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Commons Chamber

Volume 614: debated on Tuesday 13 September 2016

House of Commons

Tuesday 13 September 2016

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

Haberdashers’ Aske’s Charity Bill [Lords]

Bill read the Third time and passed, without amendment.

Speaker’s Statement

I must inform the House that I have today received notification from the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), of his wish to resign from the Chair. In accordance with Standing Order No. 122C, I therefore declare that the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee is vacant. I shall announce the arrangements for the election to this post, alongside the elections for the vacant Chairs of the Culture, Media and Sport and Science and Technology Committees, and any other new Chairs to be created as a result of recent changes in the machinery of government, as soon as practicable. I hope that it will be possible to hold those elections very soon after the House returns in October.

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

EU Referendum: Discussions with Business

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.

Hinkley Point C

4. When the Government plans to make a decision on the timetable for the development of Hinkley Point C. (906277)

I said on 28 July that the Government would carefully consider all the component parts of the Hinkley Point C proposed project before reaching a decision on whether to agree to the proposed contract for difference. We have been doing just that, and as the Prime Minister told the House last Wednesday, a decision will be taken this month.

On my recent summer surgery tour of my constituency, a number of constituents raised concerns about the cost to the taxpayer of the Hinkley Point C development. Barclays estimates that even if EDF delivers four years late and 25% over budget, it would still make a profit on the deal, with the deficit being picked up by ordinary people over the next 35 years. Does the Minister think that such a gratuitous public subsidy provides value for the taxpayer?

As I said to the hon. Lady in my answer, we are looking at all components of the deal and will make our decision before the end of the month. However, I think it is a responsible act on the part of the Government to consider our energy supplies for the future in the long term. I know the Scottish Government have turned their face against new nuclear. We regard it as an important part of a diverse energy mix that gives resilience to UK consumers.

Given that the Brexit vote has thrown the energy sector into further uncertainty and given that we know that energy from renewable sources will be cheaper than nuclear by the time Hinkley is completed, is it not now time for the UK Government to follow Scotland’s example, end this unreasonable love affair with nuclear energy and embrace cheaper, safer and more plentiful alternatives?

Sir Winston Churchill said that in energy, “diversity and diversity alone” was the foundation for security. I think those were wise words, and I think we are wise to have a range of energy sources now and in the future—including, of course, renewables.

May I say how strongly I support the Prime Minister’s decision on this, given that China persists in trying to hack not only state agencies but our commercial companies and has put two fingers up to the arbitration court in The Hague, which ruled that the development for military purposes of uninhabited atolls in the South China sea was unlawful? These are people with whom we should sup with a long spoon. I commend to my right hon. Friend the paper written by the Intelligence and Security Committee under the chairmanship of Sir Malcolm Rifkind three years ago.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. He will know that the commitment we have made is to look at all components of the proposed deal and to make our decision very shortly. I shall of course report back to the House. when we have done that and explain the reasons why we have taken whatever decision we have.

14. The Government are very wise to take a deep breath before committing themselves to the massive cost of Hinkley. Evidence on new technology is mounting all the time, relating in particular to fusion rather than fission, mini-reactors and battery storage. I commend the Government for considering the decision very slowly indeed. (906287)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is right when dealing with such an important decision to make sure that a new Government look at all the components with a view to the future for our energy supply. As I say, I believe it important to benefit from the full range of technologies, including some of those that my hon. Friend has mentioned.

The right hon. Gentleman came in on Question 1, which I have not forgotten, even if he has. We will save him up for later and keep him in the microwave.

I congratulate Express Reinforcements Ltd, based in my Neath constituency, on becoming the preferred supplier for 200,000 tonnes of reinforced steel provided by Celsa Cardiff from Bylor to Hinkley Point C. I am concerned that Hinkley Point C has been hit by multiple setbacks and is on hold. Will the Secretary of State please update us on the timetable? Do we need a plan B or even a plan C?

The hon. Lady is right that across all forms of energy generation we need to upgrade our capacity for it. Doing that—the Government are determined to do so—will secure important advantages for other companies, including steel suppliers, right across the United Kingdom. We will take the decision on Hinkley before the end of the month, as the Prime Minister has said.

Notwithstanding his earlier remarks, will my right hon. Friend confirm that, as well as the proposed nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C, the other part of the package, which is a new Chinese-designed station at Bradwell-on-Sea, remains very much on the table?

The decision with Hinkley Point C is on the particular contract for difference. That is what we are reviewing, and we will take the decision when that review has been completed.

I, too, welcome the Front-Bench Members to their new positions—along with my stalker friend. After putting 25,000 highly skilled jobs at risk and jeopardising 500 much needed STEM apprenticeships; after offending the Chinese Government and risking £18 billion of investment in the nuclear industry, which is a vital part of our energy mix; and after sending shockwaves through the investment community, which now thinks that the Prime Minister does not understand the meaning of fine investment decisions, does the Secretary of State agree with those in the industry who say that the Prime Minister’s cautious approach now looks more like dithering?

I prefer the Prime Minister’s cautious approach to the approach of the hon. Gentleman, which, as far as I can see, is completely inconsistent. He criticises the Government for, quite rightly, reviewing this important decision, but at the same time he says that we should take two to three months to review the decision seriously, so there is a contradiction in his position.

That does not surprise me, however, in view of the complete absence of an energy policy during the 13 years of Labour government when we knew that nuclear power stations were going to come to the end of their lives. Those power stations were not replaced. The present Government are making decisions in a proper, serious way, and making up for the lost time during the Labour years.

Industrial Strategy

3. What steps the Government is taking to develop its industrial strategy; and if he will make a statement. (906276)

I am delighted that the Prime Minister has asked me to lead the historic task of preparing a proper industrial strategy for our country. We have a once-in-a-generation chance to embrace the opportunities of our new global role, and to upgrade our economy so that it works for everyone. We will work with the breadth of British industry, local leaders, innovators, employees and consumers to create the conditions for future success.

May I, too, take the opportunity to congratulate the Front-Bench teams on their appointments?

The words “industrial strategy” often conjure up images of manufacturing and heavy industry. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the service sector, which, after all, constitutes 80% of the British economy, will also be comprehensively covered by this industrial strategy?

I can indeed confirm that. In our projections of how we are to earn our living as a nation, we should look to our strengths. The service sector is undoubtedly one of our greatest strengths, and we must of course create the conditions that will enable it to continue to prosper in the future.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to what is a fantastic, ambitious, interesting and challenging brief. I wish him and his ministerial team all the best. Will he now explain precisely how the new industrial strategy marks a distinctive change in the Government’s approach to collaboration with business and intervention in the economy—or is it merely a change to the nameplate at 1 Victoria Street?

It is certainly not that. I would very much welcome the involvement of the new Select Committee which I expect to be formed in ensuring that we capture everything that we need to make a success of the strategy. I do not think that it is brand new, in the sense that, as I have said, we build on success. For instance, we talked to one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues about the automotive sector, which we know has been a significant source of strength. The environment that we have created with the firms in the sector, and with universities and scientific institutions, has been crucial to its success. We will build on those strong foundations, and will be very clear about our path for the future.

As the Government formulate their industrial strategy, may I urge my right hon. Friend to look at the American small business innovation research programme, which funds research at the critical stage between science and the commercialisation of technology, and which has spawned companies such as Qualcomm, Jawbone and Tesla? Will he consider a United Kingdom equivalent?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is very well informed about the need to translate research success into small business success. I am sure that we can discuss it further.

17. I welcome the new team as well, although I suspect that even the Secretary of State knows that this is not going to be a full English Brexit, but a dog’s Brexit. [Interruption.] Thank you very much; I am here all week. As for the industrial strategy, one of the real problems facing many parts of the country—as was revealed at the time of the referendum—is that they are now post-industrial. They are areas that formerly had one industry, such as tourism, iron and steel, coal or shipbuilding. Will the Secretary of State ensure that we take the opportunity to invest in those forgotten areas, so that we can improve their productivity in particular? (906290)

They are not forgotten. The hon. Gentleman is very good at one-liners. The creative industries are an important source of strength, and that includes comedians.

Some of the most successful places in the world, especially cities, have developed in such a way that they have resilience as a result of having different industries. That even applies to cities in which there was formerly a single dominant industry. We want to work with local leaders to ensure that we strengthen the resilience of our own regional centres.

I welcome the new Front Bench team, particularly the visiting fellow of All Souls, who is appropriately the Minister for the Oxfordshire local enterprise partnership, and the Minister for consumer affairs, who is a brilliant re-tweeter, particularly of my interview in today’s Times.

As part of the industrial strategy, I hope my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will recognise the importance of science and innovation; in my constituency in Harwell we are a microcosm of the future of Britain, linking science with high tech, and I hope it will feature strongly in his industrial strategy.

It certainly will, and the strength of science, not least in Oxfordshire, is one of our national strengths and it will be at the heart of our strategy.

How will the Secretary of State ensure the future industrial strategy is mindful of Northern Ireland’s particular reliance on EU support and access to the common market?

As I said earlier, we will make sure we work with our colleagues across the United Kingdom. I had a very productive meeting with Simon Hamilton in the summer, to make sure we co-ordinate our efforts with those of policy makers in Northern Ireland. It needs to be joined-up and it will be, and we will make sure our negotiating mandate reflects contributions from across the UK.

I join others in welcoming those on the Front Bench and the creation of a Department that is going to deal with industrial strategy. The country is badly unbalanced at the moment and we will support any realistic thorough-going industrial strategy that is developed.

We know how the strategy has gone over the summer—BHS has gone bust, with 11.000 jobs gone. Sports Direct is paying less than the minimum wage, world-leading company ARM, a home-grown British gem, has been sold overseas—and meanwhile one of the Secretary of State’s Cabinet colleagues has talked down British business, calling our companies fat and lazy, and there is still no clear and unambiguous progress on the steel industry. It has been over two years since the consultation on the steel industry pensions ended. When will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear that the pensions of tens of thousands of loyal and hard-working steel workers will be properly protected?

The steel industry is a very important industry in our country. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I grew up in Teesside where it was particularly prominent. I had some productive discussions in the summer, including visiting south Wales to make sure the Government can give the right support to a sustainable future for the steel industry, and I am happy to make the hon. Gentleman aware of these discussions.

Solar Power

5. What steps he plans to take, and by what date, to improve the performance of the feed-in-tariff scheme for solar power. (906278)

Solar deployment is a UK success story, with almost 11 GW of capacity now installed. While it is appropriate to allow for a period of stability following recent changes to protect consumer bills, the Secretary of State continues to keep the performance of the feed-in tariff scheme under review.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers report in July showed almost 60% of companies are looking to diversify away from solar, and nearly four in 10 are considering leaving the solar market entirely, as a result of the Government’s policy changes. What steps will the Minister take to avoid business confidence in this important sector dropping further?

Actually, there is remarkably little sign that confidence in the sector is dropping. There is a recognition that those changes had to be made and the sector has responded remarkably resiliently. We must not forget that it has also been spreading expertise in solar internationally, which is another reason for thinking this is a real long-term success story.

I welcome the new ministerial team to their new roles. Kingspan, a significant employer in my constituency, has contacted me regarding concerns about the revaluation of business rates for cellphone rooftop solar. The result is a sixfold to eightfold increase in rates. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me and representatives from the company to see how these effects can be mitigated?

Kingspan is a company I know very well, since it has a substantial operation in Herefordshire. Valuations in this area are made by the independent Valuation Office Agency. The Department is liaising with the industry and the VOA on this issue, but I certainly would be delighted to meet Kingspan and my hon. Friend to discuss it.

On that matter, has the Minister carried out any analysis of the effect of the proposed hike in business rates on payback periods for commercial and rooftop solar, and particularly school solar? Does he intend to change the tariffs if the proposed business rate revaluation comes into effect?

I simply repeat that the matter is under review. We have not seen what the agency will propose, but we will look at it closely when we see what it suggests.

The Minister talks about stability, but there has in fact been a 93% drop in solar installations this year. Following a 64% cut in subsidy to solar and an eightfold hike in the proposed business rates, it would appear that the next attack on solar renewables is already being planned. Will he tell us whether it is through incompetence or calculation that the changes to grid charges put forward by the regulator to end the unfair advantage to highly polluting diesel generators will in fact have a negative impact on small-scale renewables such as solar?

It is widely understood that the sector needed some changes to the feed-in tariffs, because their effect was to hit consumers very hard in the pocket. These charges are paid by consumers. Let us not forget that 99% of all the solar panels installed have been installed over the past six years.

Promotion of Innovation

The Government support innovation through Innovate UK, soon to be part of UK Research and Innovation, and have invested more than £1.8 billion in innovation since 2007. Innovate UK is connecting businesses to local growth through its regional managers, and local enterprise partnerships are supporting innovation through £200 million of local growth funding.

As chairman of the parliamentary space committee, may I point out that the space industry has outgrown the economy by 10% all through the austerity years? However, the industry is quite worried about the issues that could be caused by Brexit, even though the European Space Agency is outside the European Union. Can the Minister give us a categorical assurance that the space industry—and the aviation industry, which is annexed to it—will not be overlooked, especially in areas such as the north-west?

We certainly recognise the value of space to our economy and we are working closely with industry to understand their concerns. We are also working closely with colleagues across the Government to ensure that we understand the impact of the referendum and all the opportunities associated with it, and we will continue to do that as we shape our future relationship with the European Union.

The success of our agricultural industry is dependent on the latest innovations in agricultural science and technology, which are driven forward by world-leading research centres such as Fera on the outskirts of York. What assurances can the Minister give us that agri-food research will continue to play an important role in the Government’s overall strategy for supporting innovation and, ultimately, delivering food security?

This Government are investing £160 million in agri-tech, including in centres for agricultural innovation, to ensure that our world-leading science is improving productivity on farms. In addition, a UK-wide food innovation network, which is to be launched shortly, will give businesses greater access to technology and science.

Will the Minister ensure that the relevant Ministers in the devolved legislatures across the United Kingdom are brought together to ensure that best practice in innovation is not just replicated but brought forward in each of the relevant sections across the UK?

We are working closely with the devolved Administrations as we put in place the creation of UK Research and Innovation. Excellent science and innovation will be supported through the new body, and we look forward to continuing to fund excellence in science and innovation, wherever it is found in the United Kingdom.

Innovation is key to our regional economies, helping to create high-skilled, well-paid jobs. Innovation needs investment in research and development and in small businesses if we are to make a success of new ideas. European funding has helped to grow our regional innovation infrastructure. The north-east alone will receive £130 million in research funding between now and 2020, and 72% of EU funding to UK businesses goes to small and medium-sized businesses. Will the Minister commit to matching the funding for innovation that currently comes from the European Union?

We have been monitoring the impact—any impact—on our research institutions and businesses since the referendum. The Treasury’s announcement on 13 August that it will underwrite for the life of the project all competitively bids for EU research funding that are applied for before our departure from the EU shows our determination to take action wherever necessary to maintain the global competitiveness of the UK’s research base and of the innovative businesses that win such bids.

Product Recall: White Goods

8. If he will take steps to support the London fire brigade's Total Recalls campaign on the implementation of changes to the product recall system by manufacturers of white goods. (906281)

Consumer product safety is a Government priority. We have an effective system of product recall and have established a steering group to consider the recommendations in Lynn Faulds Wood’s 2016 product recall review. We will engage with the London fire brigade on its campaign as part of our regular dialogue with them.

The Minister will be aware of the major fire in a Shepherd’s Bush tower block last month that was caused by one of an estimated 5 million defective Whirlpool tumble dryers. The tenant was in the same room as the dryer but could do nothing to stop the fire destroying her home and damaging 25 others. Does the Minister agree that Whirlpool’s advice that such dryers can continue to be used if not unattended is irresponsible and dangerous? Will she get it changed?

I was shocked to hear about the serious fire in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and understand his concerns about the safety of tumble dryers. However, the advice provided by Whirlpool is based on a full risk assessment of the product that has been agreed with Peterborough City Council trading standards, which is the lead enforcement authority for Whirlpool. Trading standards will continue to monitor the situation and has powers to order further action if appropriate.

There are three tumble dryer fires each day in this country—almost 2,500 since the start of 2012. Will the Minister ensure that fireproof labels containing make, model and serial number are attached to all tumble dryers, so that machines can be traced to the manufacturer when fires do occur?

Although there have been serious fires, they represent less than 0.2% of the total number of tumble dryers sold, so we must keep things in perspective. Lynn Faulds Wood’s review provides an overview of the current consumer product recall system, and the independent recall review group, composed of industry safety experts and the Chief Fire Officers Association, will complete the work on the recommendations.

Laser Pens

The Department is absolutely committed to ensuring that only safe products are placed on the market, including laser pens. Given the risks associated with misuse of such pens, we are reviewing what more we can do to protect consumers and aircraft.

I thank the Minister for that answer. In the past year, there have been over 1,300 incidents in which certain laser pens were used to target both civilian and military aircraft and transport infrastructure. Will the Minister support my private Member’s Bill, supported by the British Airline Pilots Association, to regulate the sale of laser pens?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his persistence and passion in pursuing this important issue—there are significant risks attached to misuse. I assure him that the Government are taking the matter seriously. A cross-Whitehall group is urgently looking at our options, including the case for further legislation. In that context, I am happy to meet him.

Will the Minister help the leading manufacturer of laser pens, which is situated in my constituency? The company is—or was—a great supporter of the northern powerhouse and will be attending Thursday’s big conference in Yorkshire on innovation and creativity, supported by the all-party parliamentary group on Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire. It wants to know why Lord O’Neill was suddenly pulled as a speaker with no substitute offered. We hear that the Government will have nothing to do with elected mayors or the northern powerhouse. What is the situation now?

In relation to laser pens, rather than the speaking engagements or otherwise of Lord O’Neill.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in asking a question that he was frustrated about not getting answered previously. I reject absolutely any suggestion that the Government have lost any commitment to the northern powerhouse. As for the specifics of speaking engagements, if he would like to speak to me afterwards, I can try to throw some light on the matter.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) is a well-known exponent of what I might call the shoehorning technique. Whatever he wants to raise, he shoehorns it into a question somehow. He could probably write a book on the subject—and probably will.

Solar Power

11. Whether his Department has received a copy of the report by PwC and the Solar Trade Association, published on 25 July 2016, on the state of the UK solar industry; and what his plans are for the future of solar power in the UK. (906284)

I welcome the question from a colleague I have enjoyed watching at work with his incisive questioning on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee—tragically, he is about to direct that questioning at me. I can assure him that my Department has received a copy of the PwC report and carefully noted its findings. As I have said, solar has been a great success story over the past few years. The goal, now that costs have been brought under control, is to move the industry towards having the capacity to deliver without subsidy.

I thank the Minister for his generous comments and for his time as Chair of the Select Committee that I serve on, and I wish him well in his new role.

The PwC report estimates that a third of jobs in solar have been lost in the past year, with a third of companies expecting to cut more staff in the next 12 months. As the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) have suggested, rateable value changes will affect the industry further. Will the Government take into account the cumulative effect and actually do something positive for the solar industry?

Of course I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about any job losses as a result of changes in the industry. I made some points earlier about the way in which the industry is changing, and I note that the report picked out the resilience of the industry and its capacity to respond to change, potentially including that offered by Brexit. I simply say that it is noticeable that many schemes are already close to being viable without subsidy, in certain circumstances, and the key now is to move further towards that. As I have said, we will look closely at the valuation issues he has highlighted today.

EU Referendum: Opportunities for Businesses

12. What assessment his Department has made of potential opportunities for British businesses arising from the vote to leave the EU. (906285)

15. What assessment his Department has made of potential opportunities for British businesses arising from the vote to leave the EU. (906288)

The Government have made it very clear that we are open for business and are absolutely determined to make a success of leaving the EU, and that includes seizing the opportunity to negotiate our own trade agreements and to be a powerful and positive force for free trade.

I believe that leaving the EU offers great opportunities for British business in the future, although we must be aware of certain threats. My constituent Steve Otty has a business called Hindlow Technical, which works in the area of explosions protection. The situation is complex, but he has a registration system with the EU Commission, and he is concerned that being outside the EU will prevent that process and could hamper his business. Will my hon. Friend be vigilant on such issues, so that as well as providing the opportunities of leaving the EU, we can be ready to counter the threats?

I assure my hon. Friend that we want to make sure that the new relationship with the EU works for British businesses. His constituent Mr Otty raises an important point about the need to seek clarity on the ongoing recognition of the compliance certification that UK notified bodies grant. That is an important issue, and we are well aware of it. If his constituent would welcome a call or a meeting to discuss it, I am sure we could arrange that.

Does my hon. Friend welcome, as I do, the latest trade figures, which showed that despite the predictions of the crystal-ball-gazing doom merchants such as the remainiac TUC, our exports grew by more than £800 million in July after the positive EU referendum result? Can he confirm the number of businesses that he and his ministerial colleagues have spoken to that are positive about our economic future outside the EU?

I welcome any good news for the British economy, and although I voted remain, I agree 100% that we should be talking up our prospects and not talking them down. On the conversations that we have had, I simply say that the chairmen I have spoken to have expressed some desire for more certainty but are fundamentally optimistic about local prospects and keen to get on with it.

There is a British jurisdiction that is entirely accessed, by road, air and sea, through another European Union member state—the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. People there are absolutely of the opinion that they need to retain access to the single European market. What discussions has the Minister had with his Gibraltarian counterparts to make sure that that happens?

As the Secretary of State made clear, we are actively engaged in a series of conversations with stakeholders and international partners, and we are sure Gibraltar will be part of that.

Will the Minister or his team meet the leader of the official Opposition in Northern Ireland, of which my party is part, as we have an excellent document on the vision for the future of Northern Ireland after Brexit?

The short answer is yes. As the Secretary of State has said, we are keen to harvest all opinions and ideas on how we meet the fundamental and exciting challenge of how to transition to a post-Brexit world in a way that works for British business.

Topical Questions

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was formed on 14 July, and it is my great honour to serve as its first Secretary of State. Over the summer, rapid progress has been made in joining up responsibilities for business, energy, climate change, science, innovation and consumer affairs and in creating a new focus on industrial strategy. This is a powerful Department, which is up to the task of promoting a competitive, low-carbon economy that works for everyone. As part of an excellent team of Ministers and officials, I will continue to work both locally and globally on the challenges ahead.

The Swansea bay tidal lagoon, along with Cardiff bay, Newport bay and Bridgwater bay, has the potential to create huge energy, as those bays have the second highest rise and fall of tide in the world. How is the feasibility study going, and when will we get a result? We need long-term funding for a project that will provide 8% of our energy.

My understanding is that the feasibility study is being undertaken. I have not received its final conclusions yet. At that point, I will look at it with the same interest as my hon. Friend.

The European Commission says that Apple should cough up £13 billion in taxes for earnings generated across the EU, including in the UK. Most UK businesses pay their fair share of taxes and expect all other businesses, large or small, to do the same. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is doing everything he can to ensure that the very biggest companies pay up and that we receive our share of the £13 billion Apple tax pie?

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. Responsibilities come with being in business in this country, and paying taxes to contribute to the public services that we enjoy is one of them. He has my assurance that we will ensure that we pursue the correct tax from all companies that locate here.

T3. On Thursday, I will be chairing a panel at the enterprise, innovation and northern powerhouse conference at Huddersfield university. Does the Secretary of State agree that in developing an industrial strategy, we need to do more to win hearts and minds for big projects in the north, with more examples of regional procurement, such as the High Speed 2 college in Doncaster, and more jobs in the north, perhaps with HS2 starting from the north? (906266)

The passion with which my hon. Friend makes his point attests to the opportunities within our approach to industrial strategy to ensure that there is growth across the United Kingdom, including in Yorkshire. He will know that I have taken a great interest in that in my previous roles, and he can be absolutely assured that that interest will not diminish in the months ahead.

T2. The current review of network charging for small embedded generators such as Slough Heat and Power will mean huge increases in costs for them. Is the Department determined to make energy generation the preserve of big businesses only? (906265)

No, I categorically rebut that. We must strike a balance between driving down the costs of all sources of low-carbon generation and ensuring that we deliver best value for consumers and taxpayers, and that occasionally requires reviews of tariffs.

T4. As we approach European negotiations, can the Secretary of State assure me that the Government will seek to enhance and promote British strengths in financial services, science and the digital, creative, cultural and tourism sectors, which are particularly important to my constituency? (906267)

Yes, I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we plan to put science and innovation at the heart of our industrial strategy. Financial services, as part of the services sector, will also play an important part of our strategy as it is developed in the coming weeks.

T5. Last week, the Government committed to ratifying the Paris climate agreement. Will they commit to doing so before the next United Nations framework convention on climate change conference of parties in Morocco, so that they can play a full and leading role at that summit? (906268)

We helped to shape the Paris agreement, we signed it, and the Prime Minister has confirmed that we will ratify it as soon as possible, which remains our position.

T7. Britain is undoubtedly a world leader in scientific research. With that in mind, will my hon. Friend detail what role bioscience will play in the Government’s industrial strategy? (906270)

The Government’s industrial strategy will position the UK as a global leader for the 21st century. The UK bio-economy is worth £220 billion in gross value added—13.6% of total GVA in 2014—with potential to grow by 13% by 2030. We shall continue to invest strongly in it.

T6. The Secretary of State is a thoughtful man who I believe is serious about regional growth. Will he assure me that I am right in that understanding by cancelling his predecessor’s decision to centralise his Department’s policy functions in London? Among other things, that would maintain and build on its important presence in Sheffield. (906269)

I am certainly attached to the work that is done in Sheffield and the highly valued colleagues we have there. The decision was made some time ago, and many changes have been made. As we sort out the responsibilities of different parts of the Department, I will look carefully at what Sheffield can provide.

As we have said in response to earlier questions, the Government are committed to the deployment of renewable energy and have had considerable success, and of course the feed-in tariff has been central to that.

T8. The expansion of Heathrow would create a demand for 370,000 tonnes of steel and secure 700 steel jobs, so it is not only in the interests of the UK economy more generally that we expand Heathrow but specifically in the interests of the manufacturing sector. Why do we not just get on with it, have the vote here in the Chamber and get on with the building of the third runway? (906271)

We do need an upgrade across many different forms of infrastructure, and that will have very important benefits to the steel industry, including in Sheffield.

It is hugely encouraging that the Government are developing their comprehensive industrial strategy, which I believe will give a great boost to confidence in our steel industry. Will the Minister update the House on what early discussions he has had with the industry about its role in that?

I have had extensive discussions with the steel industry over the summer, as my hon. Friend will understand. It is very important that we should have a sustainable future for what has been, and is, a very important sector in our economy.

T9. The huge Hanjin Shipping line has gone into receivership, leaving between £12 billion and £16 billion-worth of goods at sea. The inability to dock is projected to have an impact on UK retail, particularly during Christmas trading. More importantly, UK seafarers— (906273)

Seafarers such as Scots cadets are stuck at sea. What action is the Minister taking to assist retailers, and will he speak to his Foreign and Commonwealth Office counterpart to get help for our seafarers?

I will take that point away. On the immediate impact, I know that the local enterprise partnership is engaged in ensuring that the delays will be overcome.

Many will commend the Secretary of State for putting science, and in particular life sciences, front and centre in his industrial strategy. I wonder whether, as he plans the future of that industry, he could work closely with the Secretary of State for Health, given that the attitude to innovation of the industry’s largest customer, the national health service, will be critical to the industry’s growth in the decades to come?

I certainly will. I was interested to read my hon. Friend’s article in the newspaper earlier this week, which made that point. It is important that the Government take a collective approach, and I have already had discussions with my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary about how we can make the most of the NHS in life science.

Will the Government look again at the unjust 50% Government clawback from the mineworkers’ pension scheme surplus?

I will certainly take that point away, and I am happy to meet the hon. Lady if she would like to inform me about that outside the Chamber.

Does the Department intend to develop a single industrial strategy for the whole country or different industrial strategies for different parts of the country?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It seems essential to me that we should have a strategy for the whole country, but place is incredibly important, and the challenges of places such as Greater Manchester are different from those of Cornwall. We should reflect more clearly the different strengths and opportunities of different places in how we do business as a Government.

Does the Minister accept that the changes to subsidy for the biomass combined heat and power plants have been brought in too quickly, and that a longer grace period should have been granted before implementation? BSW Timber in my constituency, which is doing what the Government want by investing in renewable technology, stands to lose up to £3 million in support. Will the Minister meet me to discuss these changes and talk about what—

Order. Let me say in all kindness and charity to the hon. Gentleman that he was at his best at the end of the first sentence. A blue pencil should thereafter have been applied.

I think the hon. Gentleman is a former treasurer of the Scottish National party, so he knows a bit about the challenge of cost control. He knows that in the context of these changes, our overriding priority is to provide better value for the taxpayer.

The changes will apply to new participants according to when they fully qualify for the scheme, and those that fully qualified on or after 1 August will be subject to the change.

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise a specific constituency case with me, I am happy to meet him.

Brexit provides the UK with an opportunity to be the global leader in such energy technologies as offshore wind, energy storage, and carbon capture and storage. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Government will reset energy policy so that the country can take full advantage of this great opportunity?

My hon. Friend is right that one of the historic strengths of the United Kingdom is in areas such as marine engineering and power engineering, which are at the heart of the opportunities that exist around the world as many countries look to develop their capacity in renewable energy. That provides a big opportunity, especially for his constituents.

Can the Secretary of State guarantee that all employment protections currently enjoyed by British workers will be maintained after Brexit, and will he back my Bill to do just that?

The financial viability of many low-carbon on-site heat and power technologies is under threat owing to the reduction in the biogas tariff. Will the Department consider a separate tariff for the new gasification technologies, rather than treating them the same as other technologies such as anaerobic digestion?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are reviewing how the renewable heat incentive works and have been forced to make some changes to tariffs in order to provide better value for the taxpayer’s money, but I am more than happy to sit down with him and talk about his suggestion.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his place, as I do my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig), who I know will be a doughty champion for his new brief.

A new report from Professor Alex Kemp of Aberdeen University suggests that the re-engineering of the UK continental shelf fiscal regime may be necessary before we can reach the North sea’s full potential. What further support will the Government offer the oil and gas sector in the autumn statement?

I had a productive set of discussions with representatives of the oil and gas sector in Aberdeen in the summer. The industry, which is centred in Aberdeen but involves other places in the country, is very important. We have made big changes to the fiscal regime, as the hon. Lady knows, which have been beneficial, but we will continue to have discussions about that.

The Secretary of State described himself earlier as being engaged in an historic task of writing industrial strategy, but surely if he studies history, he will know that industrial strategy is written predominantly by civil servants, and that Ministers tend to fail. What steps will he take to engage businesses in Lancashire to make sure that we have a successful strategy?

I certainly will take such steps, and I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s point. Obviously an industrial strategy for the country should not consist of instructions from Ministers or civil servants to businesses and the rest of the country. We are engaging with businesses across the country and in every sector to ensure that they have the support they need.

Does the Secretary of State believe that it is conceivable that this country could negotiate full membership of the single market without accepting freedom of movement?

The hon. Gentleman entices me into making early decisions on what our negotiating mandate should be. I think the sensible step is to be careful and to put together our negotiating brief, in consultation with businesses in every part of the country.

I welcome the Government’s continuing commitment to the northern powerhouse. Will the Secretary of State meet me and council leaders to discuss how we can maximise the contribution that northern Lincolnshire can make to the project and reap the maximum benefit?

I am always keen to meet my hon. Friend. Despite the fact that I have moved from one Department to another, I hope the invitation to fish and chips in Cleethorpes still stands.

I understand that the Secretary of State has met many businesses over the past few months. Will he list which of those businesses support leaving the single market?

We are putting together the priorities for our negotiation in consultation with businesses in all parts of the country. The hon. Lady will have the chance to contribute to that through the Scottish Government, and we will publish it when we have finished.

We have 50 Airbnb properties in Newark, and Uber has cut the cost of a night out in Nottingham by almost 50%. Will the Secretary of State follow the lead of his predecessor by supporting innovative, disruptive technologies rather than letting us bury our heads in the sand?

My hon. Friend rightly highlights the importance of innovation in driving industrial growth, and it will undoubtedly be at the centre of the industrial strategy as it is rolled out.

Following the recommendation of the Select Committee to remove Paul Newby as pubs adjudicator, new evidence has emerged that shows that he failed to properly declare his interests and also misled the Select Committee. So far, he has refused to resign. Will the Secretary of State now restore confidence in that post by sacking him?

My understanding is that the appointment followed a proper process. That is what I understand to have taken place, but I will look at the suggestions that the hon. Gentleman has just raised.

Order. I am genuinely sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues. I have extended the envelope rather substantially, but we must now move on.

Point of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have been contacted by leading business people up and down the country regarding the efficiency and effectiveness of Members of this House. There are informal ratings of how hard parliamentarians work, but there is no official kitemark. I wonder whether you could investigate whether we could look at which Members are fat or lazy and which ones are hard-working and innovative. Is it not about time we looked at Members—some of them in the leafy suburbs and leafy parts of Britain—who do not have much casework? They do not do very much—of course, we know that. Those in the towns and cities work much harder. Could we have an evaluation of who works hard in this House and a kitemark showing that to our constituents?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his suggestion through the device of a point of order. I ought, first of all, to say that there is nothing wrong with being fat—at any rate, it is certainly not for the Chair to pass judgment on these matters, and I would get into hot water, and very properly so, if I were to start casting aspersions on body shape. I will simply say, although I am sure the hon. Gentleman was not seeking my approbation, and he has no need of it, that he himself is slim, assiduous and endlessly energetic, as his continued re-election by the people of Huddersfield for the last 37 years, I think, readily testifies. At any rate, he appears to enjoy their enthusiastic approval. We will leave it there for now.

Bill Presented

Laser Pens (Regulation of Sale, Ownership and Usage) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Rehman Chishti, supported by Maggie Throup, Mr Nigel Dodds and Martin Vickers, presented a Bill to make the sale, ownership and use of portable laser emitting devices with output power of more than 1 milliwatt unlawful in certain circumstances; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 2 December, and to be printed (Bill 64).

Unsolicited Marketing Communications (Company Directors)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a bill to enable the Information Commissioner’s Office to take action against company directors for breaches of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 relating to unsolicited marketing communications made by a company; and for connected purposes.

Since I was elected last year, I have been campaigning to tackle the scourge of nuisance calls, which blight the lives of far too many of our constituents across the United Kingdom. I can vouch for the fact that this is a huge problem faced by far too many of my constituents, and I know that there is a similar picture across Scotland and across the United Kingdom. It is time that named company directors of the companies that are responsible for nuisance calls are held to account instead of fines for breaches in the law being imposed on companies that then close down and are reopened under a different name, thus allowing fines for breaches of the law to go unpaid.

Being bombarded with nuisance calls and texts is not only an annoying interruption to people’s lives—it can be deeply distressing to the hundreds of thousands who endure them on a daily basis. They are a blight on the lives of too many members of our communities, and particularly upsetting for those who are vulnerable. Research from Which? last year found that 74%, or three quarters, of people with a landline and 58%—six out of 10—people with a mobile phone have reported a nuisance call. Six out of 10 people have indicated that cold calls have actively discouraged them from picking up their landline when it rings. While most of us—80%—say that we find cold calls annoying, one third of people receiving such calls admit to feeling intimidated by them, and about one third of people screen their calls to minimise unsolicited calls on their landlines. Beyond this, other things are worth remembering. Thirty-two per cent. of people who receive a nuisance call receive more than 10 calls over four weeks, and 12% of people receive more than 20 calls over four weeks. Thirty-five per cent. of these calls are marketing calls.

We are all forced to tolerate the appalling nuisance of aggressive and persistent marketing calls. However, Ofcom has found, disturbingly, that people aged over 55 and those who are unemployed tend to receive a higher number than any other group of people. There has been a clear trend showing a marked increase in the number of calls received by the over-55s. Many of us can choose to simply ignore calls if we suspect that a nuisance call is being made to us, but let us consider what happens if someone is elderly, frail, and dependent on their landline. They may either answer their phone when it rings so as not to miss calls from relatives checking that all is well, or ignore their phone when it rings to avoid nuisance calls. If they do not answer their phone immediately, their relatives may think that something has happened to them—perhaps that they have had a fall. They need to answer their phone, but the cost of doing so is having to tolerate numerous nuisance calls each day. People are being harassed and subject to real annoyance, which creates anxiety and distress every day, several times a day. It is simply not good enough.

There are those who advise that if we are plagued by nuisance calls we should install a call blocker. However, these do not come as standard on all phones. In any case, buying a call blocker means that one has to go to the expense of doing so, with the cheapest being about £40. Why should consumers be driven to this expense? Why is the onus and responsibility on the consumer and not on the company causing distress?

The UK Government have taken measures to tackle this scourge by insisting on caller ID. That is a step forward, but it deals with the symptoms and not the root cause. In April last year, the Information Commissioner’s Office had removed from it the need to prove that a company making unsolicited marketing calls had caused distress. Again, that is a step forward, but more needs to be done. Last year, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport made supportive noises about the change to the law that I am proposing. I hope that those positive noises prove to be true. The Scottish Government are using what limited powers they have under consumer protection provisions, but much more needs to be done.

Companies that unlawfully make unsolicited marketing communications by phone or text can be fined by the regulator—the Information Commissioner’s Office—if it is found that they have not complied with the rules on the use of consumers’ personal data. However, enforcement action is taken against the company rather than named company directors, which means that too many companies do not treat compliance with the law on marketing communications as a board-level issue. Too many rogue directors avoid paying fines by closing one company, starting up another with a new name—a practice known as phoenixing—and continuing their activity. That is why only four out of 22 such fines imposed have been paid in full, according to Which? This Bill would make senior company executives accountable if their company failed to comply with the rules on unsolicited communications, and hold directors to account where the company did not pay the fine, even if the company phoenixes.

Under the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, the Information Commissioner’s Office can currently take action only against a company rather than a named individual where marketing communications are made on behalf of a corporation. If we hold culpable senior executives at board level accountable for the company’s practices, those individuals would need to ensure that the company’s practices were in line with the law or face personal action, which could lead to disqualification as a company director in some cases.

The enforcement regime under the 2003 regulations is an extension of the enforcement regime under the Data Protection Act, which already includes a rule that allows individual company officers to be held accountable for certain breaches of it. However, that rule does not currently extend to breaches of the 2003 regulations.

This Bill would allow the Information Commissioner’s Office to take action against company directors for breaches not only of the Data Protection Act, but of the 2003 regulations. That means that the Information Commissioner’s Office could take action directly against directors where they allow their company to commit breaches or fail to pay fines. Where the director is convicted of a criminal offence, they could also be subject to disqualification.

That would help to tackle the root cause of this blight on our citizens’ lives in their very own homes. Technological advances mean that those who make nuisance calls can churn out automated calls at the rate of millions each day. This Bill would improve life for all of us. I believe that it would be welcomed by legitimate businesses, which face a crisis in consumer confidence, as rogue businesses undermine the entire relationship between legitimate business and consumers.

There is a huge amount of support for the alterations to the law that this Bill would make, with 79% of those surveyed agreeing that the directors of companies should be held personally accountable if their company makes these calls without the necessary permission. This Bill, importantly, would not incur any additional cost for the taxpayer, as no additional Government funding would be needed to implement or enforce it. Given the scale of the problem of nuisance calls, and given this Bill’s attempts to tackle the problem at source instead of tackling the symptoms, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Patricia Gibson, Kirsten Oswald, Dr Lisa Cameron, Roger Mullin, John Nicolson, Anne McLaughlin, Joanna Cherry, Corri Wilson, Alan Brown, Jonathan Edwards, Liz Saville Roberts and Hywel Williams present the Bill.

Patricia Gibson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on 18 November, and to be printed (Bill 65).

Digital Economy Bill

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

We live in a digital economy. Almost £600 billion of online sales were made in the UK in 2014. That is the largest per capita online sales figure in the world, of all the major economies, at just over £1,500 per head. To put that figure in context, it is more than 50% higher than that of the United States, which is the next highest valued market. The rate of job creation in digital industries is nearly three times as fast as in the rest of the economy; it was 1.56 million in 2014, and it is growing. Supporting the digital economy was core to our manifesto, and that is why this Bill is a central plank of the Government’s legislative programme in this Session. The Government are working tirelessly to help people and businesses to benefit from digital.

On that point about benefit, is the purpose of part 5 to claim rights of ownership over all data? The definition of benefit in clause 29 is so broad that I cannot think of a piece of information that would elude it. Can the Secretary of State name a piece of information that falls without that clause?

I think my right hon. Friend has just made a bid to serve on the Bill Committee. He has clearly taken a great interest in the Bill—although, as a former Whip, I wonder whether that much interest qualifies anybody to be anywhere near a Bill Committee. I assure him that that is not the function of the Bill or the intention behind it. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be able to explore that question further during our line-by-line scrutiny in Committee.

To return to digital, our £1.7 billion roll-out plan means that 95% of all homes and businesses will have access to superfast speeds by 2017. We have one of the fastest 4G roll-outs in Europe, and 98% of premises will have indoor 4G coverage by the end of 2017.

My right hon. Friend raises, quite rightly, the impressive programme for the roll-out of superfast broadband. Does she share my concern that too many new homes are still being built without that as standard? Will she work with her colleagues across the Government to make sure that that situation changes?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention. When she was Secretary of State, she was involved in much of the work that has put us in the situation we are in today. That is an extremely good situation, but there is still much more to do. She makes an important point about new build, and I assure her that I am discussing it with my colleagues in Cabinet.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on her new post and welcome her to it? I pay tribute to her predecessor and to the former Minister with responsibility for the digital economy, who did assiduous work on this. The Secretary of State mentioned 95% coverage by 2017 and linked it with mobile coverage, but many of the areas in the 5% that will not be covered do not have 4G or 3G coverage either. Will she tell the House that when the roll-out plan for universal broadband is done, she will consider giving that to areas such as mine, which could be a pilot scheme? It is a serious point, because if people do not have mobile or broadband, they do not have communications in the 21st century.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I have a similar constituency, so I know well what it is like to be in the last 5%. This is all about connected and joined-up digital, and making sure that we give everybody access to the digital economy, whether they are in the final 5% or in the 95% that is already in the plans. I will say more about the universal service obligation shortly.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to shaping the digital world to ensure that no one is left behind. Is she aware that those who are deaf or who have hearing loss are being excluded by the lack of subtitling? That is required on linear television, but it is not provided on the vast majority of on-demand services. Will she look at that exclusion? There is a huge opportunity to amend the Bill, so will she think again about extending the Communications Act 2003 to include the deaf and those with hearing loss?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I am aware of that point; it has been raised with me, and I am working on it with the Minister for Digital and Culture to improve the situation. I hope that the hon. Lady agrees that there has been progress in that area, but I fully take the point that we always need to do more. If she will forgive me, I will make some progress now, because I am aware that many right hon. and hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.

When it comes to broadband coverage, we are ahead of our major European competitors. In 2015, the UK maintained its No. 1 position for the widest access to superfast broadband, ahead of Germany, France, Italy and Spain. That connectivity drives business. Edinburgh, for example, has a thriving FinTech sector; Cardiff and Swansea have a particular specialism in cyber-security; Belfast’s strengths include app and software development; and Manchester boasts a world-class digital media cluster. The Government are supporting and enabling that, by providing funding through Tech City and supporting businesses through UK Trade & Investment.

Most fundamentally, we are ensuring that our citizens have the skills to keep the UK ahead. We were one of the first countries in the world to put computer coding in the national curriculum, and we are focusing on digital skills for adults, so that no one is left behind. The House may be interested to know that last year the most popular A-level was mathematics, and I am extremely pleased to hear that it is doing so well in the A-level stakes.

The Government are also digitally transforming. Our Government Digital Service has made us one of the world’s first “digital by default” countries—a model that has been copied around the globe. We are aggressively modernising the way in which the Government interact with citizens. Managing information well brings benefits, such as allowing drivers to share their licence information with insurers and car hire companies, which makes transactions faster. There is a new system to ensure that the electoral roll tallies with benefits data to stamp out fraud, and there are automatic fuel discounts for vulnerable pensioners.

On sharing information, does the Secretary of State agree that technologies such as blockchain will challenge how we share information and, critically for the financial sector, how we make payments more quickly and get rid of the middle man?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We are already looking at this and trialling it. The more we can do to use data and digital to enable people to transact more quickly, the better. Clearly, we have the challenges of data protection; we must ensure that people’s data are protected. There is a tension, but it is one that we are acutely aware of and working on.

We can be proud of our successes, but the Government’s ambitions are greater than that. Although 19 in 20 premises will be able to access superfast broadband, one in 20 will not. For that significant minority, the Bill brings good news. Implementation of the new broadband universal service obligation will require the designated communications provider to connect customers on demand at an affordable price. Eventually, technological developments will allow everyone to have a superfast connection, but until then the Bill will provide a safety net, so that by 2020 a minimum broadband speed of 10 megabits per second should be available. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) murmurs from a sedentary position, but that is the absolute minimum safety net.

The Secretary of State forced me—she virtually begged me—to stand up. I hear all the self-congratulation, and as much as I admire the former Minister with responsibility for the digital economy, the truth of the matter is that the original target was to get all the superfast broadband done by May 2015. That target has not been met, and the new target is December 2017. The Secretary of State is talking about a superfast speed that would not be recognised as superfast anywhere else in Europe, and 10 megabits per second is simply not enough to deliver for this country.

I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) will be delighted to be admired by the hon. Gentleman, but the hon. Gentleman is simply misrepresenting the position. Is he saying he is opposed to that position? Is he saying he is opposed to the Bill? Is he saying he is opposed to the measures in the Bill, which will make sure we have the maximum roll-out so everybody has access to broadband?

The Secretary of State is asking me questions now. It is normally the other around. If she is going to keep on stimulating me in this way, let me say that, no, I think the Bill should be far more ambitious. We should be making sure that 4G is available to everybody, not have 70% of people in rural areas not getting any 4G at all, and we should have a universal service obligation of 15 megabits per second.

The hon. Gentleman should listen to the rest of my speech and then support the measures the Government are introducing. We want to make sure that we deliver—to ensure that there is access to broadband, that there is access to 4G and that everybody is connected.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, notwithstanding the comments of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), no infrastructure, resources or finances were in place to deliver the USO previously, and that substantial progress has been made during the past six years to get on with the job?

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, as he always does. He is absolutely right. I want to make it clear that the Government will not allow people to be left behind. Whether they are running a business, staying in touch with distant family, watching catch-up television or helping children with homework, everyone should have a right to decent connectivity.

I want to make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

To engage citizens digitally, we need the market for communications services to work for them. They need to be able to assess quality, and they need to navigate an increasingly complex array of choices. They also need to be confident that in making such choices they will not suffer hassle and disruption, and end up disconnected and out of pocket. The fact that recent surveys show that less than half of respondents trust their communications provider and that customer satisfaction in the sector is low is a real worry. The future of our economy depends on digital connectivity, and the Bill will address these problems head-on.

Consumers need information, but not the spreadsheets and reports that Ofcom produce. During the summer, the Competition and Markets Authority argued that to guide consumers in choosing banking services, apps need to be developed to guide consumers through the plethora of different products. This is no gimmick. These are technologies to empower consumers and drive the economy, and the communications sector is no different. The Bill provides the necessary powers to ensure that we can deliver this change—informing consumers, helping them to switch providers and compensating them if things go wrong.

Underlying such support for consumers, we need a strong and effective regulator that is able to tackle market failures and to keep the system in balance. Ofcom needs to make important decisions not just on implementing consumer-switching regimes, but on how core infrastructure is accessed and shared, how the radio spectrum is licensed and managed and how we can grow connectivity and capacity, migrating from yesterday’s copper to tomorrow’s fibre technologies.

Given that the extent of fibre to premises is so low in this country at only 1%—we are in danger of falling behind other countries in future—should not the regulator be confident in looking at the monopoly and in breaking it up where necessary to encourage more investment and competition? Does not BT’s monopoly with Openreach now need attention?

Order. The intervention was too long. A lot of Members wish to speak in the debate. It is very selfish behaviour.

This is related to the right hon. Gentleman’s point. What comfort can the Secretary of State offer my constituents, in relation to developments in the heart of our capital city without fibre connectivity, who are trying to engage with BT Openreach to get a connection and are getting no response, even through me?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman contact me, and I will make sure that those points are raised. In response to my right hon. Friend, I have been clear that we will not stop or cease until we get the right result. If that means the structural separation of BT and Openreach, this Government are prepared to consider that. Ofcom has made some recommendations. We are looking carefully at them, and Ofcom is consulting on them. We need to make sure we get it right and that we get this delivered, but nothing is off the table.

The Bill will ensure that Ofcom is held to account, but not at the expense of delay and intransigence. As well as holding industry to account, we must of course be supportive. The Bill will bring billions of pounds of benefits to industry. The new electronic communications code recognises that digital connectivity is as important as a connection to water or electricity supplies. Providing new rights to install communications infrastructure will herald a revolution in rural connectivity, bringing the digital economy to all parts of our nation.

I would be very grateful if my right hon. Friend outlined how the reforms—for example, to prevent abuse of the wayleave system—will reduce the costs of providing infrastructure, so that places such as my Chipping Barnet constituency can get full access to fast fibre broadband?

If my right hon. Friend will allow me, I will come on to that later in my speech.

As well as reforming land rights, the Government are reforming the planning system. I think that my right hon. Friend was referring to that. The Minister for Housing and Planning will shortly introduce regulations to ease the installation of vital masts to fill not spots. The Bill will ensure that the planning reforms introduced in 2013 for five years, for poles and cabinets, can be made permanent.

The radio spectrum—the invisible resource on which all modern technology relies—will be better managed to ensure that we maximise capacity and avoid interference and that the UK is ready for the arrival of 5G, the future of mobile connectivity. We will lead the world on that, thanks to this Government’s £11.6 million investment in the innovation centre at the University of Surrey.

As well as access and infrastructure, the Bill will tackle harm online. First, our manifesto pledged to protect children from online pornography. Children now spend more time online than watching television, and one in five children recently surveyed had encountered pornographic images that had upset them.

I of course support the Government’s intention to protect children from inappropriate content, but does the Secretary of State agree that compulsory, age-related sex and relationships education in our schools must be central to protecting children?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about having age-appropriate and good-quality sex education in schools, as I very much advocated during my previous job in the Home Office. However, we need to be clear that we have an incredible problem of pornographic images being available to children. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reports that children as young as seven are being treated for addiction to pornography. This cannot be addressed through one measure alone, but the measures in the Bill will help. There is no silver bullet; a joined-up approach across the whole Government is needed to deal with it. I hope that he agrees that as we age-classify films, restrict age-inappropriate broadcasts to after the watershed, put age-inappropriate magazines on the top shelf and keep children out of sex shops, so equivalent and proportionate measures are needed online.

The Government have already made good progress on this subject. Frist, since 2013, public wi-fi is automatically filtered and pornography is blocked in many places that children regularly visit. Following agreement with the Government, the four largest internet service providers offer their customers family-friendly filters, which, since last year, are now turned on by default. The Bill now goes further. Pornographic websites will be required to have adequate age verification, which is equivalent to what the gambling industry already implements. The regulator will pass on details of the non-compliant to credit card companies and other service providers to enable them to withdraw business support. We will drive cultural change in the sector to ensure that children are protected.

Secondly, we will protect consumers from nuisance calls. The Government have already taken steps on this matter. In May, we required direct marketers no longer to withhold their caller identification information, so that consumers can see the number of who is ringing. The Information Commissioner seeks to enforce the law, and we will help her further by placing the direct marketing code on a statutory footing, so that penalties stick.

Thirdly, we will help to protect businesses from attacks on their intellectual property. Burglars can be sentenced for 10 years in prison, but the criminal gangs making vast sums of money through exploiting the online creations of others only face a two-year sentence. We will increase the sentence to 10 years. Criminals such as Paul Mahoney, who profited by almost £300,000 and cost industry millions by facilitating access to illegal films on the internet, need to be sent a clear message. We need to ensure that enforcement agencies and their partners have the right set of tools to tackle all types of piracy, which is why those measures are so important. We will make it easier to register designs, cutting costs for our creative industries while increasing protections.

As we build our digital economy, investing in infrastructure and empowering citizens, the Government must transform and become more digital. The Government want to use and manage the vast amounts of information we keep better. Let me be clear that that is not to develop some Big Brother state that sees and knows everything. We want to manage information better for the same reason that shopkeepers, farmers, insurers, car manufacturers, educators—practically anyone in our economy who has ambition—do. Quite simply, we want to deliver better services—to create, to improve and to deliver in the public interest, for the citizen’s benefit.

The Bill will allow public services to be targeted and delivered better. If one arm of the public sector knows who needs a service and the other arm is trying to deliver that service, the two need to be brought together, to work for the public benefit. Of course, we are doing that already in many places, but often only after legislating to enable specific data-sharing arrangements. All that takes time—time we do not have and can now save because of the Bill.

As the private sector knows well, information is a mineable commodity, from which value can be extracted. That value to the Government will come in better decisions, based on quality research and statistics. The Bill will allow us to spot problems and grasp opportunity for the benefit of everyone.

We will shortly be publishing the draft BBC charter for the next 11 years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) led one of the largest and most open consultations ever conducted, and the new charter will provide the foundations for a stronger, more independent, more distinctive BBC that will inform, educate and entertain for many years to come.