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Topical Questions

Volume 652: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2019

Since we last met, I have been delighted to be in Bristol, a hub of brilliant technological innovation, to launch the aerospace sector deal with a commitment from business and Government to invest a quarter of a billion pounds in the aircraft of the future. I announced a life sciences sector deal, featuring £1 billion of industry investment from the global biopharmaceutical company UCB. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth has been in Katowice representing the UK at COP 24. At home, we published our Good Work Plan, and, just last week, the energy price cap came into effect, ensuring that all customers get a fair deal.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer.

A meeting of stakeholders was recently held in Pollokshields in my constituency to discuss the problems of fireworks in the community, as they really cause local residents a huge amount of distress. The Minister wrote to me last year saying that a meeting would be set up with me and other MPs to discuss the matter further. Will he give me more information as to what progress has been made to set up the meeting, as my constituents do not want to be forgotten about?

The hon. Lady is quite right that the issue is a matter of concern not just in her constituency, but in others. I will ensure that the meeting happens in the next two weeks.

T3. The Financial Reporting Council identified six areas that warrant further inquiry in PwC’s administration of Premier Motor Auctions, but delegated that inquiry to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales—a trade body with limited powers. Will the Minister agree to meet me to ensure that this and any other insolvency practitioner issues are properly investigated? (908455)

It is right that the FRC refers any concerns it has relating to the insolvency case to the ICAEW, which is a recognised professional body that regulates insolvency practitioners. In this case, I understand that the ICAEW has considered the issues put forward and is investigating a number of matters. I will happily meet my hon. Friend to discuss this issue again, as I already have. It is right that we investigate any concerns that British businesses have about the regulations.

T2. Fracking activities in Lancashire have recently had to be suspended because earth tremors triggered the traffic lights system. As a result, the Minister has said that she is now looking at whether that system should be relaxed. Will she tell us what she is thinking, and will she give us an assurance that there will be full consultation with all stakeholders before any change is made, and that the matter will be brought back to this House for the approval of Members? (908454)

I think I have answered a similar question before, although not from the hon. Gentleman. I have absolutely no plans to change the traffic lights system. The current fracking proposals being tested in Lancashire right now were developed with that system. The fact is that that system is working and being triggered even by micro-tremors; the hon. Gentleman will know that we have had some great evidence from the University of Liverpool as to how small the tremors actually are. If we are to take forward what could be a very valuable industry, it is only right that we do so with the toughest environmental regulations in the world, so I say again that there are no plans from the Government to change the traffic lights system.

T4. With the high street undergoing a period of significant upheaval, will the Secretary of State confirm that he is working closely with the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that high street businesses are able to compete on a level taxation playing field with their online competitors? (908456)

We continue to work closely with the Treasury and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that the needs of high street retailers are understood. In the 2018 Budget we announced a reduction in business rates worth £900 million over two years for small businesses. The digital services tax, a 2% tax on revenues specific to digital businesses, will ensure that they pay tax reflecting the value that they derive from UK users. We have also established the Retail Sector Council, which has now decided on its future work programme, as part of which business costs and taxation are one topic being considered.

New research from the TUC shows that household debt is at its highest ever level, with average debt per household now at over £15,000. It is blatantly obvious that the cause is years of austerity and wage stagnation. Millions of workers are now reliant on borrowing, making up for low wages by increasing their debt—not for holiday or luxuries, but through using credit cards for everyday essential such as nappies and food. That is so stressful. Will the Minister please explain what the Government are doing to address this crisis, and why Conservative Members refuse to join the Labour party in advocating a real minimum wage of at least £10 an hour and a return to serious collective bargaining for workers in the UK?

I heard the news reports of this particular analysis, but I also heard that the analysis had been entirely discredited because it included student debt, which does not accrue to every household. If we were to strip that out, the rate of accrual—[Interruption.] Would the hon. Lady like to listen, rather than chunter? I will carry on. If we strip out student debt, which does not accrue to every household, we see that the growth of consumer credit has actually slowed. Once again, I am proud to stand here and represent the Government who finally did what the hon. Lady’s Government had 13 years and did not do—introduce a national minimum wage and ensure that it goes up well ahead of inflation. [Interruption.] A living wage.

I call Will Quince. [Interruption.] I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is delighted to have excited such a reaction, but I would like to hear what he has to say.

T6. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the £900 million cut in business rates announced at the most recent Budget, which will benefit thousands of small businesses up and down our country, including in Colchester? (908458)

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in welcoming this recent measure, which has benefited small businesses so well. We have cut corporation tax to 19%. As a result of cuts made by this Government since 2017 through the small business rate relief, over 655,000 small businesses—the occupiers of a third of all business properties—pay no rates at all.

T5. I am sure Ministers understand that the new Euro 6 diesel engines are considerably more efficient and cleaner, and that encouraging uptake of diesel vehicles would be good for the environment, with both cleaner air and less carbon dioxide emissions. However, production of vehicles is down, partly because of the downturn in China and uncertainty over Brexit, but also because of the damaging, self-promoting anti-diesel campaign by the Secretary of State’s ministerial colleagues at the Departments for Transport and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. What is he going to do to get Government policy back on track in support of the British motor industry? (908457)

In the “Road to Zero” strategy document, it is very clear that diesel engines, especially the new generation, are a perfectly acceptable choice environmentally as well as economically. The right hon. Gentleman will know that diesel sales are falling across the whole of Europe, but we have been very clear in this country that it can play an important role in the transition to zero-emission vehicles.

T10. Following on from the previous question, maintaining an uninterrupted supply of components for just-in-time manufacturing and the ability to sell tariff-free into European markets, both of which are enabled by the Prime Minister’s deal, is vital to the continued success of the UK auto industry. Forty constituents of mine, all of whom work at Jaguar Land Rover, have reminded me of that through their emails. Will the Secretary of State welcome that approach? (908462)

I do indeed welcome the representation from my hon. Friend. The automotive sector is one of our most successful, and it is globally admired. Its success depends on having the just-in-time production that makes it so competitive. In my view, it is vital that we pose no threat to that in our new relationship with the European Union.

T7. The Minister will be aware of the rising cost of the smart meter programme for dual-fuel households. What is she going to do to curtail those costs, make transparent the true cost to households, and ensure that any benefits that eventually accrue are actually passed on to consumers? (908459)

I had an inkling that the hon. Gentleman might ask a question about this, because he has been a long-standing campaigner in this area. I am pleased to report that the programme is accelerating; I know he will welcome that. I welcomed extensively the National Audit Office report on the cost profile, which showed, effectively, a cost overrun but still a very, very substantial net benefit to both consumers and the economy. I believe that we are minded to accept almost all of the recommendations that were made. This is a vital programme for upgrading our energy system. I hope that he has had his smart meter installed. I saw over Christmas quite how much electricity cooking the Christmas turkey cost, and it was a very valuable exercise.

As I have stated before, technical skills are absolutely important when it comes to boosting youth entrepreneurship. I take this opportunity to mention to my hon. Friend the launch of the new year-long youth industrial strategy competition at the industrial strategy fair that will be held in March this year, with prizes being awarded at the Big Bang fair in March 2020.

T8. The Scottish Government’s draft 2018-19 budget means that 90% of firms will pay lower rates than those based anywhere else in the UK. So, for the second time, why will the Secretary of State and his Government not support Scottish industry and back the call from the SNP and the Institute of Directors for a £750 million SME Brexit advice service? (908460)

As I said to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), that advice is available to businesses right across the country. But in supporting business confidence, the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) should reflect on the fact that Scotland has now become the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom, and that is, in itself, undermining the confidence that investors have in Scotland.

Associated Waste Management is a successful business based in my constituency. It has recently been acquired by Beauparc, one of Ireland’s leading waste management companies, but it is keeping its head office in my constituency. The new arrangements have secured the long-term growth of this locally founded business. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such investments are a vote of confidence in the UK economy and send a clear message that we are open for business post-Brexit?

My hon. Friend is right that the fundamental attractions of the UK economy are as strong as ever. We have some of the best skills in the world, some of the most innovative people and some of the best scientists and researchers, but we also have access to a substantial European market that has proved attractive to businesses from around the world. We should continue with that, and we should have both.

T9. Given that the European Union is the biggest regional market for whisky—worth £1.4 billion last year—and that no deal would force significant label change costs on independent producers, which currently do not have to display an EU importer address, what are the Government doing to reassure and compensate producers that are already incurring significant costs due to this Government’s dither, delay and uncertainty? (908461)

I might ask the hon. Lady what she is doing to address that. The Scotch Whisky Association has been very clear; it has said that the withdrawal agreement is a compromise but a positive step towards much needed business certainty. If she cares about the industry, she should vote for the deal.

Sadly, my constituency has an unemployment rate of 6%, which is twice the UK average. What progress has been made or can be made on the Ayrshire growth deal, which is essential to Ayrshire’s future prosperity?

I know that my hon. Friend has been a vociferous champion of the Ayrshire growth deal, which was referred to in the Budget. I hope that we will see some progress on it in the next few weeks. For Cumnock in particular, the prospects will be very attractive. For a town that has contributed significantly over the years, including to UK energy supplies and industrial goods, it will be a fitting tribute—

The Association of Accounting Technicians’ recent survey found that 73% of MPs agreed with its recommended changes to the prompt payment code, which are making the code compulsory, ensuring that larger businesses pay in 30 days and implementing a penalty regime. Will the Minister introduce those changes in legislation, to help the many small businesses that will benefit?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As she will know, we launched the call for evidence in October, and it finished in November. We are reviewing the evidence presented. In October we made announcements to underpin, secure and make better the prompt payment code. The small business commissioner has delivered £2 million of collections for small businesses over the first year in his position. We will continue to work to ensure that small businesses get the payments they need when they should.

Prior to Royal Assent for phase 2b of High Speed 2, will my hon. Friend consider establishing a cross-departmental taskforce with the Department for Transport, to provide businesses that are being forced to relocate with the necessary advice and support, including financial support?

My hon. Friend should know that I have listened carefully to her question. In the first instance, a meeting between myself, herself and a representative from the Department for Transport might be a way to get that moving.

Last week I wrote a letter to the Secretary of State about the taskforce in Liverpool and Birkenhead that wishes to save Cammell Laird from any further redundancies. Will he meet us this week, as a matter of urgency?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s advice and his advocacy for a solution to the difficulties that Cammell Laird faces. We are meeting the trade unions and others on Thursday, and I hope he will be able to come to that meeting.

I will take the point of order, and I would appreciate it if the ministerial team waited to hear it because it relates to Question Time.

Under her breath, the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth mentioned the living wage, but of course in practice there is no such thing. The Minister could correct the record in that it was indeed the Labour party that in 1998 introduced the minimum wage, which her party strongly opposed.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Sorry; I am blaming the excitement. Of course I am happy to correct the record. The hon. Lady is absolutely correct: the Labour party introduced the national minimum wage. It was quite clear that that was inadequate for many people on the lowest incomes, particularly women who were underpaid, which is why we introduced the national living wage—something I wish she would support.

I say to the hon. Lady that it must not be a continuation of the argument. I will give her the benefit of the doubt. However, on that matter the Minister has been very clear, and we thank her for that clarity.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Given that climate change is the most pressing and urgent issue facing us and future generations, may I seek your advice about how I can ask the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, who has responsibility for climate change, to make an oral statement on her recent attendance at COP 24 at Katowice?

The hon. Lady has achieved her own salvation. It seems to me that she has used the device of an entirely bogus point of order to register a point that she probably would have wanted to register if she had been called to do so, but could not because she was not.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I was delighted to answer a question on this very point, because our negotiation team was, as always, excellent. I was also happy to accredit the hon. Lady; I do not know whether she managed to attend our superb stand and entire presence at Katowice. My door is always open to her, as an expert in this area, to discuss this. I do not think an oral statement will be necessary. Perhaps she and I could grab a cup of tea, as this is dry January, and have such a conversation.