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Commons Chamber

Volume 659: debated on Tuesday 30 April 2019

House of Commons

Tuesday 30 April 2019

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

Youth Entrepreneurship

First, I would like to update the House: unfortunately, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth will be unable to join us this morning due to a family illness.

Our young people provide an invaluable contribution to the UK economy—they are more than twice as likely to be entrepreneurs as their peers in France and Germany—and we are supporting them. The start-up loans programme has provided over £60 million in loans to 18 to 24-year-olds since 2012. To further realise young entrepreneurs’ potential, I have asked the Prince’s Trust to lead a review to identify the barriers that they face.

In 2017-18, recent graduates from the University of East Anglia set up 247 start-ups employing 1,015 people. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that the Government will continue to fund these schemes, as they mean so much to young people and help to create a vibrant economy?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Through our industrial strategy, we recognise the valuable contribution from the creation of spin-outs and start-ups by businesses from university. That is why we have committed to increasing higher education innovation funding from £160 million to £250 million per year by 2020-21. This will help to increase universities’ capacity to engage in commercialisation and work with business.

Is the Minister aware that recent research from Sheffield University and King’s College London shows that young entrepreneurs face a very bleak future? In particular, the impact of leaving the EU on many of the very constituents who voted leave is a drop of between 17% and 20% in GDP. That is ruinous for so many of our industrial towns. What is she going to do about it?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but it is true that young people in the UK are twice as likely to be entrepreneurs as those in France and Germany. Our percentages for young entrepreneurs are significantly higher. We are committed to our industrial strategy. I have asked the Prince’s Trust to undertake the review so that we understand specifically what the barriers are for young people and come up with a package to be able to help them.

I congratulate the Minister on her inspired decision to appoint the Prince’s Trust, which is a wonderful organisation that does magnificent work. Will it concentrate on 18 to 30-year-olds, and when is she expecting it to report?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to highlight some of the details of the youth entrepreneurship review. It has started and the board will be announced shortly. It will be looking at 18 to 30-year-olds, and we are hoping that it will report in the autumn. He is absolutely correct: the Prince’s Trust does amazing work with young people from all types of background. In fact, there is already a programme with the Prince’s Trust and Innovate UK that provides mentoring to young people and makes available loans of up to £5,000.

The Scottish Government’s 2018-19 Budget means that 90% of firms in Scotland pay lower rates than they would if they were based elsewhere in the UK. Given that 55% of individuals will pay less tax than they would in the rest of the UK, what lessons do the Government plan to take in terms of supporting Scotland’s young entrepreneurs and those elsewhere in the UK?

The hon. Gentleman highlights specific differences within Scotland, but we are interested in making sure that young people are able to follow their dreams and aspirations whichever part of the country they happen to be in. We are announcing the young entrepreneurs review so that we can look at all the different barriers, including access to finance—something that the Government and I, as the small business Minister, take very seriously—and make sure that we create the right environment for our small businesses to start up, thrive and grow.

Small Businesses

Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, employing over 16 million people, and they make a collective contribution of over £2 trillion. We have provided nearly £5.9 billion of finance to over 82,000 small businesses across the UK. We have also just announced an additional £200 million for innovation for British business.

What discussions has the Minister had with landlords running small businesses about the proposed abolition of section 21 notices? We all want to help renters, but we need to take care that we do not pass new laws that might actually make it harder for vulnerable people to get rented accommodation.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. We want both to encourage good landlords to stay in the sector and to make sure that proposals do not impact on supply. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will be consulting landlords and looking at similar changes in Scotland. However, I reassure her that we recognise that small landlords, or incidental landlords, may have different requirements and they will therefore be very much part of the consultation.

Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to Snap-on UK Holdings in King’s Lynn in my constituency? It now employs 141 people and has recently won two Queen’s awards for enterprise and international trade. It is currently exporting to France, Poland, Italy and Spain, and it is trying to open up markets in Asia and Africa. What can she do to encourage other businesses in the country to follow Snap-on’s example and boost their exports, boost our economy and create jobs?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the excellent work of Snap-on UK Holdings, which has won a Queen’s award for enterprise. Businesses in North West Norfolk have benefited from 60 start-up loans, totalling nearly £500,000. They also have the growing business fund, which provides grants of up to £500,000 per business, where there is an opportunity to innovate and grow and create jobs.

Small businesses often rely on each other for mutual support; that is certainly the case in my constituency. Will the Minister please explain to her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions how detrimental it would be for small businesses and the town centre economy if they relocate 250 jobs out of Merthyr Tydfil town centre as part of their push to centralise jobs and services?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about our high streets. Obviously, the Government play an important part in that respect in making decisions that affect our regions. I would like to reassure him about what we are doing for high streets and the retail sector. With the Retail Sector Council, we are looking at business costs and elements around skills and employment on the high street. We remain committed to making sure that our high streets remain the heart of our communities. I will make sure that I do everything in my capacity as Minister to achieve that.

Can the Minister outline any initiatives that are being considered to offset high street rates to encourage businesses to not only trade online but have a presence in local high streets? Some of my constituents have done that, and they have been quite successful.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point with regard to traditional retail and online sales. I have spoken with the likes of Amazon and eBay, and one thing I have been extremely surprised at is that they have worked with small businesses that have started online but then invested in bricks-and-mortar retail outlets. We need to work to make sure we have a mixed economy, and I have outlined the work we are doing with the Retail Sector Council, particularly looking at business rates and other issues.

I congratulate the Minister on the work she does for small businesses. She will know that one of the major challenges small businesses face is not just with late payments but with getting prompt payments and reasonable terms from bigger businesses. Will she ensure that the Government do all they can to end the scourge of late payment? Will she also ensure that the prompt payment code has some teeth so that it actually does the job it is supposed to?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting prompt payment. It is a particular focus within the Department to tackle late payments, which can be very damaging to small businesses. This week, the Chartered Institute of Credit Management has announced that there are 17 businesses that I have removed or suspended from the prompt payment code to make sure that we highlight where bad practice is occurring. We want to bring business with us. We do know that late payments can have a major impact on small businesses, and I therefore stand committed to ensuring that we do all we can as a Government to end this poor practice.

This morning I met Matt Dowling of the Freelancer Club, who adumbrated to me some of the terrible situations that freelancers have faced when trying to be paid, often being coaxed into working for nothing for things like experience. Will the Minister meet me and Mr Dowling to discuss how we might crack down on that?

Absolutely. I reiterate that this Government do not support the culture of poor payments and late payments. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the concerns of those in a particular sector who might face trouble getting paid for legitimate work. I would be very happy to meet him and that organisation.

UK-EU Trading Relationship: Industrial Strategy

3. What assessment he has made of the effect of uncertainty of the UK’s trading relationship with the EU on the delivery of the industrial strategy. (910592)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are huge opportunities for advanced manufacturers, especially in his region, and the sector benefits from a minimum of frictions in trade, so it is very important that we conclude a deal with the European Union.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply and commend him for his approach. Boosting productivity is the declared objective of the industrial strategy, but it is plummeting at the moment due to Brexit uncertainty. Does he agree that it is absolutely essential that we get an early Brexit deal that delivers both a customs union and frictionless market access to the EU, because otherwise it is doomed to failure?

I am a bit more optimistic than the hon. Gentleman in that respect, not least because of the announcement just yesterday from the Advanced Propulsion Centre, which he knows very well, about the opportunity of nearly £5 billion for manufacturers, including in the west midlands, to participate in the growing market for electric vehicle batteries. It is therefore crucial that we drive productivity forward. He will also know of the work that Jürgen Maier is leading, as part of the Made Smarter Review, to capitalise on the opportunities. However, as I have always been clear with the House, we can best advantage those manufacturers if they are able to continue to trade freely and without frictions with the European Union.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Government have held discussions with a range of businesses, including those with complex customs requirements and those that export and trade mainly with the European Union, in formulating all their plans?

I and my colleagues meet very regularly—every day—with businesses in all sectors and in all parts of the country. I think that there is a strong feeling in the business community that we need to bring to a resolution the question of our future relationship with the European Union. The longer this situation goes on, the more attractive investment decisions are put on hold, and they could be creating jobs now.

The most recent quarterly economic survey from the North East England chamber of commerce shows a reported mark-down in sales and exports from the north-east. It states:

“We frequently hear from members that uncertainty over Brexit is delaying investment and hiring decisions for their businesses and their customers.”

What specific north-east-focused steps are the Government taking to ensure that the north-east business community and local jobs will not be affected by that, given that the Government’s own analysis shows that any Brexit outcome will affect the north-east the hardest?

One specific north-east-focused step is to invite the hon. Lady to vote for the deal that has been put before the House.

The steel industry is, rightly, a key part of the industrial strategy. In that context, what early discussions has the Secretary of State had on the steel charter and the key asks contained within it?

The discussions that we have had are intended to ensure that the steel sector, which is of fundamental importance to this country, can benefit from some of the manufacturing opportunities that we have talked about. As we expand our production of vehicles, as I hope we will do, there will be a strong requirement for steel, and through the proposed strategy we will ensure that that is British steel.

The Secretary of State’s industrial strategy states that manufacturing is crucial to the economy and promises to support businesses to access international markets and drive up exports. However, according to Make UK, stockpiling in the UK is now the highest of any G7 nation ever, as manufacturers try to protect themselves from Brexit uncertainty. Chambers of commerce across the country report falls in cash flow because money tied up in stock is not available to drive exports or pay wages. Cash flow is the lifeblood of manufacturing and the cause of up to 90% of business failures. Whatever the eventual outcome of the Government’s Brexit shambles, British manufacturers must be in business to meet its challenges, so will he now commit to providing financial support?

The hon. Lady quotes Make UK. The chief executive of Make UK, with whom I meet almost every week, has said:

“Make UK has consistently supported the Government’s withdrawal agreement as it removes the risk of no deal and delivers a sensible transition period which is vital for the needs of manufacturers.”

I think the hon. Lady and I have a joint view on the importance of manufacturing, not least in the north-east. I hope that she will have the flexibility and pragmatism to come together—I am talking to her colleague the shadow Secretary of State—and agree a way forward in line with what Make UK recommends.

Solar Households: Smart Export Guarantee

4. When his Department plans to publish its smart export guarantee proposals for new solar households. (910593)

The smart export guarantee will pave the way to a smarter, more flexible energy system and ensure small-scale low-carbon generators are paid for the electricity they export to the grid. Yesterday, we published a consultation on the SEG draft licence conditions. We intend to start the legislative process for the smart export guarantee before the summer recess. There are already encouraging signals from the market and suppliers are beginning to voluntarily offer smart export tariffs.

I think a lot of people in the sector will feel that the delay is not acceptable. Does the Minister agree that the Government must mandate a fair minimum floor price to prevent suppliers from taking advantage of solar households and other small-scale solar generators? The energy price cap is there to ensure suppliers sell power at a fair price. We need a similar mechanism to ensure they purchase at a fair price, too.

That will be part of the consultation. We will set out our final proposals for the guarantee as soon as possible—as I said, before the summer recess. In the meantime, the right signals are already emerging. Energy suppliers are voluntarily bringing forward smart export tariffs.

As we have heard, rather than publish a smart export guarantee that actually works, the Tories plan to further stifle the industry by hiking VAT on solar. Is it not time that the Minister’s Government stopped the Tory war on renewables and started taking climate change seriously by following the leadership of Scotland’s First Minister and declaring a climate emergency?

The hon. Gentleman fails to mention the success story that is solar photovoltaic. Over the past eight years since May 2010, under the coalition Government and this Government, 99% of capacity has been deployed. That is 49% of the total investment in the EU. We have installed more than twice as much solar capacity as any other European country—more than Germany, France and Australia combined. That is something he should welcome rather than talk down.

The Minister has his head in the sand over climate change. Last week, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee concluded that the UK could not credibly adopt a net zero emissions target without greater investment in new technologies. If the Tories will not act, when will they devolve the powers to Scotland, so the Scottish Government can show them how to do it?

On the net zero target, we will obviously wait on the Committee on Climate Change report, which will be published on Thursday 2 May. I am sure the hon. Gentleman welcomes the Government’s success story on solar capacity and renewables. In comparison with the early 1990s, emissions have come down by 40% while the economy grew by 72%. There is more to do—there will always be more to do—but we are on the right track and doing the right thing. Solar capacity has reached 30 GW, compared with an estimate of 10 GW to 12 GW. We continue to ensure we exceed our targets.

Sustainable Packaging

The Government are committed to building a globally competitive and sustainable packaging industry through research and innovation. As we announced in the UK’s first bioeconomy strategy at the end of last year, we are providing up to £60 million to transform the plastics economy through the industrial strategy challenge fund, so that we can establish the UK as the world’s leading innovator in smart, sustainable packaging.

The Government’s response to plastic use has been woeful, with a 4% increase in plastic use just last year. There is now more plastic in our oceans than fish. In the light of this environmental calamity, will the Government make a new commitment to ensure that only organic-based packaging material is in place, with no more plastics by 2025?

The UK has committed to being a global leader on this topic. We have already taken more than 15 billion plastic carrier bags out of the economy, we are consulting on a deposit return scheme and we have introduced proposals for a world-leading new tax on plastic packaging that does not meet minimum thresholds. There is always more that we can do, but there is an awful lot that we have already done.

Does the Minister recognise the contribution of the UK packaging manufacturing industry, which has annual sales of £12 billion, employs 85,000 people and makes up 3% of the UK manufacturing base, in working closely to increase the percentage of recycled material by using innovative new technologies and materials?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The UK plastics industry is vital to our economy, employing more than 170,000 people. This new challenge for the sector allows it to create new jobs as it embraces our challenging targets and ambitions in this area.

20. The UK plastics pact is an important part of our achieving a circular economy and preventing plastics from ending up in our oceans. However, one year into this seven-year commitment, we still do not have the information on whether the warm words have been matched by firm action. Will the Minister introduce transparent benchmarking and reporting mechanisms, so that we can all hold the Government and the plastics industry to account? (910612)

Most major supermarkets are signatories to that pact, and we have certainly seen some go further than others. A lot of lessons can be learned. It is a mixed picture at the moment, so I am certainly keen to keep this area under review. I particularly praise Morrisons, which has come out with a range of things on this, but there are many other supermarkets available that are working hard on this topic. We all have to work together on this—consumers, business and the Government.

Business: Start and Growth

6. What recent progress he has made on meeting the Government’s ambition to make the UK the best place to start and grow a business. (910596)

To encourage the next generation of innovative entrepreneurs, our modern industrial strategy announced the biggest increase in public research and development funding on record—an extra £7 billion by 2021-22. We have also launched an independent review of the barriers facing young entrepreneurs, and we have published a review of the barriers facing female entrepreneurs.

I very much welcome that answer, and I very much welcome the Minister on his debut appearance at the Dispatch Box. I would also very much like to welcome him to Windsor, where residents of the royal borough have the lowest council tax in the country and residents of Bracknell Forest have low council tax but also high-quality services. That is why so many talented people come to Windsor to live and work. Will the Minister join me in recognising the good work of the Thames Valley Berkshire local enterprise partnership and the two key local authorities in making the Windsor constituency a great place to live, work and, above all, to start and run a business?

I agree with my hon. Friend and welcome his support for the good work of the Thames Valley Berkshire LEP and his local councils. My officials will work with his LEP and its local authority partners to produce a local industrial strategy for Berkshire that will boost productivity and support business start-ups. That is in addition to the £142 million local growth fund investment that we have already made in the county.

Similarly, in my constituency, young entrepreneurs trying to set up businesses, particularly in the digital sector, face a real shortage in the availability of electricity through the district grid—an issue identified by my local LEP. Will the Minister agree to meet me and the LEP to see what can be done to improve the situation?

We are working closely with LEPs on this issue, but I will be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman.

To be the best place to grow and start a business means having consistent rules and regulations. My brilliant local Medway Licensed Taxi Drivers Association has raised a real concern about Uber operating in Medway without having the same rules and regulations as association members. Will the Minister meet me and that brilliant association to look at those rules and regulations, to ensure that they are fair? I declare an interest: I have relatives in that trade.

My hon. Friend is a huge champion of his constituency, and particularly its small businesses. That meeting would probably be more appropriate with the small business Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), and I am sure that she will be happy to take such a meeting.

Does the Minister agree that after our eventual departure from the EU the growth of more small businesses and the expansion of existing small businesses, freed from bureaucracy, will be central to the economy of the entire United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland?

Small businesses are the backbone of our economy. I was proud to be a small businessman myself, employing eight people, in my life before politics. We are ranked in the top 10 globally as a place to do business, and this Government will continue to do everything they can to support small business.

Fracking: Methane Leakages

The UK has many years of experience regulating the onshore oil and gas industry, and measures are in place to minimise methane emissions. The Environment Agency issues and robustly enforces legally binding environmental permits regulating methane emissions. Under these permits, operators must have an agreed gas management plan to detect leaks and make repairs over the lifetime of site operations. They must also monitor emissions before and during shale gas operations.

The Minister will know that NASA and satellite data show that 5% of the methane from fracking is leaked through fugitive emissions and that methane is 85 times worse than carbon dioxide for global warming, which makes fracking worse than coal for climate change. Will he meet me to discuss my fracking Bill, instead of listening to Jim Ratcliffe, the richest man in Britain, from Ineos, who is hellbent on Brexit to avoid the environmental controls on fracking currently imposed by the European Union?

I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and I would emphasise his comment about feeding in space data research. It highlights the importance of the UK space industry in looking at environmental issues. The Government also have a grant funding and environmental monitoring programme led by the British Geological Survey in respect of shale gas sites. All the information for that is publicly available. I also note that the MacKay-Stone 2013 report concluded that the carbon footprint of UK shale gas would be much less than that of coal and comparable to that of imported liquefied natural gas.

There is no fracking in Scotland, there has been no fracking in Scotland and, under the SNP, there will be no fracking in Scotland. If we going to be serious about the climate emergency, there should not be fracking anywhere in the United Kingdom, so will the UK finally follow Scotland’s lead and rule out fracking on these islands?

Unfortunately, residents and households in Scotland still need to use gas, given that 85% of UK households use gas for heating, and it is right that we look at opportunities to meet our energy demand. Some 47% of gas was imported in 2017, but if we do not take action, this could rise to 72%. We want to increase our opportunities for generating electricity through renewables. In quarter 3 of 2018, just 2.5% of electricity was generated by coal, compared with 40% in 2010, so we are going in the right direction, but we cannot forget that people will be using gas in Scotland.

Science Sector: International Collaboration

As announced in the spring statement, I have invited Professor Sir Adrian Smith to provide independent advice on potential future funding schemes in the context of the UK’s future ambitions for European and international collaboration on science and innovation. I also look forward to welcoming delegations from over 50 countries to the EUREKA global innovation summit in Manchester this May.

Our world-class scientists collaborate across the world, with the EU and beyond, and that collaboration is vital for further research and innovation in this country. Horizon 2020 is a ready-made platform for that collaboration. Will my hon. Friend commit to joining the Horizon 2020 programme as we leave the EU?

The Government have committed to guaranteeing all existing Horizon 2020 projects before Brexit. That was issued in August 2016 and demonstrated the Government’s commitment early on to protecting our scientific partnerships. We then had the underwrite extension in July 2018 which said that even once we had left the European Union—for two years up until December 2020—we would commit to funding those projects for the lifetime of them. We are now moving into negotiations on Horizon Europe, which is the successor scheme to Horizon 2020. I took part in the EU Competitiveness Council in February—I hope also to attend on 28 May—and it is our ambition to associate into Horizon Europe. On investment, my hon. Friend will be well aware that through our world-class universities we put in £4 billion and got back £5.7 billion in investment.

Even at the height of the cold war, there was a surprising level of collaboration between Russian and UK nuclear physicists. Will the Minister assure me that there will be similar collaboration when it comes to the skills that we have in the UK—particularly at Dounreay, in my constituency—in nuclear decommissioning, which is an industry that we could export and which could make a lot of money for the UK?

I entirely agree, and I pay tribute to the UK nuclear decommissioning sector. As science Minister, I have seen the innovation that is being developed. I recently announced £93 million for a robotics for hazardous environments programme involving about seven universities across the UK, which are looking into how we can use robotics more effectively to help nuclear decommissioning. I am delighted that that is now being transferred to Fukushima in Japan. The Government are ensuring that scientific collaboration is international. We will publish an international research and innovation strategy shortly, and I shall welcome any opportunities, involving any countries, to continue that work.

Supermarket Sector: Employment Contract Terms and Conditions

9. What recent representations his Department has received on proposed changes to employment contract terms and conditions in the supermarket sector. (910599)

I regularly meet representatives of the supermarket sector, both individually and through the Retail Sector Council, to discuss a range of issues. One issue that the council has identified as a priority is employment. The Government have committed themselves to upgrading workers’ rights and protecting the most vulnerable workers in all sectors through the good work plan. That represents the biggest upgrade of workers’ rights for over 20 years.

I apologise for arriving late, Mr Speaker. I am delighted to have the opportunity to ask the Minister to support Mrs A, who has worked for Asda for 30 years. Her take-home pay, and that of 3,000 other members of staff, will be cut because of changes in the pay structure masquerading as an hourly increase. Paid breaks will be reduced, the night shift will be changed, and bonuses will be slashed. Will the Minister join me in supporting Mrs A and ensuring that she keeps what she is earning now?

The hon. Lady was not late for her own question. Her principal responsibility is to be in her place to ask her question, and we are delighted to see her. She does not need to be too apologetic; in fact, she does not need to be apologetic at all.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise those questions. She is a strong campaigner for workers in her constituency, and we have met on a number of occasions to discuss some of the issues involved. Obviously we want Asda employees to receive the remuneration to which they are entitled. It is true that a consultation is taking place on changes that may be introduced towards the end of the year, but, in general, terms and conditions are subject to negotiation between the employer and the employee. While it is always open to either party to enter into negotiations on the terms of contracts, if employees are subject to changes in terms to which they have not agreed, they can take legal action.

The Minister is right to champion workers’ rights, because ours is the party of the workers. However, there are still too many examples of employers not paying the national living wage. What further steps will the Government take to ensure that the national living wage is enforced and workers receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. He is right: we are the party of the workers, which is why we introduced the good work plan, the biggest reform of workers’ rights for 20 years. We are committed to enforcing the national minimum wage and ensuring that people receive the remuneration that they deserve. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has identified £24.4 million of arrears that affected more than 200,000 workers last year, which was an increase on the previous year. We have almost doubled the budget for enforcement since 2015, and we remain committed to ensuring that people receive the national minimum wage when they are entitled to it.

Climate Change: Discussions with DEFRA

11. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on tackling climate change. (910601)

Tackling climate change is a cross-Government priority. Just last week my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth made an oral statement outlining the Government’s climate change priorities. Ministers in the Departments for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs meet regularly to discuss matters including waste management, agriculture, forestry, resource efficiency and the environment Bill. We will host the upcoming Inter-Ministerial Group on Clean Growth to discuss the report from the Committee on Climate Change and the UK’s offer to host the United Nations Conference of the Parties in 2020.

After the Government’s refusal to declare a climate emergency, may I ask the Minister what he has personally taken away from the visit of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and her most powerful advocacy on the need for urgent action?

I think we will be having a thorough debate on this issue of climate change emergency in the Opposition day debate tomorrow. When it comes to my personal role as the Minister with responsibility for science, innovation and research, I entirely agree that we need to be making more investment in climate change technology in order to reach our target of 2.4% of GDP on research and development. We have already announced our missions in relation to clean growth. I absolutely believe we should be listening to the experts—that includes the scientists—and learning from climate science, wherever that may be, to make sure we can reduce our emissions.

Since the Rio summit in 1992, the UK has actually decarbonised more than any other G7 economy, while growing our economy the most at the same time. However, we need to do more, which is why I am looking forward to the Committee on Climate Change report on Thursday. If it does indeed recommend a net zero target, will the Minister commit to ensuring that that is something the Government will very seriously consider bringing into law at the first opportunity?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the achievements that have been made in recent years, but it is important that we redouble our efforts. The Committee on Climate Change report, which will be published on Thursday, was commissioned by the Government, and the Government will be taking actions on the back of its recommendations. It is important that we look to continue our actions, but it is also important that we do so with our international partners. We have the UN summit taking place in September and future COPs, including the one we would like to host in 2020.

19.   The Committee on Climate Change says that we need to double our production of onshore wind in the next decade; instead, it is likely to halve because of this Government’s ideological opposition to it. We are not on target to meet our fourth and fifth carbon budgets, let alone achieve net zero, so will the Government end their ideological opposition to onshore wind so that we can hand a better planet on to future generations? (910611)

I would not call listening to local communities and reflecting on the need to create sustainable communities locally “ideological opposition”. We need to work with everybody—all citizens. There has been talk of citizens’ committees, so why not ensure that local communities are able to reflect on the benefits of renewable energy in their communities, and begin such dialogues with them, rather than call them ideological opponents of renewables? I do not think that is very fair on those communities.

I would like to send the thoughts of Opposition Members to the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth. I welcome this Minister to his place and look forward to our exchanges over the Dispatch Box.

In 2016, the UK’s carbon emissions fell at 6% a year, and in 2017, emissions fell at 3% a year, but in 2018, the figure was 2%—just a 2% fall—so at a time when action should be ramping up to tackle the climate emergency, can the Minister explain why the UK’s progress is slowing down?

I do not recognise that. The fact is that we have met our first and second carbon budgets over the 2008 to 2012 and 2013 to 2017 periods. We have managed to reach those targets. Turnover for clean business was up 7% in 2017, contributing £44.5 billion to the economy. When it comes to ensuring that we look at our clean growth strategy, we have set out quite clearly opportunities to halve the energy use of new buildings by 2030 and to establish the world’s first net zero carbon industrial cluster by 2040. By comparison with our European neighbours, we are racing ahead—we are leaders in this field—and we want to make sure that we can continue to do so.

With respect, the Minister is alluding to the UK’s emissions cuts since 2010, when the UK still benefited from policies put in place by the previous Labour Government—policies that the Conservatives have now scrapped. Secondly, it is irrelevant, quite frankly, to climate physics whether the UK is doing slightly better or worse than other countries that are also failing to take the necessary action.

I ask this in good faith and in all seriousness: does the Minister accept that the UK’s stalling progress is related to banning—in effect—onshore wind, reducing almost all support for solar power, scrapping the zero-carbon homes standard and selling off the Green Investment Bank? Will he be honest about the challenge, and work with Labour and Members right across this House on turning this around, so that we can truly tackle climate change and properly seize the economic opportunities within the green economy?

It is important to recognise that 56% of electricity power generation is now based around low-carbon economy generation and that 33% of that is from renewables, up from 7% in 2010. Coal represents 2.5% of our electricity generation, and last weekend the UK went 90 hours without any coal electricity generation for the first time since the industrial revolution. As we are now involved in the fourth industrial revolution, we want to ensure that we continue to power through and that we can adopt more renewables for the future.

Renewable Energy Sources

Last year, renewable generation provided a third of our electricity and, as I have stated, over the Easter weekend we went 90 hours without any coal generation. Both were new records. Our next contracts for difference allocation round will open next month. We are driving down the cost of clean technologies and investing £2.5 billion in low-carbon innovation.

Far from leading the way, the UK has plummeted to the bottom of SolarPower Europe’s league table of 20 world markets in solar, and we are one of the few EU countries not providing any support at all to solar power. Not only has solar had all support removed prematurely but it is being hit by wave after wave of fresh damage, making it harder to meet our climate targets. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister meet me to discuss the damaging net effect of the Government’s policies on solar and on the transition to clean energy?

I am sure that the Minister for Energy and Climate Change will be happy to meet the hon. Lady, but as I have stated, photovoltaics is a UK success story. We have seen 830,000 installations, and I have mentioned the smart export guarantee tariff that is being designed. We want to ensure that this will be able to generate profit for those companies, and that we continue to be able to lead Europe on this.

Eliminating net carbon emissions by 2050 is both ambitious and achievable. Does my hon. Friend agree that the progress made over the past decade demonstrates that, where there is the political will, it is possible to reduce emissions while supporting economic prosperity?

Absolutely. We need to deliver ambitious reductions in emissions, considering our long-term targets in the light of the latest science. That is why we have asked the Committee on Climate Change for advice on our long-term targets, including that net zero target. The committee’s advice will be published this Thursday, and we will consider it carefully.

Of course we have a record to be proud of when it comes to renewable energy, but we should always continue to be as ambitious as we have been. How significant has the UK’s contribution been to ensuring that Scotland meets its renewable targets?

The Government are firmly committed to the renewables industry, and Scotland has benefited proportionately more than the rest of the United Kingdom under existing policies. It will continue to benefit from future investment. Fifteen Scottish projects have been awarded contracts for difference with a total capacity of 2.57 GW, and the Government and numerous other public sector organisations have provided £15 million to fund the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, which is one of the world’s leading wave and tidal demonstration centres.

The truth of the matter right now is that, far from expanding the source of renewables, the Government have narrowed the use of renewable energy in recent years. Of course we should strongly support the development of offshore wind, but the Minister must acknowledge that marine and tidal power has been almost strangled at birth by the Government’s indifference and even active hostility, and that onshore wind and solar PV have been severely hampered by adverse Government decisions on support and planning. On lack of support, will the Minister answer a specific question? Why is he sanctioning a VAT rate rise to 20% on solar power while at the same time maintaining a rate of just 5% on coal and fuel oil?

The industry has invested more than £92 billion in clean energy since 2010. As I have stated, renewables now generate 33% of our electricity, and 52.8% comes from low-carbon sources. As for the VAT issue, we are working with organisations and companies to ensure that we can get the best possible deal when it comes to renewables. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth will be happy to discuss the matter with the hon. Gentleman in further detail, but we are committed to ensuring that we have a wide range of renewables, including marine energy and offshore and onshore wind, to make sure that we can continue to drive up our renewable capacity.

14. Thirty gigawatts of installed solar shows that it is an essential tool to ensure clean growth and is vital in our fight against climate change. Despite the Treasury’s consultation, does the Minister agree that it should keep the reduced VAT rate for solar, which was guaranteed as recently as 2016? (910604)

The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) also reflected on that, and it is vital that renewables remain an important part of our energy generation mix. Our clean growth and industrial strategies set out how we will build progress in all such areas, but I am sure that the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth will be happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) to discuss the issue.

Businesses in Taunton Deane

The Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership, which covers both Somerset and Devon, is receiving £239 million through the local growth fund to drive regional economic development. That includes an investment of over £24 million in projects in Taunton Deane, such as the redevelopment of Taunton station and improvements to junction 25, which is one of the largest investments that we have made in the south-west through the local growth fund to date.

I welcome the Minister to his new role. Will he join me in congratulating all those involved in the development of the new headquarters for the UK Hydrographic Office, the opening of which I attended in Taunton last week? Will he also join me in supporting the endeavour to use its expertise in marine data to open a marine geospatial innovation centre at Firepool in Taunton to open up opportunities in the blue economy?

I will of course join my hon. Friend in congratulating those involved in the opening of the new UK Hydrographic Office headquarters in her constituency. It is a world-class natural asset. The UKHO is working with local partners to scope the feasibility of developing a marine geospatial innovation centre in Taunton, and it plays a key role in the south-west’s local industrial strategy.

Workers’ Rights: Trade Union Discussions

15. What plans he has to hold discussions with trades union representatives on increasing workers’ rights. (910605)

Informed by my regular discussions with trade unions, we have extended worker rights, and both Houses agreed last month to close the Swedish derogation loophole to protect agency workers. On 1 April, we celebrated with union representatives the 20th anniversary of the national minimum wage. The day was marked by the rise in the national living wage, which has delivered the fastest pay rise for the lowest paid in at least 20 years, benefiting nearly 1.8 million workers.

The Scottish Trades Union Congress general secretary, Grahame Smith, has said that the Scottish Government’s

“Fair Work Action Plan demonstrates a commitment to using the powers the Government has at its disposal to deliver Fair Work, which is good for workers and good for business.”

Will the Secretary of State do his bit by introducing a real living wage? If not, will he devolve the policy so that the Scottish Government can?

What the hon. Gentleman did not mention is that this Government introduced the national living wage, and we have just increased it to its highest-ever level, benefiting millions of people around the country. I would have thought that he would welcome that.

There are many warm words from the Government on workers’ rights, but to say that the Conservatives are the party of workers is a joke, because their actions in government tell a different story. Strong economies are almost always underpinned by strong trade union rights. Germany, Sweden, Norway and Denmark all have extensive sectoral collective bargaining coverage, which has been used to reduce income inequality and drive up wages. The hostility towards trade unions and the dismissal of collective bargaining here is not just bad for workers but bad for the economy, creating a vicious cycle of lower wages, reducing tax revenues and lowering spending. The obsession with undermining union rights is self-defeating. What is the Secretary of State doing to break the cycle?

If you want to be the party of workers, you need to be the party that creates work. There are 1.5 million more people employed in work as a result of this Government’s policies, and of course we want to make sure they are in good jobs. The effort of our industrial strategy is to drive up productivity, which is necessary if pay rates are to increase over time. The hon. Lady should acknowledge the reforms, brought in partly as a result of the Matthew Taylor report, that have closed the Swedish derogation, which her party failed to close over 13 years in office.

Topical Questions

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.

Overseas Students: English Language Tests

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on his review of the cases of overseas students falsely accused of cheating in Test of English for International Communication English language tests.

Test centres operated on behalf of the Educational Testing Service were the subject of a BBC “Panorama” programme in February 2014 that aired footage of the systematic cheating in English language tests at a number of its UK test centres. Further investigation demonstrated just how widespread this was, and the scale is shown by the fact that 25 people involved in organising and facilitating language test fraud have received criminal convictions. They have been sentenced to a total of over 70 years’ imprisonment, and further criminal investigations are ongoing.

There was also a strong link to wider abuse of the student visa route. A National Audit Office report in 2012 made it clear that abuse of that route was rife and estimated that in 2009—its first year of operation—up to 50,000 people used the tier 4 student route to work, not study. Most students who were linked to this fraud were sponsored by private colleges, many of which the Home Office had significant concerns about before the BBC investigation. Indeed, 400 colleges that had sponsored students linked to the ETS had already had their licences revoked before 2014.

Over the course of 2014, the ETS systematically analysed all tests taken in the UK dating back to 2011—more than 58,000 tests. Analysis of the test results identified 33,725 invalid results and 22,694 questionable results. Those with questionable results were given the chance to re-sit a test or attend an interview before any action was taken. People who used invalid ETS certificates to obtain immigration leave have had action taken against them.

The courts have consistently found that the evidence for invalid cases created a reasonable suspicion of fraud and was enough for the Home Office to act upon. It is then up to individuals to refute this, either through appeals or judicial reviews. Despite this, concerns have been expressed about whether innocent people could have been caught up in this. The Home Secretary has listened to the apprehensions of some Members, including the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), and has asked officials for further advice. The National Audit Office is also currently in the process of concluding an investigation into the handling of these issues, and this is expected to be published next month. Obviously, the Home Secretary has taken a close interest in the issue and will be reviewing the conclusions of the National Audit Office, and he will make a statement to the House once he has had time to consider the matter in full.

I thank the Minister for her answer, and I am pleased to see the Home Secretary in his place. I congratulate him on achieving one year in his role today. On his first day in the post, I asked him to take a careful look at this issue, and he said that he would. On 1 April this year, I asked him for an update. He said:

“We had a further meeting to make some final decisions just last week, and I will be in touch with him shortly.”—[Official Report, 1 April 2019; Vol. 657, c. 799.]

But in the month since, nothing has been announced. Many students face desperate hardship and need urgently to know the decision, because their future depends on it.

As the Minister said, the Home Office cancelled the visas of those who ETS claimed, from its analysis, had definitely cheated. The claim by ETS that almost 97% of those who sat their test had cheated seems completely implausible, but we will let that pass. Colleges had to expel those who had their visas cancelled. By the end of 2016, there had been more than 35,870 refusal, curtailment and removal decisions in ETS cases and more than 4,600 removals and departures. One estimate is that at least 2,000 of those denied visas are still in the UK.

In-country appeals were not allowed, but some have got cases to court. A growing number have convinced the courts that they did not cheat. One showed that he never actually took a TOEIC test, yet he had his visa cancelled because it was alleged that he had cheated in one. It has proved extraordinarily hard for students to obtain from ETS the recordings said to be of them taking the test. One computer expert told the Appeal Court that ETS’s evidence is worthless. The Appeal Court has criticised the Home Office’s evidence and said in 2017 that it was unlawful to force students to leave the country in order to appeal. Many of those affected speak excellent English so had no motive at all to pay someone else to take the test for them.

Thrown off their courses and denied any refund of their fees, the students cannot study or work. Some invested their families’ life savings to obtain a British degree. The savings have gone. They have no qualification and no income. They depend on kindly friends but say they could not endure the shame of going home with nothing, having apparently been convicted of cheating in the UK. Understandably, mental health problems are rife. Does the Minister agree that those who lost their visas on TOEIC grounds but remain in the UK should have the opportunity to sit a new test and, if they pass, obtain a visa in order to complete their studies and clear their names?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I will return at the outset to the comments I made about the National Audit Office report, which is expected to be published next month. The Home Office has been working closely with the NAO to provide information and evidence, and it is right that the Home Secretary has the opportunity to reflect on the report, consider its findings and come back to the House with a statement.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the court cases that have happened. Under the appeals framework, which is set by Parliament, and the Immigration Act 2014, there are no in-country appeals in the student route, through which these visas were issued, but the Home Office is taking a pragmatic approach. It is important to reflect that we are talking about fraud perpetrated back in 2014, and many people who have ongoing ETS litigation will potentially now have the right to bring a human rights claim. If they are refused under the human rights route, they will then generally have an in-country right of appeal.

There were an enormous number of cases where fraud was found, and matching showed that a number of individuals had taken repeat tests on behalf of thousands of people. There was a criminal trial at the start of this month, which saw a further five convictions. While I appreciate the strongly held beliefs of the right hon. Gentleman, it is important that we reflect that this was fraud on an industrial scale, and we should react responsibly.

I declare an interest, as chair of the all-party parliamentary BBC group, because it was the BBC’s “Panorama” exposé that showed shocking examples of people reading out answers to those sitting the exams. As the Minister said, people have been convicted of fraud. While I have every sympathy with the individual cases, can the Minister ensure that we take very seriously the fact that our international standing as a centre for students will be harmed if we do not root out those who do wrong?

My hon. Friend will be reassured to learn that 400 colleges that had sponsored students linked to ETS already had their licences revoked before the BBC “Panorama” programme. I am conscious that the student route was linked to widescale abuse, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister acted swiftly when she was Home Secretary to remove the licences of a number of bogus colleges. As I said, it is important that we work with the NAO, reflect on its findings and find a way to move forward and assist those who might have been wrongly affected.

The Government’s treatment of innocent students has been unacceptable. Driven by the hostile environment and the net migration target, about 34,000 students’ visas have been cancelled. Can the Minister tell us how many of those cases are ongoing? Are any of these students currently in immigration detention? What steps is she taking to identify and compensate students who were wrongfully removed?

The TOEIC visa scandal has been rumbling for years. The Government have lost case after case in the courts. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) has been raising the issue in Parliament for over a year, and students have been protesting outside Parliament. The Home Secretary told Parliament a year ago that he would look carefully at the issue, but no concrete action has been taken. Does the Minister appreciate the urgency of this issue? Thousands of students are living in limbo, unable to work or study while they attempt to clear their names.

The Windrush scandal exposed a culture of disbelief in the Home Office, motivated by removal targets rather than careful consideration of cases. We were promised a culture change, yet the Home Office is again being investigated by the National Audit Office for its cruel and ineffective handling of immigration cases. Does the Minister accept that the years of suffering these students have endured is a result of the coalition Government’s decision to remove legal aid and appeal rights?

We need a swift resolution to all outstanding TOEIC visa cases. The students have asked to be allowed to re-sit the English language tests, and that is a sensible suggestion. The UK’s reputation as a welcoming place for international students is suffering tremendously. International students are vital to our universities. They enhance the experience of UK students and further our soft power abroad, not to mention subsidising the fees of home students, but reports over the weekend suggested that EU students will be required to pay international fees, which the Minister could not confirm or deny yesterday. We now have the TOEIC visa scandal. What will be next?

The hon. Gentleman has chosen to focus on a very small number of students who may have had incorrect results. What we know, and what the evidence shows, is that our response back in 2014 was driven by systematic fraud that was perpetrated in colleges and has seen significant criminal convictions and sentences of 70 years. We are working with the NAO and through the courts. As I said, the Home Office has taken a pragmatic approach to the judicial reviews and appeals coming through the courts, recognising that many of these individuals have been in the country for a significant period. Of course, the ability to speak English in 2019 does not necessarily mean that an individual did not cheat in 2014 or could speak English to the required level then.

I would like to comment more on what we are doing for international students. The UK has a proud track record of attracting an increasing number of students to this country. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the commitment in the White Paper to continue to have no cap on the number of foreign students coming here and to make a more generous offer for post-study work arrangements for students who choose to come here. It is important that we support our world-class institutions and celebrate the fact that we have five British universities in the top 20 universities globally, and that we saw over the course of the past year a 10% increase in the number of tier 4 visas being applied for.

I was pleased recently to go on a visit to China with the all-party China group, and we met many students there. The dream of many of those students was to come to the UK to go to university. It is therefore absolutely right that we tackle any fraud, and I am pleased by and thank the Minister for the way that she is dealing with this. We have to give clear signals that our world-leading education remains world-leading and that we have an open door for international students to come here to take advantage of that supreme education.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the brilliance of UK universities. I would like to point to the increasing numbers of Chinese and Indian students at the university in my constituency, Southampton, which has done a brilliant job of attracting students from overseas, as indeed have many other institutions countrywide. We do ourselves a disservice if we turn a blind eye to abuse and fraud within the student route. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when she was Home Secretary, took strong action in 2014 to close down bogus colleges, and she was absolutely right to do so.

First, I give my sincere congratulations to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) not only on securing this urgent question but on the manner in which he has relentlessly pursued this issue, which is finally getting the attention it has long deserved. For far, far too many people, this episode represents an absolute travesty of justice. When the Home Office discovered that ETS had completely failed to prevent widespread cheating—indeed, that some ETS staff were actively involved in facilitating it—it should have sacked the company and sought compensation from it. Instead, unbelievably, the Home Office asked ETS to mark its own dodgy homework and re-check the tests. How can that possibly be justified? The Minister referred to evidence, but in fact we are talking about the totally opaque say-so of ETS, on which basis the Home Office decided that thousands of students were guilty, and their lives were subsequently ruined. There is an abundance of evidence that a large number were totally innocent. They deserve an apology, and much more than that. Will she, at the very least, reverse the draconian repeal of in-country appeal rights that deprived many of justice? Will she agree to all that cross-party MPs have been demanding, including, as the right hon. Gentleman said, new tests and restored visas for those who pass, because that is the bare minimum that needs to be done to right this wrong?

The hon. Gentleman will of course be aware of the expert report by Professor Peter French that concluded that false matches were likely to be very small—in the region of 1%—and more likely to give people the benefit of the doubt than to falsely flag people as having cheated. The courts have always said, even when finding against the Home Office on individual facts of a case, that the evidence was sufficient to make accusations of fraud. Of course he will recall from our exchanges during the passage through Committee of the Immigration Bill that this company was suspended from the immigration rules in July of that year and that the Home Office did take legal action against ETS in a case that was settled last year.

The National Audit Office said that up to 50,000 apparent students came to the UK to work, not study, under the Labour Government back in 2009-10, so obviously action needed to be taken to stamp out abuse. I appreciate the Minister’s tone in being willing to listen to the current concerns. Can she assure me that the UK will continue to be open to genuine international students and that we will not put a cap on the numbers who can come here? [Interruption.]

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary just said from a sedentary position, “More open”. Those words are included in the immigration White Paper that was published in December last year. We indicated that there would be no cap on international students and that we wished to make the post-study work regime more generous. However, it is important to reflect that this was about systematic fraud being perpetrated. We took action to stop it then. We must continue to be robust in making sure that we have high standards and requirements for English language testing—that is very important. I absolutely agree that we must celebrate the success of our universities and continue to work hard to attract international students.

I welcome the NAO investigation into this issue. I sense from the Minister’s tone that, while she obviously cannot anticipate the NAO’s report, she is expecting it to raise questions about decision making in individual cases. In that light, may I ask whether she and the Home Office are now looking much more widely at some of the issues that have been persistently raised about the inaccuracy of Home Office decision making in very important immigration cases? What is being done to address some of the cultural problems that have been raised time and again about these decisions, which have such a huge impact on people’s lives and have to be got right?

It would be wrong to prejudge the NAO report, but I would like to reassure the right hon. Lady that Home Office officials have worked closely with the NAO, providing it with information and evidence where requested. As she will know, we are conducting a number of reviews in the Home Office, including, following Windrush, the Wendy Williams lessons learned review, and the forward-looking borders, immigration and citizenship services review. Every day in the job as Immigration Minister, one sees individual cases of people who are impacted by our policies and our rules. It is important that we reflect very closely on that and make sure that we have a review of our BICS system that provides the human face of the Home Office that both the Home Secretary and I are very keen to ensure is seen.

International students coming to this country are a vital source of our soft power because they are friendlily disposed to the United Kingdom after they have studied here and returned home. However, it is clearly important that those people can speak English before they arrive. What message is my right hon. Friend taking to the British Council and other institutions that work abroad to encourage young people to learn English before they come to this country so that they can satisfy the tests and fulfil their destiny?

It is really important that this is a matter not simply for the Home Office but for the Foreign Office and for Government Departments across the whole piece. We want to encourage foreign students to come here to study at our world-class institutions because we know that when they return home after a period of study they take fond memories with them and have a relationship with the UK that lasts throughout the rest of their lives. It is therefore important that we continue to work to promote our great universities. As part of that, there are a number of campaigns, including the GREAT campaign, which does fantastic work promoting the benefits of study in the UK. It is important that that should be a joint piece of work with the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to make sure that we continue to promote the UK as a brilliant place to study.

I echo the very decent sentiments that have been expressed by Members in all parts of the House regarding our horror for the innocent students who are caught up in this trap. I have been here for two years and I am not an expert in home affairs, but there does seem to be a bit of a case history with the Home Office. We have had misfortunes and carelessness, and now we have this. Is now not the time for the Government to seriously consider taking responsibility for immigration, and all we are talking about today, and putting it into a separate Government Department where Ministers can concentrate solely on that?

It is important to reflect that this was a fraud perpetrated in 2014. It is not new. The Government responded then to a systematic fraud, took action and we have seen criminal convictions as a result. However, the hon. Gentleman has made an interesting suggestion about the future of the immigration directorate within the Home Office. Unfortunately, the Home Secretary left moments before he made that point, but I am certain that it will not be lost on him.

What happened to some members of the Windrush generation, through no fault of their own, was simply inexcusable, but at the root of these cases is a fraud that was conducted on a quite industrial scale. Is it not hugely insulting to members of the Windrush generation to try to draw a parallel between the two cases?

I certainly would not draw a parallel. This was criminal behaviour and there have been significant sentences imposed on those who were perpetrating the fraud. Indeed, there are ongoing criminal investigations whereby we may yet see more convictions. It is important that we take stock of this and that we reflect on the NAO report when it is published and made available to us. As I have said, the Home Secretary will come to the House and make a full statement when we have the NAO findings. He continues, and indeed I continue, to review this situation and work out what is the best way forward.

There is no doubt that we are concerned not about those who have committed crimes but about the innocent people who have been caught up in this. If the Government were so confident in ETS, they would not have stopped using ETS. In that context, what financial settlement was reached between the Home Office and ETS after its licence was revoked?

As I mentioned earlier, the licence was revoked in July 2014, and the Home Office moved swiftly to revoke that licence. Action was taken against ETS but, because of the commercial sensitivities, I am afraid I cannot divulge details. However, I will ascertain from Home Office lawyers whether I can write to the hon. Lady and let her have that information.

No one doubts that there was criminal behaviour and cheating, but it has been weeks since we were promised a decision by Ministers, months since we met the Home Secretary to outline concerns about people who had been wrongly implicated, and years during which these students have had their lives left in complete limbo, with them suffering mental ill health, financial hardship, family breakdown and a whole range of other detrimental consequences as a result of being accused of cheating—wrongly—by the British state. When will the Government finally get their act together? The longer this rolls on, and the longer people are caught up in expensive judicial action or lengthy, bureaucratic immigration appeals, the longer that is wasting their time, wasting their lives and wasting taxpayers’ money. Enough is enough.

I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that those who were found to have a questionable result following the ETS investigations were given the opportunity to take a second test to establish their ability to speak English, so they could have taken that option. He was quite aggressive in his questioning, but I must reiterate that I think it is right, and the Home Secretary thinks it is right, to wait for the outcome of the NAO report, which we expect next month.

Nobody is claiming that everybody is innocent. The Minister has quoted legal cases, and those who are guilty deserve everything that they get. However, the Home Office has also lost judgments in the courts. ETS evidence is quoted by the Minister, but that evidence has been challenged and undermined, and now we have a National Audit Office inquiry. Will the Minister confirm that she believes and accepts that there are some innocent students caught up in this mess?

It is important to note that there have been a number of legal cases where students have challenged the decision through judicial review and subsequent immigration appeals. Some of those cases have been upheld by the courts, but not in all instances was that because those people were not thought to have cheated in the test; it was actually because they had been in the UK for such a long time that they had an established article 8 human rights claim to be here, and the Home Office is taking a pragmatic approach to those cases. However, I am very conscious that we have legislation that requires there to be no in-country right of appeal under the student route, and these people were here under the student route. It is right that we wait for the NAO findings, that we reflect on those and that we find a way forward.

One of my constituents, who had been in the UK since 2005, was detained in Dungavel for 10 days because the Home Office claimed she had overstayed and had used deception in her TOEIC test. Neither of those things was true. The first tier tribunal found in her favour; the Home Office appealed, and the appeal was thrown out. It appealed to the upper tier tribunal, but the appeal was then withdrawn. My constituent has been fighting the Home Office for five years. Will the Minister apologise to her and let her and her three-year-old daughter get on with their lives?

Unfortunately, the hon. Lady has not provided any information, and I cannot comment on an individual case on the Floor of the House, but if she cares to write to me about the case, I will look at it.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on raising this issue and pursuing it so strongly. People’s lives have been put in limbo. Since 2014, my constituent Mr Muhammad Arsalan has not been able to work, study or get access to the NHS. That is not because he has been found guilty based on any evidence, but because he has been found guilty by association. If people have cheated, they should face the full force of the law. However, my constituent has not been able to appeal, because he is in country. Yes, he can now challenge on human rights grounds, but that takes time and money. Will the Minister therefore look at the suggestion from my right hon. Friend that, dependent on the outcome of the current investigation, she consider the idea of these people being allowed to sit another test to prove that they are competent in English?

As I have said, we are going to wait for the findings of the NAO. However, it is important to confirm that the Home Office is looking at a range of options as to how we can find a way forward from this situation. The Home Secretary has been pleased to meet a number of Members on this subject. It is a recurring subject of parliamentary questions and Westminster Hall debates. We are looking at it closely, and I hope we will find a way forward when we have had a chance to reflect on the NAO findings.

The Minister rightly talks about the importance of international students, but she will know that our market share fell from 12% in 2010 to 8% in 2016. We are falling behind competitor countries because of reputational damage, and that reputational damage has been added to by people being treated wrongly in this case. Will the Minister therefore tell the House what she will do to restore our reputation and to address some of the concerns about policy issues that have led international students to choose other countries over Britain?

It is important to reflect that overall numbers are up—indeed, they are up 10% in higher education institutions in the last year alone. Of course we want to make sure that the UK can still provide a good and attractive offer to students. I commend to the hon. Gentleman the White Paper published in December, which sets out some of the ways we plan to make that possible.

Yesterday, we had an urgent question about tuition fees for EU nationals post Brexit. Can the Minister confirm whether EU nationals will be required to sit the TOEIC test post Brexit?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. At the current time, there have not been any policy decisions that I am aware of with regard to the English language test. However, it is important—and we have said very clearly in our White Paper—that we will have a single, global system for immigration, where people from all countries will be treated equally.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for securing this question, and I welcome the NAO’s investigation into this issue. I have no doubt that there was systematic cheating, but I seriously doubt the scale—the ETS figures show that only 3.5% of the people who sat the test did not cheat, which seems incredible. What assessment has been made of the number of people whose visas were revoked who are still in the UK, and what would the cost be of allowing them to sit a new English test?

I made the point earlier that evidence of ability to speak English now does not provide evidence of ability to speak English back in 2014. What the courts have consistently found is that the evidence we had in 2014 was sufficient to make accusations of fraud. This was wide-scale, and we saw enormous numbers of proxy tests being taken on behalf of individuals for a wide variety of reasons. The Government acted swiftly to clamp down on bogus colleges and to revoke the licence of ETS. However, it is important that we reflect on the situation of those who remain in this country and, as I have said, the Home Office has taken a pragmatic approach when looking at the article 8 claims of individuals who have been caught up in the TOEIC issue.