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Topical Questions

Volume 670: debated on Tuesday 21 January 2020

T2. They have a combined annual turnover of £60 billion and there are 100,000 of them, but this Government seem to have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to social enterprises. When will that change? Will they start by redirecting all questions on social enterprise away from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, where they seem to have been shunted, and into the heart of this Department? They would then send a powerful message that profit-making can be socially responsible. (900299)

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will first talk about my departmental priorities.

As we enter an exciting new decade, we are building a stronger, greener United Kingdom. To achieve that, my Department is focusing on three priorities. First, we are leading the world on tackling climate change, not just because it is the right thing to do but because it will create millions of new jobs and skills right across the UK. Secondly, we are solving the grand challenges facing our society—from life sciences to space, artificial intelligence and robotics—and improving lives across the world. Thirdly, we are quite simply making the UK the best place in the world to work and to grow a business.

Social enterprises are a thriving part of the UK’s economy. When I was a Back-Bench MP, and before I went into politics, I was closely involved in setting up and running a number of charities. She is absolutely right that we need to continue focusing on them as a key part of the economy.

I am always happy to hear lobbying from colleagues on both sides of the House about machinery of government changes, and perhaps we can meet another time to talk about that.

T4. Employers like the Sovereign Housing Association and our community furniture project are giving young people with learning disabilities in Basingstoke the opportunity to get work experience through the Government-supported internship programme run by the Basingstoke College of Technology in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging even more employers to come forward, not only in Basingstoke but across the country, to help more disabled people with learning disabilities to reach their potential at work? (900301)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this. The Government encourage businesses to be a force for good in our society. I warmly welcome the commitment from firms in her constituency to offer placements that connect these young people with the world of work, helping to identify their future roles.

T3. Does the Secretary of State agree that local enterprise partnerships should be led by the business community in the area they serve? (900300)

T5. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what plans the Government have to secure the number of scientists, researchers and engineers we will require to reach the 2.4% GDP spend on research and development? (900302)

I start by thanking my hon. Friend for all the hard work he is putting in as the Government’s envoy for the “Engineering: Take a Closer Look” campaign, which is encouraging young people to consider science, technology, engineering and maths as a future career.

Our new fast-track immigration scheme, including a global talent visa and the removal of the cap on tier 1 visas, will enable a wider pool of scientific and research talent to come to the United Kingdom. We are also investing in the number of researchers we need for the future, including £170 million for bioscience doctoral students and £100 million for artificial intelligence doctoral training centres.

T7. Community energy is crucial in the transition to a local, smart, zero-carbon energy system. Will the responsible Minister meet me and sector representatives to map out a way forward that enables community energy to play that crucial part? (900304)

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss these crucial matters. She is right to raise this question, and we should be having a cross-party dialogue to pursue this agenda.

T6. As many of the big banks withdraw their support for rural areas, the post office network is becoming increasingly relevant to communities such as mine. I know the Minister cares passionately about the rural post office network, so will she do all she can to ensure that it is supported in constituencies? (900303)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The Government recognise the importance of postal offices in rural communities, both throughout the UK and in his constituency. There are more than 11,600 post offices nationwide. Access to branches exceeds the national standard that the Government set, with 99% of rural populations living within 3 miles of a post office. The Post Office is currently delivering further investment in rural branches, through the community branch development scheme, to underpin the long-term viability of our post offices, and I am keen to work with it to continue to support that.

T9. As chair of the all-party group on disability, I have become increasingly concerned that entrepreneurs with disabilities are facing additional challenges in starting businesses, such as on access to business loans. Will the Minister meet our group and ensure that we have a truly inclusive economy? [R] (900306)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I note her interest, her role and the work she has done on this issue, and I will be more than happy to meet her. It is important that everyone in the United Kingdom, no matter who they are, is able to access support from government. We want all entrepreneurs to thrive and I will be happy to work with her to be able to achieve that.

T8. Will the Government consider introducing a small business equivalent of the personal allowance, exempting small businesses from all taxes other than VAT and assisting small businesses such as Maynard’s ice cream in my constituency in meeting the challenge of increases in the living wage? (900305)

I thank my hon .Friend for his question and very much welcome him back to this place, as an extremely valued member of the Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, on which he served with me—I am pleased to have him back. He raises an interesting idea. The UK has a highly competitive tax environment, and we need to do more to support our small businesses with the cost of doing business. That is why the Government have committed to launching a fundamental review of business rates, and Treasury colleagues will be giving more details on that in due course.

Sub-postmasters across the country offer valuable services to many of our communities. The case they brought against the Post Office has now concluded and the courts have found that the Post Office was at fault for its aggressive prosecutions of sub-postmasters for errors in the Horizon IT system. These prosecutions saw some sub-postmasters unlawfully jailed, and many losing their homes, livelihoods and reputations. What support are the Government giving to those affected? What has been done to ensure that a scandal such as this is never allowed to happen again? Will the Government launch a full inquiry into the circumstances that led to this tragedy, and a full review of the governance and management of the Post Office—the judge was highly critical of that—and of the impact this will have on the post office network?

The hon. Lady is correct; on 11 December, Post Office Ltd reached a settlement in the group litigation claim brought by 555 postmasters or former postmasters. This has culminated in a successful mediation, and a settlement of £57.7 million was reached, funded by the Post Office. The Government welcome the agreement by the parties to settle this long-running litigation. It is true to say that many have suffered through litigation, and Post Office Ltd has apologised for that. One key point is that this mediation occurred under the new chief executive officer, who is making sure that the recommendations made by the judge, and culture change and changes within the Post Office, happen.

Ceramic Valley enterprise zone has transformed a number of brownfield sites and created thousands of jobs in Stoke-on-Trent. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State support our proposals to extend the zone, and its continuation in Stoke-on-Trent?

Since it launched in April 2016, Ceramic Valley enterprise zone has been a fantastic success: it has attracted private sector investment and has already secured 1,000 new jobs in Stoke. The Government are prioritising levelling up, as the Prime Minister continuously reminds us. We will want to reflect on those things, such as Ceramic Valley enterprise zone, that have worked and see how we can support them further.

One interesting statistic in the figures released today by the Office for National Statistics figures is that for the first time more than 5 million people in the UK are self-employed. Will the Minister responsible for small business undertake urgently to push forward the work she has been doing on shared parental leave for freelancers and the self-employed? That will be particularly helpful to women in the workforce.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the self-employment market. We committed in our manifesto not only to look at self-employment but to make sure that the UK is the best place to work, and we will make sure that that includes flexibility. He will know that we are bringing forward an employment Bill. We are determined to make the UK the best place to work, and that includes shared parental leave and working with families to make it easier for women to get back into work.

As the new Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme, I am supporting the town centre by opening a shop there. I welcome what the Minister said about business rates, but will she also look into the taper on small business rates relief? If someone has a property worth £12,000, they pay no business rates, but if it is valued at £15,000 they pay £7,500 a year, which has made it difficult for the council to let units at the top end of that scale. Will the Department look into the issue?

There will be a fundamental review of business rates, which many retailers will welcome. It will be a wide review and I am sure the issue my hon. Friend highlights will be looked into. I should highlight that we have managed to take a number of small retailers—I believe it is more than 685,000—out of paying any rates at all.

This week, thousands of climate hypocrites will zoom into Davos in hundreds of private jets to lecture the world about stopping the consumption of fossil fuels, oblivious to their own hypocritical behaviour. Will the Secretary of State assure us that she will not heed any of the calls for policies that would cost jobs in our energy-intensive industries, add costs to the fuel prices of the millions in fuel poverty, or add green burdens to consumers, farmers and motorists?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a vital point. It is not enough that we just look at our own behaviour here in the United Kingdom, where we are determined to meet our net-zero ambitions; we should also do all we can to lead the world in tackling the climate emergency. In our plans in the run-up to COP26, we have set out some really ambitious ideas for how we can not only work at home to decarbonise but help the rest of the world in their efforts to solve their own problems and behave better in the way they travel.

Hard-working Harlow binmen and women have been harassed and bullied in a pretty shocking way by Veolia management over many months. Will my hon. Friend launch an inquiry into what has been going on and ensure that guidance is given to local councils throughout the country to stop any new contracts with Veolia until it stops bullying and harassing its workforce?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I am happy to meet him to hear more details on that matter.

Westfield is set to open a fabulous new shopping centre in Croydon, but the French owner of Westfield, Unibail-Rodamco, is worried about business rates, the state of retail and the impact of Brexit. Will the Secretary of State please meet representatives of Westfield and Unibail-Rodamco to talk about some of those concerns?

My constituency is no less than the life sciences capital of the world. We have the global headquarters of AstraZeneca, 20,000 people working in the biomedical campus around Addenbrooke’s Hospital and dozens of industrial parks and small businesses developing new therapies, helping people to live longer and healthier. Many of those companies are dependent on research grants, some of which come from the EU. Will my hon. Friend tell me what work the Government are doing to ensure that South Cambridge remains the biomedical and life sciences capital of the world, and that companies have continuity of funding once we leave the EU?

I welcome my hon. Friend to his place. He represents an area that is the life sciences crucible of Europe and, as science Minister, I am determined to ensure that that continues. I will meet the vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope, shortly to talk about Cambridge’s own plans for investment for the future.

On European investment, I want to make it perfectly clear to the House that when it comes to Horizon 2020, including European Research Council grants and Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, the withdrawal agreement ensures that we can continue within that framework. When it comes to looking at Horizon Europe, its successor scheme, we want to explore an association that is as full as possible. We may be leaving the EU, but we will not be leaving our European research partnerships.