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Topical Questions

Volume 647: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2018

This week, through more than 30 events, Green GB Week is celebrating the UK’s status as a world leader in clean growth. At the world’s first zero emission vehicle summit last month, we announced further investment in research and development relating to green vehicles, new batteries and low-carbon technology, as part of the Faraday challenge in our industrial strategy. That resulted in a pledge by the industry to invest half a billion pounds in those opportunities.

In addition, since we last met we have announced action to protect small businesses against unfair late payment terms imposed by larger firms. Alongside the Siemens chief executive Juergen Maier, I chaired the first meeting of the Made Smarter Commission, which will help to transform manufacturing through digital technologies. We have also announced that, to evaluate the impact of the industrial strategy in the years ahead, the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, will chair the Industrial Strategy Council.

A business took over Thomson Reuters in Wrexham a few weeks ago, and last Wednesday announced the redundancies of 300 skilled workers who had spent the last 10 years building it up. The jobs are being moved to India. In the context of Brexit, does the Secretary of State agree that we need to reconsider the takeover laws that apply in the United Kingdom, so that this type of predatory behaviour can end?

Our record as a country of attracting inward investment from all over the world has stood us in pretty good stead. Many times, across the Dispatch Box, we have celebrated the success of Jaguar Land Rover, which is, of course, a recipient of Indian investment. It is important for us to maintain that tradition. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are consulting on proposals to ensure the appropriate assessment of any national security considerations in respect of investment, but if we want to prosper as a country, it is also important for us to engage with the world and to attract investment from all over the world.

Order. Let me gently remind the House that topical questions, and the answers to them, are supposed to be substantially briefer.

T3. What actions are the Government taking to ensure that the commercialisation of research is at the centre of their plans for higher research and development spending, so that the world-class output of institutions such as York University, in my constituency, can rapidly find its way to the factory floor? (907097)

Realising the full economic and social benefits of the excellent research at our universities is at the heart of our industrial strategy. Through United Kingdom Research and Innovation, our industrial strategy challenge fund and the higher education innovation fund, excellent research can be commercialised and translated into businesses that create jobs and growth.

Only last week, the publicly owned Post Office announced the closure of a further 74 Crown post offices. Although the Post Office has not disclosed all its spending for its franchising programme, the Communication Workers Union estimates that up to £30 million of public money will be spent on compromise agreements, with staff being paid to leave, as customers, local high streets and the jobs market suffer. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Post Office must be transparent about how much its franchising programme is costing the public purse?

On 11 October, the Post Office announced a plan to relocate 40 post offices in WHSmith stores. The overall number of post offices will not be reduced. WHSmith will also reach a franchise agreement for the 33 post offices that are already in its stores, so the total number of post offices operated by WHSmith in its stores is planned to rise.

T4. During Green GB Week, what steps is the Minister taking to minimise the negative impact on farmers of renewable energy incentives that are taking away valuable distillery and brewery by-products to be used in anaerobic digesters, thus potentially undermining the livestock industry not only in Scotland but in the rest of the United Kingdom? (907098)

My hon. Friend has made a valuable point. We have high sustainability criteria, but we must ensure that biofuels are sourced sustainably. We have asked the Climate Change Committee for a bioenergy report, which it will provide shortly, and which will give us new advice on questions of land use and the long-term best use of resources.

T2. Rather than listening to communities where shale gas applications have been made, the Government have continued to dismantle the hurdles over which fracking companies should be forced to jump. Will the Minister confirm that she is now genuinely considering weakening the controls on earthquakes in relation to fracking companies? (907096)

I can absolutely confirm that I am not considering weakening the monitoring controls on seismicity.

T5. The Minister will be aware that there has been a remarkable revival in the UK extractors and mining sector. What can he and the Secretary of State do to make sure these ventures are environmentally sustainable and command local community support? (907099)

My hon. Friend is very well informed on matters to do with minerals, but this is topical questions, which require quick answers, so I would like very much to meet my hon. Friend and any other colleagues to discuss this issue in detail.

T6. Last year, Shepherds Bush post office was moved out of the town centre into the back of a WHSmith store. We were promised that it would remain a Crown post office, but now it is one of the 74 that is going to be franchised. We also have three branches that are suspended, one for four years. Will the Government do anything about the running down of the post office network? (907100)

As I have outlined, a number of stores are going into franchise agreements. It is important that we have a post office network that is fit for purpose and serves consumers as they currently are being. As Post Office Minister, I take that very seriously, but I am always happy to meet with the hon. Gentleman to discuss any particular concerns in his constituency.

T10. As we embark on a new nuclear future, it is vital that we have a workforce that is able to deliver the skills and capability. What action is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that young people in particular get the training and opportunities for a career in this wonderful industry? (907104)

I thank my hon. Friend for this question because it is absolutely relevant to our nuclear sector deal, which concentrates very much on the development of skills particularly for young people. I was most impressed on a recent visit to Hinkley Point C by how many young people are in training, particularly the increase in the number of young women involved in nuclear, and I know that will continue.

T7. When will the Secretary of State be able to announce a sector deal for the ceramics industry? He will know of the benefits that can be brought to both Stoke-on-Trent and the industry with that deal, and if he is unable to give a date today, will he meet me so we can progress this issue, so that the next time I ask him in the House he can give me a date? (907101)

I have met several times with the industry to discuss a ceramics sector deal, and it is developing. I will be very pleased to meet the hon. Gentleman, as he knows, and with other colleagues with constituency ceramics industry interests.

As my right hon. Friend will know, our high streets face unprecedented challenges. Will he therefore join me in challenging the sharp practices of Smart Parking, which operates in the Westgate shopping centre in Basildon? Its charging and fining regime is damaging the viability of shops and fining thousands of people who have all tried to do the right thing.

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and it is one of the issues we will be looking at with the Retail Sector Council. There is already the review by John Timpson into our high streets, but we need to keep track of this area. My hon. Friend will, as a local MP, champion the cause of his constituency, and I, as Small Business Minister, am acutely aware of the challenges facing our high streets.

T8. The Minister will have had time to consider Universities UK’s excellent proposal for a global graduate talent visa to reform the uncompetitive visa we currently have for international students. Now that he has had time to consider it, will he support those proposals? (907102)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government are considering the Migration Advisory Committee proposals in full, but there is no cap on international students coming to study in this country. The university sector is one of the most successful sectors in this country and this Government will make sure we continue to support it.

Given that the new generation of diesel engines are up to 90% cleaner, what can the Secretary of State do to help ensure that consumers are not penalised unfairly by vehicle excise duty and company car tax bands?

My right hon. Friend is correct in making the point that the next generation of diesel engines are very much less polluting than their predecessors. The road to zero strategy makes it very clear that diesel will continue to have a role for some years to come, and for some journeys it will be a particularly appropriate choice. My right hon. Friend will understand that the overall tax regime is a matter for the Chancellor.

T9. The all-party group on steel and metal-related industries has written to the Chancellor ahead of the Budget calling for specific measures to help our steel industry. Will Ministers support these calls and when can we have a proper, much-needed sector deal for steel? (907103)

I am delighted to tell the hon. Lady that I am in regular communication with the steel industry about a sector deal, which is developing thanks to Jon Bolton, who is chairing it, and to Gareth Stace, the chief executive of UK Steel. I am optimistic that this will develop in a way that will please the hon. Lady.

Preliminary talks are under way in Taunton Deane on the establishment of a digital geospatial centre, to maximise the expertise of the UK Hydrographic Office, which makes the world’s shipping maps. Is not this exactly the kind of unique high-tech enterprise that will open up job opportunities, and exactly the kind of worldwide collaboration that we ought to be including in the industrial strategy?

I agree, Mr Speaker. This is incredibly exciting and forward-looking, and the Department will be happy to give it every support it can.

The UK is at the top of the global league for start-ups, but it is languishing at the bottom for scale-up. Is it not true that this is a black hole in the industrial strategy, because that is where productivity gains could be made? Why is the Secretary of State not acting on this?

It is quite the opposite, and I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman say that. If he has read the industrial strategy, he will know that the commitment to scale-up is very prominent. I made reference earlier to the Made Smarter Commission that Juergen Maier is leading. Its purpose is precisely to diffuse the technology that the bigger firms have to those that are growing and scaling up.

In this Green GB Week, will the Minister join me in recognising the work being done by the major oil and gas companies, through the oil and gas climate initiative? They are voluntarily making huge efforts and investments towards a lower carbon future.

My hon. Friend is a strong defender of that industry, which is vital to the UK economy. He will know that those companies have set out their own pledges and that they have set out how they see world changing fundamentally. They are also investing heavily in the new technologies that they want to be part of the future.

The Department’s consultation on limited partnerships closed on 23 July. Scottish limited partnerships continue to be used for dirty money, to the absolute discredit of the country. When will the Minister do something about this?

We acknowledge the reports that limited partnerships, particularly Scottish limited partnerships, have been misused. That is why we have consulted on proposals to tackle the issue and to modernise the law. In June 2017, Scottish limited partnerships were brought within the scope of the register of people with significant control, and since then there has been a fall of 80% in the registration of new partnerships.

From this side of the House, I echo the calls for a steel sector deal. Would my hon. Friend like to visit the Corby steelworks to see for himself the difference that that would make?

The chief executive of Jaguar Land Rover has said that a bad or no deal Brexit would cost the company more than £1 billion a year and threaten its future investment in the UK. Can the Minister explain how that can be avoided if the UK is outside the customs union?

It can be avoided by having a good deal based on the White Paper that was published earlier in the summer and that the motor industry has strongly endorsed.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have been desperately trying to catch your eye. We have had a number of comments on post office relocations and closures. Will the Minister make it absolutely clear that relocating a post office to WHSmith does not save the services within it? Many have been massively downgraded at the point to which they have been relocated.

As I have already outlined, we are committed to delivering a postal network that services the needs of our communities. If the hon. Gentleman has concerns relating to particular post offices, will he please contact me?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I bring to the Secretary of State’s attention the power that he has to mutualise Post Office Ltd to allow sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, and their customers, to have a share in their own Post Office? Will he look at this, because it would bring greater sustainability to the post office network?

That is something I am more than happy to look at in my new role, but it is something that you could have done yourself—[Interruption.] Sorry, Mr Speaker! It is something that the right hon. Gentleman could have done when he was a Post Office Minister.

Well, anyway, the House is consumed by a state of jollity, and that is always much to be encouraged. Finally, I call Mary Robinson.

As increasing numbers of high street banks are closing, post offices offer a potential solution for communities suddenly left without a branch facility. However, sub-postmasters are not yet able to carry out the full range of transactions that customers expect. What can the Minister do to help our post offices, which are vital to the survival of our high streets, to perform the banking functions that have been recommended?

My hon. Friend is right that post offices are now so valuable to our high streets. There are lots of opportunities for post offices to develop further in providing services to their community. As the Minister with responsibility for post offices, I will do whatever I can to facilitate that.