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Topical Questions

Volume 623: debated on Tuesday 14 March 2017

As well as continuing the consultation on our industrial strategy Green Paper, we are acting on its diagnosis. Last week’s Budget set out our plan to transform technical education—increasing the hours students are taught by 50%, increasing funding for technical education by £500 million a year and establishing new institutes of technology. We announced in the Budget the first £270 million of projects under the industrial strategy challenge fund, including a world-leading investment in the development, design and manufacture of batteries to power the next generation of electric vehicles, and we announced a £100 million fellowship fund to attract the world’s brightest minds to come and work in the United Kingdom.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend is planning to visit AstraZeneca’s Macclesfield site, the largest pharmaceutical site in the United Kingdom, in the near future. Will he tell the House what plans the Government have to support the life sciences further as part of its northern powerhouse strategy?

My hon. Friend, who is a great champion of the life sciences as well as of the Cheshire economy, knows that the opportunity to negotiate a sector deal for life sciences, which is being led by Sir John Bell, will be good for the whole country, but will have particular relevance to Cheshire and Macclesfield. I am looking forward to visiting his constituency to see the facilities for myself.

T2. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the greatest evening newspaper in the country, the Express & Star, and the brilliant work of Wolverhampton University, which have launched the green shoots scheme? The scheme has now successfully distributed £4 million of regional growth fund money, supporting 65 businesses, creating or protecting 600 jobs and, extraordinarily, generating over 11 million in private sector investment to support businesses in places such as Dudley. Contrary to what he said earlier, everybody knows that Dudley was the real birthplace of the industrial revolution. (909247)

Having dipped my toes into controversy by talking about places with claims to be the cradle of the industrial revolution, I am certainly not going to nominate the best local newspaper in the country—suffice it to say that I gather the Foreign Secretary began his illustrious career on the Express & Star, although I do not know whether that shows its prescience, or whether it has recovered from that particular judgment. Local newspapers make a vital contribution to the success of local business, and I am delighted to hear about the initiative that the Express & Star is promoting.

T4. Since 2010, my constituency has seen 8,800 apprenticeships started across many sectors, and very soon I will be hosting my first apprenticeship fair, bringing together local students and businesses. Will the Minister outline what steps he is taking to encourage more small businesses to engage with apprenticeships and take on more apprentices in places such as my constituency? (909249)

The new phase of the “Get in Go Far” campaign focuses on helping small employers understand the benefits of apprenticeships. The National Apprenticeship Service supports that by contacting small businesses that have previously engaged with the programme. That will be of great benefit to small and medium-sized enterprises in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

T3. The Government’s industrial strategy Green Paper talks of the need to close the skills gap and invest in infrastructure, so can the Secretary of State explain to the House why childcare is not mentioned once? (909248)

Making ourselves attractive as a country to the workforce and making sure that we are the best place to operate a business and to work is an important theme of the strategy. I look forward to the hon. Lady’s contribution to the consultation, and if that issue does not have the emphasis that she thinks it needs, we will have the opportunity to address that.

T6. I thank the Secretary of State for his support for the midlands engine. In Stafford, we build them. Last week I had the honour of opening the technical training centre at Perkins’ large engine plant in Stafford. Does he agree that that shows just how important it is for businesses to be proactive in putting together the facilities needed for apprentices and taking on more of them, as Perkins is? (909251)

I quite agree with my hon. Friend. That demonstrates the need for all businesses, especially SMEs, to take advantage of our target of 3 million apprenticeships and the huge improvement in the quality of apprenticeships that the National Apprenticeship Service supports.

T5. Given that the Brexit negotiations are about to start, does the Secretary of State agree with his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that no deal is better than a bad deal? (909250)

T9. Will my right hon. Friend set out how he intends to shape the regulatory environment as we leave the European Union, including through such things as visa allocation, to ensure that the United Kingdom remains at the forefront of the technological revolution? (909254)

The UK is the No. 1 place in Europe for inward investment in technology, and the Government’s industrial strategy will deliver the Prime Minister’s vision of Britain as a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead. We are making sure that our regulatory landscape and visa system are up to that challenge through a range of measures, including the tier 1 exceptional talent visa.

T7. Scotland’s economy, from its thriving universities to our diverse food and drink sector, relies on EU freedom of movement. How does the Minister hope to close the skills gap and pave the way for a highly skilled economy if he cannot safeguard the rights of EU nationals living here? (909252)

The Government have made it clear on many occasions, including at the highest level, that we value tremendously the important contribution that EU nationals make to the success of our higher education institutions and scientific establishments across the country, including in Scotland, and we have every intention of that continuing in the years ahead.

When I visited the Corby steelworks on Friday, there was real enthusiasm for a sector deal for the steel industry and a real commitment to ongoing partnership working. Is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State willing to visit the Corby works to discuss those opportunities?

I would be delighted to visit Corby with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right—my discussions with the steel industry show a real appetite for a long-term sector deal to secure the future of the steel industry.

T8. Given the decimation of Scotland’s renewables sector and the fact that Scotland has very different energy capabilities from the rest of the UK, why do the Government continue to think that a one-size-fits-all energy policy is in any way appropriate for Scotland? (909253)

I have already emphasised in earlier answers the importance of a diverse energy supply, which is at the root of energy security. There is no question about this Government’s commitment to ongoing investment in renewables.

Many of those focused on driving forward the fourth industrial revolution are in new sectors such as robotics and 3D printing. Can the Minister ensure that the industrial strategy’s sector engagement includes new, innovative challengers, not just incumbents?

I certainly can. Through our industrial strategy, we are backing Britain’s innovators with the biggest investment in science and technology since 1979 and a new industrial strategy challenge fund to bring cutting-edge ideas out of the lab and into the wider economy.

T10. A recent Resolution Foundation report stated that one in three UK businesses admitted to under-investing over the last five years. What measures will the UK Government take to turn that around? (909255)

Yes, this country does recognise that it has been under-investing in research and development, and that is why at the autumn statement and in the Budget we have made the biggest investment in R and D for more than 40 years. Public investment in R and D helps to bring in private sector investment at the rate of about £1.36 for every £1 of public investment.

Can my right hon. Friend outline what measures are included in the midlands engine strategy to support small businesses and enterprises such as those in Cannock Chase?

As my hon. Friend knows, in the growth deals that are part of the midlands engine there is support, through local enterprise partnerships, for small businesses—both start-ups and growing businesses.

Following npower’s 15% price hike last month, the Government pledged that

“where markets are not working we are prepared to act.”

E.ON raised its prices by 14% last week and SSE by 8% yesterday. How many more companies need to raise their prices before the Government actually act to stop energy customers getting fleeced?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that that behaviour is unacceptable. It has been reported by Ofgem that there is no reason to increase prices. We have committed to a Green Paper on consumer markets, which will be published very shortly. The time is up for these companies.

As the recently elected chair of the all-party group for small and micro business, I know that access to finance in the early years is a real challenge for small businesses. What advice could the Minister give to those in my constituency who are looking for access to finance in the early years?

I can advise my hon. Friend that the Start Up Loans Company has already helped 44,000 small start-ups and will be on hand to support start-ups in his constituency.

What plans does the Secretary of State have to encourage new innovation support for SMEs in our key foundation industries, which make materials such as glass, ceramics and steel for cars, including those needed for Nissan in my constituency? This could help to create hundreds of jobs in the supply chain that are actually made in Britain.

Support for innovation has received its biggest boost since 1979 in the autumn statement and in the Budget that was just announced. The industrial strategy challenge fund has just seen the first allocation of £270 million, which will help to boost innovation in key areas across the economy.

Diesel-powered generators add to poor air quality. Will the Minister welcome the contribution of Off Grid Energy, a small, innovative business in my constituency, whose mobile hybrid units provide green energy to the construction and event sectors?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Through him, may I congratulate the business involved?

What positive impact will the Government’s plans to improve the energy infrastructure have on small businesses when it comes to electricity costs?

On Friday, I visited Graham Engineering, in Nelson. It is an excellent company in the nuclear supply chain that currently has 30 new vacancies, which will be on offer at my seventh annual Pendle jobs fair on 24 March. What more can we do to support the nuclear supply chain?

One of the things that we have done to support the nuclear supply chain is to have a continuing commitment to nuclear power in this country, and that will benefit my hon. Friend’s constituents. Through our network of training colleges, we will make sure that we grow the nuclear skills that we need for this industry.

I thought the Minister was a touch complacent in his earlier answer on smart meters given that this will cost the taxpayer £11 billion by the end of the Parliament. What is he going to do about the fact that they do not work when a customer switches supplier?

The smart meter programme should be judged on its long-term effect. It will save £47 billion by the end of that decade.[Official Report, 15 March 2017, Vol. 623, c. 5-6MC.]

When will the business rate review commence and report? The sticking plasters offered last week will do little for small businesses in York.

The digital strategy is a key component of the Government’s industrial strategy. Can the Secretary of State do better than the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and tell me which companies have committed to work in Great Grimsby as part of the digital skills partnership?

The whole of the industrial strategy is an invitation to businesses in every sector to come forward and propose to the Government what is required to grow jobs and skills. That is the invitation to all digital companies.

The Pubs Code Adjudicator Paul Newby failed to declare a much more fundamental direct conflict of interest than Charlotte Hogg, yet Ministers are ignoring it. Tomorrow, tenants will protest outside his office. How long will Ministers keep failing to do their duty and not face up to this situation?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the Commissioner for Public Appointments stated that the panel considered there were no conflicts of interest in this case that would preclude Mr Newby from doing his job.