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Topical Questions

Volume 663: debated on Tuesday 16 July 2019

May I take this opportunity to say to the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) that although she and I strongly disagree on various issues, including on the future of modern capitalism, we should be proud to have a shared commitment to reaching net zero emissions? Since our last oral questions session, the UK has become the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050, and companies from around the world are choosing to develop green technologies here in the UK. Last week I launched the new electric Mini, built in Oxford; the week before, Jaguar Land Rover announced that it is making a range of electric vehicles; and in an hour’s time I will be launching Lotus’s new electric hypercar. So, in keeping with what appears to be a new tradition of sharing pre-holiday gifts across the Dispatch Box, I would like to provide the hon. Lady with a small symbol—this model Mini—of what I hope will be our efforts to support our automotive industry, of which we are very proud, in its shift to a greener future.

I apologise; I am ahead of myself. I was so captivated by the Secretary of State’s munificence that I neglected the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), which I must tell all observers is a very risky enterprise. Let’s hear from the fella.

I will not take it personally, Mr Speaker.

While the Secretary of State is in the mood for holiday gifts, the latest Government statistics show that 61% of those working in music, performing and visual arts are self-employed, so will the Secretary of State update shared parental leave rules to include self-employed people to prevent talented women from having to leave their careers in the creative industries and other industries when they have children?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are evaluating the responses we have had from the creative industries and others on that issue. I fully recognise that it is an unresolved matter that we will address during the months ahead.

T4. The introduction of the national living wage has helped to raise the living standards of many of my constituents. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of increasing the national living wage from 60% to 66% of median earnings and the ability of the retail sector to continue to grow its workforce considering that change? (911979)

Given my hon. Friend’s background, I know that he has a keen interest in the retail sector. In April, the increase in the national living wage meant that nearly 1.8 million workers received an above-inflation pay rise. The Government have stated our ambition to end low pay in the UK. The national living wage is on track to meet its target of 60% of median earnings by 2020, and we will announce its future target later this year. In setting a new target, we will work with the expert Low Pay Commission to carefully consider the impact on businesses and workers across all sectors.

Given the reported use of food banks by staff in the Secretary of State’s Department, and given that the first ever indefinite strike action of outsourced workers in Whitehall is happening now, does the Secretary of State not see it as his duty at least to ensure that BEIS contractors are not breaking legislation? That includes potential breaches of regulation 7 of the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003, whereby an employment business may not supply a temporary worker to a hirer to replace an individual taking part in official strike action. Can the Secretary of State please explain to the House what action he has taken on the issue following the Public and Commercial Services Union’s referral of the matter to the Met police, and letters sent to him and his permanent secretary on 10 July?

I value very highly everyone who works in my Department, whether they are directly employed or employed through contractors. Of course, we will always require our contractors to obey the law. What we have done, and what I have acted to do, is make sure that our contractor staff are paid at least the average level across London for their employment. I know that that has been welcomed. I take the issue very seriously and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising it.

T5. Do Ministers agree that improving the whole A303, A30 and A358 corridor would remove a significant barrier to growth across the south-west and North Devon? (911980)

Yes, we agree that that is an important corridor for the south-west, increasing resilience and providing alternative routes. That is why the Government have already committed £2 billion to starting the project in the first road investment strategy. Work is already under way on developing the first major improvements. The Government’s intention is that subsequent road investment strategies will fund the remaining improvements. As my hon. Friend says, this is important to driving prosperity and growth in the whole south-west.

T2. Do Ministers support the Treasury’s proposed VAT rise to 20% for solar-based products, and what assessment have they made of its impact on installations? (911977)

It is not the Treasury’s rise; it is the European Union’s rise. In considering the reasons why he supports staying in the European Union, the right hon. Gentleman has to address the fact that these are EU regulations that we are putting in force while we remain a member. We will have the freedom in future—and, I hope, his support—to deal with such VAT issues once we are out of the European Union.

T7. Hundreds of small businesses—particularly retailers, perhaps—stand to benefit from Mansfield’s progress in the future high streets fund. I know that the Minister has to be impartial, although I am sure that behind closed doors Mansfield is his favourite bid. Would he be willing to meet me to discuss the bid and make sure that we get the right advice and the best possible bang for our buck to support those businesses? (911982)

Of course. I will happily meet my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to the work he is doing in driving forward the hopes and dreams of those involved in the Mansfield bid for the future high streets fund. Many areas across the country will not have succeeded in going through to the business case of the first round of the fund. I remind them that the fund will open again to applications very shortly—[Interruption.] That includes the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), who is complaining from a sedentary position on the Labour Front Bench. We will see what we can do.

T3. Matthew’s Foods, which has served the Asian community in Glasgow North for nearly 20 years, is being threatened with electrical disconnection because it is disputing a £400,000 bill on an emergency tariff from British Gas. Jobs are at risk, even though the company tells me that it simply wants to pay a fair price for the utilities it has used. What powers does the Department or the regulator have to encourage both sides to come to an amicable solution? (911978)

I am happy to take away that specific issue. I want to make sure that the curry industry in Glasgow continues and that local businesses continue to thrive. I am happy to take away the issue and look at it in further detail. We work closely with the regulator, Ofgem, to make sure that suppliers and individuals continue to benefit from a flexible energy economy.

T9. The oil and gas industry has a vital role to play in achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. One way of doing so is by providing a commercial incentive for carbon capture and storage. Will the Minister outline what steps the Department is taking to see whether that could become commercially viable? (911984)

We recently announced £26 million for, I think, 11 carbon capture, utilisation and storage projects across the UK, including Project Acorn in Scotland. I visited Tata Chemicals in Cheshire, which is the largest project in the UK; it is 100 times larger than other projects. The Committee on Climate Change report is absolutely clear that 50% of our carbon emission reductions will come from CCUS. We must continue to invest in that more and then take those innovations across the globe.

T6. Could the Secretary of State respond to the findings of Citizens Advice that utility companies have overcharged customers by £24 billion over 15 years? (911981)

As I said in answer to earlier questions, the Competition and Markets Authority has recognised the unacceptable position of loyal customers being overcharged, and it is acting to correct that, as we have done in this House when it comes to energy bills.

T10. Does the Secretary of State agree that nuclear energy must be part of the decarbonisation of this country? Could he update the House on progress made with the regulated asset base financial model and the energy White Paper? (911985)

I agree with my hon. Friend that nuclear power has a key role to play in delivering the net zero target and acknowledge the unrivalled nuclear expertise in Copeland, which I was delighted to see on my recent visit to her constituency. We intend to publish our assessment of the feasibility of the RAB model for funding new nuclear shortly.

T8. The St Rollox railway works in my constituency will close next Friday, with a loss of 200 jobs and ending 163 years of operation. While the Scottish Government have refused to renationalise the facility, Scottish Enterprise is actively seeking a new buyer for the site. Will the Secretary of State ensure that his Department is fully deployed to aid in that effort at all levels of Government? (911983)

I work very well with not only the Scotland Office here but the Scottish Government, and I am happy to take that up after this session.

All forms of company are registered and incorporated with Companies House. While it is a great resource if used properly, it is open to misuse, abuse and fraudulent information. What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure validation before companies are registered, so that the public can have faith in the register?

I am happy to respond to my right hon. Friend. The problem that she identifies is a real and present one. We are taking steps to require information given to Companies House, and therefore made use of, to be validated. [Interruption.]

Someone chunters from a sedentary position, “Can she do that?”—can the right hon. Lady demand that the Secretary of State, rather than some other Minister, answers the question? There is no prohibition. It is a matter of the force of personality, which the right hon. Lady has just eloquently exhibited, and it may well encourage copycat behaviour.

What better week than this to discuss the potential for a tourism sector deal for Northern Ireland? After all, this week the sun has got its hat on, Rory’s out to play, the Open has come to Ulster—hopefully, it’s coming home to stay.

I did not have the hon. Gentleman down as a poet, as well as his other accomplishments.

The sector deal that has been signed very much relates to the whole United Kingdom, and I hope the manifold attractions of Northern Ireland will be given a boost by the very good news that this sector deal constitutes for the industry.

I recently visited Coca-Cola in my constituency. It will be investing £50 million in its Wakefield plant this year, providing jobs and apprenticeships to my constituents. Companies are investing in Britain, demonstrating that the future will be bright after Brexit. What is the Department doing to attract further foreign investment?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We work closely with the Department for International Trade to secure more inward investment into the UK, and we ensure through our industrial strategy that we have one of the most competitive environments for investment globally.

What discussions is the Secretary of State having with his relevant counterparts in other departmental teams about the ability of people in the creative industries to travel around the European Union if there is a Brexit of any sort? Secretary of State, please.

You were right, Mr Speaker; this is becoming a habit. I am happy to respond to the hon. Lady. The ability—especially in the creative industries, but also in professional and business services—for people to ply their trade by visiting and working in other countries is essential. It is a big part of the negotiations, which I hope will result in a deal that allows a strong part of the UK economy to continue to flourish.

Some 900 jobs were put at risk when Kerry Foods announced the closure of its plant in Burton. I know the Secretary of State has been in touch with the managing director of Kerry to press it on finding a new buyer. Will he commit to doing all he can to make sure that a new buyer is found and that those jobs are protected?

I will indeed. I have been in touch with the owners of the site. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the most important thing is that a new owner should be found for that historic site in Burton, so that it can continue its good track record of employment.

The chief executives of Coca-Cola, Unilever, Nestlé and PepsiCo are indirectly responsible for much of the 8 million tonnes of plastic waste that ends up in our seas. Will the Secretary of State meet those chief executives to encourage them to adopt more sustainable packaging?

I am certainly happy to meet those chief executives. We are working on projects to deliver sustainable packaging when it comes to looking at future research and innovation on alternatives to plastics, which I think will be critical. I would like to thank this UK sector for looking at making adaptations for the future. Everyone agrees that we have to rid the UK of plastic packaging, and do so in a way that will not harm the economy. Going forward, we need to have the support of companies such as those the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and I will happily meet them.

In approximately 1 hour and 56 minutes, it will be exactly 50 years since the launch of the Apollo 11 mission to land a man on the moon. Will my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation —if I may be specific—tell the House how the Government are planning to commemorate the landing of the first man on the moon this weekend?

It is nice to be top of the menu for once. Yes, at 2.32 pm, we will have the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Apollo 11 moon mission. On the Government’s commitment to space, I will be giving a speech at the Policy Exchange, setting out what we think is a clear priority for the UK economy—not just in space exploration, but in earth observation. To come back again to the net zero target—it is not like we have talked about it enough already—space technology is a key enabling technology that will enable us to better detect changes in the earth. The future of space is actually critical for our survival on earth.

It was a privilege to stand with 1,000 Jaguar workers and hear that the factory that built the Spitfire during the war and two generations of Jaguar after the war—it nearly closed 10 years ago—will now build the electric cars of the future. Will the Secretary of State, in welcoming yesterday’s announcement, join me in saying that we must now build the batteries in Britain so that we have a vibrant British industry?

Will the Secretary of State also join me in paying tribute to the remarkable man that was Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya for his championing of manufacturing in Britain and his drive, intellect and ambition for Britain and British workers? It is thanks to Kumar that the Jaguar plant remains open.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It was a proud moment for all of us to have the commitment that Jaguar Land Rover has made. I know everyone is immensely proud not just of the history but of the future of that great company.

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Lord Bhattacharyya, the regius professor of manufacturing at Warwick and the founder of the Warwick Manufacturing Group. I can announce to the House that, in recognition of his immense contribution, we are establishing two awards. The first is the Bhattacharyya award for collaboration between academia and industry, which will be a prize of £25,000 each year to the team who best show how industry and universities can work together. Because Lord Bhattacharyya was such a champion of inclusion and helped so many young people enjoy flourishing careers in engineering, we are establishing the Bhattacharyya engineering inclusion programme, working with school and further education college students in the west midlands. It will make available 80 bursaries a year for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to study engineering, and it will also support extracurricular activities to inspire the next generation of young people to study engineering.