying into all parts of that question and recognising that we are not allowed to dispense honours at the Dispatch Box, I am sure that we all agree that many people did tremendous work to bring the Tour de France to Yorkshire. It was a fantastic success. It is right that those people are recognised and I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the crucial and important role that Gary Verity played as leader of Welcome to Yorkshire. I cannot comment on how the honours system operates, but I will certainly convey what my hon. Friend has said about Gary Verity to all those responsible. After all, the new year’s honours list, while an important list, is not the only honours list in the year and so names can be considered for another list as well.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Before the Christmas recess, I raised with the Leader of the House the question of human rights abuses in Bahrain and the opening of a British base there at the same time. He will be aware from my early-day motion and from news reports of the arrest and imprisonment of Sheikh Ali Al-Salman, the leader of the opposition in Bahrain, who remains in detention, as do many other people. Will he put pressure on the Foreign Office to receive a delegation of Members to express serious concerns about human rights in Bahrain and the apparent approval of the Bahrain Government’s record on this by the placing of a British base in that country?

Mr Hague: Foreign Office Ministers have, as I know from my experience as Foreign Secretary, been very ready to discuss these things with Members of Parliament, and I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman asks for a meeting for Members of Parliament with Foreign Office Ministers, it would be entirely the normal thing for them to give a positive reply. It is very important to be able to discuss these things. We have often raised human rights concerns directly with the Bahraini Government, but I stress that the minesweepers that are based in Bahrain are there for the protection of our own national security and that of our allies more widely. They provide a very important role in assuring safety of navigation through the strait of Hormuz. So the British military role there is not something simply about Bahrain; it is about our wider collective defence and it should be seen in that context.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): May I offer a happy new year to the shadow Leader of the House? She is an excellent shadow Leader of the House and I hope that she continues in that role in the next Parliament. Has the Leader of the House given any thought to the sad day when he delivers the last business statement of this Parliament? Will he do a multi-choice? He has to

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announce the first week’s business of the new Parliament. Will he announce what the Labour party might do if it was able to form a majority Government? It would obviously have to have an emergency Budget to increase taxes and borrowing. If it was a Conservative majority Government, we would immediately introduce a European Union (referendum) Bill. If it was a Liberal Democrat majority—no, I am not going into fantasy land. Could we have a statement next week?

Mr Hague: That is a very attractive idea for the last business statement of the Parliament, which we will come to towards the end of March. I will look at that idea. Certainly, my hon. Friend is right that a Conservative Government will want to have a European Union (referendum) Bill, and to have the earliest possible debate on it as a Government Bill in Government time. I do not know whether there would be time for any of that if there were to be a Labour Government, since they would be dealing with the financial crisis, the huge uncertainty in the markets and the difficulty facing the currency. Since they would be on that road to Greece, I am not sure they would have time for much legislation.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Is there any means by which the business of the House today could be suspended briefly at 12 noon to allow hon. Members to attend in Westminster Hall with a pen, joining journalists and members of staff of this House in a show of solidarity with our French neighbours in the face of what happened yesterday, and to demonstrate that ultimately the pen is mightier than the sword?

Mr Hague: The whole House will agree with that sentiment. Any suspension of the sitting is a matter for you, Mr Speaker, although it will be possible for the majority of hon. Members to do that even when the House is sitting. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about showing our solidarity and determination to protect freedom of expression in this country and across the world.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): May we have a debate about national responsibility for the funding of memorials such as St George’s, the RAF memorial chapel at Biggin Hill? It was saved yesterday, but there was some debate and some bad words about the possibility of the local council, Bromley council, having to fund it. Such memorials are a national responsibility and we should have plain, understandable instructions on how they are preserved.

Mr Hague: There is, of course, a good case for these things to be clarified, and even for a debate on them. In this particular case, which is very important and which my hon. Friend and other neighbouring Members of Parliament have been assiduous in pursing, as the Prime Minister confirmed yesterday, the chapel at Biggin Hill will be preserved for future generations. We are very pleased that Bromley council wishes to create a heritage centre on the site, and, subject to agreeing suitable terms to secure the site, we will lease the site on a long-term basis to the council for a peppercorn rent, which will help enormously. For today, we should thank all the parties that have come forward in offering their support, which we all greatly appreciate.

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Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): We begin 2015 with ownership of Tata Steel UK’s long products division uncertain into the future. This is causing great anxiety in steel communities throughout the land. Is it not time that we had a debate in the Chamber about the future for UK steel?

Mr Hague: We have just had Department for Business, Innovation and Skills questions, where there were opportunities to raise that. We had an urgent question some weeks ago about the matter, and of course there are continuing concerns. The hon. Gentleman will be able to continue to raise the matter with BIS Ministers. There will also be opportunities to debate the economy in general over the coming months. There is a strongly improved outlook from the British Chambers of Commerce survey published only today. The hon. Gentleman will be able to find many opportunities to continue to pursue the subject, as he always does.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): My right hon. Friend will be aware that in Harlow we have had over 100 illegal traveller encampments over the past year and sadly we have a police commissioner who seems to have adopted the unwise mantle of the three monkeys—hear nothing, say nothing and do nothing. Now he wants to increase the police precept and hit the most vulnerable residents across Essex and in my constituency, Harlow. May we have an urgent debate on the police precept? Will my right hon. Friend, with the Home Secretary, ensure that the police commissioner consults local residents before putting up taxes, and will he do everything he can to stop that?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend, as always, raises an issue that is important to his local communities. There is already a statutory requirement for police and crime commissioners to consult their police and crime panel regarding any proposals in relation to the council tax precept, and the police and crime panel has the power to veto the proposed precept and ask the PCC to set it at a higher or lower level. Ultimately, one of the virtues of PCCs being elected is that they are periodically accountable to the local voters for their decisions if they want to stand for re-election.

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): May we have a debate on the role and responsibilities of NHS England in ensuring reasonable access to GP surgeries? I raise the matter because the Highfields medical centre in my constituency was forced to leave its premises, giving patients just a couple of weeks’ notice, and move to premises in Leicester East, the neighbouring constituency. I wrote to NHS England on 18 November, raising concerns on behalf of my constituents. I have not yet had a response. Many patients in my Leicester South constituency are now without a GP in that part of the city and are deeply concerned about it.

Mr Hague: GP access is extremely important to people all over the country. All Members of Parliament understand that extremely well, and I hope that NHS England will respond quickly to the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raised on behalf of his constituents. There are questions to Health Ministers next week in the House, so he will

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be able to raise the matter with them directly if he has not achieved satisfaction for his constituents before then.

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): Yesterday Harrogate borough council confirmed its plans to deliver a sixth successive annual council tax freeze, taking advantage of the support from the Government to help it do that. May we have a debate to consider what we can do to encourage and support more local authorities to set fair and sound budgets that are sound for local taxpayers as well?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend’s council is a good example of setting sound budgets. Every part of the public sector needs to do its bit to pay off the deficit left by the previous Government, including local government, which accounts for a quarter of all public spending. We have been working hard to give hard-working people greater financial security by keeping the council tax down so that the local government settlement that was introduced in December is fair to all parts of the country. It helps councils to do that, including freezing council tax bills, and that is a tremendous contrast with the doubling of council tax bills that took place under the previous Government.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I recently discovered that 30 addresses in the midlands accounted for 5,000 bogus emergency calls to the ambulance service in one year, and 600 were to a single address in Birmingham. I have since been advised that there might be a perverse incentive in the operation of the ORCON—operational research consultancy—response system that deters the service from tackling those bogus callers. Given the problems that the health service is facing and the fact that this is clearly not just a local matter, may we have a debate in Government time on bogus calls and the operation of the ambulance ORCON response system?

Mr Hague: On the face of it, it sounds as though the hon. Gentleman raises an important point about bogus calls. There is no Government time available for such a debate, but there are many other opportunities to explore such matters, including Adjournment debates and questions to Health Ministers, which we will have next week. I encourage him to take those opportunities, because this is an important matter. If changes can be made that lead to a reduction in such bogus calls, and therefore to the more effective use of emergency services, that would be an important improvement for people across the country. I will refer the points he has raised to the relevant Ministers and encourage them to look into the matter.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) referred to the Chilcot inquiry, as did the Prime Minister yesterday, which was established only two years after my right hon. Friend first called for it. In my constituency we have seen two inquiries by Sir Robert Francis, the latter a public inquiry steadfastly called for by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). May we have a debate on public inquiries, including how they are initiated, their conduct and, most importantly, whether they achieve their aim of getting to the truth and bringing about change for the better?

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Mr Hague: There is a good case to be made for such a debate, and my hon. Friend might wish to pursue it more generally, including through the Backbench Business Committee. There are regular calls for major inquiries, and some of them are of huge importance. He referred to those that related to his constituency. The House has heard several times this week about the anxiety that the Chilcot inquiry report should be published. He rightly referred to the fact that in June 2007, two years before the inquiry was set up, some of us tabled a motion in this House, supported by Members now sitting on the Government side, calling for it to be established. Had that happened then, the inquiry would have reported long ago.

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): Over the past few days, police in Bangladesh have continued to crack down on protesters demonstrating against last year’s general election. At least two protesters have been killed, the leader of the opposition has been placed under house arrest and the media have been banned from reporting the views of opposition figures. Does the Leader of the House agree that the behaviour of the Bangladeshi Government is completely unacceptable and that we should have a debate on how the UK can contribute to restoring democracy in that country?

Mr Hague: We have been concerned for some time about political events in Bangladesh, which have sometimes impinged on human rights, particularly the events surrounding the last election and the failure of the two main parties there to agree a way forward for elections to take place with wide participation. These events are the result of that continuing failure. The UK Government are certainly concerned about the situation in Bangladesh. We will have questions to Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers on 20 January, when the hon. Gentleman will have a further opportunity to raise the matter.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Further to my previous question, the Leader of the House will know that illicit tobacco continues to concern my constituents, as it damages local health and the local economy. May we have an urgent statement on the measures that are being taken to tackle this, including the often underused powers available to strip retailers of their lottery and alcohol licences when they are found to be breaking the law?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend has indeed raised this matter before, and I think that I mentioned on that occasion the powers that are available to deal with such situations and the increased attention that is being given to them. He has again made the case for more of those powers to be used, and I am sure that what he has said will be listened to by both the Government and local authorities.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Health was required to come here to answer an urgent question about the crisis in our accident and emergency services. Is it not right, given the widespread concern up and down the country about A and E services, that we should have a debate on this issue here, in Government time, so that we can examine the details? It would also give the Secretary of State a chance to put right his claim that I misled the House yesterday in

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stating that he proposed the closure of the Lewisham accident and emergency service, which he certainly did. Subsequently, in October 2013, he lost a judicial review on that same issue, so it is surprising that it seemed to slip his mind. Will the Leader of the House provide an opportunity for the Secretary of State to put the record straight and let us have a debate on this very important issue?

Mr Hague: There was a lot of discussion about this in the House yesterday in a lengthy urgent question and during a great deal of Prime Minister’s questions. Next Tuesday, there will be questions to the Secretary of State for Health and his colleagues on the Floor of the House, and next week there is an Opposition day debate in which the Opposition have yet to decide what to debate. Putting all those things together, I am sure that there will be many further opportunities for these issues to be debated on the Floor of the House.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Once again this year over the Christmas period, we have seen our A and E departments and police cells clogged up with people who have simply had too much to drink. A constituent of mine from Barton Seagrave wrote to me this week to say the following:

“I feel that we have to claim back our town centres at the weekends from drunks and protect our Health Service from thoughtless, ignorant abuse. To me it isn’t rocket science. When we see how the Drink Drive campaign has changed behaviour over the years, plus the Seat Belt campaign what we need is a government led campaign to educate against such boozy and loutish behaviour.”

May we have a Government statement or debate in the House on this important topic?

Mr Hague: These things have, quite rightly, been debated in the House from time to time. We have introduced a radical package of measures to overhaul the Licensing Act 2003, including providing more local powers to deal with problem premises, doubling the fine for persistent under-age sales, and giving residents a greater say about licensing decisions in their area. We have banned the worst cases of very cheap and harmful alcohol sales. We are challenging the alcohol industry to raise its game in doing more on a voluntary basis, including by widening the availability of lower-strength alternatives in pubs, removing high-volume and high-strength beer and developing new retail standards. I hope that a great deal will continue to be done to address the problem that my hon. Friend rightly raises.

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Point of Order

11.23 am

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Many hon. Members have referred to the events in Paris yesterday. I wonder whether it would be in order for you to suggest to Members, peers, journalists and anybody else that if they wanted to join other Members in Westminster Hall at noon holding either a pen or a pencil, that would be an act of solidarity with the French people.

Mr Speaker: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Members who have been present in the Chamber for some minutes will have heard the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) mention that it was intended by significant numbers of Members, staff in the service of the House and apparently also journalists to congregate in Westminster Hall holding pens in an act of solidarity with the people of France. Moreover, he suggested that I might wish to suspend the sitting. I hope that he will understand why, at short notice and with scheduled business, I am not minded to suggest a suspension of the sitting.

However, pursuant to what the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has said, I would certainly wish to offer encouragement to any colleague from the Back Benches who wishes to attend the event in Westminster Hall to do so, in the knowledge that if that Member wishes to speak in the upcoming debate and returns promptly to the Chamber, he or she will suffer no detriment in the pecking order for speeches. I hope that is a suitable way in which to handle this matter. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order.

Bill presented

Corporation Tax (Northern Ireland) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Danny Alexander, Secretary Theresa Villiers, Mr David Gauke, Priti Patel and Andrea Leadsom, presented a Bill to make provision for and in connection with the creation of a Northern Ireland rate of corporation tax.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 149), with explanatory notes (Bill 149-EN).

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Backbench Business

Higher Education Funding

11.25 am

Mr Speaker: I call the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Mr Adrian Bailey, although I think that he is speaking in a personal capacity.

Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move,

That this House notes the Third Report from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Student Loans, HC 558, and the Government response, HC 777; and calls on the Government to outline proposals that will sustain funding for the sector while addressing the projected deficit in public funding.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to hold this debate, which is of huge significance to universities up and down the country and, indeed, to the cohorts of students at or about to go to those universities. The debate is essentially about the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee report on student loans. I must thank my Committee colleagues because the report’s recommendations to the Government were unanimously agreed on a cross-party basis. It is fair to say that they reflect the concerns of Members from both sides of the House.

I will also draw on other reports not mentioned in the motion, including some by academic and university institutions, but particularly a report by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies and one by the Higher Education Commission. I stress that the IFS is an independent body with expertise across both the academic and economic spheres, and that the Higher Education Commission report was co-chaired by the Conservative peer Lord Norton of Louth and Dr Ruth Thompson. Although the reports’ details may vary, their conclusions are remarkably coherent and consistent.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend will know that I used to co-chair the Higher Education Commission. I have a copy of the “Too Good to Fail” report, which we produced on an all-party basis, and I thank him for mentioning it.

Mr Bailey: I understand that my hon. Friend is due to speak, so although I will draw on his report, I will not pre-empt him by discussing its conclusions.

The motion mainly deals with the policy’s public spending and budgetary aspects, but it is important to recognise that we are not just talking about money. Higher education is vital to the economy of this country and to our society. It is an £8 billion export earner and attracts students from all over the world, because British universities consistently feature at the top of the rankings of world universities. In addition, universities drive and sustain economic growth in their immediate local economies, which are often in some of the most deprived parts of the country.

For an individual going to university, such an education is a potential path to personal fulfilment, and of course an economic advantage. Various estimates of graduate earnings show a minimum of something like £150,000

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earned by a graduate over their lifetime over and above what they might expect had they left school after A-levels, and many estimates show more.

The Treasury estimates added benefits from taxes earned, and further benefit to employers through productivity gains. In short, higher education in this country is a success story that needs to be sustained, and it is crucial to reinforce Britain’s position in a global economy that is becoming ever more competitive.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee on its report. Clearly, the size of student loans reflects in great part the size of fees. I have read the Government’s response to the consultation in which they state that they have

“no current plans to initiate a formal review of the sustainability of the student loans system in England.”

That means that there are no formal plans for a review of fees. Does my hon. Friend think that that is right or responsible?

Mr Bailey: My hon. Friend, as ever, touches on the key issue underlined in the Committee’s report, and I will address that issue in due course.

As I was saying, higher education is a success story and vital for our economy, our society and the aspirations of millions of young people in the country. To underpin it we need a funding system that enables it to respond to the demands that will be placed on it by outside pressures, and to sustain its role as a driver of social change. The current funding system is based on recommendations in the 2010 Browne review and subsequently implemented, with some changes, in 2012. The key change was to replace direct Government funding of university teaching by a fees-based system payable by individual students on the basis of Government loans through the Student Loans Company, capped at £9,000. Those fees are to be repaid after graduation once a salary of £21,000 has been reached, over a period of 30 years.

There were short-term benefits to that model. It removed the cost of funding from public accounts, except for those costs that would have to be written off through under or non-repayment in the future—technically known as the resource accounting and budgeting, or RAB, charge. That model benefited the universities because it led to an increase in funding at least in the short term, and it benefited taxpayers because there was a drop in public subsidy per student of something like 5%. The benefit to the student is far less clear. Although the system delays payment for education until later in life and is income-contingent, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the average debt per student will be more than £44,000 for a combination of tuition fee and maintenance loans. In its report the Higher Education Commission stated that focus groups demonstrated a low level of awareness among students about that issue and its potential implications for them.

Mr Sheerman: The IFS and the commission report highlighted the fact that many students we interviewed had no idea that the debt would be that much. They will possibly never be eligible to get a mortgage later on, which I find absolutely stunning, astounding and disgraceful.

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Mr Bailey: It is fair to say that the full implications and potential consequences of the projected level of debt for millions of people have yet to be worked through. We are not yet aware of how it will affect people’s economic behaviour when they have that level of debt.

Mr Brian Binley (Northampton South) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Bailey: I will give way to my fellow Committee member.

Mr Binley: Many of us feel that the contributions being demanded are often too great, but I would not want to overstate that to the point at which we begin to believe that no student will ever be able to buy their own house. That is more than a slight exaggeration and it needs to be corrected.

Mr Bailey: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his observation. When I speak to sixth formers and potential undergraduates I always make the point that, compared with the cumulative spend in their lifetimes on cars that depreciate immediately, investing in their education is a very good investment. But it will have consequences for patterns of consumer expenditure, the full implications of which we do not yet know.

Mr Sheerman: I am sure that my hon. Friend would not wish to mislead the House and I know that he is replying to an intervention, but the IFS study says that middle earners—the public administrators, the health and education workers—will be particularly affected. That is 40% of graduates, so we are not talking about a small number who may never be able to get a loan for a house.

Mr Bailey: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes and I could talk about it at some length, but I recognise that other people wish to speak in the debate so I will not pursue it any further.

It is now clear that the level of debt repayments is predicted to be much lower than when the scheme was initiated. In the early days, the Committee questioned the Minister on that point, and the estimate was a level of default of between 28% and 30%. It is now acknowledged by the Government that the rate is 45%, and that may rise. In crude terms, for every £100 the Government lend, they get only £55 back. That has huge implications for the Government’s long-term budgeting.

The principal reason for the projected increase in non-repayment is the fact that graduate income has not grown as anticipated by the Office for Budget Responsibility. That will keep an increasing number of graduates below the repayment threshold, and even if they reach the threshold they will repay at the lower rate, commensurate with their lower income. That will mean that they will be unlikely to pay off the debt within 30 years.

The IFS has estimated that 73% of graduates will not repay in full. We can add to that the difficulties that the Student Loans Company has had in securing repayments, particularly from former students living abroad, so there is a basic problem and other administrative problems.

The Select Committee has made recommendations on the latter. If we look at the implications for annual budgetary expenditure, we find that £7.4 billion in loans was given to undergraduates in 2012-13. In 2015-16, that figure is estimated to be £12.6 billion. If we estimate

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that nearly half of the loans will not be paid back, it is clear that that has enormous implications for future budgetary planning. If that were not a big enough problem in itself, the Chancellor added to it in his 2013 pre-Budget report by announcing the lifting of the cap on student numbers to allow the additional recruitment of 30,000 students. He tacitly admitted that there was a funding problem when he said that that would be funded by the sale of the student loan book. The Committee subsequently questioned Ministers and others on that. We expressed considerable concern that such ongoing expenditure should be financed in this way, and we were very doubtful about the Government’s potential to balance their books by doing so.

Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): Does the Chair of the Select Committee accept that, when I was in charge of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, we put considerable effort into trying to sell the previous loan book? We concluded that the inevitable uncertainties—future inflation rates, earnings rates and so on—made it quite impossible to get good value for money from the student loan book. Is that not a second reason why it was quite irresponsible of the Chancellor to suggest that this was an easy way of funding the long-term expansion of higher education?

Mr Bailey: I agree with my right hon. Friend. Indeed, the report’s recommendations underline that point. It is significant in another way, too: it was a tacit recognition by the Chancellor that if he were to expand the number of places, extra money would have to come from somewhere, and that that was not being provided for in the then current Budget projections. It is still unclear exactly how the escalating cost—it could well rise to considerably more than 30,000 students if the cap were removed completely—will be dealt with by the Government.

Mr David Willetts (Havant) (Con): The hon. Gentleman talks about costs, budgets and public spending. In the interests of having a clear debate, will he confirm that the resource accounting and budgeting charge is not an item of public expending, as it appears in the national budget or the national accounts?

Mr Bailey: I understand the question, because I have heard the former Minister’s, shall we say, robust prosecution of this particular argument before. May I make an admission? I am not an accountant. All I do is go by what the authoritative bodies say. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to argue with them that is fine, but I think most people would say it is a matter of common sense that if we lend so much money and get only so much back, sooner or later that particular default rate will have to be incorporated in national accounts and people will have to pay for it.