Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 612: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2016

Following last week’s referendum result, my Department has been talking to businesses up and down the country, and we will work with them over the weeks and months ahead. To that end, later today I will host a round table with trade bodies and business leaders to consider our next steps. I would also like to take this opportunity to welcome Tim Peake back to earth after six months of education and inspiration aboard the international space station.

I spent last week visiting businesses right across Telford. Notwithstanding short-term market volatility, the gilt market has been strong throughout and equities are back up today. Business leaders in Telford are confident about the future. Having visited Telford on several occasions, does the Secretary of State agree that it has a great future and is a great place to do business?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend; I will visit Telford again and again with her. She will know that unemployment in her constituency has fallen by 60% over the past six years. That is testimony to the strength of local businesses, to her own work and to this Government’s policies. I will work with her in every way to secure Telford’s bright future.

Despite the Secretary of State’s complacency, this is a very difficult time for British business. Over the past 24 hours we have lost our triple A rating and £150 billion has been wiped off the value of the FTSE 350. Will he reassure the many worried workers and businesses that, unlike with Tata, when he was on the other side of the planet, he will be in the boardrooms of Nissan in Sunderland, Hitachi in Newton Aycliffe, Jaguar Land Rover in Solihull and other businesses across the country to share his plan for a secure economic exit as they make investment decisions in the weeks and months to come?

I was hoping to welcome the hon. Lady as the new shadow Business Secretary, but I understand that she is not in that position yet—if her leader is having problems filling it, I am happy to make some suggestions. I assure her that, yes, because of last week’s decision, there are of course some short-term challenges for businesses, but we must also remember that there are medium and long-term opportunities as well, including for the auto industry.

It is clear that the Secretary of State not only does not have a plan, but does not even have a plan for a plan. He cannot say whether he personally wants to retain access to the single market for goods and services. Is it not true that the only plan he has is for his joint leadership bid, and that British businesses and the British job market stand to lose from the economic uncertainty that his party’s divides have unleashed?

I was hoping that the hon. Lady would not play party politics with something as straightforward as this. Many businesses up and down the country are reflecting on last week’s decision, and my job is to reassure them that that decision can be made to work. As well as challenges, there are plenty of opportunities, and when I meet businesses later this afternoon that is exactly the message I will be giving to them.

T2. The Greater Manchester region is a huge supporter of apprenticeships, with 30,000 starts last year alone. I recently met the young apprentices from Thales in my constituency, who are doing excellent and innovative work on the development of underwater sonar systems. Will the Minister outline what additional support his Department is giving to the city region to increase apprenticeship uptake? (905464)

I congratulate Greater Manchester on achieving a 75% increase in apprenticeships since 2010. My hon. Friend will be aware that we have devolved the apprenticeship grant for employers—an incentive payment to encourage employers who have not previously employed apprentices to do so—to Manchester so that the authority there can target it at the particular kinds of employer that it wants apprenticeship growth to come through.

T4. As we head towards Brexit, many EU-derived regulations will no doubt come under the microscope. Some of the most important are the working time regulations, which protect vital safe working limits in the workplace. Will the Government confirm that they intend to retain all elements of the working time regulations? (905466)

The first thing the hon. Gentleman should know is that nothing changes right here and now. For the next few years, there will be no changes—we are members of the European Union, and all our rights and obligations will be respected. In the longer term, this country has always been committed, quite rightly, to workers’ rights. That will not change.

T5. Pendle is home to a number of excellent aerospace companies such as Euravia, Senior Aerospace Weston and Rolls-Royce. What assurance can Ministers give the aerospace sector of the Government’s ongoing commitment following the vote to leave the EU? (905467)

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, later today we will meet the trade council that represents the aerospace industry, and we are fully committed to that. We will continue to work closely with the aerospace growth partnership to tackle barriers to growth, to boost exports, and to grow high-value jobs. In particular that will include support for research and development, which now stands at £3.9 billion for aerospace research.

T9. Fire and rescue services attend up to three fires a day that are a result of faulty tumble driers. Which?, the Local Government Association, Electrical Safety First and other consumer interest groups have all raised concerns about how Whirlpool has handled that problem. Is the Minister comfortable that Whirlpool has merely issued a safety statement and not a total recall? (905472)

I have had a meeting with the hon. Lady, for which I am grateful, and she has really led for consumers on this issue. As I think I explained, an investigation has suggested that the approach taken by Whirlpool was reasonable, and that the nature of the risk was not such that a total recall was required. However, she is right to say that the company needs to get a move on, and it is not right or reasonable to leave people waiting for months and months to have a faulty product, for which Whirlpool should be accountable, replaced.

T6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the duty of Ministers who are loyal to the Crown to promote the British economy and not to talk it down? Will she agree to a joint meeting with me and Ministry of Defence procurement to discuss how we can more effectively promote and develop defence industries such as those in my constituency? (905468)

I agree with my hon. Friend and he is absolutely right: these are obviously difficult times, but it is important that we do not talk down our great British economy and that we instil stability and confidence. He is right to mention our defence industry. As he might imagine, we work hand in glove with the Ministry of Defence on that issue and will continue to do so. I have already spoken to the Minister responsible for procurement in the MOD.

Ah, splendid: the robust Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Mr Iain Wright.

I think that is the kindest thing that anybody has ever said to me.

The Secretary of State fully appreciates that uncertainty lasting for months and years will drain business investment away from Britain. In our Select Committee this morning, Funding Circle told us that an £100 million investment deal with a European consortium will now not go ahead—it has been pulled, and it will not be the only one. Today’s round table is a welcome gesture, but in the face of the current unprecedented uncertainty, what tangible actions is the Secretary of State putting in place to maintain and stimulate inward investment, maintain that funding gap, and steady business nerves?

It is good to see some leadership on business issues on the Labour Benches. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Today’s round table is not a gesture; it is about genuinely listening to businesses and businessmen and women about the issues that they face, and about how to take advantage of the opportunities that will be created. He will know that nothing changes for at least a couple of years, which will give us time to plan for the future, including for inward investment opportunities and new trade opportunities. I would be happy to meet him and discuss that issue further.

T7. A significant amount of public money has been allocated to bring superfast broadband to areas missed out by the commercial roll-out, but because of a bureaucratic logjam it remains unspent while a significant number of small businesses in Cheltenham are left frustrated and unable to grow. What more can be done to unlock that money and get the remaining premises connected? (905469)

May I say how pleased I am to see you in the Chair, Mr Speaker? A rock of stability as the stormy seas of change crash around us—[Interruption.] I was considered the thinking woman’s Boris Johnson—my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip—but I now see that I am my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes).

One great benefit of Brexit is that in the past 24 hours not a single colleague has bent my ear about broadband, and it is a sign of things returning to normal that we are now discussing that important subject. I hear what my hon. Friend says. There are often problems on the ground, and I would like to go to Cheltenham and meet those businesses, plus the council, and see whether we can work together. We often find that on the ground wayleave rights are not being granted, or that something like that is holding back the investment that we need in places such as Cheltenham, which is home to so many high-tech businesses that are now free to trade around the globe.

In 2010, the Post Office chief executive said that in Paisley the cost of the refurbishment of the post office had been £439,000. That money was spent making significant changes to “improve service to customers and enhance the profitability of the Crown network”. Given that it is now planned that the post office will move from this upgraded high-quality unit to the wholly inaccessible and inadequate WH Smith, will the Minister please justify to me and my constituents why the money was spent on refurbishment in the first place?

I will keep it brief, Mr Speaker.

The hon. Lady tabled a named day question on this matter and I have replied to explain that this is a matter for the chief executive of the Post Office, Paula Vennells. She has written a letter to the hon. Lady, which is in the House of Commons Library. For the benefit of the House, I can confirm that through the £13 million investment in our 50 Crown post offices, £440,000 has been spent on the Paisley branch. Through the Crown transformation plan, we have a Post Office that is more stable and closer to breaking even than ever. There are 11,500 branches, 200,000 extra opening hours and 3,800 branches open on Sundays. The people of Paisley have a strong and secure post office.

I commend the Ministers on the Treasury Bench for their pragmatic approach to last week’s result. I think that we are all committed to the UK becoming an outward-looking global trading nation. With that in mind, will Ministers redouble their efforts to support the Australian Prime Minister, who has said that he has instructed his officials to work with New Zealand to prepare a trade deal with the United Kingdom very shortly?

My hon. Friend highlights the opportunities of Brexit and we absolutely should now start embracing those opportunities; free trade agreements with many more countries is just one of them. Australia is an excellent example, and that is exactly the sort of thing we should be working on.

Many of my constituents have no or very little access to computers and the internet. Will the Government continue to press banks and other key providers to retain high street services for customers who receive utility and other bills in paper form on request?

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills does not intervene in the individual billing arrangements of utilities or companies, but there are arrangements in place to make sure that those who need paper bills are able to request and receive them. Those who have disabilities, such as the blind, have protections to make sure that they can receive appropriate billing. If there are particular issues for any particular constituent, I would be very happy to look into them for the hon. Gentleman.

Small and independent retailers in my constituency have, over recent months, experienced extreme difficulty in accessing telephone and broadband services when moving into new premises. I, too, experienced this when I moved into my new community office in Ilkeston. Will the Minister agree to talk to service providers to ensure that the installation of these services, which are so vital in the 21st century, are carried out in a reasonable timeframe?

I have made no secret of my concerns about Openreach’s quality of service. We have had a very successful rural broadband programme, but there seems to be a particular unit in Openreach that targets MPs and makes them extremely angry. They take it out on me and I take it out on Openreach. It needs to improve its terms and conditions, and its new chief executive has made supplying businesses his priority.

Will the Minister finally give a date for the implementation of the pubs code? With licensees currently missing out due to the Department’s mistake and the delay, will she now apply the Burmah Oil principle to ensure that the code is retrospective from the original date, as it clearly can be?

We have re-laid the regulations, and I am looking forward to them passing through their various stages so that we can implement the pubs code as a matter of urgency. I very much hope that it will be implemented by the time the House rises.

Thank you for giving me two bites at the cherry, Mr Speaker.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to new universities coming forward, and I am working hard to further one in my Somerset constituency. Given recent developments regarding the EU, does the Minister agree that it is now even more essential that we enable universities to provide the skills needed to upgrade the workforce and maintain our position in the world?

Yes, indeed. The productivity challenge facing the country is grave, and our universities are a big part of the answer. New universities in higher education cold spots such as Somerset will be a big part of our solution to these challenges.

I understand that the UK Government have yet to confirm whether the allocation of the apprenticeship levy in Scotland will be based on the number of employers in Scotland, or the percentage of the levy paid in Scotland. Will the Minister provide that clarification today? If not, when will he?

As I indicated to the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), I have been in discussions with the Minister representing the Welsh Government in this conversation. These discussions are ongoing. This is a matter for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, not something for which I am directly responsible, but I know that there have been intensive negotiations and discussions. I do not want to pass the buck, but I fear that I will have to encourage the hon. Lady to direct her question to a Minister at Treasury questions, because the Treasury and HMRC are handling these discussions.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

This month it was announced that manufacturing exports from Northern Ireland to non-EU countries increased by 24%, while those to EU countries fell by 4%. What steps can the Minister take to help Northern Ireland firms to exploit opportunities to grow international economic links to promote growth in Northern Ireland, increase employment and help to reduce the UK balance of payments deficit?

It is great to hear—the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—that manufacturing is on the rise in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK. Volumes are up, exports are up and employment is up. There are, of course, further steps that we can take. Someone asked earlier about free trade agreements, and that is something that we can do and exploit now that we have Brexit.