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Topical Questions

Volume 633: debated on Tuesday 12 December 2017

Since we last met, my ministerial colleagues and I have launched the industrial strategy White Paper, and we can already see it in action. Last week we launched the first sector deal with the life sciences sector, which has attracted significant investment in the UK from companies including MSD and GlaxoSmithKline. We are determined to do even more, and to make the UK the best place to start and grow a business.

Many colleagues from both sides of the House joined us in celebrating Small Business Saturday on 2 December. I congratulate the organisers of that great event, which saw more than three quarters of a billion pounds spent with small businesses.

I attended the global forum on steel excess capacity in Berlin, which agreed actions by all G20 nations to tackle unfair subsidies. Today, colleagues will have noticed that the Minister for Climate Change and Industry is accompanying the Prime Minister to President Macron’s One Planet summit in Paris.

We all know that rapid advances are being made in self-driving cars. Does the Secretary of State agree that now is the time to adapt our regulatory framework to ensure that it is fit for the future?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we have the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill before Parliament. We are taking a lead in ensuring not only that we invest in research and development, but that we are ahead of the world in having the right regulatory system to support the adoption of this technology.

T4. Recent Government figures show that UK funding from Horizon 2020 dropped significantly last year. Will the Secretary of State tell us what he is going to do to address that alarming fall in funding, and will he commit to participating in Horizon 2020 beyond March 2019 should the UK leave the EU then? (902906)

UK participation in Horizon 2020 has held up remarkably well since June 2016. We remain one of the strongest performers across the EU system. As the hon. Lady will have seen, last Friday’s joint report between the Commission and the UK Government painted a very positive outlook for our continued participation in this valuable programme.

T2. Given the importance of the automotive industry to the UK, and particularly to the west midlands, does the Secretary of State agree that it is essential to invest in test environments for self-driving cars to ensure that the UK can compete with other countries that want to become the world’s test bed for new vehicle technologies? (902904)

I agree with my hon. Friend. That is one reason why we have established a series of test beds between London and the west midlands, including the motorsport cluster. They are already attracting huge interest from around the world, reinforcing our reputation in the field.

T5. Onshore wind has been Scotland’s success story, with the Scottish Government still on track to meet 100% of electricity generation coming from renewables. The UK Government are the possible blocker. As we approach the point of zero-subsidy onshore developments, will the Government find a way to allow Scottish onshore developments to bid in the next CfD auction? (902907)

The renewables strategy that we have set out has been remarkably successful in bringing down the price of onshore wind and creating jobs, including in Scotland. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have discussions with the Scottish Government, which have resulted in the remote islands policy that we have adopted. I will continue to have those discussions with his colleagues.

T3. Does the Minister agree that retaining full sovereign control of our regulation is essential to getting the most out of our economy, 88% of which does not relate to the EU? (902905)

Sound regulation is crucial to businesses, workers and consumers. Approximately 1.4 million small and medium-sized enterprises export directly or indirectly to countries in the EU, and they will have a keen interest in the outcome of our trade negotiations.

T7. Northern Ireland has people with very good basic digital skills, but a quarter of business owners in England lack confidence in their basic digital skills. What is the Department doing to provide help for smaller businesses to fill this skills gap on the UK mainland? (902909)

We are working with the Department for Education, which is investing hugely in lifelong learning, skills and employability. We are prioritising the digital skills capability within that mission, which I am sure will be of great benefit to SMEs.

T6. A recent report from Intel identified £2 trillion of global opportunities in artificial intelligence and driverless cars. Will the Minister outline what steps the Government are taking to invest in the skills that Britain will need to capitalise on that huge opportunity? (902908)

I am delighted that my hon. Friend draws attention to this area, and he is a great expert in it. He will know that, in the industrial strategy, we established as one of the four grand challenges leadership in the world in artificial intelligence and the analysis of big data. A crucial part of that is making sure that our young people and people retraining have the skills to take up those jobs.

T8. Rumours abound that the Westminster Government are seeking to change the policy on nuclear decommissioning. Will the Minister indicate whether he has any plans to introduce a policy of continuous decommissioning for the UK’s ageing nuclear estate, and whether such a policy would apply to Trawsfynydd? (902911)

T9. What recent discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Secretary of State for Transport about increased investment in road and rail projects to improve productivity, particularly in the north of England? (902912)

I have regular and fruitful conversations with the Transport Secretary. My hon. Friend will know that, in Greater Manchester, as part of the industrial strategy, there was an investment of a quarter of a billion pounds in improving connections in and around the city. That is on top of the investment in connections across the north of England.

Given the time that has passed since the promise of an energy price cap, will the Secretary of State confirm that he remains committed to implementing the cap for 17 million households, and will he outline the process by which the Conservative party is expected to introduce it?

We have published an important Bill, and we have requested Ofgem to develop proposals as we progress with it. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee is scrutinising our draft legislation, which we intend to bring to the House at the earliest opportunity.

Last week I was pleased to welcome a delegation from Taiwan to my constituency to meet businesses in the offshore renewables sector, and the delegation regarded the way the sector has developed in the UK as a model. Will the Minister outline what support is available to small and medium-sized businesses involved in the supply chain in this country that want to extend to countries abroad?

I can assure my hon. Friend that our industrial strategy, and particularly our discussions on the sector deal, have been very much based on skilling up small businesses with a view to their expanding in this country and exporting.

The Secretary of State may know that Unite the union officials from the Belfast Bombardier plant are in Washington and Montreal pressing the case against the egregious US tariff situation. Is the Secretary of State continuing to engage in this process and working towards a sensible resolution?

I certainly am. As the hon. Gentleman knows, throughout this process we have been absolutely determined to send a clear message to Boeing and to the US Administration that this action is unfair. Its effects on Belfast are intolerable. I will have further conversations later this week to continue to press the case with all the parties concerned.

I recently visited the Cambridge biomedical campus, which brings together academia, business and healthcare. Does the Minister agree that this is important collaboration, which will help boost productivity, improve our economy and create jobs for the future?

Yes, indeed. Cambridge is leading the way in this respect, as in many others. We want to see more collaboration between our universities and the world of business to drive commercialisation and to make the most of the R and D we are investing in.

It is good news that the Prime Minister is attending President Macron’s summit on climate change in Paris today, but may I warn the Secretary of State that President Macron is positioning Paris as the world’s leader in green finance? To tackle that threat and to protect London, Ministers must back the Bank of England’s taskforce on climate-related financial disclosures and bring in new mandatory corporate requirements on fossil fuel assets.

Britain leads the world in climate finance, and one of the major contributions the Prime Minister and the Minister for Climate Change and Industry are making is in promoting the availability of green finance in the UK—that includes Edinburgh as well as London. That is getting a very good reception.

The Secretary of State has already spoken about the great news for the west midlands on electric vehicles. He will remember the all-new electric taxi being manufactured at Antsy Park in my constituency, and the taxi was certified for use in London this week. Does he agree that the opportunity for a platform for a delivery vehicle is also very important?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. I congratulate the London Taxi Company on having the first electric taxi, manufactured in the west midlands, on the streets of London this very week—again, a big vote of confidence in our world-beating motor industry.

Access to finance is critical for small businesses, but the protection in place when things go wrong is non-existent. Do the Government agree, and will they look at extending the role and remit of the Financial Conduct Authority in that regard?

I am meeting the chief executive of the FCA before Christmas, and I will be raising the issue of unregulated small business lending, which the hon. Gentleman mentions.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the key to a successful industrial strategy is that it focuses on all areas of the UK, obviously including North Warwickshire and Bedworth?

I do indeed. One of the features of our industrial strategy, which takes an approach that previous business policies have not taken sufficient account of over many decades, is the importance of the skills and clusters of industries in local places. As my hon. Friend knows, that is very much at the heart of the industrial strategy that we have published.

On 8 March, the Chancellor announced a full review of business rates. On 14 March, the Minister responsible for small business said:

“The review will report in due course and in the not-too-distant future.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2017; Vol. 623, c. 178.]

Yet the industrial strategy barely mentions business rates, which are having a massive impact on businesses in York. When will this review start?

The Chancellor has announced considerable business rate relief for small businesses, including making small business rate relief permanent, retrospective redress for SMEs caught by the staircase tax ruling, and more besides.