The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Neville-Rolfe) (Con)
My Lords, the gracious Speech is, of course, the second in this Parliament. We have already made good progress in many areas of policy though, at the macro level, it must be acknowledged that the EU referendum—which several noble Lords mentioned—dominates political attention. Matters will not return to normal until it is out of the way.
Today’s debate has been a bit of a marathon, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, hinted in his summing up. It has also been very wide-ranging on many points, some of which the Government will want to respond to on other days during this debate. But it has underlined the vast expertise of this House. As a business and culture Minister, I have hugely enjoyed the chance to go deeper into areas where I do not have responsibilities but which are vital to this country, such as health and education. To give one example of the wide-ranging nature of this debate, I always enjoy the challenging comments of my noble friend Lord Hodgson—which very often are on the subject of the British pub. Today he made a very thoughtful contribution on how people form opinions and how that is changing, and on the implications of population growth.
I did not entirely agree on the issue of automation. I think that driverless cars and so on provide an opportunity for the UK, and they are in our plans for the next Session. Once changing relative wages and new jobs are taken into account, there is little evidence for the reduction in mid-level jobs. Since 2010, our economy has seen employment growth across nearly all the major occupational groups and the digital revolution has been an important driver.
As the Prime Minister said in another place yesterday, with this Government economic security always comes first. We build on strong foundations. The deficit has been cut by almost two-thirds as a share of GDP; the highest employment rate on record was announced this week; and our long-term economic plan means our economy is over 13% bigger than at the start of 2010. We have 900,000 more businesses and 764,000 fewer workless households, and poverty is at its lowest rate in three decades.
In response to the rather grudging comment by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, on the Queen’s Speech, I believe that it sets out a clear programme of reform using the strength of our economy to deliver security for working people and to increase life chances for the most disadvantaged, strengthening national security while living within our means.
I must endorse the comment by my noble friend Lord Suri about our gracious Queen. I was very glad, as he was, to see the proposals for prisons. This is an area that will be discussed on another day but it was one on which I worked when I was at Downing Street. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, made some very good points about prison education.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, raised concerns about investment in the north and in the Midlands. For too long, the economy of the north has underperformed compared to the UK average. I speak as a business Minister who enjoys visiting the north. In recent times I have visited manufacturers in Darlington, Catapults and a video games business in Newcastle—and, of course, Durham cathedral, which is a jewel in a UK treasure trove of beautiful cathedrals. The Government are committed to the northern powerhouse. We will spend £150 billion on health, £45 billion on schools and £13 billion on transport across the northern powerhouse over this Parliament. This will be coupled with the Government’s investment in the Midlands Engine, which includes a £250 million Midlands Engine investment fund, and £5 million to Midlands Connect to take forward the new regional transport strategy.
The noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, said that we needed to step up to the challenge of industrial policy. The long-term approach upon which our industrial strategy was formed will continue. It means focusing on policies which boost productivity. It means our 3 million target for apprentices, which I reassure my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft has not been abandoned. It means the promotion of competitiveness and creating long-term investment. This is crucial for the stability and strengthening of our economy, as is enhanced competition and, of course, taking advantage of the opportunity of the digital revolution. I will focus on those areas and then turn to education, welfare and health, including mental health.
Competition is the lifeblood of a healthy economy. Strong competition in markets generates greater choice, lower prices and better-quality goods and services for consumers. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, and the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for graciously welcoming the markets Bill and look forward to working with them on its important provisions. The Government believe that consumers should have quick access to their data and reliable, transparent price comparison websites. The Bill would encourage quicker and easier switching of energy suppliers and other providers in regulated sectors. We want to simplify the whole process of competition investigation to reduce business burdens and improve consumer choice. The Bill will ensure that the CMA has the right and proportionate tools to do its job.
We have committed to a business impact target to reduce regulatory burdens by at least £10 billion. We have already taken measures to deliver more than £300 million in annual savings to hundreds of thousands of small businesses through changes to audit rules, and 800,000 self-employed people no longer have to comply with burdensome health and safety regulations.
The UK’s system of independent economic regulation is a great asset for the economy and supports investment in UK infrastructure. This Bill will make the way they operate more straightforward for investors, consumers and businesses and will maintain focus on the core task of economic regulation.
The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, raised concerns about productivity. Last July, the Government published Fixing the Foundations, which sets out the Government’s plan to tackle the UK’s productivity gap—this long-term gap that we must do something about—and this Queen’s Speech takes that forward.
I am also very glad to be able to tell the noble Lord that I sit next to Estonia in the Competitiveness Council, and I have already met Estonia’s President to discuss the digital single market. We will be working on a trio of presidencies—the UK, Estonia and Bulgaria—to advance the single market and the digital single market, using the influence we hope to have during the EU presidency from 1 July 2017.
We are taking several steps to address late payment, as the noble Lord knows only too well. We are setting up the Small Business Commissioner. There will be new transparency reporting requirements regarding payment performance for larger companies and we are extending representative bodies’ powers to challenge grossly unfair contract terms related to the scourge of late payment, which we have discussed on many occasions. In a related area, I thank my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft for her suggestion that larger exporters should help smaller exporters to move forward.
My noble friend Lord Naseby raised concerns about retailers having to wait for changes to rates. The Government will switch the indexation from RPI as the main measure of inflation to CPI in 2020. We believe that this strikes the right balance between fiscal consolidation, certainty for local authorities and support for business. It is in the pipeline. The Government will also seek to protect the high street from unfair competition from those retailers from beyond the EU selling over the internet and evading VAT.
We made a manifesto commitment to make the UK the best place in Europe to innovate, patent new ideas and set up and expand a business. A clear and fair intellectual property framework is crucial to achieving this. Our work now embraces education, regulatory change and enforcement to reduce piracy and IP theft. I was so glad to hear from the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson, Lord Watson and Lord Clement-Jones, regarding their support for this area. The digital economy Bill will not contain a backstop power to regulate platforms as, later this month, we expect an indication of where the EU is going with its own work in this area. Nor will the Bill contain measures specifically on streaming, although the changes to criminal penalties on online copyright infringement will obviously cross over and help with regulating that activity.
I was asked by one noble Lord whether I would support a pan-EU IP enforcement agency—he has seen our enforcement strategy and I thank him for quoting it. I believe that close work across Europe is absolutely vital in tackling IP infringement. We are doing a lot with a number of agencies and we will do more.
I am obviously delighted that today, we have brought forward the law commission Bill and that we have been able to do something about our frustration with the misalignment in criminal penalties. In the digital economy Bill, there will be a maximum 10-year prison sentence for online crime to equal that available for physical infringement. We are also allowing designers to mark their products with a web link for the first time.
The digital revolution is bringing economic and social change at a faster pace than we have ever seen before. To keep the UK at the front of the pack, we need a legal framework that supports connectivity for consumers, business and government and encourages consumer engagement. It can also help to support and fire up our creative industries, which the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, described with such eloquence, as did my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft, and—in a different industry—the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, rightly talked about telemobile and its potential use in healthcare.
By the end of the year, 95% of UK premises will have a superfast broadband connection; the digital economy Bill will give the final 5% a legal right to be connected on request, so no one will be left behind. The noble Lord, Lord Bichard, asked whether 10 mbps was enough—we will keep this under review. It will enable households to stream films in HD, watch catch-up TV, make a video call and browse online at the same time. Ofcom has advised that it is enough for a typical household today. However, the Bill will enable the Government to increase the minimum speed to meet future needs.
The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, asked about fibre. Fibre is obviously only one measure of connectivity, but the UK has the highest level of superfast coverage among EU countries. As of June 2015, more than a third—36%—of UK fixed broadband connections had speeds of 30 mbps or more, a much higher proportion than in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. The Bill will enable investment in fibre and other technologies through the reform of the Electronic Communications Code and planning reform. It will aid consumers in choosing the right products for their needs. The noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, seems to have rather a lot of problems with his broadband. I suppose that one good bit of news is that we will require providers to pay automatic compensation, so there will be a new incentive to maintain reliable, high-quality services. I am sure that we will discuss these provisions during the passage of the Bill.
I am passionate about enabling the digital revolution to provide improvements in this country. We are part of it in this country and the Bill will enable us to use government data to deliver better public services.
The UK must also do what we can to prevent any further cultural destruction. Our cultural protection Bill will make it clear that the UK views attacks on cultural property as unacceptable and will establish us as world leaders in the field of cultural protection. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, along with many other noble Lords, who have given such strong support to the Bill and got it into this House today.
Today it has become clear yet again that the future of the BBC is a subject about which this House cares deeply. I have a long list of those who have spoken on that subject, starting with my noble friend Lord Fowler; we also heard from the noble Baronesses, Lady King of Bow, Lady Bonham-Carter and Lady Benjamin, the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson, Lord Cashman, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, Lord Clement-Jones, Lord Foster, Lord Watson of Invergowrie and Lord Addington. I apologise to anyone I have failed to mention. This will not be the first or last debate on the BBC.
We care deeply about the BBC and, as I set out last week, the Government believe that the BBC is one of our country’s greatest institutions. We have listened carefully to the views of 190,000 members of the public and those put forward by experts, organisations and independent reviews. As a consequence, the Government have set out a new framework. Under this framework, the BBC will focus on providing high-quality, distinctive content which informs, educates and entertains while continuing to serve all audiences.
A number of noble Lords questioned what a distinctive BBC would look like. The BBC is already distinctive in many ways, but the noble Lord, Lord Hall, director-general of BBC, has said that he wants to see,
“a BBC that is more distinctive than ever – and clearly distinguishable from the market”.
The Government support this and want to free up the BBC’s outstanding creative talent to take creative risks and push the boundaries, making sure that its output as a whole is distinctive from the market. Audiences can only gain from this, by getting more choice and outstanding creative programming. Given all that the noble Baroness, Lady King of Bow, said, I should add that diversity is also a key priority.
There has been concern about the role of Ofcom in setting the regulatory framework for the BBC’s distinctiveness record. Ofcom has a strong track record in media regulation, which has resulted in a diverse and creative media sector, and I look forward to further debate about the detail of that in the summer.
The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, also brought up children’s programming, an issue that is close to the hearts of parents across the UK. Children’s programming is a vital public service genre, which Ofcom has recently identified as being in decline. The Government have proposed a small contestable fund for public service content. The proposal is for a small-scale pilot for two or three years. The numbers are small relative to the £4 billion spent on the BBC. The specific detail about how it operates is important, which is why the Government will be consulting over the coming months on the most appropriate body to administer this fund and on the criteria for the scheme.
A further area noble Lords have drawn to our attention is the BBC’s vital international role. The Government believe that this is incredibly important, which is why the White Paper sets out protection for World Service funding. I do not think there were any subtleties in the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, but obviously I will take a look at it. The BBC will also have enhanced editorial and financial independence, while being much more effective and accountable through stronger governance and regulation.
Noble Lords raised the important issue of appointments. We are strengthening the independence of the BBC by giving it a powerful new unitary board, with the BBC able to appoint the majority of board members, unlike the BBC Trust or the governors, which were 100% public appointments. Whether made by public appointment or by the BBC board, all appointments will be expected to follow public appointment best practice, including having independent members on selection panels; those appointments made by the Government will follow the OCPA code; and the BBC will need to follow best practice in seeking public appointments, for those appointments it makes. Peter Riddell, Commissioner for Public Appointments, has welcomed this approach and these principles.
The issue of the health check was also raised today. Given the speed of change within the sector and the fundamental reform of the governance and regulatory structures that this charter will make, it would not be appropriate to wait for over a decade to review how the reforms are bedding in and whether any changes at all are needed. The charter will therefore make provision for a review to provide a health check, focusing on the governance and regulatory reforms at mid-term. The review will take into account the relevant findings and the most recent review of BBC performance that Ofcom will have published. There will also be greater scrutiny of the BBC’s efficiency record and stronger transparency requirements.
None of the heated speculation about the fate of the BBC has materialised. Instead, these reforms will mean the BBC can continue to thrive, deliver for audiences and act as an engine for growth. The Government intend to publish a draft charter in the summer, and I look forward to ample opportunities for further informed discussion and debate about the future of the BBC following publication. It is very clear that this House will make a valuable contribution to that debate.
My noble friend Lord Fowler and the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, asked about Channel 4. The Government are looking at a broad range of options to ensure that Channel 4 has a strong and secure future in what is a fast-changing and challenging broadcasting environment. No decisions have been taken, and the Secretary of State said last week that the Government hope to provide an update as soon as possible.
I turn to education. In our manifesto, we committed to ensuring that higher education provides the best possible value for money to students. We said we would introduce a new framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality and to provide students with more data to help them choose the course that is right for them. We also committed to ensuring we are investing strategically in our research base, following the recommendations of Sir Paul Nurse’s review. We will be doing all this through the Higher Education and Research Bill, while respecting institutional autonomy and academic freedom. The White Paper setting out our reforms has been welcomed by business groups, with the CBI commenting that,
“it’s good that the White Paper proposals have taken on board the business view—building on and expanding the diversity of our higher education provision, which already is a brilliant asset”.
We committed to a teaching excellence framework in our manifesto, which will drive up the standard of teaching. It will put clear, understandable information about outcomes in the hands of students so they know where teaching is best and what benefits they can expect to gain from their course. We will make it quicker and easier for new high-quality providers such as the New College of the Humanities or BPP to enter the market and award their own degrees, promoting a diverse and innovative higher education sector where students have more choice. To respond to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 made amendments to allow the linking of education data to labour market data, which will enable us to improve the robustness and coverage of progression following the student journey.
The UK research base is the most productive in the G7. Through our Bill, we will maximise value from our investment of over £6 billion a year in research and innovation. We will deliver on Sir Paul Nurse’s recommendations to establish a single, strategic funding body which will allow the UK to lead the world in multidisciplinary research. Royal charters are not the most appropriate structure in the current research environment, where we are merging multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary funding, which is coming to the fore. However, we believe that it is important to retain the international prestige and standing that the research councils have, which is why they will operate with delegated autonomy and authority as part of UK research and innovation. I hope that that will be some comfort to the noble Lord, Lord Rees, whose views I was very pleased to consider.
Your Lordships have heard that we will bring a wide-ranging education Bill to provide education for all in a school-led system. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, mentioned the importance of collaboration in education, which is central to our academy reforms. Our aim is that all schools will be academies, and funded fairly, although as my noble friend Lord Nash said in opening, we have removed the blanket power to convert schools. I hope this is welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths.
Excellence that comes with more teacher freedom will spread to every community. We have found that collaborative multi-academy trusts both do better and make schools feel better supported. Most of these operate in local clusters very well connected to their communities.
I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely for his remarks about the importance of strong schools supporting weaker schools. We plan to support rural schools through the new national funding formula, and agree totally with his remarks about the importance of them collaborating together and with his comments about the vital importance of religious literacy. It is well known how good Church schools are at community cohesion. The SACREs continue to play an important role in supporting schools to teach high-quality RE. Local authorities have a statutory duty to support these activities and we do not have any plans to remove the duty.
Our work on academies will complement our programme to raise the quality of teachers, school leadership and governing bodies. I pay tribute to the establishment of the foundation for educational leadership mentioned by the right reverend Prelate.
I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, that the academy programme is against devolution. Devolution is at its heart a school-led system, devolving powers to our great teachers and leaders. We will consult in the coming months on the definitions and thresholds relating to underperforming local authorities so that there is agreement on where the need for action is clear.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said that the school admissions procedures should be easy to understand. The White Paper stated clearly that that is our priority. The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, asked about our plans on technical education. We are currently planning reforms that will ensure high-quality offers to young people that are simple and genuinely owned, understood and valued by employers. To deliver these reforms, the Government are working closely with an independent panel led by the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury. We will publish the report and response shortly.
It has been an important debate on education; my noble friend Lord Nash will benefit from your Lordships’ comments. The truth is that we lag internationally on education measures. These changes will help to close the major productivity gap between our economy and other economies.
Improved education links into our forthcoming life chances strategy. This will set out our new approach to tackling poverty and transforming the life chances of the most disadvantaged children and families. I believe that everyone should be able to realise their full potential.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham talked about the Joseph Rowntree work. The Government are committed to tackling inequality. The report does not make enough of the national living wage, the higher personal allowance or the extension of free childcare to 30 hours. Our life chances strategy will tackle poverty and disadvantage.
The Children and Social Work Bill is a key part of the Government’s ambition to make fundamental changes to the children’s social care system. The Prime Minister has made his personal commitment clear: he is determined to improve the life chances of some of the most vulnerable children. The Bill will make sure that the state meets its obligations as corporate parent—a long-standing concept—to support those in its care. It will introduce a care leavers covenant to support those making the transition to adulthood; improve decisions about adoption and long-term care, and promote the educational achievement of children who have been adopted. It will also promote professional standards and public confidence in the vital profession of social work.
The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about the mental health of children in care. We are investing £1.4 billion into children’s mental health services over the next five years. We recognise that children in care can be particularly at risk of mental health issues. Local areas are required to factor this into their plans. My noble friend Lord Nash would be delighted to meet with the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, to discuss her concerns about music. I welcome the support of the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, in this area; forthcoming debates in this House will enable noble Lords to see and test the education and health departments’ careful thinking on implementation.
The noble Lords, Lord Cashman and Lord Freyberg, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, all raised the question of arts, drama and the EBacc. I have an excellent response, and I think there might be merit in my writing to the noble Lords, setting out some of the detail on this very important subject, in which obviously, as the Intellectual Property Minister, I am extremely interested.
It is a pleasure to debate the vital issue of health and to continue to work towards a seven-day NHS in tune with the needs of Britain today. Our NHS is now treating more patients than ever before. Our Government are investing £10 billion to fund the NHS’s plan up to 2020 to transform its services—more than the sum that was asked for. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that GPs do a brilliant job. Of course, compared to 2010 there are almost 1,300 more GPs working and training in the NHS. To support implementation of the forward view, which was a concern of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, by 2020-21 the Government will increase funding for the NHS, as I have already said.
We will bring forward a Bill that will enable us to meet our manifesto commitment to recover up to £500 million from overseas visitors and migrants who use the NHS by the middle of this Parliament. The Government intend to publish their response to the recent public consultation on the extension of charging by this summer.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talked about childhood obesity, and we will launch our strategy in the summer. It will look at everything that contributes to a child becoming overweight and obese. Of course, the soft drinks changes announced by the Chancellor were but one step in making important progress.
The noble Lord, Lord Foster, asked about FOBTs. The Government understand concerns about this problem. We are continuing to monitor the matter. The last review of the stakes and prizes of gaming was in 2013; we will set out our views on the next one as soon as we can.
This debate has highlighted the many steps that this Government have taken to strengthen business, accelerate digital change, enhance the life chances of our citizens and further improve our schools and universities. I thank all noble Lords for their contribution to the debate. Their valued expertise will be required in supporting a number of challenging ambitions set out by the Government and—I emphasise this point—in scrutinising a number of important Bills. I look forward to many more discussions inside and outside the House. This is a one-nation agenda from a Government who empower people through competition and choice and who put the vulnerable first.