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Topical Questions

Volume 672: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2020

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.

T5. Lithium is set to become one of the most sought after minerals in the world. Recent confirmation of significant deposits means that Cornwall is well placed to enable the UK to have its own secure domestic and sustainable supply of this vital mineral. Not only will that help to level up the Cornish economy, but it will put the UK at a global competitive advantage. Will the Minister ensure that the Government do everything possible to enable us to make the most of this opportunity, and would he like to come to Cornwall to see the work that is going on? (901071)

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.

T2. In Scotland, 204 free cash machines closed last year. Alongside access to local banks and post office services being cut, that is having a hugely detrimental impact on high streets and small businesses in our towns, which are already struggling. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the Government act now and introduce legislation to protect access to cash, local banking and post office services on our high streets, so that our small businesses and high streets can survive and thrive? (901067)

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.

T6. Both I and Andy Street are campaigning for a gigafactory to be located in the urban west midlands, close to the heart of car manufacturing. The factory would make the region a world leader in green vehicle technology. Will the Minister support that vision, and what steps can we take to ensure there is further investment in green technology in the west midlands? (901072)

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.

T4. [R] As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, I have been receiving representations from entrepreneurs with disabilities who state that they face many more challenges in accessing business loans. Will the Secretary of State speak with colleagues in the Treasury and make sure that there is a strategy to address that, so that a truly inclusive economy can be achieved? (901069)

The hon. Lady talks about support for business. We provide that through small start-up loans and the British Business Bank, but I or one of my colleagues would be happy to have a discussion with her on the specific issue she raises.

T7. Are the current bunch of Ministers crusading Conservatives? With 73% of small businesses reporting that they are over-regulated, do Ministers wake up every day thinking about how they can reduce taxation and regulation on business—particularly small businesses? In other words, do they accept that it is only with entrepreneurs that we can create wealth in this society? (901073)

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.

T9. Following the conviction of two ticket touts in Leeds last week for fraud, what discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about including financial harm in the online harms White Paper? (901075)

I will make sure that my colleagues and I have the discussion. Perhaps the hon. Lady would like to share with my office the details of that case.

T8. As a former small business owner, may I ask the Minister what steps he is taking to enable more women to start and grow their own businesses, to help generate more local jobs in my constituency and across the country? (901074)

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?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I know that that is something that exercises high streets up and down the country. The Treasury is looking at this and reviewing business rates as a whole.

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?

As I said in answer to an earlier question, I absolutely want to see levelling up, and I want to see money put into centres of excellence around the country.

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.

Does the Minister agree that one of the best ways to level up the great British high street with the internet would be to allow our high street shops to choose when they open?

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.