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Topical Questions

Volume 635: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2018

Since our last Question Time, it has been my pleasure to introduce my new colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah) and for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), to the Department and to see our agenda progressing. We announced the automotive sector deal, supporting British innovators and manufacturers with a joint commitment of millions of pounds of investment from industry and Government. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said that the deal would place the UK at the forefront of electric, connected and autonomous vehicles. I am delighted to announce that Lotus Cars has announced its intention to invest significantly to expand its production, creating 300 new jobs at its plant in Norfolk. Production will increase fivefold in the years ahead.

Energy distribution network operators charge obscenely high prices on our energy bills and make absurdly large profits for running safe, low-risk monopoly businesses that get energy to our homes. Does the Secretary of State agree that Ofgem has been far too soft on these firms for ages, allowing them to get fat and lazy at customers’ expense? Will he join me in urging Ofgem to get a great deal tougher in future?

I agree with my hon. Friend and welcome the decision by SGN, SSE and National Grid to refund excess returns to consumers—the others should follow suit. He is absolutely right, and in the next price control period, Ofgem should have a much tougher regime.

Order. May I gently remind colleagues that at topical questions progress is expected to be much quicker? We need short, sharp inquiries; people should not simply seek to bring into topicals what they would have asked had they been called—which they were not—in substantive questions. Pithy questions; pithy answers.

I shall try to be pithy, Mr Speaker.

GKN is a great British engineering company, forged in the first industrial revolution with strengths in defence, aerospace, automotive, batteries and the internet of things, which should place it at the heart of our future economy—high skills, high productivity and high wage—but the debt-driven hostile takeover threatens 6,000 UK workers, pension funds and the supply chain. The Secretary of State has said that he will not comment on individual cases, so may I ask him a general question? Does he believe that it is in the national interest for City investment houses to use debt to dismantle our industrial base?

The hon. Lady understands the constraints that I have in any particular takeover. As a feature of our economy, it is very important that we have investment into our companies from those with the capital to do so. That is why we have a regime that limits the grounds for intervention, but there are certain grounds that I will have to consider during the time ahead.

T2. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the news announced by the aerospace trade association—ADS—of record new aircraft delivery figures worth £29 billion to the UK in 2017, as well as the further announcement of an order by Emirates for an additional 36 Airbus A380s? How will the Government help to ensure that the UK aerospace supply chain is in a position to take advantage of those excellent opportunities? (903637)

The sector has huge growth potential. The Government support the industry through the aerospace growth partnership and have committed £3.95 billion for it, which already supports 200 companies, including Safran and GE Aviation in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

T3. By last Friday, just 526 of the 9,000 companies that need to report their gender pay gap had done so. What powers do the Government have to compel companies to publish these numbers ahead of the April deadline, as there are no civil or criminal sanctions in the regulations? (903638)

Having just taken over the diversity portfolio in the Department, I share the hon. Lady’s extreme disappointment at companies failing to report. I will take this matter forward and perhaps work with her as a matter of urgency.

T4. Bearing in mind the world-leading reputation of Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, will the Secretary of State explain what plans the Department has to work with Rothamsted, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other bodies to further improve Britain’s world-class position in agricultural science? (903640)

I will make three quick points: the Government are investing £70 million in the agri-tech catalyst and £80 million in four centres for agricultural innovation through the 2013 agri-tech strategy; and I pay tribute to Rothamsted Research as a key partner in agrimetrics. We are working together to deliver integrated solutions for the agricultural community.

T5. On 10 January, the First Minister of Wales sent a letter to the Prime Minister offering substantive funds for the tidal lagoon. When will he get a response and when will we have the tidal lagoon decision for investment across Wales? (903641)

Officials are meeting their counterparts in the Welsh Government so that they can understand and explore the proposal that has been made.

T7. As banks are closing on our high streets, two of my towns, Newhaven and Polegate, are not having any banking facilities left. Will the Minister consider expanding the facilities that post offices offer? Postmasters such as the one in East Dean in my constituency are keen to do more, but Post Office Ltd refuses to allow them to do so. (903643)

I take on board the very important question that my hon. Friend asks. The Government have invested over £2 billion to ensure that the Post Office is able to meet the needs of our constituents and the small businesses that rely on it. That means that 99% of UK personal bank accounts and 95% of small business accounts can be accessed to withdraw cash, and that customers can deposit cash over the counter or cheques in any one of the 11,600 post offices across the UK.

T6. Investment in solar energy has fallen by 85% over the last year. Will the Minister explain why her Department believes that solar energy no longer requires public subsidy? (903642)

I am sure that the hon. Lady will be delighted to know that I opened Britain’s first subsidy-free solar farm last year. The great success of the policy framework and the investments that we have all made through our bills means that we are able to bring forward renewable energy without substantial subsidies. I would have thought that she would welcome the idea of getting more renewable energy for less investment.

Given that the Keep Me Posted campaign has pointed out that those who cannot or do not use the internet pay £440 a year more in household bills, will the Minister consider extending the provisions that already exist in banking to energy and telecommunications bills?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, which is why I agreed in a previous response to meet the campaign’s officials to see how we can work on this.

T9. The loss of over 200 jobs at Cleveland Potash is a heavy blow for people living in Loftus and east Cleveland, so I am grateful to the Small Business Minister for negotiating an agreement across Government to extend the same flexibilities around training granted to workers at SSI to those at Boulby. The chief executive of the taskforce has described that as critical. Will he commit that this will all be finalised before redundancies are announced in the spring, so that people leaving Cleveland Potash can have certainty? (903645)

I remind colleagues of the merits of the blue pencil. If you have a prepared question and it is a bit on the long side, just scratch a bit out—very useful, and the question never suffers.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his tenacity in campaigning on behalf of his residents. Following his representations on the impact of the proposed redundancies, I am happy to confirm that there will be additional flexibility in how the rapid response service can be used. That means that, while there is no additional funding, all workers made redundant from Cleveland Potash will benefit from the same flexibilities for job-focused training as have been made available to ex-SSI and supply chain workers.

T8. In the light of the possible barriers to resolving cross-border insolvencies in the UK post Brexit, what assessment has the Minister made of the need to reform the UK’s corporate insolvency framework to ensure that it is fit for purpose? (903644)

We keep the insolvency regulations under constant review, in response both to Brexit and to lessons learned from our experiences domestically. I will work with the hon. Gentleman to make sure that his views are fed in.

Consumers in the south-west are paying extra on their bills because energy network companies are charging too much. We need greater competition and more teeth in the watchdog to do something about it.

I think that my hon. Friend is inviting me, as a fellow south-west MP, to agree with him. Network costs vary regionally because of different costs in serving customers. Ofgem took more than £15 billion out of network costs in its last price control framework, and I look forward to introducing various measures such as the price cap Bill, which I shall be introducing shortly, that I hope will be supported by all Members of the House. We want to ensure that we have energy bills that consumers can afford and that we protect the most vulnerable in the process.

Short, single-sentence questions are now the order of the day, as will be brilliantly exemplified by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron).

I will see what I can do.

The universal service obligation for superfast broadband will be good news for businesses across the country, but the fact that the announcement has been made with no date makes it counterproductive, as that is slowing down broadband. Will the Government announce a date and say that registration can start immediately?

The hon. Gentleman will find that the date set out in the Digital Economy Act 2017 was 2020, but I am sure he will join me in congratulating the Government on their success in ensuring that 95% of the country now has access to broadband.

Will the Minister support Transport for the North’s strategic transport plan, which calls for a 50% increase in regional infrastructure spending across the north of England?

Infrastructure is a major pillar of the Government’s industrial strategy White Paper, and local input is essential. I welcome Transport for the North’s input, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will welcome this, too.

The hostile takeover of GKN by Melrose threatens break-up, sale and closures. The Secretary of State has powers under section 58 of the Enterprise Act 2002 to intervene. Will he intervene to block this hostile takeover, which is not in the national interest?

I have explained to other Members the importance of exercising these powers in the required way and of not giving a running commentary in this House.

Does the Minister agree that competitive rates of interest should be offered to businesses and subcontractors that are affected by the LARC collapse, and that the 8.64% offered to LARC Construction in my constituency is simply too high?

I agree with my hon. Friend that access to competitive finance is essential, not just for businesses affected by LARC, but more widely, and particularly for small businesses. I am happy to meet him to discuss the issues if he would like me to.

It is a great pleasure to welcome back to the House the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley). I know that the House will join me in doing so.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is great to be back.

We have ambitious plans on Teesside to create 20,000 jobs on the former SSI steel site. The biggest issue holding us back is, obviously, the ownership of the site. Can the Secretary of State update us on what conversations he is having with the official receiver and the Thai banks to enable us to fulfil our potential, create jobs, and bring investment back to the site?

I welcome the hon. Lady back to the House and commend her for her commitment to ensuring that we secure the best possible future for that site. I shall visit Teesside shortly to continue our discussions. There is great commitment on the part of both the Government and the local development corporation to finding the right solution. The ownership is not in the Government’s hands, but everything that can be done is being done.

A constituent of mine is a director of Tower Supplies, one of the leading small and medium-sized enterprises in the personal protective equipment sector, whose bid was recently rejected by Transport for London in the first round of the process with no explanation. The practice is for feedback to be given, but that does not always happen. Will the Minister work with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and other Departments to ensure that the system does not hinder SME growth?

The Government are committed to ensuring that more small businesses are able to bid for such contracts. We want to support SMEs through the procurement process, and to ensure that they can be competitive and win such contracts. I shall be happy to meet my hon. Friend and representatives of the company that she mentioned in order to find a solution.

When I met the Minister last week, I was told that the Carillion headquarters would continue to operate in the interim. What steps are the Government taking to safeguard jobs for the employees who work in my constituency?

I think that the hon. Lady and I spoke on the telephone on the day of the insolvency, and I think I have met her twice since then, along with other Wolverhampton colleagues, to ensure that she is kept fully updated. We are working closely with PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Insolvency Service in the best interests of not just the creditors but all those employed in the Carillion network. To date, things have been positive, but I will seek to update the hon. Lady further as more information becomes available.

Order. I think that this point of order flows from the exchanges that we have just had. Although ordinarily points of order are made later, I will—as I sometimes do—take this one immediately after questions.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. When I asked a question earlier, I neglected to say that I am a serving member of Chichester District Council.

That is a very belt-and-braces approach, for which the hon. Lady certainly cannot be criticised in any way. I thank her, as the House will, for what she has said.