House of Commons
Tuesday 11 June 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—
In May I announced an additional £28 million, from the £250 million Faraday challenge, for the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre, where industry will test next generation world-leading technologies.
Does the Secretary of State agree that for electric vehicles to thrive additional capacity will be required, and that energy efficiency measures to bring every home to an energy performance certificate C standard are vital in delivering that, as they will reduce energy consumption by 25% and free that capacity for electric vehicle use?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. She is right to point out the connections between our energy systems and the future of mobility in how we drive cars. That is why the industrial strategy sets up both as grand challenges and why the Faraday Challenge addresses both of them.
The Welsh Government are also promoting the development of electric vehicles, including the associated network of electric charging points. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure liaison across the border between England and Wales to deliver the best possible distribution of electric vehicle charging points?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is clear that if drivers are to have the confidence that they will be able to charge their vehicles, every part of the United Kingdom needs to be a part of that. My hon. Friends and I have regular discussions with the Welsh Government, and the roll-out of the charging network is in all parts of the United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State knows that many of my constituents work in the automotive industry and how serious the situation is with Brexit. Constituents are writing to me to ask why there are so few charging points in the Wirral. This is a huge issue. Will he do something that this Government really have control over and take action now on the business rates impact on the automotive industry, so we can at last have some positive news for the automotive industry in Britain?
I think the hon. Lady knows that I have regular discussions with Vauxhall and its owner PSA. In fact, PSA has invested very substantially. One of its most recent major investments in Europe was to strengthen the Luton plant with the next generation of technology. We talked to it about investment in Ellesmere Port, which she knows is important.
In terms of charging points, we have one of the best charging networks in Europe, but we need to expand it further. As the hon. Lady knows, through the automotive sector deal we have a very close relationship with the industry and work jointly with it.
May I press the Secretary of State on yesterday’s statement from the Secretary of State for Wales in relation to Ford? There is capacity in the Bridgend plant and it would be a very good way to keep it open. Will he work with the Welsh Government to ensure that electric batteries can be constructed at Ford, to help to keep the jobs in and around my community?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I am delighted he was in the discussion that we had yesterday and that he will serve on the taskforce that has been established. The quality of the workforce, its facilities and connections represent a fantastic opportunity for new investment, whether by Ford or by others in the automotive sector. We work very closely to bring in those investments.
I commend the Secretary of State and the Department for the Faraday challenge and the development of battery technology. However, does he agree that to have successful battery technology in the UK we need a successful automotive manufacturing sector, and that to do that we need a very close relationship with the EU for frictionless trade and everything that goes with it?
My hon. Friend is right. In his time, he worked very hard to secure some of the investments that have been made. The automotive industry, along with many others, has always been clear that the strengths of the UK are at least in part drawn from our ability to export and import components very flexibly without delay. It is vital that that should continue.
The take-up of electric vehicles is growing very quickly in this country. The investment that we are making in the charging network, with 17,000 public charging points, is a very important contribution to that. In the weeks ahead, the hon. Gentleman will see further announcements on how we can accelerate the deployment of charging technology.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State has received his invitation to the reveal of Lotus’s new electric hypercar on 16 July. It is the world’s first electric hypercar—designed, engineered and built in Britain. In a week when the motor industry has had some difficult news, does he agree that this is a great shot in the arm for the UK motor industry?
It is indeed a great shot in the arm and I hope that I will see my hon. Friend there to celebrate it. It is fair to reflect that this is a difficult, challenging time for the automotive industry around the world, but through the decisions that we took in the industrial strategy to emphasise battery electric vehicles and the new technology, and connected and autonomous vehicles, we have made the right judgment about how to attract the jobs and companies that will be expanding in the future.
Given the ongoing problems in recent years regarding the UK automotive sector and the ongoing problems affecting Tesla, is there not an opportunity for the Minister and the Government to approach Tesla and the UK automotive industry to see whether some acquisition could be arrived at to produce electric cars in this country?
We have many discussions. Just a few days ago, I had a major potential investor in battery technology in my office to discuss a potential investment. Through the Automotive Council, we work very closely with the sector, and the national battery manufacturing centre is a collaboration between the players in the industry that gives them confidence to be able to invest for the future in the UK.
It is important that we have a realistic move to the new fleet that we need. The targets were adopted in consultation with the industry. A lot of the capital investment needs to take place over a substantial period of time, and I would not want a situation in which we lost jobs and opportunities by setting a target that was not deliverable and feasible for manufacturers.
Might I begin by expressing my support for the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) in bringing forward her Bill today to legislate for net zero emissions by 2050? To achieve that, supporting our automotive industry will be vital, but Ford had warned that leaving the EU would add hundreds of millions to its costs, and after the vote, it said that it was considering closing plants. This warning has come to pass. Ford is now saying that another 6,000 jobs could be at risk in the event of no deal, which is particularly concerning now that it looks likely that the next PM will actively pursue it. What direct support has the Secretary of State offered Ford to reverse its decision, and has he considered the impact of a no deal on manufacturing when deciding who to back as the next Prime Minister?
We have led the world and the cross-party consensus across the House on our move to net zero. The hon. Lady will know that just this week, the International Energy Agency described the Government’s efforts as
“an inspiration for many countries who seek to design effective decarbonisation frameworks.”
When it comes to Ford and the automotive sector, she is right that companies in the sector have been crystal clear that we need to leave the European Union with a deal that allows us to continue to trade without frictions so that we are able to grasp the opportunities that we will have in the future. All my efforts are directed at securing that deal.
I actually asked about what support had been offered to Ford. Last night I spoke to a Bridgend councillor, who said
“We don’t need taskforces, commissions or working groups, we desperately need investment in Bridgend now.”
Sadly, it is not looking like any of the candidates for PM will support our car industry going forward. One thinks he knows more about car manufacturing than the boss of Jaguar Land Rover. Another said that there will be a stronger manufacturing base if we leave. Another denies that Nissan’s decision to pull the X-Trail was about Brexit, despite the company highlighting uncertainty; and the one who is allegedly the most reasonable has said that he is prepared to leave without a deal if there is a straight choice. Is it not the truth that whoever takes over as PM will drive manufacturing into the ground with their reckless approach to Brexit and that the Secretary of State’s legacy will sadly be decimated industries across our country?
If the hon. Lady talks to people in the sector, she will know that the work we do with all companies in the sector is well respected and well regarded, whether that is the Faraday challenge or the support for individual companies such as we have seen in recent years. That support is available to Ford just as it is to any company working in the sector. As part of the work we are doing with the Welsh Government, we will attract a new investor to make use of those facilities and keep jobs for the future.
In terms of the relationship with the European Union, most, if not all, automotive suppliers want to see us reach a deal. That is my view, and I hope it is the hon. Lady’s view. In fairness, they have also said that the deal negotiated by the Prime Minister should have been approved. It is therefore of regret to me that that advice was not followed.
As my right hon. Friend is aware, the UK is considered to have one of the best intellectual property systems in the world, and we work continually to help keep that position. The Intellectual Property Office has committed in its recently published strategy to working towards making infringement socially unacceptable. We have commissioned research into consumer attitudes to counterfeit goods in order to assist with that.
Is my hon. Friend aware that online piracy of video and music content is still doing considerable damage to our creative industries? In particular, beoutQ, based in Saudi Arabia, is stealing content from a wide range of UK rights holders. Will he see what further measures can be taken to tackle this problem? Will he consider including economic harms in the scope of the measures set out in the Government’s Online Harms White Paper?
Online piracy of any content is a key concern for the Government. We are aware of the specific issues with beoutQ and raised the matter with the Saudi Arabian Government. We will continue to make representations about its alleged infringement of UK creative content and support efforts to tackle piracy, wherever it occurs. However, the White Paper is to have a targeted approach that focuses on harms to individuals; it is not about economic harm to businesses.
It is not just in intellectual property where we need better legal protections. My constituent Mr Michael McGrory of Stalybridge recently took his employer to an employment tribunal for unauthorised deduction of wages, for breach of contract and for disability discrimination. He won his case but, rather than pay up, the company went into liquidation. The same directors set up the same business in the same premises under a different company registration and name. As a result, Mr McGrory cannot get his award enforced. Does the Minister agree that that is wrong? If so, how might we change the company formation process to stop that happening?
I have great sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. Obviously, we provide funding for the police intellectual property crime unit, which has seen 94 investigations and arrested or voluntarily interviewed 106 individuals recently. The maximum criminal penalties for copyright infringement have increased since 2017 from two years to 10 years. We are determined to do more, which is why we have a conference with the World Intellectual Property Organisation in London on 18 and 19 June, because we need an international response. I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale): this is an international issue, and we need to ensure that we take action.
Small Businesses: Morley and Outwood
In the Leeds city region, 66 businesses in Morley and Outwood have been directly supported, with £1 million in grant funding to help them create nearly 200 jobs. The AD:Venture initiative, which is available to start-ups in the first three years of trading in the Leeds city region, provides grants of up to £25,000. That is alongside a range of other support including academic support and coaching.
My hon. Friend will know that in 2017 the UK was the second biggest market in the EU for ultra low emission vehicles. Alfa Power, a company in my constituency, is a fine example of British engagement in the sector. What steps is he taking to further the sector’s progress? Next time he is in Yorkshire, will he visit Alfa Power to see the great work it is doing in electric charging points throughout Yorkshire?
I should be delighted to visit. The Government are investing nearly £1.5 billion until March 2021 to help to grow the market for ultra-low-emission vehicles. Yesterday I was pleased to announce £33 million of funding for the winners of the Advanced Propulsion Centre’s 12th competition. These latest projects focus on electrification and the future of low-emission vehicles as we aim to advance the UK’s low-carbon capacity.
I am sure that the members of the ministerial team know that Huddersfield and Morley and Outwood are part of the dynamic Leeds city region, but are they aware of the Power Up The North campaign, which was launched this week? It needs to receive a lot of interest. It is intended to help small businesses to grow even faster and go further in our northern constituencies. Will the Minister put his efforts behind it?
I am delighted about the Power Up The North campaign. I wholeheartedly support it, and I am very pleased that my Department has been bolstered by the addition of the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), who will help to further our work on the northern powerhouse. The Government are investing £694 million in the Leeds city region through growth deals, creating up to 10,000 jobs, allowing more than 2,000 homes to be built, and creating up to £640 million in public and private investment.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I draw the Minister’s attention to Hull, one of the great cities that are part of the northern powerhouse? He is aware of the appalling way in which some of the people working for Grotto Hire have been treated—those who were not paid over Christmas. I have met the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), to discuss the issue. What has the Department done to try to recover that money since our last meeting?
The British Retail Consortium has reported that the high-street footfall is at a six-year low. Town centre businesses across the country are closing. Labour has a five-point plan to reinvigorate our high streets, in stark contrast to the Government’s worn-out platitudes and failure to act. Precisely when is the Minister going to produce a plan—or will the Government just keep walking by on the other side of the high street?
Fuel Poverty: North-East
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) has taken temporary ministerial leave of absence on compassionate grounds, I shall be answering all the questions relating to energy and clean growth today.
The Government made a manifesto commitment to tackle fuel poverty by upgrading fuel-poor homes to energy efficiency band C by 2030. Nearly 800,000 fewer fuel-poor households are living in the least efficient homes than was the case in 2010. We have also refocused the Government’s energy company obligation, and thousands of homes in the north-east have been improved as a result.
It should be borne in mind that the fuel poverty metric is relative, which means that the number of people in fuel poverty will always fluctuate between 10% and 12%. It is important to focus on the average fuel poverty gap, which fell to £326 in 2016 from £341 in 2015.
We have been making good progress in reducing fuel poverty in Cornwall, but we could really do with some help with supercharging that progress. When will the Government publish their plan to deliver the excellent home energy efficiency targets in the clean growth strategy? If we could do that, it would save people, on average, about £400 a year.
Offshore Wind Supply: Rates of Pay
In the autumn the Government will introduce legislation to extend the right to receive the national minimum wage to seafarers operating in UK territorial seas. Any business, British or otherwise, benefiting from consumer subsidies and the growth of UK offshore wind has a clear moral responsibility to abide by the spirit of UK employment law, even where operations take them beyond the UK’s formal jurisdiction.
I think that is the most helpful answer I have had in this place since I got elected nine years ago so I am grateful to the Minister for that, but why do we have to wait until the autumn when she could introduce secondary legislation and close this loophole now?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supplementary question. This is a complicated process; I have been working with my counterparts in the Department for Transport and we are committed to delivering this legislation in the autumn. As I mentioned at previous questions sessions, we have also doubled our enforcement on the national minimum wage and are determined to make sure we are tackling all areas where people are not upholding the spirit of UK employment law.
It is disgraceful that P&O Ferries is employing Lithuanian cooks sailing from Hull to Zeebrugge on the “Pride of York” at €2.04 an hour. Filipino able-bodied seafarers crewing the “Pride of Hull” are paid $4.45 an hour. Will the Minister meet me to see what we can do together to stop these predatory capitalist companies taking advantage of foreign crews? This amounts to slave labour.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this point, and he is absolutely right: this is unacceptable, and I am more than happy to meet him to discuss it. But I just want to reiterate that the law is clear that any individual undertaking work in the UK is entitled to receive the national minimum wage; this includes workers in different sectors, which is why we are taking this action, and we will be laying legislation in the autumn.
Shared Prosperity Fund
The Prime Minister recently appointed me as a joint Minister in this Department and in my existing role in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. That shows the Government’s commitment to drive forward the northern powerhouse, which has always been a partnership between local government, national Government, the industrial strategy and business. In this role I will continue to hold regular meetings to discuss EU exit, and the UK shared prosperity fund will remain a priority in that.
The Prime Minister told me in December 2018 that a consultation on the UK shared prosperity fund would take place by the end of that year. The silence on progress with this fund to replace the EU structural fund, worth €2.4 billion a year, is deafening and the lack of detail and communication is shameful given that these funds are designed to help all communities prosper. Will the Secretary of State tell us once and for all, when this fund will be designed and implemented? Will it match current levels or is this important fund going to be yet another casualty of Brexit?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that this Government have set forward our ambition to deliver a UK shared prosperity fund that creates wealth, growth and jobs in all parts of our United Kingdom. We have been clear that we will respect the devolution settlement, and we have been absolutely clear that we will consult the Scottish Government and other devolved Governments before we start the consultation on that. But the hon. Lady does not have to wait until then, because there have been meetings between officials and over 500 stakeholders at 25 official events across the country, and I am sure the hon. Lady will look forward to taking part in future events.
The shared prosperity fund represents a really good opportunity to improve the way in which we support poorer communities with funding—far too much of the EU structural funding has been wasted in the past—but will the Minister take this opportunity to scotch some of the scaremongering that we have heard in recent days about how the new shared prosperity fund will lead to a net loss for places such as Wales and a net gain for the south-east? The House of Commons Library has confirmed to me that this recent study is based on unfair comparisons.
I would not question the authority, even-handedness and open-mindedness of House of Commons Library. I would direct my right hon. Friend to the debate that took place in Westminster Hall on 14 May, led by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), in which colleagues and the Government set out in considerable detail our ambition to drive jobs, growth and prosperity in all parts of our United Kingdom through this fund.
Research from the independent Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions has shown that Scotland stands to lose nearly €1 billion of funding if the UK Government do not match EU funding after 2020. Given what the Minister has said about his responsibilities, will he tell us which of the 10 candidates for Prime Minister have given guarantees to replace every penny of this funding and retain Holyrood’s role in disbursing it?
It is welcome that the hon. Gentleman wants to play such an active and full part in the Conservative leadership election, but he knows, as I do, that decisions about the UK shared prosperity fund, on quantum and all other matters, will be taken during the comprehensive spending review and the consultation. I would say to him that the Scottish Government must absolutely play their part in being an advocate for the areas of Scotland that share this Government’s ambition to create jobs, wealth and growth through the UK shared prosperity fund, mirroring in many ways what is being achieved through European funds.
The public will have heard that answer, which is clearly insufficient and not good enough. The highlands and islands alone stand to lose €180 million, and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said that he is willing to grab control of devolved spending. Is it any wonder that the Scottish public are now looking to Scotland being an independent nation state in Europe with an equal seat at the table, rather than this shambles?
Well, Mr Speaker, if you want a strong demonstration that this country is better together, you need look no further than the highlands and islands growth deal, a partnership between the UK Government and the Scottish Government that is changing lives for people across the highlands and islands. That is a demonstration in one Government policy of why this Union should stay together.
Small Businesses: Scotland
We engage regularly with the Secretary of State for Scotland on how we can achieve our industrial strategy aim to make the UK the best place to start and grow a business. The British Business Bank has supported 5,219 small and medium-sized enterprises in Scotland with more than £898 million to date. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) will be pleased to know that the bank’s start-up loans programme has delivered 61 loans totalling more than £253,000 in his constituency.
As the House is aware, high streets are under pressure as a result of the changing retail landscape. Sadly, in Ayr, we lost our independent department store, Hourstons, earlier this year. It had been trading for 123 years. Will my hon. Friend outline what support is available to local businesses to ensure that they can remain at the heart of their communities?
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the loss of a department store in his constituency. Let me assure him that the Minister with responsibility for high streets—the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry)—and I are committed to working together to support the businesses at the heart of our communities across the country and to deliver the £1.6 billion plan for our high streets, including via the Retail Sector Council. The Ayrshire growth deal, with £103 million of UK Government funding, in my hon. Friend’s constituency—of which he has been a keen supporter—will also help the wider business community.
The business growth accelerator suspends rates for new builds or renovated properties for 12 months, and this Scotland-wide policy has encouraged new development across the country. Is it not the case that while Brexit is set to push the economy off the cliff, the Scottish National party is the only party supporting Scotland’s small businesses?
It will come as no surprise to the hon. Gentleman that I disagree with him. UK Government investment in city region and growth deals in Scotland is now more than £1.3 billion, and there are 48,000 more enterprises operating in Scotland than there were in 2010. We are committed to delivering economic growth and business support across the country, but as the hon. Gentleman will know, it was his Government’s decision to bring in the highest taxes—
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this topic. Following the Department’s internal review, we will now consult on the options to provide further support to the parents of premature, sick and multiple babies before the end of the summer. The consultation will be informed by the review’s findings, and I am grateful to Bliss, The Smallest Things and the many Members across the House who have spoken to me and lobbied on the matter.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Targets
I join colleagues from across the House in welcoming the Committee’s seminal report on net zero. The UK’s record in tackling climate change is world leading, and the CCC’s report sets out a path for us to continue that legacy by becoming the first major economy to legislate to end our contribution to global warming. The Government recognise the need for urgent action on climate change, which is why we asked for this advice last October, and we will respond in a timeframe that reflects that urgency.
I am sure that, like me, many Members receive beautifully handwritten letters from schoolchildren. Nine-year-old Elizabeth from West Oxford Community Primary School says:
“Words are not enough—urgent action is needed within the next decade if the world is going to survive as we know it.”
Out of the mouths of babes—but not all of them are learning about climate change. Will the Minister work with the Department for Education to ensure that all children, including those at key stages 1 and 2, learn about this incredibly important matter?
I certainly have the opportunity to do so, because I also sit in the Department for Education as Universities Minister. The Secretary of State for Education is keen to highlight that climate change is taught in schools, but I will pass on the hon. Lady’s comments about ensuring that the next generation continue to learn about the urgency with which we need to tackle climate change.
We recently went for two weeks without using coal in our electricity mix, largely due to the use of lower greenhouse gas-emitting natural gas. Does my hon. Friend remain committed to the North sea oil and gas industry, which supports 120,000 jobs in Scotland and 280,000 across the United Kingdom as a whole?
My hon. Friend hits upon a crucial point. If we are to have clean growth and a sustainable pathway towards net zero, we must ensure that we continue to use gas. We have weaned ourselves off coal, and it is remarkable that we went 18 days and seven hours without coal—not that I was counting. Anyone can follow the reduction in the use of coal over the past seven years, which has happened because we have been able to adapt and put gas back on the market. Going forward, we will have to ensure that we invest in a multitude of energy sources, including solar and other renewables, but gas will be a vital part of the mix in a sustainable transition.
It is incredibly important that the Government are committed to publishing an energy White Paper this summer. As for targets, we have already taken forward the grand challenges of setting out missions for transport and buildings, for example. Clean buildings are incredibly important, because 28 million buildings make up 25% of all carbon emissions. We are beginning that work, and we will be putting bids together in the run-up to the spending review that reflect the grand challenges and those missions.
Does my hon. Friend agree with the CBI, which says that the Labour party’s plans to renationalise the energy system are already harming our efforts to tackle climate change? What commitments will he make about continuing to reduce our emissions to zero?
I think the key point is that the reforms that have led to the reduction in the use of coal over the past seven years have been taken forward using a market-based strategy. That was highlighted last week in a report by the International Energy Agency, which praised the UK’s commitments to addressing climate change by using market-based approaches.
We have a moral obligation to bring our carbon emissions down to net zero, and there are real economic and social benefits in doing so. Although the Chancellor has expressed his scepticism, despite the fact that we face a climate catastrophe, will the Minister offer real leadership and commit the Government to supporting the Bill I will be presenting to the House this afternoon to bring down our carbon emissions to net zero by 2050?
I will certainly be present to listen to the hon. Lady’s Bill. I want to make that commitment, but I recognise that across this House, across all parties, we cannot do this simply by taking a party political approach. It was her Government that passed the landmark Climate Change Act 2008, which introduced the carbon budgets that now allow us to adapt the legislation to look towards net zero.
There must be a whole Government approach, and I want to be able to work towards that. When it comes to looking at carbon budgets and the baselines, those are specific issues on which I want to work with the Committee on Climate Change. I look forward to hearing the hon. Lady’s Bill, on which we all want to move forward together.
I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities while the right hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) is on compassionate leave. We hope the right hon. Lady makes a speedy return to the House.
Assuming the Government will do the right thing and legislate for net zero by 2050, in line with the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change, why has the Minister decided to weaken the third carbon budget by carrying over surplus emissions from the second carbon budget, against the committee’s specific advice?
While the Minister is at the Dispatch Box, perhaps he will confirm that net zero can be achieved within the current cost envelope for an 80% reduction of 1% to 2% of GDP. The Chancellor’s claim of £1 trillion spuriously adds together all the costs over the next 21 years and fails to subtract any of the benefits or savings.
It is important to put on record the content of the Government’s letter to the Committee on Climate Change. After careful consideration of the committee’s advice, the Government decided to hold in reserve a small proportion of over performance from carbon budget 2—88 megatonnes of a total over performance of 384 megatonnes. The reserve will act solely as a contingency. [Interruption.] I have 384 mega- tonnes, but I will happily correct the record when I look at the statistics. Eighty-eight megatonnes are being held in reserve and act solely as a contingency against changes in the baseline. This will be released once it is clear that it will not be needed to address any technical changes to the baseline. We have also asked the Committee on Climate Change to look at those technical changes. We would not have asked the committee to take forward work on net zero if we did not believe we will be able to implement this.
When it comes to the cost reduction, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that costs have come down on technology and will continue to come down. The Committee on Climate Change has made it clear that it can be done within the envelope of 1% to 2% of GDP, as set out for the 80% reduction.
Post Office Services: Rural Areas
The Government absolutely recognise the importance of post offices to rural communities across the UK. There are over 11,500 post offices nationwide, and Government subsidy safeguards post offices, which can be the last shop in the village, so that they can continue to serve their communities. The Post Office delivered almost £10 million of investment via the community fund between 2014 and 2018 to facilitate rural community branches to invest in their retail businesses.
I thank the Minister for her response but, unfortunately, there is one fewer post office today, as Porthleven post office in west Cornwall closes. Six months ago, the Minister said from the Dispatch Box that, guided by the Post Office, a mobile service will be available in west Cornwall to deal with the nine post offices that have so far closed and are now no longer available. Can she please tell me when we will get that mobile service so that people can once again access post office services?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has long been a campaigner for post offices in his region. It is true that west Cornwall communities have been unduly inconvenienced, and he is right that the Post Office is now waiting for Cornwall Council to issue a formal permit to formalise the agreement. I have been assured that, due to the closure of Porthleven post office this morning, there will be a weekly mobile service in place very shortly. I just want to highlight that, with such a diverse network in many different locations and settings, it is true that some post offices will close due to unforeseen circumstances and lots of other reasons. It is important that the Post Office keeps up with that challenge to make sure our communities are well served.
With banks closing their rural branches, post offices are the last places where people can access cash. However, as I know from the experience of Pontllanfraith in my constituency, it is increasingly difficult to replace postmasters who give up their tenancy. What can the Government do to work with the Post Office to encourage more people to take up postmaster and postmistress jobs?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. A key part of what the Post Office has done is to renegotiate the banking framework, which has seen remuneration for postmasters increase significantly—it has doubled, and trebled in some cases. On Thursday, I will be hosting a meeting with Post Office Ltd and the National Federation of SubPostmasters, where we are hoping to tackle some of the issues about the economic viability of sub-post offices.
My hon. Friend is right: Government have a responsibility to ensure that we work together across Government to ensure that services can be provided through the post office. We must celebrate the fact that the Post Office, for the first time in a number of years, has become profitable. We have the most stable network in decades. Under the last Labour Government, over 7,000 branches shut. We are making sure that we maintain the number of post offices; in fact, we have opened 400 since 2017.
One of the silver linings of the decision of the high street banks to abandon our town centres is that post offices are now able to pick up that slack. The Minister said earlier that she was meeting with Post Office Ltd and that the income that postmasters get from banking transactions has trebled. The reality is that they are getting a few pence for every £1,000 of work that they do for the banks, so a trebling is still a pittance. Will she ensure that the banks remunerate our post offices for, basically, doing the work that they have left behind?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about banks moving away from our high streets and the post offices picking up the slack. That is why I am proud of what Post Office Ltd has done in negotiating this new framework. I disagree with him when he says that what postmasters receive is a pittance. In fact, the remuneration has doubled or trebled; it has increased significantly. The Post Office will also be bringing that forward: it will be remunerating postmasters from October, rather than January, when the framework comes into place.
The new report by a representative group of sub-postmasters notes that a fifth of sub-postmasters are planning to leave the profession, due to increasing financial pressures—indeed we have heard, from different sources, of postmasters earning well below the minimum wage. The result could be the closure of 2,500 branches, threatening the viability and sustainability of the entire network. What discussions has the Minister had with the Post Office to ensure that sub-postmasters are getting a fair deal? Will she urge the Post Office to look at contingency plans to ensure that such closures do not occur?
It is true that Members across the House care deeply about our Post Office, and so do the Government. The number of branches remains at its most stable for a decade. To give the hon. Lady some reassurance, my meetings on Thursday will include one of the formal meetings held quarterly—with ministerial oversight—between Post Office Ltd and the National Federation of SubPostmasters to tackle some of the key issues.
I reiterate at the Dispatch Box that Post Office Ltd will be undertaking a review of pay, which will report back in the autumn. I agree that any sub-postmaster who wants to take on a post office franchise must be able to do so in the knowledge that it is financially viable. We are supporting them, and the Post Office is supporting them, to serve their communities.
Leaving the EU: Scottish Business Support
The UK Government have provided the Scottish Government with almost £100 million to prepare for EU exit, alongside funding to support businesses with training and IT improvements. As we have heard in this question session, we have also supported businesses in Scotland through the city deals programme, including over £100 million for the Ayrshire growth deal in the hon. Lady’s constituency, which I know she welcomes.
I do welcome that, but an Ernst & Young report shows that, although 74% of Scottish firms have taken steps to get ready for Brexit, only 8% feel fully prepared. As 30% of manufactured goods go to the EU, will the Secretary of State accept the Institute of Directors’ call for £750 million to provide a Brexit advice service for small firms?
I work closely with the Institute of Directors and other business organisations to make sure that information is available to their members and others. We will continue to do that over the months ahead, but it remains my ambition that we should have a deal that allows us to continue the successful trade that the hon. Lady mentions.
I am pleased to inform hon. Members that yesterday the Government launched their smart export guarantee, which will ensure that all small-scale generators are paid for the power they export to the grid. Supported by Government investment, residential solar installations are now 50% cheaper than they were in 2011 and, alongside technologies such as batteries, will help consumers to export energy to the grid when it is needed, reducing their bills and making solar more accessible and affordable than ever before.
With all due respect, only this Government could dress up a 94% collapse in domestic solar installations as a success. They now plan to slap 20% VAT on solar and storage and to replace the certainty of the feed-in tariff export payments with a lick-and-a-promise scheme with no certain payment rates and no guaranteed periods. Why does the Minister not just admit that, as ever, the Tories always side with big and dirty rather than with clean and local?
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the drop in solar installations, which came about at the end of the feed-in tariff scheme. March was a record month for installations in the last two years, as we saw a rush for applications before the scheme closed. We had a question earlier about fuel poverty, and the point about the feed-in tariff is that, although it was important at the time and helped 850,000 people to use solar panels on their households, it was going to cost £30 billion, which would mean an average of £14 on every single household’s bill. We must now look into moving forward so that we can take a locally adopted position and ensure that we can generate a market.
I will try to be more positive than the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), but there has been concern among the industry, including AS Solar, about the proposed changes for reduced rate VAT for energy-saving materials. This presents a roadblock for many of the 60% of households that hope one day to get photovoltaic and battery storage, so will the Minister meet me urgently to discuss the matter to ensure that the solar industry gets this support from the Government?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising those points, which reflect what the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) mentioned in the previous question. This obviously comes on the back of a specific European Court of Justice ruling. I understand Members’ concerns and sympathise with the industry, but I reassure the House that VAT continues to be zero rated for installations on new build housing. I will happily meet my hon. Friend to discuss the opportunities for future change.
I welcome the timely launch of the smart export guarantee yesterday, but many people will be disappointed by the decision not to set a minimum floor price to protect consumers and the domestic solar market. Under the proposals, it will be left to suppliers to set tariffs. If it becomes apparent that the market is failing to sustain fair remuneration for households that export to the grid, how swiftly can we expect the Government to intervene?
The export market is clearly developing, and it is important to recognise that several suppliers are beginning to offer trial export tariffs, either in line with the wholesale price or at the same level or higher than the feed-in tariff export guarantee rate. Those suppliers include Octopus and Bulb, which have welcomed the changes. It is important that the policy can develop so that we can make sure that we see future development.
Solar power is an important part of the energy mix. What plans do the Government have to help community groups to ensure that community buildings are built to be self-sufficient by producing their own electricity and selling to the grid, and to put solar panels on the roofs of Government buildings?
There are a number of pilots on community buildings that we will be taking forward but, specifically, the smart export guarantee ensures that providers with up to 5 MW of production of solar electricity can export back to the grid. If we consider Blackfriars railway station—there is about 5 MW there—we can see the opportunity for community halls and community infrastructures to sell their energy back to the grid.
Business Growth: North of England
The industrial strategy is driving the northern powerhouse across the north of England. Our Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund, which recently celebrated its second anniversary, has invested directly in northern businesses: £104 million, supporting 410 small and medium-sized enterprises.
I thank the Minister for his answer. I would also like to see Ministers throw their weight behind the Power Up The North campaign but, given that the current Prime Minister banned all mention of the northern powerhouse when she took office and that most of the candidates to succeed her are southern MPs, and one is a former Mayor of London, is there not a real risk that the northern powerhouse agenda will fall off a cliff with a new Tory Prime Minister?
I fully support the Power Up The North campaign. Modesty precludes me from saying that its proposal that the northern powerhouse Minister be a full Cabinet position should be considered by all future leaders of the Conservative party. I hope that, when the hon. Lady goes back to her constituency, she will channel “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” and say that, apart from the £7 billion devolution deal, the £38 million contribution towards a Graphene centre, a £10 million relief road, a £15 million international screen school, the £5 million Pankhurst Centre and a £243 million transport fund for people in Greater Manchester and her constituency—what has the northern powerhouse ever done for us?
I know that the Secretary of State and my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), are working tirelessly to support the steel industry across the country and I know that they will continue to look at how they can support Grimsby steel.
In the north, European structural funds helped to create 70,000 jobs and 16,000 new businesses between 2007 and 2013. The Minister’s complacent and lackadaisical refusal to divulge any details of the shared prosperity fund raises real doubts that this will be a true replacement for those vital funds enabling significant regional decision making. So will he put the north above party infighting, help power up the north and commit to giving details of that fund before the end of the Tory leadership election?
I agree with the hon. Lady that people like me and her, who have been born and brought up in the north of England for our entire lives, can see that European structural funds have made a real difference. That is why this Government, with their UK shared prosperity fund, are absolutely committed to driving jobs and growth not least across the north of England. On the consultation on the shared prosperity fund, 500 stakeholders have been consulted so far at 25 events and that has included consultation by me with the northern metro mayors and all other mayors. I look forward to working with the new North of Tyne Mayor in Newcastle not least on this but also to discuss how he can spend £345 million—
Mr Speaker: Order.
Since our previous questions, we have launched the west midlands local industrial strategy in Coventry, building on the region’s reputation for excellence in low-emissions vehicles, with further funding for the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre. Shortly after the recommendation by the Committee on Climate Change that we legislate to reach net zero emissions by 2050, Britain enjoyed its first ever coal-free fortnight since the industrial revolution. We will make our response to the committee’s report shortly to reaffirm our commitment to leadership in this important endeavour.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point on behalf of one of the sunnier parts of the country. The public sector energy efficiency loans scheme is open to public bodies so that they are able to invest in just that technology. I will ensure that he has the full details of that scheme, which might also interest the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), given his question.
Obviously, any decision on future funds will be made within the spending review, but I can absolutely say that it is vital that we work cross-departmentally to look at how we can harness all the resources of Government towards tackling climate change. The Secretary of State for International Development has made that commitment personally, and I can double down on that commitment to ensure that we tackle climate change in the poorest countries in the world.
I recognise the key role that my hon. Friend played in instigating the review when he was in post. Consumer safety is a Government priority and I assure him that we have kept Whirlpool’s action under review. I can tell the House that we have informed Whirlpool of our intention to serve a recall notice as the next step of the regulatory process. This is unprecedented action.
The Government have been clear in our response to the Augar review that we want to reflect on its recommendations. We will take this forward as part of the spending review while the post-18 review reaches its conclusions. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the future of research in this country is about ensuring that universities act as magnets to draw business in. Just yesterday, I attended the launch of the University of Bath’s Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems at the Bristol and Bath Science Park. It is absolutely right that we must cherish universities’ research capabilities.
My officials are in regular contact with the Treasury and MHCLG to represent the views of business. Last week, we welcomed the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), to BEIS so he now holds ministerial roles in this Department and in MHCLG, as Minister for the northern powerhouse and local growth. This further strengthens our relationship. We look forward to continuing to work together to support these businesses and make proper representations to the Treasury.
I regularly speak with a range of steel companies. Since 2013 the Government have provided more than £291 million to the steel sector for the costs of renewables and climate change policies, including over £53 million compensation during 2018.
I can indeed, and I commend my hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. The life sciences sector deal has provided a means for investment to take place right across the sector. In fact, that deal has been so successful that we are on the second version of it, and further investments will be announced shortly.
What has the Department done to monitor the growth of short-hours contracts in supermarkets, which have led 76% of USDAW members on low pay to rely on unsecured loans to pay everyday bills, with 63% believing that financial worries are affecting their mental health? Will the Secretary of State meet USDAW to discuss its recent survey in detail?
I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this, but I would like to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to upgrade workers’ rights, protecting the most vulnerable workers. Our legal framework already ensures that employers should always treat their employees fairly, and our good work plan will introduce the biggest upgrade in workers’ rights in a generation. In the retail sector specifically, the industry-led Retail Sector Council has identified that employment is a key priority for the workstream and we will be discussing that on 20 June.
At the last BEIS questions, my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary gave a positive response to my suggestion of a wide-scale roll-out of solar on every public sector building—every school, hospital and prison. Is he interested in taking that proposal forward?
Absolutely. Access to free cashpoints is an important part of our high streets and I personally, as a constituency MP, have made representations on that to the banking sector. However, through the post office network, we already have a great deal for offering cashpoints in post offices with the Bank of Ireland. I hope to make sure that Post Office Ltd extends that service. We continue to campaign and talk to the Treasury to make sure that we still offer those cashpoint services.
The Secretary of State knows that Rothamsted Research in Harpenden does amazing work in agricultural science. Many people at Rothamsted have expressed to me their concern about the nature and the amount of science funding after we leave the European Union. Will the Secretary of State give me an update as to where we have got to on that as a Government?
I completely recognise the excellence at Rothamsted, of which my hon. Friend is a great champion. One of the advantages of concluding a deal with the rest of the European Union is that we will be able to continue to participate in science projects that are of disproportionate benefit to the UK.
Yesterday, I spoke to the chief executive of Arcadia Group about the Top Shop, Top Man and Dorothy Perkins stores in Darlington. Tomorrow, there is a CVA—company voluntary arrangement —meeting where we could see the loss of 18,000 jobs nationwide. I know that the Government cannot intervene in the process, but what are they going to do to protect communities who could be affected by this decision?
The hon. Lady raises an important point about the viability of some of the retail outlets that are operating on our high streets. She is absolutely right that it is concerning when we are looking at any closures of retail names on our high streets. We stand ready to do what we can, along with my colleagues in MHCLG, if closures occur. As I have already outlined, we are working with the Retail Sector Council. We are committed to making sure that we work with the retail sector and high streets to make sure that we can truly grow our high streets and protect retail for the future.
A small amount of funding would unlock the growth of Harwell campus in my constituency via the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Will the Secretary of State, who knows Harwell campus well, meet me and the NDA there to discuss how we can get on and build Greg Clark Park and Theresa May Way, and drive this successful science campus to help growth post Brexit?
The Scottish Government’s consultation on fireworks closed last month, having received 16,000 responses. Can the Minister update us on the UK Government’s action on fireworks, and can she guarantee that my constituents in Pollokshields will not have to suffer as they did last November?
At a recent Public Accounts Committee sitting, the issue of fracking and specifically the decommissioning of fracking sites was raised, and the answers from senior civil servants were not great. Will the Minister meet me, so that we can discuss those concerns in more detail?
Only a fifth of York Central development is earmarked for economic development, which will seriously curtail the opportunities for business growth, inward investment and good jobs for York. Following my discussions with the Minister and stakeholders, will he consider a new proposal for York Central?
The hon. Lady is aware that this planning decision is currently with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government for determination. She has had the opportunity to meet me and make representations, and I will meet my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) later today.
Many of my constituents who are customers of HELMS—Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Systems—have been utterly failed by ineptly regulated green energy incentive schemes. The decision to remove the feed-in tariff for solar energy microgeneration, in tandem with the proposal to apply VAT to more energy-saving materials, including solar panels, will do nothing to support the public, the industry or the environment. Will the Minister reconsider those retrograde steps, which fly in the face of our climate emergency declaration?
I simply disagree that this is a retrograde step. The smart export guarantee, which we announced yesterday and will legislate for, will create a market to ensure that small providers of renewable energy will be able to sell back their electricity to the grid and make a profit. As I have mentioned, feed-in tariffs will cost £30 billion over their lifetime, putting £14 on the bills of every household. If that is what the hon. Gentleman wants, as opposed to creating a market that will benefit those using solar panels, I do not know why he is here.
The Secretary of State is no doubt waiting for the new Prime Minister to authorise him to announce the UK ceramic sector deal. While that is being worked out, what conversations is he having with the Department for International Trade about supporting the anti-dumping measures that are currently being considered in Europe?
I have been inundated with complaints from local residents about a second-hand car sales company in my community that variously goes by the names BD Trade Sales, Leabridge Motors, Diamond Motors and many more. Members may be aware of its work from programmes such as “Rogue Traders”, “Don’t Get Done, Get Dom”, “Watchdog” and “The Sheriffs Are Coming”. Despite the evidence about how it is ripping off consumers, the council, trading standards and the police have not been able to stop it. Will the Minister meet me to talk about what we can do to hold these phoenix companies to account, so that we get dodgy cars off the roads and get consumers a better deal?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s offer to meet me to discuss this issue, which I am keen to do. I hope that when we are in a position to make announcements in the consumer White Paper, we will be able to do exactly that—tackle some of the consumer detriment that we see across the country. I look forward to meeting her to discuss that.
The Secretary of State has quite properly described a no-deal Brexit as “a disaster” for British business. Will he commit to continuing to do everything he can to prevent a no-deal Brexit, whoever the Conservative party choose as our next Prime Minister?
I strongly believe that it is very much in our interests to have a deal that allows us to continue to trade with the rest of the European Union. The voices in countless industries could not be clearer that they depend for their prosperity on that, and I will do everything I can to represent that view in Government in the interests of the livelihoods of millions of people right across the country.
Free TV Licences: Over-75s
The BBC is a fundamental part of the social and economic fabric of this country. It is important for people of all ages, but particularly for older people, who value television as a way to stay connected with the world.
The Government recognised the importance of the licence fee when we agreed a funding settlement with the BBC in 2015 to provide the BBC with financial certainty to plan over the long term. We agreed to take action further to boost the BBC’s income by requiring iPlayer users to have a TV licence, and we unfroze the licence fee for the first time since 2010 by guaranteeing that it will rise each year in line with inflation.
In return, we agreed that responsibility for the over-75 licence fee concession would transfer to the BBC in June 2020. We agreed a phased transition to help the BBC with its financial planning as it did so. This was a fair deal for the BBC. At the time, the BBC director-general said the settlement represented
“a strong deal for the BBC”,
which provided “financial stability”.
The BBC is operationally independent, so the announcement yesterday is very much its decision, but taxpayers want to see the BBC using its substantial licence fee income appropriately to ensure it delivers for UK audiences, and that includes showing restraint on salaries for senior staff. In 2017-18, the BBC received over £3.8 billion in licence fee income—more than ever before. The BBC is also making over £1 billion a year from commercial work, such as selling content abroad, which can be reinvested. So we are very disappointed that the BBC will not protect free television licences for all viewers aged 75 and over.
The BBC received views from over 190,000 people as part of its broader public consultation, which sought opinions on a number of options. With a number of proposals on the table, the BBC has taken the most narrowly defined reform option. I firmly believe that the BBC can and should do more to support older people, and I am now looking to it to make clear exactly how it will do that.
We found out yesterday just how little a Tory manifesto promise is worth. I have read these words in the Chamber before, but I will read them again:
“We will maintain all…pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this parliament.”
No ifs, no buts, no wavering—a promise made in 2017 to voters by the Conservative party.
Today, 3.7 million over-75s find that promise in tatters. They have been betrayed, and it is shameful. The Government have the breathtaking gall to blame the BBC for this mess, but passing the buck will not work. The BBC is not the Department for Work and Pensions. Public broadcasters should never be responsible for social policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) warned in 2015 that this was a “smash and grab raid” by the Government on the BBC. He was right, and now older people are paying the price. There are 1.8 million over-75s who live completely alone, and they will lose their TV licence because of the announcement. How can the Secretary of State justify that? We cannot means-test for loneliness or social inclusion.
What about the very poorest in our nation who are eligible for pension credit but do not claim it? How will the Secretary of State protect them? Two of the Tory leadership candidates—the former Leader of the House and the Home Secretary—have committed to overturning the decision. Perhaps they know how it will look to the rest of the world when we start jailing pensioners who cannot or will not pay the licence fee.
I would like to share some figures with the House: 4,240 older people in Uxbridge will lose their TV licence; 5,970 people in West Suffolk will be affected; and 6,730—the number in South West Surrey. The right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) wants to give a tax cut to the very richest, but he will not lift a finger to defend pensioners. The Health Secretary says he cares about social care, but he will not defend pensioners either. The Foreign Secretary tells us that he cares about the chronically lonely, but he will not defend even the loneliest pensioners. Is it therefore any surprise that the country’s pensioners are asking whether the leadership candidates will honour their word and keep their promise, or break it?
This is a test not just of leadership, but of honour, integrity and truthfulness. Does the Secretary of State agree that someone who cannot keep a promise is not fit to be Prime Minister? It is as simple as that.
Well, Mr Speaker, it is not quite as simple as that. The hon. Gentleman knows I have a good deal of respect for his passion and his consistency. I accept that he has always argued that it was wrong to transfer the responsibility to the BBC, but the arguments he makes today were better suited to our debate on the Digital Economy Act 2017. Indeed, he made those arguments then—I accept that. However, the argument was had, a vote was conducted and a result was recorded. Consequently, the BBC has the responsibility for deciding what to do about the licence fee concession. That is a fact.
The hon. Gentleman raised several concerns and I will try to deal with them. First, he is rightly concerned about those who are elderly and lonely. I know that he will recognise that the Government have not relied on the BBC to do something about those who are lonely. We are the first Government to appoint a Minister for loneliness, to have a loneliness strategy and to commit £11.5 million to pay for several programmes under the Building Connections fund. The Government take loneliness seriously and have put our money where our mouth is.
The hon. Gentleman also raised concerns about the poorest pensioners. Let me say two things on that. First, as he knows, the Government have put considerable effort into raising pensioners’ living standards. We have increased the basic state pension by significant amounts. It is today £675 higher than if it had simply been uprated by earnings since 2010. In cash terms, that is £1,600 more for every pensioner. We take seriously the responsibility to look after those who do not have means and are pensioners. Again, we have put our money where our mouth is.
The hon. Gentleman made a good point about eligibility for pension credit. It is important that all those who are eligible claim it. That is exactly what we, too, believe should happen. My colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions have been working hard on that. I and they expect the BBC to help us in that task by ensuring that, as the opportunity presents itself, people who do not yet claim pension credit but are entitled to it do so. I hope that we will have the hon. Gentleman’s support in that process.
It is important to stick to the facts and not to scare people unnecessarily. It is important to understand that the change will not happen immediately, but next year, and that those who are entitled to pension credit can still have a free TV licence. It is also important to understand that evasion of the licence fee is not an imprisonable offence. It is helpful if we do not mislead people on those points.
I have said that the Government have put their money where their mouth is in looking after the individuals about whom the hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned. The House and pensioners over the age of 75 have a right to expect the same of the Labour party. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to come here and express his outrage about the transfer of responsibility to the BBC and away from the taxpayer, does he accept that it should be transferred back? If so, where will the money come from? He is offering to commit to £500 million of extra public spending. We are all interested to know where it will come from.
My right hon. and learned Friend knows that there is no job in the world I would like more than his. He will therefore be delighted by what I am about to say because it will preclude any future Conservative Prime Minister from giving me the job.
I was in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport when the Treasury imposed the policy on the BBC to meet its £12 billion welfare target, which I doubt we have met and has long been forgotten. The Government should either take back the policy or support the BBC changes. They should not use weasel words to undermine the changes that the BBC has made. It is interesting that 40% of those over 75 subscribe to paid-for television services as well. We should support the BBC in making the changes.
I respect my right hon. Friend’s experience in this matter. I am tempted to say that if he really wants my job, today would be a very good day for him to have it, but I do not think I will make that offer.
My right hon. Friend is right that the BBC’s decision must be respected, but we all have a right to express our view on the decision. It is a BBC decision—I have clearly accepted that; it is what the statute says—but we all have a right to express our view and I have been frank with the House in saying that I am disappointed that the BBC has not been able to do better. I think it still can do better and I intend to use the forthcoming period to persuade it to do so.
As much as they try, Tory Ministers cannot wash their hands of this terrible decision. A Tory Chancellor, George Osborne, proposed handing responsibility for the licence fee concession to the BBC as part of a disastrous charter for the BBC. The Government knew exactly what they were doing and they knew that this would be the result.
The right hon. Member for Tatton (Ms McVey) has made the matter a Tory leadership issue, even if I have more chance of scoring the winner tonight in Belgium than she has of becoming Prime Minister. Every single Tory leadership candidate must answer the question: “Will you bring the TV licence fee concession back to the Government?” That is the only way pensioners will avoid losing out—some 300,000 in Scotland; 3,000 in Airdrie and Shotts. Age Scotland reckons that 76,000 pensioners in Scotland do not claim pension credit even though they are entitled to it.
In the light of that decision, what consideration has the Minister made of funding the BBC to reverse it? How does this decision square with the 2017 Tory party manifesto commitment that helped to elect the Minister, which promised to, and I quote from page 66,
“including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this Parliament”.
The Tories promised pensioners that their free TV licences would remain. They must honour that promise.
The hon. Gentleman says that we should ask Conservative party leadership contenders whether they will bring this obligation back to the taxpayer. I hope that he will ask the same question of Opposition Front Benchers, and not just that question but the follow-up question: if they intend to do that, where will they find the money to pay for it? Will they cut elsewhere? Will they borrow more? That follow-up question must be asked of all those who argue that we should reverse course on what Parliament voted for in 2017.
The hon. Gentleman says that the Government knew what they were doing when this arrangement was made in 2015. I suggest that the BBC also knew what it was doing. It is important to remember what the BBC said at the time. Let met quote what the director-general of the BBC said on the “Today” programme after the deal was done in 2015:
“The Government’s decision here to put the cost of the over-75s on us has been more than matched by the deal coming back for the BBC.”
That is what he said. If we all enter these deals with our eyes open—we all should—we should all be responsible for the decisions we take.
May I respectfully say to my right hon. and learned Friend that when the decision was taken it was understood that this would be a possible outcome, not least because to maintain the existing concession would cost the BBC nearly £1 billion by the end of the charter period, which would mean either huge programme cuts or increasing the licence fee for the under-75s to nearly £200? Does he accept that restricting the concession to those over-75s on pension credit will provide help to elderly people on low incomes, and if it is publicised properly, it should actually significantly increase the take-up of pension credit?
Yes. My right hon. Friend’s last point is an important one. As I said earlier, it is important that we raise the take-up of pension credit. There are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of older people in our society who are entitled to help they are not currently receiving. If the BBC can assist in that process, by getting the message across that they are entitled to that help and that they will be able to claim it, that would be a good thing. I entirely respect his experience in the process that has led up to this point. As I said earlier, I accept that there are hon. Members who feel passionately that the decision taken in 2017 was the wrong one. I understand that that is their view, but it was the decision taken, and as a result, this is a BBC decision to make.
While the then BBC management was extremely foolish to accept this albatross around their neck—we warned them at the time—I am absolutely aghast that the then Culture Secretary and his junior Minister sitting behind him, the right hon. Members for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), seem to be washing their hands of the responsibility. They were the people in charge and they just caved in to the Treasury—extraordinary! The Secretary of State, defending the BBC, should stand up to the Treasury. Is it not the truth that this is nothing to do with the BBC? This is about a Government who have deliberately passed responsibility for what should be a social security issue on to our main public service broadcaster.
I will not repeat what I have said about the decision and the process that was undertaken in 2017, but the right hon. Gentleman knows better than many people in this House how collective responsibility works. He knows that the Government stand behind decisions they make collectively.
I would like to put in a word for BBC local radio. We have talked a lot about television, but many of my constituents love BBC Radio Cornwall. That is paid for by the licence fee, as well as the World Service, which is an extraordinarily good broadcaster. Clearly, the BBC said at the time that it would be able to keep this concession in exchange for increases in the licence fee, and it does have £5 billion of income. I am really disappointed that the BBC is doing this to some of its core listeners, but I do think that it is important the Secretary of State does what the Prime Minister said yesterday, which is sit down with the BBC and sort this out.
I can tell my hon. Friend that I will be sitting down with the BBC to discuss this issue. As I said, this is a BBC decision. Statute gives this responsibility to the BBC to decide the question, but we can have further conversations, and we should, about what else the BBC can do to help precisely the people the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) raised at the outset, about whom we are all concerned: those who are elderly and those who rely on the television for all sorts of things.
The Secretary of State says that it is a simple matter and, yes, it is. This is the simple fact of a political decision being forced on a broadcaster. The BBC is not responsible for pension credit; the Government and the DWP are. By criticising the BBC for this decision, does he accept that he is undermining the BBC’s independence in a way that is completely unacceptable?
No. I accept entirely that the BBC is not responsible for pension credit. It is, however, responsible for making a judgment on whether or not to continue with the BBC licence fee concession. It is not compromising its independence to say so; it is a restatement of what the Digital Economy Act 2017 says. The Act was passed by this House. I respect the BBC’s independence— I made that clear among the first things I said—but I think we are all entitled to express a view on whether we think the BBC has tried as hard as it might to help precisely the people we are all concerned about.
My right hon. and learned Friend is right that the maintenance of the concession for those on pension credit is the key to what happens next. May I introduce some maths into this? At the moment, roughly a third of pensioners who are eligible for pension credit do not claim it. That saves the Government about £3 billion a year. That is a considerably larger figure than is being talked about here in terms of the licence fee concession. Have the Government made any calculations about what will happen if even half of those who are eligible for pension credit now start claiming it? It seems to me that that would be a lot more expensive for the Government than maintaining the concession.
My right hon. Friend knows, from his experience as a former Secretary of State in the relevant Department, that the irony of the situation is that this is a saving the Government do not wish to make. This is something the Government wish to change. We want more people to come forward and claim pension credit. Therefore, it is entirely in the interests of Government policy that we command the BBC’s support in getting those numbers up. I very much hope that is what happens.
The Secretary of State admitted that Ministers pushed this on the BBC, and all the Government’s Back Benchers voted for this policy in the face of all the warnings and knowing what the consequences would be, so forget the crocodile tears. The truth is that his Government are supporting taking away £150 from pensioners who are on about £10,000 a year, while Ministers and Government Back Benchers are careering around the country promising £3,000 in tax cuts for people who are on 10 times more than those pensioners. On what planet is that fair?
No, I am not careering anywhere and I have not admitted any such thing. What I said was that when this deal was made, both sides—the Government and the BBC—ought to have known what they were doing. As I indicated, the BBC made it clear at the time that it believed the settlement reached in 2015 was, overall, a fair settlement. The consequences of that arrangement and the Digital Economy Act 2017 mean that the BBC has to make a judgment about what to do with the BBC licence fee concession. It has made that judgment. We are all entitled to say what we think of it, but in the end it was its judgment to make from the point at which that 2017 legislation was passed.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the BBC’s income is about £5.5 billion a year? That is where the perspective needs to be presented. It is outrageous that this decision has been made in the manner in which it has been made. It is not necessary. Furthermore, I believe that the Government, under a new Prime Minister, must review the situation. Does the Secretary of State agree that the BBC does not give value for money and requires radical reform?
No, I cannot entirely agree with my hon. Friend on that. I think that the BBC presents huge benefits to our society and to the nation beyond our shores. It is right that the BBC receives substantial income—I should say in the BBC’s defence that it has important responsibilities to carry out with that income and we expect it to do so—but it is also right that we expect the BBC to use its imagination and work hard to find ways to supplement what it has now agreed to do in the interests of older people, about whom we are all concerned.
I speak in support of the renewed campaign to retain the free TV licence for over-75s. Four years ago, the BBC agreed to the new regime, as the Secretary of State said. The demographics of the over-75s have not changed much since that time and nor has the take-up of pension credit. Four years ago, did the BBC raise either of those issues, which it now complains about to the rest of us?
Of course, I was not present for those negotiations, so I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that. What I can say is that they were not conducted at gunpoint. They were conducted by two sides who ought to have understood the consequences of the obligations that they were taking on. I realise that this is a difficult concept for Opposition Front Benchers, but it is important that we all, when we take on a financial commitment, know how to pay for it.
I declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party group on the BBC. A consultation was launched, to which 190,000 people responded, and the pension credit option, which the BBC has selected, was the preferred outcome. However, although we talk about the BBC having options and choices, we did not provide almost £750 million-worth of funding in the intervening years for it to make that choice. I also say, perhaps to all Members of the House: what is so fair about allowing millionaire over 75-year-olds to have a free TV licence when they may have Sky TV, yet those in their 20s are struggling to buy their own homes?
My hon. Friend’s points have been made elsewhere, both within the Houses of Parliament and beyond them. It is right to expect the BBC to consider carefully the responsibility that it has inherited. I have said before that I welcome the fact that the BBC conducted a full consultation, and the scale of the response shows that people took the consultation process seriously. It has considered the consultation responses and has come to a conclusion. I am disappointed at the conclusion that it has reached, but I accept that as a result of the statutory changes we made, it is the BBC’s decision, not the Government’s.
Twenty years ago, I played a character in “Coronation Street” called Tricia Armstrong, who was imprisoned for not paying for her TV licence. That caused quite a furore and, in fact, was mentioned in this place at the time. I know that people do not go directly to prison any more for not paying for it, but of the 6,000 constituents of mine who will be affected by this change, I know that there are many who are so proud that they will never claim a benefit such as pension credit and will never claim support for their TV licence. What is the Minister going to do for those who will not claim, who do not want to be criminalised and are therefore prepared to let their TV licence go? Will the Minister with responsibility for loneliness—the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies)—be doing an audit on this?
Of course, we want to make sure, in conjunction with the BBC, that everything that can be done to make sure that people do not find themselves in that position is done. The BBC has ways to contact people that are not available even to the Government. It is important that it makes use of every device that it can think of to get the message across that if people need this support and are eligible to claim pension credit, they are entitled to a free TV licence. It is important that we all help to get that message cross.
I do not have an over-75s TV licence because I do not qualify for one, but I will.
My view, as an officer of the all-party group on the BBC and as someone who has been watching the consultation, is that the BBC was required to make a proposal and it is doing so. This is not a still photograph; it is a moving picture. We should be asking in Parliament and in the Government, because there is a great range of views: what do we want to happen?
My view is that we should raise the 75 age threshold by one year every two years, because of longevity, and we ought to add the value of the concession, together with the free bus pass, to the tax allowance for the over-75s, so that those of us who are earning well or have a good pension are contributing, without having them taken away. That would be simple and easy.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion. He will know that one of the options that the BBC considered and consulted on was raising the threshold from 75 to 80. I appreciate that he is suggesting a rather more subtle variant of that. I want to continue the conversation with the BBC about what else it might be able to do, but I recognise that this specific decision is the BBC’s to make and that it will make that in the form that it thinks is most appropriate.