House of Commons
Tuesday 3 March 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
That Amanda Milling be discharged from the Committee of Selection and Stuart Andrew be added.—(Iain Stewart.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
Supporting low-carbon industries is central to my Department’s mission to deliver our net zero target. We are backing our ambition with action. Since 2012, coal use on the grid has fallen from 40% to less than 3% in 2019, and renewable electricity generation has quadrupled since 2010, with low-carbon electricity providing more than 50% of our total energy needs.
In 2018, investment in acquisitions in the UK’s solar dropped to just £0.3 billion, from £1.6 billion in 2015. Should the Government not be doing more to support renewable power, in the light of the net zero target—which the Secretary of State mentioned—and the closure of the feed-in tariff, especially given that German, Italian and Spanish companies are now investing over six times more than UK companies in low-carbon technologies?
I am delighted that the hon. Lady has raised the issue of solar power, because, as she will know, solar photovoltaics is a UK success story. There has been rapid deployment over the past eight years, and more than 99% of the UK’s solar PV capacity has been deployed since May 2010. The latest figures indicate that we now have more than 1 million solar installations, or 13.4 GW, of capacity installed.
We are putting significant funds behind the renewables sector, and, as my hon. Friend will know, we are committed to increasing our research and development spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. I want the UK to be a science and R&D superpower, and that is what we are engaged in.
The hon. Gentleman may have missed yesterday’s announcement about the fourth contracts for difference allocation round, but if he reads that announcement, he will see the points that we have made. The proposals that we have presented are there to help the UK achieve its 2015 net zero ambition.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Hydrogen can, of course, play a key role in net zero efforts, alongside electricity. My Department is investing in innovation, with up to £121 million supporting a range of projects to explore and develop the potential of low-carbon hydrogen.
One of the UK’s great industrial success stories in recent decades has been the automotive industry. What discussions does the Secretary of State plan to have with the industry to help ensure that the UK is best placed to make the transition from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles?
Within days of taking office, I spoke to our major automotive manufacturers, and I have had meetings with a number of them. However, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We want to encourage electric vehicles, and we are also committed to securing investment for a UK gigafactory. Last year, we announced up to £1 billion of new money to support R&D and supply chains for electric vehicles.
Research and Development Investment
The Government are already increasing public spending on research and development by £7 billion over five years, the biggest increase in public funding for R&D on record. Every pound of public expenditure on R&D leverages a further £1.40 of additional private investment, generating even greater returns for the UK.
Given that nearly 50% of the core science budget currently goes to just three cities in southern England, can the Secretary of State assure me that the increase in R&D funding will do more to favour the regions outside the south, so that in future both my city of York and other regional hubs across Yorkshire, such as Leeds and Hull, will receive their fair share for the purposes of research and innovation?
I know that my hon. Friend is hugely supportive of R&D, and that last month he opened the Institute of Technology at York College. I absolutely agree that that is part of our levelling-up agenda. We want to support centres of excellence across the country. In December last year, UK Research and Innovation awarded £24 million to the University of York for a quantum communications hub, and we will set out our ambitious play strategy for R&D in the second half of this year.
Rothamsted Research in my constituency is a world-leading agricultural research centre, and we have made huge strides in commercialising that scientific knowledge, working with agritech start-ups. I am working with Rothamsted to build a new venture capital fund for agritech, working with those start-ups to incubate and develop them so that we can improve this facility, not just for Rothamsted and the region but for the whole country. Will the Secretary of State provide Government support for this work and come to see the work that we are doing at Rothamsted?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend is showing his characteristic commitment to innovation by supporting an agritech venture capital fund. As he notes, Rothamsted has a world-renowned reputation for agricultural research, and that is why UKRI has awarded £3.4 million to determine protein abundance in plants at that research institute. Either I or the Science Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway)—would be happy to meet him to discuss how the Government can support his proposals.
I also welcome the emphasis that the Government are placing on research and development. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what further action is being taken on the proposal for a UK advanced research projects agency, following the departmental meeting last year?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The UK is ranked fifth in the global innovation index, and our strengths in R&D mean that we are well placed to develop a new funding body to specialise in high-risk, high-reward projects. As I have said, I am absolutely determined that the UK should be a global science superpower, and my Department is making good progress on a UK advanced research projects agency. We are engaging with a wide range of researchers and innovators, and we will set out further plans in due course.
I welcome the Secretary of State and the Science Minister to their places. Science is critical to our national prosperity, and it is important that it should be led by them, rather than by the misfit master of Downing Street, so can the Secretary of State clarify the confusing statement from No. 10 on the European research programme? International collaboration is the heartbeat of research and development. For every £1 we put into the European Union programme, we got £1.30 back, and such funding is essential if we are to retain our place as a global science superpower, so will the Secretary of State boost UK science by confirming that we will be going for full associate membership?
Of course I want the UK to be a science superpower, and we have set out our views on expanding the R&D budget. On Europe, our EU negotiating objectives are very clear: the UK will consider participation in Horizon Europe and Euratom, but this will be part of the wider negotiations.
The Royal College of Physicians has found that something like 64,000 people a year die prematurely as a result of unclean air at a cost of some £20 billion. In addition to continuing the research and development into electric cars, will the Secretary of State lobby the Chancellor and the Environment Secretary to continue the grant of £3,500 for clean cars, so that we can have an enforceable regime for air quality and a platform for research and development and for exports in the green industries, particularly in relation to sustainable transport?
Across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, universities have played a critical role in research and development. What help will the Secretary of State give to Queen’s University and Ulster University in Belfast, as well as to the Greenmount Agricultural College, so that they can apply for funding to help research and development across the whole United Kingdom?
It is possible to build a house that costs nothing to heat, but that is not happening at scale at the moment. Does my right hon. Friend consider it part of his Department’s responsibilities to support research into making this more widespread, which would be hugely beneficial for the planet?
I know that my hon. Friend is an authority on the house building sector, and I had an opportunity to work with him on these issues when I was the Housing and Planning Minister. He raises an important point. We know that 15% of emissions are from housing, and we are looking to see how we can bring that down as part of the net zero target.
Aerospace Sector: Innovation
The hon. Gentleman, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on aerospace, will know that aerospace is a high-value growth sector driven by innovation, which is why the Government and the industry are co-investing £3.9 billion up to 2026 in aerospace research and development and a further £300 million in the future flight challenge.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. The UK leads the world in aerospace technology, but it faces the same pressures as other sectors with regard to environmental sustainability, so may I urge him to increase long-term funding for the industry so that we can retain our global lead while meeting the challenge of net zero?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important question. The Prince of Wales and I co-chaired a deep dive at the Whittle laboratory, with the whole industry around the table, to consider how we can deliver on net zero for the industry. We were targeting a fully electric aircraft that, at 500 miles, could cover most of Europe and take 180 passengers, and of course we are looking at other technologies for longer haul flights. We are also creating the innovators of the future with 500 additional master’s level postgraduate places for aerospace.
Clean Growth Industries: New Jobs
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The Government are committed to making the UK a world leader in clean growth, building on existing strengths in sectors such as nuclear and offshore wind. We are taking action to deliver that, including by investing £3 billion in low-carbon innovation to 2021 and £170 million from the industrial strategy challenge fund to support our industrial decarbonisation mission to create at least one low-carbon industrial cluster by 2030.
Tidal energy could be a game changer for my constituency of Barrow and Furness, for Morecambe bay and for the wider United Kingdom, through clean energy production and the ability to lead the world in this technology. Does my hon. Friend agree that, when considering the viability of these schemes, we have to rewrite the Treasury’s Green Book to take into account not only the unit cost of energy produced, but the value to the UK of leading in this technology and the social impact of bringing the schemes to constituencies such as mine?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question; I know how passionately he cares about the issue. I agree that the seas around the UK offer huge opportunities for cutting emissions and growing our economy. The offshore wind projects near his constituency offer an excellent example of UK leadership in renewable power. We are determined to drive growth in all parts of the UK and ensure that our assessment of projects takes full account not just of carbon savings, but of the growth and opportunities that they can provide for people across the country.
The Net Zero Teesside project aims to decarbonise the Teesside industrial cluster by as early as 2030, capturing up to 6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. The project could support up to 5,500 direct jobs, and it could help to safeguard as many as 16,000 existing jobs in the Tees valley. The UK has a unique chance to lead global development of a new carbon capture, utilisation and storage industry. Will the Government prioritise this technology?
My hon. Friend, who I know cares passionately about this issue, makes a really good point; CCUS will be vital to meeting our net zero target and revitalising the UK’s industrial areas. The Government have invested over £50 million in CCUS innovation, and recently we consulted on potential business models to help progress deployment. The CCUS action plan aims to enable the commissioning of the first facility in the UK in the mid-2020s. We committed in our manifesto to investing £800 million towards that, and £500 million to help energy-intensive industries move to low-carbon techniques.
If the Government want to help clean growth, they can invest in the Mersey tidal power project. It is clean, entirely predictable, and could power 1 million homes. It offers high-quality jobs and has massive domestic and export potential. Steve Rotheram and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority have just committed a further £3.5 million to the project, so will the Government back the people of the north-west by supporting investment in this exciting new project? It is a chance to demonstrate that they are interested in and serious about tackling the climate crisis.
The Minister says the UK is a world leader in offshore wind, but the reality is that too many manufacturing and supply chain jobs go abroad following the award of contracts for difference. Will she look seriously at including a quality assessment mechanism in the bid process to incentivise companies to use UK firms such as CSWind and BiFab?
Nuclear fusion and cleantech are key drivers of the fourth industrial revolution that will help to create hundreds of thousands of jobs across the whole country this decade. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the COP26 summit is used to showcase our country’s green entrepreneurs?
As the Government rejected the opportunity to create new clean jobs when they scrapped the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, which had huge potential for communities along the Severn to kick-start further lagoons, may I, along with other hon. Members, urge them to look again at the huge potential of tidal power?
Energy-Intensive Industries: Decarbonisation
We have schemes worth nearly £2 billion operating, or in development, to support our vital energy-intensive industries to decarbonise. We will also invest in building the UK’s first fully deployed carbon capture, usage and storage cluster, and we are progressing carbon capture and hydrogen business models, both of which are crucial technologies in decarbonising our industry.
Achieving net zero is a considerable challenge for energy-intensive industries like ceramics, given the twin requirements of decarbonising without reducing international competitiveness. However, it is a challenge the sector can and will rise to, provided the UK puts supportive policies in place. Are the Government prepared to work actively with the ceramics industry, like Churchill China and Steelite, to help incentivise decarbonisation without, critically, undermining its international competitiveness?
We must work together with industry to help our vital manufacturing regions benefit from clean growth opportunities. Stoke-on-Trent North is lucky to have such a Member championing its cause. We have a number of schemes in place, such as the transforming foundation industries challenge fund, the industrial heat recovery scheme and climate change agreements, to support industries like ceramics to cut bills and save carbon. In addition, we will be opening the industrial energy transformation fund to applications for phase 1 this spring.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and, of course, the south is as lucky as the north to have such a fantastic champion in this House.
We have a number of schemes, as I have already mentioned, particularly the transforming foundation industries challenge fund, which will support energy-intensive industries to work with each other to innovate in reducing carbon emissions. This is a joint Government and industry fund. The first competition for projects closed at the beginning of February, and applicants are due to find out later this month whether they have been successful.
Teesside is a major centre for high-carbon, energy-intensive industries, which are nervous about high energy costs, the future of the REACH regulations and carbon costs. It is good to have my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), also supporting the CCUS campaign, but how can the Minister reassure the industry that the Government will address the high cost issues and, in particular, the REACH regulations that he is about to ditch?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. We engaged with industry constantly throughout this process: when I took this job on last year, we engaged with industry over REACH, and we are looking at a UK REACH. Most importantly, we are looking at the energy-intensive industries and how we can innovate, for example, in steel and in the steel cluster. We have had good news today for British Steel, and we can use the investment that the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth is making in carbon capture, usage and storage to turn the industry into the greenest steel industry in Europe.
Will the Government help to decarbonise the Rhondda? I ask because following the flooding we have seen significant landslides on former coal sites. I do not want to overstate this, but there is some anxiety about what that might mean for the future and stability of some of these tips. Will the Minister make sure that the Secretary of State meets me and other MPs in affected areas to make sure that the Coal Authority is doing everything in its power to make sure everybody is safe?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. The Secretary of State will certainly meet him and other concerned MPs and make sure that the Coal Authority is doing everything it can. I would also like to visit to see for myself what is happening, so that we can work together on this. Getting to net zero by 2050 is a joint effort by the whole of this House, not just this Government.
Support for Small Businesses
Last month, we launched businesssupport.gov.uk, our new website bringing together all Government information available to help businesses start, grow and scale. In my first week, I was delighted to chair the Rose review board, which works with industry leaders to break down the barriers that female entrepreneurs face.
I thank the Minister for his response. Last week, my constituents Martin and Deanne Brook proudly opened a brand new post office on Halifax Road in Cross Roads, which they operate in conjunction with their already successful small family business, SMS Workshop Supplies Ltd. What steps are the Government taking to help incentivise small business owners like them to explore the possibility of providing post office services as a means of safeguarding the post office network?
This is about working with Members such as my hon. Friend and coming up with imaginative ways of opening up post offices, including Martin and Deanne’s in their hardware store. It is also important that we take the Post Office’s relationship with postmasters seriously and closely monitor the situation during the legal proceedings that many people are going through and have been through recently. The Post Office, under its new chief executive officer, has since accepted that it got things wrong. He has apologised and said that it aims to re-establish a positive relationship with postmasters. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working actively with the Post Office on this matter and will hold it to account on its progress. We are also looking into what more needs to be done.[Official Report, 13 March 2020, Vol. 673, c. 4MC.]
In Milton Keynes, we can get our groceries delivered by robot, and I was fortunate last week to meet some of the humans from Starship Technologies who wrangle these robots. What support is my hon. Friend giving to small businesses and start-ups such as Starship Technologies, which are at the forefront of innovative new technology?
Fortunately, questions are not answered by robot yet, so I am still here. [Interruption.] Well, there is a bit of character and it is less robotic. I believe that 50,000 deliveries have been done by Starship Technologies in Milton Keynes, so that is an excellent example. We need to make sure that small businesses can innovate, scale and grow, and we are supporting them to do so through such schemes as Innovate UK smart grants, tax credits and the annual investment allowances, and through programmes supported by the British Business Bank. Research and development tax credits are the single biggest Government support for business investment in R&D. So far, just over £4.3 billion has been claimed through those tax credits in 2017-18, £2.3 billion of which was claimed through the small and medium-sized enterprise scheme.
Small businesses in my constituency, including in the village of Stokenchurch, frequently tell me that they find it particularly hard to make a profit on the traditional high street. What can the Minister do to help traditional town centres to thrive and become commercial and community hubs?
We want our town centres and high streets, including in Stokenchurch in Aylesbury, to be vibrant community hubs where people can live, shop and use services. To support that, we are delivering a £1 billion future high streets fund, as part of a £3.6 billion towns fund to level up our regions. We are committed to a fundamental review of business rates, which the Treasury will announce in due course.
I welcome the Minister and the Secretary of State and his new team to their places. I look forward to our future exchanges.
Last week, I visited a café in Calder Valley that, despite having just started trading, has been ruined by relentless flooding. The owners, like the owners of so many small businesses, have received no support from the Government and have been left to repair the damage on their own, at their own cost, with the help of local people. Will the Minister outline to the House what meaningful financial support has been made available to businesses affected by flooding? Will the Government protect such businesses in future by outlining in the Budget an increase in the UK’s capital spend on flood defences to approximately £1 billion a year, as advised by the Environment Agency and the National Infrastructure Commission?
We have spent £2.6 billion on flooding so far and announced £4 billion in our manifesto. The business recovery grant provides local authorities with funding of £2,500 for severely affected businesses like the café the hon. Lady described. It is important that we support small and medium-sized businesses to recover and help to support local economies.
The Minister must acknowledge that that is a paltry amount of support. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, flooding will cost small businesses hundreds of millions of pounds, and thousands cannot find affordable flood insurance. Furthermore, on flood defence the Government have pledged less than half the capital advised—only £450 million a year for the next six years. The Prime Minister refused to hold a Cobra meeting following the floods and he could not even be bothered to visit the flood-affected areas. Is it not the case that the Government’s response to this disaster is yet another example of a part-time Prime Minister failing to provide the leadership that our country needs in a time of crisis?
The Prime Minister is leading on this situation from the front. He is getting money out the door. As a former small-business owner, I would welcome any visit from the Prime Minister, but what I would welcome more is the money that we are getting out the door on day one to help these businesses.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State and his new ministerial team to their places.
The UK’s proposals on EU trade negotiations could reduce Scottish GDP by 6.1%, or £1,600 per person. Small businesses, including many in the food sector, simply cannot afford to cope with the prospect of such Mad Max economics. They need help now, so will the Minister join me in calling for a cut to employers’ national insurance, to help them and to help to protect jobs?
That response comes as absolutely no surprise, given the email from a key adviser to the Chancellor leaked at the weekend that said that the food sector “isn’t critically important”. We all remember the Prime Minister’s shocking attitude and use of the F-word in relation to business concerns when he said “F*** business”. It now seems that the Government are doubling down on that and it is “F*** farming” and “F*** fishing.” With the Minister refusing to support businesses in their hour of need, it is clear to all that this Government deserve an F for their economic incompetence.
To date, the UK Government have committed up to £3.08 billion for city region and growth deals throughout Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Since 2012, the British Business Bank has issued more than 4,200 start-up loans in Scotland, worth more than £32 million in total. That is actual action for businesses.
I thank the Minister for his commitment to small business. Small businesses in Cornwall, and especially on the Isles of Scilly, face an unprecedented challenge on 1 January as a result of the proposed immigration Bill. Will the Minister work with the Home Office to make sure that small businesses that do not have a workforce in the local area sitting around looking to and able to fill posts are able to carry on doing business next year?
For the past two weekends, properties and businesses in the Rhondda Cynon Taff area—I am one of the MPs for that authority area—have seen devastating flooding. Just this week, I was out helping businesses in my constituency find sandbags and pumps from my local authority. The Welsh Government, the Rhondda Cynon Taff council and council leader Andrew Morgan are offering support to small businesses, so if the Minister is to announce additional funding for those businesses that have been impacted, I plead with him not to forget about Welsh small businesses.
I have already talked about the £2,500 that we have been getting out through that business recovery grant, but we will always look to continue to work with businesses in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as in England. It is important, as the hon. Gentleman said, that communities come together, which is why there is support for community economies, ensuring that they can continue to survive and thrive.
My hon. Friend will be a great supporter of small businesses, so will he get off to a fast start by urging the Treasury to scrap its misguided changes to IR35? Those changes are punishing small businesses, with large companies already implementing blanket bans that the Treasury had said in a statement would not yet be implemented and with the HMRC’s own assessment tool creating confusion, not clarity, for entrepreneurs.
I am delighted to have been appointed COP President. I have already held discussions with former COP Presidents, including Paris COP President Laurent Fabius. I met, among others, the UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed and Patricia Espinosa at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Last week, together with the Prime Minister’s COP26 climate finance adviser, Mark Carney, I launched the COP26 finance strategy. My officials and I are working at pace to deliver a successful summit.
COP26 will be the most critical talks since Paris, yet preparations so far have been beset by chaos. What response can the Minister provide to the former COP President who says that this Government are presiding over “a huge lack of leadership” on the issue. The Prime Minister has admitted to her that he does not even understand climate change. Does the Minister acknowledge the embarrassing lack of credibility and competence that the Prime Minister has shown on COP26 preparations?
I thank the former COP President for her work. The hon. Lady talks about the Prime Minister’s leadership. I can assure Members that when we were at the UN General Assembly in September, there was a huge amount of positivity around his leadership in doubling our international climate finance commitment. She will also know that last month the Prime Minister launched the Year of Climate Action. He is absolutely leading on this issue from the front, and the rest of us are supporting him. Let me tell her that we are absolutely determined to make sure that COP26 is a success, not just for the UK but because it matters to the whole world.
Every country has to submit its contribution to climate action before COP26 meets. Why is the Secretary of State preparing the UK’s contribution statement on the basis of the fifth carbon budget, which works towards a target of only 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, when this House has determined that the target to be met should be net zero by 2050?
I congratulate the Department on its far-sighted announcement yesterday that sets the tone for COP26 by allowing onshore wind and solar projects, which have local support, to bid for funding. The announcement also floated a further pot for less developed technologies, such as tidal stream and wave, some of which the Energy Minister and I met last week. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should pursue this opportunity to develop diverse sources of green energy and look closely at the innovative tax credit proposal, innovation power purchase agreement, to help some of these technologies get off the ground?
I make the general point that innovation is vital in all sectors of industry, but particularly in the renewables sector. As my hon. Friend will know, the proposal that we set out will help the UK to achieve its 2050 net zero ambition. Ultimately, this is about achieving value for money by driving further cost reductions in renewable electricity.
I welcome the Secretary of State and his new ministerial team to their places. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee looks forward to taking evidence from them, and I am sure that they look forward to that as well.
May I follow up on the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) about our fourth and fifth carbon budgets? Those carbon budgets are premised on achieving an 80% reduction in carbon emissions, yet this House has unanimously passed legislation to achieve net zero. It is neither coherent, nor showing leadership, for our fourth and fifth carbon budgets to be based on an outdated objective that this House has rejected. Can the Secretary of State confirm that we will be updating our fourth and fifth carbon budgets—and, crucially, that we will meet them?
I thank the hon. Lady for welcoming my ministerial team and me. Of course I look forward to coming before her Select Committee. Let me be absolutely clear: we are one of the first countries in the world to have legislated for a net zero target, and we have demonstrated our global leadership. We have met the first two carbon budgets and are on track to meet the third, but I take her point.
I agree that one of the best ways of preparing for COP26 is bringing forward the new contracts for difference auctions for onshore wind and solar, which will help us to achieve net zero. Could we also take this opportunity to demonstrate to the hard-working taxpayers of Rother Valley and across the country that we can reduce their bills by going green. Can we make it a key part of COP26 to show that going green is better value for those hard-working people?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Offshore wind prices have dropped by over two thirds between 2015 and 2019 because of the CfD auctions. Going green is positive for the economy: GDP has grown by 75% since 1990, yet we have also managed to reduce emissions by 43%.
Renewable Energy: Scotland
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have many conversations across government. I have spoken with the Secretary of State for Scotland, as well as the Energy Minister in the devolved Administration. In fact, I spoke to colleagues just yesterday.
I for one would like to say how delighted I am that the Government have finally listened to the common-sense advice of Scottish National party Members on the issue of onshore renewable energy and contracts for difference, even if the delay has cost us five wasted years. Looking ahead, will the Minister ensure that the contracts for difference process is reformed to maximise growth and opportunities for the Scottish and UK supply chains, and how exactly will he go about doing that?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have been particularly successful in the offshore wind auctions, and we came to our conclusion not because of SNP lobbying, but because we felt that having a pot 1 auction was the best way to reach the net zero carbon target in a timely way by 2050.
It is important to put it on the record that not everyone in Scotland will welcome yesterday’s announcement, not least my constituents, who have more wind turbines—in sight or planned—than any other constituency in the United Kingdom. Given the ineffective planning system operated by the Scottish Government and their willingness to override local decision making, what reassurance can the Minister give my constituents that they will not to be overwhelmed by continuing wind farms?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. We are very mindful of community consent and engagement with the planning process through consultation periods. We are also ensuring that the planning regime is robust. On balance, it was felt that we needed to make a move on this pot 1 auction in order to reach the target.
UK Export Finance: Coal
The right hon. Gentleman will know that we have announced, with the Department for International Trade, that we will no longer provide any new export finance or new export credit for thermal coalmining or coal-powered plants overseas.
I am grateful to the Minister for that confirmation. Following the Prime Minister’s announcement at the UK-Africa investment summit, will the Minister set out whether there will be a transition period prior to the welcome situation that he has described? Does he agree that UK Export Finance should be promoting the transition away from all fossil fuels in developing countries as soon as possible?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Any form of financing should absolutely take into account our net zero commitment, and it is in the process of doing so. On the question of coal, I take the opportunity to reiterate the fact that the Prime Minister, only last month, announced the intention to consult on bringing forward the coal closure to 1 October 2024. Even last month, only about 3% of our power generation was coming from coal. So this is a very achievable target, and we are very hopeful that we can take coal entirely off the grid by October 2024.
The move to generate electricity from sources other than coal is very welcome, but some manufacturing processes will still require a supply of coal. Does the Minister agree that it is better for that coal to be supplied from domestic sources rather than being shipped halfway around the world?
My hon. Friend is right. Obviously, from a coal and carbon emissions reduction point of view, it makes sense to have a locally based coal source rather than shipping it in a very costly way halfway around the world. That is a fair point. On the point about coal, the 2024 target is absolutely achievable. It is something we are absolutely committed to doing. In the long run, coal will be taken completely off the power generation grid, and that is something to be celebrated across the whole House.
My Department is leading the green revolution, working towards a target of net zero emissions by 2050. We are unleashing innovation and making the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a business. We are creating better corporate governance, improving employment protections and working practices and contributing to the UK’s labour market strategy. Our preparations for COP26 are gathering pace, ramping up momentum towards a global zero carbon economy.
The recent BEIS Committee report was clear that the UK could not credibly adopt a net zero emissions target unless it invests in carbon capture and undersea storage. Does the Secretary of State plan to extend the Tory manifesto’s proposals on CCUS plants to Scotland so that we can create and deliver a clean growth structure?
I certainly agree that CCUS is going to be essential to successfully tackling climate change. The hon. Gentleman talks about innovation funding for Scotland. I can tell him that £4.8 million is supporting the development of Project Acorn, which is a CCUS project based in north-east Scotland.
For over 40 years, Jim Hall Sports has been at the heart of Bramhall village. However, the future of the shop is in doubt after Nike’s decision to terminate its supply agreements with smaller independent shops. This follows years of annual rises in the amounts that independent retailers have needed to sell to hold on to their merchandise account. It is a move that is a harbinger of the end of many independent stores in an already pressurised high street market. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with sports giants such as Nike to ensure that Jim Hall’s and other independent sports shops continue to have a future on our high streets?
I thank my hon. Friend for sticking up for small businesses in her constituency. Large suppliers of consumer products, especially those who are leaders in their field, have a responsibility to treat retailers fairly and transparently, regardless of their size. If they think they are being unfairly treated, they could go to the Competition and Markets Authority. Contractual arrangements are between two private companies. However, we will support our high streets through the towns fund and the establishment of the high street taskforce.
Coronavirus is impacting on every aspect of work, from the cost to employers to the cost to workers. The Health Secretary has said that employers should view isolation as sick leave, but the law does not state that. Even if that was so, those on zero-hours contracts and in insecure work are unlikely to have sickness cover, and statutory sick pay does not pay for the first three days, meaning that those with little means have to choose between health and hardship—an issue I raised with the Health Minister a month ago. So what discussions has the Business Secretary had with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that workers are financially protected to stop the risk of spreading coronavirus?
The hon. Lady is right: this is a very serious issue, which affects individuals and challenges businesses. Those who do not qualify for statutory sick pay, including those who are self-employed, may be able to claim universal credit or new-style employment and support allowance.
I had the pleasure, with my hon. Friend, of meeting Cornish Lithium recently, and it was made clear that lithium extraction provides an excellent opportunity to contribute to our efforts to level up Cornwall, as well as securing our net zero objectives. I thank him for the invitation. I would be delighted to visit Cornwall.
We are committed to supporting the retail sector, and we are working closely with the industry through the Retail Sector Council. As the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), noted in reply to a question earlier, we are supporting high streets with the £1 billion future high streets fund.
We are committed to securing investment for a UK gigafactory to support electrical vehicle manufacturing. Indeed, last week, I met Andy Street and Ralf Speth, who is the chief executive officer of Jaguar Land Rover, to discuss their thoughts on this matter. We recognise the strength of the west midlands, where £138 million has already been invested in the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre scheduled to open near Coventry this summer.
My right hon. Friend speaks from experience, having been a business Minister in the past. We are absolutely committed to making sure that we reduce burdensome regulation and red tape, but we need to make sure that we stick with the protections that are there for employees.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Last week, I co-chaired the Rose review board, which is overseeing the progress made in delivering on the initiatives from that review. The Treasury has launched the investing in women code, which to date has 22 signatories from across the financial services industry. I look forward to working with my colleagues in government and business to drive forward this important agenda.
Tidal’s Store in my constituency is paying a high amount of business rates—proportionately more than the local retail park down the road—which it says is putting it at a disadvantage. Will the Minister have a word with his Treasury colleagues about reforming business rates for small businesses such as Tidal’s?
When I was in business years ago, it came to something when Ríkisútvarpið in Iceland and Nederlandse Omroep Stichting in Holland paid quicker than the BBC. What can my hon. Friend do to ensure that large businesses pay smaller businesses quickly and on time?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We will be strengthening the Small Business Commissioner’s powers. We already have a tough approach to large companies that do not comply with the payment practices and reporting duty. We are strengthening and reforming the prompt payment code and moving administration to the Small Business Commissioner. The business basics fund competition encourages SMEs to utilise payment technology and boost productivity, and the winners will be announced in April.
Local crofters in Melness support the proposal to establish a vertical space launch facility in Sutherland, and they have written to the Prime Minister to tell him that. Does the Secretary of State agree that that would be good for the local economy and that the UK has a huge opportunity in terms of launching satellites for other countries that do not have launch facilities?
I thank the hon. Member for that question. We have united Departments across government to develop a UK space strategy, which will help the UK lead the way in this fast-growing area and create thousands of jobs across the country. Our space strategy will support cutting-edge space science and technologies and foster world-leading British innovation.
Nearly half the core research and development budget is spent in just three cities—Oxford, Cambridge and London—and yet for every pound of private investment that such spending leverages in London, we get £3 in the east midlands and £5 in the west midlands. Does the Minister agree that, if we are going to level up, we need a fairer division of spending on R&D?
I welcome the Secretary of State to his role. I enjoyed working with him in his previous job, and I am sure he will do a very good job in this Department. Is he aware of the dire situation of businesses in my constituency because the workshop of the world—China—has closed for business? There is no supply chain, and manufacturing companies up and down the country are in a dire situation. This is a crisis caused by coronavirus, and we have not stepped up to the plate yet to face the measure of this terrible disaster.
I thank the hon. Member for his question, but he is wrong. We have stood up a very important group within the Department that is working with the automotive sector, the retail sector and others that are impacted by China’s supply chain problems. We continue to monitor the situation closely, as well as the critical infrastructure that keeps the UK’s lights on and the UK economy powering ahead.
I know that my hon. Friend has looked at extending the hours of the Malvern tourist information centre. The Government have reviewed this issue several times. There are strongly held views on both sides. We believe that the current rules represent a fair compromise between those seeking reduced opening hours and those seeking greater liberalisation.
At the same time as the Government have re-announced subsidies for onshore wind, Scottish Forestry has revealed that 13.9 million trees have been cut down for wind farms on its land. Does the Minister share my concern at those acts of economic vandalism? Does he believe that it is in the economic and environmental interests of this country to tear down trees, cut up peatland and erect steel structures on pristine landscapes in the vain hope that we can change the climate?
I am always very interested in the right hon. Gentleman’s contributions on this subject. We should look at the details of actual deforestation, but he must not allow himself to get distracted from the big picture. The deployment of offshore wind has been a huge success for the UK. As the Secretary of State said, the price per megawatt hour has come down by two thirds and renewable energy is absolutely at the centre of our strategy to reach net zero carbon.
In 2016, the United States became a net exporter of liquefied natural gas. In 2019, the United States became a net exporter of all oil products: both crude and refined. To diversify the UK’s energy risk, is it not time that the Government started to interact with the United States, perhaps as part of a trade deal, to import both gas and oil from the United States?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I met the newly appointed US Energy Secretary a couple of weeks ago and we work very closely with the United States. Of course, this week we published our terms for our negotiation for a free trade agreement with that great country.
Recent Violence in India
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will respond to this urgent question as the Foreign Secretary is in Turkey today.
The British high commission in New Delhi and our extensive diplomatic network of deputy high commissions across India are monitoring closely the recent violence in India and developments around the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. The events in Delhi last week were very concerning, and the situation is still tense. The death of one protester is one too many. We urge restraint from all parties and trust that the Indian Government will address the concerns of people of all religions in India. We also condemn any incidents of violence, persecution or targeting of people based on religion or belief, wherever it happens in the world.
India has a proud history of inclusive government and religious tolerance. Its secular constitution, which guarantees equality before the law, has been an exemplar of inclusive democracy. After his re-election, I note that Prime Minister Modi promised to continue this under the guiding principles of
“together with all, development for all and trust for all”.
These shared strengths and values are central to the governance of both our countries. It is a central message of our foreign policy that societies are stronger and safer when we embrace our diversity rather than fear it.
Many people have made it clear that they have concerns about the Government of India recently signing into law the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which expedites the path to citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians, but notably not Muslims or minority sects. The UK Government also have concerns about the potential impact of the legislation. It is because of our close relationship with the Government of India that we are able to discuss difficult issues with them and make clear our concerns where we have them, including on the rights of minorities.
Most recently, my ministerial colleague Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon raised these concerns about the impact of the CAA with a senior member of India’s Ministry of External Affairs on 25 February. Officials from the British high commission in New Delhi also raised our concerns about the potential impact of the CAA and the police response to the protests with the state government of Uttar Pradesh on 7 February. Our former high commissioner in New Delhi, Sir Dominic Asquith, also raised the issue with the Government of India in January, as did Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials with the Indian high commission in London.
More broadly, the UK engages with India at all levels, including union and state governments, and with non-governmental organisations to build capacity and share expertise to promote human rights for all. We will continue to follow events closely and to raise our concerns when we have them.
I find the hon. Gentleman’s words rather facile. We have brought him to the Dispatch Box. I raised the issue with the Leader of the House on Thursday, and the Minister is here now. This urgent question concerns the sickening violence against Muslims that we have seen in India in recent weeks following the proposals in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. The CAA enables undocumented migrants from neighbouring countries to seek Indian citizenship, provided that they meet one condition: they are not Muslim. This is the first such law to have been passed in India since its independence. Next will come a national register of citizens, and undocumented Muslim migrants will automatically be excluded, held in concentration camps and identified for deportation.
Through such laws, Prime Minister Modi is turning a hateful nationalistic slogan into brutality. He recently said, “Hinduon ka Hindustan,” which is literally translated as, “India for the Hindus.” The CAA has generated nationwide protests by Muslims and secular Hindus, prompting politicians from the ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata party to demand that the sectarian hate mobs hit back. Recently in Delhi, more than 40 people were killed by mobs that attacked Muslim homes and families, but the authorities took no notice. As a result, in recent weeks, dozens of Muslims have been dragged out of their homes, burned, or beaten to death in the streets by mobs. Thousands of people have lost their livelihoods. All the while, the Indian police look on passively, and Modi cynically counts the benefits of electoral success.
For those who support India and want to see it take its rightful place as one of the global leaders of the 21st century, with a place on the United Nations Security Council, it is sickening to see such a descent into hatred and mob rule. What are the Government doing to take India off this path and to provide protection for its Muslim population? Has the Minister raised the issue with his Indian counterpart, and has he threatened to raise it at Commonwealth and UN level? If India behaves like a state with no regard for human rights, the rule of law or freedom of religion, it must urgently be made to face the consequences of its behaviour.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we deplore what we have seen over the last few weeks, and we condemn the violence that has been recorded and broadcast. We have raised, and do raise, concerns with the Indian Government, especially over such matters. As I said, we have concerns about the impact of the CAA, and my colleague, Lord Ahmad, has raised them with the Ministry of External Affairs. We continue that dialogue. As recently as mid-February, officials from the British high commission raised our concerns about the impact of the CAA, and particularly about the police response to those protests with the state government of Uttar Pradesh. I assure the hon. Gentleman that our dialogue with the Indian Government is ongoing.
I commend my hon. Friend for his responses so far, particularly his remark that one protester who is killed is one too many. He will be aware that it is not just Muslims who have been killed; Hindus have also been killed as part of the riots. Will he confirm that there have been 514 arrests following those riots, and that the police have organised 330 separate meetings with different communities to bring them together and calm the situation down? Will he commend that action to restore peace and tranquillity to Delhi?
There is a lot of agreement across the House, and I commend the Minister on his statement, with which I agreed, as far as it went—we need to be clear that we can go a lot further. The situation has been, as we have heard, occasioned by a deliberate Indian Government policy of targeting Muslims with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. In the short term, there is a real role for the UK Government—this was not mentioned in the statement—to build on the RESIST Government communication framework, as it is obvious that online disinformation is being used in India to inflame tensions. I commend the Government Communication Service and the Cabinet Office on this work. I think that the UK is in a position to undertake a real assessment of the online actors, including malign actors—this is aside from Indian Government policy, which is another issue, and I urge the Minister to step up efforts on dialogue regarding that—as there are online efforts that could be made against that sort of disinformation, as people are at risk of further violence.
The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible and important point. I am pleased that he welcomes the report. Any measures, whether attempting to clamp down on online disinformation or those that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) raised, are welcome. We are in constant contact on these issues, and we know how important this is to Members of Parliament and their constituents, who may have family in the area. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s comments.
I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. Will he confirm that he will use his high office and every power that he has to make sure that Members’ concerns are relayed to the Indian authorities, particularly given that the brutality seems to have been meted out by those who should enforce the law, as was recently shown in BBC coverage.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I alluded to our concerns about some of the police brutality that was meted out. We have long regarded protest as a key part of any democratic society. Democratic Governments must have the power to enforce law and order when a protest crosses the line into illegality, but we also encourage all states to ensure that their domestic laws are enforced in line with all international standards.
In the past five years, Narendra Modi’s BJP Government have chosen a path of systematic discrimination, whether the abrogation of article 35A in Kashmir or the citizenship law. Calling the recent violence “community clashes” seeks to normalise far more sinister events. India is now controlled by a Hindutva supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideology, with strong historic links to the Nazi party. The current Prime Minister of India was a member of the RSS. What steps is our Prime Minister taking to call out that discriminatory practice at the heart of the Indian Government?
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point. We are in constant contact with the Indian Government. I mentioned in my statement that we have concerns about the impact of the CAA legislation, particularly on Muslims, and she is right to raise that. Rest assured that, through our close relationship with India, we are able to raise those concerns with that Government, especially in a live situation.
The United Kingdom can be justifiably proud of being a world leader in matters relating to freedom of confession. Can the Minister confirm that Her Majesty’s Government will call for a thorough investigation of all and any abuses that have been perpetrated and use their influence to call for restraint?
My hon. Friend makes a sensible point, and it is because we have influence with the Indian Government that we are in a good position to do that. We have close contacts, and we actively promote—I think we are a world leader in this—matters relating to freedom of religion and belief. Ministers and senior officials raise individual cases and highlight practices and laws that discriminate against people on that basis.
Incited mob violence in Delhi on the basis of someone’s faith brings back painful personal memories, as a religious minority, of the 1984 genocide of Sikhs while I was studying in India. We must learn from history, not be fooled by those whose insidious aim is to divide society and are hellbent on killing people and destroying religious places in the name of religion. What message has the Minister given to his Indian counterparts that the persecution of Indian Muslims, many of whom have protested peacefully against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, is utterly intolerable; that the police cannot stand idly by or, worse still, be complicit, as is alleged by many victims and social activists; and that the perpetrators must feel the full force of the law?
The hon. Gentleman speaks very powerfully from personal experience. It is absolutely essential that we speak up when we believe that abuses have taken place. When protest crosses the line into illegality, as I mentioned, the Government need to act within all domestic and international laws to make sure that those laws are enforced. He is absolutely right to raise these issues, and we are constantly talking at ministerial and official levels with the Government of India about our concerns, particularly regarding the CAA.
I am speaking on behalf of a great number of constituents who have presented me with very grave concerns about what is happening in India. Does my hon. Friend agree that clamping down on any human rights abuses will always be a central part of UK foreign policy?
We know that there is a pattern of behaviour and that this is just the latest example of religious intolerance in India. When Prime Minister Modi welcomed Donald Trump a couple of weeks ago, we saw the two of them embracing each other and scrambling to do a trade agreement. In the scramble for a post-Brexit trade deal, what reassurances can the Minister give that we will not be doing the same and that we will raise these cases at the highest levels of government and not ignore human rights when it comes to doing trade deals?
While trade is vital for our economy and future prosperity, this in no way compromises the United Kingdom’s commitment to holding human rights at the core of our foreign policy. I guarantee the hon. Gentleman that we will not pursue trade to the exclusion of human rights.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recently introduced an intervention plea in the Supreme Court of India about the CAA; she has been given a brush-off by the Indian Government. What are we doing to bolster the position of the UN commissioner?
I am aware of the intervention to which my hon. Friend refers. I assure him that we raise our concerns privately and regularly with the Government of India. We will continue to engage with them on a full range of human rights matters and we raise our concerns when we have them, particularly at the current time.
As the BBC recently reported, the latest outbreak of violence in Delhi is very worrying, as there is evidence that the police are complicit in and, indeed, encouraging violence against Muslims. What are the Government doing to make sure that they are talking to their counterparts in Delhi to ensure that Muslim’s lives there are safe?
The hon. Member raises a very good point. Any allegation of human rights abuses is deeply disturbing, and the violence that we saw was incredibly concerning. I assure the House that we have made it clear that those incidents must be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently.
The fact that the Indian Government have felt able to pass this law and some of the responses that we have seen to it are deeply distressing. Will my hon. Friend not only confirm that he will continue to raise this at the highest level but make a commitment that Foreign Office staff will now start planning how we can act to raise the pressure on this issue before there is any further escalation, rather than reacting in response to it?
I know that my hon. Friend has great experience of foreign affairs, having worked in the Department, and she raises a very good and crucial point. Because we have that close relationship with India through our officials and at a ministerial level, we can have that dialogue. She makes a very sensible point about being pre-emptive rather than reactive.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the violence it has precipitated would be concerning enough if it was a single isolated act, but we all know that it is not; it comes on the heels of Modi’s Government’s actions in relation to Kashmir and the implementation in Assam of a national register of citizens. It is beginning to look like part of a course of conduct designed to marginalise the Muslim population in India. India is part of the Commonwealth. What are we doing through that forum, alongside the bilateral representations that I trust we are making?
The right hon. Gentleman rightly mentions the NRC in Assam. I know that there are concerns in that area as well. Through our network of high commissioners, we continually assess that situation. I can get back to the right hon. Gentleman in writing on action through the Commonwealth.
On the intervention application to the Indian Supreme Court by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, does the Minister believe that this is an internal sovereign issue, or does he believe that it is an international issue, given that India is a signatory to a plethora of international law obligations?
In October 1984, Delhi witnessed the genocide of Sikhs in their thousands under Congress rule. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that all ethnic and religious minorities in India can feel safe, secure and free from persecution?
In my constituency, families of Indian origin have wonderful relations with each other, whether they are Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, so it is heartbreaking to see the violence in India. Is the Minister thinking about how we can use all our policies, including our aid policies, to encourage equally good relationships between communities in India itself?
I echo the Minister’s tribute to the constitution of India. Since it was drafted under the leadership of Dr B. R. Ambedkar after independence, it has been admired around the world for its commitment to equality irrespective of religion. Does he share my sadness that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act is such a decisive move away from that principle because, as he has explained, for some it makes citizenship dependent on their religion?
Those of us with significant Indian Muslim communities will have seen videos showing shocking orchestrated sectarian violence. May I encourage the Minister to invite the Indian high commissioner to his office to share with him the deep concern of many of our constituents about their families and friends in India? If there is one silver lining in this very dark cloud it is what one Gujarati Muslim said to me, which is that he and his family now value more than ever the pluralism and safety across faiths that this country provides.
My hon. Friend speaks with great knowledge and passion on all these matters and is right to raise this issue. I will speak to my ministerial colleague, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who I know has a close relationship with the high commissioner. I am sure that this matter has been raised, but on behalf of my hon. Friend and his constituents, I will ensure that Lord Ahmad has a meeting with the high commissioner shortly.
Many of my constituents have raised concerns about the ongoing situation in India and Jammu and Kashmir. There is something the Minister could do to be of assistance. There will be many people within the UK Visas and Immigration system awaiting a decision, including people who have been through religious persecution already. What advice would he give to his colleagues in the Home Office on how those cases should be dealt with and will he ensure that the advice on India and Jammu and Kashmir is updated to reflect the ongoing situation?
Our close relationship with India will ensure that our concerns on this matter are heard. What representations have the Government made to the Government of India to ensure that they, their states and their agents always act in compliance with international law?
My hon. Friend raises a good point. It is because we have a close relationship with India that we can raise our concerns at all levels with the Government of India. Most recently, just over a week ago, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon raised our concerns about the CAA directly with India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
In August 2019, the Indian Government stripped Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomous status. In December, it passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which provides a path to citizenship for all migrant minorities except Muslims and creates a national register of citizens, forcing Indians to provide documents to prove their citizenship, which many poorer Indians do not have and many Muslims will not be able to get. Does the Minister accept that the recent violence in Delhi, which has been whipped up by BJP politicians and has led to dozens of deaths, is just the latest targeted assault on Muslims by the Modi Government?
The UK Government have deep concerns about the escalation that the hon. Lady refers to. She mentioned the NRC, which is currently enacted in the state of Assam. We have not received any confirmation from the Government of India that it will be expanded India-wide, but she is right to raise concerns, because millions of people could be affected and will be very concerned about this policy.
I do indeed. We actively promote the importance of freedom of religion and belief and we combat discrimination on the basis of religious identity through our diplomatic activity and through the UN and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Recently, delegates from Nottingham’s Indian diaspora came to see me and challenged me—quite legitimately—over our special connection and relationship with India, which they said gave us a responsibility to speak out against what we have seen in Kashmir and with the CAA. The Minister has talked about the contact between our Government and the Government of India, but he has not said what impact that has had. He has detailed his strategy. What evidence does he have that it is working?
As I have said numerous times, we are constantly making representations where we believe there are human rights abuses. On Kashmir, as is well known, our position is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution while taking into account the wishes of Kashmiri people. The Indian Government take notice of what the UK Government say, and that dialogue will continue.
The situation in Jammu and Kashmir is of particular concern to my constituents, many of whom have family and friends in the region. This is obviously a complex issue, but will my hon. Friend agree to put more pressure on the Indian and Pakistani Governments to take action to find a resolution that results in peace in Jammu and Kashmir?
Indeed. My ministerial colleagues talk to their colleagues in not just the Indian but the Pakistani Government. I can assure my hon. Friend and his constituents that that dialogue continues and that we consistently press for channels of dialogue to remain open. We believe that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution, and we want to encourage the pace and scope of their dialogue.
Will the Minister join me in rejecting the language of riots, clashes, protest and communal violence? This is, in fact, a continuation of sustained and systemic Hindutva violence waged on the Muslim and many minority ethnic communities in India that is sanctioned by Modi’s BJP Government.
The UK Government have long regarded protest as a legitimate means of raising issues and as part of democratic society, but any allegations of human rights abuse are very concerning, and we believe that they should be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently.
Can the Minister share with us the reason why the Indian Government have excluded Muslims from the Citizenship (Amendment) Act? Does he agree that legislation should never discriminate on the basis of faith?
With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement about the Government’s coronavirus action plan.
The situation facing the country is increasingly serious. Globally and at home, the number of cases continues to rise. As of 9 am today, there were 51 confirmed cases in the UK, and it is becoming more likely that we will see widespread transmission in this country. Our approach is to plan for the worst and work for the best. Yesterday I attended a Cobra meeting chaired by the Prime Minister, during which we finalised our four-part action plan to contain, delay, research and mitigate the virus. The plan has been jointly agreed by the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. Copies have been sent to Members of both Houses and made available in hard copy.
The plan is driven by the science and guided by the expert recommendations of the four UK chief medical officers and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. It sets out what we know so far about the virus and the disease that it causes, what long-term planning we have undertaken to prepare for a pandemic, what actions we have taken so far in response to the current outbreak, and, crucially, the role that the public can play in supporting our response, both now and in the future.
The UK is well prepared for infectious disease outbreaks of this kind. The international data continue to indicate that for most people, this disease is mild and the vast majority recover fully. We have responded to a wide range of disease outbreaks in the recent past, and the NHS has been preparing for a pandemic virus for well over a decade. We have world-class expertise to make sense of the emerging data; we have a strong base on which to build; and, while covid-19 is a new virus, we have adapted our response to take account of that fact.
Our plan sets out a phased response to the outbreak. Phase 1 is to contain, and it is the phase that we are currently in. Contain is about detecting the early cases, following up close contacts, and preventing the disease from taking hold in this country for as long as is reasonably possible. That approach also buys time for the NHS to ramp up its preparations. The scientific advice is that if the number of global cases continues to rise, especially in Europe, we may not be able to contain the virus indefinitely.
At that point, we will activate the delay phase of our plan. Delay is about slowing the spread, lowering the peak impact of the disease, and pushing it away from the winter season. We are mindful of scientific advice that reacting too early or overreacting carries its own risks, so, subject to the primary goal of keeping people safe, we will seek to minimise social and economic disruption.
The third part of the plan is research. Research has been ongoing since we first identified covid-19, and I pay tribute to the scientists at Public Health England who were among the first in the world to sequence its genome. Research is not just about the development of a vaccine, which we are actively pursuing but which will be many months away at the earliest. It is also about understanding what actions will lessen the impact of the coronavirus, including what drugs and treatments—existing and new—will help those who are already sick.
The fourth phase is mitigate. We will move to this phase if the virus becomes established in the UK population. At that point it would be impossible to prevent widespread transmission, so the emphasis will be on caring for those who are most seriously ill and keeping essential services running at a time when large parts of the workforce may be off sick. Our plans include not just the most likely case, but the reasonable worst case.
We will identify and support the most vulnerable. If necessary, we will take some of the actions set out in today’s plan to reduce the impact of absentees and to lessen the impact on our economy and supply chains. We prepare for the worst and work for the best. We commit to ensuring that the agencies responsible for tackling this outbreak are properly resourced and have the people, equipment and medicines that they need and that any new laws that they need are brought forward as and when required.
This is a national effort. We need everyone to listen to and act on the official medical advice. We need employers to prioritise the welfare of their staff. And the single most important thing that everyone can do to help—I make no apologies for repeating this—is to use tissues when they cough or sneeze, and to wash their hands more often. That is in their interest, their families’ interest and the national interest.
We will get through this, and everyone has a part to play. I commend this statement to the House.
May I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, and to the House for being a few minutes late? I had a problem with my printer when I was trying to print the Secretary of State’s statement. I thank him for advance sight of the statement, and, indeed, for advance sight of the action plan this morning. Let me also record my thanks for the briefing that the Leader of the Opposition and I received yesterday from departmental officials, the chief medical officer and the Government chief scientific adviser. I believe that the chief medical officer will brief parliamentarians later today, and I think that that is a very welcome initiative.
The Government’s strategy to contain then delay, research and then mitigate has our endorsement, but may I ask the Secretary of State for some specific clarifications? The first relates to containment and self-isolation. The Prime Minister said today—as, indeed, the Secretary of State has said before—that workers who self-isolate are considered to be on sick leave. Can the Secretary of State confirm that those who need to self-isolate will not need to visit a GP to obtain a sick note, given that the Government’s advice is not to visit a GP? As he will know, 2 million workers on low pay or insecure contracts in the gig economy do not even qualify for statutory sick pay. He will also know that those who are receiving benefits are often asked to physically attend appointments. Can he guarantee that no financial sanction will be imposed if they are asked to self-isolate?
Does the Secretary of State accept that people should not be forced to make a choice between their health and avoiding financial hardship? We are told that he is considering emergency legislation. Will he introduce legislation to remove the barriers to self-isolation so that all workers can receive the sick pay that they deserve? That is in the interests of public health. If he introduces such legislation, we will help him to get it on to the statute book quickly. He could do it this week or he could do it next week, and we will support him. Let us give all workers the security that they deserve, so that they do not have to put their health ahead of their financial interests or vice versa.
More broadly on the NHS and social care, I want to look at the response of the NHS and the support that it will be given through the containment and mitigation phases. We know that around 80% of critical care beds were occupied last week. We know that the NHS is short of 100,000 staff, and we also know that staff working in the NHS, particularly those on the frontline such as GPs, need to be protected as well. Even if we take at face value the Government’s insistence that they have provided the NHS with the resources to deliver the commitments of the long-term plan—we obviously disagree on this, but that is a debate for another time—we can surely all accept that covid-19 is going to lead to increased demand on trusts and the wider NHS. Every trust that sends a sample for testing has to pay for it to be couriered. Trusts are likely to take on more agency staff. If retired staff are encouraged to return to practice, the wage bill will increase. By the way, on retired staff, can the Secretary of State reassure us that protections and oversight will be in place, particularly around returning staff who, as we understand it, will not need to go through a revalidation process for their licence?
The Government have recognised that, as we move into the mitigation phase, non-urgent care may be delayed. I assume that means that trusts will be looking at cancelling elective surgery, which will result in waiting lists growing. Again, this will impact on trusts’ finances. Will the Government provide an emergency funding increase for the NHS resource budget to support the NHS through this next challenging period? Directors of public health still do not know their public health allocations for the next financial year, which starts next month. This means that directors of public health could be cutting the nurse workloads they are responsible for commissioning at a time when those very nurses will be needed to deal with covid-19 cases. Will the right hon. Gentleman announce the public health allocations as a matter of urgency?
On social care, we know that many who are at risk from the virus are the elderly and those with chronic conditions. Social care is responsible for and has a duty of care to many of the people who are most vulnerable to the outbreak. What advice does the Secretary of State have for social care providers, and will extra resources be announced for social care services? On the emergency powers that he has briefed about, will he sit down with us and other Opposition parties to discuss the contents of that legislation?
On the global efforts to contain the virus, we know that disease knows no borders. We cannot build a wall or an iron curtain around these islands. Why, then, are the Government apparently walking away from the EU early warning and response system, which plays such a vital role in pandemic preparations? We have been led to believe that No. 10 has overruled the Secretary of State on this. Also, to contain the virus internationally, countries with weaker health systems need to be supported as well; otherwise, we will not contain the virus. Can the Secretary of State update us on what help he is offering to the World Health Organisation on that front?
This is a serious time. Our constituents will be concerned, and many will be frightened. We will raise our concerns responsibly, but we offer to work constructively with the Government, because the public health interest and the safety of our constituents must always come first.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the constructive approach he has taken from the start, and I will seek to address all the questions that he has raised. His first point was about statutory sick pay. For those who need to self-isolate for medical reasons to protect others, that counts as being off sick. They do not need to go to a GP, because there is a seven-day allowance for self-declaration. I hope that that addresses that point directly—[Interruption.] We keep all matters on this under review because, broadly, I agree with him on the principle that he has set out. On the NHS, he asked about resources. We have already increased resources to the NHS and we stand ready to do so if that is necessary.
The hon. Gentleman asked about doctors and revalidation. In legislation, we are proposing to make revalidation simpler. We will bring forward those measures, and of course we will engage with the Opposition on the potential measures as and when that is necessary.
On public health allocations, we have already been clear that the public health grant is going up in aggregate. As my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary set out last week, we have seen a 4.4% real-terms increase in local authority budgets this year, and the social care budget is going up by £1 billion. I think that that takes into account the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.
The hon. Gentleman also raised engagement with the World Health Organisation We have supported the WHO with extra funding. On engaging with the EU, I have regular engagement with colleagues from across Europe, and some of the reports I have seen in the newspapers are not accurate, because the questions of engagement with the EU on matters of health security are a matter for the negotiations, as set out on Thursday in the negotiations document.
I would like to commend the Health Secretary for the calm way in which he has been dealing with this crisis and for his very clear public messaging. He called me last Friday to tell me that there had been a coronavirus outbreak in my constituency. I would like to thank the staff at the Haslemere health centre for their extraordinary commitment in working over the weekend so that the health centre could be open again on Monday morning. This shows, however, that some of the people at greatest risk are our frontline health workers. One study in China showed that 7% of the people who got the virus in Wuhan were health workers. Will the Health Secretary confirm whether hospitals, GP surgeries, care homes and nursing homes have enough face masks, gloves and hand gel, and will he outline any other measures he is taking to ensure that NHS staff are kept safe?
My right hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point, and the answer to the question is yes. We are putting out further advice and guidance to the health system, to the NHS, to GPs and to hospitals today. That will go out from Keith Willett in the NHS.
On the point about the kit needed to keep health workers safe: yes, we are putting in place the actions to ensure that it is available at the right moment when it is needed. There are some GP surgeries that do not have that equipment yet, but we are putting in place the actions needed to ensure that they have it as and when it is needed. As my right hon. Friend knows, the number of cases right now is relatively small. It is 51, as of 9 o’clock this morning. The protective equipment is there, so that for each of these cases we can get right on to them, but if the virus becomes more widespread, of course more and more NHS settings right across the country are going to need that sort of equipment.
I welcome the plan, although I have to say that I would have welcomed receiving the briefing yesterday that the shadow Secretary of State mentioned, which I did not receive. The plan lays out a reasonable worst case scenario, and it is clear about the three time phases. Research is of course ongoing, but this will help to prepare the public for decisions that may have to be made down the line. At the moment, containment is based on self-isolation of cases, contacts and those who have travelled to risk areas, but with the spread elsewhere in the world, it is becoming harder to define risk areas. With regard to north Italy, the chief medical officer talked about those with underlying conditions perhaps interpreting the advice more stringently and not travelling, so will the Government either discuss with insurance companies or even consider legislation to make underlying conditions an acceptable reason to cancel a holiday, so that people can get their money back rather than putting themselves at risk?
I agree with the Secretary of State regarding asymptomatic workers and sick pay, but there are staff who have no sick pay in their contract, and some protection has to be given to them. He referred to the seven-day period for self-certification, but isolation is for 14 days, and we do not want people turning up at their GP surgery halfway through that period. Can that be looked at? One issue that I have come across is an employer telling a member of staff returning from a holiday in Tenerife that they should not come to work for two weeks, but the employer does not wish to pay them for that period. We need to look at that, even if it is not health advice but an employer stipulation expecting people to have no income.
As we move into delay, we see that children are not particularly vulnerable to catching this. However, as with other coronaviruses, they may well spread it. Do we have evidence for how much they contribute to transmission, as that will affect decisions on school closures?
What preparations are being made for the long haul? Previous coronavirus outbreaks have lasted not just for a few months but for over a year, so we could be dealing with this next winter. If we move into mitigation, the situation will reverse and it will be about protecting the vulnerable and early discharge to home care. That might require the changing of staff from hospitals and care homes to work in the community, so are the Government in negotiations on such matters as legal responsibility and liability?
The Secretary of State quite rightly talked about what the public should be doing, but should we not already be thinking about stopping shaking hands and about working from home, if possible, without an economic impact? That would also help the climate emergency. Containment moves into delay without a border, so should we not be thinking about trying to get ahead of the curve?
We have been briefing colleagues as much as possible. Clearly, the CMOs’ time is incredibly valuable at the moment. We have worked with the Scottish Government on this plan; it was signed off by both the First Minister and the CMO for Scotland. In fact, it has been developed with the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Government of Northern Ireland, so ultimately it is a multi-party plan.
The hon. Lady made the point about seven-day certification. That is indeed the sort of reason why we are holding this area under review and there is work ongoing, including on the points she has raised. She also asked about shaking hands. The medical advice is that the impact of shaking hands is negligible; what really matters is washing hands. Our public health advice will remain clear and based on the science—what matters, more than anything else, is that people wash their hands for 20 seconds or more, using soap and preferably hot water. That is the core of the public health advice.