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Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Volume 620: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2017

The Secretary of State was asked—

Science Funding

The first section of our Green Paper on industrial strategy sets out our ambition to make Britain the best nation in the world for scientists, innovators and technical inventors. In support of this, we have announced an increase of £4.7 billion in public research and development funds, which is the biggest increase in support of science for 40 years.

In evidence to the Education Committee last week, Professor Arthur, the president of University College London, spoke not only of the huge sums flowing into UK research from Europe—through Horizon 2020 and the European Research Council, for example—but of the need for a system to replace the mobility of people, networking and the ability to work across multiple boundaries. Does the Secretary of State recognise that if the Eurosceptics in his party prevail and we have a hard Brexit, spending even 3% of GDP on science funding will not be enough to protect our global reputation for scientific research? What is he doing to stand up for the needs of this sector?

The hon. Lady has two eminent universities in her constituency that are going from strength to strength. I agree that it is important that the best researchers from across the world come to our universities, and the Prime Minister said in her Lancaster House speech that that was a priority for our negotiations.

Science funding includes funding for the satellite sector, which is an important industrial base for the UK. The Government have set a target to grow this sector by a further 10% of global share in the next two decades. What more money could be put into the satellite sector from the industrial strategy challenge fund?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We say in the strategy that we should build on our strengths, and the satellite sector is a shining British strength that is creating huge numbers of jobs. It is specified throughout the industrial strategy as an area in which we want the industry to work together to ensure that, in particular, we are training the technicians and engineers of the future, which is what we have been doing.

The industrial strategy rightly points out the crucial significance of investment in science for our future economy and productivity. Given that the USA, Germany and France all outspend us in this area, will the Secretary of State give a commitment that future spending will outstrip theirs to give us a competitive advantage over them?

The hon. Gentleman is a thoughtful Member with regard to these matters, having chaired the then Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, and he will see in the Green Paper that we are candid about the need to maintain the pace. Indeed, we have increased public investment. He was right to mention the US, but actually the proportion of public to business investment is higher in this country than in Germany, Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and other countries besides. We are building on strength, but we want to take things further, and I look forward to his contribution to the consultation.

There is great concern about the future of fusion research after Britain pulls out of the EU and Euratom. Will the Secretary of State reassure us that he will continue to support and fully fund the Joint European Torus project and other joint research projects such as ITER—the international thermonuclear experimental reactor—after Britain leaves the EU?

The collaboration between scientists and those in the nuclear sector is one of the important aspects of the continued co-operation that we want and intend to see continue.

The Green Paper makes much of re-announcing the welcome increase in science spending which, following cuts of up to 50% over the last seven years, has finally returned it to the levels under the last Labour Government. Research and development funding, however, remains barely half the recommended 3% target that Labour has committed to. Does the Secretary of State agree that, given the impact of Brexit on UK science, the lack of any overarching vision and the focus on picking sector winners, rather than mobilising the whole—

Order. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady—[Interruption.] Order. I am sorry, but we have a lot to get through. The Front Benchers, on both sides, must be much more self-disciplined. It is not fair on Back Benchers.

The hon. Lady does not have it right. She should know—the science sector has welcomed this fact—that we protected funding for science during all the difficult years in which we were recovering from the financial situation that Labour left us. There was a huge welcome for the £2 billion increase, which is the biggest since 1979. In other words, that is bigger than what any Labour Government ever offered.

Aerospace

2. What recent assessment he has made of the international competitiveness of the UK aerospace. (908476)

The UK has the second largest aerospace industry worldwide, with strengths in some of the most technologically advanced parts of aircraft—wings, engines and advanced systems. The sector has annual turnover of around £30 billion and exports of some £25 billion a year.

Leading aerospace part designer and manufacturer Senior Aerospace Bird Bellows in my constituency speaks positively of the support from the Government’s Sharing in Growth scheme, which it says will be key in helping the company to realise its ambitious growth strategy. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the company on its plans and consider visiting its factory in Congleton to learn more?

I absolutely join my hon. Friend in congratulating the company. I have visited companies benefiting from the Sharing in Growth programme and I would be delighted to go to see the one in her constituency.

Rochester and Strood has a proud aerospace history, having had the Short Brothers iconic flying boats. It is now home to Aeromet, an important SME that is part of the supply chain for Airbus. Will my hon. Friend outline how his Department will ensure that the UK aerospace supply chain will continue to have unhindered access to major opportunities in our manufacturing industries?

As my hon. Friend will know, the aerospace growth partnership has been a great success, with the Government working closely with industry. As part of that, the Government have made a joint funding commitment with the industry for nearly £4 billion of aerospace research between 2013 and 2026, so I think that the future is relatively well funded.

What guarantees will the Minister give to ADS, the group representing the UK aerospace industry, which states that it must have

“Access to vital space programmes initiated by the European Space Agency, but funded by specific EU programmes”?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already talked about the importance of our satellite programmes in this country. The European Space Agency sits outside the EU structure, so it will be handled separately from EU discussions.

Does my hon. Friend see the signing of the contract in Turkey last week by the United Kingdom and Turkey on the new Turkish fighter jet as an endorsement of the skills and expertise of BAE Systems in this country, and does he foresee future deals with other countries?

I think that everyone concerned with the aerospace sector will welcome that transaction. It shows how BAE continues to be a global leader in this sector, and we must hope that it goes on to do further such work around the world.

In the last two years, Glasgow has built more satellites than any other city in Europe, with 100 private and public sector organisations such as Clyde Space contributing more than £130 million to the Scottish economy. This is much credited to Scotland’s long-standing strength in engineering, science and technology. As we face the prospect of a hard Tory Brexit, will the Minister make a commitment here and now that Scotland’s aerospace sector will be protected and that there will be no detriment to this vital sector and its many jobs?

The success of Scotland has been part of a wider UK success. I absolutely recognise the point that the hon. Lady mentions. I was in Glasgow only last week, talking to high-tech companies at Glasgow University, and I can absolutely vouch for their quality.

In my former career as an aerospace engineer—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] They have not heard the question yet, Mr Speaker. In that former career, I saw several examples of our aerospace competitiveness being diminished by the political enforcement of collaboration in engineering across Europe. Will the Minister ensure that future collaboration across Europe on aerospace happens where that is productive, not where it suits geopolitical objectives?

I admire the subtle and unobtrusive way in which my hon. Friend smuggled his personal experience into that question. I assure him that we will continue to take a thoroughly co-operative approach with European colleagues.

The recent “Steel 2020” report noted that steel is a key foundation industry for the UK that underpins our aerospace and automotive sectors, as well as many others. However, in the Government’s 130-page industrial strategy Green Paper, steel is mentioned just once. Can the Minister explain why he is neglecting this important industry?

I am surprised that the hon. Lady says that because the Government have had very productive discussions with the steel industry.

Self-employment

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. Some 4.8 million people are currently self-employed.

When I started a business, I found that one of the most intimidating elements was employing my first member of staff. What more can the Government do to encourage and support the self-employed to grow their company and become employers in their own right?

We will support entrepreneurs across the UK to ensure that they can access finance and wider support so that they can grow. British Business Bank programmes are already supporting £3.2 billion of finance to more than 51,000 smaller businesses, including start-up loans to 39 entrepreneurs in my hon. Friend’s Braintree constituency.

This matter is particularly close to my heart, given that I was self-employed until a few months ago. Of course, there are many self-employed businesses in rural areas of West Oxfordshire. Can the Minister assure us that the Government will continue to make it easier to start and grow a business by deregulating, creating an attractive tax environment, and helping businesses to attract and seek the finance that they need?

We continue to work hard to make the UK a great place to start and grow a business. According to OECD statistics, we are internationally the third best place to start a businesses, but we are 13th when it comes to the best place to grow a business, which is where my focus as small business Minister is going to lie. I very much welcome the support of my hon. Friend.

North Kensington, an area that the Minister knows, has several fantastic initiatives through which new start-ups have access to shared space. Are there any plans to reduce business rates and provide relief for small companies using shared space initiatives?

The Treasury has no plans specifically for shared work spaces, but at the last Budget, the Chancellor announced £6.7 billion of cuts to benefit all business rate payers. They include permanently doubling small business rate relief and increasing the thresholds from 2017.

Will my hon. Friend tell us how the industrial strategy will support disabled people who want to start and grow their own businesses?

The disabled employment programme is an important part of our work in labour markets, and it is backed by many top retailers. We will continue to press this issue and work with the Department for Work and Pensions for greater access to work for people with disabilities.

In order to grow the businesses of the self-employed, they need access to good-quality training. When I met the Doncaster YMCA and its apprentices last week, an issue was raised about clarity regarding funding during the transitional arrangements for the Skills Funding Agency going to the Department for Education. Will the Minister take an urgent look at this?

I thank the right hon. Lady for bringing this to our attention. A new approach to improving access to skills and apprenticeships is a fundamental part of our new industrial strategy. I will raise the matter that the right hon. Lady mentions with the Secretary of State for Education.

Many self-employed people recruit apprentices and others who are seeking employment. Given that the report recently produced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies cast doubt on the effectiveness of apprentices, the training scheme and the apprenticeship levy, what are the Government going to do about this?

Last week the Government launched the new industrial strategy, and the new academies programme for improving skills and access to apprenticeships is working with the existing apprenticeship programme to improve both the quality and number of apprentices.

Given that further education colleges have an important role in providing skills and training and help many people to become self-employed workers, does it make sense to cut their budgets?

Further education colleges remain an important part of our strategy to improve skills and access to apprenticeships, but they are not the only route to apprenticeships. The apprenticeship levy will increase funding for overall access to skills for our young people.

Compulsory quarterly digital tax updates cause real concern to self-employed people and small businesses. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs says that support is available. Will the Minister tell us what support is available to self-employed businesses and how much money is set aside for that support?

I am sorry; I did not follow all the hon. Gentleman’s question. However, I know that the Treasury is looking into the fairness of taxation as between self-employed people and the rest of the workforce. I will read the hon. Gentleman’s question in Hansard and write to him accordingly.

The ranks of self-employed people are being expanded by an increase in independent working. Will my hon. Friend ensure that labour market regulations are updated so that employee rights are maintained?

I very much agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend’s question. The Prime Minister has appointed Matthew Taylor to undertake a review of employment practices in the modern economy to ensure that while we embrace new technologies, we also protect workers’ rights.

What are the Government doing about the scourge of bogus self-employment, which too often is a rip-off of the workers concerned and a rip-off of HMRC?

The Taylor review will also look into that very important issue. A worker’s contract with his or her employer is the fundamental basis on which he or she is judged to be self-employed or an employee, and that distinction will be closely scrutinised by Matthew Taylor.

SMEs: Kent and Medway

SMEs in Kent are fundamental to our economy, as they are everywhere else. Through local growth funds, the work of Kent County Council and the business operations of Kent and Medway, the Government will ensure that the area benefits hugely from the increased number of SMEs.

In view of the Government’s commitment to investment in infrastructure, which will assist businesses in Kent and Medway, will the Minister confirm their commitment to the Lower Thames crossing, along with extra investment for Kent roads, which will provide connectivity for local businesses?

The Department for Transport will make an announcement, but my hon. Friend should be reassured that Kent County Council and the relevant business organisations are working closely with my Department to ensure that there are extensive improvements in the transport infrastructure in his constituency and the wider county.

I trust that the question will not be on the matter of Linlithgow, but will focus purely on Kent and Medway, in which I am sure the hon. Lady keenly specialises.

You can be assured of that, Mr Speaker.

The SMEs in Kent and Medway need someone in government to fight their corner. In July 2015, they were promised a small business commissioner who would focus particularly on late payments. The Federation of Small Businesses and others have raised concerns about the lack of power that the commissioner will have, and the fact that 18 months after the position was created, there is no sign of a commissioner. Will the Minister tell SMEs in Kent and Medway, for which I have the greatest regard, and others throughout the country when the commissioner will be appointed, and whether he or she will have proper powers to ensure that companies that do not pay are taken to task?

First, I can reassure the hon. Lady that Kent and Medway is ably championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), who asked the original question, but apropos of her specific point, we are in the process of appointing the small business commissioner at the moment; he will be in post by the summer and able to take complaints on the important issue of prompt payment in the autumn of this year.

Tidal Energy

8. What assessment he has made of the potential contribution of power generated by tidal lagoons to UK energy provision. (908483)

The Hendry review published its report earlier this month. The Government are considering its recommendations and the issues that would arise from a broader lagoon programme, including the potential contribution of power generated by tidal lagoons. The Government will publish their response to the Hendry review in due course.

As an MP with a coastal constituency, I am a big fan of tidal power, and following the Hendry review it has been estimated that building some 10 tidal lagoon power stations by 2030 could generate 10% of our electricity requirements. So when considering the economics of the Swansea Bay scheme, will the Minister take into account the wider benefits for British manufacturing and technology of becoming a world leader in this clean technology?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to recognise that the question must be considered in the round and not merely on the merits or no of the Swansea Bay scheme. It is the Government’s job to consider the advantages and disadvantages of tidal lagoons as a whole and to take a decision that includes not merely the financial elements, but also environmental elements, the capacity to generate power as part of a wider energy mix and ancillary elements.

The Minister surely knows that all kinds of alternative energy, including tidal power, need good recruits; they need trainees and, indeed, apprentices. Is he not hanging his head in shame this morning because of the report of the highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies which says that this Government’s apprenticeship programme is a disaster and should be ripped up and started again? When is he going to get real?

But purely in relation to tidal lagoons; we are not talking about apprenticeships more widely or seeking to shoehorn a personal interest into a question to which it does not ordinarily apply. But the Minister is a philosopher and dextrous to a fault, so I am sure he will cope.

Heaven forfend, Mr Speaker, that I should entertain so unworthy a suspicion as to think the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) might have smuggled some entirely unrelated question into a question on tidal lagoons. May I simply reassure him that skills remain at the centre of the Government’s concerns, and that is why they feature so prominently in the industrial strategy?

The Minister is quite right to say that he will analyse this in the round, because while I think many of us will recognise the economic advantages, particularly over a long period such as 100 to 150 years, the environmental impact will be considerable. Can he perhaps amplify what sort of things he will be looking at, including how tidal lagoons affect fish life, marine life and bird life?

It is of course true that, as well as the economic case and value for money issues that that raises, there will be wider consideration of environmental impacts, but in relation not just to individual schemes as they can be understood now, but to the way in which they might concatenate across a programme of tidal lagoons.

The Government have been very good at supporting the tidal stream generator in Portaferry in Northern Ireland. Can we ensure that we make the most of what is learned from tidal power in devolved Governments and the rest of the UK—not the events in Northern Ireland, but what we generate?

One hesitates to remind the hon. Gentleman that this is a different matter and a different technology from tidal lagoons, but I think he can take it as read that officials and Ministers will be thinking carefully about all the relevant precedents that might bear on this decision.

The question was about the potential contribution of power generated by tidal lagoons to UK energy provision. My understanding is that a limited deployment of tidal lagoons in the Severn estuary alone would contribute about 8% or more of UK electricity demand. Can the Minister tell me if there is any other technology that can provide that sort of power in one location—as a clue, perhaps I can suggest to him that Hinkley C running full tilt without any outages is estimated to contribute about 7% to UK energy requirements?

I dare to suggest that the hon. Gentleman is misinformed. It is not quite clear what he thinks of as the lagoons in the scheme he describes, but Hinkley Point will be a bigger generator than, certainly, the first round of lagoons, as well as being a higher load and more reliable.

9. What progress his Department is making on implementing the recommendations of the Hendry review on tidal energy. (908485)

The issues considered by the Hendry review are complex, and the Government will be demanding a period of time to assess the recommendations and determine what decision is in the best interests of UK energy consumers. I have already said that we will not be dragging our heels on this, and we will not do so.

There is huge potential for tidal energy not only in the Swansea scheme but along the south Wales coast and the Severn estuary and along the north Wales coast. However, I am hearing worrying things about the Department dragging its heels on this. Will the Minister assure me that there will be strong ministerial leadership to take the recommendations forward and to get on with the Swansea scheme and others?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman would say that, given that it was the Department’s expectation that the report might be published before Christmas and that it was in fact published only two or three weeks ago. There is no suggestion that the Department is dragging its heels, and nor will we do so, but we will, in the public interest, give the report proper, thorough consideration on value-for-money and other grounds.

In a previous answer, the Minister referred to advantages and disadvantages. Does he agree that the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon would not only meet energy needs but provide huge levels of investment in jobs in my constituency and throughout the region? As the Hendry report implies, it could put Wales at the forefront of developing a world-first technology.

I salute my colleague’s proper concern for support and investment in his constituency; that is absolutely right. The wider implications are being considered by the Government, and I remind him that the Hendry review asked for the issues to be considered specifically in the context of power generation, so those things go alongside the wider consideration we are giving to the report.

The Hendry report refers to tidal energy. The Minister will know that the first large-scale tidal steam generator in Northern Ireland, in Strangford Lough, was four times more powerful than any other in the whole world at the time. What consideration will he give to ensuring that the energy being produced in Strangford Lough can be utilised for the benefit of the whole of Northern Ireland?

As I have indicated in a separate debate with the hon. Gentleman, that is a different, although related, technology. It was funded in part by the Government and has produced interesting results. This is a matter for close consideration by officials and we will continue to reflect on the matter. If he wishes to write to me further, I would be delighted to take a letter.

One of the core objectives of the draft industrial strategy is to rebalance the UK economy, with engineering, construction and manufacturing making a larger contribution to economic growth. Does the Minister agree that if we are to achieve that objective, we will need to invest in major infrastructure projects such as the tidal lagoon?

I absolutely share my right hon. Friend’s view that major infrastructure investment is an important part, although only a part, of the wider overall investment that can be made in this country as part of the industrial strategy. He is right to suggest that those wider considerations must be balanced by a tempered assessment of value for money, and that is what we will be giving them.

With all due respect to the Minister, may I tell him that his Department simply not dragging its heels is not good enough? The Hendry report recommends that Ministers

“secure the pathfinder project as swiftly as possible”.

I can promise that he will have the full support of the Members on this side of the House for doing that, although I am unsure that he would have the same support from those behind him. Will he therefore press the Chancellor for an agreement on the Swansea tidal lagoon, to be announced in the March Budget?

I admire the hon. Gentleman’s dexterity in turning three weeks into foot-dragging. Given his rabbinical scrutiny of the Hendry review, I shall simply remind him that it specifically asks the Government to give these issues careful consideration, and that is what we will be doing.

Leaving the EU: Research and Development (Scotland)

10. What steps he is taking to safeguard investment in research and development in Scotland as a result of the UK's decision to leave the EU. (908487)

As the Secretary of State has already said, the Government are supporting research and development throughout the UK. We protected the resource budget at the 2015 spending review and committed an extra £2 billion in the most recent autumn statement—the largest increase in science funding since 1979.

A hard Brexit will threaten Scotland’s world-class university sector, and the price of the research development investment that we are discussing was a staggering €8.8 billion from 2007-2013. What representations are this Department making to the Treasury and the Brexit Secretary to protect that vital investment?

Scotland is a powerhouse for academic research, and we want to play to one of this country’s great strengths, so we welcome the agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science and technology programmes in years to come. Britain will remain at the forefront of collective endeavours to improve and better understand the world in which we live.

The most important investment that we must safeguard is the people who work in science and research. What is the Minister doing to ensure that EU researchers in Scotland are sure of their place as we go through the Brexit process?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. As the Prime Minister made clear in her speech the week before last, we greatly value the contribution that EU nationals make in our institutions. The Government have been exceptionally clear that during the negotiations we want to protect the status of EU nationals already living here. The only circumstances in which that would not be possible are if British citizens’ rights in other EU member states were not protected in return.

Life Sciences

We invest £2 billion a year in health life sciences research through our research councils and the National Institute for Health Research. Through funding for the biomedical catalyst, we are helping businesses to bring that research to market. We announced in the new industrial strategy that Sir John Bell will be leading work on a strategy to make the UK the best place in the world to invest in life sciences.

Alongside that welcome support, private investment will be critical to the success of the industry. Will the Minister outline what suggestions he might make in his Budget submission to the Chancellor to stimulate such investment?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Access to finance is key to a dynamic life sciences sector in the UK. In November, the Prime Minister announced a review of patient capital to identify barriers to access to long-term finance for growing firms, looking at all aspects of the financial system. We look forward to the review’s recommendations ahead of the autumn statement.

The industrial strategy will have a major impact on speeding up Genomics England’s ability to sequence the genome. Will my hon. Friend confirm that he is working with the Department of Health to ensure that the Government’s investment will be spent effectively to encourage greater productivity?

The industrial strategy Green Paper highlights work on a new strategy for life sciences, bringing together the health system, industry and academia and potentially leading to an early sector deal. The accelerated access review sets out a vision of the NHS embracing innovation, and the Government will respond in due course.

Local Economic Growth

One of our most important reforms has been to devolve power and resources to local areas through city deals, devolution deals and growth deals, in which local businesses can shape the decisions most affecting them. The hon. Lady will have welcomed last week’s announcement that half a billion pounds was devolved to northern local enterprise partnerships, including £130 million to Greater Manchester.

I welcomed most of the announcements in the industrial strategy last week, but the Secretary of State will appreciate that a local area strategy is required for key infrastructure issues such as skills and childcare. What conversations has he had with colleagues in the Department for Education and across local government about the meaningful devolution of skills, early years and education?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the needs of different places should be reflected in decisions that are made locally. Along with the centrality of skills and training, that is a big theme of the industrial strategy consultation, to which I hope she will respond. I look forward to her contribution.

Business investment in science and technology is key to local economic growth and Britain’s leadership of the fourth industrial revolution. Will the Secretary of State continue supporting LEPs to fund these key sectors and technologies?

I will indeed. One of the big opportunities is to make sure that the excellence we have in science and research is married with local strengths so that we can have the products of that research, in manufacturing for example, as well as the discoveries themselves.

Northern Ireland has only one very small enterprise zone, which is up in Coleraine and has not really progressed. Can the Secretary of State give any support or assistance to the Northern Ireland Executive, when they are up and running again, for more enterprise zones within the Province?

I have, as the hon. Gentleman would expect, conversations with Simon Hamilton, the Minister responsible in Northern Ireland. My colleagues and I are very happy to consider his suggestions and proposals when we meet him.

I declare an interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. The borough of Kettering has had one of the fastest rates of business rate growth in the whole country in the last 10 years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, with local government to be fully funded by business rates from 2020, all local councils will have to get far closer to their local businesses in order for local economies to function as best they can?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and, as a councillor, he knows how important it is that that very direct connection is made. It is one of the measures going through the House that I was proud to have proposed when I was Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and it is something for which local government has long campaigned. I am delighted that it was this Conservative Government who were able to deliver it.

Bank lending is essential for local business success, and yesterday’s HBOS convictions are a stark reminder of the way that smaller businesses were treated by some banks during the financial crisis. Does the Secretary of State accept that lending has fallen over the last year? What is he doing to give confidence in the banks, unlock support and increase lending?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw attention to the misbehaviour of the banks, especially with regard to small businesses, when they were inadequately supervised as a result of the destruction of the supervisory regime under the previous Labour Government. That has now been put on a much sounder footing. He will know that the lending opportunities for small businesses have been transformed, but the industrial strategy Green Paper is very clear that we want to make further opportunities available, particularly outside London and the south-east.

Offshore Energy: Humber

The UK is the world’s largest market for offshore wind, and the Humber energy estuary is, in my hon. Friend’s own words, “ideally positioned” to serve that sector. The Secretary of State and I saw that when we visited the new £310 million Siemens turbine blade factory, which has created more than 1,000 very valuable new jobs in the area.

This afternoon the Humber local enterprise partnership and Humber MPs are staging a showcase event to highlight the assets of the energy estuary. Can the Minister assure business leaders that the Government will continue to support the offshore centre, which is based in northern Lincolnshire, and the wider Humber region? Will he or one of his colleagues find time to visit the event this afternoon?

Yes to the event, and yes to the assurance that my hon. Friend seeks about continued support. On top of the growth deal, the city deal and the enterprise zone programme, he will be well aware of the very significant Government commitment to future contract for difference auctions worth £730 million for less mature renewable technologies, including offshore wind. I hope he welcomes that.

What steps are the Government taking to ensure the highest possible UK content in the steel used to build the energy infrastructure in the Humber?

That is an extremely important point, and it is part of our calculation of the return on the investment made by the British taxpayer. Good progress is being made, and analysis shows that aggregated lifetime UK content in operating windfarms is 43%, against a track target of around 50%, and the proportion is higher for the value of operations and maintenance contracts, which run at about 70% of value at the moment. This will be a key area of our focus as we go forward with the industrial strategy.

Access to Finance

16. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on improving access to finance for businesses. (908494)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had discussions with the Chancellor on building the Government’s industrial strategy, which includes ensuring that businesses can access the finance they need. We already help businesses through the business finance and support finder on gov.uk, and we recently launched the finance platforms service, which offers small and medium-sized enterprises that have had finance rejected by the large banks the option of a referral to alternative finance providers.

With many new online alternative finance companies springing up across the UK, what is my hon. Friend doing, first, to ensure that our small and medium-sized enterprises know about these alternative ways of accessing finance, and, secondly, to give them the confidence to borrow from such organisations?

The British Business Bank has created the business finance guide, which is widely distributed and offers comprehensive information about the financing options available to businesses, including alternative sources of finance. The Financial Conduct Authority regulates peer-to-peer lending platforms and is currently reviewing its regulatory regime to ensure that it is robust and up to date.

What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of bank closures in town centres on the availability of business finance, to ensure that those such as my local one in Holywell, which is potentially losing three banks this year, will still have access to business finance and will still be positive town centres?

The impact of bank closures is, to some extent, ameliorated by the Post Office’s announcement a few weeks ago that it will be enabling both personal and SME banking customers to have a massive increase in face-to-face banking services across the country.

I call Mike Freer. He is not here. We will take the last question on the condition that we have a reasonably short, single sentence supplementary, as I want to move on to the main business promptly today. If it is a long question, we will not bother.

Medical Research

This year the Medical Research Council will spend £655 million on world-class research. Our commitment to the future of the UK as a world leader in biomedical research is unwavering. For example, in November, Her Majesty the Queen opened the Francis Crick Institute, and we will continue to invest in this kind of excellence throughout this Parliament.

Autism is the most expensive medical condition in the UK, costing the economy more than £32 billion a year, according to the London School of Economics, yet we spend hardly anything on autism research compared with what we spend on research into cancer, heart disease and stroke, which cost the economy less. What can the Minister do to encourage more spending on autism research, which is so vital to people in this country?

Between 2010-11 and 2014-15, the MRC spent £13.3 million on autism research, and it always welcomes high-quality applications for support on any aspect of human health. Such applications are subject to peer review and are judged in open competition. The Department of Health, through the National Institute for Health Research, also funds research in this area, and the MRC’s centre for neurodevelopmental disorders at King’s College London opened recently, in November.

The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) can always have her question framed and put up on the wall in a suitable part of her home, of her own choosing.

Topical Questions

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.