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Topical Questions

Volume 666: debated on Tuesday 22 October 2019

After two years as a sole trader at this Dispatch Box as Leader of the House, it is a huge pleasure to be here today with such a superb ministerial team. In addition to my Department’s vital work to help businesses to prepare for Brexit, we have set out three key priority areas for BEIS. First, we aim to lead the world in tackling climate change. From the Prime Minister chairing a new Cabinet Committee to our hosting of COP26 in Glasgow next year, our pathway to net zero is well under way. Secondly, we will seek to solve the grand challenges facing our society, from new support for our life sciences sector to developing fusion power to setting out how amazing UK innovations can solve the challenges of low productivity. Thirdly, we aim quite simply to make the UK the best place in the world to work and to grow a business.

Will the Secretary of State reassure me that her Department is fully assessing the potential of UK peatlands and peatland restoration in regions such as North Yorkshire, where my constituency lies, in getting us to net zero? Peatlands are a carbon sink that absorb more emissions than the world’s oceans each year.

My hon. Friend is right that peatlands have a vital role to play in delivering net zero. In addition to £10 million to help to restore more than 6,000 hectares of peatland over a three-year period, we are working with Natural England on a number of pilot projects, including one in North Yorkshire, to test our approach for moving all peatlands in England on to a path of recovery and restoration.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her place for our first BEIS orals together. I know that we will have many a productive exchange.

Nine thousand UK jobs lost and 150,000 holidaymakers repatriated at an estimated cost to the taxpayer £100 million, yet the former chairman of Thomas Cook confirmed that Government financial support would have allowed him to save the company. A report from Unite the Union and Syndex also showed that £188 million in bridging loans would have prevented Thomas Cook’s collapse. With reports that banks and investors were still willing, even on the day of the collapse, to support a deal provided that the Government stepped in, will the Business Secretary explain why she failed to meet with the company in the final days and clarify her rationale for not offering support?

First, I would like to reciprocate by saying that I am delighted to be working with the hon. Lady. I look forward to many exchanges across the Dispatch Box.

The hon. Lady will appreciate that my Department and I were very closely involved in the run-up to Thomas Cook’s insolvency. It is a Department for Transport lead and, as all hon. Members will appreciate, too many cooks can spoil the broth, so I liaised closely with the Secretary of State for Transport who took the lead on this, but BEIS officials were very closely involved.

At the weekend I wrote to the insolvency practitioner about clawback and malus, to ATOL about looking after the insurance for those who booked holidays, and to the banking associations about ensuring that proper restraint is shown to those who sadly lost their jobs in that run-up.

Why did we not bail out Thomas Cook? Simply because it was clear that the £200 million it was asking for was just a drop in the ocean. There was no way the company could realistically be restored, despite the Government seriously considering the prospects for doing so and for making it an ongoing concern.

It is interesting that the German Government saw fit to intervene. Not only did our Government refuse, they also failed to take the basic action needed to ensure good corporate behaviour. Today, reports demonstrate a clear conflict of interest for auditing firms that, while signing off on Thomas Cook’s finances, separately advised directors on securing bumper bonuses.

BHS, Carillion and the banks all had similar auditing conflicts. Sir John Kingman officially advised the Government nearly a year ago to create a more robust statutory regulator, but to no avail. Will the Secretary of State confirm if and when she will bring forward reforms to the Financial Reporting Council and the wider auditing sector, as proposed by the Kingman review, Professor Prem Sikka and the Competition and Markets Authority?

First, may I gently say to the hon. Lady that the situation in Germany was extremely different? It was a separate business in Germany. If there had been an opportunity to save Thomas Cook, we would have done so. We looked very carefully at the prospects—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady is just demonstrating a lack of understanding of how UK business works, and I am very sorry to hear that. She really needs to look at the facts here, and not just at trying to make a point. This was a very serious issue, and it was something the Government took very seriously.

We have done everything possible to protect those who sadly lost their jobs. I am delighted, but the hon. Lady did not even mention, that Hays Travel has taken over many Thomas Cook shops, which is fantastic news for many of those employees. She has also not paid any regard to the fact that the Government were able to establish a repatriation on the biggest scale ever in peacetime to bring more than 140,000 people back to the United Kingdom.

T9. Workers’ rights matter. Given that eight out of 10 mums consider work-family balance before thinking about any new job opportunity, can the Government confirm they remain committed to considering the proposal that employers should make all jobs flexible unless there is a good reason not to do so? (900068)

Good-quality flexible working is important to all employees and is central to good work. Workers’ rights matter. Over 97% of employers offer some form of flexible working, and our recent consultation looked at how further to increase the prevalence of flexible working by advertising jobs as flexible and by requiring large employers to publish their policy.

T2. British companies have been shown to be complicit in the fires and deforestation in the Amazon through their investments and supply chains. Will the Minister look at introducing mandatory due diligence to address this? (900061)

This subject has come up, and we need to look at how companies and exporters tackle serious carbon emissions. What they are doing in the Amazon is not acceptable. We need to engage with that and have a dialogue.

T10. I recently visited Orbex in Forres, which is heavily involved in the new spaceport at Sutherland and is seen as a sector leader with its new innovative launch vehicle. Will the Minister outline what support the UK Government can give to companies such as Orbex, which plans to bring 250 high-quality jobs to the region? (900069)

The Government support growing our national space capabilities, especially by establishing the new national space council, which will be chaired by the Prime Minister. We are supporting Orbex to develop an exciting new launch vehicle technology with a grant of £5.5 million as part of our industrial strategy. We are keen to work with it as part of the wider national space framework we are establishing.[Official Report, 31 October 2019, Vol. 667, c. 3MC.]

T3.   The town of Blaydon has been without a post office in its shopping centre for about five years, as no local retailer has been prepared to take this on. Leaving the availability of local post offices to the willingness of local retailers is just not working in Blaydon, so what steps will the Minister take to ensure that post office provision is retained where no local retailer can be found, as in Blaydon? (900062)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and I am more than happy to meet her to discuss her constituency in further detail if she would require. There is no programme of closures and the Post Office is working extremely hard, where post offices do shut for any, sometimes unpredictable, reason, to find replacements. We do have outreach services that are available when there is a lack of service, but I am happy to speak with her further about that.

I welcome the Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box and hope that she will have distinguished tenure at this important time. She will know that the recommendations of the independent review of the Financial Reporting Council, conducted by Sir John Kingman, were widely endorsed and are urgently required. I was concerned that the statutory implementation of those recommendations was not included in the Queen’s Speech. Can she assure me that she is not going to miss a golden opportunity to make these reforms and give a big boost to our standing in the world?

First, let me pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, my predecessor, who did a fantastic job in this Department. I am delighted to stand by the position that he took as Secretary of State: it is the Government’s plan to legislate for a new regulator with stronger powers, replacing the FRC, as soon as parliamentary time allows. We are planning to progress this work in the first quarter of next year, once we have received Sir Donald Brydon’s review of the quality and effectiveness of audit.

T4. Next month will mark five years since the Government first announced they would undertake an independent review of the UK’s product recall system, and a failure to implement recalls has led to fire services responding to preventable fires due to product failures. Will the Minister today update the House on the review’s progress and whether the single recall register will be up and running this year? (900063)

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is aware that we undertook one of the biggest recalls that has happened this year: the recall of Whirlpool tumble dryers. She will know that I have updated the House on the progress we have made on that. Since 12 June, when I announced the recall, we have had more than 90,000 contacts, with people getting in touch about recall. So we are continuing to improve and work on recall.

Heatric is a business in my constituency that is leading in clean energy, for example, carbon capture and storage, but it can do more. What more can the Department do to support businesses such as Heatric?

Carbon capture, usage and storage is essential to meet our mission for net zero by 2050. We have committed £25 million so far to supporting new companies to progress CCUS, with an additional £100 million as part of the £505 million energy innovation programme. I know that my hon. Friend has taken Heatric to the Department, and officials are keen to ensure that they can continue to work with the company.

T5. When we leave the European Union, we will also leave the auspices of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, so what plans do Ministers have to provide regulatory certainty to the aerospace sector and for the thousands of jobs that it relates to in my constituency? (900064)

I think the hon. Gentleman would know that we already have agreements in place so that planes can continue flying. If he votes for the deal today, we will be in a much better place to leave in an orderly way.

More than half a dozen post offices in East Renfrewshire have closed over the past couple of years and not one has been able to be replaced, because it was not a viable business proposition for retailers. Does the Minister think that increased fees under the banking framework agreement will be enough to build the sustainability of the post office network?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I am happy to discuss particular issues in his constituency. I believe that the new banking framework and the increase in remuneration that postmasters will be receiving as part of that framework will make a significant impact for postmasters. But he is right to say that we must not stop there. I am working hard, with the Post Office and the National Federation of SubPostmasters, to make sure that we have a post office network that is fit, relevant and viable.

T6. Scotland has 35% of the total European carbon capture and storage capacity; it has much of the infrastructure already in place; and it has in my constituency the world-leading research group Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage. Will the Secretary of State press the Chancellor to seriously increase the amount of investment in the next Budget that goes into the industry, so that it can upscale and go into commercial production? (900065)

The hon. Gentleman is right: carbon capture, usage and storage is going to be crucial to our meeting our net zero carbon target. We are committed to supporting its deployment in the 2020s. The Government are already funding programmes in this policy area worth more than £500 million, and we will have a useful dialogue with colleagues in the Treasury to encourage the development of the technology.

Many businesses in my constituency depend on a constant flow of engineers entering the work- force. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State tell the House how her Department is ensuring that enough young people take up engineering? What is she doing with other Departments to embed it in the curriculum?

May I start by thanking my hon. Friend for his work as the Government’s engineering envoy and for the work he has taken forward as part of our Engineering: Take a Closer Look legacy campaign? We have so far invested £406 million in maths, digital and technical education to help to focus on the shortage of science, technology, engineering and maths skills, but we must ensure that the “E” in STEM is equally vital, so we will be taking forward work to put engineering at the centre of our STEM strategy.

T7. Last week, Tata Jaguar Land Rover announced that it had created an electric drive unit, which the Government are helping to fund. In view of that, will the steel Minister work with Tata to ensure that the Orb steelworks in Newport stays open and is part of the supply chain? It would be a travesty to lose the capacity to make electrical steel in this country. (900066)

The hon. Lady and I are set to meet on 29 October, and I am meeting the all-party group on steel the day before. I will do everything I can to work with Tata to see whether we can find a future for the steelworks.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In my constituency, we have two EDF nuclear power stations. Part of the EDF group is RTE, which is currently working with the British company Aquind to deliver cross-EU-border energy infrastructure. The EU Commission has just removed UK companies from its list of projects of common interests, which affects their regulation. Will my right hon. Friend urge Ofgem to step up and protect British companies by granting regulation as soon as possible in accordance with British law?

Absolutely. We had an official present in the room at that PCI meeting on 4 October. This issue has been raised with me and is a matter of concern.

T8. As 90,000 postal delivery workers threaten to go on strike at Christmas over job security and employment rights that were promised but remain undelivered, I note that the chief executive of privatised Royal Mail earns nearly 35 times what our beloved posties earn. Given the creeping privatisation of our post offices that is devastating community assets, will the Minister consider renationalising all our postal services, as demanded by the good citizens of South Kensington, who have lost their post office, so that they will deliver to the nation, not to the pockets of the few? (900067)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I have to disappoint her because my answer to it is no.

I was delighted to hear that Seagreen wind farm off the coast of Angus was successful in its bid in the UK Government contract for difference auction. It will be the most powerful wind farm throughout the United Kingdom and will have the ability to power up to 40% of Scottish homes. Would the Minister like to come to Angus and see the impact it is already having on our local economy? The local port has already secured the contract for the operations and maintenance base.

Sedgefield is home to the largest business park in the north-east of England, with 500 companies and 10,000 to 12,000 jobs. More than 50% of the jobs and businesses there rely in some way on trade with the EU. If the Secretary of State has her way and there is no more frictionless trade with the EU, no more customs union and no access to the single market as there is now, does she not have a responsibility to publish an economic assessment on the effects that will have on my constituents’ jobs?

I am delighted that Hitachi in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is doing so well and that the high value manufacturing catapult that has an operation in his constituency is also doing well—both supported by the Government. We are seeking to get the withdrawal agreement Bill through this House, so that we can move forward with a good free trade deal that works for the United Kingdom, the EU and the many people in his constituency who are employed in manufacturing, which is something in which the UK excels.