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High Street Businesses

Volume 642: debated on Tuesday 12 June 2018

The retail sector is an important part of our economy and our industrial strategy, as are the 3 million jobs employed in it. In March, I established the Retail Sector Council so that retailers can work together with the Government to develop policies to support the sector. Last week, the Secretary of State and I held a roundtable in Downing Street with retailers to establish how to tackle the challenges facing the sector.

As more retailers struggle to survive on our high streets, what discussions has the Minister had with Treasury colleagues to move business rates away from a property-type tax so that high-street retailers can compete on a level playing field with online businesses?

As my hon. Friend will know, in April 2017, retailers saw a 6% reduction before inflation in their business rates, with £3.6 billion of transitional relief. We are doing what we can to support businesses. The Retail Sector Council will be looking at a range of issues, including business rates. The Government are determined to ensure that the taxation system is up to date and fit for purpose.

One of the areas on the high street that is particularly struggling is that of our important pubs. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on the extent to which pub-owning businesses and tenants enjoy confidence in the Pubs Code Adjudicator—and if they do not, what steps the Government are taking to put that right.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, I take a particular interest in the health of public houses up and down the country. He will know that this Government set up the Pubs Code Adjudicator to ensure that landlords and tenants across the country got a fair deal. It is still early days, but the adjudicator is getting on and making decisions. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), is in close discussions with the adjudicator to ensure that he is getting the job done.

Do the Government feel that there is a level playing field between internet providers and businesses on the high street?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his election to the Select Committee; I am sure he will do a great job in standing up for British business. He highlights a key issue, which is the transition from traditional bricks and mortar to online. Last year alone, we saw a 9% increase in online retail. Clearly, that is a challenge for Government and business. That is why we are looking at the business rates structure and also at what we can do to help business to transition during this difficult period.

The British Retail Consortium has estimated that up to one third of retail jobs could disappear by 2025 as a fundamental transformation of the market occurs. Does the Minister agree that providing retail workers with the opportunity to upskill and reskill is critical to avoiding mass job losses over the next decade?

I absolutely agree that it is important to ensure that our workforce are properly skilled, which is why that is an important part of our modern industrial strategy, but I am less pessimistic than she is. Retail employment has been stable at about 3 million. Yes, those jobs are changing, but retail sales totalled some £362 billion last year, and jobs are being created in the retail sector.

Last week, House of Fraser announced that 6,000 jobs were at risk. Yesterday, another 5,000 jobs went at Poundworld. Since the start of the year, tens of thousands of retail workers have lost their jobs. Some 3.9 million people work in our retail sector. They, their employers and anyone who cares about our high streets want a retail sector deal, so when are the Government going to publish the strategy? More to the point, will it have any meaningful action?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Yesterday, I spoke to the chief executives of both House of Fraser and Poundworld to properly understand the challenges that those businesses face and what Government can do to support them. The hon. Gentleman talks about a sector deal. I politely point out that it was this Government who had to take action to bring together the Retail Sector Council, a forum in which to develop policies. While the Labour party sits by and watches, this Government are getting on and working with the retail sector to protect those jobs.