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House of Commons

Thursday 12 February 2015

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

Transport for London Bill [Lords]

Motion made, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be considered on Thursday 26 February.

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Small Farm Companies

1. Mr Andrew Robathan (South Leicestershire) (Con): What assistance his Department provides to small farm companies in supply chains. [907592]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): The House legislated to strengthen protection for small farmers and small businesses supplying supermarkets by establishing the Groceries Code Adjudicator. I recently secured Government agreement to enable the GCA to impose fines of up to 1% of turnover on supermarkets found guilty of mistreating suppliers. I was also pleased that the GCA last week launched a formal investigation into alleged breaches by Tesco of the groceries code, and I urge those with evidence to come forward.

Mr Robathan: I think the Secretary of State and I are at one on this, but he will know of the plight of the many small dairy farmers driven out of business by the abuse of market position by supermarkets and big buyers, and of its impact not just on the face of our countryside, but through the importation of milk that is probably produced to much lower farm welfare standards than our own. Will he therefore consider strengthening the powers of the GCA so that if market position is abused, farmers and others are not penalised by the strength of supermarkets?

Vince Cable: I am aware of the Select Committee report that suggested something very similar. Its main recommendation was that we introduce the power of fines, which we have now done, but there will be a review of the GCA within a year of the legislation, and no doubt in the next Parliament those powers can be taken.

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Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for referring to the Select Committee report. Unfortunately, one year might be too late for the many dairy farmers going out of business. Will he undertake an immediate and urgent review into extending the remit of the GCA to indirect supply chains, such as those in the dairy industry, as well as direct supply chains with supermarkets?

Vince Cable: The hon. Lady rightly touches on the key outstanding issue, and I certainly believe it would be appropriate to consider the indirect supply chains. I am happy to talk to my colleague the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about that particular issue, but I think she will find that there is a legislative obstacle.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will my right hon. Friend look at the successful local sourcing policies promoted by the East of England Co-operative Society, with the support of Forward East, which are enabling small food and drink manufacturers to get their products into local stores? He and others might wish to know that on Tuesday 24 February, in the Inter-Parliamentary Union room at lunchtime, they will be able to witness that for themselves.

Vince Cable: It is always the case that genuinely voluntary efforts to promote local sourcing produce substantial benefits and that legislation is necessarily a blunt instrument. The method my hon. Friend describes is better where it can be applied.

Technology and Video Games Sectors

2. Jim McGovern (Dundee West) (Lab): What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Education and Department for Culture, Media and Sport and with the devolved Administrations on ensuring that their policies meet the skills needs of the technology and video games sectors. [907593]

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): As a joint Minister at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, I often have conversations with myself about this important issue, and on the odd occasion they get dull, I involve the Minister for Skills and Equalities and the Department for Education. I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that we have introduced a new school computing curriculum, are establishing a new national college for digital skills and are co-funding with employers innovative degree apprenticeships.

Jim McGovern: I try not to speak to myself about this subject, but the Minister will be aware that I have raised on numerous occasions the importance of computer and video games to the Dundee, Scotland and UK economy. I am sure he agrees that there is a skills shortage—not enough graduates are going into the computer games industry. What is he doing with other Departments to address this situation?

Mr Vaizey: The hon. Gentleman is a doughty champion for the video games industry, which is hugely successful in his constituency and throughout the country, and the video games tax relief will also help the industry grow.

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However, he is quite right to point to the need to focus on skills. The games industry was instrumental in persuading the Government to have computer coding taught in schools, and, because we have a sense of urgency about this, we have introduced new degree apprenticeships so that people at university can work closely with employers on the latest technology.


3. Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): What steps he is taking to increase the number of engineers. [907594]

The Minister for Skills and Equalities (Nick Boles): We are investing in engineering skills at every level in higher education through apprenticeships and in further education, but perhaps the most important initiative is the university technical college initiative. We have opened 30 university technical colleges and a further 27 are in the pre-opening phase.

Stephen Metcalfe: As we know, we are going to have increasing demand for engineers nationally over the next few decades, and this will be no more acute than in Basildon and Thurrock. Will my hon. Friend therefore work with me to explore the possibility of establishing a university technical college in Basildon to meet our local needs and to encourage and enthuse young people to look at engineering as a valued career?

Nick Boles: I would be delighted to do that. I know my hon. Friend has been leading the process of trying to set up a UTC in his constituency. I urge him to make contact with the excellent Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which developed the concept of the UTC and will provide invaluable advice on how to make sure that my hon. Friend submits a successful bid.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The Minister will know that the largest manufacturing industry in the country is food and drink, and that it has one of the biggest export potentials. Will he recognise that engineering disciplines that are ancillary to that industry also have enormous potential, whether it be agricultural engineering, food processing, food storage requirements or food transport? Will he look at technical education from the point of view of where the export potential is, particularly in the developing world?

Mr Speaker: Minister Nicholas Edward Coleridge Boles.

Nick Boles: Mr Speaker, thank you! You have slightly thrown me off my course.

I welcome what my hon. Friend has said, and I hope that he welcomes the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor when launching our long-term economic plan for the south-west, in which he encouraged a proposal to come forward for a university technical college specifically focused on agriculture and related industries. I hope that my hon. Friend will be involved in promoting that.

Mr Speaker: I apologise to the Minister, the full munificence of whose name I was simply seeking to capture for the edification of the House.

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Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): This year, China will produce something like 2 million graduates in engineering and engineering-related subjects. Engineering firms in my constituency tell me how difficult it is to recruit engineers, particularly female ones, and that when they train them up, they often lose them to larger firms. What can the Minister do to make sure we have a better join-up between business requirements and education so that engineers stay in this country and produce for our economy?

Nick Boles: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the desperate need for more engineers, but we have been making good progress. Since 2010, the number of people starting an engineering-related apprenticeship has gone up by 52%, and since 2013 the number of people starting an engineering degree has risen by 6.5 %. If we can get a better supply coming through the pipe, companies will be less inclined to poach from each other and will actually invest in developing the talent themselves through an apprenticeship.

Universal Service Obligation (Mail Deliveries)

4. Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to safeguard the universal service obligation for the delivery of mail. [907597]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): The universal service obligation is not an optional extra—it is a fundamental duty enshrined in law and only Parliament could change that. In addition, it is the responsibility of the postal regulator, Ofcom, to ensure services are available throughout the UK at an affordable and uniform price, six days a week.

Michael Connarty: I thank the Minister for that reply, but is it not time that we looked at how Ofcom carries out its remit, possibly through a judicial review of that remit? Ofcom has been dragged reluctantly to review the actions of the cherry-pickers such as Whistl, which wants to pick mail up in the 8% of the UK’s geographical area that covers 42% of the mail thereby undermining the ability of Royal Mail to deliver, yet Ofcom attacked the standard of wages and conditions of the Royal Mail workers rather than deal with the problem of cherry-picking of the universal service obligation, which could be irrecoverably damaged.

Jo Swinson: There is agreement on both sides about the importance of the universal service obligation, and I do not think there is any evidence that the regulator is failing to fulfil its duty. It looked in detail at the case the Royal Mail put forward last summer and concluded that the market is operating as it should at the moment. It is committed to a further review later this year, and is also looking at the issue of access pricing. These issues are continually under consideration because the USO is so important.

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): I am disappointed that you did not tell the House the middle names of this Minister, Mr Speaker, but perhaps we can look forward to that later.

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It is nearly 18 months since the botched privatisation of Royal Mail. There are reports almost weekly of its being under pressure from the impact of Amazon’s increased use of its own delivery network, and from rivals which are cherry-picking the most profitable services. As the Minister has just said, Ofcom recently concluded that other firms did not have to match Royal Mail’s costly standards in the delivery of the universal service obligation. Given that Labour warned time and again that privatisation would ultimately threaten the USO, and given that the National Federation of SubPostmasters called it a “reckless gamble”, will the Minister look again at the USO, and give a cast-iron guarantee that it will be secure under this Government?

Jo Swinson: This Government have already given that cast-iron guarantee by legislating for it in the Postal Services Act 2011. Parliament has set it very firmly in stone. Unless the hon. Gentleman thinks that any future Labour Government would be minded to change the position, I hope that Members on both sides of the House can feel confident that the universal service obligation is secure.

As I said earlier, Ofcom, the regulator, has significant powers to obtain information from other operators in the market. It monitors operators’ plans regularly, and looks at the information every month. Operators must also inform the regulator of their future plans. That will remain under review, and a formal review will take place later this year. I think that what I have said should reassure the House that the universal service obligation is here to stay.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Will the Minister help me by explaining why postal collections that used to take place at 4 pm now take place at 9 am?

Jo Swinson: That is obviously a slightly different issue from the USO, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that Royal Mail has reviewed the time of collections from post boxes in which fewer than 50 items of mail were being deposited each day, as part of an overall review of its service. In a positive move which I think Members should welcome, it has maintained all those collection points rather than decommissioning some of them, although collections will be less frequent. It has also ensured that there will be an alternative posting point within half a mile of post boxes from which there are fewer collections or an earlier final collection, from which mail will be collected later.

Government Procurement

5. Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): If he will take steps to increase apprenticeship places and support small businesses through greater use of Government procurement. [907600]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): Under the industrial strategy, we encourage a long-term approach to procurement, including apprenticeships and other forms of training.

Grahame M. Morris: May I point out, with respect, that the Labour Government used spending on public procurement to boost apprenticeship opportunities, especially in the case of big projects such as Crossrail and the London Olympics? Given that the European Union procurement rules do not prevent that, will the

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Secretary of State explain why Ministers are not supporting Labour’s plans to use public procurement to create new apprenticeship opportunities?

Vince Cable: I remind the hon. Gentleman that under the last Government the numbers of apprenticeship starts was half the number that we have seen in the current Parliament, and that these are also significantly longer and higher-level apprenticeships. As for procurement, if companies can build in apprenticeships—which we encourage them to do—that is of course desirable, but it is a very crude mechanism which adds to the barriers facing small business and the cost to the Government. The experience of trying to build conditionality into section 106 agreements suggests that many companies regard the process as token, and do not invest in sustainable apprenticeships.

Charlotte Leslie (Bristol North West) (Con): I recently visited Mathias & Sons, a work clothing manufacturer in my constituency. It is hoping to secure the contract to provide clothing for workers at the Hinkley Point C development. What can the Government do to ensure that important small businesses like that obtain contracts for such huge developments?

Vince Cable: I believe that congratulations are due to the hon. Lady, who has become engaged—perhaps this morning, but certainly recently.

As for procurement and Hinkley Point, the leading contractors have committed themselves to a substantial UK content, and we hope that that extends to apprenticeships. We are endeavouring to frame the pre-qualification questionnaires in such as way that apprenticeship training is encouraged in UK procurement.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Big projects such as Crossrail and HS2 are UK-wide. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that businesses throughout the UK, including small businesses, have an opportunity to benefit from the procurement and Government spending that is associated with that type of work?

Vince Cable: I gather that senior politicians, including me, have been queuing to go down into Crossrail to admire its progress. One of Crossrail’s key achievements is to substantially advance apprenticeships and, above all, UK content; there is a wide distribution throughout the UK. If we can replicate the experience of Crossrail with other big infrastructure projects, that would be an admirable step forward.

Student Loans

6. Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the sustainability of the student loan system. [907601]

The Minister for Universities, Science and Cities (Greg Clark): More students entered university this year than ever before in our history, with the biggest rise coming from the poorest areas. Universities will see their teaching resources grow from around £8 billion in 2011 to around £10 billion next year. Graduates are earning 40% more than non-graduates. The taxpayer gets £300,000 extra in tax receipts alone over the average graduate’s career. All this is why the OECD said last month:

“England has got it right on paying for higher education. Among all available approaches, the UK offers still the most…sustainable approach to university finance.”

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Paul Blomfield: In a recent parliamentary debate, the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), who I am delighted to see in his place, said that the system needed some tweaking. The public need to know what tweaking the Government have in mind. If the Conservatives are in power after the election—[Interruption.] I know it is unlikely but if that is the case will the Minister guarantee that there will be no increase in the fee cap, no decrease in the loan repayment threshold and no change in the interest rate on loans?

Greg Clark: Our universities need to benefit from the confidence and stability that our reforms have introduced. I am perfectly happy with all the arrangements that we have. The uncertainty comes from the Labour party’s proposals, about which the university vice-chancellors are deeply concerned. They said that they would mean

“cuts to universities that would damage the economy, affect the quality of students’ education, and set back work on widening access to higher education”.

At a time when confidence is needed, the Labour party is proposing chaos.

Mr Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): Actually, the UCAS figures published recently show that there are 7,000 fewer British applicants to our universities than there were in 2011. Figures from the Library show that we are wasting and writing off £1 in every £2 that we invest in the higher education system, and our students will not pay back their debts until they are in their 50s. We are educating fewer of our young people and we are wasting more of our money.

The Chancellor forecast that there would be 60,000 extra students this year, yet the UCAS data show that there are only 12,000 extra applicants for this September. Does the Minister want to explain to the House why, if his system is so good, he has just missed his growth target by an incredible 80%?

Greg Clark: That is total nonsense. We have more students than ever before in this country. We have been able to take the cap off the number of students able to go to university, a historic decision that implements the recommendation of the Robins report of over 50 years ago. In terms of putting people off going to university, the big concern of the vice-chancellors is that the Labour party’s proposals would specifically damage the prospects of poorer students and risk the quality of education for all. It is time that the right hon. Gentleman, who has failed to come up with a policy for all this time, said, weeks before the election, what Labour’s policy on higher education is.

Enterprise Finance Guarantee Scheme

7. Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): If he will review the use by banks of the enterprise finance guarantee scheme. [907602]

The Minister for Business and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): The enterprise finance guarantee is an important part of our support for viable businesses looking to get access to finance where they do not have sufficient collateral or a track record. We regularly review its performance and have found that by increasing access to finance it helps jobs and growth.

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Mr Hanson: For over a year, I have written and tabled parliamentary questions asking for a review of the scheme. On 14 January, the Secretary of State met RBS. On 15 January, RBS announced a review of its scheme. Given that it controls about 40% of the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, that it is calling for a review and is looking at the matter internally, is it not about time that the Minister did that himself?

Matthew Hancock: We constantly review the scheme to ensure that we get the best possible deal. The majority of the enterprise finance guarantee goes through other banks, which, as far as we know, are performing impeccably. On the RBS aspect, we have met RBS to discuss that. It is reviewing the matter, and we will make sure that it works in the future. The big picture is that the scheme is working well and helping small firms to access finance.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): Following a year of my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) raising this issue, RBS has admitted that there has been mis-selling of the EFG scheme.

Rebuilding confidence in our banking sector will be one of the key tasks facing the next Labour Government. From interest rate swaps to tax evasion and now mis-selling of EFG loans, the Government have been slow to act and slow to investigate whether there are problems. Does the Minister now accept that only through investigating and repairing mis-selling in Britain’s high street banks will confidence in the sector return?

Matthew Hancock: The hon. Gentleman has a bit of a cheek, because the investigation required, and the sorting out of confidence in banks, was an enormous issue that we had to take on in 2010. We have regulated and passed legislation throughout this Parliament to ensure that there is more confidence in the banking industry. Of course, there is more to do, but considering how far we have come over the last five years, the hon. Gentleman ought to be saying we have done a good job and be helping us to do that.


9. Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to promote investment in innovation in the manufacturing sector. [907606]

The Minister for Universities, Science and Cities (Greg Clark): The regional growth fund provides support to key industries in England, creating and safeguarding jobs. I am pleased to announce today that regional growth fund support over the next two years will be expanded by nearly £300 million, including more than 60 new schemes. Some 90% of the funding announced today will go to projects and programmes in the manufacturing sector, helping companies to expand, develop new products and new markets and create long-term skilled jobs.

Mr Speaker: Mr Barry Sheerman.

Mr Sheerman: You do not want to mention, Mr Speaker, that my second name is John, and when I was a young councillor with my first seat in Wales I went around with my full name of Barry John.

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May I say to the Minister, “Not bad, but not good enough”? Why can we not have up front, “Manufacturing, manufacturing, manufacturing”? We need a commitment to that across the parties in this House. We have just launched a cross-party manufacturing commission. Will the Minister support it, will he do something about it, and will he come tonight to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ manufacturing conference and hear me speak?

Greg Clark: Tempting though that invitation is, I am not sure I will be hearing the hon. Gentleman speak, although I enjoy his contributions in this House. Manufacturing has been enjoying a stunning revival during the last few years, and it is supported by the investments made through the local growth fund and the regional growth fund. Some £1.1 billion of funding has been put into manufacturing. Is there further to go? Of course, but this Government’s strategy is clear: by reviving the sectors in which we have strengths that are famous around the world, we can build the prosperity that will provide the security for our country for many years to come.

Mr David Willetts (Havant) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that when we talk about “tech” we mean not just the software, but the hardware as well, and that there are enormous prospects for British manufacturing, especially supported through the RGF, to be world leaders in the high-tech industries of the future?

Greg Clark: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He and I had the privilege to be at the Royal Society last night, where awards were presented for some of the key figures who are translating some of our most brilliant ideas into practice, especially in advanced manufacturing. Across all the sectors there is confidence that the prospects for this country are better than ever. That is a tribute in large part to the work that my right hon. Friend did in office.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): The steel unions, supported by steel employers, launched a “Stand Up for Steel” campaign after the debate in this Chamber on the future of the steel industry. With there still being uncertainty about the future of Tata long products, what are the Government doing to stand up for steel, a crucial part of our manufacturing industry that is famous for its innovation and crucial to the future success of this country?

Greg Clark: Anyone who was born on Teesside cannot fail to be aware of the importance of the steel industry. It is an important part of our industrial base, and this Government have made significant strides in supporting it. For example, we have reduced the energy costs that would otherwise have been incurred. The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. and hon. Friends have regular discussions with representatives of the steel industry and will continue to support it.

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) rightly said that the food and drink manufacturing sector was the largest manufacturing sector in this country. It employs 400,000 people and invests £1 billion in innovation. There is also huge opportunity for further growth through innovation, but the Food and Drink Federation’s calls for a food

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and drink manufacturing council, with collaboration between the industry and the Government to foster innovation, have fallen on deaf ears. The phrase “food and drink manufacturing” is not even mentioned in the Government’s agri-tech strategy. Why have the Government chosen to ignore this innovative and high-potential manufacturing sector, and how will the Minister make amends?

Greg Clark: We have not ignored it. In fact, I had the privilege of attending the Agri-Tech Leadership Council, which involved many of our key players across the food and drink industry and my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) and the Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Lord de Mauley. We met representatives of the industry precisely to plan and implement the strategy that the sector wants to put forward.

Bank Lending

10. Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the availability of finance for small firms and the level of lending by banks to small businesses. [907607]

The Minister for Business and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): Gross lending by the banks to small and medium- sized businesses has increased by 25% over the last year, and recent net lending figures have been positive. This week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced Help to Grow, to boost scale-up finance, building on the success of our start-up loans.

Valerie Vaz: Fine words, but how does the Minister reconcile that with the Bank of England’s money and credit statistics, which say that lending to small businesses has fallen in the last quarter by £1 billion? Too many schemes and not enough action.

Matthew Hancock: On the contrary, the gross lending is up sharply—around a quarter over the past year—and there are also greater repayments as businesses that are becoming stronger are able to pay down some of their debts. That means that the net figure has been increasing in recent months. We need to look through the individual figures and see the bigger picture of the expansion. However, there is of course much more to do to recover from the banking crash that occurred in 2008.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): What progress are the Government making to bring justice and recompense to the thousands of small businesses that were mis-sold—and perhaps still are being mis-sold—interest rate swap agreements?

Matthew Hancock: I know about this issue very well, not only in a ministerial capacity but because Mr Ian Parker is one of the main advocates for a solution to this, and he is a constituent of mine. It is important to get to the bottom of this issue, but it is complicated. There is work going on across the Financial Conduct Authority and the Treasury, as well as the Department

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for Business, Innovation and Skills, to ensure that we get to the bottom of it and that people get appropriate recompense.

EU Membership

11. Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the contribution of the UK’s EU membership to businesses and the UK economy. [907610]

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 of this country’s exports. A wide range of economic studies demonstrate the benefits to the UK economy from EU membership.

Heidi Alexander: It is my strongly held view that a UK exit from the European Union would be bad for British jobs, bad for British exports and bad for the British people. When did the Secretary of State last speak to the Prime Minister about the so-called negotiations with other European leaders about EU reform? Does he know what the deal-breaker is for the Prime Minister that would lead to the Prime Minister campaigning against our continued membership of the European Union?

Vince Cable: The Prime Minister and I discuss this frequently, and we agree that there needs to be significant reforms and improvements in the European single market, particularly moving on to a digital single market. The hon. Lady is quite right to say that our exit would be massively disruptive, and a lot of actual and potential foreign investors in this country are making it absolutely clear that they are alarmed by that possibility, should there be a change of Government.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Can the Secretary of State tell us: how much this country has handed over in membership fees alone to the European Union since it became a member of the Common Market; what our cumulative trade deficit has been since we joined the Common Market; what our trade deficit was last year with the European Union; in how many years we have had a trade surplus with the EU since we joined the Common Market; what proportion of the world economy the EU made up when we joined the Common Market; and what proportion of the world economy the EU is today?

Mr Speaker: That sounds like a request for an essay. It needs to be an extremely pithy one.

Vince Cable: I will do my best to answer the second, third and fourth of the hon. Gentleman’s six questions, which related to the trade deficit. Clearly, if we look at the trade deficit in terms of services as well as goods, and if we look at capital flows, including inward investment, the position is a very positive one. I do have to record—I am sure he is aware of this—the extreme alarm now being expressed in business circles about the possibility of a Conservative Government, creating a great deal of uncertainty in this area. There is uncertainty about a prolonged hiatus as the conditions which he is seeking

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have to be negotiated and uncertainty as to the different forms of exit, be it the Norwegian, Swiss or Turkish model. He will have to reflect with his colleagues on the damage now being done by that uncertainty.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I note that the Secretary of State did not answer any of the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), because he is embarrassed by the answers he would have to give the House. It is my strongly held view that Britain would be better off out of the European Union, because we would be able to control our immigration and save the £10 billion a year membership fee. Given that we do have a massive and growing trade deficit with Europe—those countries sell us more than we sell them—is it not a complete myth that trade with Europe would stop were we to leave the EU?

Vince Cable: Of course it entirely depends what the alternative arrangements are, and I have never been terribly clear what those people who want to leave are actually seeking. If we had a Norwegian solution, we would still have the immigration movements. If we had a Swiss agreement, there would be a substantial degree of integration. I think that what many Members who want to leave the EU are asking for is an arrangement such as that prevailing with Turkey, under which there is minimal commitment to a single market but very few of the benefits of membership.

UK Space Port

12. Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the location of the UK’s first space port. [907612]

The Minister for Universities, Science and Cities (Greg Clark): I met Transport and Defence Ministers yesterday to discuss progress on delivering the UK’s first space port. They are both part of the cross-governmental team taking forward the national space flight agenda. The Government have undertaken a public consultation on the eight potential locations, including Machrihanish in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and the criteria that will be used to select the location of a UK space port. Our response to that consultation will be published shortly.

Mr Reid: I thank the Minister for that answer. A space port would be a great boost to the British economy. Machrihanish, with its 3 km runway and all the facilities of a Royal Air Force base, and being far from densely populated areas, is obviously the clear choice for the space port. I urge the Government to go on to the next phase of the decision-making process quickly and choose Machrihanish as soon as possible.

Greg Clark: I assure my hon. Friend that we will be taking the first part of his advice and proceeding quickly, but it would be wrong to pre-empt the outcome of that consultation and to nominate Machrihanish from the Dispatch Box today.

Mr Speaker: I call Jesse Norman. He is not here—[Interruption.] Indeed—the exhortation from the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) was, “Take his name, sergeant major.”

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Digital Single Market

14. Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): What the Government’s policy is on the creation of the digital single market; and if he will make a statement. [907616]

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): In homage to the elaborate nomenclature of the Minister for Skills and Equalities, which you have revealed this morning, Mr Speaker, let me quote our greatest romantic poet:

“Nothing is so contagious as enthusiasm.”

I can tell you, Mr Speaker, that our non-paper on the digital single market, which contains an enthusiastic vision for a digital single market, has gone down an absolute storm in Europe, partly because it is online, with interactive graphics.

Mr Whittingdale: I welcome the progress we are making on creating a digital single market—and indeed the interactive graphics. Is the Minister aware that the business models of some of our most successful industries, particularly those in the audiovisual sector and sports rights, depend on territorial licensing? Will he confirm that the Government’s policy is to continue to support their right to do that?

Mr Vaizey: Let me say that

“common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom.”

That is Coleridge as well, but nobody understood. My hon. Friend has displayed immense common sense in pointing out that it is important that we stand up for the intellectual property rights of our very successful creative industries. It has to be said as well that we should be mindful of what the consumer now wants, which is to access content in a fair and reasonable way wherever they are based. So we need to work with industry and the consumer to achieve a happy result.

Topical Questions

T1. [907618] Jim McGovern (Dundee West) (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.

Jim McGovern: The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers recently reported that, due to the fall in oil prices, the terms and conditions of people employed in the oil industry have been reduced. Is the Minister aware of that and what steps is he taking to address that exploitation?

The Minister for Business and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): The fall in the oil price has had a direct impact on those employed in the industry both in Aberdeen and across the whole country, and there is no doubt that it will continue to have an impact. Nevertheless, the safeguarding of jobs, in some cases with reductions of pay, is an important part of the response and we are working closely with the industry and other stakeholders to try to ensure that we get through these difficult times.

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T2. [907620] Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): Further to the reply that my hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy gave a moment ago, can he confirm that the Government’s position remains as set out in the response to the consultation on the review of EU copyright law—that any changes should be based on hard evidence? Perhaps I might ask him a second time to be a little clearer—just so that we can be absolutely certain that everyone is aware—that the Government support the right of territorial licensing, as the Prime Minister’s special adviser set out to the creative industries yesterday.

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): Yes, that is the case. I should make it absolutely clear that the non-paper that we have submitted to the European Commission represents a vision for the digital single market. It is our firm belief that consumers should be able to access content in a fair and reasonable way wherever they are, but we do support the right of industries with internet protocol to sell territorial licensing.

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): Following their “Maoist and chaotic” abolition of regional development agencies—the Business Secretary’s words not mine—the Government’s flagship regional growth policy this Parliament has been the regional growth fund, which was mentioned earlier. This might be our last Business, Innovations and Skills questions this Parliament, so can the Secretary of State tell me what percentage of those RGF moneys, announced to great fanfare, have actually made it to, and been drawn down by, the businesses concerned?

Vince Cable: I am going off later today to talk about the regional growth fund and its latest successes. Most companies that have received RGF awards are highly appreciative of them. The awards have been highly successful in attracting private investment, which might not otherwise have occurred, and a substantial amount of employment. Of course a significant percentage does not go through immediately because of due diligence. Many of the awards are not completed because the projects proceed anyway or are withdrawn, and that is a consequence of the very careful and prudential way in which we manage money under the regional growth fund.

Mr Umunna: The fact is that hundreds of millions of pounds of RGF moneys are gathering dust and are nowhere to be seen by many of the businesses that they promised to help. The local enterprise partnerships that were put in place to do the job of the RDAs were left without appropriate budgets or powers, and the local enterprise zones, which we were told would create 54,000 jobs, have so far created less than a quarter of that sum. There has been a lot of grand talk from these Ministers on their plans to rebalance the economy, but as this Parliament comes to an end—never mind the chaos that the Secretary of State talked about—are not the words that best sum up delivery of schemes to boost regional growth, “utter incompetence”?

Vince Cable: If the shadow Secretary of State is so critical of the regional growth fund, is he proposing to abolish it? I suspect not. The reason why some money is

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not spent is that tests of due diligence have not been satisfied. I am sure that he will acknowledge the fact that, under the regional growth fund, public money is spent a lot more efficiently and effectively in drawing in private investment than ever happened under the regional development agencies, which were wasteful and ineffective.

T3. [907621] Charlotte Leslie (Bristol North West) (Con): Many people say that LEPs have been a huge improvement on the regional development agencies, but some small businesses that I talk to in Bristol are concerned that their priorities are not always reflected in local growth funds. Will the Minister work with his colleagues to ensure that the priorities of small businesses are reflected in LEPs, and that LEPs are not unduly influenced by major business interests?

The Minister for Universities, Science and Cities (Greg Clark): It is very important that businesses have a strong voice in the leadership of the local economy. That is what they are achieving through LEPs and it has been one reason why more than 2 million new private sector jobs have been created during this period. My hon. Friend has been an active campaigner for projects in her local area with some success, and I know that she will continue to influence the business and the local authority participants in her LEP.

T4. [907622] Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): The Government have a target, signed off at the highest level, I believe, of achieving £1 trillion of exports by 2020, doubling the current figure in five years. When asked at the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, a UK Trade & Investment representative described it as an “energising aspiration”. Is it an energising aspiration or is it a realistic, achievable target?

Matthew Hancock: The target of £1 trillion of exports by 2020 is the target, and a realistic one. It is an energising target, an aspiration, an ambition and a goal. We can get there as a country and we can reach it, but it will require a huge amount of effort. That is why trade deals such as the EU-US trade deal known as TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, are so important in reaching that aspiration, goal and achievement.

T5. [907624] Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): The Minister responsible for life sciences will be familiar with Daiichi Sankyo, an innovative drug company based in Chesham and Amersham. It is launching a novel oral anticoagulant to help prevent strokes more effectively in people who suffer with atrial fibrillation. The uptake of such drugs has been repeatedly blocked by the NHS despite guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence that calls for their use. What can the Minister do to clear that blockage so that the drugs can be used to benefit our patients?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (George Freeman): I am indeed familiar with the great work of Daiichi Sankyo, and that of my right hon. Friend in supporting its investment in her constituency. I recently had the pleasure of going up to open a new facility. She raises an important point, and the appointment of a Minister responsible for life

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sciences at the Departments for Business, Innovation and Skills and of Health, where I have responsibility for NICE and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, allows us to begin to ensure that our health system better supports our life sciences cluster. The review I recently launched of speedier access for innovative medicines will tackle the issue of uptake that my right hon. Friend has rightly raised.

T6. [907625] Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): Ninety-three per cent. of those aged 25 or over who completed apprenticeships last year already worked for their employer. If this is not just a rebadging of existing training programmes as apprenticeships, what is it?

The Minister for Skills and Equalities (Nick Boles): One of the most extraordinary steps the Opposition have taken is to tell us that if someone is employed by a business we do not care about the process of giving them new skills, and that it is inappropriate for the Government to invest in giving them those skills. It is entirely reasonable for businesses to employ someone for a time and then see that they have the aptitude and potential to complete an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships have to last at least 12 months and they involve a substantial investment by employers, so it is not for us to stand in the way if employers want to invest in upskilling the staff they already have.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): The economy in northern Lincolnshire has had much good news in recent weeks, but a bit of a damper was put on that this morning by the announcement from Lindsey oil refinery that there will be 180 redundancies. That follows 90 redundancies announced last week by Cristal Global. Will the Minister assure me that everything possible will be done by his Department and Government agencies to support the workers at this difficult time?

Matthew Hancock: Absolutely. I met Total yesterday and it told me of its planned announcement today. We are working with the company to ensure that if any redundancies occur, those made redundant are supported. They will often be people with skills that are in short supply across the nation, and I look forward to going to my hon. Friend’s constituency to discuss this with him and to working with him.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): May I ask the Secretary of State and his merry men and women to pay attention to an important problem? Many of us across the House are in favour of apprenticeships and university technical colleges, but we would be conning the British public if we led them to suppose that apprenticeships and university technical colleges on their own will help us get rid of the dreadful skills shortage in this country. Will the Secretary of State look at this again? The real secret of solving this problem is in the further education sector, in universities having more applied courses, and in making graduates and the people coming out of colleges more fit and ready to work in industry.

Vince Cable: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This calls for across-the-board treatment. The suggestion that has come from some sources that it would be sensible to cut the fees for engineering and science

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courses to £6,000 would, of course, massively undermine that, because it would no longer be possible to cover the costs of those courses.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm that he has asked Barclays to defer the closure of the St Agnes branch until the new protocol on last bank closures in communities where the post office is not a viable alternative has been agreed, which I understand will be next week?

Vince Cable: I have indeed discussed that directly with the chief executive of Barclays, in response to my hon. Friend’s very persistent campaigning and that of her Liberal Democrat opponent, who has been equally assiduous. We recognise the need in St Agnes for a bespoke solution, since the post office is not the ideal vehicle, and I think we are working towards a satisfactory outcome.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): As the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) pointed out, there is an announcement today about restructuring by Total of its facility at Lindsey oil refinery. In addition there is uncertainty about the future of Tata Steel Long Products in Scunthorpe. Will the Government ensure that the necessary support is given to manufacturing industry in north Lincolnshire, so that it has a strong and prosperous future?

Matthew Hancock: Absolutely we will. I understand that the changes announced today by Total are set to take place over a number of years, so there will be time to ensure that we get the systems in place to support people who are affected, whether they stay within Total or are looking for jobs elsewhere or are seeking early retirement. We will do all we can to help.

Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I welcome the introduction of big fines for supermarkets that breach the groceries supply code of practice, but I urge the Government to bring forward the review. We need to extend the code to indirect suppliers such as dairy farmers, who are suffering greatly at the moment. They cannot wait another year. May we have the review much sooner, please?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) has also been raising this issue assiduously. It is one that Members across the House are, understandably, very concerned about. The Groceries Code Adjudicator is already proving to be a great success in her work with supermarket companies, by encouraging them to change their behaviour. We have ensured that she has, and will have, the power to fine as well as to launch investigations—the first, of course, was launched recently. The question whether the remit should be extended needs to be looked at, and I commit the Government to doing that.

Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): Government procurement can be used to drive innovation and to support our small business sector. How can small businesses in my constituency find out what opportunities exist to help them?

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Matthew Hancock: We now put all procurement online. Also, from this month, a new rule is coming into place: not only must all procurement from Government be paid within 30 days, but the whole supply chain must be paid within 30 days. It is a big step forward to help small businesses engage in Government procurement.

Mr David Willetts (Havant) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that one of the best ways of getting funding into innovative life sciences companies is for them to get contracts from the NHS earlier? He just referred to his very important early access review. What are the ambitions for that, and the timetable?

George Freeman: My right hon. Friend and predecessor makes an important point. Since we launched the life science strategy at the start of this Parliament, as set out and led by my right hon. Friend, this country has attracted over £3.5 billion of inward investment into the sector and created more than 11,000 jobs, so something is going very right. He makes a key point: the next step is to ensure that our NHS is driving quicker access. We shall shortly be announcing the chair of the review, and we have already started to gather evidence. My right hon. Friend will have noticed on his recent trip to America the support and the interest that it is gaining overseas for driving our sector forward.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): When the Secretary of State’s Department was called the Department of Trade and Industry, he called for it to be abolished, saying:

“The DTI should be wound up because it doesn’t perform a function. It has no real role anymore”.

Interestingly, his solution was not to reform the Department and rename it BIS; his solution was to split the duties of the Department between existing Government Departments —he cited the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education and Skills. Which of his duties does he think should be handled by other Government Departments, or what has changed his mind? Was it a ministerial salary, perhaps?

Vince Cable: I am delighted to have yet another contribution from the leader of my parliamentary fan club. He has failed to observe that since I made my comments on the DTI a decade ago, we have acquired responsibility for universities, skills, science and much else.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): A business in my constituency received a communication from Royal Mail the week before Christmas, saying that with effect from four business weeks later, the business reply and freepost service that it had used for 10 years was to be discontinued and it would have to re-register. The business was told that if the old address was used, there would be a 20p penalty per item and the item may not be delivered. It will cost the business £10 per customer and £10,000 in lost stationery. Is that reasonable? Should not the Royal Mail respond to my letter? Will the Minister intervene?

Jo Swinson: Royal Mail should certainly respond to the letter that my hon. Friend sent it, and I will happily take that up on his behalf. The issue that he raises goes wider. The change had been notified earlier to some customers but that may not have happened properly in this circumstance, and I shall be happy to look into it.

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Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): There were a wonderful 850 apprenticeship starts in Kettering last year, led ably by Tresham college in my constituency. Is the Skills Minister satisfied that LEPs are working as well as they might with local further education establishments in pushing the apprenticeship agenda?

Nick Boles: My hon. Friend is right to suggest that LEPs should take this seriously. Some are doing better than others on this, but our message is clear: they have a key responsibility, working with local businesses and colleges such as the one my hon. Friend referred to, to ensure that as many businesses as possible take up the opportunity of an apprenticeship. because that is the way to build the skills that his constituency and others need for the future.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): The Minister gave a progress report on the Government’s dealing with late payment, but, according to a recent small business seminar in my constituency, it remains a bugbear. One international telecommunications company was cited which not only charges a fee to be a supplier, but has 180-day payment terms. What more can we do to name and shame and make transparent these obscene practices, which clobber small businesses?

Matthew Hancock: The single best thing we can do about that is to pass before the end of this Parliament the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, which is still going through the other place. That brings in transparency measures which mean that we will not name and shame just on an ad hoc basis, but have league tables of late payment performance, celebrating the best and admonishing the worst.

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Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): I congratulate the Government on the support that they have given to satellite communications and space research companies based at Goonhilly earth station in my constituency, and also on their excellent science and research consultation, which has an excellent section on space research. May I urge Ministers to ensure that Goonhilly is placed at the centre of the development of space research infrastructure in future?

Vince Cable: I met my hon. Friend and a delegation yesterday to discuss that. I congratulate him on the stamina he has shown in pursuing the Goonhilly project, which is now part of the regional growth fund. He has raised wider issues about how the space policy can be developed to bring in the private sector, and I shall discuss with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities how we can progress that.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 54% since the last general election. In respect of business, innovation and skills, will my right hon. Friend get his officials to look at the success story that is the Colchester business enterprise agency, a not-for-profit voluntary organisation which has about 50 starter workshop units helping new and innovative fledgling businesses?

Matthew Hancock: Yes, absolutely. The fall in unemployment across the land, in Colchester and beyond, is a vital sign that the long-term economic plan is working. I very much look forward to visiting Colchester soon and look forward to taking up the hon. Gentleman’s proposal.

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Business of the House

10.29 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, not for next week but for the week commencing 23 February—[Interruption]—yes, the next parliamentary week—will be as follows:

Monday 23 February—Remaining stages of the Serious Crime Bill [Lords]. I expect my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make a statement following the European Council.

Tuesday 24 February—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Pension Schemes Bill, followed by consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the House of Commons Commission Bill, followed by motions relating to Procedure Committee reports on business in Westminster Hall, Queen’s and Prince Of Wales’s consent and e-petitions, followed by a general debate on mental health and unemployment. The subject for this debate was recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 25 February—Opposition day (18th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 26 February—Statement on the publication of the fourth report from the Culture, Media And Sport Committee on the future of the BBC, followed by debate on a motion relating to Equitable Life, followed by a general debate on epilepsy. The Select Committee statement and subjects for debate were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 27 February—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 2 March will include:

Monday 2 March—Estimates day (2nd allotted day). There will be a debate on Devolution in England: The Case for Local Government, followed by a debate on the next Defence and Security Review Part Two: NATO. Further details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: Devolution in England: The Case for Local Government, 1st Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee, HC 503, and the Government response; Towards the next Defence and Security Review Part Two: NATO, 3rd Report from the Defence Committee, HC 358, and the Government response, HC 755.]

Tuesday 3 March—Estimates day (3rd allotted day). There will be a debate on support for housing costs in the reformed welfare system, followed by a debate on children’s and adolescents’ mental health and child and adolescent mental health services. Further details will be given in the Official Report. At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

[The details are as follows: Support for housing costs in the reformed welfare system, 4th Report from the Work and Pensions Committee, HC 720 of Session 2013-14; Children’s and adolescents’ mental health and CAMHS, 3rd Report from the Health Committee, HC 342, and the Government response.]

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Wednesday 4 March—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipations And Adjustments) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Corporation Tax (Northern Ireland) Bill, followed by an Opposition day (unallotted half-day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 5 March— Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 6 March—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the remainder of February and for 2 March will be:

Monday 23 February—General debate on an e-petition relating to ending non-stun slaughter to promote animal welfare.

Thursday 26 February—General debate on low-carbon electricity generation.

Monday 2 March—General debate on an e-petition relating to Harvey’s law.

Ms Eagle: I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the post-recess business.

On Tuesday, the Standards Committee published a review of the standards system in the Commons, led by the lay members. We need radical action to restore trust in our political system, so I thank the Committee for the report, which contains some sensible recommendations. Will the Leader of the House set out how he intends to take the report forward, and will he tell me if he will act on my suggestion and remove the Government majority on the Committee to address concerns about the Government protecting their own?

Yesterday’s report from Sir Robert Francis revealed that nearly a quarter of NHS staff have experienced bullying or harassment—a problem that is all too prevalent in other workplaces across the country too. Given that the Government were quick to welcome the Francis report but have made it their mission to make people pay to access employment rights and protection from bullying and arbitrary treatment everywhere else, may we have a debate on the protection that Britain’s workers deserve against bullying at work? May we especially have a debate about the 60% fall in employment tribunal cases since the Government introduced steep payments for access to justice in the workplace?

Yesterday we learned that a string of Tory donors banked with the Swiss arm of HSBC, which has been caught red-handed facilitating tax abuse. Since the Prime Minister became leader of his party, those donors have given him £5 million and HSBC’s chairman, Lord Green, was appointed a Minister in the Government after the scandal was public knowledge, with no questions asked about his oversight of this rogue bank. Does that not say everything about this Government?

On the Government’s own estimate, uncollected taxes rose by a massive £34 billion last year. Their sweetheart Swiss tax deal is full of holes and has brought in less than a third of what they promised, and they have cut taxes for millionaires and hedge funds, which have given them £47 million since the Prime Minister became leader.

With the election looming, our shameless Prime Minister travelled to the British Chambers of Commerce to steal a TUC slogan and suddenly declare that “Britain needs

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a pay rise”. Yet this is the first Government since 1874 who have left people worse off at the end of the Parliament than they were at the beginning. While he was there, he even decided to channel Lord Kinnock, but I would have used a different speech: “I’ll tell you what happens with impossible Tory pre-election promises. They’re pickled into a rigid soundbite, a code, and you end up in the grotesque chaos of a Tory Government—a Tory Government!—hiring chauffeur-driven limos to scuttle round Davos handing out huge tax breaks to its own donors.”

The Prime Minister has reportedly told the Cabinet that he is fed up of this zombie Government and that he wants Ministers to get back to work. Most appear to have responded by suddenly dumping hundreds of statutory instruments on the Order Paper, but the invisible man—the Tory Chief Whip—has responded in his own unique style. On a day when he failed to show up in Parliament—the day before Parliament adjourned five hours early—he gave a speech on the “myth” of the zombie Parliament. His key evidence was an increase in urgent questions under this Government. But, Mr Speaker, you grant urgent questions and you grant them when the Government are avoiding scrutiny.

I read this morning that the Chief Whip has literally been back-seat driving, but not at the Department for Education: he has been taking vanity trips in his Jaguar to travel the 400 yards between Parliament and No. 10. He drove teachers round the bend, he has put this place on the road to nowhere, and his Government hold the record for the most U-turns. He certainly will not be allowed anywhere near our magenta battle bus.

On Monday night, the Conservative black and white ball raised millions of pounds and gave a whole new meaning to the term “by-election”. According to the Daily Mail, the Prime Minister partied with the kings and queens of sleaze, including a porn baron, the owner of a strip club and the boss of Ann Summers. Perhaps they should have changed their theme to black, white and a little blue. This year, in a doomed bid to limit the PR disaster, they banned ostentatious displays of tuxedos and champagne, but they did still auction a 500-bird pheasant and partridge shoot for tens of thousands of pounds; a bronze statue of Margaret Thatcher for £210,000; and, hilariously, a holiday in Cobblers Cove.

I have been inspecting the auction lots and if I had more money than sense I could have bought shoe shopping with the Home Secretary or a personalised cartoon from the Leader of the House’s private collection, where he is depicted as a “bionic babe”. Perhaps he could tell us what that went for. I could also have paid to take on the welfare Secretary in an endurance race across hills, woods, streams, hedges and hay bales. Surely I would be certain of winning that one, because, judging by his welfare reforms, that man has no hope of finishing anything.

I gather that the Liberal Democrats are organising their own fundraiser, too: instead of an auction, they are going to sell off their principles to the highest bidder.

Mr Hague: I am always grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions. She asked about the Standards Committee report. The decision on it is primarily one for the House

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itself, but the Government strongly support the need for the highest standards in public life. We welcome the report, which follows the inquiry chaired by one of the independent, lay members of the Standards Committee. There are now two reports from the Standards Committee that we need to consider and debate. We will seek an opportunity in due course to provide time to debate this report, and we will then set out the Government’s view on how the Committee’s conclusions can be taken forward.

The hon. Lady raised a variety of other matters, including that the Chief Whip has the use of a car. She has seen that, as we all have, in the newspapers this morning. I think one newspaper report referred to the Chief Whip as a former Minister or ex-Minister, which shows a certain limited understanding on the part of the journalists about the role of the Chief Whip in the British Government. He is most certainly a Minister, and he remains entitled to the use of a car.

The hon. Lady said that the House rose five hours early the other night, but there was a time when Oppositions used to debate the benefits uprating order, the pneumoconiosis compensation regulations, the mesothelioma payments regulations or the guaranteed minimum pensions increase order. They were all before the House on Monday, and the Opposition chose barely to debate them. That is why the House rose five hours early.

The hon. Lady asked about the cartoon of me as the “bionic babe”. I do not know how much it went for, but since it is 38 years old, I had a lot more hair in the cartoon than I can display in the House today, so it is certainly a collectors’ item.

The hon. Lady said that the Conservative party received £5 million from certain donors, but she neglected to mention that since the Leader of the Opposition was elected, the Labour party has received £35 million from trade unions. Of the Labour candidates selected since then, 60% have union links and half of them are from Unite. There is only one party in this country in which policies are purchased, and that is the Labour party. There is no doubt about that.

On tax avoidance, under the rules left by Labour, thousands of the richest home buyers did not pay stamp duty—they now do; foreigners did not pay any capital gains tax—they now do; and private equity managers paid lower tax rates than their cleaners—we have got rid of that. The previous Government left behind a terrible mess of tax loopholes that this Government have now closed.

With the addition of the £100 billion in extra revenue as a result of action on tax avoidance and evasion, not only are the Government finances stronger, but it has been another good week for the British economy, which Labour Members do not like to raise and about which they do not like to ask for debates. There was strong manufacturing growth in January, there is an increased growth forecast from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has just announced £5 billion of road and rail investment for the midlands. The hon. Lady criticised the Prime Minister for going to the British Chambers of Commerce conference, but it is no wonder that the Leader of the Opposition hid in his office while the conference took place just a few hundred yards away. They would have to hide him from 60 million people to have a real hope of winning the general election in May.

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The hon. Lady knows the confidence I have in her. I call for her to have more control over her colleagues. She would not have offended the country’s nuns on television a week ago. If she had been in charge of the biggest campaign on women’s issues ever launched by the Labour party, she would not have led it from a 17-seater minibus. In the week of “Fifty Shades of Grey”, it is 50 shades of pink embarrassment for Labour Members.

Mr Keith Simpson (Broadland) (Con): With other colleagues, my right hon. Friend rightly criticised the delay before the setting up of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. Is he not perturbed that there is now a similar delay by our own Government in considering the lessons from the war in Afghanistan? I initiated a short debate yesterday, in which the Minister for the Armed Forces lamentably failed to answer any of the questions. We will have a strategic defence and security review this autumn. I urge my right hon. Friend to get a grip of the Government so that the Ministry of Defence and other Departments can begin a study on this important subject now.

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend initiated an important debate. He is experienced in military matters, and I assure him that in all the Government’s deliberations, including weekly deliberations in the National Security Council, we are learning the lessons of what has happened in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It is possible to see the benefits of learning those lessons in the way we have worked in Somalia in recent years, for example, with a different model of intervention. However, it will be vital over the coming months to continue to learn lessons, and I will convey the importance of what my hon. Friend has said to my ministerial colleagues.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Leader of the House recall a fabulous part of England called Yorkshire? It lies between, and is worried about, the increasing power and wealth of London and the south, and the growing power and independence of Scotland, since Yorkshire has very little of any of that. Does he welcome the manifesto for Yorkshire by the all-party group on Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire, “Devolution for Prosperity”, and is it about time we had a debate on Yorkshire and its ability to speak with one voice and have accountable government?

Mr Hague: I have just announced an estimates day debate on devolution in England and the case for local government, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be able to make his case in that debate. As a proud Yorkshireman, it has always been my view that we do not aspire to govern Yorkshire—we aspire to govern the world, and it is important that we retain that global role in Yorkshire’s involvement in world politics.

Sir David Amess (Southend West) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the criteria for the creation of cities? Given that he once made a memorable visit to Southend, does he agree that it is absolutely ridiculous that the place is not already a city, especially since it is generally regarded as the finest seaside resort in the country, if not the world?

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Mr Hague: I did indeed make a memorable visit to Southend—it was so memorable that I actually remember it and will never forget it. I am a big fan of Southend, and it will never have a greater champion than my hon. Friend. As he knows, city status is a civic honour occasionally granted by the monarch to mark certain royal anniversaries. I recall that Southend submitted an enthusiastic and strong application at the diamond jubilee. That was not successful, but Southend did succeed in securing a significant city deal that will provide it with further investment. There are no plans at the moment for a new competition on city status, but I am sure Southend will have another opportunity to bid for it in the future.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): Thanks to the Backbench Business Committee there will be the first full-scale debate on Yemen on 24 February. The Leader of the House will recall his pivotal role in ensuring that Yemen remains on the path to democracy, including a memorable visit to Sana’a to meet the President. He will also know that the American and French embassies, and yesterday the British embassy, have been evacuated. May we have a quarterly statement on the situation in Yemen and the Gulf, as we do on Afghanistan, because that country plays an important role in our national security?

Mr Hague: The right hon. Gentleman is assiduous in pursuing matters relating to Yemen, and as he says, as Foreign Secretary I was heavily involved in events there and visited that country. We have temporarily suspended embassy operations in Sana’a, and withdrawn diplomatic staff until the security situation becomes clearer—as the House will appreciate, that is a consequence of recent events. It is good that the Backbench Business Committee has chosen that topic, and important that my Foreign Office colleagues keep the House up to date on Yemen and developments throughout the Gulf. I will tell them of the right hon. Gentleman’s point, and remind them of the need to have regular updates in the House.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): We had a rather unedifying debate in this House on tax evasion, but there has also been enormous public concern about the issue. May we have a debate on the role of audit? Large accountancy firms are being paid enormous amounts of money for external audit, yet they do not seem to notice what is happening in the banks and they do not seem to notice the tax arrangements of their corporate customers. I wonder whether they are actually fulfilling their statutory duties in terms of regularity. Should the House not ask the accountancy companies exactly what they are doing for that money?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend makes his point very powerfully. A good case can be made for a debate. After today, we have only 22 sitting days before Dissolution, so I am not in a position freely to distribute debates on various topics, but he is able to pursue this matter at various question times and through the Backbench Business Committee.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): May we have an urgent debate on Burma? I understand there is no time for constitutional reform before the Burmese elections,

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but in a written answer I was told that the British Government are giving money to the Burmese army, some members of which were responsible for raping and killing two teachers in Kachin state. Will the Leader of the House look into this matter?

Mr Hague: These are very important issues. Under the auspices of the preventing sexual violence initiative, which I continue to work on, we have worked hard to bring Burma into the initiative by getting the Burmese Government to sign up to its principles. That is partly so that the world will be able to expect a better performance and behaviour from the Burmese army. It is always difficult to make decisions about whether to give training to an army where crimes have been committed or alleged, but part of the argument for that training is to ensure that such crimes are not committed in future. That is why such decisions have been made in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. FCO questions are on 3 March. The hon. Lady may be able to pursue this matter further then.

Mr Speaker: There can never be too many debates on Burma in this House.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The number of injuries and fatalities in the agriculture and farming sector is still too high: there were 27 deaths last year, including in Shropshire. May we have a debate on how the National Farmers Union, the Health and Safety Executive and the industry as a whole, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, can work better together to ensure a reduction in fatalities and injuries?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. The Health and Safety Executive is working with the industry to try to reduce the number of accidents across agriculture. It delivers an annual programme of safety and health awareness days targeted at small and medium-sized farms, and it works at the European level on improvements to the design and maintenance of agricultural machinery. This is an important issue and there are still too many deaths and injuries in agriculture. A debate would allow us to consider what else could be done. There is a good case for such a debate.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House consider a debate on the funding of political parties, or perhaps he will explain why he believes that 10,000 individuals giving £10 each to a political party is an affront to democracy, but a single donor giving £100,000 to a political party—the right hon. Gentleman’s party—to shoot 500 pheasants is an exercise of civic responsibility?

Mr Hague: We have had many debates on party political funding over the years. They have often generated a great deal more heat than light from all sides. We are all able to make our points in such debates and I remind the hon. Gentleman that 69% of all Labour’s donations under its current leader have come from trade unions. In any debate, that is a point we on this side of the House will certainly want to make.

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Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): May I join my right hon. Friend in aspiring for Yorkshire to govern the world? Does he accept that we are slightly handicapped by not necessarily having a good mobile signal in the hills, and that in some cases, in his area and mine, just under 20% will still not have broadband? Given the short window for applying for basic farm payments, will he join me in applying for a debate in this Parliament on superfast broadband for north Yorkshire?

Mr Hague: North Yorkshire has led the way on superfast broadband in rural areas, which is a great credit to local councillors and others who have worked on that. However, as my hon. Friend rightly says, there are areas where it remains difficult to provide and where mobile phone coverage is not good. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is doing fantastic work on addressing the lack of mobile coverage in parts of this country. It is DCMS Question Time on the first Thursday back after next week’s recess, on 26 February, so she might wish to pursue the matter then.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): The Leader of the House will have seen the tragic news this week that another 300 migrants have died in the Mediterranean trying to get from Libya to Lampedusa, while only 105 were saved by the intervention of Mare Nostrum on behalf of the Italian navy. At one level, it is easy—and correct—to blame the people traffickers for forcing on to boats people who later die. However, thousands have died in the Mediterranean fleeing war, poverty and oppression from all over the middle east and north Africa. Will the Prime Minister raise this issue at the European Council? Mare Nostrum was trying to save people, but the EU has responded by withdrawing it and instead putting in place a frontier force whose purpose is to keep people out, rather than save lives. Can we, first, raise the question of the source of this migration—the poverty, desperation and oppression—and, secondly, reinstate the principle of saving people at sea, rather than waiting for them to drown and wringing our hands? Vincent Cochetel, from the UNHCR, said Europe had done “too little, too late”. Can we now put that right and act?

Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. The whole House will be conscious of these heartbreaking reports and the extensive loss of life not only on this occasion but on many other occasions in the Mediterranean. The Prime Minister is going today to the European Council and, as I said in the business statement, he will make a statement a week on Monday, on the House’s first day back, so the hon. Gentleman might wish to pursue the matter directly with the Prime Minister. This immense problem is the reason we have done so much work on trying to stabilise north Africa. We have not yet been successful in many parts of north Africa, but that is why this is such a focus of our policy. The EU has decided on its approach to migrant boats at sea. However, this is a very legitimate issue, and he can continue to raise it on the Floor of the House.

Alistair Burt (North East Bedfordshire) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend find time for a short debate on the UK biopharmaceutical industry, particularly its dependence on the border inspection post at London Heathrow?

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My constituent Jenny Murray, of Antibody Production Services in Wilden, has raised with me the impact of the proposed imminent closure of the private facility at the airport. I would be grateful for the opportunity to raise the wider issues facing very large pharmaceutical companies as well as the smaller niche companies that, in my constituency, demonstrate a diverse and rural economy under this Government.

Mr Hague: Given the impending end of the Parliament, there might not be time for such a debate, but my right hon. Friend raises an important point. The Government appreciate the importance that the biopharmaceutical industry attaches to the maintenance of inspection facilities for animal products at Heathrow airport. I understand that discussions are taking place between various interested parties, and the Government will follow developments closely and provide any advice needed to assist the possible development of other animal product inspection centres at the airport. I will also ensure that my colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are aware of his remarks.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, in answer to a question about the learning tax on sixth-form colleges, the Prime Minister appeared to say he would take the matter away and have a look at it. May we have a statement on fair funding for 16 to 18-year-olds, whatever institution they are in?

Mr Hague: I cannot add so quickly to what the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions, but the hon. Gentleman continues to raise the issue assiduously, and I will certainly remind my colleagues in the Department for Education that he has raised it again.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): The Government are to be congratulated on initiating the independent feasibility study into the resettlement of those in the British Indian Ocean Territory. As my right hon. Friend will know, the report was published earlier this week. May we have a debate on the resettlement of the Chagos islanders on the Floor of the House at the earliest possible moment and in Government time?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend always speaks up for the concerns of the Chagos islanders. This is an important report, a feasibility study that I initiated when I was Foreign Secretary, and, as he says, it has now been published. I know that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), plans to meet my hon. Friend and other members of the Chagos all-party parliamentary group on 23 February to listen to their views ahead of any Government decision. I cannot offer a debate at the moment, but that meeting might lead to a decision on how to take things forward in Parliament.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): First, to correct a point from a few minutes ago, it is of course Cleethorpes that is the country’s premier seaside resort. I do not know whether the Leader of the House noticed my ten-minute rule Bill, proposed on 13 January, which suggested that greater fairness be brought into the planning process by allowing objectors to be able in certain circumstances to appeal to the planning inspectorate.

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Could my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on this matter, so that we can hear the Government’s position?

Mr Hague: Having been nice about Southend, I am able to speak up for Cleethorpes as well. I visited and enjoyed the beach at Cleethorpes as a child, so I can absolutely recommend this resort as well. Other hon. Members will agree with what my hon. Friend says about the ability to appeal to the planning inspectorate, but that is a matter that would, of course, have to be pursued with the Department for Communities and Local Government. As with so many other subjects, I cannot promise a debate before the Dissolution at the end of the next month, but my hon. Friend will be able to pursue his desire for a debate through all the normal channels of Adjournment and Backbench Business Committee debates during the remaining weeks of the Parliament.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): May we have a debate on the fragmentation of the NHS at local trusts, where the silo mentality is impacting negatively on patients, as shown in the appalling and disgraceful case of what is happening in the Haven in my constituency? The Haven is a success story being destroyed by NHS mandarins, so may we have a debate on the reality of local NHS silo decision making rather than the adoption of a “one NHS” approach?

Mr Hague: This is, of course, an important subject, but we have had many debates on the NHS and statements by the Health Secretary in recent weeks. I have no doubt there will be more, and that my hon. Friend will be able to pursue these issues. We are very much trying to get away from any silo decision making. The NHS will transfer £3.2 billion to social care services over this Parliament, and my hon. Friend will know that, importantly, we are introducing from April a £5.3 billion pooled budget for health and social care—something that the Opposition have not wanted to introduce. We are bringing in this better care fund, and I hope it will lead to major improvements to meet my hon. Friend’s concerns.

Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): The need for better transport in my Kingswood constituency is a serious concern that needs to be addressed if we are to prevent local roads into Bristol, already inadequate through getting jammed up, from getting worse. We also need a M4 link to the Avon ring road, on which I continue to campaign, and a better bus network because many of my constituents are struggling to get across from Kingswood to Southmead. Can time be found for a debate on transport in the Bristol region, so that all local MPs can discuss the need to improve our local areas’ road, rail and bus networks?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend will be aware that under this Government we are seeing major investment in the road and rail network. A programme of investment for the coming five years adds up to about £56 billion, which is benefiting all parts of the country. My hon. Friend will be able to pursue with Ministers at the Department for Transport the specific needs of the Bristol area, for which he always speaks up so well. It is open to him to pursue such debates through all the normal means.

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Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): The police treatment centre in my constituency is a fantastic charity that works with ill and injured police officers to help them to return to work It recently received about £500,000 from LIBOR fines, which it is using to create a new outdoor exercise area and generally refurbish its facilities. Would it be possible for a statement to be made giving details of where all those fines have been used, so that we can see which good causes are benefiting throughout the country?

Mr Hague: That is not a bad idea. The latest allocation from the LIBOR fund, of £35 million, adds to the money we have already given to military good causes benefiting armed forces personnel and their families, and veterans, and to many other good causes. The police treatment centre in my hon. Friend’s constituency is another good example. This week I announced the creation, with a £1 million donation from the LIBOR fund, of our first academic centre on women, peace and security at the London School of Economics—something a bit more substantial than a pink bus going around the country—and we will continue to use LIBOR money to benefit such excellent causes.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for International Development on aid to India? On 9 November 2012, The Guardian was one of many newspapers to report that

“The government will stop all financial aid to India by 2015”.

It now seems that the Government are stopping aid to the Indian Government, but are continuing to supply other aid to India. Given that India has its own space programme and is spending $35 billion a year on defence alone, surely we should be telling the country that it is responsible for looking after its own people, rather than saying “Keep on spending all this money on building up your military arsenal while we look after the people for whom you should be responsible.” I believe that most of my constituents thought it was right to end aid to India, and will be horrified to discover that that is no longer the case.

Mr Hague: There has been a big change under this Government. On coming to office, we found that some British aid was going to Russia and China, for instance, but DFID has stopped those programmes. What the Secretary of State for International Development announced in 2012 was that all financial aid grants from the United Kingdom to India would cease in 2015, after which DFID would provide support only in the form of private sector expertise and technical assistance, and that is exactly what is happening. The financial aid grants to India will end this year, and any new projects will be supported by development capital investment and technical assistance. No doubt DFID will be able to expand on exactly what that involves for the benefit of my hon. Friend.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con) rose—

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Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con) rose—

Mr Speaker: What a delicious choice! Mr Peter Bone.

Mr Bone: As you know, Mr Speaker, Question Time is one of the most important times in the week for Oppositions, because it enables them to scrutinise Ministers of the Crown. However, some very bizarre things are now happening. All the questions in the second half of business questions today have come from Government Members, but over the last few weeks something has been happening to the most important Question Time of the week, Prime Minister’s Question Time. After the Leader of the Opposition has given his views and been beaten up by the Prime Minister, swathes of Labour Members disappear. Yesterday a third of the seats were empty, while poor Conservative Members were having to stand. Just to prove that the Chief Whip is a Minister, will he make a statement giving dispensation to Conservative Members so that they can fill the empty seats to make it look as though there is an Opposition?

Mr Hague: That is a characteristically creative idea from my hon. Friend, although I think that the spectacle of Conservative Members crossing to the other side of the House might have its disadvantages. He is right to draw attention to the vast expanse of space that exists on the Opposition Benches today—as it has during many debates—and develops quite rapidly during Prime Minister’s Question Time. It makes one wonder whether there is some zombie meeting place where they have all gone to have lunch, and whether they have to get there before the end of Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Mr Hollobone: I bring good news from Kettering, where Mr Graham Parr and his wife Karen are celebrating the fifth year of successful trading of their business, Bright Sparks. Over the last five years, they have increased their turnover threefold and increased their customer base 10 times. They are now looking to appoint their first apprentice. Can we have a statement from a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Minister about the importance of small, family-run businesses such as Bright Sparks not only in generating the wealth that this country enjoys and can then spend to improve public services, but as an engine of growth to provide more jobs for our young people?

Mr Hague: As ever, my hon. Friend brings good news from Kettering. That is not only good for Kettering but representative of what is happening in many parts of this country. Since 2010, there have been 760,000 additional businesses in the UK and the great majority are small, entrepreneurial businesses. Since 2010, 2.1 million apprenticeships have started in the UK, and many of those apprentices are working with small businesses. That is why it is so important to continue to have policies that promote business and employment, rather than the deep hostility to business that we see on the Labour Benches.

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Backbench Business

Pubs and Planning Legislation

[Relevant document: Sixth Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee, Community Rights, HC 262.]

11.11 am

Charlotte Leslie (Bristol North West) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House notes New Economics Foundation research showing that local economies benefit twice as much from a pound spent in a pub rather than a supermarket; expresses concern that valued and viable pubs are being lost due to permitted development rights which allow pubs to be demolished or turned into supermarkets and other uses without planning permission, denying local people any say; notes that supermarket chains are deliberately targeting pubs and further notes CAMRA research that two pubs a week are converted into supermarkets; supports CAMRA’S Pub Matters campaign calling for an end to permitted development rights on pubs; notes that any change of use to a nightclub, laundrette or theatre requires planning permission, making it odd to refuse pubs the same status; notes plans to remove permitted development rights from pubs listed as Assets of Community Value (ACVs), and calls on the Government to announce how and when this will happen; notes, however, that pubs achieving ACV status is not as simple as Ministers have suggested, with the requirement for local communities to provide boundaries and plans and that every pub must be listed separately making it unrealistic for communities to protect all valued pubs; further notes that each ACV application costs local authorities over a thousand pounds, and listing all valued UK pubs as ACVs would cost millions of pounds and create significant bureaucracy; and therefore calls on the Government to make a simpler change and put pubs into the sui generis category so that communities can comment on a proposal to convert or demolish a pub.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the time for this important debate, which probably affects every constituency. I pay special tribute to the hon. Members for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) and for Easington (Grahame M. Morris). This is a cross-party motion on something that is incredibly common sense and popular throughout the country.

The Government have done a lot on pubs, but there is still a problem that needs solving, and every Member could give examples to show the Government the importance of the measure we are proposing. Every week, 31 pubs are closing and two are converted into supermarkets, with absolutely no chance for the community to have its say.

We had a vote on the issue two weeks ago when we attempted to amend the Infrastructure Bill. Sadly, we were defeated, but that does not change the fact that many of us remain completely convinced that we need to move pubs into a planning use class of their own—the sui generis planning class, for those of us who love our Latin—to protect them properly. That would not mean making an exception to any rule; it would not be an unusual thing to do. It would simply apply to pubs the kind of protections that exist for slightly counter-intuitive things in many ways, such as laundrettes, night clubs, petrol stations and scrap yards. It seems an extraordinary omission that pubs are not included in that planning category and that the Government put such energy into preventing them from being so.

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The solution that I and other hon. Members have proposed has several advantages. It is simple, it would involve an easy change to the law and it would not require any more bureaucracy. That is in contrast to other measures that we have considered such as article 4s and assets of community value, which are bureaucratic, are difficult for the public to access and to find out about, and cost significantly more money.

The measure we are proposing is consistent. We protect other types of building in this way, which many would argue do not have the community significance of pubs, or at least do not have any more significance than pubs. Therefore, we would not be singling out pubs for special treatment; we would simply be applying to pubs the type of treatment we already permit for other valued community facilities.

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): The hon. Lady is making a strong argument. Does she agree that this is in accordance with the Government’s own localism principles? It is hardly revolutionary, and in terms of saving money the alternative proposed by the Government of listing pubs as assets of community value incurs a considerable cost while this is a simpler, more cost-effective way to ensure protection.

Charlotte Leslie: I completely agree. This is the kind of localism the Government have been pushing very strongly in other areas, empowering local authorities and empowering the planning system. Although I can see where they are coming from with the concept of the asset of community value, it is much more expensive and much more bureaucratic. I am also concerned that it is inequitable for the communities whose pubs it seeks to protect in that it will be easier for those communities that are more engaged in the political process and find it easier to be so—such as those where English is the first, rather than the second, language—to find out how to make the pub an asset of community value. Others may not find it so easy. I am therefore concerned that that mechanism may result in an inequitable protection of community assets that are equally loved and valued across different areas.

It is surprising that the Government do not seem to be taking the same view of localism on this one occasion as they are in other areas. Because I believe in the Government’s localism agenda, I urge them to rethink this and roll out their concept of localism that they have been pushing so effectively over the last four years to this item in planning.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on her engagement in this subject and on the work she has done on pubs along with the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), and I was very proud to vote for the market rate alternative. My only concern about what she is proposing is that if a pub is struggling and could be readily used for another purpose, the banks will allow it some leeway to give it more time to turn its fortunes around because they will be able to get their money back, whereas if an alternative use was less certain, they may pull the plug immediately. Can she reassure me that her proposal would not lead to pubs that are struggling having the plug pulled on them earlier than would otherwise be the case?

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Charlotte Leslie: As ever, my hon. Friend makes a good point. I do not think that would be the case, and it is certainly not the case in respect of other facilities to which this applies. Another Government objection to this idea is that it would result in boarded-up pubs. That is certainly not the case. One of the major merits of this proposal is, simply, that it is fair. It gives communities the ability to have their say, but if a pub is genuinely unviable it would be allowed to fail and would have planning permission granted, because local authorities have every incentive not to see boarded-up properties. We do not see the high streets littered with boarded-up laundrettes.

I think we could all name pubs in our constituencies that are unviable and which the community does not need, and which perhaps historically have been run so badly for many years that it is hard to pick them up and change their reputation, and which are turned to other uses that are welcomed in the community. The Foresters pub in my constituency was turned into a supermarket. That is not something I would generally celebrate, but it has not been the end of the world. It has been a change that many people have welcomed, and our proposal would not in any way stop this kind of change taking place. It would simply allow people their say in the planning procedure before it takes place.

There are many local examples, and I am sure hon. Members could list ones in their own constituencies, where we have lost valued pubs of community value. The Bourne End in Brentry in my constituency was demolished very quickly and many in the community wanted the chance to have their say. There was nowhere near enough time to list it as an asset of community value. The developers simply came in and it was gone.

Grahame M. Morris: On the Government’s suggestion that local authorities should list pubs that are genuinely valued as an asset of community value, is the hon. Lady aware of the number of pubs that would be protected in that way out of the 48,000 in total? I am sure that she is, because she will have read the briefings from the Campaign for Real Ale and the Fair Deal For Your Local campaign.

Charlotte Leslie: The hon. Gentleman prompts me in a timely way. As I understand it—he will correct me if I am wrong—the number of pubs that currently have asset of community value status is around 600. That speaks for itself in regard to the efficacy, accessibility and ease of the Government’s measure. I will come back to that point.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): I shall not be able to take part in the debate later, owing to an unavoidable meeting. I speak as a life member of CAMRA, and as a wine drinker. Ought we not to remember that the term “public house” suggests that the public have an interest in such places? Does my hon. Friend agree that more pressure needs to be put on the Government in order to help them to realise that it would be popular all round if the public had an opportunity to express their views on a proposed change of use? It would not be an unnecessary hindrance to the normal changes of market or other patterns of behaviour.

Charlotte Leslie: As ever, my hon. Friend makes his point pithily; it would have taken me much longer to make that point. We are talking about public houses.

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I reiterate my bewilderment and confusion that the Government are not embracing what seems to be a common-sense measure. Our proposal does not involve any exceptions to any rules; it would simply roll out an existing state of affairs to an asset of community value—with small letters, not capital letters—that it is intuitive to protect. I am simply bewildered that the Government have expended so much political capital in defending what appears to be a complex solution in relation to something that we all want to see happen.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): It is a pleasure to be working with my hon. Friend again, and I am delighted that we have secured this debate. I shall not go into the huge amount of bureaucracy and enormous costs involved in the Government’s very partial solution, but does she share my concern that a lot of right hon. and hon. Members seem not to understand that many of the pubs that are being lost, by being turned into supermarkets and so on without the need for planning permission, are in many cases not only viable but trading profitably at the time? This is predatory purchasing; it is not a change of market. Those pubs are not failing.

Charlotte Leslie: Absolutely; this is not about a change of market. What is so frustrating is that we could all list examples of profitable, viable, popular pubs that have been taken over through predatory purchasing. Our proposal would play a significant part in stopping the aggressive consumption of pubs that the public value and want to keep. They are at the heart of our high streets and are massively important for employment. They also promote healthier drinking habits, compared with going to the supermarket, buying enormous packs of cut-price booze and consuming them at home or on a park bench.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The hon. Lady has just made the excellent point that the Government are trying to get people to stop binge drinking, and that responsible landlords do not allow binge drinking in their local community pubs. However, the loss of those community pubs to supermarkets is providing an outlet for yet more binge drinking to be achieved.

Charlotte Leslie: The hon. Gentleman describes the contrast between the two options perfectly. Pubs prevent the kind of binge drinking that is now causing a public health crisis, and a mental health crisis, in many of our communities. They also create inter-generational dialogue, and many pubs now have to be eating establishments to be successful, which promotes eating alongside drinking.

I reiterate that I am confused by the Government’s solution, and I feel sorry for the Minister for having to defend that policy. It has already been decided, but I just do not see the advantage in the Government sticking so stubbornly to a decision that seems to make no practical sense whatever and, in the run-up to the election, no political sense either. I am simply bemused. That is why I have been glad to be able to work cross- party with other Members on proposing such a valuable change. I am further bemused because the Government have done a lot for pubs and it is not as though we are not a pub-friendly Government. I am very proud of what we have achieved on pubs, which is why it is such a shame that in the final hours of this Parliament, when we are about to call time, the Government are not finishing with a flourish and doing something that will really make a difference to our communities.

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The Government have ended the beer duty escalator and made cuts in beer duty, which is all very welcome to pubs, landlords and customers across the country; we have made jobs tax cuts for small businesses—pubs employ a lot of young people, with, I believe, half the people employed in pubs being between the ages of 16 and 25; we have managed to get through, helped in particular by the drive and determination of the hon. Member for Leeds North West, reform to the pubco regulations, so that the predatory nature of the largest pubcos can be mitigated; and we have put in community rights to buy and challenge. All that is very welcome and we are obviously a pub-friendly Government, which is why I simply do not understand why such resistance is being put up to this measure.

The Government have offered us a concession of an improvement on the asset of community value arrangement, whereby if pubs are assets of community value, planning permission will be required for a change of use. I sincerely hope, however, that the Government revisit our suggestion after the election—sadly there is not going to be time to do it now. I reiterate the problems that hon. Members have explored on assets of community value. In the debate on the Infrastructure Bill, the Government said, “Oh well, you only need 21 people to put their names on a piece of paper and that’s it, bingo, you’ve got an asset of community value.” That was misleading because the reality is a lot more complicated, a lot more bureaucratic and far less accessible than the impression that was given by Ministers to Members, who then voted accordingly, thinking that if they get 21 names from the community down on a piece of A4, everything is dandy and “everything is awesome”—to quote “The LEGO Movie”. The process is not like that at all; it is time-consuming. I urge every Member to run a campaign, perhaps with their local newspaper—we also hope we will get national support for this—to get their pubs listed as assets of community value, because I do not see how that is going to happen without a very concerted effort.

Alistair Burt (North East Bedfordshire) (Con) rose—

Sir Peter Bottomley rose—

Charlotte Leslie: I am overwhelmed. I shall give way to my right hon. Friend first.

Alistair Burt: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and apologise for not being here at its start—it came slightly earlier than I thought it would. On the basis that the Government are unlikely to make a concession today, would it be useful to ask the Minister whether he accepts that if colleagues do exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) suggests—I have said in my constituency that I will support any community group wishing to follow this course of action—and after 12 months we have not made a significant difference to the number of pubs given this protection, the Government will look at this issue again? Might we seek a concession from the Minister today to review this in 12 months’ time if what the Government propose is not really working?

Charlotte Leslie: I thank my right hon. Friend for his excellent suggestion, and I put it directly to the Minister. The current state of affairs is not good, but if we could

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get the commitment to a review in 12 months’ time, no matter how Parliament and the Government stand then, that would be at least some cold comfort to those of us who feel that common sense has been denied in this instance.

Sir Peter Bottomley: I am glad that my right hon. Friend spoke first, because his point was perhaps even more substantial than mine, which is quite substantial. Perhaps by speaking to my hon. Friend, through you, Mr Speaker, the Minister might hear that we would like to get from him at the end of the debate an answer as to whether the deregulation unit has actually looked at what the cost is for each successful application to make a pub an asset of community value, what the effort required is and why so much effort is required from the local authority as well. The costs ought to put on those who are trying to get the change of use of the pub. The Minister has a good reason to say that he, his party and the whole coalition Government stand up for making life easier and putting the burdens where they should be, which is on the person who wants to change things, not on those who want to keep them as they are—I speak as a good Conservative.

Charlotte Leslie: I thank my hon. Friend very much, and he reminds me that I made an error and should have gone through Mr Speaker earlier. I profusely apologise for that. It seems strange for a Government of the people to have a default position whereby the people do not get a say; the default position should be that people do get a say, and I shall reiterate my bewilderment until I am blue in the face. We need particular answers from the Government following our discussions on the Infrastructure Bill. Most importantly, with regard to the Government’s recent movement, which is not nearly enough but is welcome none the less, we need to know when it will be brought forward, because we have very little time left. It has to be introduced before the election. Indeed, there was a commitment in the debate to do just that, so I hope the Minister will tell us exactly when it will happen. If he does not, this House will have been very much let down, and I know that he is not the kind of person who would want to do that.

What will the Government do to make the asset of community value process much easier for councils and communities to take up so that it can have real effect? As Members, we are often on the ground in our communities and we know that there has to be a game-changing revolution to the way in which the process is communicated and delivered. It needs to be as accessible as possible because it is a democratic way of protecting our pubs.

How will the Department for Communities and Local Government help publicise the change, so that more communities take it up? Members have indicated that they will do their utmost to publicise the scheme, but if the Government believe that the policy should be accessible to communities they have to make it so. More detail on how we do that would be welcome.

I very much hope—as the Minister can probably tell—that the Government will look again at this solution. It makes common sense and is so much in line with everything the Government have done, both as a localist Government who believe in empowering the people, and a Government who are friendly to pubs. I would

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appreciate some reassurance from the Government on what they will do to address this situation, which is not ideal by any means. I would be grateful for a small move in the right direction. I hope the Minister’s ears have been opened further to our suggestions, which are after all common sense.

11.31 am

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie). We certainly welcomed her application for this debate at the Backbench Business Committee. I am really glad that the environment is calmer today than it was two weeks ago when we last debated this matter. I am sorry that her amendment was defeated so narrowly, but it did demonstrate the strength of feeling across the House. As she says, pubs are not just buildings where alcohol is sold, but community hubs where people meet, relax and socialise. Pubs have done a lot to ensure that they reach out to their communities. They are now a place for, among other things, knitting circles and salsa dancing. It is unbelievable what happens in pubs today.

As the hon. Lady says, about 30 pubs a weeks are closing. It is often the case that they are closing because they are not used or because the demographic has changed. Everybody supports the idea that they should not be boarded up but used for something else. Her suggestion, and what the Opposition have been calling for, is perfectly sensible. We should give local communities a say in what happens to their pub, in the way that they would if it were a nightclub, a theatre, or, as the Library briefing says, a scrapyard. Local communities would get a say in the change of use from a scrapyard to a supermarket, so why not a pub?

The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) raised an important point. Many pubs are heavily used. This is about not whether a pub is used, but whether the brewery, the pubco, or the property developing company that owns these pubs as assets can make more money out of them by selling them to supermarkets or by using them as pubs. That is the key issue that I want to get across today.

I am involved in a campaign in New Whittington, in North East Derbyshire, where the Wellington pub is, at this very moment, under threat of being turned into a supermarket. I just wanted to talk a little about what happens when a pub applies to be an asset of community value. It is not straightforward as the Government would have us believe. We helped to get asset of community value status for another pub, The Angel at Spinkhill, and it was incredibly stressful. Spinkhill is tiny and New Whittington is not much bigger. People love going to their pub, but unlike many of the property developing companies and pubcos they do not have the time, money or power to navigate a complex system to get that status, which only protects the pub from being sold for six months, giving the local community a chance to buy it and to run it as a co-op or as a community facility. That is not necessarily what they want to do. They want to have a pub, but running it themselves is quite a big ask and, especially in deprived communities in which those pubs are the only asset, that can be a serious issue.

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Greg Mulholland: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and I thank her for her support and for that of the Backbench Business Committee. She raises an important point about a weakness in the ACV system for pubs. A lot of the time, smaller breweries and smaller pub companies cannot buy pubs. This is not all about community ownership: these companies are trying to buy pubs, they want to buy them and to make a success of them, but they are not because of the ridiculous permitted development rights.

Natascha Engel: Absolutely, and those are the unforeseen consequences of such legislation. We are just asking for a level playing field within the planning laws.

I want to come back to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) about the amount of money this system costs a local authority at a time when district councils, which are tiny with small budgets, have had their budgets slashed and cut to the bone. The amount of red tape involved in seeing the process of applying and receiving asset of community value status through is onerous. As I have said, our pub has petitioned the local authority and with luck, at the beginning of March, it will suspend the whole process. That is very stressful for members of the local community and this is a very difficult time for them. That is the problem: they are running against the clock. They have jobs and lots of other things in their busy lives, and they do not necessarily have the time to commit to such things in the way that pubcos, property developers and others do when they try to buy these pubs and turn them into supermarkets.

I want to say a big thank you to Viky Muddiman, who is running the “Save our Welly” campaign, to BBC Radio Sheffield, which has covered the issue at great length, and to The Chesterfield Post as well. I wish all those pubs that are applying for asset of community value status the best of luck in doing so, but it would be much better if we could get a quick change in the planning laws to equalise the system, ensure that all pubs are playing on a level playing field and give locals a say in what happens to their pubs.

11.38 am

Rebecca Harris (Castle Point) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on introducing this important debate and the Backbench Business Committee on granting it. I have seen quite a lot of the workings of the pubco trade in my role on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee during work on our various reports. It has become quite clear that many large pub companies are really property-owning companies. The fact that their properties tend to be pubs is rather a sideline from their point of view. The companies are heavily leveraged and in debt and are looking at their assets to see what is the best way of working the building assets, rather than running them as pub chains, as we would like them to.

I am pleased that the industry will be regulated and that the Government have taken up the recommendations of my Committee and are introducing an independent adjudicator to ensure that rules are followed to prevent the exploitation of the remaining landlords in the pub trade, who have been suffering. This is another issue and might, in a sense, be an unintended consequence of cracking down on the exploitation of tenants. Companies

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are now looking around and saying that it would be much easier to sell the property off or rent it out to a supermarket and to make more money that way.

Two particular closures in my constituency of Castle Point have caused enormous controversy and upset. The King Canute pub on Canvey served its last customer in May 2014. The pub, one of Canvey’s most historic buildings, was originally called the Red Cow, but during the devastating flooding of 1953, in which many Canvey residents sadly lost their lives, it was at the doors of the pub that the water stopped—hence its renaming. It also served as a base for the armed forces, from which they helped residents during the floods.

I spoke to the landlady about a week before the news broke about the closure, and asked, “How’s business?” She was doing an awful lot of good stuff. I had attended several events that she had held for local charities in the pub and lent my backing to them. When I spoke to her, she was very positive and upbeat; so the closure came as an enormous surprise, not only to her and her staff but to customers and local residents.

The pub is in an historic building, highly valued by the community. It is intrinsic to the history of Canvey Island, unusual and quirky. We have been told that it is likely to become a Co-op but, despite assurances, there is no guarantee that we will even keep the building, which is beloved of residents and is a treasured community asset. So it is heritage, as well as community benefit and service to several charities, that the pub offered. The law gives no protection against demolition, other than the good will of the owners. I am lobbying to get the building listed as a heritage asset, even though it is not in itself very historic or special. However, it is an old building for Canvey and it is very well loved and particular to the island.

The same fate occurred to the Silver Jubilee pub on Canvey. As its name suggests, it opened in 1977 to commemorate the Queen’s silver jubilee. It was a very well liked local pub. The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) mentioned knitting circles, and groups including a local knitting group, met regularly at the Silver Jubilee and they are now deprived of a place to go. When the area in which the pub stands was laid out and developed, the pub was considered necessary; it was integral to the plans for the area and there is no other pub nearby for local residents.

The closure came as a great surprise because there was no evidence that the pub was not successful. It seems that it simply was not turning sufficient profit for the big firms, who have been able to convert it to a mini Morrisons. Not only have they converted it to a supermarket and put flats above it, but they have now applied for permission to build houses on the adjoining car park.

A wise man—Ray Howard, the long-serving and very smart local councillor, who has served Canvey Island continuously since I was six months old—pointed out that if a single application had been submitted to turn the pub into a supermarket with flats above and to build houses on the car park, the change would have been a large enough to trigger some section 106 development money for the community. However, because the owners did not need to get permission for change of use for the actual building, they have managed to get through a loophole. That funding could have been used to put in a slip road for what many residents find a very difficult

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junction and that would help them get out into heavy traffic. We are trying to obtain that slip road none the less, but without that funding.

I reiterate what hon. Members have said. Pubs are community assets. They serve the public in a variety of ways. They have plenty of community uses and some have strong historic value locally. They are currently left with incredibly little protection. I believe they should be recognised as community assets as a default position—not one that requires a long, elaborate process, which residents are often not aware of and do not realise that they could have followed until it is too late. I urge the Minister to look at the matter again, so that such a long process is not required to establish pubs’ value in the future.

Obviously, if a pub is not profitable, that is a different issue. In the cases that I have described, however, the pubs seemed perfectly profitable—although they possibly would have been more profitable if they had not been tied in to a pubco—but they had immense value in the current property market. That is the cause of the problem. It really is time that the Government looked at this, because their other efforts to help the public house trade, by removing beer duty and so on, will mean nothing if pubs are simply turned into supermarkets.