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Topical Questions

Volume 649: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2018

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.