Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 616: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2016

In the first 100 days since the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was created, we have made substantial progress across all our responsibilities. We have confirmed Hinkley Point C, the first new nuclear power station for a generation. We have seen British engineering praised following Nissan’s decision to produce the Qashqai and the X-Trail at its Sunderland plant. We have ratified the Paris agreement on climate change to keep the global temperature rise to below 2° C. With the national minimum wage increasing and the number of UK businesses at a record high, this Department is investing in our long-term industrial growth in an economy that works for everyone.

This week, a delegation from the University of Leeds is focusing on encouraging research partnerships with businesses and academics in India, as part of the Prime Minister’s visit. Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending Leeds University and businesses in the city for helping to build a reputation for the city as an excellent centre for learning and innovation?

I will indeed join my hon. Friend in congratulating the University of Leeds. In fact, I initiated this week’s tech summit in India during a visit to India two years ago, so I am delighted that it is taking place. I took a party of vice-chancellors with me on that occasion. He is absolutely right that Leeds plays a formidable part in the scientific excellence of the north.

I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that no walls or media devices have been harmed in the formulation of this question—nor have they ever been.

In the light of the enthusiasm for workers’ rights expressed in yesterday’s debate by the Secretary of State, will he join me in offering his support to delivery riders? These workers are seeking union recognition as part of their fight against bogus self-employment and to secure employment rights, such as sick pay and holiday pay. Will he commit his Government to helping in whatever way they can?

The hon. Gentleman might have noticed that we have commissioned a review of these new employment practices, which Labour did not do when it was in government. There is perhaps a problem for him in that the review is being led by Matthew Taylor. I do not know whether the former head of the policy unit under Tony Blair counts as a person he trusts with the review; nevertheless, he is engaged with the review and will report to the Government and to the House.

T2. Returning to the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project, does the Minister agree that a decision to proceed, making use of expertise in power generation provided by GE Energy in Rugby, would provide an opportunity for the UK to become a leader in this sector? (907139)

I will not add to what we have already said about the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, but I want to celebrate—the industrial strategy will celebrate—the work of world-leading companies such as GE Energy in my hon. Friend’s constituency and their capacity to benefit from opportunities arising from low-carbon technologies.

T3. I have always got on very well with the Secretary of State, but may I ask him not to be complacent? I have just been to a meeting of the leaders of Russell Group universities, who are saying that the sector is in meltdown post-Brexit in terms of staff, students, and research and innovation. What is the plan? I am known for asking, “What’s the plan, Stan?” What is his plan to put this right? (907140)

Our universities and scientific institutions continue to be the best in the world. We are opening the Francis Crick Institute this very week, which is an emblem of our leadership in this sector. As the hon. Gentleman will see as we discuss our industrial strategy in the weeks and months ahead, I am determined that reinforcing the position of scientific excellence and innovation will be central to our economy and to how we project the strategy forward.

T6. A key factor in the success of any industrial strategy is the ability of business and industry to access the communications and technical infrastructure they need to succeed. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure such access? (907143)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we are to maintain and build on our position of excellence, we cannot be complacent about supporting infrastructure, including digital infrastructure. In my view, it needs an upgrade.

T5. The digital economy makes a big contribution in the UK, including in east London, with 43% of its exports going to other EU states. How do the Government plan to protect those exports after we have left the EU? (907142)

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that our digital infrastructure is critical to this country and its long-term economic and industrial strategy. I draw his attention to the report of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which I used to chair, on BT’s under-investment in Openreach. If he thinks that there are specific questions to address, we should revisit them after he has seen the industrial strategy.

T7. As the UK is now only 60% self-sufficient in food production, what are the Government’s strategies to encourage the next generation to enter farming and help them to invest in future food production, and therefore help to safeguard our food security? (907144)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is a vital part of the economy. It is very important that more young people are brought into farming and given the chance to do this extraordinarily interesting and valuable pursuit. This country is highly food secure. The Government support new and young farmers through the increased basic payment scheme payments and are committed to increasing the number of apprenticeships in food and farming. I cannot resist adding that I hope that people will have a chance, in due course, to study agri-tech at the New Model in Technology and Engineering institute in Herefordshire.

T8. Ministers spoke earlier about securing the best possible trade deal for the UK in the context of Brexit, but what evidence does the Secretary of State have that a new UK-EU trade agreement can be completed within two years? Do the Government accept that if such an agreement is not possible, an interim transitional arrangement will be required? (907145)

We first have to make sure, through consultation with business, industry and other groups across the country, that we get our negotiating mandate informed and right. Then we need to begin the negotiations, and then we can make those judgments.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will publish discussion papers on the industrial strategy as soon as possible and that they will reflect contributions made by Members who took part in the recent debate in the House?

I will indeed. I thank my hon. Friend and other hon. Members, including members of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, which is doing an inquiry into this. If an industrial strategy is to endure in the long term, it needs to be rooted in as great a consensus as can be achieved around it, and of course that will include contributions from Members of this House, and organisations and individuals outside it. I will engage them in those discussions over the months ahead.

T9. Thousands of Marks & Spencer staff will be worried this morning by the announcement of the threat of closure facing 60 branches that have not been identified. In the light of the disgraceful treatment of BHS staff, what more can the Minister do to encourage Marks & Spencer to consult and engage fully with staff trade unions at the earliest opportunity? (907146)

Marks & Spencer has a good record of consulting its staff. It has a regional, a local and a national body, and it consults them widely on all its plans for any changes in terms and conditions. I would add that it is rather unfair on Marks & Spencer to put it in the same bracket as BHS.

Many people in Suffolk welcome plans for a Sizewell C power station, but would the Minister not agree that it is vital that with those plans come the requisite improvements in rail and road infrastructure? Importantly, that includes looking at the pinch points on the road around the four villages of Stratford St Andrew, Farnham, Little Glemham and Marlesford.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the changes that we have made, through the growth deals and local enterprise partnerships, has been to bring major investment in line with major infrastructure improvements.

T10. Government delays mean that almost two years have passed since the last contract for difference auction in support of offshore wind. That situation is under- mining investor confidence. Will the Minister confirm that the next offshore wind auction will take place no later than January next year? (907147)

I repeat the reassurance that I gave earlier to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), whom I should have welcomed to his brief. The Government remain committed to renewable energy and will be coming forward shortly with an announcement to prove that.

The planning process for building combined cycle gas turbines on sites where coal-fired power stations have historically been situated is complex and takes too long. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss the issue and how his Department and the Department for Communities and Local Government can work together to address this matter?

Our wonderful resurgent ceramics industry, which produces high-tech cutting-edge ceramics for the future generations, is carefully watching the Government’s Brexit plans. What discussions is the right hon. Gentleman and his Department having with the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU about trade barriers, protectionist dumping by the Chinese and the wider needs of the ceramic industry?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that ceramics is a major source of competitive advantage for this country. Whenever I am in Stoke-on-Trent and the potteries, I am always impressed by the innovation that is going on there. Of course, the ceramics industry will be very well represented around the table as the Cabinet Committee considers Brexit.

There are so many advantages to Brexit that I do not know where to begin, but one of them is that we will be able to provide state aid, which we are forbidden from doing at the moment. Has my right hon. Friend considered that particular area of support?

I want our economy to be as competitive in the future as it is now, without the need for state aid to keep it so. It is on the basis of our strengths in innovation, the talent of our workforce and the industries in which we are competitive that I want us to compete with the best in the world.

During the Select Committee visit to the Shirebrook facility of Sports Direct yesterday, the positive seeds of change that we witnessed on the frontline regarding workers’ rights in the facility were contradicted by control-freakery and the surveillance of the MPs on that trip, which completely ruined all the positive things that have been happening there. We saw the surveillance of a private meeting of MPs. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is no place for this kind of behaviour in the senior parts of big business in this country, which should be outward looking and engaging with the community, not surveilling it?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I find what has been reported this morning to be extraordinary, especially for a company that has made declarations that it wants to improve its reputation and image. I merely point out that I do not think that this practice is representative. The practices in that company that the Select Committee has uncovered should not be taken as representative of the very high standards of behaviour that almost every company in Britain adheres to.

As the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) has highlighted, Ofgem’s review of embedded benefits and grid changes is in danger of having unintended consequences. One of these is the roll-out of energy storage. Will my right hon. Friend agree to look into this particular problem?

Will the Secretary of State look urgently at today’s announcement by the Royal Bank of Scotland on its funding of repayments to small businesses? Will he produce a report on the Government’s response and place it in the Library, so that we can see the Government’s view of this approach by RBS?

I have not seen the report. I will have to consider it and I will then, of course, write to the right hon. Gentleman with my reaction to it.

I commend to the Secretary of State and his team the final report of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, and particularly our recommendations on energy storage and demand-side management. I encourage my right hon. Friend to enact some of those recommendations, so that we can upgrade our energy system.

My hon. Friend provides me with an opportunity to thank all members of that Select Committee for their forensic work during its time in this House. It made very valuable contributions to public policy, and I know that its successor Committee will continue the high standard that it set. I will indeed pay close attention to the recommendations of the final report.

The restoration and renewal of this building will be a multi-billion pound infrastructure project, but all the evidence suggests that at the moment this country does not have the skills to be able to deliver it. I urge the Secretary of State to set up a specific industrial strategy to get more colleges up and down the country engaged in training people for major infrastructure and construction businesses, so that we can make sure that every single one of our constituents has an opportunity to work here?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As we acquire what I hope will be growing order books for UK companies and businesses, we will be able to fulfil them by having a workforce that is trained and skilled to the right level. The hon. Gentleman illustrates that very well.