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Topical Questions

Volume 630: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2017

Since we last met, my ministerial colleagues and I have brought three major pieces of legislation to the House: a draft Bill to cap consumer energy prices; new laws to ensure that every home and small business will be offered a smart meter; and the new Nuclear Safeguards Bill to maintain our nuclear safeguards as we leave the EU. We continue to develop new policy that will benefit businesses and wider society, and today we are publishing a call for evidence on Professor Dieter Helm’s independent review of energy. We have reaffirmed our position as a world leader in tackling climate change through the launch of the clean growth strategy, and I take this opportunity to invite all Members on both sides of the House to join us in celebrating Small Business Saturday, which is coming up on 2 December.

Is the Secretary of State concerned that, although October’s figures show continued welcome manufacturing growth, almost half of the net jobs created in the UK since 2010 are in London and the south-east, where only a quarter of the population live?

I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that jobs are being created in all parts of the United Kingdom and that we have the highest level of employment since records began. That is a signal of the success of the UK economy, but he is absolutely right that we want to make sure that every part of the United Kingdom reaches the height of prosperity it is capable of reaching, and through the industrial strategy we will have more to say about how we can propel that forward.

T2. Businesses in my constituency and across the west midlands need the investment and the skills to continue to thrive and flourish. Will the Minister update me on the work the Government are doing in that regard? (901623)

We are investing in a world-class technical education system, growing apprenticeships and introducing T-levels from 2020 for 16 to 19-year-olds, backed by a further £500 million per year. We are also investing £170 million to create institutes of technology across all regions and £80 million for specialist national colleges to deliver higher-level technical education.

Last week, the Secretary of State repeatedly refused to confirm, when pressed by the Select Committee, that the energy price cap would be in place by next winter. Media reports have also suggested that the Government have already told energy investors that the draft legislation will be ditched if they feel the big six power firms are doing enough to tackle high bills. I therefore ask the Secretary of State, in the hope he will today provide a clear answer, whether the energy price cap will be in place by the winter of 2018 and, if not, whether the media reports are true that there is actually no intention of introducing price cap legislation?

I can assure the hon. Lady that there is every intention of introducing a price cap, and there is consensus in the House around that. We have published a Bill and it is being scrutinised by the Select Committee. As soon as it has finished that scrutiny, we will look for an opportunity to introduce it to the House.

I am afraid that answer simply created even more ambiguity, so let us try a different topic. The Government scheme to deal with the social care back-payment announced on 1 November has been cited as “inadequate” by many care businesses and organisations, as it does not address the fact that many providers simply cannot afford to pay due to funding cuts, and some workers will not be paid what they are duly owed until 31 March 2019. Mencap has stated that many providers will be reluctant to take part in the scheme as they feel they will be

“writing their own suicide note”.

Therefore, I ask the Secretary of State: will the Government commit the necessary funding in the Budget to avert a crisis in the care sector, which could see many businesses struggle to survive, impacting on already fragile care services, and leave thousands of care staff without the wages they are owed?

As the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), has made clear, and as I believe the hon. Lady knows, this is a difficult and complex issue. We completely accept the need for confidence among the providers of care to some of the most vulnerable people in society, while recognising the legitimate claim, which has been upheld by the courts, of those who have worked in that sector. Bringing those two things together requires precision and care, so that this is robust and does not create further uncertainty if it were found not to be legally possible to advance it. That is why the interim proposal has been made, but I am happy to keep the hon. Lady informed.

Yesterday afternoon, we had an excellent debate in this Chamber about the benefits of European economic area and European Free Trade Association membership, with people on both sides of the Chamber supporting our continuing membership. I do not expect my right hon. Friend to pass comment on his own views on this matter, but I do know he will always champion the best interests of British business. To that end, will he undertake, in all the negotiations he is involved with at the highest level, to make sure that all options are kept open as to how we get a Brexit deal—that includes the EEA and EFTA?

I represent strongly the views of the business community because they are absolutely vital for our continuing prosperity as a country. The whole of the business community wants to get the best possible deal for the UK, and the vast majority of Members were elected on a platform and a manifesto of obtaining that. I will be tireless in pressing the case for it.

T3. After years of the Scottish National party lobbying, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy launched a review into limited partnerships, and we in the SNP welcome that. In the light of the Paradise papers, thousands of firms registered in Scotland will be forced to reveal their owners’ identities. When will the Government publish the full findings of the review? (901624)

At last year’s international anti-corruption summit, we committed to introduce a register of beneficial ownership of overseas companies. We published a call for evidence in April, the responses to which are being analysed. We will publish a response that provides for legislation in due course.

Dieter Helm’s recently published “Cost of Energy Review” says that

“the prices of oil, gas and coal have fallen…contrary to the modelling and forecasting of both the Department of Energy & Climate Change…and the Committee on Climate Change”.

He means that however hard they try and however worthy their intentions, mandarins and regulators are rubbish at discovering or predicting energy prices. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the provisions for the draft Bill’s absolute energy price cap, which would require mandarins and regulators to meet twice a year to pick a number, would repeat the same mistakes so should be replaced by something more closely linked to the few competitive energy prices that already exist?

I know what a great campaigner my hon. Friend has been on this issue. We have published the draft Bill, which includes our intentions, and I hope that he will give evidence while the Bill is being scrutinised. We are eager to hear his views, and we are eager to hear whether the Select Committee agrees with his analysis.

T5. Does the Secretary of State accept that the true test of his industrial strategy will be how actively he and the Government intervene to protect manufacturing skills and jobs when companies such as BAE Systems, Bombardier or Vauxhall face crisis? (901627)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Government, my ministerial team and I should be active in securing investment opportunities and continued employment by UK companies and international companies that invest in the UK, and we are. I do that tirelessly. In the case of Ellesmere Port, we have had discussions with Peugeot and it is interested, as we are, in investment in the new generation of vehicles, with which I know the hon. Gentleman is familiar.

I am working closely on investment in utilities with the Greater Lincolnshire local enterprise partnership, which will shortly publish a report detailing areas of Lincolnshire in which infrastructure requires investment. One problem is that Western Power is prevented from making speculative investment by Ofgem. Can my hon. Friend the Minister tell me why there is apparently this regulatory barrier to investment and what she can do to help?

I commend my hon. Friend and her local enterprise partnership for their work. We look forward to seeing that report and to having productive conversations. We do not want any barriers that impede economic growth in her constituency and region.

T6. Net present value is the economic measurement generally held to provide the most robust assessment of all the costs and benefits of any proposed major infrastructure project. Would the Government ever support a major infrastructure project that, at its inception, was calculated to have a negative net economic benefit? (901628)

One of the things that the House has correctly required of the Government is that we should take account of the impact on local economies—for example, on small businesses. That is something that has changed in the impact guidance, and it is right that it has.

On the 100th anniversary of the communist revolution’s introduction of a system that impoverished and imprisoned tens of millions, what is the Department doing to promote the benefits of free markets for workers, consumers and society as a whole?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, because the history and reputation of this country during the past 100 years, and especially during the past decade, has been based on having in this country a system of vigorous competition in which businesses compete not because they are guaranteed a position by the state but because they face pressure from competitors. That has introduced extraordinary prosperity that would be thrown away were we to adopt a different system, such as that proposed 100 years ago.

T7. Will the Secretary of State assure the House of his Department’s commitment to enforce the national minimum wage in the maritime sector? Why have officials from his Department been unable to attend meetings of the cross-departmental legal working group on seafarers? (901629)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the national minimum wage and seafarers. We are looking into it and I will write to him with the latest position.

This week is Offshore Wind Week. The wind and renewables sector is vital to my constituency. Many young people are training to secure jobs in the industry, as is being highlighted by the apprenticeships event that will begin here shortly. What ongoing support will the Government give to young people entering the industry?

I am sure that my hon. Friend, like me, celebrates the fact that there has been an unprecedented fall in the price of offshore wind in the most recent auction, proving that the policy making—at least in this case—actually worked. We look forward to further investment in the industry, and are working with the sector on a sector deal that will have to address the issue of skills and apprenticeships. It is a vital industry; there is much more to do and much more growth to come.

T8. Last year, a Whirlpool tumble dryer caused a devastating fire at Shepherd’s Bush Green after Whirlpool told customers that it was safe to continue using them, contrary to advice from the fire brigade. There are still 1 million of these potentially deadly tumble dryers in people’s homes. What does the Minister think about that and what is she doing to ensure that all electrical goods are safe, and recalled if they are not? (901630)

The Government take product safety extremely seriously. We established a working group on product recalls and safety that reported in July, and we will respond shortly. We are already taking action in the areas that have given the hon. Lady cause for concern. Whirlpool has now managed to withdraw or modify more than 2 million of those machines to an unprecedented degree.

The Secretary of State will be aware that Newquay’s bid to be the location of the spaceport is backed by organisations right across Cornwall, including the LEP, the chamber of commerce, the wider business community and the local authority. Will he update the House on what progress has been made in this important development for the UK space sector?

I will indeed. My hon. Friend is a great champion of Newquay’s bid. The shortlisting has taken place and announcements will be made very soon.

T9. The Minister knows that the Red Arrows fly Hawks built at Brough, and they are great ambassadors for British aeronautical engineering and attracting export orders. But with the production line at Brough under threat, including those skilled jobs, is it not time for the Government to renew the contract for Hawks for the Red Arrows and, most importantly, to keep sovereign capability in this country? (901631)

The hon. Lady is a great advocate for this and we discussed this matter during the recent urgent question. We want to do all we can to support the manufacturing future of that entire company, which is why we are focusing so much on trying to help it to get the overseas orders it needs.

When does the Minister plan to respond to the Matthew Taylor review of employment practices in the modern economy?

We are working on our response to the Taylor review’s recommendations now, and we will publish that response before the year’s end.

Imminent changes to the operation of the EU emissions trading system register are likely to invalidate UK-issued carbon allowances from the start of next year. These measures, which have been brought about by Brexit, will have a significant impact on the steel industry. Will the Minister let us know what contingency measures are being taken to mitigate this impact in the event that an agreement cannot be reached with the European Commission on this issue in time?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this important issue. He will be reassured to know that there are active conversations going on between my Department and the European Commission. He presents the absolute worst-case scenario, which we are confident that we will not reach.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The House may be aware that 2017 is likely to be declared one of the top three warmest years on record. With that in mind, it is more important than ever to stick to our carbon commitments. Will the Minister kindly outline what objectives she has for the forthcoming UN climate change conference? Will consolidating our position as global leaders in this area be one of those objectives?

I commend my hon. Friend for her tireless advocacy and leadership in the Conservative Environment Network and for the work she does on behalf of her constituents—Taunton Deane is very lucky. She and I share the aspiration to continue our global leadership role; indeed, the headline objective for the conference is about making everyone aware that there is no rowing back on the Paris agreement—in fact, we want momentum to accelerate. I will be using the conference to announce further investments and further approaches the UK is taking to push our world leadership position forward. If my hon. Friend can just be patient for a few more days, I am sure she will join me in celebrating those when we announce them.

The Committee on Climate Change and a range of respected experts all point out that the existing clean growth strategy will fail on the fifth carbon budget and on the Paris commitments. The Minister must have some additional measures in mind. What are they?

The Committee on Climate Change said this set of policies was one of the most wide-ranging that had ever been put forward. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the budgets end in 10 and 15 years’ time, and we are currently on track to achieve 94% and 93% of the things we need to do, a decade out. I think it is pretty good odds that we will achieve them.