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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 654: debated on Tuesday 12 February 2019

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

Solar Power

1. What steps his Department has taken to ensure that solar power can compete on a level playing field with other energy generation technologies. (909141)

18. What steps his Department has taken to ensure that solar power can compete on a level playing field with other energy generation technologies. (909159)

At a time when people think parliamentarians are engaged in some sort of slugfest, I commend the Opposition parties for perfect collaboration on this first question.

Solar is a UK success story, as I know all hon. Members will recognise. The feed-in tariff scheme, under which 80% of installations have been solar, has cost £5.9 billion to date in supporting those 830,000 installations. Prices have fallen over 80% since the introduction of the scheme, which is why we are amending it, as I set out in the smart export guarantee consultation, and I look forward to receiving the response of the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake).

Does the Minister agree that households exporting to the grid should be paid a fair rate? Will she ensure an explicit minimum price for exported electricity to allow the market to recover some confidence that new solar homes will receive treatment consistent with that of other electricity generators?

I completely agree that nobody should be exporting power to the grid for free, or indeed below zero as has happened in some other countries. The level at which that export tariff and the mechanism are set is a matter for consultation, and I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman’s points on that subject.

Industry surveys show that 30% to 40% of solar firms installing domestic systems are now contemplating closure, given the mess that the Minister’s Department has made of policies for smaller-scale renewables. The Government’s own figures show that deployment of solar PV was less than 300 MW last year, down 90% compared with 2015, and Ofgem’s targeted charging review now threatens even the few solar farms that have been built without subsidy. Will she now meet the Solar Trade Association and its colleagues as a matter of urgency to discuss this latest threat to a part of our energy market that is critical to delivering carbon reduction?

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady about this being an important part of our energy market, which is why I am so proud that 99% of our solar installations have happened since a Conservative-led Government have been in power. I frequently meet the Solar Trade Association, which is always a pleasure. I encourage her to look beyond a regime of subsidy for delivering renewable energy, as the evidence of the numbers suggests that there are 2.3 GW of solar projects in the pipeline that already have or are awaiting planning permission and that could be delivered without subsidy. We are moving rapidly to a subsidy-free world for solar generation. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady shakes her head, but it is true. It is important that we do not equate subsidy with output, and with actually delivering the power we want.

Does the Minister agree that making solar power compulsory for all new builds would be beneficial for the homeowner, would remove any need for subsidy and would cost the taxpayer nothing?

My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. He will know that building regulations now set minimum energy standards, couched in performance terms rather than being prescriptivist about the types of technology that should be used. Builders are increasingly adding renewable energy systems, but I am always interested to see what more we can do to bring forward such a good way of lowering bills and CO2 emissions.

Both solar and wind have been very successful in driving down industry costs, but does my hon. Friend recognise that that poses a challenge to technologies such as wave and tidal that are competing against solar and wind? Such technologies are chasing a number that is always falling faster than they can keep up with.

I do. I was pleased to meet the Marine Energy Council a few days ago. The meeting was supported by a cross-party group of MPs, and we discussed exactly this issue and how, in a cost-effective way, we might look to continue supporting technologies that are further from market.

On Friday children across the country will go on strike, saying they have lost confidence in the Government’s ability to tackle climate change. Does the Minister think these children are wrong, or can she explain to them why the UK is spending £10.5 billion to subsidise fossil fuels—more than any other country in Europe—at the same time as scrapping the solar export tariff and forcing some people to give their surplus solar energy back to the grid for free?

There are a number of inconsistencies in that question, but I think it is incredible what young people across the world are doing. They did the same thing at COP, where we had some compelling statements. Young people expect us to wake up to the reality of the future, which is why I am so proud to stand here and tell them that they live in a country that has led the world in decarbonisation over the last 20 years and is the first major industrial economy to ask for real advice, rather than a few fake words, on how we will get to net zero. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman chunters on about net fossil fuels, but there are no direct subsidies for fossil fuels. I think he is suggesting that we should not have an oil and gas industry in the UK. I would like to see how that plays out with his colleagues north of the border.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment that no small-scale producer should export electricity to the grid for nothing. Will she confirm that as well as applying to solar, that would extend to small-scale hydro?

Yes, that is absolutely correct. I know that my hon. Friend takes an interest in this, so I wish to emphasise that we recognise the value of community energy, which has benefited in many cases from this scheme. If people have the chance to respond to the consultation emphasising the value of that, it would be much appreciated.

Insecure Work

Britain has a very strong record in this area, with the highest level of employment in our history, combined with some of the strongest rights for workers in Europe. Last month, I announced new measures to counter discrimination at work against women returning from maternity leave, and we are one of the first countries in Europe so to do.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but may I remind him that unemployment in my constituency is up by almost 1,000 on the same period last year, to 2,860? May I also tell him that a fire at Country Style Foods in Peterlee in my constituency has left a number of people looking for work, including one temporary worker employed through an agency? She had worked for the same company for seven years on a zero-hours contract, but a short break in her employment has stopped her accessing contributions-based benefits. In most zero-hours contracts, this “flexibility” is illusory. When would he consider that zero-hours contracts are inappropriate?

Two thirds of workers on zero-hours contracts say that they do not want any more hours and that they are content. On the break in service, the hon. Gentleman will know that that relates to one of the recommendations of the Taylor review that we have committed to implementing.

It has been almost two months since the Minister announced that workers on zero-hours contracts would get the right to request a stable contract. There are 65,000 people in the east midlands whose main job is on a zero-hours contract; our region has the highest percentage of people on these contracts, according to the Office for National Statistics. That means tens of thousands of people vulnerable to unfair treatment at work, uncertain about whether they can afford to get through the next week, let alone plan for the future. In this HeartUnions Week, the TUC is rightly calling for a ban on exploitative zero-hours contracts. When will the Government act to tackle insecurity in the workplace, rather than just tell workers to ask nicely for a permanent contract?

The Taylor report, and indeed the Select Committee, considered the recommendation that has come from some sources to ban zero-hours contracts. The Taylor report concluded that banning zero-hours contracts

“would negatively impact many more people than it helped.”

The joint report by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee found that people on zero-hours contracts preferred to have that flexibility, for the most part—[Interruption.] That was the evidence given to the Committee. The hon. Lady will know that we have committed to bringing in the right to request a stable-hours contract.

I refer colleagues to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Last week, the GMB and Hermes struck a landmark deal that proved that secure work is compatible with new and emerging industries. Today, I am writing to DPD, which has a depot in my constituency, to ask it to meet the unions and follow suit. Will the Secretary of State say today that it is important that we establish good laws in this country, but companies can get on with it now? They can get around the table with their unions and secure the jobs for their people in their workplace.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I met Tim Roache, the head of the GMB, last week and congratulated him and Hermes on having come to their agreement. It shows that good employers can work with their employees to agree what is the best for them mutually, and it is a very good example of that.

According to the TUC, 3.8 million people are working in insecure jobs with no guarantee of hours, which represents a 36% increase since 2010. One of my constituents in Lincoln, Dan, is struggling to break out of the cycle of precarious work. He told me:

“You cannot support a family”—

and he is doing his best—

“if every morning you’re turning up for a job that might not exist.”

Does the Minister agree that the unacceptable increase in insecure work fundamentally undermines the UK’s high employment levels?

I am glad the hon. Lady mentions our high employment levels—she is right to do so—because for people to have the best opportunities for prosperity we have to ensure that there are jobs available. She will know that we have more jobs and more vacancies in this country than we ever have had. The number of workers on zero-hours contracts is just 2.4% of all employees, and that is falling, as it happens. As I say, two thirds of them prefer that flexibility. The right approach, in line with the recommendations of the Taylor review, is to give workers the opportunity to request a stable, fixed contract, but to allow flexibility for those who want it.

My right hon. Friend is right to recognise that zero-hours contracts give flexibility to particular groups of people, many of whom have caring responsibilities and peripatetic work patterns. Without those contracts, they would not be able to enter the world of work and benefit themselves. Does he recall that it was the last Labour Government that had these contracts as exclusive and that we got rid of that abuse?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We made that change, and it was of great benefit. We should be proud of the increase in employment that has taken place. According to the Resolution Foundation, the biggest gainers principally have been women, ethnic minorities, single parents and disabled people. That is something we should be proud of.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that with the creation of 3 million brand-new jobs since 2010, more people in our country are in secure employment than ever before in our nation’s history?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, the number is 3.25 million more jobs since 2010, and 80% of those have been full-time. The number of zero-hours contracts has actually fallen.

Rugby has the second highest rate of people in work in the west midlands, and one reason for that is the flexibility in the local labour market, especially in the growing logistics sector. Does the Secretary of State agree that for many people, the ability to choose the hours they work is important to them?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Taylor report called for two-sided flexibility, so that employers and employees can make a choice as to what the best arrangements are for them both.

The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) says that the east midlands has the highest proportion of people on zero-hours contracts, but she failed to add that we also have the highest economic growth outside of London and the south-east. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best guarantees of improving workers’ rights, conditions and wages are a strong demand for labour, a growing economy and the control of unskilled migration, which is something we will be able to do after Brexit?

I agree with my hon. Friend that having jobs and vacancies available is the best source of security for people in this country. We have a proud record of having secured that over the past eight years.

Last week, it was reported that the Government plan to bring forward legislation to commit to guaranteeing workers’ rights outside the EU. Will the Secretary of State confirm that no Government can bind their successors? As easily as legislation can be passed, a future Tory Government could take those rights away, just as this Government have done by introducing tribunal fees, passing the draconian Trade Union Act 2016 and failing to crack down on bogus self-employment. Why would Members on the Opposition Benches trust anything that the Government say about ensuring workers’ rights in law?

The record of this Government has been to extend workers’ rights way beyond what the European Union has offered. In the UK, we have 52 weeks of maternity leave, for example, compared with a requirement of 14 weeks in the EU. This House has chosen to give rights of paternity leave and pay to fathers and partners that are not yet available in the EU. The measures that the hon. Lady knows we are about to introduce for people returning from maternity leave makes us a leader in Europe on the issue. She should be confident in the ability of this House to promote and protect workers’ rights.

Under-25s: Working Conditions and Pay

3. What steps he is taking to help ensure fair (a) working conditions and (b) pay for people aged under 25. (909143)

Through the good work plan, the Government are strengthening employment rights for all workers. We are introducing measures that will support innovative businesses, while ensuring that workers of all ages have access to fair and decent work. In April, we will introduce inflation-beating increases to the national minimum wage rates, benefiting 350,000 young workers directly.

Despite the PM promising on her first day in the job to tackle burning injustices, this Government have consistently refused to introduce a real living wage for all, with the under-25s particularly hard hit. If Government will not act, will they devolve these powers to Holyrood?

I point out that some of the highest unemployment rates are among that age group so our priority is to make sure that young people are able to gain secure work and experience. In actual fact, nine out of 10 workers between the ages of 18 and 24 are paid above the national minimum wage rate, and we are continuing to work towards increasing that year on year.

Supermarket Supply Chains: Human Rights

4. What recent assessment his Department has made of the prevalence of human and labour rights abuses in the global supply chains of UK supermarkets. (909144)

The retail sector is the UK’s largest private sector employer and recognises that it has a responsibility for this issue, and it is pioneering responsible sourcing practices. The Government welcome campaigns such as the British Retail Consortium’s “Better Retail Better World” and Oxfam’s “Behind the Barcodes”. The Government remain determined to eliminate exploitation, and the landmark Modern Slavery Act 2015 increases specialist support for victims and places requirements on businesses to be transparent about their supply chains.

I secured a debate last year on this issue, highlighting the shocking extent of modern slavery in our supermarket supply chain. Will the Minister tell me what action has been taken since then?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this question and for giving us an opportunity to talk about this matter. The retail sector regards human rights and supporting sustainable markets as fundamental principles within its psyche. The British Retail Consortium has played a pivotal role, and it was a founder member of the “Stronger Together” scheme. Under the Modern Slavery Act, there is a duty on employers to submit modern slavery statements, and they should be doing so by the end of March.

May I invite my hon. Friend to meet Sir Charlie Mayfield, who is the chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, which of course includes Waitrose? She will know that it has an audit trail to ensure that all its goods are produced ethically. When can she meet him?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and say that we meet Sir Charlie Mayfield regularly. This gives us a great opportunity to highlight the fact that there are thousands of businesses really stepping up to the mark on this issue. ASOS and Co-op are leading the way on transparency, and are identifying risks and taking action. M&S, Unilever and Tesco are also signing up to the employers’ pay principles.

We all want to be able to buy food in the supermarkets without trampling on the human rights of the people who produced it. Yet less than half of all agricultural companies are complying with their requirements under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, so what changes will the Government make to ensure that companies properly report what they are doing to tackle problems with human rights in their supply chains?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The Home Office has written to more than 17,000 businesses reminding them of their obligations to submit their modern slavery statements. We are committed to the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, a UN initiative, and we are proud to be the first country to have an action plan in place, but, as with all these things, we will continue to keep them under monitoring.

In my role as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria, I am aware that Guinness Nigeria is being sold by Tesco. Is the Minister aware that Diageo and other companies in Nigeria have pledged to eradicate modern slavery from their supply chains?

I thank my hon. Friend for his suggestion. He is quite right. That is just another example of where the sector, working with Government, is taking action to stamp out these practices where they identify them and telling us how they are taking action to eradicate them.

Leaving the EU: Consumer Rights

5. What steps he is taking to ensure that consumers are informed of any changes to their rights after the UK leaves the EU. (909146)

We are committed to protecting consumers and providing clear information so that they understand their rights. That is why we have launched a public information campaign to reach out to consumers, citizens and businesses. As part of that, we have provided tailored information to consumers about their rights after EU exit. We are working closely with partners such as Citizens Advice on this issue.

Will the Minister tell us what assessment has been made of the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the UK’s product safety regime, and what legal protection consumers will have when buying future products and services from the EU?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Every piece of no-deal legislation that we have brought through the House has had an impact assessment, and we have already submitted five pieces of legislation. We have been very clear that consumer rights will be protected when we leave the European Union, and I am committed to doing that.

In the Minister’s estimation, what has the Office for Product Safety and Standards achieved in its first year of existence?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that the new Office for Product Safety and Standards has got its strategy plan together. We are working through that, working with data-led intelligence to ensure that we tackle product safety inequalities when they appear.

As the Government continue to threaten the public with a catastrophic no-deal Brexit, which they admit themselves would be detrimental to consumers, a report by Which? shows that a staggering 82% of people said that the Government had communicated either too little information or no information at all about the impact of such a Brexit. Will the Minister tell the House whether that is a result of sheer incompetence, or is it simply that the Government no longer care about consumers?

This Government are committed to retaining the high levels of consumer protection that we have. We have been very clear about that; we set out our intentions in the consumers Green Paper. We have launched advertising campaigns and published guidance on the Government’s website regarding certain elements of consumer rights. We are working closely with the Consumer Protection Partnership, which brings together the enforcement and the information bodies that work with consumers. We are committed to delivering for consumers, and that will not change—in or out of the EU.

Tendring: Skilled Jobs

6. What recent steps he has taken to help businesses create more highly skilled jobs in Tendring. (909147)

The South East local enterprise partnership, which covers the district of Tendring, has received £590 million through the local growth fund to drive regional development. Business support for small and medium-sized enterprises is available through the LEP’s Business Essex, Southend and Thurrock growth hub. The LEP is funding projects to strengthen coastal communities, including Tendring, as well as supporting the highly skilled offshore renewables sector.

High-skilled jobs are clearly useless without anyone to fill them, and the employee supply chain necessitates a clear role for further education. I recently signed a cross-party letter to the Chancellor calling for further education funding to be increased to above inflation in the next financial year. Does the Minister agree with me and 164 other colleagues that that is a good idea?

The Government have protected the base rate of funding for 16 to 19-year-olds until 2020 and are working closely with the post-18 funding review led by Sir Philip Augar to ensure a coherent vision for further and higher education. As part of its local industrial strategy for the district of Tendring, I welcome the fact that the South East LEP is investing in further education, including £10 million for the Colchester Institute’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Innovation Centre, its Learning and Technology Centre in Braintree, and a centre of excellence in health and care in Colchester.

Energy Market: Diversity Supply

My right hon. Friend is quite right that we have a diverse energy supply and we must continue to maintain that, guided by the principles of lowest cost, lowest carbon and the maximum exploration of overseas trade opportunities. As the Secretary of State set out in his recent speech, we should continue to use market mechanisms wherever we can to maintain this diversity of supply.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. However, can she reassure the House, and many of our constituents, that the move from the existing feed-in tariff to the smart export guarantee will not jeopardise the viability of solar energy anaerobic digester producers and that they will continue to be paid for exporting energy to the grid?

My right hon. Friend is quite right. As I said earlier, we are very keen to ensure, through the smart export guarantee, that we move to the lower-subsidy or subsidy-free future that we know we can get to, but that we continue to see the sorts of viable projects that he references. I would urge him to make sure that the views of his constituents are reflected in the consultation that closes on 5 March.

Has the Minister had recent conversations with the power distribution networks? They are very powerful, they transmit all the electricity, and they are owned by very strange people, in my view. Warren Buffett owns all the power distribution in the north through Berkshire Hathaway. The Chinese own it all in London and the south-east through the Cheung Kong and Li Ka Shing enterprises. Are they efficient? Are they effective? Do they work in the national interest, or in somebody else’s national interest?

The hon. Gentleman, I am sure, shares my view that we should have the most efficient and well-invested energy system going forward that keeps costs down for consumers. He will also know that since privatisation—[Interruption.] Well, if he wants an answer perhaps he could stop shouting at me and listen. We have seen a large reduction in power outages and an increase in energy security. We have to make sure that the system is fit for the future because, as he knows, much of what happens in the future will not be creation of energy on the old coalfield sites and distribution down the transmission lines—there will be far more decentralised energy, and we continue to look forward to that development. [Interruption.]

The capacity or otherwise of a particular Minister to speak fluent Chinese is, at best, a secondary consideration in respect of this question, I say to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who is chuntering endlessly from a sedentary position.

I very much agree with diversity of energy supply, but will my right hon. Friend assure me that there will be no diminution in the controls over the fracking industry, which has agreed to the regulations and has to stand by them?

I thank my right hon. Friend for asking a very topical question. The situation is this. We have set out very clearly our need to explore soberly and scientifically this potentially important resource. We rejected the companies’ request during the process of extraction from the first well to change the regime, on the basis that it was fit for purpose. I have been very well aware of all the scientific suggestions that somehow this regime should be reviewed. Of course, we now have an independent regulator, the Oil and Gas Authority, and it is within its remit, should it wish, to look at the science. For me, it is a scientist-led decision—it is nothing to do with politicians.

Will the Minister outline any recent findings regarding the harnessing of tidal power and any project the Department is pursuing or overseeing?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we continue to look actively at this sector. Indeed, we have invested over £50 million in innovation in the sector over the past few years. However, it was right to reject the most expensive power station ever proposed in the form of the Swansea tidal lagoon. It is very pleasing to see that that project has now been brought forward in a form that does not require any Government subsidy. That is clearly a vote of confidence in this sector and this technology going forward. Our door is open for innovative proposals in this area. I was pleased, as I said, to meet the Marine Energy Council to see what more we can do.

Research and Development Trends

10. What comparative assessment he has made of trends in the level of spending on research and development in (a) the UK and (b) other EU member states. (909151)

The Department regularly assesses comparative levels of R&D expenditure in the UK and in EU member states. The Office for National Statistics has estimated that overall gross R&D expenditure in the UK was £33.1 billion in 2016—1.7% of GDP, compared with the EU average of 1.9% of GDP. We must do more, so in our industrial strategy we have committed to spending 2.4% of GDP on R&D across the UK economy by 2027.

Many British-based scientists are concerned that their participation in cross-border science networks might be jeopardised by Brexit. Can the Minister confirm that it is this Government’s intention that the UK should continue to participate in Horizon Europe’s next framework programme, FP9, and that the best way for us to help to make sure that that happens is for this House to support the withdrawal agreement?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on this issue. The Government’s priority is a smooth and orderly exit from the EU as set out in principle in the EU withdrawal agreement. Voting for the agreement would provide continuity and reassurance for researchers in continuing to participate in the Horizon programmes. It is no secret that we want to explore association with Horizon Europe. The political declaration makes clear our joint intention to establish terms and conditions regarding UK participation in EU programmes as part of our future relationship.

As I said to the Minister yesterday, I have two universities in my constituency, and they are very concerned about research and development; they do a lot of work for companies like Jaguar Land Rover, and mainly in the industrial sector. What guarantee can the Minister give that the level of funding will be maintained after 2020? The Chancellor has not committed to that so far.

I am proud, as the Universities Minister, that we have in this country three of the world’s top 10 universities when it comes to research. We want to ensure that we continue to have that international reputation. We have made Treasury guarantees on the underwrite extension, ensuring that we continue to be part of all the projects that are part of Horizon 2020. We want to ensure that the association with Horizon Europe has universities at the front and centre of it.

Leaving the EU: Support for Businesses based in Scotland

11. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on fiscal support for businesses based in Scotland to prepare for the UK leaving the EU without a deal. (909152)

The Chancellor and I work closely together to support businesses right across the United Kingdom, but as I said before, the best option for Scotland in facing Brexit is to provide certainty to business by supporting a deal that has been proposed with the European Union.

I am not entirely convinced by that answer. With the risk of red meat facing tariffs of around 40%, the president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, Andrew McCornick, described a no-deal Brexit as “catastrophic” for Scotland’s farmers and crofters. In the event that the Prime Minister is unable to get her deal through the Commons and opts for no deal instead of extending article 50, and given what the Secretary of State has said about no deal, will he resign?

The solution is in the hon. Gentleman’s own hands. The NFU has been clear about this in Scotland and every part of the United Kingdom—it said that we should back the deal that has been negotiated. He has the opportunity to do that.

I am delighted to say that we work closely with the Scottish Government and universities and businesses across Scotland. One example is the sector deals that we have struck, including the life sciences sector deal, in which Scotland is strong, which means investment going into Scottish institutions and creating good jobs now and in the future.

A recent survey by Ernst & Young found that 92% of Scottish firms do not feel fully ready for Brexit. They are being left adrift by this Government. Given the calamitous collapse of the phantom deal for the ferry company with no ships—the Seaborne Freight fiasco—does the Secretary of State stick by his comment that the contract was “prudent and responsible”?

The Secretary of State for Transport gave a statement on that yesterday and was clear that no Government money had been put into that. When it comes to building confidence for businesses in Scotland, which I hope the hon. Gentleman and I want to do, he will know that the way to allay businesses’ concerns is to ensure that we conclude an agreement. There is one that has the support of businesses in Scotland and across the country, and I hope his party will back it.

That answer is simply not good enough. Even the former head of the civil service, Bob Kerslake, said that the fiasco will

“just confirm the view of many that this country is in a mess”.

If the UK Government cannot put in place their own services, will the Secretary of State support the SNP’s demand for the Chancellor to use the spring statement to provide firms with the fiscal support they need to put in place their own measures to get them through this Tory Brexit mess?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman would raise fiscal matters, when some of the fiscal decisions taken in Scotland recently have further diminished investors’ confidence. For Scotland to be the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom is a terrible signal to not only workers but businesses.

Yorkshire: Economic Development

12. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for economic development in Yorkshire. (909153)

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a proud Yorkshireman, and he will know that we frequently discuss the economic success story that is Yorkshire and the Humber. It may be a little bit politically incorrect, but I am sure he is proud of the fact that in the first three years of the Conservative Government from 2010, Yorkshire created more jobs than the whole of France.

But given that economic growth in Yorkshire and the Humber has on average been about 1% since 2010, compared with 3% in London, does the Minister see merit in the proposals and the economic case for One Yorkshire devolution that have been presented to Ministers? It is backed by 18 local authority leaders, many of them distinguished Conservatives.

I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government is reviewing the proposals. I see in his place the Mayor of the Sheffield city region, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who is doing a fantastic job. I say to the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) that in the places where large-scale mayoralties are working well, such as the west midlands with Andy Street or on Teesside with Mayor Houchen, a cross-party proposal has been brought forward, bottom up, for the Government then to make a decision on.

Order. No, no. Last time I visited Ochil and South Perthshire, the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, it was a most stimulating experience, but my recollection is that the constituency was a considerable distance from Yorkshire. I call Chris Davies.


Our modern industrial strategy for our whole country will ensure that the UK remains one of the most competitive locations in the world for manufacturing investment. We are investing over £600 million in the high-value manufacturing Catapult, and up to £167 million in our “Made Smarter” industrial digitalisation programme. I hope and believe that this will help UK manufacturers develop, adopt and exploit new technologies to make us really successful in the future.

The British soft drinks industry plays a very important part in the manufacturing sector in our country and should really be applauded for the way in which it has adapted to meet the recent sugar tax. With the Government’s announcement that a bottle return scheme will be introduced in the next few years, will my hon. Friend assure the industry and this House that this scheme will be uniform right across the country?

Much as I would like to do so, I cannot give my hon. Friend that assurance, because waste and recycling policy is a devolved matter. However, it is our preference that the scheme is UK-wide, and we will really be pushing that with the devolved authorities.

The latest monthly figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that manufacturing output has collapsed into recession territory, with a sixth consecutive month of falling output. As part of that, manufacturing fell 4.9% in the final quarter of last year. Will the Government listen to Labour, trade unions and businesses, and take the threat of a no-deal Brexit off the table to restore manufacturing sector confidence and protect my constituents’ jobs?

I agree with the hon. Lady and with the Prime Minister that a hard Brexit without a deal would be a disaster for the economy of this country, and Toyota, Jaguar Land Rover and many people have said how important the just-in-time process is. I hope that the hon. Lady will listen, and that she will vote for the Prime Minister’s deal, which will give the motor and manufacturing industries the transition period they need.

Motor Manufacturing

The UK automotive sector is a vital part of our economy, generating £78 billon of turnover and directly employing 160,000 people in manufacturing alone. We are working with the sector through our industrial strategy and, in particular, the automotive sector deal, to make sure that our industry leads in the technologies of the future.

The Secretary of State knows that diesel efficiency helps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, he knows that new diesel engines are also much cleaner and he knows the importance of diesel production for our motor industry as it makes an orderly transition to new propulsion systems, so why is he letting his fellow Cabinet members the Secretaries of State for Transport and for Health and Social Care grandstand in demonising diesel, and why is he not standing up for our car industry and our car workers?

I say to the right hon. Gentleman, who I know takes an interest in this, that I have always been clear, and indeed the “road to zero” strategy is very clear, that having a new diesel engine is a perfectly reasonable choice as we move towards zero-emission vehicles in the future. That is very clear: I have said it, my colleagues have said it and I am happy to repeat it to the House.

Our car industry is a global success story facing existential challenges—climate change, technology change, market change and Brexit. As 80% of our imported parts come from the European Union and 80% of cars made are exported, including half to the European Union, motor manufacturers say a no deal could mean £4.5 billion in tariffs, affecting hundreds of thousands of jobs. The Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) are known to favour a customs union in private, but with 45 days to go, do they not have a duty to make the private public, to take no deal off the table and to stand up for a permanent customs union and British jobs?

I would say that the hon. Lady and her colleagues have a duty to listen to what the employers that she mentions have to say. I could mention Ford, which said:

“It’s important that we get the agreement ratified that’s on the table at the moment”.

Aston Martin has said that it is “obvious” that the deal

“meets the needs of all the requests we put forward as an industry”,

and that its needs it to be ratified. McLaren has said that the withdrawal agreement would provide urgently needed certainty. If the hon. Lady wants to follow the representations of our employers, she should do what they say and back the deal.

Rural Post Offices

The Government recognise the importance of post offices to rural communities across the UK and are committed to the post office network’s future. The Post Office offers targeted financial support in recognition of the unique challenges of running a rural post office. Postmasters who run community branches that are the last shop in the village can receive packages combining fixed and variable remuneration to reflect their special circumstances.

Post offices in my rural villages of Newick, East Dean and Alfriston are still temporarily closed because the Post Office local model, on a transaction-fee basis, is not enticing potential postmasters. Will the Minister look at returning to a community-based Post Office model to help these post offices to reopen?

The Government have invested significantly in post offices in recent years. While there is no programme of post office closures, some unexpected closures, for some reasons beyond the control of the Post Office, as in my hon. Friend’s constituency, can occur. Work is currently under way in regard to her constituency, and there is hope that the services will be restored. I will also ask the Post Office to liaise directly with my hon. Friend on those issues.

Given that many rural post offices are barely profitable if they are profitable at all, is it not time for Ministers to consider giving business rates relief to all rural post offices—in particular, those housed by the Co-op movement, which continue to provide a service to local communities?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have doubled permanent small business relief and increased the threshold at which businesses pay business rates. We are investing in community branches. The Post Office has launched a smaller community branch development scheme, which is guaranteed to benefit another more than 700 post offices. We will keep working with the Post Office to make sure that we maintain our network of 11,500.

Order. Surely Devon and Cornwall are home to both rural post offices and highly skilled jobs. With a degree of lateral thinking, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) can shoehorn his inquiry into the question of which we are currently treating.

19. Thank you, Mr Speaker. As the Minister will be aware, there are a number of small rural post offices in Devon and Cornwall—indeed, a new one is being opened in Torbay. Will she confirm what support the Government will be making available to ensure that there are trained and skilled job seekers to work in those post offices if they open in my patch? (909160)

It is true: it has been too long since I have had the opportunity to visit my hon. Friend’s part of the country. I have met some of his colleagues to talk about post office opportunities in the south-west. As I have already reiterated, we are committed to delivering those rural post offices.

As the Minister will be aware, in the Postal Services Act 2011 the House has already given its in-principle agreement to mutualise the post office network. Will she indulge a former Post Office Minister and agree to meet me to discuss how the powers in sections 4 and 5 of the Act could be used to take forward this exciting policy innovation?

The right hon. Gentleman is quite correct: the Post Office is at the forefront of looking at new ways in which it can modernise and increase the services delivered through our post offices. I will be more than happy to listen to any suggestions that he has—so, yes, of course, at some point I will meet him.

Small Businesses

In the past five years we have halved late payments and through our call for evidence we are looking at what more we can do to end the scourge of late payments affecting small businesses. In January, we announced £2 million of funding for our business basics programme, supporting 15 innovative projects. We continue to do that as we try to improve productivity.

Many of the excellent small businesses in North Devon are in the hospitality sector. Will the Minister assure me that the Government will continue to support those excellent small businesses, which give such good service to our visitors and tourists?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. North Devon is a wonderful part of the country. The tourism sector is particularly important for our economy, providing 1.6 million jobs across all regions and contributing £67.7 billion in gross value added. The Government are committed to supporting the sector and to continuing to work with small businesses through our industrial strategy and the sector deal that is under way.

Sadly, HBOS managers were found guilty of defrauding their own small business customers, yet the Financial Reporting Council has steadfastly refused to seriously consider whistleblower evidence that KPMG and the bank colluded to cover up bank losses partly attributable to that fraud. What will my hon. Friend do to ensure that this matter is seriously investigated?

My hon. Friend raises a really important question. There have been several criticisms of the FRC, which is why the Secretary of State commissioned Sir John Kingman to lead a review of the regulator. We are taking forward Sir John’s recommendations to create a stronger regulator with stronger powers. I assure my hon. Friend that I will continue to meet him on the particular issue he raises, so that we can find a resolution.

Does the Minister agree that we should support workers who keep small businesses like cafes and pubs going? In his so-called “Good Work Plan”, the Business Secretary boasted that the Government will ensure that all tips go to workers in full. Where exactly is the Bill that was first promised three years ago?

The hon. Lady is quite right. In October last year, we announced that we will bring forward legislation regarding tipping in the next Session. We are committed to doing that. It is this Government who have brought it forward.

The Secretary of State for International Trade seems to be hell-bent on destroying our businesses, judging by his support for zero import tariffs. Can the Business Minister confirm that she understands the damage that unilaterally imposing zero import tariffs would do to businesses and jobs in this country? Will she confirm whether she or the Business Secretary will remain as members of the Government if that policy is adopted?

I am glad the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue. We engage with the small business community, the wider business community and all business representation organisations on a weekly basis. It is quite right that we consult a plethora of businesses throughout the UK on any decision that will be taken on customs and tariffs. We will take into consideration their views when we set our policy, which will be announced in the near future.

Parental Leave: Children with Severe Illnesses

22. What plans his Department has to extend the amount of parental leave for people whose children have severe illnesses. (909163)

The Government are committed to supporting working families. We are conducting a short and focused review of the provisions for parents of premature, sick and multiple babies, focusing primarily on barriers to the labour market. I have met colleagues, Bliss and The Smallest Things.

In response to the Minister’s reply, may I ask when that review will commence and when we can expect its conclusions?

I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me to talk about this issue. A short internal review has been carried out by my officials and I expect to receive information on that shortly. I have already committed to keeping cross-party colleagues updated and I happily extend that commitment to her.

Topical Questions

Since our last departmental questions, we have been continuing to implement the industrial strategy. We are doing more, for example, to protect businesses and consumers from online threats, with the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund backing research to make hardware more secure. As we leave the EU, we are determined to continue to be a pioneer in setting the highest standards, including proposals—currently being consulted on—to expand protections for pregnant women and new parents returning to work after having children.

Could the Secretary of State tell us what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the creative industries sector deal?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. It was one of the first sector deals. We were very determined to act on the report of Sir Peter Bazalgette, which celebrated the potential for new jobs to be created. It is going extremely well. Investments are being made in virtual reality, creating new opportunities for small businesses to benefit from the technology that larger ones have.

Since the start of the year, the Financial Times, The Observer, The Times, POLITICO and The Spectator, as well as many specialist publications, have described the looming energy crisis facing the UK following the collapse of plans to develop three nuclear power stations at Wylfa, Moorside and Oldbury, but back in November 2018, the Secretary of State announced that the energy trilemma—the challenge of providing energy that is green, cheap and secure—was coming to an end. Is he still of this view?

That was straight and very to the point. The Secretary of State may have pointed to the falling cost of renewable energy, but he cannot disown his Government’s policies, unfortunately, which are plunging that industry from crisis to crisis. New deployment of solar has fallen 90% since 2016. New onshore wind deployment has fallen 80%, so that certainly does not sound like the end of the energy trilemma. With people getting nervous about how we are going to keep the lights on, will he describe in detail where exactly he expects the UK to source low-carbon electricity from by the end of the 2020s?

We have a proud record of being one of the world’s leaders in renewable energy. The proportion of renewable energy on the grid at the moment has hit 33% for the first time in our history. We are the world’s leader in offshore wind. The challenges that the hon. Lady identifies come from the fact that energy sources are falling in price. They are more abundant than ever before and we have established ourselves as the place in the world with the technology to be able to deploy them on the grid. She should welcome that.

T2. Jaguar Land Rover in Southend struggles to recruit trained mechanics. As we move towards electric vehicles and more technical vehicles, what more can the Government do to make sure that we fill this skills gap? (909167)

That is an excellent point from my hon. Friend, as we would expect. Luckily, we are on the case and have the Automotive Council skills working group, with which we are doing our best to deal with the problem that he mentions as a partnership between Government and industry.

T3. My constituents in Midlothian tell me how concerned they are about the catastrophic impacts that climate change will have, and indeed, is already having. What is the Secretary of State’s response to the long-term forecast by the Met Office showing that global warming could reach 1.5°, the limit aimed for in the Paris agreement, in just five years? Does he honestly believe that the Government are doing enough within their power to stop this? (909168)

I am very pleased to assure the hon. Lady that we are not only doing enough, but leading the developed world. Our renewables generation has increased fourfold since 2010. We have decarbonised our economy—as our four nations—more than any other country in the G20, and we were the first industrialised county to seriously look at that shocking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and ask our own independent Committee on Climate Change for its advice on how we can get to a net zero-carbon economy going forward.

T5.   It is concerning that the Department’s research has estimated that 54,000 women a year may lose their jobs due to pregnancy or maternity, and that one in nine women has said that they were fired or made redundant when they returned to work after having a child. What steps can my hon. Friend take to address this issue? (909171)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Let me be clear: pregnancy and maternity discrimination is unacceptable and illegal. That is why, last month, the Government announced a consultation on pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The consultation seeks to extend redundancy protection for pregnant women and it seeks views on what the Department is doing to tackle pregnancy and maternity discrimination. I point out that this will go beyond what the EU currently allows.

T4. Some 77% of UK organisations operate with limited cyber-security and resilience. The current strategy is failing to protect business from critical cyber-threats. How will the Department swiftly increase business cyber-resilience? (909169)

The hon. Lady is correct to say that cyber-resilience must be a key part of our industrial strategy. I was in Northern Ireland last Friday to discuss with organisations how they could be involved in our AI programme and with setting up masters programmes in cyber-security.

T7. I was glad to hear of the Minister’s offer to visit the south-west and meet our hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster). Will she continue all the way down to Penzance and meet post offices in my area that are threatened with closure or have already closed? (909173)

I would love to come to Penzance if time permits—it is an area of the country I would love to visit—and I will continue to work with my hon. Friend to deliver post office services in his region. He is a passionate supporter of the Post Office and I welcome his support for me in my role as the Minister in that area.

T6. It was concerning to hear the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), join the International Trade Secretary just now in failing to rule out zero tariffs in the event of a no deal. Does the Secretary of State not agree that such a move would leave us open to a flood of cheap imports, drive down wages and cost jobs? (909172)

Of course we need to consult—and we are consulting—with businesses and sector organisations to ensure that the right decision is made, but no decision has yet been taken.

T9. In North Devon, we are passionate about doing our bit to tackle climate change. Will the Minister update me on where we are with reducing carbon emissions? (909175)

With much pleasure. We published figures last week showing that we continue to reduce our emissions, which are down 3% year on year. I say again that we are decarbonising faster than any other country in the G20. We are doing our bit domestically as well as internationally with our £6 billion of climate spending, and we have formally put our name forward to host the crucial climate change talks in 2020, although we must remember that other countries are still interested.

T8.   Healthcare Environmental, based in Shotts, collapsed before Christmas, leaving 150 of my constituents and 450 across the UK redundant. We have managed to sort out redundancy payments for some of those eligible, but they have all lost out on their December pay. Can the Government do anything in a timeous fashion to help the workers get the wages they are due? (909174)

I recognise the distress felt by constituents in cases of insolvency and where companies cease to trade. The redundancy payment service, operated by the Insolvency Service, has already made statutory redundancy payments to 157 eligible employees. Payments in respect of unpaid wages cannot be made while the company is still not in formal insolvency procedures, but we remain ready to act.

My office has been meeting representatives of the Coal Authority to talk about geothermal opportunities in Clackmannanshire in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss these opportunities?

My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for what could be a very valuable source of heat from flooded mine workings. It seems apposite to recognise the effort that went into digging them out, and it would be good to use them in our low-carbon future. As he knows, I continue to look at his ideas with great interest.

Central to economic development in Yorkshire will be the design of the new UK shared prosperity fund. What work is the Secretary of State doing across Government to ensure that the fund works to the maximum benefit of the Yorkshire economy?

We are having conversations across the UK, including with local leaders, of whom the hon. Gentleman is a distinguished example, and I look forward to continuing those discussions so that we can set out the prospectus.

My right hon. Friend was right to tell the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee that business was crying out for clarity on Brexit, but we cannot have that clarity until we have a meaningful vote. Will my right hon. Friend therefore confirm that the Government will bring that meaningful vote back to the House as a matter of urgency? It would be wholly irresponsible for it to be held within a matter of days before we are due to leave the European Union.

My right hon. Friend is right to say that we need to bring certainty and enable businesses to plan for the future, but she is also fortunate, in that the Prime Minister is about to make a statement on the matter.

The mineworkers’ pension scheme has boosted Government coffers by billions while ex-miners and their widows receive an average pension of £80 a week. Will the Secretary of State meet miners’ representatives and the trustees of the scheme to hammer out a fairer pension deal?

As the very proud daughter-in-law of a miner’s widow who benefits from the scheme, I take its stewardship very seriously. I believe that it will be debated in the House in a couple of days, and I should be delighted to discuss it further. I should point out that the extraordinary arrangements that were developed between the Government and the trustees have delivered much higher returns to the beneficiaries than similar schemes, but I continue to be happy to meet Members to discuss the issue.

It may do, but the Prime Minister is waiting to address the House, and I think that people want to hear her. We will hear the hon. Lady in due course.