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Topical Questions

Volume 659: debated on Tuesday 30 April 2019

Nearly 30 years ago Margaret Thatcher made a speech at the UN General Assembly in which she described

“what may be early signs of man-induced climatic change.”

Ever since then, the UK has continued to lead the world on this issue. The UK, yet again, broke its coal-free power generation record, which now amounts to more than three and a half days without any electricity being generated from coal, over the weekend—the longest period since the industrial revolution in which coal has not been burned for power in this country.

Later this week we have another seminal moment in which the independent Committee on Climate Change will report back, at the Government’s request, on how we can set a date to achieve net zero emissions—once again, this country is leading the world on climate change.

I am sure the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the management, the workforce and the emergency services who dealt so effectively with the explosion at the steelworks in my constituency on Friday. We wish the two men who received minor injuries all the best.

The predecessor of the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) promised the last meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on steel and metal-related industries that he would host a meeting of steel sector stakeholders, supply chains and steel MPs to discuss the failure to develop a steel sector deal. Will the Minister now commit to honouring that commitment and to meeting us as soon as possible?

First, I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the workers at Port Talbot and to the emergency services, which responded with characteristic bravery and dispatch to deal with that very worrying incident. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), and I spoke to the company and the trade unions the next morning, and we are all relieved that the situation was not worse. Of course, we send our sympathies to the workers affected.

As the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) knows from an earlier answer, we are clear on the importance of the steel sector for the future of manufacturing generally, and I take a personal interest. These are early days for the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle, but I know he shares my enthusiasm, and perhaps we can both come to that meeting.

T4. British businesses in all sectors currently benefit greatly from the ability of UK-based law firms to advise and act for them on contractual, regulatory and intellectual property matters when they conduct business within the European Union. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking with other Ministers to ensure that commercial advantage is not lost as we leave the EU? (910619)

My hon. Friend, who chairs the Select Committee on Justice, makes an excellent point on one of our principal sources of export earnings. More than that, the pre-eminence of law in the UK brings firms from jurisdictions around the world to do business here. We are determined that we should maintain our good relations across the continent and that we should keep up to date in our practices. He will know that, through the industrial strategy, we are investing in the regulators’ pioneer fund to make sure that legal services take their place at the cutting edge of innovation.

On 4 April, the Office for Product Safety and Standards published its investigation into Whirlpool and the ongoing issue of its product safety. The report was lambasted by consumer organisations, including Which?, as weak. Just days later it was revealed in the media that Whirlpool allegedly paid one consumer to stay silent after she was forced to flee with two young children as a blaze engulfed her home after her dryer had been modified. Can the Minister tell us whether the OPSS was aware of those allegations and, if not, whether it will now reopen its investigation in light of the accusations?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue, and I commit to making sure that I speak to the OPSS about the allegations she has highlighted and what further information we can ascertain. She is right, in that I laid a written ministerial statement before the House on 4 April. I have to let the House know that the OPSS has written to Whirlpool asking it to take action, and it has 28 days to reply to that. I stand ready, as the Minister, to make sure that consumer safety and protection is at the heart of what we are doing and that we take further action where necessary.

T7. Many of my constituents still access some form of off-grid energy. While the Department looks to introduce a cleaner form of energy, will it also look at the cost impact of energy? Many of these people are also in fuel poverty and would like not only a clean form of energy, but a cheap one. (910622)

I recognise the situation my hon. Friend describes; in his rural constituency, this is a big problem. In the spring statement, we announced that the future homes standard would ensure that all new buildings, including those in rural areas, are equipped with low-carbon sources of heat and power by 2025. We also recognise the importance of households that are off the gas grid and have them in mind as we deal with the energy companies in terms of their tariffs.

T2. This Government are not even hiding their disdain for Scottish business, with one of them telling the BBC recently:“Once you’ve hit the”—Brexit—“iceberg, you’re all on it together”. When will the Minister accept that if he will not provide that level of security and that lifeboat, the Scottish people will, by voting for independence? (910616)

It is a sad reflection that the job creation that has taken place in Scotland lags behind that in the rest of the UK. I fancy that one reason for that is that Scotland has acquired a reputation for being the highest- tax part of the UK. So I hope the hon. Gentleman would reflect on these causes and advise his colleagues in Holyrood to take a different course.

T9. England is currently the only home nation that provides no central Government investment to improve domestic energy efficiency. To address this deficit, will the Secretary of State take up the Committee on Fuel Poverty’s proposal for the introduction of a new clean growth fuel poverty challenge fund? (910624)

I am aware of the advice from the committee, which we will consider carefully. My hon. Friend will know that the energy company obligation has been reformed to concentrate on fuel poverty, but we are grateful for the committee’s advice and we will respond shortly.

T3. I know that the Secretary of State will agree with more than 80 cross-party MPs who came together yesterday to say that to realise the northern powerhouse vision, we need the economic commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2. Will he communicate that to aspirant Members from his party who want to see a race to the bottom in the next Tory leadership race? The north will not tolerate that. (910618)

Across the country, it is crucial that we invest in infrastructure. If we want to compete with other nations across the world, we need to make sure that our businesses and our people can count on fast connections, and that includes between our great cities.

Now that I am not bound by the ministerial code, or indeed collective responsibility, I feel that I can speak my mind about sector deals. I think they are absolutely brilliant, and I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to point out some of the achievements made on delivering the commitments made between the Government and industry.

I cannot say that I had noticed that the hon. Gentleman was previously all that closely bound.

That was my experience, too, Mr Speaker. Goodness knows what my hon. Friend will be like now that he is on the Back Benches. May I pay tribute to the fantastic work he did in securing so many of the sector deals? He got to know very well the needs of particular industries and sectors. Let me pay tribute to the creative industries sector deal, for example, which this very weekend launched a new immersive technology version of “Peaky Blinders”. I do not know whether he is a fan of that series. If he is—

“Peaky Blinders” is an award-winning programme, which my hon. Friend will be able to experience in virtual reality as a result of the sector deal done with our creative industries, particularly the gaming industry.

T5. A recent report by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders estimated that the UK could lead the world in connected and autonomous vehicles. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that UK car manufacturers can seize this opportunity? (910620)

The hon. Lady will know that the investment that is being made through the industrial strategy in testbed facilities and data centres for connected and autonomous vehicles is geared towards making Britain the go-to place in the world for the development, deployment and manufacture of such vehicles. As the hon. Lady takes an interest in the sector, I would be delighted to invite her to see and meet some of the companies involved in what is a great set of possibilities for this country.

Shared parental leave is a good option for new parents, but the Secretary of State will know that take-up remains low. Will he consider introducing a stand-alone period of parental leave just for partners, to help families to balance work and childcare?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. She is a keen champion of rights for parents. I agree that fathers and partners have a key role to play in caring for their children. The shared parental leave and pay scheme gives parents more choice and flexibility and challenges the assumption that the mother will always be the primary carer. Last year, the Government ran a £1.5 million campaign to promote shared parental leave and to increase its take-up, and we are preparing a further campaign for later in the year. I assure my hon. Friend that we always keep these things under review. I am keen to meet her in the near future to discuss her particular concerns.

T6. The Government’s industrial strategy has recently drawn criticism for neglecting steel. The UK steel charter was mentioned earlier; will Ministers attend the launch of the charter on 20 May and sign up to it on behalf of the Department, to maximise opportunities for UK steel in uncertain times? (910621)

I look forward to working with the UK steel sector and have already had several engagements. Steel overcapacity remains a significant global issue that requires international solutions, but here in the UK we have already done a range of things, including identifying more than £3.8 billion a year of UK domestic requirement for steel.

Order. We are running out of time—indeed, we have run out of time—but I know that the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), who is a practitioner of caring and sharing, will want to be pithy to accommodate colleagues.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Yesterday, the Princess Royal helped to mark a significant milestone in the exploration of deep geothermal energy in Cornwall, as the deepest and hottest hole on the UK mainland has been successfully drilled. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meet me to discuss what more the Government can do to support this potentially scalable new source of renewable energy?

I congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituents on the work they have done on geothermal energy, which is an exciting form of renewable energy. I am going to Cornwall on 24 May, so I will see whether I can meet my hon. Friend. I know that the University of Exeter is involved in the project, and I would be keen to pursue the matter further.

T8. I came to the House today hoping for some passion and leadership from the Secretary of State. There is a real opportunity for British business and universities to tackle climate change with innovation and enterprise. What do we get today? The dullest Question Time I have ever seen in this place. (910623)

The hon. Gentleman should celebrate the fact that, when it comes to renewable energy, we are the leading nation in the world for the deployment of offshore wind. We are creating jobs right throughout the country, and many constituencies have people in good jobs because of the leadership in renewable energy that we have displayed. We will go further in the years ahead.

Solar plus battery storage will soon be commercially viable without any subsidy. Is now the right time to plan for a huge deployment of solar on every public building, school, hospital and prison?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. If there is the possibility of more renewable energy than was previously contemplated and we can store it, we will solve our energy needs for the future, thereby helping business and consumers. I shall take up my hon. Friend’s suggestion.

My constituent was made redundant from Carillion last April after 11 years’ service as a cleaner. She has been passed from pillar to post, from PwC to the insolvency services. Will the Minister please look into this case as a matter of urgency?

I would welcome it if the hon. Lady passed me the details of her constituent, so that I can follow up that matter.

In North Devon, we are proudly playing our role in clean energy generation with two major wind farms. Does the Minister agree that, to ensure our security of supply and to get the best climate change outcomes, we need a mix of clean energy generation?

Absolutely. It is important that we put that mix in place. We have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) about looking at other forms of renewables. There is also carbon capture and storage. We need to ensure that we look at new technologies to be able to deliver a low-carbon future.

The enterprise finance guarantee scheme and its continued use by the Royal Bank of Scotland is still causing controversy. Even this week, we have seen discussions from the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) around the use of debt. Will the Minister, or the Department, discuss with the Treasury how this scheme and its legacy are now operating?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising that matter at BEIS questions today. I will happily take on that challenge.

Small businesses in Cleethorpes are suffering because of yet another two high street bank closures. Individuals and businesses need both the counter services and expert financial advice from banks. Indeed, banks are important to the vitality and viability of our high streets. Will Ministers assist local authorities in establishing financial hubs, where financial institutions can come together and provide that service?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise concerns about banks pulling out of our high streets. Those concerns have also been raised by many other MPs across the country. High street banks do offer a valuable service for consumers, and that is why I am grateful to the Post Office for renegotiating the banking framework, which will offer better payments to postmasters providing banking services in those high streets. However, he is quite right: we do need to work closely with local authorities at a regional level to make sure that the services being offered on the high street are those that people wish to see.

Will the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State for Scotland put in writing his objection to onshore wind finding a route to market in Scotland? Why will the Government not release that correspondence in the interests of transparency?

I am not aware of the inquiry that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I will follow it up with the Scottish Secretary.

Well, that is a novel phenomenon—a Member who takes the attitude that someone else has asked the question and therefore says that he will desist. That is a most admirable trait, if an uncommon one.

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and the Competition and Markets Authority have both published reports calling for change in the UK audit industry. Will the Secretary of State undertake at the Dispatch Box that the power of the big four audit firms in the UK will not stop this agenda for change?

I will give that commitment. I am very pleased that the Competition and Markets Authority has launched that report and made some interim recommendations. We will be looking at them during the weeks ahead. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this is a sector that is fundamental to the confidence that we have in businesses right across the country.

Everybody wants to do their bit by recycling, but it is absolutely infuriating when we get to the supermarket and all the fruit and veg is wrapped in plastic. Then there is the exciting moment when we get home to the kitchen and see that there is a little sign, which looks like the packaging is recyclable, but then we read the words, “Not yet recyclable”. What on earth do they mean by that? Are we meant to keep it all until, suddenly, somebody announces that it is now recyclable? Are we meant to put it in the attic or store it in a cupboard? What are we meant to do? Surely, we should ban those words. The packaging is not recyclable and it should not be available.

I entirely sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s frustration on this point. I hope that he also noticed when it came to the London marathon this weekend—congratulations to all hon. Members from all parts of the House who took part in that marathon—that the water was in bottles made not of plastic, but of compostable seaweed. As a science Minister, I can say that a key issue is looking at what we can do to develop alternative forms of plastic, but we have to work with local authorities and supermarkets to make that happen.

I know—from chairing the all-party parliamentary group for small and micro-business, and from talking with west Oxfordshire businesses—that one of the major challenges that small organisations face is finding sufficient people of the right skills to grow their businesses. What are Ministers doing to provide a national strategy to ensure that our young people have the skills they need for the future?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group; he is extremely passionate about this subject and does a lot to champion small businesses in his constituency. We have outlined a £1.3 billion investment in UK talent and skills to attract the best. We are also keen to work with businesses—particularly small ones—to ensure that we are delivering on our apprenticeship targets. We have seen some fantastic results when young people have been brought into organisations and been given the training and workplace experience to grow and thrive. I very much hope to champion such schemes as we go forward.

The other week, I was shocked to meet a constituent who had worked in care for nine months solidly without being given a single day off, while on a zero-hours contract. Such workers, who are vulnerable, need protection for their rights at work. Will the Secretary of State look at bringing in group claims for industrial tribunals and representative cases so that workers do not have to stick their head above the parapet?

I was pleased to meet the hon. Lady yesterday to discuss this matter. I share her concerns about the case that she mentioned and take her suggestion very seriously. As I have committed to her, we will take this forward together.