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EU Referendum: Discussions with Business

Volume 614: debated on Tuesday 13 September 2016

1. What steps his Department has taken to engage with British businesses since the EU referendum. (906274)

Since I was appointed on 14 July, my colleagues and I have during the summer met businesses, investors, workers and local leaders in all four home nations, as well as travelling to India and Japan. Furthermore, and for the first time, each local enterprise partnership area and each of the devolved Administrations will have a specific Minister in my Department assigned to them. Personal relationships matter in business, and that should start with the Business Department.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, and I welcome the whole team to the new Department. The aerospace industry is absolutely vital to the west of England economy not just for jobs, but for growth. Will the Secretary of State work with me to ensure that the entire aerospace industry receives the support it requires and deserves?

I certainly will do that. One of the biggest privileges of this job is to be reunited with aerospace; I got to know the sector when I was Science Minister. In fact, my first ministerial meeting was to have breakfast with the aerospace growth partnership at the Farnborough airshow, where I ran into my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth). The west of England was very well represented there. For example, Katherine Bennett of Airbus, whom I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) knows well, one of the founder board members of the West of England LEP, was there. This is a very important sector for the economy, and it will have my wholehearted support.

I, too, welcome the new ministerial team. I have a number of correspondents in a few local—predominantly small—businesses in Rochester and Strood who have been trading with European partners over a long period, but whose supply chain costs have recently risen. Will my right hon. Friend outline his commitment to supporting our small businesses in our new relationship with Europe, to ensure that local and regional economies continue to grow?

I will, indeed. I know many of the small businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Of course, through the British Business Bank, we have made over £3 billion available to smaller businesses. She will know that, from next April, small business rate relief will double permanently, which will benefit 60,000 small businesses. This is part of our continuing commitment to small business, which is the motor of the bigger businesses that, together with small businesses, generate so many jobs in our economy.

My home constituency of Eastbourne and Willingdon is a long-established, beautiful seaside destination, with big future ambitions, including for a new hot air balloon festival in 2017. Tourism is the lifeblood of my town, and I am delighted to be welcoming the Eastbourne Hospitality Association to Parliament today. Will the Secretary of State tell me whether he has had discussions with the tourism industry about reducing the level of VAT on tourism services, to bring us into line with competitor destinations in the EU, and to give our industry a competitive platform from which it can stimulate investment, create jobs, deliver growth and take full advantage of the opportunities in life after Brexit?

My hon. Friend is a big campaigner for the tourism industry. I welcome her visitors today, as I am sure the whole House does. We have the highest VAT threshold in the European Union, so many small businesses do not need to charge VAT. But I will continue discussions with her—the hot air balloon festival sounds a very tempting excursion, perhaps for many Members. I look forward to continuing these discussions with her and her colleagues.

Does the Secretary of State agree with his right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) that British business people are fat, overweight and spend too much time on the golf course? [Interruption.] And lazy.

I have yet to meet a lazy business person, starting with my own father, who was up before dawn every morning running his own business. But my right hon. Friend is right to remind us that, across the whole country, every business needs to work hard, as they do, every day of the week. That is the secret of our competitive success, and it is how we will continue to prosper as a nation.

In light of comments made last week by the Japanese ambassador, the Secretary of State will be aware that Nissan, which is based in my constituency, contributes £2.1 billion to the UK balance of trade, and exports 80% of all cars made at its plant in Sunderland. What opportunities does he see for automotive companies such as Nissan in a post-Brexit industrial strategy, and will he commit to meeting Nissan as soon as possible?

I not only make that commitment but can tell the hon. Lady that I have already done that, and have also met the Japanese ambassador. The automotive sector, and Nissan in particular, is a hugely important and valued part not only of her constituency but of the whole country. It has our full-hearted support. The ambassador and I have met twice. It is correct and encouraging that the Japanese ambassador, on behalf of the Japanese Government, shares with us their priorities for our negotiation. That is exactly the sort of relationship that I hope and expect to have with our partners around the world.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the great anger felt by Britain’s wealth creators at the comments of his right hon. Friend the International Trade Secretary, which were damaging not just to them but to our reputation abroad. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with his right hon. Friend and with the Prime Minister about limiting that damage?

My right hon. Friend has been vigorous during the summer in going around the world to promote the case for British business, as is his job. Opposition Members will have the support of everyone in this House if they join the efforts we are making to promote the great opportunities there already are in this country and the further opportunities to come.

18. Secretary of State, may I ask you whether you agree that free trade is at the heart of a prosperous economy? Will you and your Front-Bench colleagues be resisting any attempts to impose any form of protectionism when we come to negotiating future trade arrangements? (906292)

Order. The hon. Gentleman should try not to use the word “you” in the Chamber. Debate goes through the Chair. I am not expressing any view on these matters, but I think I know what the hon. Gentleman had in mind.

Free trade courses through the veins of this country. It is one reason why we have been most successful. I was surprised to hear a commitment to free trade described as dogma last week. It is one of our strengths, and my hon. Friend has my absolute assurance that it will be very much to the fore of our reputation in the future as it was in the past.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new post. He certainly has his work cut out. Australia says that it will take at least three years after Brexit before a trade deal can be in place with the UK, while the United States, Japan and China have all expressed their views about the prospects for foreign investment and trade with the UK. What is he doing to get behind UK businesses and deal with the concerns of our international partners following the Brexit vote? He could not do better than to start by telling his Cabinet colleagues to get behind business and stop insulting it.

I would be interested in the support of the Labour party for promoting British business around the world. The hon. Gentleman will know, from our previous work on local growth, that he will always have a willing ear and assistance from me in doing that. He was kind enough to welcome me; I welcome the Opposition Front Bench team. The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) was my shadow in my role at the Department for Communities and Local Government. He has followed me here—perhaps he is not so much a shadow as a stalker, but I regard it as flattery. [Laughter.]

As I said in my initial answer, relationships are important. We can exchange letters and bits of paper, but it is important that we get to know well our partners around the world. I have done that and my colleagues have done that. As I said earlier, I visited our investors and manufacturers in Japan and India. I will continue to do so.

23. Cambridgeshire is a net contributor to the Treasury, with 20,000 businesses generating revenues of over £30 billion. As local politicians, we have had cross-party meetings with business leaders about the implications of Brexit for our local economy. Will the Secretary of State visit the Cambridge Science Park in my constituency to discuss the implications? (906298)

As my hon. Friend knows, I am a frequent and enthusiastic visitor to Cambridge. One of the important features of our industrial strategy is to have a clear recognition of the contribution and local leadership that different places bring. I have appointed the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), as the lead liaison for Cambridge, but I will of course be very happy to visit myself.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State and his team to their positions. I agree that there are some challenges, one of which is the ballooning trade deficit that, in quarter 2 of this year, increased to £12.3 billion. This is a problem that is unlikely to be solved by withdrawal from the single market. Scotland voted to remain. Scottish business wants unhindered access to that single market. Will the Secretary of State support that, or is he in favour of the full English Brexit?

I welcome the shadow Minister to his place. I think many of us on the Government Benches were impressed by his contribution to the debates last week—a clear rising star. He will know that I will work very closely, and the Prime Minister has committed to working closely, with the devolved Administrations to make sure our negotiating mandate reflects the needs of all parts of the United Kingdom. It was a United Kingdom decision to come out of the European Union and we will make the most of it together.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The Scottish Government analysis of UK withdrawal from the European Union is that it could cost the Scottish economy at best £1.7 billion a year and at worst £11.2 billion a year. I repeat: will he make the case from his Department for continued membership of the single European market?

I made clear in my earlier answer that free trade is what we want to see in this country. In furthering our discussions not only with the leaders of the devolved Administrations but with our business investors around the world, we will ensure that the negotiating mandate we have is ambitious and will secure the brightest possible future for the whole of the United Kingdom.