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Topical Questions

Volume 645: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2018

Eight months ago I told the House that the aim of our industrial strategy was to create prosperous communities throughout the country, and since our last questions session we have implemented that strategy across the United Kingdom.

Last month, at the international business festival in Liverpool, we announced £1.3 billion of investment in the next generation of research and innovation talent. I travelled to Trawsfynydd, in north Wales, to launch the nuclear sector deal, which will drive down energy costs for consumers. In Newcastle, as part of the Great Exhibition of the North, we launched our construction sector deal, aiming to cut build time by 50%. At the same time, the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) was in Grimsby, helping to unveil stage 1 of a landmark town deal.

Just yesterday I was at the Farnborough air show, where the Prime Minister announced £343 million of investment in civil aerospace, and we announced a new era of space flights in the UK, with a vertical satellite launch site at Sutherland and support for the development of horizontal launch sites at Newquay, Snowdonia and Prestwick.

Businesses in my constituency say that they need exactly the same regulations as those that apply in the European Union so that they can continue to compete with competitors for EU custom. What is the Department doing to ensure that, not just now but in the future, there will be no regulatory divergence and no undercutting of British firms?

A big part of the White Paper is the commitment to a common rulebook. Our sophisticated supply chains allow goods to be sold throughout the European Union, and businesses have made it clear that they want to continue to do that after Brexit, which is why they have welcomed the White Paper so warmly.

T2. With the construction sector deal setting out several options to tackle poor payment practices, can the Secretary of State assure me that retention deposit schemes, as proposed in my private Member’s Bill, which has significant industry and cross-party support, will be given full consideration and, hopefully, Government backing? (906512)

I have met my hon. Friend to discuss his Bill, and we fully understand that the practice of retention has caused problems for the construction industry supply chain. We are fully committed to tackling the issue, but any action we take needs to be robust, proportionate and evidence-based. We have listened and consulted, and we will shortly be publishing the response to a public consultation considering several options including a retention deposit scheme.

UK steelmakers are paying up to 50% more for their electricity than their European counterparts, which is reducing their competitiveness on the global stage. Ofgem’s targeted charging review is set to exacerbate the situation. What representation has the Minister made to Ofgem regarding its review and the effect of that review on both the steel sector and energy-intensive industries in the UK?

We meet Ofgem very regularly to discuss this and other matters, and we are very aware of the situation. As the hon. Lady knows, I have met many companies in the steel industry and discussed this, and it is very much part of our discussions with Ofgem and others.

T3. Last night the House of Commons voted to enshrine it in law that if under a facilitated customs arrangement we collect tariffs on behalf of the EU, that should be done on a reciprocal basis. Is it really practical to expect a Croatian border guard to start levying tariffs on our behalf on bottles of wine? Is there the remotest chance that the EU will ever agree to this reciprocal arrangement? Is it not time to return to a free trade deal? (906513)

I think most people in this country want to have an agreement that means that we do not have checks and bureaucracy at the border and that we can continue the success of our businesses. Part of the negotiation that will take place during the summer is to make sure we can deliver that, and I am sure most Members of this House wish the Prime Minister success in that.

T4. Earlier this year Health and Safety Executive figures showed that there has been a rise in work-related deaths—up to 144 between 2017 and 2018—and that that is more prevalent among those on bogus self-employment contracts. People have lost their lives; what more will it take for this Government to take some real action against the scourge of bogus self-employment? (906514)

We have been very clear in commissioning the Matthew Taylor report; we have been in advance of any other country in the world in looking to make sure that as the economy changes we preserve the protections we have always insisted on for workers, and the hon. Lady should welcome that.

T6. In this glorious summer weather, it is easy to forget that this winter our constituents who still use heating oil saw very sharp price rises. Does the Minister therefore agree that not only should our constituents take advantage of this weather to fill up their tanks for what is likely to be a lower price, but we should encourage initiatives like community buying which can also help villages and other communities to buy their heating oil at a lower price? (906516)

Like me, my hon. Friend has a rural constituency, and many of us live off-grid and are at the mercy of these rises. We know that the market for heating oil does function: it has been reviewed and is considered to be competitive. But my hon. Friend will know that I have also set out an aim that we want to get all new properties built in areas off-grid off fossil-fuel forms of heating by 2025, as that is not only costly but very carbon-producing.

T5. Participants in multi-level marketing schemes, 75% of whom are women, sign up to the opportunity to earn income flexibly from home, often attracted by outlandish lifestyle claims made on social media. In reality many participants earn no income and many end up in debt. Will the Secretary of State introduce a requirement on MLMs to publish an independently audited annual statement of net average earnings that takes into account the cost of participating as well as income earned, and will he regulate the lifestyle claims made on social media to stop the exploitation of vulnerable people? (906515)

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point, and I would be happy to meet her to discuss this. I am thinking back to the days when we used to go out and try to sell goods from various catalogues and I used to collect the money. That was exploitative then, and I suspect that it is exploitative now. Perhaps she and I should meet; I would be happy to discuss the matter.

T8. The national living wage has given millions of workers up and down our country a pay rise, but there are still some rogue employers who deliberately seek to underpay staff in order to maximise their own profits. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that full and fair enforcement of the living wage is taking place? (906518)

I refer my hon. Friend to my earlier answer. If a contract is in place, that wage must be paid, and if he has any evidence of systematic underpayment or any level of avoidance, HMRC and the Government want to hear about it.

T7. A survey of London businesses by London Councils and the London chamber of commerce has found that a third of apprenticeship levy payers do not expect to use any of their funds over the next 12 months. Does the Minister agree with the all-party parliamentary group on London that unspent funds should be devolved and used to support job skills in London rather than being returned to the Treasury? (906517)

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are having regular meetings with all the business representative bodies and the Department for Education to ensure that levy funds are spent properly, for the purpose for which they are meant and in local areas by the companies that pay the levy.

The Secretary of State referred earlier to the visit of his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), to north-east Lincolnshire to sign the Greater Grimsby town deal, which is very welcome and I thank him for his support in achieving that. One of the things that his colleague will have seen is the great opportunity to develop trade through the Humber ports. The Humber local enterprise partnership, the local authority, the Hull and Humber chamber of commerce and local businesses have been working towards the possibility of free port status, post Brexit. Can the Minister assure them that nothing that comes out of the negotiations will prevent that from happening?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I am sorry that I was unable to be in Grimsby. I could not be in Newcastle and Grimsby on the same morning, but that does not remove my commitment to visit Cleethorpes and Grimsby, and perhaps the free port proposal is one of the things that we could discuss when I do so.

T9. Will the Secretary of State update my constituents on the ongoing discussions with his Department to transfer full responsibility for the former SSI steelworks site to the South Tees Development Corporation? Will he also pledge to commit the £200 million needed to regenerate the site, which would bring in 20,000 jobs and enable the Tees Valley to embark on its industrial renaissance? (906519)

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady and other Members who have worked closely with the development corporation. The discussions have been very positive. They have not concluded yet, but I think everyone recognises that there has been great progress and that there is a very good future for that site.

The Stirling city region deal is the perfect opportunity for the industrial strategy to deliver for Scotland. Will Ministers meet me to discuss what resources could be diverted from Victoria Street to Stirling to support the industrial strategy’s execution?

My hon. Friend knows that I am a great champion of devolution and decentralisation, and he makes an intriguing suggestion, which I would be very happy to take up in discussions with him.

Many small care agencies face bankruptcy in the light of the Treasury advice on the way in which sleep-ins are paid, which has now been changed by the courts. The Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), did not seem to know too much about this, but may I urge her to avail herself of the facts urgently, because many small agencies will go bust if we do not get this right?

I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman; he is absolutely right. I have had strong representations and visits about this issue in my own constituency. My reluctance to comment on it at the Dispatch Box is because it is legally incredibly complicated, as he knows, and we have just had the freshest possible news about the judgment. We need to take that away, and we will comment on it shortly. I would be very happy to work closely with him on this issue.

Two weeks ago, I and colleagues from across the House, along with hundreds of others, attended a poignant service of remembrance at the Piper Alpha memorial in Aberdeen to mark 30 years since the worst tragedy in offshore oil and gas production. That tragedy claimed 167 lives, and many of those people were from Aberdeenshire. What are the Government doing, along with the industry, to ensure that UK oil and gas remains the world leader in health and safety practices offshore, so that we can avoid another tragedy such as this?

Thirty years seems like a long time ago, but this is still the freshest possible knowledge for many people in my hon. Friend’s constituency: 167 men, many from a tight area in the north-east of Scotland, perished in the worst offshore disaster we have ever had in the history of our industry. Nothing will ever bring them back, but it was the findings of the Cullen inquiry that drove the changes that have made the UK a world leader in health and safety, and I want to pay tribute to our colleagues in the Health and Safety Executive, because they continue to focus on safety first when it comes to exploiting the resources in the North sea.

To avoid double-charging on battery installations, the Government have pledged to amend the Electricity Act 1989 when parliamentary time permits. Instead of a two-day holiday next week, is that change something that the Government could start to look at?

That will be part of the entire review of how we bring forward the necessary investment in battery technology to support renewable energy intermittency.

Will the Minister confirm support for the Civil Nuclear Police Federation in its meeting this summer with his Cabinet colleagues over the proposals to reduce retirement and pension ages for armed officers from 67 to 68 down to 60 to match those of the police?

I can confirm that I have been in discussions with the CNPF. I have met the chief constable and the chairman, and I visited the civil nuclear police on site at Sellafield. I am well aware of the issue, and I am in discussions with colleagues at the Treasury and elsewhere.

I always encourage people who are unsuccessful in substantive questions to put a topical if they so wish. It is sometimes difficult to attract their attention if they are busily studying their electronic devices, but if the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) wishes to participate, now is his opportunity.

Such forbearance. We will hear from the hon. Gentleman subsequently. He has had his chance, but he does not want to have a go on this occasion—it is a self-denying ordinance. [Interruption.] We know about Mr Sheerman, who is always ready to have a go.

May I urge the Secretary of State to visit West Yorkshire to talk to our highly successful textile entrepreneurs? They are not quite gold-plated, but they are not daft and they want to know about frictionless trade. They need to be persuaded, because they do not believe that it is possible after Brexit.

I am always delighted to go to Yorkshire and to meet industries, including the textiles industry. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me so that we can go through the proposals in the White Paper, and the entrepreneurs will see that they will be able to continue to trade free of frictions.

Prestwick, with its clear weather, transport links and aerospace park, is one of the frontrunners to be a horizontal-launch spaceport. In 2016, the then Transport Minister said that the Government would no longer be picking spaceport sites, but the narrative around the current grant process seems to be reversing that. Will the Business Secretary clarify who will choose where launch facilities are developed: the space industry or the Government?

I am surprised that the hon. Lady has not welcomed the fact that the first commercial rocket site in Europe will be in Sutherland in the north of Scotland. We are keen to bring the next wave of innovation, which is horizontal launch, and it is the UK Space Agency, which brings together the expertise that is required, that will advise on the right location for it.