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Topical Questions

Volume 620: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2017

Since our last questions, with the Prime Minister my ministerial team and I have launched our industrial strategy Green Paper, part of a cross-Government plan to build an economy that works for everyone. Efforts to secure global investment in British enterprise and innovation continue to meet with success, with the most recent example being the £115 million Novo Nordisk investment in Oxford, which is a further vote of confidence in Britain as a place to do both business and science. Today we launch the next energy capacity market auction. Last month, I signed a memorandum of co-operation with the Government of Japan on civil nuclear activities, and on Thursday I announced that we have secured a second mission to space for Major Tim Peake.

As always, my right hon. Friend has been extraordinarily busy, but may I ask my extraordinarily busy right hon. Friend to turn his attention to Morecambe and Lunesdale, as we now have a new link road going straight to the Heysham port and we would like an enterprise zone? Will he help me to get an enterprise zone?

I am never too busy for Morecambe and Lunesdale, and I know what a passionate campaigner my hon. Friend has been for the business prospects in his area. If I may, I will talk to the Minister responsible for the northern powerhouse, who has responsibility for enterprise zones—I am sure he will be happy to have a meeting with my hon. Friend.

The Secretary of State’s plan to impose arbitrary cuts on the pensions of 16,000 nuclear energy workers, 7,000 of them in Copeland, threatens industrial relations in a key sector. I urge him to take the opportunity, at this week’s meeting with trade unions, to end his attack on workers who power our country and abandon the raid on their pensions before the industry is plunged into chaos.

I met the unions last week, and we had some constructive, although undoubtedly robust, conversations. The discussion continues and we hope it will end constructively.

T4. What discussions has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had with representatives of industry, particularly the steel industry, about the UK’s leaving the European Union? (908466)

As my hon. Friend would expect, my colleagues meet representatives of all kinds of businesses, both in the UK and those looking to invest here. We are clear, as the Prime Minister has been, that we intend to pursue our negotiations to secure the best possible access to the single market so that the manifest advantages of the UK continue to be available to companies, here, now and in future.

T2. European Commission state aid approval for the steel industry is still not in place. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that compensation under the energy industrial package will be provided by the UK Government until the exemption is finally introduced? (908464)

Of course it will continue. We are in discussions about the mechanics of that, as part of a broader conversation that the Secretary of State and I are having with senior management of the steel industry and trade unions about securing a sustainable future for the industry.

T7. The Government’s recent industrial strategy Green Paper is to be warmly welcomed. I have spoken to the vice-chancellor of Loughborough University, and we see lots of opportunities for the Loughborough constituency, the university, the college and local industry. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has visited Loughborough; perhaps I can tempt him to come again to hear about those opportunities, or could we meet in London? (908469)

I commend Loughborough University and its vice-chancellor, Robert Allison. It is a fantastic example of an excellent academic institution that makes a big impact locally. I am always happy to meet my right hon. Friend and the leadership of that fine university.

T3. The removal of the renewables obligation and the decimation of the feed-in tariff have had a huge negative impact on my constituency, where renewables are the one tangible business area we have that we can grow and that offers highly paid jobs. One year on from those draconian measures, what reassessment has been made of the policy’s effectiveness? (908465)

This country and this Government are on track to invest in excess of £8 billion a year by 2020 in continuing the transition to a clean energy system. We are talking about a low-carbon economy that is generating, at the last count, at least 450,000 jobs. As I made clear in an earlier announcement, there are new commitments to contract for difference auctions for less mature renewable technologies, so the Government’s commitment to clean energy is not in doubt.

T8. May I again welcome the first two pillars of the proposed industrial strategy: investment in science and developing skills? Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how the work of the Science and Technology Committee can act as a road map in delivering the Government’s aims? (908470)

I very much hope that my hon. Friend’s Committee will engage with the consultation. If we are to have a strategy that endures, it is important that it takes into account the views of all those on both sides of the House with an interest in securing our economic prosperity and future scientific excellence.

T5. It is estimated that an ambitious approach to the circular economy could create half a million new jobs. Cities such as Bristol would be very well placed to take advantage of that. It is disappointing that there is little mention of resource efficiency, low-carbon growth and sustainability in the industrial strategy. Can the Government reassure me that they are taking this seriously? (908467)

Yes I can, and I take a strong personal interest in those matters. The hon. Lady says they are not mentioned in the industrial strategy, but they are. One of the clear pillars of the industrial strategy is a commitment to clean growth, within which are some explicit references to our desire to explore the opportunities attached to higher resource and energy productivity.

T9. It is 100 years since the destruction of Hallsands village following an act of environmental destruction and vandalism that saw the removal of protective shingle from the shoreline. Communities around our entire coast, including in Start Bay, face an even greater threat from climate change. Will the Minister assure me that he will protect us from an act of environmental vandalism —withdrawal from the Paris agreement? (908471)

As the Prime Minister said in Prime Minister’s questions last week, this country is fully committed to the Paris climate change agreement—as are all the countries that endorsed the Marrakech proclamation—and we hope that all parties will continue to ensure that it is put into practice.

T6. Since the EU referendum, the depreciation of sterling has boosted British manufacturing and exports, but, as we are leaving the EU, will the Government now start to use public procurement and necessary state aid to support the vital expansion of our industries and the promotion of import substitution? (908468)

We want British business and British industry to compete on the basis that they are price-competitive. There are opportunities that come from being outside some of the bureaucracy, which affects small businesses in particular when it comes to public procurement, and those are opportunities that we will be able to take.

I call Mr David Nuttall. I thought that he was interested in this question. Has his appetite diminished? [Interruption.] No? Go on. Get in there, man.

I had not planned to stand for topical questions, but may I urge my right hon. Friend not to be swayed by the arguments from the Opposition to spend a specific amount of our GDP on research for scientific projects? If the private sector is unwilling to fund those projects, we should ask serious questions about whether the public sector and my hardworking taxpayers should be asked to foot the bill.

Happily, the private sector—British business —is an enthusiastic and increasing supporter of investment in science and research. Sometimes that is done jointly with important publicly funded institutions such as our universities, and that is one of our strengths as an economy.

In November, the Secretary of State hauled energy companies into his Department to put pressure on them regarding claims that they were generating excess profits. This morning, at the Select Committee, Which? told us that energy companies are dismal when it comes to customer service and prices. Does he agree with that assessment, and will he outline to the House what progress has been made to get a better deal for energy customers since that meeting in November?

Yes. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The Competition and Markets Authority report identified a huge detriment that consumers were facing. There has been some limited response from the energy companies. For example, they have deleted some of their more abusive tariffs, but there is further to go, and we will be making a response to the CMA report in the days ahead.

It has been recently announced that the strategy for the midlands engine for growth will be announced soon. The midlands engine is vital for business in Derby and the midlands, so may I urge the Secretary of State to consider it sooner rather than later?

The midlands engine is a very important part of the strengthening of the economy, and there is real momentum there. My hon. Friend can look forward to some very important announcements that will be made imminently.

Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), said that there had clearly been instances of the pubs code being flouted and that Members should bring such things to her attention. I have a case in her own constituency to bring to her attention, which also shows that the adjudicator is not doing his job. May we discuss this matter please?

I am very happy to discuss the case in my own constituency with the hon. Gentleman, but the Pubs Code Adjudicator is doing a good job. His line of inquiry has received 435 inquiries to date and 121 referrals for arbitration, but I will discuss the problem with the hon. Gentleman.

The industrial strategy makes a clear commitment that future rounds of infrastructure investment will take into account the balance of spending per head as between different regions. On the basis that there is a 60% imbalance between London and the rest of the country at the moment, what balance would the Secretary of State like to see going ahead?

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution to the consultation. We are very clear that we need to see infrastructure investment in all parts of the country. It is one reason why we have created institutions such as Transport for the North to be able to take those decisions locally.

The Government’s industrial strategy has sector deals for a number of sectors, which is welcome. Given the vital cross-cutting foundational nature of the steel industry, will the Minister now commit to a sector deal for steel?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I have already been having discussions with the steel industry with precisely that purpose in mind.

Order. We come now to the ten-minute rule motion. The hon. Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) will be pleased that she has such an interested, large and expectant audience.