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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 616: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2016

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.