Queen’s Speech

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Tuesday 22nd October 2019

(4 years, 8 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, it is always a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, in these debates. I shall to try to draw on her remarks as I make mine. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the register of Members’ interests.

I welcome the proposals in the Queen’s Speech. It is refreshing to be devoting a day to these crucial areas of domestic policy. Of course, Brexit hangs over this debate. Be one a remainer or a Brexiteer—thinking back to the debates that we had in this very Chamber on Saturday—one lesson from the referendum is that millions of people in this country feel left behind and do not feel that they have participated in the economic growth of the past decades. Regardless of whether one thinks a sensible response to that is to vote for Brexit, there is a message for all of us in the importance of the domestic policy issues that we are focusing on today.

I want to begin briefly on education. The Minister referred to technical education and T-levels, one of the notorious weaknesses of our education system. I very much hope that T-levels are a success. There are, however, some significant doubts about how well they will do. They appear to depend on unrealistic expectations of employer participation and contribution. There are already stories around that if T-levels do not secure the level of support we hope, one reaction from Ministers will be to try to close down the alternatives such as BTECs. It would be marvellous if we had an assurance from the Front Bench that existing provision—which is popular and which young people go for—will not be an unexpected victim of any problems that may face T-levels.

It is also important that people have the opportunity to participate in university education—again, I welcome what the Minister said on that. Going to university is a widespread aspiration. There is a narrative around at the moment that too many people go, but at every stage of the growth of participation in higher education, from 5% to 50%, we have had this narrative. If too many people go, it is a social problem concentrated in some rather unusual parts of the country. It is an acute problem in Winchester and Guildford, but, fortunately, in Hull and Bolton they are successfully resisting the dangers of going to university. The Government have committed to spread access to university with some bold ambitions for increasing participation from disadvantaged groups. This raises an interesting challenge. Are these extra students to go at the expense of the middle-class students from advantaged areas who are already going? If so, what steps are Ministers taking to reduce this excess rate of applications from some of our most affluent areas and most prestigious schools? Or does it mean in reality that more people in total will be going to university in future? Will the Minister confirm that one estimate is that simply achieving the Government’s own objectives for more participation from disadvantaged backgrounds, together with demographic change, would mean 300,000 more students by 2030?

I want briefly to touch on welfare and employment. The Government have a fantastic record of increasing employment. There is of course a striking contrast between the generosity of benefits and welfare for pensioners, protected by their triple lock, and the freeze in the value of working-age benefits. The working-age population does not have an advocate as eloquent as the next speaker in this debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. Will the Government look at the way that benefits for working-age people work, in particular universal credit? When universal credit was designed, the preoccupation was with workless households, and it was designed to incentivise the first person in the household to go into work. The good news is that the number of workless households has fallen, but the problem is poverty and low incomes in families where someone is working. Here, universal credit has exactly the wrong effect: it penalises the second earner and people who increase their hours. A reform of the work allowance would help tackle that problem.

Finally, I very much welcome the pensions Bill. A particular proposal in it—the regime for collective DC pensions—is an excellent compromise between the generous, old-fashioned final salary schemes, where all the risk was borne by the employer and the pension scheme, and the pure defined contribution scheme, where individuals find themselves taking all the risk, with no sharing across fellow workers or other generations. I support this excellent initiative. The evidence from the design work that has been done on the Post Office CDC scheme—the most ambitious proposal—is that it is important for these schemes to be generationally fair. The danger is that the rights of existing pensioners are protected and the adjustment is all borne by younger workers. The regulatory regime set out in this legislation needs to tackle that problem.

Overall, I welcome the Government’s proposals in this Queen’s Speech. I have not had time to reflect on the social care proposals, apart perhaps from taking another lesson from the Brexit debate: just get on with it.

Education (Student Fees, Awards and Support)(Amendment) Regulations 2017

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Thursday 27th April 2017

(7 years, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Portrait Lord Forsyth of Drumlean
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My Lords, I rise briefly as I realise that Members opposite are anxious to get away to campaign for their leader in the forthcoming general election. Thirty years ago, as a junior Minister responsible for health in the Scottish Office, I was asked to support something called Project 2000 and the move that all nurses should be graduates. As a junior Minister, I thought it was a rather silly idea. I could see that there might be a case for having some health professionals with degrees, but getting rid of the old state registered nurse system seemed to me a huge mistake.

However, the chief nurse was a particularly formidable person and my Secretary of State did not agree with me. Over the last 30 years, some people have argued that we needed people who would do not the less important—these are some of the most important tasks—but the more menial tasks, such as emptying bedpans, spending time with patients and providing the general care that was so much a part of the health service, and that you did not have to have a university degree to achieve that. I very much hope that the Government will think about that again. The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, has almost got there—I do not mean that in a rude sense—in terms of offering a path forward which might address this problem, but I do not believe that everyone needs to be a graduate.

The reason that I interrupted the noble Lord to ask him how many of the people who applied to become nurses ended up doing a degree and becoming a nurse was because I knew the answer to my own question, which is that it is a small proportion. The noble Lord’s speech contained a number of very important points with which I agreed. We will have to train more nurses as a result of leaving the European Union. That is clearly important. We will have to train more nurses because of the demands upon the health service. However, it seems to me that what the Government are proposing in these regulations, which is to remove the cap and to provide the funding through a loans scheme, will provide for that and address the problem.

Whether the Government are prepared to consider the admirable suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, that there may be a case at a stage in a nurse’s career when they have served the health service for a longer period for forgiving the loans is another question. The Economic Affairs Committee has looked at the representations we have received on student loans and I would not be surprised if that did not represent a better deal for the taxpayer than continuing with the repayment where people are not receiving substantial salaries. So, while I think that the noble Lord has identified some real issues, I very much hope that noble Lords will not vote for this Motion, which would set us backwards and not provide the opportunity for more nurses to be trained and brought into our health service. I also hope that the Government will consider whether it is absolutely necessary for people to have university degrees in order to perform nursing duties in our health service.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, in the absence of a voice from the Opposition Benches I will briefly intervene in the debate. I declare an interest as a visiting professor at King’s College London, which has a major role in medical education through Guy’s and St Thomas’.

The noble Lord, Lord Clark, is of course right about the importance of nurses and about the lack of a suitable supply of nurses in the old regime. We heard a very constructive intervention from the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Clark, that nurses should not be worried about a model of fees and loans with graduate repayment. We went through all these concerns when we shifted mainstream higher education into fees and loans. In the first year, there was a decline in applications—but that stopped as soon as the students understood that they were not paying up front, and that it was a repayment scheme where they would pay back only if they started to earn more than £21,000 a year, and through PAYE. In other words, the so-called debt was nothing like a bank overdraft or a credit card debt; it was repayment through the income tax system if they were earning enough. That tackled their concerns, and since then we have seen an increase in the number of students applying to university.

My second point very much follows on from the excellent intervention of my noble friend Lord Forsyth. The reason we are short of nurses is that successive Governments have rationed the number of nurses. They have done that because nursing places have been financed out of public expenditure and the way to control public spending was to control the number of nurses. Back in 2004-05, we funded 25,000 nurse places a year. That has been in steady decline under successive Governments for a decade and is now down to around 17,000.

If we look at the evidence of what has happened in the past decade, there is no prospect under any Government of having more nurse places under the old system. A crucial part of these reforms is to remove the cap on places so that we will have more nurse places under the new system. The new system delivers more cash to cover nurses’ living costs during their nursing education. It delivers more money per nurse through the fees and loans system for universities providing nurse education and it removes the cap, thus providing the NHS with more trained nurses in total. That is a constructive reform of the NHS. It is progress on tackling the long-standing problems in nursing to which the noble Lord, Lord Clark, drew attention—and it is why I fear that this Motion is misconceived.

Human Fertilisation and Embryology

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Tuesday 3rd February 2015

(9 years, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lord Willetts Portrait Mr David Willetts (Havant) (Con)
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I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, and to the House for missing the opening speech in the debate. Nevertheless, I was keen to speak because I think that the proposals before us today would tackle a real human need. There are parents who are currently bringing into the world children with a horrible disease and the suffering is made more acute by the fact that now, for the first time, prospective parents know that they could be doing this procedure and they therefore face the dilemma of whether or not to have children.

I realise that there are important objections. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) put forward the ethical objection. I fully understand the fact that our benefit from this treatment does not of itself overcome the ethical issues, which are crucial. The red line to which she referred is, I think, a red line over which we have designer babies and change the DNA that makes the character of a person. I am persuaded by the scientific evidence that the mitochondria is not part of the core DNA that does that. In the previous debates and the previous legislation, it was absolutely clear that the red line that the House was trying to set was one that stopped the changing of human nature, and we do not cross it today.

Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh
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But it can be inherited.

Lord Willetts Portrait Mr Willetts
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It is absolutely true that mitochondria can be inherited through the mother, but it does not change the character of the baby.

Secondly, let me consider the health and safety objection. Sometimes that objection is being used as a cover for what is really an underlying objection in principle. The scientists say, with typical caution and care, that there is no evidence that this is unsafe. It is true that nobody can have 100% certainty about that, but there have been 15 years of research and seven years of scrutiny, including by various scientific bodies and ones promoted under this Government, and so far no one has been able to come up with a concrete and powerful objection that suggests that the process is unsafe. It is right for us today to be considering moving on to the next step.

Cheryl Gillan Portrait Mrs Gillan
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Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Lord Willetts Portrait Mr Willetts
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Let me make some progress, as others want to speak.

Thirdly, I hear a rejection on the grounds that we are somehow rushing because we are going to be first. People ask, why us? Why now? Why in Britain? I must say, having had the privilege of serving as the Minister responsible for science, that we are first because we have world-leading research in this area. We should be proud of the fact that it is in British labs and British universities that this fundamental research is happening. It was in our country that the structure of DNA was discovered and I had the privilege of going to the Nobel prize ceremony for Robert Edwards, who won the Nobel prize for his work on IVF, which would properly not have passed through the levels of scrutiny we require of research today.

That brings me to my fourth and final point. What is our role in this Chamber today, faced with this very difficult question? We must make a judgment on whether any ethical issues stand in the way of tackling a clear human need. We are not agreeing that any specific programme of treatment should be licensed or should go ahead. We are very fortunate in this country to have a regulatory structure that is different from that in the US. In the US, if Congress voted for such legislation to go ahead, that would be the end of the matter. If we vote for the regulations today, as I hope that we will, we are saying that the HFEA can decide whether or not to license specific uses of mitochondrial DNA donation after it has assessed all the risks. There is that further safeguard. All we are doing is saying we require it to make that assessment and we are not objecting in principle. My sense of the mood of this House is that there are not many people who object in principle.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen
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We yearn for Back-Bench debates and free votes and we have one today. However, I detect that those who perhaps have not studied the issue are going for the status quo, saying that there has not been enough time. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be disappointing if the regulations were not passed today because people had not done their research? It is rather like the case for a student who has not done his revision—the exam is always too soon.

Lord Willetts Portrait Mr Willetts
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We all know the feeling.

One thing we are proud of in this country and, I hope, on both sides of the House is our innovation, research and enterprise, provided that the risks are clearly understood and regulation is in place. I hope that we will support innovation, particularly innovation that tackles a clear human need.

We are not saying that this must go ahead today. We are saying that we trust a body to consider licensing it with very strict requirements, and on that basis I hope that the House will support this admirable measure.

Mitochondrial Replacement (Public Safety)

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Monday 1st September 2014

(9 years, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lord Willetts Portrait Mr David Willetts (Havant) (Con)
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I appreciate this opportunity to speak from the Back Benches, perhaps for the first time in 20 years, so I apologise if I am a bit rusty. This is an important debate and I would like to comment briefly on the issue, drawing on my experience as Minister with responsibility for science.

To put my cards on the table, I think that this is a great piece of British scientific advance. We should congratulate the scientists at Newcastle university who have been in the lead in the research. My view is that provided it meets stringent safety requirements this is something that should go ahead because it will alleviate the suffering of constituents whom we represent.

Huw Irranca-Davies Portrait Huw Irranca-Davies
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Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Lord Willetts Portrait Mr Willetts
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I will give way once.

Huw Irranca-Davies Portrait Huw Irranca-Davies
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for kindly giving way and for his expertise in this area. It is of particular interest to my constituents Val Thomas of Cefn Cribwr and her sister Mrs Pitt, whose family have conditions that stem from mitochondrial deficiency. Does he agree that it is important to get accuracy in the record when we quote scientists, not least the correction that has been made by Lord Winston? He said this week to The Times:

“This is a marvellous thing for people with diseases that are incredibly rare and that have terrible consequences.

I am perfectly supportive of the regulations and I would vote for them.”

Lord Willetts Portrait Mr Willetts
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I confirm that my understanding is also that Lord Winston supports the advances in this area.

The evidence is pretty clear that this could alleviate human suffering, but I am not a simple-minded believer that the consequences justify whatever we do. Looking at my hon. Friends assembled in the Chamber today, many may say, “All right, this alleviates mitochondrial disease, but the price—the threat to human dignity or integrity—is too great.” I should like briefly to touch on those types of objection.

First, I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) that this somehow creates different people. We are not talking about the nuclear DNA that makes us who we are—the characteristics of our character or appearance. This is about a very distinctive part of DNA that has been called, for us laymen, a battery part of the cell, not the nuclear DNA, so it does not affect identity.

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Jacob Rees-Mogg
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Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Lord Willetts Portrait Mr Willetts
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I believe I can give way a second time.

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Jacob Rees-Mogg
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It changes 0.1%. If 0.1% is not a change, what percentage does my right hon. Friend think is a change?

Lord Willetts Portrait Mr Willetts
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It is a difference between quality and quantity. It is a change of 0% of the nuclear DNA that gives us our characteristics. It is a change in the membrane of the cell so that the battery function continues, but it does not affect human identity even by 0.1%. That is why I do not believe that there is an issue of dignity or integrity of the individual.

There is an argument that this is an engagement with people’s ability to produce children that is reminiscent of some of the worst features of eugenics. In fact, in many respects it is the opposite of eugenics. Eugenics was about forced sterilisation. It was about saying to people who were thought to carry some disease, “We’re not going to allow you to have children.” This is the opposite. It is about saying to people, “We want you to be able to have children and to be able to do so free from the anxiety that they will be bearing some disease.” It is exactly the opposite of the parallel with eugenics that is sometimes claimed.

That leads me on to the next objection. We are sometimes told, “Life is a vale of tears. There are sorrows and burdens that people have to bear, they should bear them with dignity, and this disease is part of that.” I have two responses to that argument. First, we have not run out of human frailties and problems yet. The problem facing our society is not yet that we have all started to lead lives of bland satisfaction.

It is also important to recognise that these scientific advances create a new problem. For the first time, a parent—a mother—could know that she could transmit this disease to her child. We have learned something that we did not know before. If we allow people to have this knowledge but do not permit a medical intervention that will tackle the problem, we have created a new source of human suffering that did not exist before this scientific understanding came about. Now that this knowledge is available, failing to permit families to act on it would be an unacceptable addition of a new cruelty to what is already a very distressing condition. Therefore, in terms of our respect for human integrity and dignity, it is right to intervene.

Then there is the argument that we are on a slippery slope. However, the framework set out in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 is very clear that we are not allowed to intervene in the nuclear DNA that shapes a child’s identity. That is recognised specifically as an exemption in the 2008 legislation.

This is a scientific advance that does not affect human identity, that is the opposite of eugenics, that enables people to escape a potential new cruelty if we do not act on this knowledge, and that is not a slippery slope. This is not just my view. We conducted a structured dialogue to consult members of the public on what they thought. When they understand that this is not to do with hereditary characteristics being affected by an arrogant intervention to create a designer baby, they support these interventions. If they support them, then so should we, in all parts of the House.

Manufacturing

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Thursday 24th November 2011

(12 years, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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Of course, it could be a woman—I accept that entirely. I was using the term generically. Such a Minister could provide co-ordinated responses to the concerns of manufacturing businesses. Having such a Minister would send out a message that this really matters. I challenge anyone to say that that is not a good idea. It is something that successive Governments have consistently failed to do, and I do not blame previous Governments for that, but doing it would send out a positive message for the future.

The second issue I want to address is banking and the chronic deficit that every Member of the House must be facing in their constituency—a lack of bank financing for businesses. Every one of us, in every constituency surgery, will regularly have businesses coming to us and saying, “I cannot get the funding I need,” or “I cannot get the borrowing I used to have.” It is a chronic problem. Much good work is done by business angels and credit unions—those hon. Members who attended the debate on credit unions yesterday will know that very positive steps were discussed there—but when it comes to bank finance, the system of the main banks is clearly logjammed. What can we do about that?

Currently, to set up a bank one needs £110 million-worth of assets—of cash, effectively—or the Financial Services Authority will not allow it. If the FSA relaxed that rule or changed the figure to £10 million, for example, then prominent local businessmen or businesses in a local community could set up a local bank.

Traditionally, the problem has always been that banks go bust, as they did in the 1920s and ’30s, because they over-borrow and over-lend in effect. If there were a restriction such that they could not exceed the money held on deposit with the Bank of England, the only loss that could be sustained would be the funds in that bank. The effect would be true localism. Someone could set up the bank of Hexham—or, in the Minister’s case, the bank of Bognor—and that bank would be specifically focused on providing small and medium-sized enterprise lending to local businesses.

Lord Willetts Portrait The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts)
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In my case, it might be the bank of Havant, rather than the bank of Bognor.

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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There could be competition throughout the region. That would not be difficult. Would it not be great if we had some competition among local banks?

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Gordon Birtwistle Portrait Gordon Birtwistle (Burnley) (LD)
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I congratulate my colleagues who called for this debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for accepting and giving us a lengthy amount of time for it at short notice.

The future of manufacturing products is inextricably linked to the future of manufacturing growth and wealth. If we have a strong manufacturing sector, we will have a strong economy that will create growth and prosperity for the country.

I have a personal interest in manufacturing. I left school at 15—I did not pass my 11-plus or get any GCSEs—and went to be a craft apprentice at a local company in Accrington that manufactured textile machinery. That was an enthralling event. I had to go to night school three nights a week until I was 25, where I secured two HNCs. Unfortunately, that does not happen any more, but young people go into manufacturing and get other types of education.

Lord Willetts Portrait Mr Willetts
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I should like to assure the hon. Gentleman that I meet young people who are doing HNCs and HNDs at their local colleges to be trained to work in British business, including in manufacturing. We should take pride in the fact that people still get those qualifications, which are valued and recognised. Indeed, part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills commitment is to continue to recognise those qualifications.

Gordon Birtwistle Portrait Gordon Birtwistle
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I am grateful to the Minister for that assurance and I hope that that continues.

When I started in manufacturing some 53 years ago, manufacturing was 40% of the country’s gross domestic product and a balance of payments surplus was delivered every month. What on earth would the Chancellor think of having a constant balance of payments surplus now rather than the negative position we have? As manufacturing was so big, lots of apprenticeships were available through local companies that delivered the products that the country needed. The unemployment rate for young people was very low. When I left school, I applied for many apprenticeships throughout Lancashire. Most young people with whom I went to school achieved an apprenticeship in some industry or other. The vast majority of people in those days did not go to university; many people would have liked to have gone, but they could not, so they spent their time being apprentices and learning skills in the old-fashioned way by making things and having a trade.

I do not want to make this political, but I have to point out that under the last Labour Government, manufacturing fell from 22% to 11%. Even Mrs Thatcher did not achieve such a drop—she only managed to get it from 25% to 21%. Manufacturing has a number of variables to overcome. They include how the industry is perceived by young people, the lack of skills, and the lack of investment and of research and development. One of the biggest challenges to manufacturers in my constituency is finding enough skilled workers to carry out the incredibly technical jobs that are available. More must be done to change the image of industry to make it attractive to young people. I know that those who undertake skilled apprenticeships will end up with great jobs working on interesting projects, earning decent salaries and probably with a job for life.

A lot of damage has been done over the past 10 years to the image of manufacturing and vocational courses. A priority for the Government and for our successful and well-known manufacturers is changing the perception of manufacturing, especially among the young. We have become a country relying on a fragile financial sector and on the service industries. If young people were asked what they thought manufacturing was, they would probably respond that it is dirty and grimy. That is not the case. We need to show young people that there is more to manufacturing—that it is about maths and science, about design and innovation, about robots and computers. Manufacturing and technology in the food industry, for example, are phenomenal. There are so many different areas in the manufacturing sector and they are all innovative and exciting sectors to work in.

Controlling the supply side of our skills deficit is but part of the problem. As important is ensuring that both new entrants and existing employees in manufacturing are sufficiently upskilled to meet the demands of British employers. The preparation work needs to begin in schools. We know, for example, that pupils who take three separate science subjects at GCSE are more likely to study science, technology, engineering and maths later in their educational careers. If we can tackle the problem at source, and improve the rigour of the subjects and the number of pupils studying them, it will have a cumulative impact on the calibre of graduates entering the job market.

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Lord Willetts Portrait The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts)
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It gives me great pleasure to respond to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Members who tabled and secured the debate: my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) who began with an excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) and the hon. Members for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle).

This is a very important debate, and I welcome the fact there has been very little partisanship. There have been a lot of shared themes, which I hope to touch on in my remarks. Perhaps the main difference is almost a temperamental one, between the people who take a more optimistic view and those who take a more pessimistic view. I am certainly with the optimists. We can be proud of the revival in our manufacturing sector that is already under way.

Instead of drawing attention to the overall statistics, perhaps I can reflect on the announcements that we have had this week, which tell us what is going on. Today, the Prime Minister has been able to welcome Toyota’s plans to build its new generation family-sized hatchback at its UK factory in Burnaston near Derby during his visit there. That investment of £100 million will secure many jobs. In addition, Airbus has today announced 200 extra engineering jobs at Feltham, and Nestlé has announced a £110 million investment at its Tutbury plant, which will involve 300 extra jobs. Those are today’s announcements. Yesterday, Coca-Cola announced a £50 million investment in a new bottling facility at Wakefield and other investments as well.

If one considers the build-up of announcements, there is clearly the sense that a revival is under way in our manufacturing industry. It has been very encouraging to hear from hon. Members on both sides of the House about the strong support that there is for manufacturing. There is a recognition that the future of our economy must include manufacturing, just as our proud history has manufacturing at its heart.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham made an excellent opening speech, and I shall briefly respond to two themes that he touched on, particularly as they were picked up by other hon. Members. He called for there to be a Minister for manufacturing. Let me make the role of the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), clear. Incidentally, he is not here to respond to the debate because Ministers are fanning out across the country today as a result of all the excellent news on manufacturing. The Prime Minister is in one part of the country, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford is elsewhere and, of course, the Secretary of State is somewhere else.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford, who deals with business and enterprise, has the following responsibilities: aerospace, the defence sectors, the automotive sector, professional and business services and the delivery of the advanced manufacturing growth review. In addition, he is the architect of our next manufacturing summit in Bristol, and he has overall responsibility for manufacturing and materials. Although he does not have the word “manufacturing” in his ministerial title, he is for all practical purposes our Minister for manufacturing. Several Members have asked: who is the go-to Minister? He is the go-to Minister for manufacturing and he does an excellent job. Of course, the Secretary of State also has a clear personal commitment to manufacturing. My view, therefore, is that there is a key Minister in the Government with that responsibility and a Secretary of State with very strong personal commitment to the subject. We are all, as Ministers in BIS, working on this and trying to contribute in our different ways and with our different responsibilities, whether they be for universities, research, science, high tech, skills or apprenticeships.

A second question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham concerned access to bank finance. That subject is raised regularly in the House, as I often notice in BIS questions. His particular point, which has been pursued by several Members on both sides of the House, is about whether we can do more to enable new banks, especially new small banks, to set up. One of the key recommendations in the report by the Independent Commission on Banking was that we should look at barriers to entry, which are too high. It should be easier for new entrants to come in and set up banks, and we are now pursuing that recommendation. There has already been a round table meeting with challenger banks—the banks that want to come in and do more. The Chancellor himself touched on the subject in a major speech on the subject on 3 October.

Given my responsibilities for research, high tech and science, I have been frustrated by the time it has taken to establish Silicon Valley bank, which originates, as its name implies, in silicon valley and is a specialist in venture debt that lends to start-up businesses at early stages. I was told that it took it a year just to assemble the paperwork that was necessary for the Financial Services Authority approvals process, and another year for the FSA to consider that paperwork. We in BIS, and the Government as a whole, with the Treasury in the lead, are absolutely persuaded by the argument that we need to think about whether we have ended up with a system that has barriers to entry that are too high. That is why we are looking to see how we can pursue the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Banking.

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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Would the Minister be interested in facilitating a meeting with the FSA and the Treasury? While I have no doubt that BIS may be fascinated by the idea of local banks and better business banking, the Treasury and the FSA seem a little more reluctant to oil the wheels, if that is the right term.

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Lord Willetts Portrait Mr Willetts
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Perhaps such a meeting could be arranged through BIS or the Treasury. Lowering barriers to entry is one way of ensuring that a market is dynamic, that new entrants can come in and that innovation happens, and that is as true in banking as it is in the rest of the economy. My hon. Friend’s suggestion of a meeting is very welcome.

We heard a range of excellent speeches. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield on his contribution and welcome his support for Huddersfield university. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) is no longer in his seat, I pay tribute to the excellent work that he has done in support of Daresbury, which I have been happy to visit with him. It is a crucial R and D centre for the future where we are committed to strong investment and which has enterprise zone status. We heard from the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden)—

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Sheerman
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The Minister said that we have a Minister for manufacturing; we will have to think about that, because some of us were not convinced. Two themes that have come out of the debate—I am sure that the Minister will get round to them—are the need for a long-term strategy for manufacturing and the role of Made by Britain. Does he endorse Made by Britain, and does he think that all Members of Parliament should find a fine design or product in their constituency? We are over halfway there, so will he support our going even further?

Lord Willetts Portrait Mr Willetts
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The hon. Gentleman says that he is not convinced. I think that if the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford, who has responsibility for business and enterprise, were here, he might have shed a quiet tear at that, because there he is, doing all this work in the Government and being responsible for all these sectors, including manufacturing and delivering the advanced manufacturing growth review. There are arguments about the titles that people should have, but the reality is that he does an enormous amount for manufacturing.

On strategy, if the hon. Gentleman looks at the growth review that we published with the Budget, he will see that there was a range of specific commitments, ranging from our advanced manufacturing review to commitments across a host of manufacturing sectors. We are doing further work on the future of manufacturing through the foresight exercise that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is leading. Manufacturing was a crucial strand of the growth review and there is now a forward-looking exercise in the foresight framework.

I will briefly take the House through some of the things that we are doing to strengthen manufacturing, which as I said were covered in the Government’s “The Plan for Growth”. Lowering business taxes is fundamental. That is why we are planning to cut corporation tax year on year. Although some people have criticised our decisions on the structure of corporation tax, it is worth remembering that we have legislated to extend the capital allowances and short-life assets scheme for plant and machinery from four years to eight years to improve the tax incentives.

We are also backing innovation. Several Members from both sides of the House have referred to the importance of the research and development base. I am particularly pleased that we have been able to draw on the lessons from Germany, which has been referred to favourably on both sides of the House, and to learn from its Fraunhofer institutes. Those were a model for the technology innovation centres that we are setting up with £200 million, even in these tough times. We have already identified some of those centres, notably in advanced manufacturing. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is opening the National Composites Centre in Bristol today. That is the new home of world-class innovation in the design and manufacture of composites. We have also announced that there will be technology innovation centres in cell therapies and offshore renewables, and that there are more to come. We are trying to plug the gap between the pure research in universities and the commercialisation for which individual companies are responsible—the so-called valley of death. The technology innovation centres are one way in which we can plug that gap.

We are also committed to improving our performance on exporting. That is why we launched the national export challenge, a series of initiatives to help SMEs take the first steps to break into new markets. Currently, only one in five companies in Britain export. We want to increase that to one in four. That means reaching out to mittelstand businesses, or SMEs, that have not thought about exporting. That is why we have set UK Trade & Investment the target of doubling its client base to 50,000 businesses in the next three years.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con)
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I have heard a lot of compliments about UKTI. However, when I met my local enterprise partnership earlier this week, the concern was expressed that UKTI reacts to requests, perhaps from bigger companies, rather than having a proactive strategy. Do you have any thoughts on how that might change?

Lord Willetts Portrait Mr Willetts
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In the absence of Madam Deputy Speaker responding to that challenge, I will. The Prime Minister urges all of us in his Government to be as proactive as possible whenever we go abroad, ensuring that we are properly equipped with a sense of the key business opportunities that are relevant to the particular mission that we are on. We have asked UKTI to set out what we call a high-value opportunities programme to identify really big projects around the world where there are opportunities for British companies and suppliers to invest and provide. We are systematically reviewing the high-value opportunities provided by large-scale projects around the world, which we believe British companies can take advantage of by going out and battling for contracts. We are improving the tax system, we are backing R and D and innovation and we are committed to improving our performance on exports.

David Mowat Portrait David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con)
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I have been listening carefully to the Minister’s points about how his Department is helping parts of the manufacturing sector. Many manufacturers tell me that the big issue for them is differential energy prices. Can he assure the House that his Department is on top of that issue, and that we will not lose process manufacturing in particular to countries such as France and Germany, and of course to the far east, due to high electricity prices and high energy prices in general?

Lord Willetts Portrait Mr Willetts
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I can assure my hon. Friend that the Department is very well aware of the particular pressures facing energy-intensive industries, and we are considering them very carefully.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Sheerman
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The Minister has mentioned tax twice. When I talk to manufacturers and people in the business sector, they ask why the Government want a blanket cut in corporation tax rather than something that would actually give a tax break to innovators and entrepreneurs.

Lord Willetts Portrait Mr Willetts
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We are also providing specific support for innovators and entrepreneurs, for example by increasing the value of the R and D tax credits. We are doing specific things, but the coalition’s overall philosophy is that if possible, we like to bring down the basic rates of tax in a simpler tax system. I think that is an admirable objective.

I do not want to take up too much time, because I know that other Members still wish to speak, but I will briefly go through some of the other things that we are doing, in addition to the lengthy list that I have given—I will not repeat it, but I am sure hon. Members agree that it is very impressive.

Several hon. Members have mentioned apprenticeships, and we can be very proud of the rate of growth in their number that we have delivered. We now estimate that the really extraordinary figure of 440,000 apprenticeships have started in 2011. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, who we all know has an intense personal commitment to apprenticeships. We are absolutely committed to their being of high value. Level 3 equivalent is a minimum, and in July the Prime Minister announced a £25 million fund to support up to 10,000 advanced and higher-level apprenticeships in companies, particularly SMEs.

Of course, we announced only last week a package to encourage small firms to take on their first apprentice, with an incentive payment of £1,500 for up to 20,000 apprentices aged 16 to 24. There are still too many regulatory burdens and too many problems of red tape, and we have made it clear that companies do not need to add extra health and safety burdens to the basic framework that all employees should have. We are committed to reducing bureaucracy, speeding up processes and boosting employer engagement in apprenticeships.

We are also committed to supporting and improving the image of manufacturing and engineering, which several Members have mentioned. There is much mythology about manufacturing and engineering. I am sure that Members of all parties find when they go around manufacturing facilities that they are very different from the oily rag image of manufacturing that too many people still have. They are sophisticated places in which highly skilled workers work with large amounts of sophisticated equipment. That is why, with my responsibilities as Minister for Universities and Science, I am very pleased with the increase in the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates.

Another announcement just in the past week is that the university of Lancaster is reopening its chemistry department, which was closed in 1999, because of the increase in the number of students coming forward with A-levels in the relevant subjects and because the university believes that in our new regime, it will be able to attract more students as it breaks free from the quota controls of the past. We have secured further investment in skills that are related to the improvement in the image of science and engineering.

As has been mentioned, there is also the new Queen Elizabeth prize for engineering, launched by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition earlier this month. We thank the range of private sector partners who have contributed to the endowment of the prize fund. There will now be a £1 million prize, awarded biennially by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Sheerman
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The Minister mentioned £1 million and we have 1 million young unemployed people. Will he join my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) in his call for every young unemployed person to be given training and a job? Is there not room for such an imaginative proposal, which would boost manufacturing and everything else in our country?

Lord Willetts Portrait Mr Willetts
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With both the Work programme and the increase in the number of apprenticeships, we are discharging our obligation to young people. Of course, more can always be done and we are absolutely committed to doing everything necessary to help young people into jobs.

Let me conclude by assuring the House that the Government are committed to encouraging and supporting British manufacturers. We are determined to create the environment in which they are free to thrive and compete in a global marketplace. The points that have been made by hon. Members, and particularly by those who called the debate, are well made. The Government absolutely understand the importance of skills, innovation and R and D, and the importance of ensuring that the barriers to bank lending are torn down. All that added up makes it clear that we have a strategy for manufacturing, which will be at the heart of our agenda for rebalancing the economy. I very much congratulate hon. Members on their interventions, which I welcome.