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Topical Questions

Volume 640: debated on Tuesday 1 May 2018

Over the six weeks since our last questions, I have launched, as colleagues have heard, the creative industry sector deal, a partnership with industry to unlock growth for creative businesses across the UK. Last week, more than 50 leading technology businesses and organisations united to launch another sector deal worth £1 billion to put the UK at the forefront of artificial intelligence. Our industrial strategy is building confidence across the economy, which I saw at first hand in Luton a few weeks ago with the announcement that Vauxhall’s new Vivaro van will be made in the UK, securing 1,400 jobs and the long-term future of the plant.

Many small businesses in my constituency of Southport are still struggling despite the Government’s various business rate relief schemes. What programmes and initiatives aimed at small business can my right hon. Friend recommend to help small business owners who are struggling in my constituency?

I remember with great pleasure visiting a small dairy business—a milk business—with my hon. Friend. I hope that it is thriving. Since that visit, I am delighted to say that a number of loans from the Start Up Loans Company, totalling about £800,000, have benefited businesses in Southport. The Liverpool city region growth hub has been established to give advice and support to small businesses, too.

I welcome this morning’s news that the EU has secured a further 30-day exemption from the US’s steel tariffs. However, that merely prolongs the uncertainty facing the sector. What steps is the Secretary of State currently taking to secure a full UK exemption when the temporary one ends on 1 June, and when will his Department respond to the steel sector deal, a proposal crucial to the long-term sustainability of the sector?

I can reassure the hon. Lady that there have been full negotiations between us, the Americans and the European Union from the day that this started, and I have briefed her regularly. I have a call on Thursday morning with the chief executive officers of all the steel companies, which she is very welcome to join. I assure her and everyone else in this House that every effort is being made to help the steel industry.

The sector deal will help, and has had an enthusiastic reception from the industry. This country is leading the way in the development of artificial intelligence. The Alan Turing Institute is attracting scholars from across the world. One part of the deal is to ensure that we have an extra 8,000 specialist computer science teachers in schools to ensure that the next generation can reap the rewards.

T5. Will the Secretary of State make an assessment of the potential merits of placing a requirement on private businesses seeking the long-term lease of roofs for solar panel fittings to inform their potential customers of their mortgage providers’ policies on such fittings before the lease is agreed? (905086)

I will be happy to discuss the matter further with the hon. Lady. She has raised a hugely important point about how we include in a mortgage mix or a financing mix the value of companies and households installing measures to reduce their energy bills. The green finance taskforce, which has just reported to us, had some suggestions, and I would be delighted to discuss them further with the hon. Lady.

T3. Drax power station received £2 million a day last year to burn 13 million tonnes of imported wood, emitting more carbon dioxide per unit of energy generated than the coal burning that it replaces. Will the Minister commit to looking at this and ensuring that the renewables obligation goes towards no-burn renewables and energy efficiency? (905084)

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the current support for existing coal to biomass conversion will end by 2027. I am aware of many of the concerns about biomass, and we are looking at the issue carefully. However, sustainable, low-carbon bioenergy can help us on this transition, particularly away from coal burning.

T7. The proposals announced at the weekend regarding a merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda will result—along with Tesco—in the most powerful duopoly in the UK grocery sector, accounting for 60% of the market. The Secretary of State will know that the likes of Terry Leahy, Justin King and Stuart Rose adopted the mantra that the consumer wants more choice, not less. Does the Secretary of State agree that this merger is not in the interests of producers, farmers and especially consumers? (905088)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is why we have the Competition and Markets Authority, which is virtually certain to conduct an inquiry into this matter, precisely to look into all the aspects to which he referred. I mentioned that the CMA has a new chair in Andrew Tyrie, and I am sure that the issue will receive the most rigorous scrutiny.

T4. The subsidy available to energy plant for burning wood is causing distortions in demand for virgin and recycled wood, which is constricting supply and increasing input costs for businesses such as Norbord in Cowie. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the wood panel industry to hear at first hand about the issues that they are facing and the consequences? (905085)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight a concerning issue. My officials are meeting representatives of the wood panel industry today, but I would be delighted to follow up with a personal meeting with him and his constituents.

T8. May I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), on the recent birth of his daughter? In doing so, I remind the House that, as an office holder, he was unfortunately unable to take up shared parental leave—at least, that is certainly what he told the media. Does he have any empathy with people who cannot take up shared parental leave, and will he extend the provision to allow families who are working freelance, particularly in the creative industries, to get the flexibility they need to maintain their careers? (905089)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes. Having just returned from my paternity leave, I reassure him that, although I am not legally allowed to take shared parental leave, the Government are very supportive of Ministers being able to take up such provisions. The Government want more families to benefit from the joy that comes from shared parental leave, which is why we have invested over £1 million in an advertising campaign to increase take-up.

T6. How are the Government supporting the growth and full geographic spread of degree-level apprenticeships? (905087)

The Government have created the £10 million degree apprenticeship development fund to support the development of infrastructure across England and to raise awareness of apprenticeships, among other aims. A degree apprenticeships website has been created by the National Apprenticeship Service and UCAS to highlight vacancies.

T10. Businesses in my constituency are extremely concerned that they will see more bureaucracy when we move out of the European Union. What is the Department doing to make sure that the UK will continue to be part of the single euro payments area, and also the VAT information exchange system, which my local businesses say is absolutely vital to keep them being able to pay and do business? (905091)

My colleagues in the Department are very clear that we need to make it possible, through our agreement with the European Union, to trade not only without tariffs but with the minimum of frictions. The hon. Lady describes some elements of that. It is absolutely the purpose of the negotiations to avoid the introduction of any unnecessary frictions.

T9. Post Brexit, if the European Union restricts access to the Galileo satellite project, will the Minister undertake for us to restrict its access to the communications infrastructure of the Falklands and Ascension Island? (905090)

The Government have been clear that we are unconditionally committed to European security and want to continue working together to develop defence and space capabilities. We feel that the Commission’s approach runs counter to what has been agreed as part of article 50, where a shared intent was agreed for strong UK-EU co-operation on defence in the future.

The Minister will know that I have Jaguar Land Rover in my constituency. What will be the impact on Jaguar Land Rover of the changes to tax on diesel engines?

The hon. Gentleman knows, and the House knows, that there has been a fall in sales of diesel engines, not just in this country but across Europe. That has been the reason for some of the termination of the contracts there. We will be setting out, as a Government, the future regulatory path to clean up our roads of emissions. In doing that, we will be consulting with the industry.

When does the Secretary of State anticipate being able to make an announcement about the Greater Grimsby town deal?

I do not have a date in mind, but my hon. Friend’s persistent urging of me will make sure that it will be as soon as it can practicably be done.

Have the Government made any assessment of whether social care providers will go bankrupt this year due to the ruling on sleep-in shifts and the minimum wage, and whether this will have any impact on social care? If so, will they provide that assessment to the House?

The Government are well aware of the challenges involved in sleep-in legislation and the national minimum wage and are working closely with providers. We are also in discussions with the European Commission and will bring forward plans in future.

When will we see the review of Companies House procedures that I mentioned in my Adjournment debate on 20 November last year, which covers people who transition from one sex to another, whose records are sometimes left on the Companies House register? The previous Minister agreed to look at that.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that very important question. I remember the Westminster Hall debate that she had on this issue. The Government are minded to protect the rights of the transgender community. She will know that I recently brought forward a statutory instrument to allow directors to remove their addresses from the Companies House register in order to protect safety. I would be delighted to work with her to see what we can do to provide greater protections for the transgender community in this area.

The industrial strategy rightly sets out opportunities arising from the new technology and STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—sectors but says little about the increasing importance of skills that are unique to human beings, such as care. Does the Secretary of State recognise that part of our answer to increasing automation should be expanding employment in the care sector and the value we attach to it? If so, will he start treating this as a strategic priority?

It is indeed such a priority. I am delighted to see a copy of the strategy in the hon. Lady’s hands. In fact, one of the four grand challenges that we have set out regarding areas in which we can be a world leader is to develop the opportunities that arise from an ageing population, and care is absolutely central to that.