The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Tariffs
My Department is working closely with the Department for Exiting the EU to understand the impacts that leaving the EU will have on businesses, consumers and other economic actors across the UK, including in east Lancashire. As the Prime Minister has said, we will work hard to get the best deal for Britain.
Although not quite as eye-catching as the motor industry, the construction products, furniture-making and chemical industries, represented by Crown Paints, J & J Ormerod and others in my constituency, employ more people. Will my hon. Friend ensure that these strategic industries to east Lancashire can trade on no less favourable terms than any other industry following Brexit?
As my hon. Friend will know, I am closely involved with the construction products sector, and the construction industry in general, through the Construction Leadership Council. It would be premature to comment on any deal to be struck, but he can take it from me that it has my closest attention, as does the future of the construction industry itself.
As a fellow MP for Rossendale, I echo the comments and concerns about leaving the EU and what the tariff framework would be if there was a hard Brexit. When I visited Simon Jersey, which did the formal wear for our Olympic team, I was told that the cliff-edge tariffs on textiles are between 9% and 12%. This is a real concern. What assurances can the Government give to companies that they will not be taxed out of business through leaving the EU?
As I have said, it is premature to give any kind of assurance. What is striking, though, is the amount of new investment that has been taking place in this country, irrespective, one might think, of any concerns about Brexit. That includes investments in BAE Systems, Nissan, Jaguar Land Rover, Honda, Associated British Ports and many other large industrial players.
Food production and food processing is an important part of the north-west economy that is not necessarily susceptible to export beyond the European Union because of different consumer tastes and preferences in the rest of the world. What negotiations are the Government considering or already undertaking to protect this important industry? Can the Minister confirm that specialist negotiators who understand the industry are in place to carry out those negotiations?
That question is really as much for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as it is for us. Nevertheless, it is true that tastes are expanding around the world, and therefore one sees every opportunity for British food producers to expand their world markets in the days to come.
Given that we have a massive trade deficit with the European Union, surely it would be economic suicide for the EU not to agree a free trade deal with us. However, Civitas has calculated that if it did go down that line, British business would have to pay about £5 billion a year in tariffs under WTO rules to access the EU market, and EU businesses would have to pay about £13 billion in tariffs to access the UK market. Given that, could we not agree to cover all tariffs for British businesses exporting to the EU, so that they do not have to pay anything, and still be quids in?
We are all aware that the cross-border trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland is absolutely vital, and if tariffs are put in place, it could be a complete disaster. Can we please make sure that the Northern Ireland voice is heard and embedded in any negotiations?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that that question is being taken extremely seriously in my Department. Northern Ireland is an area for which I have a ministerial responsibility. I have met, on several occasions, Northern Ireland Economy Ministers and senior figures in industry there. We will continue to look at this question very closely.
Science and Innovation
This Government are strongly committed to science and innovation. We protected the science budget at the spending review in 2015. In the last autumn statement, a few days ago, we committed to spending a further £2 billion a year by the end of this Parliament. The creation of UK Research and Innovation, through the passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill, will increase the value and impact of our investments in science and innovation in the years ahead. [Official Report, 16 December 2016, Vol. 618, c. 7-8MC.]
I thank the Minister for that answer. It has certainly been a good time for science and innovation in Britain. It has also been a good year for the UK space sector, with Major Tim Peake’s historic visit to the international space station and a new spaceport here in the UK. It certainly strikes me that the next big challenge will be the successful delivery of the ExoMars programme, particularly given some of the rumours that have been going around. Will the Minister update the House on any progress made at the European Space Agency summit recently?
Yes, I am happy to provide a brief update. My hon. Friend is an aficionado of space policy and former chair of the parliamentary space committee, so he will be delighted to know that we had an excellent outcome at the European Space Agency’s Council of Ministers. We committed a further €1.44 billion, which has secured the future of the ExoMars programme, among many other things.
I do not want to ruin the Minister’s Christmas celebrations, which are imminent, but if he looks at the deplorable investment in research and development—the figures that came out only this week—does he not see that he needs to wake up and smell the coffee? The fact of the matter is that research and innovation will be deeply damaged by leaving the European Union. He should ask the universities what they think.
I know that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the Government’s commitment to research and development, which was underscored in the autumn statement with a further £2 billion by the end of this Parliament—perhaps the biggest single increase in R and D expenditure by any Government in the memory of anyone in this Parliament.
Innovate UK plays a key role in promoting science and technology by giving grants to entrepreneurs. Will the Minister continue to support it as new fourth industrial revolution businesses come forward to seek new funding to develop the next generation of science and technology businesses?
Yes, I am happy to provide that assurance. Innovate UK, our innovation agency, will be at the heart of our industrial strategy, and the autumn statement will provide it with the resources it needs to continue to do its job of supporting small businesses in innovation.
Tidal Lagoon Power’s report, “Ours to own”, anticipates that tidal lagoons could bring more than £70 billion to the UK industry. Swansea Bay tidal lagoon is key to unlocking that innovative potential, which has great opportunities for Cardiff and the north Wales coast, as well. I appreciate that the Minister will have concerns about costs to customers, but will he commit to weighing up all aspects of the energy trilemma in his response to the Hendry report?
Chemical and pharmaceutical businesses are an important feature of the northern powerhouse and emerging enterprises in the sector are often rooted in university research labs. What support and funding can the UK Government commit to encourage continued research collaboration across Europe—and indeed the rest of the world—to increase our innovative business base post-Brexit?
The Catalyst science discovery centre in my constituency does an excellent job of promoting careers in science and engineering for young people. Will the Minister come and visit it? It struggles to keep going financially, but it does an absolutely unbelievably good job.
Our industrial strategy will help to build an economy that works for everyone. To do that, we will look to drive productivity and growth in all parts of the country. We have already set out steps to deliver this, including, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation just said, significant funding announcements for science, research and development and infrastructure in the autumn statement.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I note that he said that the industrial strategy should work for everybody. The Office for Budget Responsibility projects that there will be an additional 500,000 new jobs by 2020, but even if all those jobs were taken up by disabled people, the disability employment gap would still not be halved. Can the Secretary of State explain how the industrial strategy will support achieving the Government’s commitment to halve the disability employment gap by 2020?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is important that we close that gap, and the Government have made a firm commitment to doing so. He will see when we make our proposals—I hope that he will contribute to them—that part of our purpose is to ensure that people who may have been excluded from the labour market have the skills to enable them to prosper in the future.
Ayrshire is a beautiful coastal county with areas of both rural and urban deprivation, but with huge potential in the aerospace and pharmaceutical industries. The Scottish Government are supportive of a growth deal to invest in infrastructure and key sectors. Will the Minister meet me to hear the proposal to unlock Ayrshire’s industrial potential?
I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady. I am proud of the city deals and the growth deals that we have negotiated, including in Glasgow, which is not far away from Ayrshire in the west of Scotland. Ayrshire has a huge amount to offer, and Prestwick is an important asset. I welcome the initiative of the councils in Ayrshire.
May I urge my right hon. Friend to consider creating free ports across the nation? Such free trade zones around our great port cities can simultaneously boost manufacturing, promote regional growth and grow exports—surely, all key ingredients in a successful industrial strategy.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his industry. He has published an excellent report for the Centre for Policy Studies, which makes for very good reading. He knows that I am considering it with my colleagues, and I commend him for writing it and putting it forward.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He will see that one of the differences between our approach to industrial strategy and policy—it is important to note that industry, for this purpose, means the services sector as well as manufacturing—and previous approaches is that our approach will not be about simply addressing the needs of incumbents; we want to make Britain the best, the most competitive and the most contestable place for business to locate. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend contributed to it. I think that he will find that it is music to his ears.
Surely, one of the Secretary of State’s priorities should be the steel industry. Is he aware that Noel Village foundry in Doncaster is being badly affected by reductions in the steel industry supply chain? Will he ask his Department to give urgent advice to the company to see whether anything can be done to prevent it from going into administration, even at this late stage?
I am happy to meet the right hon. Lady about this, but I can give her some news on steel that I think she will welcome. I can announce today that the Government are going to publish their demand for steel, through public sector bodies, to 2020; that will be 3 million tonnes. We are updating the procurement guidelines for steel to include the health service and local authorities and to drop the previous threshold of £10 million for which those guidelines apply. That will be good for the steel industry generally and for all firms within it.
Small-scale manufacturing in firms that often have fewer than half a dozen people is key to the local economy in Kettering and is responsible for a lot of the employment opportunities. Will the Secretary of State make sure that small-scale manufacturers are a key priority in his industrial strategy?
I will indeed. I would commend two things to my hon. Friend. First, we want to make sure that small manufacturers can access the extra funding for research and innovation that my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation has described. Secondly, we want to address the ability of small and growing firms to obtain the finance to allow them to grow to the next stage, which is very important in having a vigorous competitive market, as my hon. Friend suggests.
From education to research and development, Scotland’s universities play a key role in boosting our economy across all regions and sectors. With that in mind, will the Secretary of State outline what the role of universities will be in his forthcoming industrial strategy? Will the recently announced new money for R and D be available to Scottish universities?
Yes; universities are very important. We have had a number of very constructive sessions with university leaders and researchers. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that science does not recognise boundaries. Universities and researchers in Scotland have a fantastic record of success. In fact, with 8.5% of the UK population, Scotland attracts 10% of UK research funding, which shows that it can prosper and thrive with the new changes we are making on funding.
Science does not recognise boundaries. Universities Scotland estimates that 10% of research funding comes from the EU and that up to 16% to 20% of staff come from EU nations. With that in mind, will the Secretary of State ensure that, as we exit the EU, Scotland’s universities are not hit punitively by immigration sanctions and the withdrawal of EU funding?
It follows from what I have just said—science does not respect boundaries—that the science community is very global and international. Of course, as the hon. Gentleman would expect, we will in the negotiations reflect the importance of that not just for Scotland, but for the whole United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State talks about an industrial strategy and those words are in his title, but so far he has shared only bland generalities. Despite the high-profile examples cited, the Institute of Chartered Accountants predicts that business investment will fall by 2.4% in 2017. There are great opportunities for British businesses post-Brexit, but they need leadership, and this climate of uncertainty is toxic to investment. Will the Secretary of State stop playing Scrooge with his assurances, and give British business the Christmas present it wants—an industrial strategy?
A bit of optimism on the part of the hon. Lady would not go amiss, especially in this Christmas season. In fact, there is huge enthusiasm in businesses right across the country and huge engagement with us in developing our long-term policies. Perhaps she has been distracted by some of the events in her party in recent months, so let me summarise the things we have done since July. We have given the go-ahead—she may have missed this—for some very important strategic infrastructure projects: Hinkley Point C, the third runway at Heathrow and the next phase of HS2. We have secured investment in Nissan, close to her constituency, as we announced a month ago. We have ratified the Paris agreement, and we have secured the extra investment that my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation talked about. We have done more to put our industrial future on the right footing in five months than the previous Government did in 13 years.
To turn from Marley’s ghost stalking the Labour Front Bench, the number of businesses in the UK continues to grow: at the start of 2016, there were a record 5.5 million private sector businesses, which is an increase of 97,000 since 2015 and 1 million more than in 2010.
This weekend, small businesses in my constituency held a Christmas market in Belmont Circle to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Eye 2 Eye opticians, which is doing a brilliant job locally. What more can my hon. Friend do to ensure that small and medium-sized businesses prosper and grow in this country?
My hon. Friend is right to recognise the central importance of small and medium-sized businesses to our economy. The Government have been supporting that vital sector of our economy through: the extension of small business rate relief; our support for the British Business Bank, which has dealt with more than 51,000 small businesses; the new productivity council, which was announced in the autumn statement; and the new patient capital review.
Given the number of businesses, will the Minister ensure that there is a level playing field so that the level of subsidy for tariffs applied to the motor industry is applied equally across all exporters? Will he publish the total amount of subsidy before 31 March?
There has been no special deal for Nissan or any other part of the motor industry. Whatever arrangements are made to support different sectors of the UK economy are fully transparent. The general picture is that we are proceeding vigorously and with some care towards a rather attractive destination.
My hon. and learned Friend is right. She will know that I have been a pretty tireless campaigner for superfast broadband, especially in relation to BT and Openreach. I agree with her about the importance of broadband. The autumn statement announced a £1 billion package for fibre and 5G connectivity, prioritising business connections across the UK. That follows the superfast broadband programme, which is due to deliver 91% coverage in South East Cambridgeshire by mid-2017 and a new universal service obligation.
Fifty thousand businesses die unnecessarily every year because of late payment. Some £31 billion is owed and small firms alone spend £10 billion chasing outstanding invoices. While the duty to report and the small business commissioner have been much delayed, just 378 of the largest 55,000 businesses have signed up to the prompt payment code. When will the Conservative Government start doing something about the scourge of late payment? Put some teeth into it, so that small businesses can act.
Women on Boards
The proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards has increased from 12.5% in 2011 to 27%. Since 2011, the number of women on FTSE 350 boards has more than doubled to 23.5%. We support the business-led target of 33% of those on FTSE 350 boards being women by 2020.
I welcome the Minister’s response, but to get more women on boards we have to get more women into business in the first place. I championed and spoke at the Wayfinder Woman conference in Uckfield. The mission of the Sussex-based organisation is to get more women into business. What work do the Government do with such organisations to get women into enterprise so that they get the skills that they need to rise to the top?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work she does to mentor women. More than 16,500 start-up loans have been issued to female entrepreneurs and almost half the users of the business support helpline are women. The Hampton-Alexander review is looking beyond boards at building female pipelines among senior management. We also support the Women’s Business Council.
Is there a regional pattern in low numbers of women on boards? Will the Minister outline what discussions have taken place with ministerial colleagues in the devolved Administrations about increasing the number of women on boards?
I welcome the hon. Lady’s commitment to increasing the number of women on boards in Scotland. I will have discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to ensure that the national target applies equally to Scotland as to elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
I apologise to the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie)—I meant Northern Ireland, of course, in my earlier response.
The gov.uk website and the business support helpline provide information on starting and running a business. Growth hubs also provide access to local and national support, and 4.8 million people are now self-employed.
In South East Cornwall we have some fantastic self-employed people who make a host of excellent food products. Does my hon. Friend agree that there will be opportunities for them to grow their businesses and be released from excessive red tape once we leave the European Union? What advice does she have for them?
The Government committed in their manifesto to reducing the burden of regulation on business by £10 billion during this Parliament. We will also carefully consider the implications of leaving the European Union for the business impact target, and the opportunities to reduce further the burdens on businesses such as the excellent self-employed food producers in South East Cornwall.
False self-employment is a particular issue in sectors such as retail, care and construction. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority is now expected to regulate those industries, which contain more than half a million businesses, yet has only 79 members of staff across the entire UK. Its director of labour market enforcement has not yet been appointed, despite the new powers being in place. Will the Government ensure that they act speedily on that?
EU-derived Employment Rights
The Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government will not, as a consequence of our withdrawal, allow any erosion of rights in the workplace, whether those rights derive from EU or UK law. She has further made it clear that the Government are determined to deliver an economy that works for everyone, and fundamental to that is the preservation of existing workers’ rights.
Is it not the fact that our EU-derived employment rights are upheld not by legislation but because they are enforced by the relevant European courts? Given that progress on a British Bill of Rights has been patchy at best, what will guarantee those rights after we leave?
Such rights will be upheld by British courts after we leave the European Union. The UK enjoys record employment at the same time as employment rights that exceed what is required by EU law in the important areas of maternity leave, parental leave and statutory annual leave.
Given the sorry history of Brexit broken promises, does the Minister understand the widespread cynicism expressed about the idea that rights will be protected post-Brexit, including on a continuing basis? Does she agree with the Brexit promise-breaker par excellence, the Foreign Secretary, that these crucial rights are back-breaking?
The hon. Gentleman prejudges the situation by saying that we have had a chance to break Brexit promises before we have even started the negotiations. The Prime Minister could not have been clearer—she has been supported in this at the Dispatch Box by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union—that workers’ rights will be protected and possibly even enhanced.
As always, I am very reasoned, Mr Speaker, but really, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) was talking absolute rubbish just then, which is not unusual. Does the Minister agree with the democratic principle that the Government of the day will decide on employment rights? Is that not what we want—employment rights decided in this House, not in Europe?
This House will decide on employment rights, but it is important to remind my hon. Friend that during the lifetime of this Government, the Prime Minister could not have been clearer that workers’ rights will be protected after Britain leaves the European Union.
Leaving the EU
We have held a wide range of discussions with businesses, their representatives, investors, workers and local leaders in all four home nations. We expect that to continue in the coming months to secure UK interests in any exit negotiations.
There is concern among business about a potential cliff edge in March 2019 if we leave the EU and fall back on World Trade Organisation rules and tariffs. Does the Minister agree with the Chancellor, who yesterday told the Treasury Committee that there is
“an emerging view among businesses…that having a longer period to manage the adjustment between where we are now as full members of the European Union and where we get to in the future as a result of the negotiations…would be generally helpful, would”
help smooth the transition and would help to reduce disruption for business?
Last week’s news from Port Talbot was hugely welcomed in steel towns such as Corby. It came about because of constructive work not only in the House, but involving Ministers, the unions, the workforce and the industry. As we move towards reaching final agreement, what role does my hon. Friend see the industry playing in the industrial strategy, and what discussions has he had on that in the EU context?
Not Uxbridge—my constituency is Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner.
I stand corrected. We will leave the Foreign Secretary out of this.
The Minister for Climate Change and Industry, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and other ministerial colleagues have had a series of meetings with steel companies across the production and supply chains, and have been able to give them the support and structure needed in that context.
The retail energy market works well for those who are able and have the time to switch, with customers able to make savings of up to £300 by moving on to the cheapest tariffs. However, we want a market that works for all consumers, not just those who switch supplier. That is why we have been clear that we want energy companies to come forward with proposals on how they are going to treat their loyal customers fairly.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is not right that customers are penalised for their loyalty. We want energy companies to treat all their customers fairly, and not just customers who switch between suppliers. That is why we have challenged them to come forward with proposals to ensure that all their customers get a fair deal.
I have been saying for about five years now that companies have been overcharging their customers who are on the standard variable tariff. That has been confirmed by the Competition and Markets Authority, Ofgem and the Government. The only way we will shift how those companies operate is by extending to those people on the standard variable tariff the protection we offer those on prepayment meters. Will the Minister meet me to discuss what more we can do to ensure that we give the big six energy companies a kick up the backside?
This week, a senior Ofgem executive warned that, as a result of our higher reliance on renewable energy, consumers may face the possibility of having to pay a premium to ensure that they have a reliable source of electricity to their homes and without having their lights turned off. What discussions has the Minister had with Ofgem on that, and are the Government considering the policy of relying on costly renewable energy rather than on cheaper fossil fuels?
We have an ongoing dialogue with Ofgem on a number of issues, but apropos the cost of supporting investment in low-carbon technologies, this is expected to increase, but so too are the savings from energy efficiency policies. This means that by 2020 household energy bills are still estimated to be lower on average than they would have been in the absence of those green policies.
We are working to make the UK even more competitive in advanced manufacturing by cutting corporation tax and red tape and by increasing our support for the research and innovation that is crucial to success. We are doing that not least through our £300 million investment in the high-value manufacturing catapult centre.
High-value manufacturing is extremely important to our future—it presents many opportunities but also presents risks that we have to manage—and so will be an important part of our industrial strategy. On the broader concerns about tariffs, the hon. Gentleman has heard it often enough, so he should start believing it: the Government are listening carefully, as I witnessed yesterday, to manufacturing and other sectors about their priorities and concerns as we shape and finalise our negotiating position.
Will the Minister, or one of his ministerial colleagues, meet me and representatives from M+W Group and DBD from my constituency, which are part of a consortium bidding for a vitrification project in China’s nuclear sector? It would give them a lot of confidence if he and his team could meet them and help them to win the contract, which would create hundreds of jobs in this country.
The low-carbon energy sector could drive the energy manufacturing industry in this country and be very helpful in developing the industrial strategy, which I fully support. One practical example is small nuclear reactors. Can the Minister tell the House when we can get an announcement on the funding and help for this important sector?
We are reviewing our priorities in relation to the energy innovation portfolio, which sits inside our Department, and the hon. Gentleman will have noticed the comments by the Chancellor at the autumn statement. We are reviewing our priorities and will announce them shortly.
National Grid’s electricity capacity report for this year was published in July and includes a forward look on electricity security. Through competitive capacity auctions, we have already secured capacity from 2018-19 to 2020-21, and in January we will hold a further auction to secure capacity for 2017-18. Our most recent gas security analysis was published in October and shows that our diverse and flexible gas supply can meet demand even under severe weather conditions.
The importance of substantial gas storage to electricity generation and avoiding damaging price hikes was highlighted by the partial closure of the Rough storage facility. What are the Government doing to tackle the question of increasing gas storage for the future?
That is a proper and important question. Our gas supply arrangements are quite diverse, and we have more than 30% spare gas capacity even on a cold winter’s day. The system has been tested, and has responded well in the past to shocks, including higher than expected demand for heating or power and restrictions to supply infrastructure, but it is certainly something we keep under constant review.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating Avalon community energy on completion of its solar PV installation at Brookside school in Street? Does he agree that such schemes create a greener and cheaper energy system and afford us greater security of supply?
After the latest capacity auction, the overall scores for the procurement of new combined cycle gas generation plant stand at one small buildable plant over three auctions, at a total cost so far of £3 billion and £12 a year on customer bills. Does the Secretary of State have any other good ideas up his sleeve to secure the procurement and building of new capacity up to 2020?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the gas capacity market auction was an enormous success. It secured a widespread diversity of supply at low cost and in higher amounts than ever before, and it included some innovative new technologies. The Department should be celebrated for managing this.
The Steel Council will next meet in the new year. I will also meet senior steel industry chief executives and the trade union steel committee next month.
I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in congratulating all those involved in the Save our Steel campaign—especially the Community, GMB and Unite trade unions—on their vital contribution to the recent announcement on Port Talbot and other steel sectors across the UK. I am sure that he agrees that it is trade unionism at its best. Thousands of steelworkers and their families can look forward to a more certain 2017, but one of their real concerns remains their pensions. What will he do to bring forward better plans to ensure that steelworkers’ pensions, as well as their jobs, are protected?
I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming and congratulating the workforce, trade unions and the employers on their very constructive set of discussions. It is important that the membership is consulted, but this is a positive step forward and he is right that this will provide greater comfort to employees this winter. The hon. Gentleman will know that it is right and proper for the independent Pensions Regulator, rather than the Government, to approve and be content with pensions arrangements. It would be wrong for the Government to intervene in that.
I will indeed congratulate Severfield Steel, which is a very successful company, not only on the Ordsall Chord but on winning a global award in recent weeks. It was also responsible for construction of the Olympic stadium, the Shard, and Birmingham New Street station. Many of the buildings that we admire and have in our minds are constructed with British steel by British companies.
While we have recently had some really good news for the steel industry, giving steel workers and their families the stability they need for now, the fact that steel was not mentioned in the autumn statement gives cause for concern. Furthermore, the UK Government’s leading of a group of countries that are blocking the EU reform of anti-dumping trade defence instruments is another serious issue for the industry. Will the Secretary of State commit to including the steel industry in the future industrial strategy, and detail the steps that the Government will take to support this vital foundation industry?
Of course steel is incredibly important, and it is important that it should have a bright future—we all want to see that. One thing I have been doing with the Minister for Climate Change and Industry, working closely with the steel industry on both the employer and trade union side, is to fund and bring together a strategic review, and the whole industry is coming together to work on it. That is expressly designed to inform our industrial strategy, so that we can look forward with confidence to a very successful steel industry.
Local Enterprise Partnerships
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 14 and 21 together.
Local enterprise partnerships do extremely important work as voluntary partnerships, bringing together business insight, local authorities and universities to shape and support local growth, not least through growth deals that are funding more than 800 projects across England.
There are 30,000 more businesses with high-speed broadband in the black country as a result of the leadership of the Black Country local enterprise partnership. Does the Minister agree that the Black Country LEP has been an excellent example of bringing together the private and public sector to drive growth, improve skills and build the infrastructure that the black country economy needs?
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that to the attention of the House; it sounds like a fantastic deal that will unlock many opportunities for people and businesses in the black country. I hear great things about the LEP and the chairmanship of Stewart Towe, and through my hon. Friend, who I know has been a tireless champion of the LEP, I pass on the congratulations of the Government.
At a time when LEPs have been having a hard time in the media, is the Minister aware that my constituency is well served by two excellent LEPs: the New Anglia LEP and the Greater Cambridgeshire Greater Peterborough LEP? What wider role does he envisage for LEPs, and will he consider expanding the growing business fund?
I thank my hon. Friend for standing up for his LEPs at a difficult time for them as a result of the allegations made. I assure him that LEPs are at the heart of the process of feeding into the industrial strategy; we are absolutely clear that that industrial strategy needs to reflect deep understanding of the different challenges and opportunities each area faces, which is why the Secretary of State has allocated ministerial champions to each LEP.
I will be very brief, Mr Speaker.
Some newspapers have exposed shocking examples of what I can only describe as crony capitalism in some of our LEPs. For example, the former elected mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, received more than £50,000 for his own brewing firms while on the LEP board, which kept no minutes; perhaps the Minister is impressed to find right-wing politicians who can organise a booze-up in a brewery. Given that the Government are putting nearly £2 billion into LEPs through the autumn statement, can he tell us what they are doing to enforce basic standards of accountability?
As was said the other day, never trust Labour Members when they say they are going to be brief.
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point about LEPs. This is taxpayers’ money and, as he would expect, we take extremely seriously any allegations about it being spent inappropriately, particularly when there are allegations of conflicts of interest. We are reassured by the prompt and robust response of LEPs to the individual allegations, including the one in Bristol, but we continue to press and make the point very strongly that we expect full compliance with the requirements of the strengthened national assurance framework.
Over the last month we have made substantial progress across the Department’s responsibilities. Our recently published review of corporate governance will make sure Britain is not only an excellent place to do business, but also is where business is done best. We continue to tackle climate change, ratifying the Paris agreement. My hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and Industry played an important part in the climate discussions in Marrakech, and he and I had the great pleasure of opening the Siemens wind turbine factory in Hull, creating 1,000 new jobs in that great city. By providing an additional £2 billion a year for research and innovation by 2020 and giving British homes and businesses certainty that their electricity demands will be met for the next five years, we are investing in our country’s economic future.
That was a fabulous introduction to my question about the Hendry review. I know the Government have received the review, and I am confident that it makes some clear and useful recommendations, so I would like to know whether the Government intend to make it public soon, and what are their thoughts about some of Charles Hendry’s comments and recommendations?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and would like to put on record my gratitude to Charles Hendry for writing his report. It is important that it is published soon. Charles Hendry is travelling at the moment, but as soon as he is back I will agree with him a date to publish it and he can answer questions on it. It is a substantial document and my hon. Friend will understand that we will want to consider it and make our response in due course.
We will publish early our emissions reductions plan in the new year. It is a legal requirement on the Government to set out exactly how we expect to meet our long-term carbon commitments.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work to bring the misuse of laser pointers to the Government’s attention. The Government are concerned about the misuse of high-powered laser pointers and will seek evidence early next year on the potential options for tackling such misuse.
We look forward to reading that research. It clearly contains some interesting findings, of which we will take full note.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to this type of fraud, which affects businesses in all sectors. It is essential that business owners and staff know what to do when they are notified of changes to bank account details. The best pointer in the first instance is the advice available on the Action Fraud website.
The transition to a clean energy system is fundamental to our energy strategy, and significant supply chain opportunities will flow from that. As for the Government’s commitment to renewable energy, this country has seen one of the fastest deployments of renewable energy across Europe since 2010, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have renewed that commitment through the contract for difference auctions.
Two weeks ago, GB Energy ceased trading, affecting 160,000 customers. Credit must go to Ofgem for ensuring that those customers were promptly transferred to another supplier, but does the Secretary of State believe that the regulator’s approach to risk management needs to change? Instead of carrying out little or no assessment of the viability of new entrants and then picking up the pieces if they fall, more rigorous financial health checks need to be undertaken to minimise the risk of failure, disruption to customers and a loss of confidence in switching to new energy providers.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Like him, I commend Ofgem for the arrangements that it put in place. He raises a reasonable point, and as Chairman of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee he will want to work with me to ensure that the right arrangements are in place.
Earlier this year, the Prime Minister commissioned Matthew Taylor to carry out an independent review of modern employment practices, such as in my hon. Friend’s example, as part of ensuring that our economy works for everyone. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will also consider my hon. Friend’s suggestion.
The energy-intensive industries compensation scheme is due to end in April 2017. The Government have promised to bring forward legislation to exempt energy-intensive industries from renewable obligations and feed-in tariffs, but we are still waiting for that to happen. As things stand, the steel industry is therefore looking down the barrel of having to go back to the crippling energy costs it faced until the compensation package was introduced. Will the Secretary of State assure us that measures will be put in place before April 2017 to ensure that we do not go back to that situation?
With higher and further education policy, apprenticeships and skills in a single Department, the Government can now take a comprehensive, end-to-end view of skills and education. This Government will, of course, support people from their early years through to postgraduate study and work.
It is important that nuclear energy should form a key part of that. One of the pieces of neglect of the previous Labour Government is that they presided over the forecast closure of our nuclear fleet without making any plans to replace it. When I made the statement about Hinkley Point C, I also said that this would be the beginning of a new era of civil nuclear power in this country, and that is absolutely right.
In the week when we saw a great deal between Tata Steel and the Community trade union, largely down to Roy Rickhuss and the return of Ratan Tata, we also saw the merger of Baosteel and Wuhan Iron and Steel. What risk assessment has the Department made of market economy status for China and its effects on the British steel industry?
I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to both Ratan Tata and Roy Rickhuss, as both the company and the unions have worked constructively together, and the progress is welcome. I have, with the Minister for Climate Change and Industry, a very regular dialogue with both employers and trade unions. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been active in making sure that we have the right trade defences against practices where countries dump steel unfairly in the UK market.
Although business rates are set by the Valuation Office Agency, rather than by the Government, it is right the Government then try to soften the blow for those most affected. Will the Minister expand on what is being done to protect the businesses using solar panels that have been adversely impacted by high business rates?
My hon. Friend is right to point out that these rates are set independently. She will also know that the overall net effect of the reforms is to reduce business rates and that some transitional relief is in place. She is also right to highlight the challenges in respect of businesses that have installed solar for their own use, and we are working through that issue.
INEOS, Tata Chemicals and Banner Chemicals in my constituency provide high-quality, high-wage, high-skilled jobs. What consideration has been given to energy price competiveness in respect of our European neighbours, as a more competitive energy price would disproportionately benefit the northern powerhouse?
Nissan has benefited from a pre-Brexit deal. What reassurance can the Secretary of State offer Brighton-based businesses such as American Express and EDF that, after Brexit, they will still be able to have an open and free relationship with the EU?
American Express is a very important employer in Brighton, and it is very welcome here. It has located itself in this country because Britain is a fantastic place from which to do business. That is the message that I receive wherever I travel to in the world. There is great appetite to invest in Britain, and the hon. Gentleman will know of our recent success stories. I hope that American Express will continue to invest more and employ more in his constituency.
Following the collapse of the Greater Lincolnshire devolution deal, the LEPs in Humber and Greater Lincolnshire take on a greater significance, but there is concern that some central Government funding may be lost as a result of the collapse of the deal. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the LEPs will be used to channel the funds from his Department when suitable projects are identified?
As my hon. Friends on the Front Bench have said, we regard local growth as a very important component of our industrial strategy, and my hon. Friend knows that I have been a big champion of local growth, so I want to see more of that. Obviously, certain offers were part of the proposed deal, but these deals are never compulsory, and if the councils and the businesses do not want to proceed then it is a matter for them.