The changes to the Act are minor, simply because they restore in real terms the original import of the Act—that minor change merely brings the Act up to date. There is no reason why any Opposition Member should worry about that change. It is aimed at a part of the rural broadband roll-out that is very important for a lot of people in rural areas, so it is wholly acceptable, certainly to the Opposition, although I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is opposing his own Front Benchers on this issue.
The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry)
We are trying to find out what you would do.
I am saying what we will do. We support this part of the Bill, because it makes a minor extension that just restores the intention of the original Act.
There are many modest measures in the Bill with which we agree; indeed, the Government resisted many of them during the passage of the Deregulation Act 2015, the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 in the previous Parliament, and we welcome the fact that the Government appear to have come round and accepted them now.
However, there are a number of measures in the Bill with which we are not in agreement.
Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con)
Lucy Frazer (South East Cambridgeshire) (Con)
Let me just get on with this section, and then I will be happy to give way.
The Opposition will be working hard to secure assurances on amendments on some of the issues I have mentioned as the Bill goes through the Commons. I commend the hard work of Labour colleagues in the Lords, who successfully won some welcome concessions and clarifications as the Bill went through the other place.
There are two ways of looking at the apprenticeship levy. One is that it is a threat to the public sector, but the other is that it is an opportunity for the public sector to hire more apprentices. Does the hon. Lady not see that as a real opportunity in the Bill?
The Opposition are in favour of the apprenticeship levy in principle, but we are taking a very close look at how it will be introduced in practice, and we have an idea that the devil will be in the detail. We will therefore be keeping a close eye on how the levy is introduced and particularly on how it impacts on companies that are charged far more in the apprenticeship levy on their payroll tax than they can actually have in terms of apprentices. What then happens to that money? Can it be driven into the sector’s supply chain, for example? There are issues about how this will impact on public sector spending, and we need to keep an eye on those. As the Opposition, even though we agree in principle with an apprenticeship levy, it is our role to hold this Government—the hon. Gentleman’s Government —to account on the detail as it becomes clear.
Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
My hon. Friend is raising some very valid concerns about the Bill and particularly about the apprenticeship levy. A lot of confusion is being expressed out there to Members of the House about how the levy will work. Ultimately, 90% of apprenticeships are provided in small and medium-sized enterprises that will not be paying the levy, and it is not clear how they will receive any support for apprenticeships. Much greater clarity from the Government is required.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the worries she has raised.
Why didn’t you raise them with me? I don’t know.
Well, we are waiting for the Government to come forward with more detail about how the apprenticeship levy will work. The hon. Gentleman loves being in meetings. He told us that earlier in the day. He was waxing lyrical about how excited he was being in vast numbers of meetings every day. He made even the most banal meetings sound fantastically interesting. I am glad that he enjoys his job. The Opposition would certainly be more than happy to embroil him in even more meetings.
My hon. Friend is doing a marvellous job. The Minister for Skills, who is chuntering from a sedentary position, had the opportunity to provide much greater clarity on this issue in a debate with MPs from the north-east, but he absolutely and categorically failed to do so.
I think another meeting is in order—
And I think we are going to hear something from the Minister now.
I just want to clarify that the debate that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) mentioned, which lasted for an hour and a half and in which she spoke very well, was on further education colleges in the north-east. “Apprenticeships” was nowhere in its title, and so I am not even sure whether it would have been in order for me to discuss these issues. However, I am happy for her to come and see me with any questions she likes, as often as she likes.
Once it gets around that the hon. Gentleman is so free with his diary, I am sure he will be very, very busy.
I would like to speak about a number of areas in what Lord Patten has called this “pudding” of a Bill.
The hon. Lady suggested that these provisions are minor. I am surprised that she does so in circumstances where R3, the body that represents insolvency practitioners, says that some of its members feel that late payments contribute to 25% to 50% of small company insolvencies. Does she think that the difference between solvency and insolvency is a minor issue for many of our small companies?
No, I do not, but I think the hon. and learned Lady should read the Government’s own impact assessment. The provision on the small business commissioner that the Bill proposes is so minor that the Government’s own impact assessment says that they will be able to deal with only 500 cases a year, and yet we know that late payment is a huge issue. I am not saying that the issue of late payments is trivial; I am saying that in dealing with it, the Government’s response is far too limited and very disappointing.
As a former small business owner, I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend says. The problem with the Government’s proposal is not that they are attempting to tackle late payments but that it is an utterly inadequate attempt to tackle one of the great scourges of all business, but particularly small businesses—late payments.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend’s words.
Part 1—clauses 1 to 13—deals with the small business commissioner, so let me come on to the Opposition’s view on this. In the previous Parliament, Labour argued for the establishment of a small business administration that would be specifically tailored to focus on the very specific needs of small businesses.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, because I have given way to the hon. and learned Lady.
This Bill contains a much more modest aim in seeking to establish a small business commissioner to assist in late payment disputes and signpost advice services for small businesses. The Opposition will support this, but we are disappointed by its small scale and its very limited remit. Indeed, the small business commissioner’s budget is to be a modest £1.3 million a year, and only because of an Opposition amendment accepted in the Lords will the commissioner be independent and able to appoint their own staff. Moreover, the Government intended to allow the role to be abolished by ministerial order without parliamentary scrutiny—a situation that was changed by another Lords amendment. We support the idea of a small business commissioner, but it remains to be seen whether such a modest proposal can really counter the huge imbalances of market power that exist, especially between huge companies and their much smaller suppliers. I certainly wish the new commissioner, whoever they are to be, well in the work ahead, not least because figures showing that the amount owed to small and medium-sized enterprises in outstanding invoices has increased by more than 70% in two years and that almost a third of small businesses are expecting things to get worse this year.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No. I have given way to the hon. and learned Lady and I do not intend to do so again, because I am getting on to other aspects of the Bill.
Part 4—clauses 20 and 21—deals with apprenticeships. This Government are presiding over what employers have described as a “skills emergency”, and productivity in the economy continues to be revised down year by year. The Bill contains welcome measures that aim to strengthen the quality of apprenticeships and to give statutory protection to the term itself. Labour Members have consistently supported the drive to deliver more high quality apprenticeships, but we worry about imposing an arbitrary numerical target, not least because it could militate against high-value, high-quality provision. We note that the Bill gives Ministers the power to set targets for apprenticeships in the public sector but is silent on how these targets will be met when the round of savage public sector cost-cutting continues unabated and FE provision is being decimated.
Clauses 30 to 32, in part 7, deal with the UK Green Investment Bank. The bank has only just been established and the Government are now seeking to flog it off—or, as I think the Secretary of State said, “set it free”. In the light of the Paris climate conference, where Governments, investors and businesses across the world agreed to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy, it is absolutely extraordinary that he has allowed the Chancellor to sell off the bank, setting back efforts to build a greener low-carbon economy.
The hon. Lady may have noticed that the Chancellor said:
“With the turbulent conditions we see in financial markets, I hope you agree with me that now is not the right time for that share offer.”
Does she agree that if it is not the right time for Lloyds, why is it the right time for GIB?
My view is that the Chancellor should have allowed the Green Investment Bank time to establish itself and certainly not have considered virtually privatising it as soon as it was established. The hon. Lady will know that we are now in a tussle to see whether we can preserve the focus of the bank on sustainable development and a low-carbon economy. That is where the battle has been raging in the other place as the Bill went through its stages there.
Even more extraordinarily, under the Bill as introduced in the Lords, there was a real risk that the bank’s focus on green investment would be completely destroyed. Fortunately my Labour colleagues in the Lords were able to come up with a formula that safeguards its green focus even if it is sold, but we have heard today from the Secretary of State that their amendment is going to be removed. I promise him that in Committee we will look very closely at what he intends to replace it with and whether it actually does the job of safeguarding the bank’s green focus. We will also focus, in a non-green way, on ensuring that the proposals that the Government come up with are fit for purpose.
Clauses 33 and 34, also in part 7, deal with pubs reform. In January, when it was clear that there was a majority in the Lords for ensuring a fairer deal for the landlords of tied pubs, Ministers forestalled a vote that they would have certainly lost by promising to legislate for a fair market rent only option. Their promise was taken in good faith, but they then abandoned their previous commitment, causing uproar in the other place. If it is possible to believe that the other place is capable of uproar, this particular event caused it. Yet another U-turn was inevitable, and it was duly announced, much to the relief of us all. The Government must stick to the promises they made to pub tenants and stop dragging their feet. They should legislate on the promises they have made. It is clear that a rent assessment and a market rent only option at rent renewal are the bare minimum that would be required to make good on those promises. This would create a fairer system for pub tenants and pub companies, and it has widespread support from businesses and beer drinkers alike. Again, we will take a close look at what the Government come forward with in Committee.
Clause 35, in part 8, deals with public sector exit payments. Labour Members are concerned that this measure will have unintended consequences.
Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)
I think we would all agree that nuclear decommissioning is both essential and highly specialist, yet this Bill will undermine workforce confidence and human resource planning at Magnox sites. Does the hon. Lady agree that the unique skill sets of this workforce should be safeguarded from the effects of the Bill?
That is another example of where something being sold as an attack on what the Secretary of State somewhat insultingly called “public sector fat cats” has a direct effect on private sector workers doing some of the most difficult and dangerous work, which we need to ensure can be carried out properly.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
I may take a different view from the hon. Lady on the point that she is making, but unfortunately this provision will not apply to Northern Ireland because, despite the financial problems there, Ministers and the Assembly have decided that Northern Ireland should not be covered by the Bill. Does she share my concern that the serial payers of huge pay-offs are exempted from the provisions? For example, the BBC, which seems to hand out public money hand over fist to directors, heads of religion and so on, will not be covered by it.
The Bill has a particular phrase attached to it—public sector fat cats—and when we look more closely at it, we see that it applies to non-public sector workers and non-fat cats. We will be taking a close look at that.
Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
The term “public sector fat cats” surely does not apply to a civil servant who earns less than £25,000 a year, whose length of service may be 30 years or more. The unintended consequence of the policy is that it will impact on the longest-serving employees.
There are what I have rather politely and generously, in my view, referred to as unintended consequences of the cap, and I noted with some distaste the Secretary of State’s use of a pejorative term such as “public sector fat cats” to justify the existence of the proposed cap. It is clear that the cap could impact, as the hon. Gentleman says, on those on moderate and even lower pay with long service, and it could impact on pension “strain” payments for workers, rather than on those on the highest salaries with much shorter service.
The Cabinet Office has confirmed that some civil servants earning less than £25,000 a year could be affected by the cap because they have long service. Surely this was not the intention. Again, the Opposition will explore some of the consequences. We have even heard that essential restructuring in some public services is being held up by the unintended consequences of this crude measure.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
I am conscious of the fact that I was not present for the Minister’s opening speech so I may have missed something, but I am aware of concerns raised not only by the Prospect union but by one of my constituents about the fact that as someone who has always earned less than £28,000 a year, he may, as a result of early retirement, be unintentionally caught by this provision. I hope we will get some assurance from the Government Front Bench either that that will not happen, or that an amendment will be accepted to make sure it does not happen.
The right hon. Gentleman raises precisely the kind of case that has no doubt been raised with other hon. Members in all parts of the House. The only thing he missed was his own Secretary of State calling everyone who worked in the public sector, presumably including his constituent who would be affected by this cap, a fat cat. We will wish to give the provision particular scrutiny in Committee.
I turn to a subject which is not currently on the face of the Bill, but on which the Secretary of State has chosen to make announcements today. It is important that the Government publish their Sunday trading consultation response, along with all submissions. I was rather hoping that it might turn up while we were speaking today so that we could look at it before we vote on Second Reading. The Government must publish it in full and immediately, and tell us what form amendments to the Bill or new clauses relating to the deregulation of Sunday trading will take.
We all await all the details, but it is deplorable that at this late stage in the Bill’s passage through Parliament— after the Bill has gone through the House of Lords—the Government have seen fit to introduce these changes.
My hon. Friend will be aware that a huge number of Members are not present in the Chamber. They may well have read the Bill and may be coming at 7 o’clock to vote on it. We know that a number of Government Members feel very strongly that, for Christian reasons, they do not wish to support further extensions to Sunday trading. They may well unwittingly vote for the Bill, not knowing what has been announced from the Government Dispatch Box.
That is right, but God does move in mysterious ways Her wonders to perform, so perhaps between now and 7 o’clock those with an interest in the matter will realise what is going to be in the Bill, or the Secretary of State might even do the decent thing and publish the paper and the changes that he is proposing so that we can have a look at it before all of us go through the Lobby tonight.
Let me remind the House that this is a policy that was not in the Conservative manifesto, which the Government tried suddenly to crow-bar into the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, but which they wisely abandoned at the last minute in the face of widespread opposition, not least from their own Back Benchers. The current arrangements were legislated for separately in a stand-alone Bill which received Royal Assent on 5 July 1994. I should know, because I served on the Bill Committee. The current arrangements work well and mean that retailers can trade, customers can shop, and shop workers can spend time with their families on Sundays.
I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend’s flow. Does she share my concern that the Government’s approach appears to be either underhand or incompetent? Will she seek reassurance from the Government that it is neither of those?
The Government have spoken. They keep acting as though we know what the changes are, when we do not. They have chosen not to give us any warning that they were going to be in the Bill, not even a private tip-off, so we have to react completely in the dark. Other than what was said from the Dispatch Box, we have no idea what will be in the Bill. [Interruption.] The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise chunters away from the Front Bench, saying that these changes are minor, but we do not know whether they are minor until she publishes them and we read them. If she would like to publish them now, we can have a five-minute break, go out and read them and check whether she is telling us the truth.
The hon. Lady was obviously present during BIS orals, so she heard me say, for example, that this is about devolving power down to a local level. [Interruption.] Hang on! Chill out! Calm down! It therefore gives local authorities the power to decide whether they will extend Sunday opening hours to a very small number of shops. That is what it is about. It is not some huge, major measure. I would be the first to say that this is about the devolution of power. I think the hon. Lady has a problem with letting people at a local level make the decisions in the interests of local people.
I have no problem whatsoever with letting people decide locally, but it is not for a Government Minister to tell the Opposition what their attitude to something should be before we have actually seen what the proposed clauses say. The Government are asserting, even as we speak, that the public sector exit payments are all about fat cat public sector pay-offs, but we have discovered—because this has actually been printed in the Bill—that those fat cat payments apply to people on £25,000 a year. The right hon. Lady’s view of reality may not be the same as that of the Opposition. As a Minister, she should realise that, if she wants the Opposition to take a view on something, she should publish it.
Does the hon. Lady accept that the exit payments will apply to only some 5% of workers, because we are talking about a redundancy payment of £94,000?
The provisions will affect people who earn £25,000, but who are being labelled as fat cats.
The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry)
I congratulate everybody—and I mean everybody—who has contributed to what I believe has been a very good debate. I am going to look at the areas of contention and the particular topics in respect of which hon. Members have made good points and raised good concerns. I shall not go through all the clauses and topics in the Bill, but deal with it in the way I have suggested.
This may be a small Bill, but I think it is beautifully formed. Each part of it, each small piece, cog, wheel, nut and bolt is not perhaps in every instance beautifully and finely finished, but if we bring all of them together, it forms a wonderful small machine that is part of the bigger engine—the role of business in our economy. That is indeed what provides jobs and prosperity, and in turn the money that allows us then to provide services for everyone throughout our nation. It is an important Bill.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who rightly said that it is all about creating the right environment for business. I believe that the Bill is part of that. It is interesting that, with the exception of the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins)—others will correct me if I am wrong—it is only from Conservative Members, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) and for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), that we have heard the voice of business from those who have actually run businesses themselves and who, frankly, know what they are talking about.
Let me deal first with apprenticeships. We heard some good contributions, including from my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) and for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) and from the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). I am afraid I had too many enterprising criminals when I was working as a criminal barrister, but I look forward to the contribution that she will undoubtedly make in Committee. I pay particular tribute—[Interruption.] There is a lot of chuntering going on.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing)
Order. The right hon. Lady is right: there is a lot of chuntering, and if it gets any louder, I will have to stop it.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. We do not like chuntering, do we?
I stopped speaking because I wanted to pay a big tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) and my hon. Friend the Minister for Skills for their outstanding work on the advancement of apprenticeships, which will help us to go forward and achieve our goal. We are seeing a golden age of apprenticeships—a revolution in apprenticeships—and people will now appreciate their full worth. That is what the Bill seeks to achieve by enshrining the true value of apprenticeships in law.
I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) that there will be a national advertising campaign to promote apprenticeships in the next few months. That is just a part of the great work that has been done by my hon. Friends the Member for Stratford-on-Avon and the Minister for Skills.
In relation to public bodies, I pay tribute to my own borough council under Labour: a record number of apprenticeships were created in the borough. The number rose to 20 over two years, and now, under a Conservative administration, the target is 20 each year. If we can do that in Broxtowe, other local authorities can do it.
I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), and, indeed, that of the hon. Members for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) and for Chesterfield, in relation to the pubs code. All three made important points today. We must get the balance right between allowing pub companies to invest in our great pubs and securing fairness for tenants. That is what I want us to do, and I believe that we are well on the way to doing it.
Let me now deal with the issue of Sunday trading. I can tell the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) —my friend—that we will introduce legislation to improve the terms and conditions of people who do not wish to work on Sundays. We think it important to protect those workers, so that will be part and parcel of our changes in Sunday trading laws. I must stress, however, that this is not mandatory. We want to give councils the power—a power that many Labour councils want—to make local decisions that are based on the needs of their own people and businesses. If a local authority does not consider such action suitable, it will not take it. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Victoria Borwick), an authority might want to extend the hours of a garden centre to suit that particular business. It is a question of fine-tuning.
Let me repeat to the hon. Member for Strangford that working on Sundays is not mandatory, any more than it is mandatory to go shopping. Sundays will still be special for those who want to keep them special.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way briefly, but I will take no more interventions after that.
What the Minister is saying, and what she is setting out to do in regard to Sunday trading, is entirely wrong, but something even more important is happening here. For the first time ever, workers’ rights are being devolved, and will become different in different areas.
They will not be devolved. Let me make that absolutely clear. We will introduce legislation for all work that will affect any worker working on a Sunday—
Ms Angela Eagle
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister is spending time talking about provisions that no one but her has seen, because they are not in the Bill. How can that be in order?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing)
The Minister can choose what she wants to talk about as long as it is related to the Bill. When it is not related to the Bill, I will stop her.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I specifically wanted to deal with those points, because I think that the hon. Member for Strangford made them better than anyone else.
In the six minutes that remain, I want to talk about the small business commissioner. We heard an excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) and contributions from the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, my hon. Friends the Members for Bath (Ben Howlett), for Havant (Mr Mak), for Aldridge-Brownhills and for South Ribble, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), the hon. Member for Chesterfield, the right hon. Member for Don Valley, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) and others.
I just want to say about the small business commissioner that many will say “Well, it sounds like a good idea, but he or she won’t have the teeth and the powers.” It is important to understand that the many businesses that rightly complain about late payment already have a contract with the other party, so the late payment is a breach of that contract’s terms and conditions and they do therefore have redress to law, as Members have outlined. However, the following good point was made: this is not just about the cost of going to litigation; it is also about the relationship between the smaller business and the other party and it not wanting to undermine that relationship. There is, therefore, a reluctance to go to court. Those people can go to the SBC to make their complaint, but it would be wrong to put that person in some quasi-judicial role given that there is an existing legal relationship between the two parties in that instance and they can go to law.
The other sort of case that we anticipate will interest the SBC is when a small business is in effect making a complaint before a contract has been signed about terms that are being put on them by the other party. They will be able to go to the SBC and raise that complaint.
What happens in Australia has been mentioned. I have spoken to the SBC in Australia and have learned a great deal from his wise words. He does not have any greater powers—[Interruption.] No, he doesn’t—not in relation to late payments. What he does do, however, and what he has achieved by virtue of the huge credibility he brings to the post and the huge respect he has, is change the culture, and that at its heart is what we seek to do. We want to change the culture so those bigger businesses understand that this is no longer acceptable, regardless of whether they put it into their Ts and Cs or just in practice do not pay small businesses in a reasonable length of time. This is about changing culture. That is what we seek to achieve, and I am confident we can do that.
I just want to finish off by dealing with exit payments. I want to say a few words to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar). I say to the hon. Gentleman that Wales will get the benefit of the extra powers we intend to put in. I pay credit to him for the work he and the Secretary of State are going to do to make sure we extend superfast broadband throughout the whole of the UK—and to make sure everybody can get a proper mobile phone signal, too. That is absolutely critical.
On public sector exit payments, I want to say the following. On Magnox workers, I am more than happy to meet any Members to discuss this important issue in relation to them. On NHS workers, I specifically asked for that work to be done and my officials tell me that no NHS employee on £47,000 will be affected—[Interruption.] Opposition Members say that is not true; I do not know whether they have done the work on it, but my officials have. I am absolutely determined that we will look at these figures when we go into Committee. We will get that evidence and we will make sure that the figures are put to everybody so that we all know the real situation. What we do know is that there is a very small number of workers in the public sector on about £25,000 who could be caught by this—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] But those are extremely rare conditions. We will do this in Committee. I urge everybody to vote for the Bill.
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.