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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 670: debated on Tuesday 21 January 2020

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

Business Productivity: Birmingham

Birmingham’s productivity increased at twice the national rate last year, and I am meeting our great West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, next month to talk about how we can achieve even more. We have one of the country’s most successful enterprise zones in Birmingham, where we are investing £433 million in local growth funds and increasing skills levels, employment opportunities and connectivity.

Transport for West Midlands and the Open Data Institute found that between 2008 and 2018 congestion had led to 216,000 fewer people being within a 45-minute bus journey of the centre of Birmingham. Will the Secretary of State commit to properly resourcing new public transport infrastructure in Birmingham to enhance productivity and help the city’s almost 2 million people to realise their potential rather than wasting their time sitting in traffic?

The hon. Lady raises a really important point, and she will know that the Department for Transport is looking closely at what more it can do to improve connectivity. I hope that she will be delighted, as I am, that the city centre and Curzon extension is creating 76,000 new jobs and contributing £4 billion to the economy each year, and that since 2010, according to the local enterprise partnership, there are 134,000 private sector jobs being created in the Greater Birmingham area.

When my right hon. Friend meets my friend the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, will she discuss the possibility of opening a giga factory in Birmingham or the immediate area for the production of electric vehicles?

My hon. Friend is well aware of the Government’s ambitions to have a giga factory in the UK. It is vital for the success of our economy that we are able to find these new areas of technological growth that can support the uptake of ultra-low and zero-emission vehicles.

Leaving the EU: Businesses in Scotland

The Scottish Government received almost £100 million to help to prepare for Brexit in the run-up to 31 October last year. I am delighted that we now have a good deal with the European Union, so we will be leaving the EU at the end of January, but the implementation period will mean that nothing changes for businesses until the end of 2020. We are working hard on our future trading relationship with our EU friends and neighbours.

With the final destination of Brexit still vague, it is a disgrace that the UK Government are still failing to give businesses the information they need to navigate Brexit, with firms needing more than the Chancellor telling them simply to “adjust”. Will the Secretary of State finally accept the policy of the Scottish National party and the Institute of Directors of providing a £750 million one-stop shop for UK firms?

I am not surprised to hear that the hon. Gentleman is still determined to resist Brexit, but he will appreciate that this Government are getting on with it and ensuring that there is a great deal for businesses. On his point about Scottish businesses’ preparedness, my Department’s business readiness fund enabled various trade bodies, including the Scottish Chamber of Commerce and the Scottish fishing trade bodies, to receive hundreds of thousands in taxpayers’ money precisely to enable businesses to be Brexit-ready.

The Chancellor has been clear that some companies will benefit from Brexit and some will not, but the Fraser of Allander Institute has been clear that it estimates that as many as 100,000 jobs in Scotland will be lost as a result of Brexit. Can the Minister explain why she thinks it fair that Scotland will be hit so hard by a Brexit for which it did not vote?

I am sure that the hon. Lady will be delighted to see today’s employment numbers—yet again, the highest numbers on record—and she will no doubt also be delighted to know that there has been a 12.7% increase in employment in North Ayrshire and Arran since 2010. Jobs are being created, supported by a UK Government who are determined to give people right across the United Kingdom the chance of future growth and prosperity in their area.

Will the Secretary of State talk about the support that her Department is giving to quantum computing in the UK? This technology is growing at an exponential speed and opening up new opportunities in new sectors for the United Kingdom.

Just to help the new Member, his question should really be associated with the current question, so I presume that he is talking about Scotland as well.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He may be aware that the Government are investing about £1 billion in a new quantum technologies fund, which will be of benefit right across the United Kingdom as we take advantage of these extraordinary opportunities, so many of which are coming out of the United Kingdom.

I would like to offer the shadow Secretary of State’s apologies, because she cannot be with us today. But it is the Secretary of State who has been AWOL from business—missing in action during the general election and now again, as we prepare for Brexit, shelving the weekly meetings with business leaders. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister promised the workers of Nissan that he would

“make sure we have complete equivalence when it comes to our standards, our industrial requirements and the rest of it”,

but the Chancellor rules out continuing alignment with the European Union. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the necessary alignment for frictionless trade with the European Union continues after Brexit?

I welcome the hon. Lady, who is standing in for the shadow Secretary of State. It is very unfortunate that she decided to play the man and not the ball, because she is absolutely incorrect to suggest that it is my policy to reduce meetings with businesses. In fact, my Department’s priority is to make the UK the best place to work and to grow a business, and I will be increasing the level of engagement and the range of engagement right across the business sector as we leave the European Union and get the best possible deal for businesses and for people.

The Secretary of State did not even say the words “frictionless trade”, and her reassurances will not give businesses very much hope, but given that we know the Prime Minister’s views on business—I think it would be disorderly to quote them in detail—we cannot expect meaningful reassurances. However, Nissan was given private reassurances back in July 2017. We were told at the time that they were too commercially sensitive to publish, but now we have only 10 days to go and Ministers are answering questions on them, so will she publish the reassurances given to Nissan, and if not, why not?

Businesses right across the United Kingdom will benefit from the new potential free trading deals around the world that we will be negotiating as we leave the European Union, but at the same time this Government are committed to getting the best possible free trading arrangements with our EU friends and neighbours for all companies—for Nissan and for all companies that currently trade with the EU.

The 10 days till Brexit will be followed by 10 years of trade chaos, negative growth, lower employment and investment paralysis. Given that the EU has already stated that the trumped-up Tory timetable will not allow for a comprehensive trade deal, will the Secretary of State finally establish a small and medium-sized enterprise support service to allow Scottish firms to navigate this mess?

It is a bit like a stuck record, if I can use 1970s terminology. SNP Members said that we would not get any kind of a deal. They said that the Prime Minister would not be able to reopen the withdrawal agreement. They said that we would never get out of the EU. The fact is that this Prime Minister has been able to negotiate a good deal with the European Union that works for businesses and people right across the UK, and we are opening up new opportunities. Just for once, be a little optimistic!

It is clear from that answer that our Government have no plans to save Scottish firms from the sinking ship that is Brexit Britain, but we do have the lifeboat of independence. On Scotland’s right to choose, does the Secretary of State still believe that it is wrong to utterly rule it out and disrespectful to do so and is it still “never say never”, or are those laudable democratic principles to be sunk with the Brexit ship?

I would just draw the attention of the hon. Gentleman and those on his Benches to the very recent Deloitte CFO confidence survey, which demonstrates the biggest ever jump in business confidence, as a result of the certainty that we now have about the way ahead. Business certainty is absolutely key, and if he wants to do something for businesses, he should stop trying to hammer their confidence and start looking to work with the Government on the opportunities that lie ahead.

Climate Change

I welcome and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) on winning his seat—a great result. We have reduced carbon emissions by more than 40% since 1990, while growing our economy by more than two thirds. We are currently decarbonising our economy faster than any other G20 country, and more than half our electricity now comes from low-carbon sources. We have the largest offshore wind capacity in the world.

Net Zero Teesside is potentially a world-leading carbon capture, utilisation and storage project in my constituency. Not only will it reduce emissions, but it will cut energy costs and help to secure our long-term industrial future. Will the Minister back Redcar’s industry and fully support that project?

Absolutely—I would be delighted to back Redcar’s big opportunities in CCUS. I was there last week when I had an instructive meeting with various stakeholders and industry professionals, and there is a huge economic opportunity.

Businesses such as Frank Matthews tree nursery in my constituency play a vital role in growing the trees that we will need to combat climate change. How will the Department ensure that the trees we plant are native, sustainable species?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are absolutely behind such initiatives. We have a well-developed forest nursery sector, and we encourage the planting of UK-grown trees, as proven by our £640 million Nature4Climate fund. That builds on our support for preserving areas of great natural beauty, such as the Malvern hills in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and we hope to plant an additional 75,000 acres of trees a year by the end of the next Parliament.

Small things make a big difference when it comes to climate change. Waunfawr primary school in my constituency has an eco-community, and it decided to switch from plastic bottles to glass bottles to provide its milk. It had lots of problems finding a dairy that would provide glass bottles, but eventually it did. How will the Department ensure that fewer single-use plastics are used by businesses, and by those in local government and the public sector?

I do not know the detail of what is happening in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but I would like to hear more about it. We have made strong efforts in this area, and we must trumpet the fact that we are world leaders in combating climate change. As he knows, we will be hosting COP26, and I would be happy to take him offline, as it were, and pursue this conversation further.

16. Decarbonising transport will be crucial if we are to meet our net-zero targets, but the cost of electric vehicles remains high. What more can be done to ensure that that cost comes down and is within reach for the majority of people in our country? (900290)

Plenty has been done, and I commend my hon. Friend and welcome him back to his seat after a hard-fought campaign. He will know that through the Treasury and the £400 million fund, we are extending the provision of charging facilities for electric vehicles—that issue is the single reason that prevents people from buying EVs. Manufacturers are clear about our intentions and our 2040 target for the full roll-out of EVs. We are looking to bring that target forward, and the cost curve is coming down.

I am genuinely sorry that the Minister did not attend the International Renewable Energy Agency assembly earlier this month. Had he done so, he would have learned that solar auctions are now achieving 1.7 cents per kilowatt hour, which is less than £14 per megawatt hour. Is it time to consider making a global green grid alliance an objective of COP26, and seeing whether a feed-in tariff from the UK could incentivise the development of an interconnection with Morocco to deliver such low priced electric power in the UK?

Obviously, I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman back in his place. I was more troubled to see that his leadership campaign was perhaps not launched with the sufficient energy and enthusiasm he shows so often at the Dispatch Box. On building alliances, the Government’s position is that we are always open to building alliances internationally. We are taking leadership with the COP26 conference. On the climate change agenda, we are taking coal off the grid. We are always open to building alliances internationally.

22. Does my right hon. Friend agree with the residents of Woodsetts and Harthill in Rother Valley that the best way his Department can tackle climate change is to make the moratorium on fracking permanent? (900296)

Absolutely. I welcome my hon. Friend to his place—another very successful campaign. On fracking, the moratorium is what it says: we are stopping it. The only way it can be resumed is by compelling evidence, which so far is not forthcoming. So the moratorium stays and fracking, for the time being, is over.

Support for Small Businesses

Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and the British Business Bank is supporting over £7 billion of finance to over 91,000 small and medium-size enterprises. Through our business productivity review, published in November, we set out the steps we are taking to boost small business productivity, including: funding a small business leadership programme, strengthening local networks and expanding the knowledge transfer partnership programme.

I thank the Minister for her response. I was at a local business breakfast last week. Alongside the predictable issues of late payment, Brexit-readiness and parking, which I would have expected, I was surprised to hear naturally Conservative people lambasting the Government for refocusing priorities northward post-election, which they see as quite shameless and political. How can the Minister ensure that the good idea of regional rebalancing does not end up clobbering small firms and sole traders in Ealing, Acton and Chiswick? The streets are not paved with gold there and they already feel under the cosh.

I can reassure the hon. Lady that the Government completely back business, whether in the north or the south. We want businesses to grow wherever they are in the UK. That is highlighted by the fact that in her constituency alone there have been 193 start-up loans, representing £1.6 million. It is clear that the Government are willing to support entrepreneurs and all business owners who want to grow, wherever they are.

On Saturday, I was out on Mapperley Top in my constituency speaking to small business owners and shopkeepers. One of the issues they raised was access to finance. What support is being given to help small businesses like those in Mapperley get access to finance?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and welcome him to his place. I am really pleased that, so quickly into being an MP, he is out talking to as many businesses as he can. Clearly, access to finance is a key priority for many businesses. I have already outlined the applications to start-up loans. One interesting element is that applicants for start-up loans are able to have a mentor. He will also know that we have taken action by offering small retailers a third off business rates for two years, starting in April. We are committed to increasing that to 50%.

Leyland has an above-average five-year success rate for small businesses, and a diverse and growing business base. What is the Minister doing to help and support smaller businesses to start to trade with the world and to identify export opportunities?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and welcome her to her place. I know she has a particular interest in this area, with her experience before coming to the House. The Government are committed to helping small businesses become exporters. Over 580,000 trade internationally already. The Department for International Trade supports that via a range of projects. We want all SMEs who are able to, to take that plunge. My Department will continue to work across Government and with SMEs to identify barriers to ensure we can address them and make it easier for all SMEs to trade internationally.

Small businesses are the backbone of the Cumbria tourism economy. They are appalled, as am I, by the Government’s plan to make sure that there is a £30,000 salary floor for any overseas worker coming to work in the tourism economies of the Lake district or the Yorkshire dales. Does the Minister understand how much damage that will do to an economy in which 20,000 non-UK staff are working now? Will she meet me and people from the hospitality industry to make sure that we have a salary floor that does not cripple Cumbria’s tourism economy?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the tourism economy is particularly important for the UK. While I am happy to meet him, we hear representations from the sector regularly. Despite the earlier comment to the Secretary of State about a reduction in our engagement with businesses, we are actually stepping that up. He will know that we will bring forward plans on immigration and the floor that he mentioned, but I am more than happy to hear his particular point.

One thing that all businesses—large and small—depend on is having a skilled workforce. What is the Department doing to improve skills overall, and particularly engineering skills, on which more and more companies are now dependent?

I welcome my hon. Friend back to the Chamber and thank him for his interest in this area. He knows that, as we leave the European Union, we want to ensure that we have a good distribution of engineering skills—not just in the south-east, but across the country—and help people to increase their skills. I am a great lover of apprenticeships, of what some small businesses are doing with apprenticeships, and especially of our degree-led apprenticeships involving organisations such as BAE Systems—which, I should say, operates in my constituency.

Photonics SMEs

We are working with the Photonics Leadership Group to support the success of the UK photonics industry. The Government have invested £81 million in the establishment of a new national extreme photonics application centre. The Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics is involved in 17 Innovate UK-funded products. In addition, UK Research and Innovation has invested £7.2 million in partnerships with St Andrews and Strathclyde Universities, working on fundamental biophotonics research programmes.

The Minister has rightly detailed some of the great expertise that exists in photonics and quantum across the UK, and particularly across the central belt of Scotland. When these SMEs are looking to expand, they often attract foreign investment from countries such as China, so what oversight is there of the potential technological transfer, in terms of both our expertise and threats to our security? What work are the Government doing with the Treasury to ensure that the expansion of such SMEs can be funded from UK sources?

I thank the hon. Lady for her work as the chair of the all-party group on photonics. She is absolutely right: the central belt across Scotland—centred on Glasgow, in particular, and the new Clyde waterfront innovation district—is absolutely critical for our national success in photonics. As part of our national quantum technologies programme, which the Secretary of State alluded to, some £50 million will be invested in a hub for quantum imaging at Glasgow University by 2024. On business involvement, I am determined, as the Science and Innovation Minister, that we not only look at how we protect future intellectual property in this area and attract foreign investment through our international research and innovation strategy but, at the same time, look at new forms of protection through our innovation and regulation White Paper.

Small-scale Modular Nuclear Reactors

7. What steps the Government are taking to support the provision of small-scale modular nuclear reactors. (900280)

It is delightful to see you in your place, Mr Speaker; this is the first opportunity I have had to congratulate you.

Small modular reactors have significant potential to reduce our carbon emissions, and help to achieve net zero by using advanced manufacturing techniques to unlock what is referred to as “fleet economics” and drive down costs in nuclear.

It is clearly very good news that Rolls-Royce, a world-renowned company, has taken up the challenge of developing small modular nuclear reactors for clean energy not only for the UK, but for export across the world. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the opportunity for new jobs in the UK and for exports across the world?

The Rolls-Royce consortium has proposed a significant public-private joint innovation programme worth more than £500 million to design a first-of-its-kind SMR. The consortium expects a working model to be up and running in the early 2030s, that the SMR programme would create high-value export opportunities and, at its peak, 40,000 jobs, and that each SMR would be capable of producing enough clean electricity to power 750,000 homes.

In the last Parliament, the Defence Committee and Science and Technology Committee received evidence clearly indicating that there are threats from unmanned aerial vehicles in relation to nuclear reactors. If the Minister supports these small-scale nuclear reactors, will he advise the House on what discussions his Department is having with the Ministry of Defence about their impact on the security of national infrastructure?

I am grateful for the hon. Member’s pertinent question. He is absolutely right; we do have discussions with the Ministry of Defence. The Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth and I are visiting Hinkley Point tomorrow, but the hon. Member raises an important issue that the nuclear constabulary is taking very seriously.

Clean Growth: New Jobs

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we are determined to seize the economic opportunities of the net zero transition. We hope to create 2 million green jobs across the UK by 2030. He will also know that just last week the Office for National Statistics announced that, under this Government, 466,000 people in this country are employed in low-carbon businesses and their supply chains.

The electrification of vehicles is an important area of clean growth, and the London Electric Vehicle Company, which is based in my constituency, is manufacturing the new electric taxi. It has created 500 new jobs, with 3,000 taxis now on London roads. The Prime Minister visited very recently and managed to drive one of the taxis without knocking down a wall. Does the Minister agree that if we are to make the switch to electric affordable for taxi drivers, thereby making a major contribution to reducing CO2 emissions and improving air quality, the current plug-in taxi grant is a vital incentive?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am delighted to hear that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister drove the car without any incident or untoward events happening. The fact that more than 3,000 of LEVC’s Coventry-made electric taxis are in London is a fantastic milestone. I also agree that the Government’s plug-in taxi grant is vital to the uptake and roll-out of these vehicles.

Wind turbines, electrifying our railways and electric vehicles all need steel. What are the Government doing to help our steel industry at this challenging time?

The hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that we have a strategy, and she is right. Decarbonising industry in general is vital, but we remain committed to UK steel and steel production in this country, and that is something the Department is very concerned with.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments on this important issue. Does he agree that this country has an amazing potential to continue to grow our economy dramatically by supporting new green industries?

My right hon. Friend is right. As I have mentioned before at the Dispatch Box, it is remarkable that we have managed to reduce our carbon emissions by 40% in the past 30 years while growing our economy by two thirds. That is living proof of the remarkable fact that that we can decarbonise, grow and promote economic expansion at the same time. This is something in which we in this country are world leaders.

I am sure that the Minister agrees that there is a wealth of skills and transferrable jobs in existing energy industries that may well be supplanted by low-carbon energy industries in the not too distant future. What steps is he taking to capture those skills and transfer those jobs to low-carbon industries in the future?

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that we have sector deals handling exactly that problem, for example in the oil and gas sector. We are making a successful transition from old industries to the new low-carbon-emitting, greener industries of the future. Offshore wind, of which there are a number of examples—I believe that there is a supply chain near the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—is a great success: we have 35% of global capacity. That is part of the transformation of the economy that we are talking about.

Space Industry

The UK space sector employs 42,000 highly skilled people, generating more than £300 billion for the wider economy. We recently committed ourselves to investing £374 million a year—a record 15% increase—with the European Space Agency over the next five years, and our national space council and space strategy will help us to lead the way in the evolution of this high-technology sector.

Following the welcome announcements in the Queen’s Speech about investment in the UK space sector, will my hon. Friend tell us the status of funding for innovation in the sector and of plans for the proposed UK space strategy?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work as vice-chairman of a newly formed all-party parliamentary group, the parliamentary space committee. I know that he plans to fly to the United States next month to attend the launch of the European Space Agency’s solar orbiter, which was built in Stevenage. It is a fantastic piece of UK science engineering and was funded by the Government to the tune of £216 million.

I understand that the space industry has proposed a space innovation fund, and I am interested in working with the industry on that. The national space council will consider how we can build on existing commitments through a comprehensive UK space strategy, which will help to create thousands of jobs across the country.

It is good to hear what the Minister says about the space sector, but may I ask him specifically how all the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will benefit from that potential, and, in particular, how Northern Ireland will benefit?

Last year, during a fantastic trip to the Belfast region, I had an opportunity to meet representatives of Thales Alenia Space, which is working on some of the capsules that encase satellite technology. The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to ask that question. Our national space strategy constitutes a one nation approach that will involve every part of the UK, from a horizontal launch site down in Newquay in Cornwall to a vertical launch site up in Sutherland in Scotland—we are also thinking about establishing a spaceport in Wales. Every part of the UK will be involved in space, and rightly so.

We have a growing share of one of the fastest-growing markets in the world—the market for satellites—but no country in Europe has the ability to launch satellites into space, and there is a race to be the first to do so. Will my hon. Friend update the House on when we expect the Sutherland site to be ready for the launch of the first UK satellite?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his hard work on space when he was Business Secretary. He was responsible for working on the Satellite Applications Catapult increase, and for the £99 million satellite testing facility at Harwell, which will mean that satellites can be tested here rather than our having to go abroad. He also set out our mission to be the first country in Europe to have both horizontal and vertical launch. As for Sutherland, I am working closely with the highlands and islands authorities to ensure that we can achieve our vertical launch, and that we work with Lockheed and other partners to do so as soon as possible.

National Living Wage

10. What recent assessment she has made of the level of compliance of businesses with payment of the national living wage. (900284)

The vast majority of jobs that are eligible to receive the national living wage are in compliance with the law, with only 1.5% of eligible jobs paid below in April 2019. Anyone entitled to be paid the national minimum wage should receive it. Last year, we ordered employers to pay a record £24.4 million in arrears and issued £17 million in penalties to non-compliant employers.

I thank the Minister for her answer but, as she is aware, the enforcement system is not working effectively at the moment, and hundreds of well-known companies are still getting away with not paying their workers the national living wage. I welcome the steps that the Government have already taken, but I hope that the Minister will respond by setting out additional actions that the Government will take to ensure that nobody gets away with paying their workers less than they are owed.

I want to make it clear to the hon. Lady that this Government will enforce the national minimum wage and make sure that employers that are meant to be paying it do so. I think that is shown by the penalties and arrears that were recovered last year. We have doubled the enforcement budget. I remain committed to making sure that employers are able easily to comply with the law, but where there is any sign of breach, we are enforcing and making sure that people get the pay they are entitled to.

Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss the situation in Leicester, where I believe that approximately 10,000 people in the clothing industry are being paid £3 to £4 an hour in conditions of modern slavery?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the subject; yes, I would be very happy to meet him. The sector has been the subject of focus. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which is responsible for enforcing the national living wage, and cross-border agencies have been doing extensive work, but any details that my hon. Friend may supply would be helpful.

18. We hear warm words from the Minister, but the truth is that in the last 10 years, just nine firms have been prosecuted and fined for non-payment of the minimum wage. When those fines are levied, they are at only half the level that they could be. Why is that the case if this is such an important area for the Government? (900292)

I note the hon. Lady’s interest in this area, but I would just correct her: there have actually been 14 prosecutions for non-payment of the national minimum wage. I would also make it clear to the House that there are ways other than just bringing prosecutions to ensure that employers pay. Ultimately, we should focus on ensuring that businesses understand their obligations to their employees, that they pay the minimum wage, and that when they do not, we enforce correctly. I am determined to make sure that that continues to happen.

Pembrokeshire is one of those parts of the country where the substantial increases to the minimum wage have had a transformative impact on people with low incomes. Will the Minister join me in saluting the great many small businesses and microbusinesses across the county of Pembrokeshire that choose to do the right thing, because they support the aim of the policy, by implementing and enforcing the minimum wage?

Absolutely. I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments and I very much recognise the role of the SME market in ensuring that some of the lowest paid workers get the minimum wage, and in happily sometimes paying higher than that. As the small business Minister, my priority is to ensure not only that we enforce the national minimum wage, but that we create the right environment in which SMEs can thrive so that they continue to meet pay requirements.

It is simply not good enough: a decade—a decade, Mr Speaker—of workers being exploited under this Government’s watch. So why has the Minister let the 87% of firms that break the law and fail to pay the minimum wage get away with it? What is she going to do about it and by when? One thing is clear: we, the Labour party, are the only party that will ever stand up for working people.

I would thank the hon. Lady for her comments, but I wonder whether she is living in a land of fiction. It is the Conservative party that is standing up for workers. It is this party that has given the largest increase in the national minimum wage, rising to £8.72—an increase of 6.2%. As I have already outlined, our enforcement has doubled. We remain committed to enforcement, and it is a complete misrepresentation to say that in the past 10 years this Government have not enforced the national minimum wage. We remain committed to doing so, and for all the time that I am responsible, we will continue to do so.

Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk: Business Support

The Government are committed to spreading prosperity to all parts of the United Kingdom. We are investing £565 million through the borderlands growth deal and the Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city region deal, demonstrating our commitment to supporting growth and prosperity in the Scottish borders.

The Minister will know about the borders’ fine, famous tradition of producing Scottish textiles, but this industry is being hammered by the US-EU trade war, whereby many businesses face a 25% tariff on their exports to the United States. What are the Government doing to support those businesses and, in particular, compensate them for these tariff charges?

Scottish textiles are, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, an important part of the Scottish economy, our overall economy and our heritage. We will do everything we can to protect this micro-economy. The Government are working closely with the EU and the United States to support a negotiated settlement to the Airbus-Boeing dispute, and the Secretary of State continues to raise this personally with the United States Administration and is meeting the Trade Secretary later today.

Topical Questions

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.