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Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Volume 649: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2018

The Secretary of State was asked—

Solar Generation

11. What assessment his Department has made of the potential merits of providing remuneration at a fair market rate for self-generators of solar power putting surplus energy on the networks. (907701)

The Government and my Department remain enthusiastic about the role of solar generation and its role in decarbonisng power in the UK. However, as the market matures and installation is now possible without Government subsidy, we believe that it is the right time to close the feed-in tariff scheme. We already have 13 GW of solar capacity supported under current schemes. Indeed, at one point in May this year, solar provided more power generation than any other source.

Rooftop solar is set to lose support from the feed-in tariff and the export tariff, which help to pay for clean power to the grid. Does my right hon. Friend agree that householders should expect some form of payment rather than simply subsidising large energy companies?

My hon. Friend will know that the FIT scheme has been a huge success, supporting over 800,000 installations nationally, including almost 3,000 in his constituency. It has cost consumers over £4.5 billion to date and is scheduled to cost more than £2 billion a year for at least the next decade. It is therefore right that we consider a new scheme, as the cost has fallen. However, I do completely agree that solar power should not be provided to the grid for free, and that is why I will shortly be announcing the next steps for small-scale renewables.

I call Daniel Kawczynski. He is not here. Mr Richard Graham. Not here. I hope that neither of the Members concerned is indisposed. It is most unlike them not to be present, but they were informed of the grouping, I am sure, by the Government. [Interruption.] Okay—thank you. Well, never mind—they are not here and we cannot take them, but other Members are here, and we are delighted to see it. Mr David Hanson.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The number of installations under solar has fallen by 90% in the past two years. Taking up the point made by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), what steps is the Minister taking to ensure, first, that providers are still in place next year to continue to grow this sector; and secondly, that customers are not subsidising large energy companies?

The good news, as I mentioned, is that we have moved from a position of heavy—very expensive—subsidy for many of these small-scale schemes. Because the cost of solar installations has dropped by more than two thirds, we think it is right to change that. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to welcome the news that a string of private sector subsidy-free solar funds is set to open this year, particularly with business premises now taking advantage of the benefits that solar can provide in balancing their own systems. We are going through that transition with the expectation that we will see more solar deployed next year than we have previously.

If we are really serious about rooftop solar, why do we not insist that it is fitted on all new build properties?

My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for all forms of renewable energy in Kettering, and he is right. There are many ways to bring forward better low-carbon generation—but, equally, better energy efficiency measures—in new builds. We have set out plans under the clean growth strategy to try to achieve those ends, and I am looking forward to delivering them.

I invite the Minister to be far more ambitious for rooftop solar as PV prices continue to fall and as batteries to store surplus solar power become ever more competitively priced. The opportunity for many homes to become their own power station has arrived. Should we not therefore be planning and encouraging such an exciting outcome?

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, whose activities in coalition contributed to a boom in some of the cheapest forms of renewable energy, including offshore wind. We are now able to generate over 30% of our energy supply from renewables, which is much cheaper than putting it on individual rooftops. He raises a really important point. As our energy system migrates to a much more decentralised, much more intelligent system—helped, I might add, by the roll-out of smart meters—there is real value in that micro-generation, and that is what I am hoping to support when I bring proposals to the House shortly.

It is very heartwarming to see that the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) has now beetled into the Chamber. I am sure that the House and an expectant nation wish to hear him.

I am very grateful, Mr Speaker.

I think my right hon. Friend the Minister, who has done a lot to support renewable energy, may have covered my key point. However, does she agree that there are hundreds of churches, schools, local authorities and co-operative groups around the country, not least in my own constituency of Gloucester, that will benefit hugely from her announcement of what will replace the current system, and that it would be totally wrong for energy companies to benefit from free energy were there not to be a replacement system?

I hope my hon. Friend caught my point that I agree it would be wrong to have power provided to the grid for free. In his constituency, there are now more than 1,300 feed-in tariff installations, and he should be proud of that. He is right; there are many such organisations. I was lucky to meet a group of people from all different faiths who were really committed to a zero-carbon future in many places of worship. That is happening right across the country. There is value in that, and we want to see it continue.

Scotland is the home of energy innovation, and a lot of that is down to EU funding for the innovation and research that is taking place. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that funding for the Scottish renewables sector is protected after Brexit?

I encourage the hon. Lady to move away from defining success as the amount of subsidy that renewable energy receives. In fact, thanks to incredible policy work and innovation by the suppliers, Scotland, like other areas, has benefited from a rapid decline in energy costs. We will continue to invest in clean growth—more than £2.5 billion over the course of this Parliament—and we will all benefit from those jobs and the renewable energy that those installations provide.

Before I call the shadow Minister, I know the House will want to join me in welcoming Speaker Elisabetta Casellati of the Italian Senate—a distinguished parliamentarian and the first female holder of that office. Madam Speaker, we wish you and your colleagues well on this visit and in all the important work that you do.

The Government say in their clean growth plan—indeed, the Minister has said it this morning—that they want to see more people investing in solar without Government support. I cannot think of a better way to discourage people who might be thinking of investing in solar than telling them that they will be expected to give away to the national grid half the electricity they generate from their investment. When we talk about the export tariff, we are not talking about a subsidy; we are talking about a payment for goods supplied. The Minister has elided the feed-in tariff and the export tariff. Can she just accept that she has messed things up on this occasion, call off talk of removing the export tariff and get on with using that tariff to support future subsidy-free solar investment?

I am invited to say buongiorno to our visitor in the Gallery.

The hon. Gentleman and I are, as in many cases, in violent agreement. We signalled clearly several years ago the closure of this scheme. It is a very expensive scheme; it was going to cost £2 billion a year for decades to come to bring forward microgeneration. We now have much more energy-efficient and cost-effective ways of generating renewables. As I said, I absolutely agree that people who have gone through the installation process should not be captive takers, should someone want to buy their energy. I look forward to announcing further deliberations on this shortly.

Nuclear Power

The Government believe that nuclear power has an important role to play in our energy system as part of a diverse range of low-carbon technologies. Our intent is clearly visible in the form of Hinkley Point C—the first new nuclear power station to be built in this country in a generation—as well as in the launch in June of our landmark nuclear sector deal at Trawsfynydd.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. It is reassuring to me to understand this Government’s commitment to new nuclear, but with Toshiba’s recent decision to wind down NuGen, can he assure me that he will meet any developer who is interested in building their reactors at Moorside in Copeland?

I can indeed give that assurance to my hon. Friend, who is a great champion of one of the bastions of skills and innovation in the nuclear sector in this country. The circumstances behind Toshiba’s wind-down of NuGen are well known—it was because of the move to chapter 11 bankruptcy of its subsidiary—but that site is now available for other investors.

The future of nuclear power is not just about building reactors; it is about having people with the skills to work in those reactors as well. As we have a skills gap in defence nuclear, can the Secretary of State set out what actions the Government are taking to support the growth of nuclear skills in both defence nuclear and civil nuclear?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman takes such an interest in this. He will know that the nuclear sector deal provides for training, new institutions and new apprenticeship and scholarship opportunities for nuclear engineers in both the civil and defence sectors. This is all part of an agreement across the industry with Government to ensure that the next generation of nuclear power is supported by new-generation nuclear engineers and technicians.

The Government were very keen to emphasise that the Toshiba-Korea Electric Power Corporation negotiations over NuGen were a commercial matter. If the Chinese nuclear company CGN—China General Nuclear Power Group—agrees to develop Moorside on a commercial basis, with no Government subsidy, would the Government support it?

As my hon. Friend knows, in each case the proposals are developer-led, so it is for proponents to come forward. As I have said to our hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), I am very happy, with my officials, to meet anyone who has an interest in doing so.

The demise of Moorside and NuGen underlines how the Government’s nuclear policy hinges on overseas investment, particularly from energy companies that are owned wholly by other states. Is the Secretary of State having a really good look at the other planned nuclear power stations to make sure that there will be enough nuclear power to maintain energy integrity in the UK in future?

The answer is yes. I am grateful to the hon. Lady’s Public Accounts Committee for examining the model for financing nuclear new build. With her colleagues, she has made some helpful suggestions, which she knows we are committed to taking forward to see whether they can be viable.

National Minimum Wage

We are committed to ensuring all employers pay their workers correctly. As part of our enforcement strategy, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs targets employers with information and advice. In April 2018, we launched a £1.48 million campaign to raise awareness of the national minimum wage rules, particularly in sectors with a high risk of non-compliance. HMRC contacted over 617,000 employers prior to April 2018, reminding them of their responsibilities to pay the higher rate.

The Government are failing thousands of workers who are falling victim to unpaid trial shifts. The law is extremely grey, and despite my efforts to clear it up, the hon. Lady’s Government talked out my Bill. We know that the guidance the Government produce and reminding employers is not enough. As we go into this Christmas period, when this will be another employment epidemic, will she pledge to make this the last Christmas of the unpaid trial shift?

Short unpaid trials as part of a genuine recruitment process can be legal. However, longer trials with no prospect of employment are illegal. Individuals working on illegal trials are workers and they are entitled to the minimum wage. I can inform the hon. Gentleman that, as per the communication I have had with him in recent months, I have indeed, with my Department, just reviewed and finalised new guidance on unpaid work trials and work experience for interns, which will be published in the next few weeks.

Does the Minister agree with me that the payment of a living wage is actually in the best interests of employers because it encourages engagement, loyalty and productivity?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting that point, and it is absolutely true. This Government are committed to increasing the rate of pay for the lowest-paid workers. I do agree with him that this of course encourages employee loyalty to employers that do so.

19. A constituent of mine who runs a vehicle delivery company came to see me about the dangerously long hours of driving in his industry—often over 16 hours a day—for less than the minimum wage. My constituent and other small companies that care about their staff are desperate to see an end to bogus self-employment in their sectors. When will the Government finally act on the recommendations of the Taylor review and do this? (907709)

Let me be clear: it is illegal not to pay the national minimum wage to workers who are entitled to it. This Government have been very clear. We are looking at and currently reviewing the Taylor review recommendations—we will be implementing the majority of them—and the Government will be responding soon with what we will do.

Following on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George), last week yet another employment tribunal found in favour of workers getting the minimum wage and other workplace rights—in this instance, at Addison Lee—but too many firms continue to label workers as self-employed when they are not. When will the Government finally bring forward this long overdue legislation and—as the Taylor review, the GMB union and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee have argued—ensure that all workers are paid the minimum wage?

The hon. Lady will remember that it was this Government that set up the Taylor review. We have been very clear. We are committed to enforcement; we have doubled the enforcement budget for the national minimum wage. In fact, the arrears recovered in the last year totalled £15.6 million, affecting more than 200,000 workers. This Government are committed and we will respond in due course. We are committed to making all workplaces fair for all.

If the Minister is very keen on the national minimum wage, what is she saying to Mike Ashley, who has 3,000 workers at Shirebrook, most of them on zero-hours contracts? They do not get the national minimum wage. There are only a handful. Is it not time that this Government, instead of talking about the national minimum wage, did something about it?

I say again: we are committed to enforcing on underpayments of the national minimum wage. We have doubled the enforcement budget. We are delivering for those individuals. And zero-hours contracts do not necessarily mean that there will be a breach of the national minimum wage. We are committed to delivering.

Leaving the EU: Manufacturing Jobs

4. What steps his Department is taking to help safeguard skilled manufacturing jobs after the UK leaves the EU. (907694)

The declaration on the future relationship with the EU sets out a joint ambition for zero tariffs and restrictions in goods trade, and an ambitious customs arrangement. Our industrial strategy will ensure that the UK remains one of the most competitive locations in the world for manufacturing. We have committed £140 million to the “Made Smarter” industrial digitalisation programme, which will help our manufacturing sector adopt new technologies and skills.

The Minister mentions the declaration, but of course it is seven pages long and offers no reassurance to businesses in Croydon. Recently I visited a Croydon business that is currently looking to move to Amsterdam. What more can the Government provide to ensure that that business and many more stay in the UK?

The hon. Lady’s constituency must contain businesses different from those I heard at the CBI yesterday, where the Prime Minister was applauded for precisely this approach; different from businesses in my constituency; and different from all the business leaders who have supported the Government’s proposed deal with the European Union.

Manufacturing accounts for 11% of jobs in the west midlands, one of the highest percentages for any region, and the region has one of the highest shares of goods imports and exports— 47% of its goods go to the EU. Does the Minister agree that Labour’s plan for Brexit, guaranteeing a new, comprehensive and permanent customs union and a strong single market relationship that allows British business continued access to European markets for both goods and services, is the deal that UK manufacturers need to thrive?

As far as I am aware, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders and the EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, and all other organisations representing those industries in the midlands, in the hon. Lady’s constituency and surrounding constituencies, are very much in support of the Government’s policy for frictionless trade in the future.

The Secretary of State is aware of the threat to 190 skilled engineering jobs at GE Energy in Rugby. This has nothing to do with Brexit; rather, it is to do with a downturn in activity of the company’s traditional base. What advice can the Minister provide to the workforce and the local management team to secure this manufacturing activity in Rugby?

As ever, my hon. Friend is fully in support of so many businesses in his constituency. As he knows, my door is open to him and the company, to discuss any possibilities of helping them. I have seen many very good businesses in his constituency and I am excited about the prospects there for high-quality employment for his constituents.

The question is really whether we leave the EU at all. Yesterday, on the “Today” programme, the Secretary of State was arguing in favour of a proposal by the EU to extend the implementation period to the end of 2022. Was the Secretary of State doing his usual EU freelancing, or is that now the official policy of the UK Government?

The Government want to finalise the future trading relationship with the EU as quickly as possible. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned one alternative to achieve that.

In addition to the threat that leaving the EU poses to skilled manufacturing jobs, the Minister will be aware of the devastating news that Michelin plans to close its factory in Dundee, threatening 850 such jobs. Will the Minister work closely with the Scottish Government to ensure a future for that plant?

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I have spoken to the company and I have sought assurances about support available to staff. The Secretary of State and I have spoken with the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work and with the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Department is playing an active role in the Dundee action group.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but his Government can do one thing right away to give immediate and future help. The UK Government are currently £50 million short on matching the Scottish Government on the Tay cities deal. Is this to be, like Aberdeen, Inverness and Stirling, part of a near £400 million shortage of match funding and a failure of the UK Government on city deals, or will he do the right thing and fight for match funding to support Dundee at this challenging time?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, each deal with each city is an individual one based on the circumstances of that city. I see him regularly, and it would be a pleasure to meet him to discuss his constituency and the proposed city deal.

18. [R] In terms of leaving the EU and our manufacturing sector, does the Minister not accept that staying in the customs union and in a form of single market is absolutely what is demanded in the long term—not “xx”—by our manufacturing sector? (907708)

The hon. Gentleman must be aware that the EEF has warmly accepted the Government’s proposals for a future trading relationship that will provide the kind of frictionless trade essential for his constituents and everyone else who works in the motor vehicle industry and the manufacturing sector.

“High tech manufacturing in every part of the country”—the Secretary of State’s words. General Electric is closing in Rugby and Michelin is closing in Dundee. From Swansea to Copeland to Lowestoft, his energy policies destroy more jobs than they create. By ending the enhanced capital allowance, the Budget took hundreds of millions of pounds from manufacturers, while doling out billions in corporate tax cuts. Manufacturing demand is now dropping at its fastest rate since 2015, yet the Cabinet is in meltdown over whether to walk out on the customs union in four months with no deal or in 24 months with the Prime Minister’s plan. Does the Minister agree that a permanent customs union is essential for British manufacturing and British jobs?

It will come as no surprise to you, Mr Speaker, that I disagree with a lot of what the hon. Lady has said. She says the Cabinet is in meltdown. It is not. [Interruption.] The Cabinet is not in meltdown. On her substantive question about energy, to the best of my knowledge, offshore energy is producing a lot of jobs, including in Tyneside. [Interruption.] It very much is. She must be aware, as far as the customs union part of her question is concerned, of the importance of the Government’s proposals, which provide the benefit of a very close relationship with all the countries in the EU. They also mean that this country will be able to enter into negotiations to sign free trade agreements with countries all over the world.

Asda/Sainsbury Merger

5. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the merger of Asda and Sainsbury’s on (a) workers, (b) supply chains and (c) consumers. (907695)

Sainsbury’s has confirmed that there are no planned store closures as a result of the merger. The independent Competition and Markets Authority is investigating the effects on competition and has until 5 March 2019 to report. The CMA’s investigation is independent of Government and we must not pre-judge the inquiry. The Secretary of State wrote to the CMA in May on this issue and I met with the CEO of Sainsbury’s last month.

Sainsbury’s has indicated that it will look at price cuts of 10% under a merger with Asda, but it has also indicated that it would make efficiency savings of around £500 million. I know from this Government’s record that efficiency savings often mean cuts somewhere down the line, so what discussions has the Minister or the Department had with trade unions to ensure that all jobs—not just in store, but in distribution and warehousing—are safeguarded?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise concerns, because any merger and change will of course concern the workers in the organisations, but I have spoken with Sainsbury’s and it has been clear that the pay and reward structure that is already in place is not affected as part of the merger. We will continue our communications with the stores. As he will know, the CMA is currently looking at the merger and is due to report. We will be monitoring this, as we would in any such circumstances.

The National Farmers Union has expressed disquiet at this proposed merger. Will my hon. Friend give an assurance to me and to the House more generally that the Government will always promote competition both to improve choice for the consumer and to improve options for people in the supply chain, particularly in farming?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right: one of the things that we are committed to is making sure that we continue with our world-renowned competition regime. It is right that, even at a ministerial level, we are independent of the CMA, but we work very closely with the CMA on priorities, and looking at supply chains is a key area for all mergers, as is how we protect consumers and markets in future.

Shared Parental Leave: Self-employed People

6. What recent representations he has received on introducing shared parental leave for self-employed people. (907696)

My Department and the Department for Work and Pensions recently met Parental Pay Equality, which is campaigning to extend shared parental pay to self-employed parents through changes to maternity allowance. We are exploring ways to support self-employed parents further.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Has she read the recent “Balancing Act” report from Birkbeck University and Parents in Performing Arts, which shows that 72% of freelancers would like to take shared parental leave if they were allowed to? This policy would not cost anything, but it would improve equality and productivity at the same time. Will she—not just officials—undertake to meet the parental pay and leave campaign and listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), who has a ten-minute rule Bill on this issue?

I will always engage with anyone who has a view on this particular issue. We are evaluating shared parental leave and pay to look at the barriers to take-up, including those affecting self-employed people and mothers, particularly, who qualify for maternity allowance. We are currently evaluating that and we will be reporting on that next year. However, I will meet with those people.

I recently met Mike Watkinson from Nottinghamshire’s Federation of Small Businesses to discuss a number of challenges facing business in Mansfield, one of which was support and access to benefits for self-employed people. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the party of business, it is absolutely vital that we help small business owners and support them to keep the show on the road when they need it?

Self-employment does allow the flexibility that some employed workers are unable to take advantage of, but it is right that we work on this and consider the consequences for the self-employed and small businesses. When we are evaluating and looking at how we move forward—as this Government are committed to doing—it is right that we look at this in the round, in the context of tax, benefit and other such things, but particularly, to support small businesses to continue providing the employment that we need.

I thank my colleague and friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), for raising this question. On my ten-minute rule Bill on shared parental leave, the Minister will have heard across the House the frustration with the Taylor review—that it has been a year and a half and we have not had any implementations of those recommendations. This was one of them; it is cost-neutral. Does the Minister agree that this could be the engine of change—it could be the outlier—that actually gets those recommendations put into place?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting this issue through her Bill. We have not yet had the opportunity to debate it, but I know she met Ministers earlier in the year to discuss it. She has mentioned the Taylor review. We are committed in the very near future to doing that, and we are considering self-employment, especially with regard to shared parental leave, how we can benefit and more people taking it up.

Industrial Strategy

7. What the timetable is for bringing forward a tourism sector deal under the industrial strategy. (907697)

Sector deals are part of our industrial strategy and vital in building strategic partnerships with the Government and mutual commitments to boost productivity in specific sectors. We have already concluded seven and we are working on more. Under the auspices of Steve Ridgway, whom I thank for his leadership, we have a lot of interest from the tourism sector in exploring a sector deal and we are doing so.

Could my hon. Friend elaborate on whether there will be a similar deal for the hospitality industry in the new year?

Before I saw the light and went into politics, I spent 25 years in the tourism and hospitality industry, and there is nothing I would like more than to conclude a sector deal with it. I have met with officials and industry leaders, have the full support of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and look forward to concluding a deal in the new year.

Tourists spend a lot of money in this country in tips, yet it is two years since the Government said they would act to stop rogue bosses swiping tips. I raised this at Business questions last week, and it was suggested that I come here, raise it with the Minister and ask when the Government will bring forward primary legislation to stop bosses swiping tips that should be going to hard-working staff.

I am delighted to confirm to the hon. Lady that we are definitely introducing legislation on this subject. We will do so as soon as we possibly can within the parliamentary timetable.

In his first answer, the Minister said that seven sector deals had been concluded. How many are still under negotiation and why are they taking so long?

Actually, I correct my right hon. Friend. I said that six sector deals had been concluded and more are in the pipeline. They are very complex. They involve a lot of industry money and many industrial partners who have never been involved in deals with the Government before. I would be delighted to meet him at any time to discuss how I am pushing these on as quickly as I can.

Is the Minister aware that tourism, just like the manufacturing sector, particularly in Yorkshire, is finding it very difficult to get skilled people, especially as more Europeans go back to their home countries in fear of Brexit? What is he going to do about attracting and retaining skilled workers in tourism and manufacturing?

I am very aware of the hon. Gentleman’s point. Only last week, I met with Hilton Hotels and Resorts, a big employer in this sector, while the Grove, in my own constituency, has raised exactly the same point. The industry has a high turnover of labour and, as he says, has depended for some time on labour from abroad. I hope that more UK people will enter the hotel and hospitality industry, but the fact is that in many areas there is almost full employment.

Post Office Closures

8. What discussions his Department has had with representatives of the Post Office on its plans to close 74 Crown offices. (907698)

21. What discussions his Department has had with representatives of the Post Office on plans to close 74 Crown post offices. [R] (907711)

22. If he will make an assessment of the (a) adequacy of terms of the proposed sale of Crown post offices and (b) effect of that sale on sub-post offices. (907712)

While the Government set the strategic direction for the Post Office, they allow the company the commercial freedom to deliver this strategy as an independent business. The 74 Crown branches are being franchised to WHSmith, either on-site or through relocation to a WHSmith store. There will be no reduction in the number of branches from the franchising with WHSmith.

I am a proud member of the Communication Workers Union and a former postal worker. The Minister has said in written answers to Members that the privatisation of the Post Office is a commercial decision for the Post Office and that the Government only set the strategic direction. Nevertheless, the Post Office has decided to privatise these Crown branches and is using tens of millions of pounds of public money to bankroll it. This is a disgraceful situation. When will the Government start exercising some basic financial oversight?

I am sorry, but I entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We have no closure programmes. I should add that under Labour’s management of the Post Office its network shrank by 37%, which resulted in 7,000 closures, and that in the first five years of Labour Government the Post Office went from being in profit to having losses of more than £1 billion.

Let us have another look at this, shall we? Seventy-four of the public’s post offices are being privatised without the permission of the public. WHSmith is already advertising minimum wage part-time roles to take over post office counters, while consultations on those jobs have yet to be completed. Can the Minister imagine what it must feel like for your job to be under consultation and to face possible redundancy, with the job already advertised for someone else? Will she intervene and call this practice out, as a matter of principle?

Let me first highlight the fact that there are no Crown post offices in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Franchising is one of the measures to support and maintain the long-term sustainability of our network of 11,500 post offices throughout the country. As I said, the network was reduced under the last Labour Government, but we are committed to the Post Office and to keeping those branches open.

Restrictive practices are preventing my constituent Mr Avi Bungar from providing various post office services because he runs a sub-post office. Why are the Government giving big business WHSmith a sweetheart deal and preferential Crown post office terms, and preventing sub-postmasters from having the same?

I respect the fact that the hon. Gentleman has experienced issues in his constituency in relation to a particular post office, but to set a long-term sustainability programme for the Post Office against potential postmasters is quite frankly wrong. This is part of a sustainable programme that will enable us—this Government—to keep 11,500 post offices open, to increase, via the Post Office, the pay to which post office workers are entitled, and to give them longer hours and better locations.

Nuclear Power Stations

9. What steps he is taking to ensure that value for money is achieved from energy generated from proposed new nuclear power stations. (907699)

As the Secretary of State said in his statement to the House on 4 June, in our negotiations with nuclear developers, a key focus of discussions will be achieving value for money and lower electricity costs for consumers.

The National Audit Office has already confirmed that Hinkley Point C was a bad deal. Half the existing nuclear power stations will have closed by 2024 and the rest by 2028, and no nuclear power stations can be built in time to replace them. Why are the UK Government tying up energy policy for the next 50 years in deals that are poor value for money?

As far as I know, the hon. Gentleman and his party are against nuclear power altogether, so his is an interesting question. The Government, on the other hand, are committed to a diverse energy mix in which nuclear power plays a crucial part. Nuclear power is critical to our transmission to a low-carbon society, providing continuous, reliable, low-carbon electricity. We are also leaders in cutting emissions by renewables, and nearly 30% of our electricity comes from renewable sources.

Hydraulic Fracturing

10. What steps he is taking to help reduce the incidence of seismic activity caused by hydraulic fracturing. (907700)

It is always a pleasure to answer a question from my mother-in-law’s MP. As he knows, we have always made it clear that any hydraulic fracturing that takes place under current licences must be consistent with our regulatory regime, including the traffic light system, which is the toughest in the world. The Preston New Road site is the most monitored site for seismic activity, and among the 36 events recorded, the 1.1 local magnitude event was the equivalent at the surface of a bag of flour being dropped to the floor.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is looking after the Minister’s mother-in-law, because I have a feeling that he will hear about it if he is not.

I always do my best for all my constituents, Mr Speaker; I do not have any favourites. On fracking in the Blackpool area, there have been 47 minor earthquakes in that area and Cuadrilla has now ceased operations. Does that signal a change in Government policy?

Not at all. Thanks to the superb seismic monitoring and the work of some excellent students at Liverpool University, it is clear that the most significant of the micro tremors that we are seeing is the equivalent of dropping a kilogram of flour on my mother-in-law’s floor in Earlsdon and feeling the vibration from that.

We are calmly and soberly going through the process of seeing whether this potentially valuable resource that can reduce our energy dependency on imports can be exploited, but it has to be done in a way that is consistent with our world-beating and tough regulatory regime.

How come we have been using exactly the same technology without difficulty, fracking at hundreds of sites, for years for thermal energy?

My right hon. Friend makes a valuable point. It is said that fracking is this new thing, but in fact we have been doing it for many years, including using it to extract oil from sites close to both of our constituencies. It is a perfectly safe technology. We have to be clear, however, that we are doing this in an environmentally sensitive way. Of course nobody wants environmental regulations that they cannot defend to their constituents, but we are going through this calmly and soberly; we have excellent science and so far the process is delivering shale gas from these very exploratory fracks, which is something we should all welcome.

On 21 May this year the Minister met a number of renewable energy companies. That meeting was properly recorded on the ministerial register of meetings to ensure transparency. On the same day the Minister also met all the key fracking companies including Cuadrilla, INEOS, iGas and Third Energy. That meeting somehow failed to make it on to the transparency register. Would the Minister like to take this opportunity to apologise for the concealment of that information, and by way of penance would she like to confirm when she will finally visit local residents at Preston New Road to explain why the 36 earthquakes that have occurred since Caudrilla began fracking operations are simply the equivalent of dropping a bag of flour on their kitchen floors?

I am glad the pantomime season is coming up as there is some good auditioning going on. Let me explain. I know that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the ministerial code, and I am told by my officials that when they did not disclose the meeting of 21 May it was because the ministerial code does not require Ministers to disclose meetings that they drop in on, as opposed to host in their office. I have made it clear to my officials that any meeting ever held with anyone related to shale gas should be recorded, whether or not that is in accordance with current guidance. The hon. Gentleman will also know that at that so-called secret meeting with the fracking companies were the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, the GMB union, representatives of local government and UK100 chaired by the doughty Polly Billington, former special adviser to the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). The idea that I would hold secret meetings with an industry that is so potentially vital is, frankly, ridiculous. I have also appointed a superb former colleague of the hon. Gentleman’s, Natascha Engel, as my commissioner for shale gas, and she has been out there very consistently meeting local groups and residents in all of these fracking areas. I would be delighted to visit Preston New Road. Unfortunately, however, as I was aggressively approached by a protestor who threatened to visit my home because he knew my children were home alone, I have been advised for security reasons to be very careful about engaging with the protestors. Of course when I go, unlike some Opposition Members, I will make sure to visit the protestors and also those exploiting the resource to create jobs. Those of us on the Government Benches believe in jobs, not mobs.

Starting and Growing Businesses

12. What progress he has made on meeting the Government’s ambition to make the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a business. (907702)

14. What progress he has made on meeting the Government’s ambition to make the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a business. (907704)

15. What progress he has made on meeting the Government’s ambition to make the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a business. (907705)

Our business environment is among the best in the world for small businesses. We have 16.3 million people employed in small businesses and the British Business Bank is supporting small businesses with over £5.5 billion of finance—and colleagues on all sides of the House will wish to support small business Saturday on 1 December.

Earlier this year, Ideal Foods, a small business in my constituency, celebrated a huge milestone when it achieved a turnover of £10 million in just one year. Another business, the Cornish Cheese Company, has just been awarded the super gold award for its Cornish blue cheese. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these are shining examples of the importance of embracing global trade after we leave the European Union?

I do indeed, and I congratulate Ideal Foods and the Cornish Cheese Company. Perhaps I can add one of my own: Cornish Charcuterie, based just outside Bude, is one of my favourites, and I know that it has many satisfied customers across the UK and Europe, and increasingly around the world. This shows that, of all the manifold assets that Cornwall has, its food and indeed its drink are something to boast about.

More than 355 new businesses have been started up in my constituency since 2010. Many of them are microbusinesses with only one or two employees, and their needs are very different from those of the larger small and medium-sized businesses. What additional support can the Department give to those microbusinesses to help them to thrive?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to suggest that microbusinesses, and indeed start-ups, sometimes face challenges in accessing finance. The British Business Bank has a programme to focus on microbusinesses. Start-up loans, from which 44 businesses in her constituency have benefited, are also important.

Late payments are a real problem for small businesses. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to tackle that?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and she will know that we are taking steps to reinforce in statute some of the measures that have been good practice across the industry. Indeed, the small business commissioner has been appointed to the prompt payment code compliance board to help with that.

Does the Secretary of State truly believe that what has been negotiated with the European Union will be better for jobs and business than the deal we have now?

If the hon. Lady was at the CBI conference yesterday, and if she has read the responses from businesses small and large up and down the country, she will know that they are very clear that this deal will help to create the confidence that will allow investment to be made and jobs to be created and preserved across the country.

The small businesses and manufacturers in my constituency are telling me that their biggest challenge right now is recruiting skilled labour. That challenge is set to get worse for them as we approach Brexit. Will the Secretary of State explain to them how stopping freedom of movement is going to help them with access to skilled labour for their manufacturing and their research and development?

One of the reasons why companies up and down the country sometimes find it a struggle to recruit people is that we have such a low level of unemployment in this country. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would recognise that. He knows that one of the benefits of leaving the European Union is that our migration policy will be set in this country according to the needs of our economy—so it’s over to us.

The Prime Minister’s botched Brexit deal creates uncertainty for business. The lack of any commitment to permanent customs arrangements means that there is no guarantee of tariff-free, frictionless trade. Frankly, I am amazed that any Business Secretary would put their name to this deal. Without any commitments to frictionless trade, how can the Government claim to be helping business?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has read the proposed agreement, but business leaders certainly have, and they have been warmly supportive of it. There are good reasons for that. One of the things that businesses have asked for is a transition period leading up to an agreement that we should be able to trade without tariffs, without quotas and without frictions. This agreement provides for that, which is one reason why it has been endorsed by businesses up and down the country.

Pub Closures

13. What estimate he has made of the number of pubs that closed in 2018; and what assessment he has made of the reasons for those pub closures. (907703)

Pubs make a major contribution to the economy and to community life. That is why the Government are supporting pubs through measures such as the beer duty freeze and the business rates retail discount announced in the Budget.

That does not really answer the question of why 7,000 pubs have closed since 2010, so I encourage the Minister to address that when she returns to the Dispatch Box. To be more positive, she will have seen that the all-party parliamentary group on pubs is bringing about a parliamentary pub of the year award, so I encourage her to nominate a pub in her constituency and to join us and the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), on 15 January to find out which is Britain’s greatest parliamentary pub.

I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s concern and his work in this area over a long period of time. He is a champion for the sector. There are several reasons why there may be pub closures, which is why we are acting to freeze beer duty and address small business rate relief. We estimate that 75% of pubs will benefit from the reductions announced in the Budget. To answer his second point, I will happily attend the event on 15 January, if possible.

Order. We come now to topical questions, and I gently remind the House that topicals are supposed to be much shorter than substantives, so we do not want preambles. Members who start to engage in preambles will be asked to resume their seat. With straightforward questions and straightforward replies, we will rip through as many as we possibly can.

Topical Questions

The recent Budget confirmed our unwavering commitment to the technologies of the future. We have set up a national quantum computing centre and five new technology centres in Leeds, Oxford, Coventry, Glasgow and London. At the national level, the Prime Minister joined the first meeting of the Industrial Strategy Council. Internationally, I travelled to Japan to discuss how we can work together on our industrial strategy.

Has any estimate been made of the number of businesses on local high streets that can benefit from the business rate cut announced in the Budget, including businesses in my constituency of Chipping Barnet?

My right hon. Friend will be aware that up to 90% of retail properties in England could be eligible, and I understand that up to around 3,000 properties in her borough could qualify for the relief made available in the Budget.

Brexit cannot result in a race to the bottom for workers’ rights and protections but, sadly, the EU withdrawal agreement does not guarantee that it will not. Thompsons Solicitors says that the non-regression clause will be “ineffective” and the Institute for Public Policy Research states that it is

“not sufficient to maintain current protections”.

Individuals will not even be able to bring about proceedings, and if the EU raises standards, the UK is permitted simply to fall behind. When the Secretary of State called stakeholders after agreeing the deal last week, were trade unions on that call? Will he confirm exactly how he intends to maintain current standards and enforceability and to prevent Britain from falling behind the EU’s standards?

I note that the hon. Lady dismissed the withdrawal agreement on the airwaves before she had even read it, so it does not surprise me that her question is so misplaced. As for the trade unions, I met Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, to discuss the provisions of the agreement in person. When it comes to our record of protecting employees’ rights, the hon. Lady should have more confidence in this country and in this House. We are perfectly capable. We have been leaders in protecting and promoting workplace rights for many generations. We do not need to be required to do so by the European Union; this House can do that itself.

The trade unions were not on that call, which is telling. However, many workers are being treated shamefully even before we leave the EU. There is a bank branch where male workers were expected to urinate in a bucket, and cleaners and security staff are on poverty wages with few rights and protections. The first case was highlighted by Unite yesterday, but the second can be found in the Government’s own Departments under the watch of this Secretary of State, who is responsible for employment rights and protections. Given that the Taylor review was published nearly 500 days ago and yet we still have no update on Government policy and that two months have passed without action since I wrote to the Secretary of State about the treatment of his own staff, how can we trust him to protect workers in the UK now, let alone stop a race to the bottom?

We value highly the colleagues in our Department and across Government who do important work in public service, and I have made a commitment that we will always treat them well, including on pay and conditions. I am glad that the hon. Lady is looking forward with anticipation to the publication of the response to the Taylor review. It was a landmark report to which this Government committed, and I look forward to her endorsing this Government when we enact Taylor’s recommendations in the weeks ahead.

T3. I have recently had the honour of visiting many of our businesses in Clacton. Some of them are searching for business overseas, but they remain concerned about Brexit. What can my right hon. Friend do or say to reassure them? (907717)

Businesses up and down the country have been very clear: they want an agreement; they want a deal so that they have the certainty to be able to make investments; they want a transition period so that they are able to make the necessary adjustments; and they want frictionless trade. The proposed deal comprises all those qualities, which is why it has had such a warm endorsement. It will give businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere the confidence to invest.

T2. Which?, the consumer champion, points out that large suppliers need to install 30 smart meters a minute every day for the next two years to meet the Government’s 2020 roll-out target. How does the Minister think this is going? (907716)

I applaud the hon. Gentleman for his long-standing interest in this important area. It is going better by the day. Over 400,000 smart meters are now being installed every month. As of the end of October, some 97,500 SMETS2 meters, including one in my home in Devizes, have been installed. He will know better than many about the long-term benefits that this brings, both to people’s ability to control and reduce their energy use, and to delivering the most efficient and digitised energy system in the world.

T5. Taunton would be the ideal place for the one of the Geospatial Commission’s geospatial hubs, building on the expertise of the UK Hydrographic Office’s oceanic data-gathering skills. Will the Minister agree to visit Taunton to consider this proposal? (907719)

Better late than never.

I will always be delighted to visit Taunton—my hon. Friend is a great champion of her constituency. My Department is now engaging at official level to understand how these prospective developments could fit with the industrial strategy.

T4. Eighty-two per cent. of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, many with immense potential, say that they find business to be inaccessible. I tabled early-day motion 1807 in support of the Movement to Work charity for young people. How will Ministers help to unleash the entrepreneurial potential of young people from all backgrounds? (907718)

The right hon. Gentleman raises a great question, and this is one of the things we are working on. The British Business Bank is working on start-up loans, and there are initiatives that work on enterprise in the school setting. I left school and went into an unofficial apprenticeship, and I think that we should all get behind such schemes and apprenticeships, because getting into work really can deliver the entrepreneurial spirit that people need.

Last week, the first new major hotel to be built on Paignton seafront in decades was approved, bringing with it £40 million of investment. What role does my right hon. Friend see the industrial strategy playing in supporting more high-value investment in Torbay’s tourism industry?

I congratulate Paignton on that new hotel. Through the industrial strategy, we are investing in digital connectivity and transport, which should make areas such as Torbay even more attractive than at present.

T6. Given that the regulation of fireworks is reserved to this place and that there appears to be a spike in the use of fireworks as part of antisocial behaviour and violence, including of late in Plains, Shotts and Airdrie in my constituency, what cognisance will the UK Government take of the Scottish Government’s consultation on regulating fireworks so as better to inform how best to regulate the sale and use of fireworks? (907720)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, which is timely just after fireworks night. The Government do not have any plans to change the legislation, but I am always willing to look at new evidence and to discuss the issue with hon. Members.

Lithium extraction has the potential to make a significant contribution to the aims of our industrial strategy, as well as being a huge boost to the Cornish economy. May I invite the Secretary of State to meet businesses that are seeking to exploit this new opportunity? If he would like to come to Cornwall to do that, he would be very welcome.

My hon. Friend should know that I would be delighted to meet him, and anybody he thinks is suitable, in order to achieve the exploitation of the luxurious resources deep in his constituency.

T7. After the capital shortfall warnings issued by Interserve this week, what assurances can the Secretary of State give the House that Interserve will not go the way of Carillion? Will he commit to press Interserve to make sure that subcontractors are paid up to date and are not at risk of carrying the can for another outsourcing collapse? (907722)

As I said in response to an earlier question, prompt payment is very important for businesses large and small, and supply chains rely on that. My colleagues across the Government and in the Cabinet Office have close relationships with all the suppliers to the Government so that we can be aware of the prospects, and we have nothing further to report.

The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), has given us a welcome update on progress on the tourism sector deal, and I was wondering whether we could get a similar update on the oil and gas sector deal.

My hon. Friend will know from the recent visit to Aberdeen that these conversations continue, as this is a vital sector. Let me pivot slightly by saying that in this Offshore Wind Week—that sector is equally vital to the Scottish economy—I wanted to announce to the House that we are in the final stages of concluding our offshore wind sector deal. It will include both £60 million for the contract for difference auction next spring and a series of substantial commitments from the operators in the sectors to increase the UK content that will be spent—

T8. Cammell Laird has won £619 million of RAF contracts, but almost 300 of its workforce, some of whom are my constituents, are at risk of redundancy. Will the Secretary of State speak to Defence Ministers to make sure that the Government will step in to fill any gap? (907723)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have met the chief executive of Cammell Laird, and I am in discussions with the Ministry of Defence and all other interested parties.

I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s Green Paper “Modernising consumer markets”. When is a Government response expected? Does he agree that, from mobile phone bills to foreign currency exchange, we should use transparency and competition to end consumer rip-offs?

I agree with my right hon. Friend and I welcome his distinguished contribution to that consultation. We will be responding during the weeks ahead. It is very important that we build on our tradition of being one of the most open markets in the world, in which incumbents should not be protected from competition.

T9. The Minister for Energy and Clean Growth mentioned that it is Offshore Wind Week this week, and her comments will be welcome news. What are the Government doing to increase local employment opportunities in this very innovative sector? (907724)

I was worried that the hon. Lady would not be called; I wanted to save the announcement up for her.

The hon. Lady will know, along with her neighbours, the vital role this industry has played in rejuvenating businesses in her constituency and next door. One ask of this sector deal, on which we are in the final stages, is to ensure that the operators, which are benefiting from the Government’s contribution to the auctions, are making substantial commitments to bring back technology and investment, as we see with the Siemens wind turbine factory in her next-door constituency and today’s announcement on the Vestas plant, with another 1,100 jobs being created thanks to the expansion of this industry.

Ministers might have been too busy to see last night’s TV reports about the port of Immingham in my constituency and the opportunities that have been created there. Would the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers care to comment on how we can promote free port status for Immingham post Brexit?

I am familiar with Immingham from numerous dealings with my hon. Friend. It is a very enterprising port that is already doing well, but I am happy to meet him to explore further possibilities.

The post office in my home town of Tain was closed and moved into a newsagent. There is not room to swing a cat there, although the staff are excellent. Will Her Majesty’s Government look again at the dimensions and layout of post offices as and when they are amalgamated with retail businesses?

I do not know the particular setting that the hon. Gentleman refers to, but I am more than happy to meet him to discuss the matter so that I can raise his concerns directly with the Post Office.

We recently heard the disappointing news of the closure of the Michelin factory in Dundee, with the company citing cheaper imports as the reason. It will cause the loss of 845 jobs, many of which will be in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the industrial strategy will look into ways to support traditional industries as well as new technologies?

Order. Just a gentle reminder of the request—the exhortation; the polite appeal—for 20 words. I call Jim Shannon.

What a challenge, Mr Speaker. Small and medium-sized enterprises create lots of employment throughout the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. What is the Minister doing to improve broadband so that SMEs can improve and employ even more people?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that we need to improve broadband, which is an integral part of delivering our productivity challenge. We are making sure that businesses have in place all the infrastructure they need to thrive and survive.

I have regular discussions with the steel sector and hope in future to have news that will please my hon. Friend.

It was good to see the Secretary of State in South Yorkshire, where we have a strong advanced manufacturing offer. Will he continue to work with us in future?

I certainly will. It was a delight to be with the hon. Gentleman and others to celebrate the opening of Boeing’s first European manufacturing facility. It is in South Yorkshire because there is a thriving hub of advanced manufacturing there. The industrial strategy is all about reinforcing that.

I welcome the tax on tech giants that was announced at the Budget, but will my right hon. Friend liaise with the Chancellor to ensure that it does not have a wider detrimental impact on investment in our tech start-ups?

I will indeed. It is important that the tech sector maintains the progress that it has made in recent years, and I will do everything I can, with the Chancellor, to secure that.

For 134 years, Wigan Crown post office has been the anchor of our high street and the beating heart of our community. It survived two world wars and one global financial crash; why can it not survive eight years of Tory Government?

As I have said repeatedly during this questions session, we are not closing post offices. If the hon. Lady has a particular problem in her constituency, I am more than happy to hear her concerns about that individual case, but we are not closing post offices. We are taking a sustainable approach to make sure that we achieve and maintain those 11,500 branches throughout the UK.

What action is the Minister taking to promote the development of small-scale modular nuclear reactors so that we can diversify the energy supply?

Not that small, though. I am sure that you could do with a personal one sometimes, Mr Speaker.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) that the Government are treating the development of small modular reactors very seriously. A successful conference on the subject was held recently. I am happy to inform the House of future progress.

Does the Minister think that it would be a good idea to incorporate into the tourism sector deal a fantastic one-off event that occurs next year, after 68 years’ absence, when the Open championship returns to the Royal Portrush golf club?

Order. I am sorry to those colleagues remaining, but exciting though the session was, all good things come to an end.