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Commons Chamber

Volume 616: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2016

House of Commons

Tuesday 8 November 2016

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

Hunterston B Power Station

1. If he will discuss with the operators of the Hunterston B power station the reported fractures in the keyways of that power station. (907113)

The safety of operating nuclear reactors in the UK is regulated by the independent Office for Nuclear Regulation, which is satisfied that Hunterston B is safe to operate. The issues referred to by the hon. Gentleman are addressed transparently in the ONR’s most recent annual report to Parliament. The ONR will continue to oversee these issues closely and will permit a nuclear plant to operate only if it is satisfied that it is safe.

My thanks to the Minister for that. Nuclear safety is important. The blueprint for Hinkley Point C is the Flamanville European pressurised reactor in Normandy, yet in 2015 it was discovered that Flamanville’s steel reactor vessel was faulty and at risk of splitting. The French company Areva is to be a major supplier to Hinkley Point C, yet in May the independent French nuclear safety authority discovered that more than 400 of Areva’s reactor components were dodgy and Areva admitted that it may have falsified hundreds and hundreds of its safety assessments. What assurances can the Minister give the House that Hinkley Point C, if built, will be safe?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. As he may know, the issue of the anomalies and inconsistencies associated with the Areva components has been the subject of an independent review by the ONR. The ONR has made it perfectly clear that learning from the EPR under construction in Flamanville must be taken into account in the manufacture of components to be used at Hinkley Point C.

Innovation

3. What steps his Department is taking to promote innovation (a) in the regions and (b) nationally. (907115)

Innovation is at the heart of our industrial strategy. Investment in science, funding through Innovate UK, and research and development tax credits all contribute to our goal of making sure the UK remains one of the most innovative countries in the world.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The latest figures from the Patent Office show that my constituency has more patents awarded than any other district in the east midlands, more than Manchester, more than Cheshire East, and is in the top 8% in the country. May I ask that the measures we take, some of which he outlined, do not stop at urban boundaries and extend into rural areas, fully using the talents of people and businesses there, including the incredible level of talent that has been demonstrated in High Peak?

I congratulate, through my hon. Friend, the innovators in his constituency on an outstanding achievement. Let me reassure him that the Government are determined to make sure, both through the industrial strategy and tools such as the innovations audits, that we are better informed and better equipped to support innovation across the country.

The steel industry is very much an industry of the future, and innovation is part of creating that future. What are the Government doing to support research and development in the steel industry, and a metals and materials catapult?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. We had an excellent debate last week about the future for steel, and I hope I made clear to him the determination of Ministers to support the sector in moving from a story of survival to one of growth. Innovation will clearly be a very important part of that, building on the quality of British steel. As in that debate, I assure him that in the capabilities review that we are funding and accelerating, that issue will be addressed.

I know that the Minister has previously flown over The Wrekin in a Squirrel—that is a helicopter—and has complimented Shropshire. May I invite him back to the Marches local enterprise partnership, which covers Shropshire and Herefordshire? What part will LEPs play in making sure that we engage and trade with Europe?

I thank my hon. Friend for reminding me about a helicopter trip that had slipped my memory. I am sure relevant Ministers would be happy to make the visit at his invitation. He raises a fundamental point, and on the development of the industrial strategy, the Secretary of State could not have been clearer about the importance placed on LEPs and of Ministers engaging with them to understand fully the priorities and needs in each area of the country.

The Secretary of State said on “The Andrew Marr Show” that innovation in attracting foreign investment was in part about skills and training. Will there be a level playing field across the regions and the nations of the United Kingdom? Is his Department having talks with the devolved Administrations?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that in developing the industrial strategy, the development of skills and upgrading our skills base across the country must be fundamental to success, and we will of course maintain a high level of engagement with devolved Administrations.

In North Cornwall, we have a company called Water Powered Technologies that builds hydroelectric pumps, which enable businesses to generate electricity through renewable means and, of course, support the local economy in Bude. Does my hon. Friend agree that the hydroelectric sector should be encouraged more and that we should go further and develop these technologies to help consumers?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that huge potential remains for the UK to generate energy from our natural resources and our water assets. The real test in the future will be how competitive those technologies are against comparable technologies. I am sure that my hon. Friend does not need any lessons from us on the need to be very cost-conscious at this moment in time.

Brexit Britain faces a choice: an industrial strategy that invests in innovation to deliver smart, sustainable and shared growth; or the slashing of wages, rights and corporate responsibilities in a race to the bottom. Sunday’s report from Sheffield Hallam University, “Jobs, Welfare and Austerity”, put the price of the last Tory Government’s disastrous de-industrialisation strategy at £20 billion a year today. Will the Minister stop prevaricating and set out how he will invest in skills, research capacity and infrastructure to stimulate innovation in our great industrial regions?

The hon. Lady has a distinguished record and knowledge of innovation, but I do not recognise the picture she paints. She totally ignores the job creation under the previous Government and that manufacturing productivity has grown three times faster over the past 10 years than the rest of the UK economy. She is right—I have already stated the importance of this—about placing innovation at the heart of our industrial strategy, because it is key to productivity.

Infrastructure Investment

4. What steps he is taking to increase the level of infrastructure investment outside the south-east. (907116)

The Government are committed to providing significant infrastructure investment across the UK. Through the first two rounds of growth deals, the Government have allocated close to £5 billion to local enterprise partnerships outside London and the south-east to invest in their priorities for growth. With matched funding from the private sector, that is helping to deliver billions of pounds of investment in infrastructure throughout England. City and devolution deals have also committed more than £8 billion to areas outside London and the south-east through long-term investment funds; £1 billion will be in the midlands engine and £3 billion across the northern powerhouse.

Global businesses such as Kellogg’s, Airbus, JCB and Toyota have sited themselves in north-east Wales and have prospered, making the area one of the most successful industrial areas in the UK. We would love to see the hon. Gentleman there. Will he bring with him the investment that these businesses deserve for their confidence in north-east Wales as an area?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question and mourn the collegiality of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport now that I have crossed on to the Front Bench. I share his admiration for the work of those companies; I had the great pleasure of visiting Airbus only a week or so ago. I would be delighted to visit his area in due course. The Government support those strategic industries in many different areas.

In view of the announcement made by the Department for Transport this morning that parts of the west coast main line might not be electrified until 2024, does my hon. Friend not agree that it is essential that each infrastructure project dovetails with another? The third runway at Heathrow might well be built before the west coast main line is fully electrified.

I absolutely take my hon. Friend’s point, but these issues need to be considered in the round and there are provisions in the current structure for local funding to allow areas to share visions and investment potential.

The Government know how important the energy sector is to the north-east and in the past have made commitments about insisting on local content in projects such as offshore wind. What are they doing to assess, monitor and, if necessary, impose penalties when promises of local content are not met?

The Government have a rigorous assessment process for local content. Most recently, the Hinkley Point C station was subject to provisions for more than 60% local content. If the hon. Lady knows of any instances in which the Government are not following up on this, she is welcome to write to the Department.

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) about the west coast main line, may I ask about parts of the Great Western railway that have similarly been deferred this morning, which is not great news for our region? As the Secretary of State develops an industrial strategy for the south-west, will he agree to meet MPs from that region and perhaps support us in changing the mind of the Department for Transport?

I cannot speak for the Secretary of State, but the hon. Gentleman will know that several of the LEPs are my responsibility. I meet them regularly, and will continue to champion their interests.

Will the Minister outline what discussions about infrastructure investment have taken place with devolved regions and with the Chancellor in advance of the autumn statement?

I have had the opportunity to meet both Invest Northern Ireland and the Minister for the Economy in Northern Ireland, and those conversations continue. I cannot speak for colleagues, but they also have a responsibility for the devolved Administrations.

In last night’s Adjournment debate led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) failed to tell the House that he would honour the Government’s pledge to electrify the midland main line north of Kettering. There is cross-party support for this scheme, which has the best ratio of investment to benefits in the whole country. This is the third question we have had this morning about rail electrification. Will the Minister liaise urgently with the Department for Transport to get these schemes back on track?

Of course the Government recognise the concern that has been raised. This is a matter for the Department for Transport, but I have no doubt that it will be attending closely to today’s proceedings.

Counterfeit and Substandard Electrical Goods

5. What steps his Department is taking before the Christmas retail period to prevent counterfeit and substandard electrical goods from being sold. (907117)

The Government take consumer protection seriously, and robust legislation requires consumer products to be safe. My Department funds trading standards to prevent high-risk products from entering the UK. This month’s national consumer week, starting on 28 November, will focus consumer awareness on faulty electrical goods, in time for the peak Christmas retail period.

I thank the Minister for that answer. She will be aware that, as chair of the all-party group on home electrical safety, I have a keen interest in faulty, substandard and counterfeit goods. Last year’s hoverboards debacle highlights to us the dangers of internet sales. Will the Minister consider talking to her colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about introducing measures in the Digital Economy Bill to help prevent such incidents?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and congratulate her on the work of the home electrical safety all-party group. Manufacturers are required by law to take corrective action when they discover a fault, whether the fault emerges in products sold online or in the high street. In addition to local trading standards, we fund National Trading Standards, which prevents many substandard products from coming into the UK. I will liaise with colleagues in DCMS about the issue that she raises this morning and report back to her in due course.

The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) is right, as ever, especially on this point. This is not just about safety. There is a disincentive for firms to undertake research and development and develop products if they are then going to be counterfeited. Is not the moral of the story that people should not buy cheap products from back-street traders but go to renowned department stores—perhaps those which are never knowingly undersold?

I thank my hon. Friend for that advertisement for the John Lewis Partnership. I assure the House that there are many other retailers that consumers can trust, and I think I will leave my answer at that.

We would not want to give the impression that poor-quality goods are bought from small businesses. We know that small businesses do an excellent job, and the Minister is right to make that point. She is right about the impact on consumers, but does she recognise that where there is a failure to follow standards it is often British manufacturers that are undercut by cheap imports from overseas? What does she intend to do as we head forward to ensure that coming out of the EU does not mean that standards slip and British manufacturers are unfairly treated?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all standards derived from the EU that are considered by the UK Government to be necessary, as the vast majority will be, will continue to be enforced. I can reassure him also that National Trading Standards plays a vital role in cross-boundary enforcement, and the intelligence-led approach prevents many of those products from coming into the country in the first place.

Manufacturing: Leaving the EU

The UK is the ninth largest manufacturing nation in the world. My colleagues and I will continue to engage with UK manufacturing and other sectors to understand their priorities in shaping a successful Brexit and an industrial strategy that is effective in supporting competitiveness.

Nissan’s special deal is, of course, good news for workers there and for that sector, but does the Minister agree that my constituents in the manufacturing sector deserve a similar deal? Will he therefore provide this House with a full list of assurances given to the company and all the details provided to those investigating the potential state aid implications of that deal, so that we can assess the implications of that work for our overall manufacturing sector?

We ran through this last week in the statements that the Secretary of State made. The senior Nissan Europe executive Colin Lawther was very clear that the company had received no special deal, and the Secretary of State spelled out clearly the basis of the assurances given—three were about the automotive sector and one was about Brexit and our determination to make sure that in those negotiations we do not undermine the competitiveness of key industries.

Does the Minister agree that since the referendum, manufacturing has already had a Brexit dividend as a result of the fall in the value of the pound, which makes our exports much cheaper and imports more expensive, so people who produce stuff in this country have a price advantage already?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The CBI surveys and others are encouraging, but we are determined not to be complacent. Clearly, Brexit raises a number of questions and there are a number of concerns out there in sectors across the economy. It is the responsibility of this Department to engage fully with the sectors to understand their priorities for the negotiations.

Ministers should come to the beating heart of manufacturing in this country in Huddersfield. Throughout the country manufacturers are in turmoil post-Brexit. There is no Government policy and no preparation. We are going to lose markets all over Europe and replace them with nothing.

That is a very defeatist statement from someone whom I associate with sunny optimism. It is a priority for the Secretary of State that Ministers get out there and engage with areas and with LEPs to understand their priorities fully. The hon. Gentleman is too defeatist about the competitiveness of British manufacturing.

As Britain leaves the European Union, the high-value manufacturing catapult centres will play a key role in protecting innovation in the manufacturing sector. Will the Minister continue to support these centres, so that we protect our competitiveness in the future?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the catapult centres. We are extremely proud of them and we gave a manifesto commitment to continue to support them. They play a fundamental role in our vision of an innovation-led economy.

UK goods and foods can compete on quality and cost with any in the world, but freight charging can remove the cost-quality advantage. Will Ministers carry out an assessment of freight charging in other countries for the export of manufactured goods and what advantage that would give to Northern Ireland and other regions?

The Department is and will continue to be rigorous in engaging with sectors across the economy to understand the issues of competitiveness and to understand where playing fields can be levelled, so that that can inform the negotiating strategy and the industrial strategy.

An end to uncertainty for Nissan workers is deeply welcome, but there are millions of workers who want to know if they, too, have a future, and there are thousands of employers who are holding back from investment decisions, as the Engineering Employers Federation’s survey has demonstrated, until they, too, know the future. Will the Government act to end uncertainty, spelling out precisely how they will defend British manufacturing interests, otherwise it will be workers and their companies who will pay the price in Brexit Britain?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. Of course, as a west midlands MP, he sits at the heart of a region that is being very dynamic and organised in expressing its determination to compete aggressively. Let me reassure him. I recognise the uncertainty—Brexit does create tremendous uncertainty and we need to recognise that—but it is the responsibility of the Government, and my Department in particular, to liaise closely with sectors across the economy and the regions to understand their priorities and inform the negotiating strategy.

Innovation and Research: Science

7. What steps his Department is taking to encourage innovation and research in science; and if he will make a statement. (907120)

The Government are committed to making the UK the best place for science research and innovation. To achieve that, as my right hon. Friend knows, we are investing £30 billion over the course of this Parliament. We are also strengthening our research and innovation system by creating a new body, UK Research and Innovation.

I thank the Minister for that reply. In March the former Life Sciences Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), visited the Charnwood campus in Loughborough, the former AstraZeneca site, and invited it to become the country’s first life sciences opportunity zone, a hub for innovation and research in science. That bid is now on the Secretary of State’s desk, and I ask him to look on it favourably.

I can reassure my right hon. Friend that the Government remain extremely interested in life sciences opportunity zones and that we were extremely impressed by the leadership that Charnwood campus has shown in preparing its bid, which has great potential. I am assured that my colleague, the Minister for Universities and Science, is well aware of the bid and expects to make an announcement shortly.

So advanced is UK innovation and scientific knowledge that, prior to the referendum, this country made £3.5 billion more in grants for science and innovation than it put into EU funds. That is now all up in the air, and there is despair in some areas of UK science about the disentanglement that Brexit will cause and the threats to integrated innovation and science budgets. What can the Minister say to reassure us? What is the plan?

The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point about the funding for science research and innovation in this country. I think that she recognises that the science research budget has been protected in real terms, which is an extremely important commitment. We understand fully the concerns of the science community, which have been expressed to us clearly. Again, it is our responsibility to engage with those concerns and represent them. I can assure her that it is clear to us that science research and innovation is at the heart of our industrial strategy.

The Cheshire science corridor, which includes Alderley Park, the AstraZeneca site in Macclesfield and Daresbury, is strongly supported by the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the Government support that key initiative and that life sciences will be a vital part of the northern powerhouse?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the leadership he has shown in championing that agenda. He will know from his conversations with the former Life Sciences Minister and the current Secretary of State, who is committed to the agenda, that that remains very important to the Government.

Carbon Monoxide Alarms

8. What plans he has to make compliance with the BS EN 50291 safety standard mandatory for all carbon monoxide alarms that are placed on the market in the UK. (907122)

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a very serious issue. Detectors must be safe, but currently compliance with the standard is not mandatory. I will consider any evidence the hon. Gentleman has and discuss it with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, who are responsible for the construction products regulations.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I know that the Department takes a keen interest in this issue, which is a matter of concern to the whole nation. She will be aware that in November last year the BBC reported on the dangers of substandard carbon monoxide detectors being purchased online, and Which? magazine has recently highlighted the problem as well. Given the potential for loss of life, what extra measures can she take here and now to stop the purchase of substandard detectors in the UK?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I will definitely discuss the matters he raises further with the Department for Communities and Local Government. I am aware of the Which? inspection involving various tests, which found some equipment to be defective. However, last year the Government brought forward the smoke and carbon monoxide alarm regulations, covering private landlords; at least private tenants now have the absolute protection of carbon monoxide alarms being in every room used as living accommodation where solid fuel is used.

Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon Project

We will consider the findings of the independent review of tidal lagoons, due to report by the end of this year, before deciding how to proceed on the proposed Swansea bay tidal lagoon project. We hope that the review will contribute to and help develop the evidence base for that technology. That will ensure, with luck, that all future decisions made regarding tidal lagoon energy are in the best interests of the UK and represent value for money to the consumer.

I thank the Minister for that response. He knows, I am sure, how important the project is to Swansea bay and Wales, and its potential for very good news for the renewable sector across the UK. Despite the somewhat gloomy timetable—the end of the year, the Minister says—does he anticipate that the Hendry review will give the Government the assurances that they need to deliver their manifesto promise and proceed with a pioneering project that is critical to the south Wales economy and the future of the UK energy mix? In short, can we get on with it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful clarification at the end. It is widely understood that there is support for the project among many colleagues. The Government have received an early draft, but we await receipt of the final report, which is due by the end of the year. We will give it the careful consideration that such an important issue deserves.

We have a tremendous opportunity in front of us if we are ambitious to create the world’s first tidal energy industry here in the United Kingdom. Does my hon. Friend agree that key to making this work is recognising that the Swansea project is essentially a pathfinder and that the future lagoons, which will all be larger, will bring down the costs very significantly?

Yes, that has been widely suggested. It is fair to say that the issues being addressed by the review are complex and relate to a new and untried technology—potentially, a place-specific technology. The Government will need to look closely at the review’s specific conclusions and how far they can be generalised as part of a wider strategy.

The future of the British steel industry depends on the approval of vital cutting-edge projects such as the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. Will the Secretary of State please now call time on the two years of prevarication, commit to a timely and positive decision, and ensure that that decision is included in the autumn statement on 23 November?

Of course, in the context of the steel industry, it is important to recognise the commitment that the Government have made to Hinkley Point C—a major industrial commitment of their own. I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point, but we are not going to be railroaded into going beyond the timetable that has already been described. An orderly process is in place, a highly respected former Minister is running the thing, and we will be looking at the issue with the care and consideration that it deserves.

It is reliable, it is green, it would form an important part of our energy mix—and it would boost the south-west economy to boot: will the Minister support it?

I am tempted by my hon. Friend’s enticing fly, but I am not going to take it because the process must be given the proper consideration that it deserves. One of the key questions that the Hendry review and its consideration will need to address is whether the project offers proper value for money. I notice that that was not included in my hon. Friend’s list of enticing benefits.

Swansea bay tidal lagoon would power 155,000 Welsh homes for 120 years, sustain 2,232 construction and manufacturing jobs and safeguard our steel industry. Will the Government now give Swansea bay tidal lagoon the green light and trigger the new dawn of an industry worth £15 billion to Wales and the UK?

I am loving the rhapsodic language that the hon. Lady uses; to it I counterpose the boring bureaucracy of due process and proper consideration.

Business Growth Strategy

10. What steps his Department has taken to develop a long-term strategy for business growth since the UK’s decision to leave the EU. (907124)

11. What steps his Department has taken to develop a long-term strategy for business growth since the UK’s decision to leave the EU. (907125)

We are creating a business environment that supports growth and investment by cutting corporation tax, by investing in infrastructure, by expanding our world-beating science, research and innovation activities, by increasing the number of apprenticeships, and by devolving power all across Britain. Our industrial strategy will build on these strengths, and we will work with industry, local leaders, investors, workers and consumers to build the conditions for future success.

In Scotland, skills shortages in key areas have proved challenging when businesses are seeking to grow. The post-study work visa remains an important lever for promoting innovation and growth. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is now time to extend the post-study work visa pilot to include Scottish higher education institutes?

It is important that we attract the world’s brightest and best students to our fantastic universities, and all of us in the Government have a commitment to that. We have visa arrangements in place so that people can work in graduate jobs after that, and it is important that they should be able to do so.

Up to 100,000 jobs across the UK will be at risk if Brexit causes London to lose euro-denominated clearing business. The loss of that clearing business will also mean the loss of much of the financial markets’ infrastructure. What urgent action are the Government taking to stave off these dangers?

I am glad to hear that question from the hon. Gentleman, because it is true that the success of the financial services is not just about the City of London, but extends across the whole United Kingdom and, of course, Scotland. That is why it is important, in our negotiations, that we achieve the best possible deal to allow financial institutions, wherever they are in this country, to continue to trade freely across the EU.

My right hon. Friend does not need to make a plug for that. It is free markets and the knowledge that this is a competitive place to do business that accounts for our world-beating status in the G7 at the moment.

The Government regularly, and in my view rightly, promote the aviation and automotive sectors as future areas of growth in the UK economy. The world-class oil and gas industry, and particularly the exceptional supply chain, which, while centred in Aberdeen, stretches the length and breadth of the UK, is another area ripe for international development and diversification. When developing his industrial strategy, will the Secretary of State make sure that oil and gas is right at the heart of it?

I will indeed. I have visited Aberdeen already, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and I had a very fruitful conversation with not only the oil and gas industry there, but the Aberdeen chamber of commerce. It is important that this area of great strength for the UK is built on and that we extend those strengths, so that the industry can be competitive in the future.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I look forward to progress on that issue. However, whether it is oil and gas, food and drink, or the financial services sector, the attraction and retention of talent, much of which comes from elsewhere in the European Union, is absolutely central to that future. Businesses, I am sure, are saying the same things to me as they are to him. Will he ensure that we protect the status of EU nationals in discussions about leaving the EU?

Yes. The Prime Minister and my colleagues have been very clear about that. Of course we want people from the European Union who are here to continue to stay, but it is important that this is part of the discussions that we have to make sure that the rights of UK residents overseas are also recognised.

My right hon. Friend is quite right to address the importance of the oil and gas industry to Scotland, and it is also important to East Anglia. In the North sea, there are significant tax issues, which are making it harder to transfer some assets to new investors due to their near-term exposure to decommissioning. Will he liaise with his colleagues in the Treasury to come forward with proposals in the autumn statement to remove this constraint to much- needed investment?

My hon. Friend will recognise that, over recent years, there has been considerable progress and agreement between the sector and the Treasury to ensure that we have the best possible tax regime for the UK continental shelf. That will continue, and we will make sure that the regime remains competitive.

Our economy is desperately in need of more long-term strategic thinking, decision making and far less reliance on free markets and the laissez-faire approach that was mentioned earlier; I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s response to his colleague’s comments. Yet for many businesses the long term is currently a “maybe” rather than a certainty, as the uncertainty arising from Brexit places investment and survival in grave doubt. Will the Secretary of State give all companies the Nissan treatment and say how he will support all our businesses and industries through Brexit?

I am disappointed with that question. Perhaps it was rewritten by Seumas Milne when the hon. Gentleman was not looking—that might account for it. He knows very well that I will be vigorous and active right across the economy in promoting Britain as a good and competitive place to do business. That is our responsibility in government, and no one will discharge it with more vigour than me.

Small Businesses

12. What steps his Department is taking to increase opportunities for the development of small businesses. (907126)

We are committed to creating the best environment for small businesses to start and grow. The British Business Bank has provided £3.2 billion of finance to over 51,000 small businesses. The doubling of the small business rate relief will mean that 600,000 small and medium-sized enterprises will pay no rates at all.

The Minister will be pleased to hear from Rugby’s local chamber of commerce that our businesses are doing well—so well, in fact, that there is a shortage of industrial accommodation, especially smaller units, and that is holding back start-ups and small businesses wanting to grow. Can any steps be taken to encourage property developers to provide more accommodation for this important sector?

My hon. Friend works tirelessly for businesses in Rugby, and it is great to hear about their growth. I urge him to get in touch with the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP. When I visited it in September, I was advised that the Coventry and Warwickshire growth hub is providing support to local businesses that are expanding and looking to move premises.

According to the Federation of Small Businesses, of those small businesses that export, 82% export to other EU member states. What plan does the Minister have to support small businesses through Brexit?

According to the World Bank, the UK is now ranked first in the G7 and seventh out of 190 countries for ease of doing business, and that includes trade and exports, whether to the EU or outside the EU. We achieved that status while belonging to the EU, and I have no doubt that the Government are doing all they can to ensure that we will retain that status as we transition to a new relationship with the EU.

On Small Business Saturday, I will launch my third annual small business competition in Penwortham. May I invite the Minister to join me on that day? What is the Department doing to promote Small Business Saturday?

I thank my hon. Friend for her plans to get involved in Small Business Saturday on the first Saturday of December. My Department will support Small Business Saturday with events across the country to which hon. Members are invited. In particular, they should contact their LEPs to see what is going on locally and join the hon. Lady, and all of us, in visiting a small business on the first Saturday in December.

In the United States, 23% of federal Government direct spending is with small businesses; in this country, the like-for-like direct comparison is just under 11%. Is it not time that we learned from President Obama’s success in government? If we did, we would improve quality and value for money for the taxpayer, support growth for small firms and help rebalance the economy. That is what I call a plan.

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to invest more in support for SMEs, and that is precisely what we intend to do in my Department.

Business Growth: North of England

Our investments in the northern powerhouse continue to support the growth of businesses in the north and are helping to build an economy that works for all.

Work on Yorkshire’s largest economic project—a potash mine on the North York Moors—and the drilling of the UK’s first shale gas well since 2011 are both planned to commence early in 2017, but much of the associated traffic will travel down a single lane of the A64. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and representatives from the Department for Transport and the Treasury to see how we can make sure we have the necessary infrastructure upgrades to support those key economic developments?

It would be a pleasure to meet my hon. Friend. One of the reasons why we have created the local enterprise partnerships and the growth deals is to make sure that the investment in infrastructure can go alongside economic development, and that is a big step forward.

19. Businesses in the north-west of England have expressed to me their concern about Ofgem’s announcement that local generators will no longer receive embedded benefits, which reflect their local generation and transmission. There has been no consultation on these proposals. Will the Secretary of State undertake to consult local businesses before any changes are introduced? (907136)

The hon. Lady knows that when it comes to energy, it is very important that we have regard to the costs that are incurred by consumers, whether they are private residential consumers or businesses. That is why these decisions have to be taken to contain the costs that would be on bills.

Clean and Reliable Energy

15. What steps his Department is taking to ensure the increased use of clean and reliable energy sources. (907131)

The Government are committed to upgrading our energy infrastructure to make sure it is reliable, affordable and increasingly clean. The phasing out of coal and our commitment to new nuclear and new renewables through the next round of contract for difference auctions are key milestones in the energy transition that is under way.

Tidal power represents one of the cleanest and most reliable types of green renewable energy. I am sorry to bring the Minister back to this topic, but may I again press him, due process notwithstanding, to make his decision on the future of the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project as swiftly as possible?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his persistence in pressing this point. I have nothing to add to the bureaucratic prose that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), has placed so elegantly on the record. We will look at the matter seriously.

The UK has slipped to 14th place in Ernst and Young’s renewable energy country attractiveness index. It is our lowest ever placing, behind the likes of Chile and Morocco. EY states that various Government actions, as well as Brexit,

“have dealt a blow to the country’s already floundering renewable energy sector and its attractiveness in the eyes of investors.”

I know that the Minister, who is committed to this issue, will be concerned about that. What steps are the Government actively taking and what steps will be taken soon to secure energy confidence and investment to ensure that this promising and vital sector can flourish?

It is good to see the hon. Gentleman back safe and sound from his visit to Sports Direct.

I refute the point that the hon. Gentleman makes; it is worth recognising that the average annual investment in renewables has more than doubled in the past five years, with an average of £9 billion invested each year in UK-based renewables. We have made extraordinary strides in building renewable capacity in this country under this Government, and we expect to announce further steps shortly.

Another source of clean renewable energy is geothermal and Cornwall is the best place in the country for its development. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the Government’s support for the development of geothermal in Cornwall, and—even better—will he come and visit?

I know my hon. Friend to be a great champion of his area and of innovation there. Cornwall has interesting assets in relation to geothermal. I have written to him, but I can place on record here that the answer is yes.

On clean energy, we are close to the first anniversary of the announcement by the Secretary of State’s predecessor that all unabated coal generation would close by 2025 and that a consultation on that closure would be launched in spring 2016. As we can see, it is not spring any more, and no consultation appears to be in sight. Is that because the Department is reconsidering his predecessor’s commitment, or because the Department has not got around to writing the consultation yet?

The hon. Gentleman will not have to wait much longer for the answer to that question. The Government are committed to the transition from coal to clean energy. In fact, he will know that this year is the first in which we will generate more electricity from renewable energy than we do from coal.

Topical Questions

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.

Speaker’s Statement

Before we come to the urgent question, I should like to make a brief statement.

As the House will know, one of my priorities as Speaker is to support the development of emerging and developing democracies around the world. I believe that we all have a duty, as parliamentarians, to support and to champion those who are fighting for democracy in what are often difficult and challenging situations. Accordingly, I am pleased to inform the House that I am today launching a new initiative, the Speaker’s Democracy Award. The intention is to allow the House to recognise and celebrate individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the development of democratic societies and institutions across the world. I will be writing to all Members later today with more information about the award, and to invite colleagues to suggest the names of individuals who should be considered for it.

I should like to thank, very warmly, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) for agreeing to serve with me on the Committee that will make the award, as well as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who initially suggested the idea to me. I hope that colleagues will nominate candidates, and thereby support this initiative to recognise those who are doing so much for the cause of democracy.

UN Vote on the Independent Expert for the LGBT Community

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the planned United Nations vote on the validity of a UN independent expert for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for her question, and warmly welcome her reappointment to the Front Bench.

As the House may know, the issue before us concerns the United Nations Human Rights Council and its recent very welcome decision to create the post of independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, or, in House parlance, what we could call LGBT. The person chosen for that role was Mr Vitit Muntarbhorn, from Thailand. The United Kingdom was successfully re-elected to the Human Rights Council only last month, but we are now having to campaign in New York, where a group of African delegations have challenged the mandate of the independent expert and are trying to reverse the decision and the appointment. I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me an opportunity to explain the steps we are taking, which I am certain will enjoy the support of the whole House. We are obviously strongly opposed to this attempt to reverse the mandate and to block the final approval of the process—something that should be seen as straightforward and procedural.

Opponents of this important mandate misunderstand its nature, which is proportionate and was properly established by the Human Rights Council. Since Friday night, when we discovered that this was happening, the UK’s entire diplomatic network has been making that point in every capital across the globe. Only this morning, for instance, my noble Friend Baroness Anelay, who is visiting Sri Lanka, secured the agreement of her hosts in Colombo to join us by supporting an amendment tabled by a group of Latin American countries, which were the main proponents of the appointment in the first place.

The Government, and all in the House, believe that the chance to live with dignity, free from violence or discrimination, should never be undermined by a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. All people are born with equal rights, and should enjoy the protection of the United Nations. Acts of violence against LGBT people take place in all regions of the world, including our own. We condemn such violence and discrimination, and we strongly support the new independent expert in his work. We will resist any and all attempts to block his appointment and his mandate.

I thank the Minister for his upfront declaration of the Government’s intent on this matter. It is however frustrating that it took an urgent question to find out the Government’s position.

As the Minister said, in June of this year the UN Human Rights Council adopted an historic resolution mandating the appointment of an independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It effectively created the first ever UN LGBT human rights watchdog. The motion put before the UN General Assembly by the African nations today could reverse that decision, aiming to defer consideration of, and action on, this Human Rights Council resolution. The motion seeks to suspend, and potentially get rid of, the UN independent expert on LGBT violence and discrimination.

This motion has a realistic chance of passing, securing votes from the African Group and many of the nations within the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. It is crucial that this matter should be raised in the Chamber because it is concrete evidence of the systematic attempt to frustrate the protection and advancement of LGBT human rights internationally.

In many countries persecution based on who people love or are sexually attracted to, or on their gender identity, is extreme. Often, this discrimination and violence is state-sanctioned. According to a UN human rights report last year, at least 76 countries retain laws that criminalise and harass people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. This includes fines, torture, hard labour, forced “conversion” therapy, lifelong prison sentences, and the death penalty.

The UK is a tolerant country, yet according to Galop, a UK-based anti-violence LGBT charity, we have seen a 147% increase in hate crimes against LGBT people in July, August and September of this year, with one in four gay young people having experienced homophobic bullying. I know the Minister is as appalled as I am at these statistics and agrees with me that it is crucial symbolically, politically and practically that the actions of the UK put a stop to this persecution once and for all and that we are strong in our condemnation of this motion. So I ask the Government to take this opportunity to show zero tolerance to violence and discrimination against LGBT people in all its forms and offer a firm commitment to working with our international allies to eradicate violence, hatred and intolerance towards people based on their gender or sexuality.

I specifically ask the Secretary of State to clarify a couple of points. Has the UK’s position been made clear to other member states ahead of the potential vote, specifically the African nations? What work are the Government undertaking to promote LGBT rights abroad both through the UN and in regular interactions with individual nation states? Finally, does the Minister intend to make his view on the Africa Group motion public and will he make a statement following the General Assembly meeting today, to update the House on this matter?

Order. I would like to think that the House of Commons is public. I think I understand that the hon. Lady would like further elaboration, but I hope we are public here, and I must say that the Minister has not knowingly been understated over the years or inclined to express himself quietly in the background—unlike me.

I do not think I dissent from a word the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) has said; we are as one, and obviously I have a deep personal interest in this issue. I commend her on raising this matter for the very point Mr Speaker has just made: we are making this public through the House and this is a very useful opportunity for the House to do so. May I also say that the hon. Lady is well-named for the purpose she has adopted today?

This issue has not been publicly aired in great detail already because it has sprung up rather suddenly; it is an emerging issue that requires fast-moving diplomatic effort. It is unusual for something to be decided in the Human Rights Council and then go to the General Assembly with that assembly used as a forum to try to block something. This does not normally happen, and indeed it should not happen in this way.

The hon. Lady asked whether the UK’s view is clear. I think it now is, and the view of a united House of Commons will redouble the view of the Government. We make our view on LGBT issues very clear in all our diplomatic representations overseas. For example, advancing the interests and rights of LGBT people is very much a part of many of our Department for International Development programmes. She asked whether we will make public what happens. I think that this will be followed, although whether it justifies a statement will depend on Mr Speaker. Our views will be very clear, however, and I can assure the House that we will be fighting in every capital in the world to ensure that this decision goes the right way.

A depressing number of the countries that are likely to vote for this resolution are members of the Commonwealth. Can my right hon. Friend update the house on the work that is going on to persuade countries other than Sri Lanka not to vote for the resolution? What further work is the Foreign Office doing to take the Commonwealth countries on the same journey that the rest of the world is on in relation to rights for LGBT people?

This is a long and continuing journey of persuasion for many Commonwealth countries, and it is always very disappointing that some of them do rather lag behind on this issue. I can assure my hon. Friend that every single post in our diplomatic network has been issued with clear instructions to make representations to get their country to vote in the right way in the General Assembly, where we expect the decision to take place either today or on Thursday.

First, may I commend the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for securing this urgent question? I should also like to commend the Minister for his response. It appears that we have finally found some common ground. The Scottish National party was delighted when the United Nations Human Rights Council delivered its historic vote in June mandating the appointment of an independent expert for the LGBT community. This reaffirmed one of the UN’s key principles that everyone is equal in dignity and in rights. Anyone who truly believes in equality knows that no single equality is more virtuous or more worthy than any other, and I am sure everyone across the Chamber will agree that we must stand up for them all.

We are deeply concerned that this progress has suffered a major setback with the group of African states planning to force a vote today in the General Assembly to revoke the appointment of the independent expert for the LGBT community. Distressingly, the vote might pass, so the UK Government and the Foreign Secretary must do everything possible and use every possible channel to prevent this loathsome resolution from being approved. The Foreign Secretary’s diplomacy skills are needed now more than ever. The Minister has mentioned Sri Lanka, and perhaps the Prime Minister has secured India’s support during her trip to India. What other international counterparts have the UK Government spoken to ahead of the vote today? What efforts are they making to ensure support for a vote against the resolution? It is clear that the Minister understands that the UK’s action on this matter is critical. Will he assure us that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will leave absolutely no stone unturned in ensuring equality for all?

I am pleased and delighted to agree wholly with the hon. Lady. I can assure her that no stone will remain unturned. We are looking at a complete starburst of diplomatic effort to try to corral votes for this purpose in the General Assembly. Indeed, we are starting from an alliance of considerable diplomatic effort. We are proud to be a member of the new equal rights coalition, which is made up of more than 30 states, and we also contribute funds to support LGBT rights projects globally.

I was honoured to be present on behalf of the all-party group on global LGBT rights, which I chair, at September’s high-level United Nations meeting. At that meeting, the Secretary-General applauded the appointment of the independent expert, saying that it was an “historic step”. Is it not the case that so many of the groups that face discrimination across the world regard the stance of the United Nations on this matter as an immense encouragement in the promotion and valuing of human rights, and that the continuing appointment of the independent expert to translate international principles of humanitarian law into practical action and ensure that they are enforced will be immensely important?

I wholly agree with my right hon. Friend, whose question gives me the opportunity to say that the chosen person, Mr Vitit Muntarbhorn, is a well-respected human rights campaigner of the highest quality and character. There are absolutely no grounds whatsoever for questioning the choice of him for this purpose.

Does the Minister agree that LGBT rights are human rights and that, as such, they are indivisible from any of the other human rights that we are so proud that the UN tries to enforce? Will he accept from me the very best wishes of the LGBT community in the battle he now leads within the UN? If this human rights advocate is voted against and taken away from the UN, that will be a huge setback in the fight to make change in the 76 countries that criminalise LGBT people and use the law to oppress them.

I totally agree with the hon. Lady and am grateful for her good wishes. I hope that the vision of Members from across the Chamber agreeing on this issue will send out a strong message to any country or person who thinks that they should vote the other way or have an opinion that goes against what we would like to see.

Is it not the case that the UN expert is being appointed to protect individuals in many countries from violence based on their sexual orientation? He is not being appointed to promote or to take a particular view on sexual orientation in those countries. It will be a dark day for the United Nations if it turns its face away from somebody who is trying to protect those who should have the same rights that we enjoy in this country.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The appointment is about protecting principles as he has described. How anyone can wish to challenge that is quite beyond me.

When I was a Foreign Office Minister, I was told by one leader of a Commonwealth country that I would not be welcome to visit, so we have come quite a long way. I thank the Minister for what he is doing. Is it not time to make our generous aid conditional on respect for all humans’ rights?

I obviously speak for the Foreign Office, not the Department for International Development, but I am a former DFID Minister. The issue of conditionality always raises the moral question of stopping money, but that would then harm the impoverished people we are trying to help. It is not as straightforward as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, but I take on board the importance of campaigning strongly and using any budget and expenditure to maximise our influence over this issue.

I am grateful to the Minister and am glad to hear about the Government’s stance. As someone who was beaten unconscious some years ago because of his sexuality, I know how isolated one can feel after being attacked. Does the Minister agree that this appointment is incredibly important for people across the world who are being persecuted because of their sexuality?

Unfortunately, people get persecuted or beaten up for their sexuality in all too many places. That is exactly what we, through our efforts abroad, and the United Nations want to stop. The appointment of this champion—if I may use that word again—is essential. We must ensure that no one is able to block it.

I welcome the Minister’s strong statement and the powerful all-party support for what he has said today. I want to ask about a particular Commonwealth country: South Africa. After apartheid, South Africa adopted a constitution that included provisions against discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. What representations are the Government making to South Africa to encourage it to break with other African countries and vote for the amendment from the Latin American and Caribbean countries?

My personal regional responsibilities do not include South Africa, so I am not familiar with the exact detail to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I have no doubt that he is absolutely accurate. With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will ensure that the responsible Minister writes to the hon. Gentleman.

Apart from certain African countries, how far beyond Africa into the middle east and Asia is this problem evident?

It is broader than Africa. Of course, one does not always know everything in advance about how a country will vote. The process needs to be one that secures an assurance that countries will vote the right way. However, the issue obviously does go further and that is why every single diplomatic post where we have an ambassador and representation has been absolutely, clearly and unequivocally instructed to try to persuade their host country to vote the right way in the General Assembly.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to celebrate the universality of rights relating to sexual orientation and gender identity? Will he press for them to be linked to existing human rights instruments?

The right hon. Gentleman always cleverly hides a technicality in his question, but I certainly endorse universality. Such rights are inalienable and do not depend on where someone lives. Human rights are for everybody, regardless of age, location or anything else.

The sad truth is that gay men in particular are still being persecuted in Russia and beaten up by the police. Gay men in Iran are still being executed for their sexuality. Gay men in so many other countries around the world can be arrested or imprisoned simply for holding hands. I therefore entirely endorse everything that the Minister has said today. However, is it not a particular irony for British people that 90% of those who live in Commonwealth nations live in countries where homosexuality is illegal because we, the British, wrote those colonial laws? Is it not time that we took that as an important part of campaign for a better world?

Many of those Commonwealth laws are totally out of date, highly inappropriate and should be changed. The Commonwealth system, our diplomatic efforts abroad and, indeed, this House, with all the contacts that individual Members of Parliament have across the world, should all be used to the full for that objective.

Over 400 million people live in countries where being gay is punishable by death, so I strongly welcome what the Minister has said at the Dispatch Box today. I commend the Government’s efforts to defeat the resolution. I want the Minister to consider two issues carefully. First, further to the points of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), what leadership role can the UK Government play within the Commonwealth to try to see further progress for LGBT people living in Commonwealth countries who are victims of rules written up by the British?

Secondly, will the Minister look at the advice that the Foreign Office gives to the Home Office on people seeking asylum in this country? A constituent of mine, Joan Tumwine Ayebare, a lesbian asylum seeker from Uganda, is currently at risk of deportation back to that country. She has been splashed across the front pages of the Ugandan press, and her life and safety would undoubtedly be at risk if she returned, so will he consider the advice and ask his colleagues in the Home Office to review that case in particular?

No such representations have been made to the Home Office in the past, but I am sure that they will be. The hon. Gentleman’s question also illustrates another human right: the right to life. It is therefore an essential part of our policy to oppose the death penalty in every single country where we make representations —particularly those in which we have interests and programmes on which we are spending money. The influence of the United Kingdom in the Commonwealth can go only so far in that its members are independent, self-governing countries. It is good that they are part of this broader organisation—the Commonwealth—but we have to use our influence as best we can and do not have complete power over them. Those days have long since gone. They are voluntary members of the Commonwealth, but I assure the House that we always use our best influence wherever we can and will continue to do so.

I concur with the remarks made by several Members about the Commonwealth. Will the Minister say a little more about Russia? In recent days, tweets have been put out by the Russian Foreign Ministry and repeated by Russia’s embassy in this country that are disparaging and derogatory towards gay people—part of a pattern of behaviour by Putin. How confident is the Minister that other countries in Europe are not being influenced by the Putin propaganda that is on our Freeview channels every day and put out through the internet and social media?

When a country’s official apparatus adopts such attitudes and uses social media, it takes behaviour to utterly unacceptable new heights. We of course condemn any kind of attacks on gay people, but when they are perpetrated by a country and deliberately, it is even more deplorable than the many other ways in which we see such opinions expressed.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Has the Justice Secretary contacted you to say that she intends to make a statement to this House before recess on the crisis of violence and disorder in our understaffed prisons, in light of the disturbance at Bedford prison, and the murder at, and escapes from, Pentonville prison?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The short answer is: no, I have received no such indication. It is only fair to remind the House, and to point out to others who might not have been aware of the fact in the first place, that there was a statement by the Secretary of State last week—last Thursday, if my memory serves me correctly. It is true enough that there have been further incidences of violence since then, but there has not been a request to make a statement today. Doubtless these matters will be returned to, as appropriate, in due course.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. First, may I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in my capacity as chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group? On 20 October, in business questions, I asked for a debate in Government time on reforms to the civil service compensation scheme. On 21 October, I wrote to the Paymaster General on behalf of the PCS parliamentary group seeking a meeting to discuss that issue. May I also remind you, Mr Speaker, that early-day motion 310 has the signatures of 99 Members of this House who are concerned about this issue? The Government intend today to issue a written statement which seeks automatically to impose changes to the terms and conditions of civil servants via reforms to the civil service compensation scheme. That is being done without the agreement of 98% of public consultation respondents, of whom there were 3,000. Can you inform me whether the Paymaster General will come before the House to make an oral statement on this issue, so that hon. Members who are very concerned about it can raise questions? Or are there other mechanisms by which Members can raise this important issue on behalf of millions of public sector workers who deliver public services?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The short answer to him is that if a Minister wished to make an oral statement to the House, I would have received notification of that intention by now. Therefore, there is no reason to suppose that a Minister is looking to make a statement to the House today. I am familiar with the issue to which the hon. Gentleman alludes. It would not be proper for me to enter into a debate about it. I note the particular facts that he places on the record, but I am aware of counter arguments to which Ministers subscribe. It is only fair to point out that this matter has been the subject of discussion over a considerable period; in other words, it has not suddenly arisen now. It does not seem likely that it will be treated of today by anyone other than the hon. Gentleman, but he has used the parliamentary mechanism open to him to register his concern. Doubtless, given that he is a tenacious terrier, he will return to the subject after he has rested himself.

He may, indeed, attract further signatures in the process, as the hon. Gentleman helpfully observes from a sedentary position.

Small and Medium Sized Co-operative Development

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 remove the requirement for small co-operative societies to appoint lay auditors; to increase the threshold for co-operative societies to disapply the full audit requirement to the same level as PLCs; to require auditors to report contingent on a threshold of share capital instead of turnover or on a special resolution at a general meeting; and for connected purposes.

Co-operatives are owned and run by the people closest to them, who may be customers, employers, suppliers or local residents. They all have one thing in common: they own the business and have an equal say in what it does and how its profits are shared. Historically, the public perception of co-operatives has been largely determined by the Co-op retail movement, but there are now more than 7,000 co-operatives, with 15 million members, and they contribute an estimated £37 billion to the economy. They range widely, covering retail, agriculture, consumer-based enterprises, creative industries, supporters trusts, local community energy schemes, housing and community care.

It is striking that according to YouGov polling from February carried out by The Hive, a new business support group designed to start or grow co-operative organisations, some 58% of people say big businesses are out of control; 59% of people say they have no control over the economy, and that rises to 62% for those who say they have a lack of influence over business; and 68% of people in work feel they have no control in their workplace. On the other hand, 62% of people see co-operative businesses as fair, whereas only 11% say the same of plcs.

It is clear that co-operatives offer a solution. They give people control of the businesses they are closest to, whether they shop at them, work at them or supply them. They also give people control over things that matter to them, in the process boosting productivity, harnessing innovation and giving them a real stake in their business. That is the co-operative advantage.

Most political parties have recognised and acknowledged the advantages that the co-operative business model has over its plc counterparts. The Labour party has committed to working with the co-operative movement to double the size of the co-operative economy in government; this would take the sector from £40 billion or so to £80 billion. To do that, co-operatives need to compete with the plc business model on a level playing field. That has been a long-standing aim of the Co-operative party and a long-standing demand from the co-operative movement. Too often co-operatives come up against the regulation and legislation designed with other business forms in mind.

This Bill aims to ensure that smaller co-operatives enjoy the benefit of a level playing field and to help unleash the potential boost from co-operation to the UK economy through higher employee engagement, which, according to Co-operatives UK could be well over £50 billion. Furthermore, through levelling the playing field for smaller co-operatives, the economy as a whole benefits from increased business innovation. Innovation accounts for 70% of long-term economic growth in the UK, and the most common sources of innovation are employees and customers.

There are thousands of smaller and medium-sized co-operatives in this country, all of which bring the benefits of the model I have already described to their communities, members and local economies. It is important to note that eight out of 10 co-operatives created in the last five years are still going strong. A combination of sharing risks, harnessing the ideas of many and the stake members have on their own business means that co-operatives demonstrate significant business resilience. My Bill calls for small but important changes to the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014. These changes and the removal of red tape will bring the treatment of co-operatives in line with that of other business models.

First, the Bill would remove the requirement for the very smallest co-operatives to appoint lay auditors. That would mean that the very smallest co-operatives, with a turnover under £5,000 a year, were treated the same way as small companies, and would not have to appoint lay auditors to scrutinise their accounts. 

Secondly, it would level the playing field between co-operatives and other types of companies by increasing the turnover threshold at which co-operatives have to apply full audit requirements from £5.6 million turnover to £6.5 million. This change would put small co-operatives on the same footing as companies regarding the turnover threshold at which they have to appoint professional auditors.

Thirdly, the Bill would make the requirement on co-operatives for an auditor’s report contingent on the amount of share capital raised by a co-operative rather than a turnover threshold. It would allow small co-operatives that have not raised significant share capital to grow without facing additional requirements that are not applied to small companies. It will also mean those co-operatives that have raised significant share capital will have to have a professional auditors’ report.

To provide added protection to members, the law would give them the right to require an auditor’s report regardless of the share capital by passing a resolution at a general meeting. I anticipate that these changes would benefit thousands of small co-operative societies around the country.

These legislative changes are designed to give further impetus to a business model and movement that are flourishing but are yet to achieve their full potential. There is a powerful argument for a dedicated team of civil servants to be set up within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to act as a champion for co-operatives and—in line with the Prime Minister’s thinking—to examine ways of developing a more inclusive society that works for working people. The proposals in the Bill are small but critical to that approach.

On 3 December we will be celebrating small business Saturday. Let us give small co-operative businesses an additional reason to celebrate by supporting the Bill today.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr Adrian Bailey, Mr Barry Sheerman, Mrs Louise Ellman, Stephen Doughty, Luciana Berger, Mr Gavin Shuker, Mr Gareth Thomas, Anna Turley and Christina Rees present the Bill.

Mr Adrian Bailey accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 February 2017 and to be printed (Bill 90).

Backbench Business

Grammar and Faith Schools

I beg to move,

That this House notes recent proposals by the Government to expand the role of grammar and faith schools; and calls on the Government to conduct a full assessment of the evidence relating to the effect of grammar schools and faith schools on children’s learning.

Today’s debate asks the Minister to consider the evidence before making profound changes to education policy that will affect children, their lives, their communities and our prospects as a country for many decades to come. There is a raft of evidence on the impact of grammar schools on the children in them, and on the children outside them. We know that children who get into grammar schools are more than five times less likely to be on free school meals. We know from the Department for Education itself that they are less likely to have special educational needs. We know that children who previously attended independent schools are over-represented in grammar school intakes. For these and many other reasons, we know that grammar schools, as the Government have at times acknowledged, and as the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) eloquently put it in a piece he wrote this morning, are not engines of social mobility.

Most children do not get into grammar schools, and the situation for disadvantaged children in this country is particularly stark. The Government’s case, which appears to be based on the notion that an expansion of grammar school places increases parental choice, is pretty flawed and pretty limiting. If someone cannot get into a grammar school, its existence has not given them a choice—it has given them a problem. That the Government have a plan only for some children in this country was revealed pretty well by the Education Minister Lord Nash, who said recently that under the Government’s plans parents will

“have a choice between a highly performing grammar school and a highly performing academy, which may well suit that pupil better.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 September 2016; Vol. 774, c. 1572.]

But where is the choice for children who do not get into those grammar schools?

The Secretary of State recently suggested that university technical colleges might provide an alternative. I welcome her focus on UTCs—I have one in my constituency, in Wigan—and given the recruitment problems many of them have faced, leading to the closure of three, and to two not even opening, and the fact that provision in them, which Sir Michael Wilshaw recently called “patchy”, ranges all the way from outstanding to poor, this is an area that deserves her attention. However, her proposal is troubling because, in essence, she is proposing the tripartite system of old, which collapsed last time, for many reasons, including because local authorities could not afford to establish and sustain that system. What in the funding crisis that this Government have created for local authorities makes her think that it would be different this time?

The new plans will create a great cost. We do not yet know, however, how much they will cost. In the consultation paper, the Government set out that they are planning to allocate £50 million a year to this experiment in education. This morning, however, when he appeared before the Select Committee on Education, the Minister said that he did not know how many grammar schools might emerge. The Green Paper also suggests that the Department will ask independent schools or universities to set up new schools or sponsor others as part of its bid to get all schools up to standard. How much will that cost? So far, the Government do not know and have not said. At a time when school budgets are under serious pressure in communities around the country, this is simply not good enough.

The hon. Lady talks about the cost of the proposals. Is she aware that grammar schools such as those in Kent and in my constituency tend to get lower per-pupil funding under the funding formula? Even though they receive a relatively low financial settlement, the vast majority are outstanding schools giving an excellent education.

The hon. Lady makes my point for me. Grammar schools tend to receive a lower funding allocation because, as the Minister has admitted, they tend not to take children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the funding formula is skewed to provide additional funding for children from such backgrounds. In 2016, in Britain, we can do better than this.

The Minister who will reply to the debate was a member of the Select Committee when I was the Chair. We looked at this question and we specifically considered Kent, but we had the rule that we should have evidence-based policy. Where is the evidence that people in Kent or outside Kent benefit from an educational system that is split in this horrendous way?

I do not always agree with my hon. Friend on these issues, but I certainly agree with him on that point. The issue of funding and how we spend resources that, as a result of choices made by this Government, are incredibly scarce, is important.

One way in which funds can be spent appropriately is through faith schools. In Leicester we have St Paul’s Catholic School, the Hindu Krishna Avanti Primary School, the Sikh Falcons Primary School and the Madani Muslim schools. It is important that if parents wish to send their children to faith schools, they are allowed to do so, but such schools should be vehicles for integrating communities; they should not be exclusive, but open.

I agree with my right hon. Friend’s point about integrating communities. This highlights the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). There are many types of school that provide a good education, and provided that they are inclusive, have a broad curriculum and work hard to serve the needs of their community, they do very well by their children. The important thing behind today’s motion is that hon. Members on both sides of the House, most of whom are troubled by the Government’s plans, but some of whom support them, would like the Government to proceed on the basis of evidence, especially as schools face a £600 million black hole since the Government abandoned their Education Bill, leaving councils around the country to pay for educational services without the grants to do so.

In their consultation document, the Government make a number of wide-ranging commitments to support their grammar schools plan, but they have not said yet whether this will be new money from the Treasury, or money taken from a schools budget that is already being cut for the first time in nearly two decades. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), who has consistently campaigned against the Government’s proposals, has repeatedly asked for this information; could we finally have it today?

The Secretary of State is apparently consulting on the school funding formula at the same time. The Green Paper says:

“We will ensure that the formula rewards those schools that support schools with a higher proportion of lower attaining pupils and those from less wealthy households.”

Surely the issue of funding should be resolved first. Surely we should know how big the funding pot is and how the funds will be allocated before we are asked to respond to a consultation and vote on proposals that will have profound consequences for children in this country.

There is also reason to believe that people travel further to attend grammar schools. What assessment have the Government done of the additional cost of transport for children under their proposals? The proposed pot is £50 million a year for new grammar schools, but how much in total do the Government plan to allocate to the whole programme? If adequate funding is not forthcoming, that is another reason why children may be well disadvantaged under the plans.

There are other reasons, based on the evidence, to believe that the proposals will make life worse for children in this country. In their consultation document, the Government rightly identified a group of children whose parents are struggling to get by, but who are not eligible for free school meals. That group is much larger since the Government restricted access to benefits. The proportion of pupils on free school meals is now at a 14-year low, despite the fact that there are record projections of child poverty. Having created a hidden group in hardship, Ministers are belatedly going looking for them. They state in their consultation that they plan to develop some kind of methodology to understand where the children are and what impact the new plans will have on them. The most polite thing that I can say about this utterly absurd situation is that Ministers are putting the cart before the horse. May I remind the Minister that it is only a few short years since his Department commissioned Dr Ben Goldacre to help it to ensure that evidence informs policy? Now its approach appears to be to develop policy that informs its evidence instead.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we have evidence about what helps poor kids to do well at school? It is high-quality early-years education, the best heads and teachers in the schools that need them most, and an inspiring curriculum for academic and vocational qualifications. Is that not what the Government should focus on—not on expanding grammar schools?