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Topical Questions

Volume 677: debated on Tuesday 16 June 2020

My Department, together with Her Majesty’s Treasury, is at the forefront of supporting businesses during these unprecedented times. More than £10.3 billion has been paid out to businesses to date by direct grant and an additional £38.2 billion through the major loan schemes. The Government have supported 9.1 million jobs through the coronavirus job retention scheme and 2.6 million claims have been made through the self-employed income support scheme.

In the past week, I have led five businesses taskforces to listen to and work with the business community and academic experts as we consider the measures needed to support our economy bouncing back. We want to create a cleaner, greener and more resilient economy and the output from those taskforces will feed directly into the Government’s work on the economic recovery.

The Secretary of State will know that the UK has an opportunity to lead the world in hydrogen technology, which will create thousands of green jobs, cut emissions, unlock private investment and increase our energy security. Just as we lagged behind with battery technology, we risk missing the boat on hydrogen as other nations set multibillion-pound hydrogen strategies. The UK needs a hydrogen strategy. Will the Secretary of State meet me and other colleagues from across the House who share my belief in hydrogen to discuss how we can place hydrogen at the forefront of our green recovery?

As my hon. Friend will have heard in the earlier answer from the Energy Minister, we are committed to developing hydrogen as a strategic decarbonised energy carrier. We are investing in the value chain and both the Energy Minister and I will be happy to meet him.

I associate myself with your remarks, Mr Speaker, and those of other Members, about our much-missed colleague, Jo Cox.

There is a clear racial and class dynamic in the covid-19 death rate, with those in working-class jobs, such as carers, taxi drivers, security guards and retail assistants, who are disproportionately black, Asian or minority ethnic, more likely to die from the virus. Throughout the pandemic, insecure employment practices have left millions without protections at work or the financial support they need to safeguard their income and allow them to self-isolate. Will the Secretary of State as a first step recognise that insecure employment practices are directly responsible for worsening inequalities, including structural racism and discrimination?

I add my deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of everyone who has lost their lives in this pandemic.

We are providing support across the piece for all individuals. The hon. Gentleman talks about people from ethnic minority backgrounds. He will know that we hold regular roundtables to ensure that we are addressing individuals in all sorts of groups that have protected characteristics.

My constituency has nearly 30 miles of coastline from Workington to Bowness-on-Solway, with some of the highest tidal ranges in the UK. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the potential benefits of tidal range barrages along the Cumbrian coast—not only the benefits to energy production security but the wider socioeconomic benefits that integrated infra- structure might bring? (903316)

The Department is aware of several projects being considered on rivers and estuaries such as the Wyre, the Duddon, Morecambe bay and the Solway firth, and we have had frequent contacts with developers. We remain open to considering well-developed, well-considered projects that can demonstrate strong value for money alongside other renewable generation.

The coronavirus business interruption loan scheme—CBILS —was supposed to offer a lifeline of support to struggling businesses, but it is not reaching those who need it the most. Sky-high interest rates are now being offered by some lenders, and that is making it less of a lifeline and more like picking the bones off desperate smaller firms. Will the Secretary of State press the Chancellor to take action now to stop this unfair profiteering and ensure that businesses pay no more than 2.5% interest, in line with the bounce-back scheme? (903320)

As the hon. Member will know, the latest figures show that over 49,000 loans have been approved, to the value of more than £10 billion. There is a significant number of lenders attached to the CBIL scheme, but if he knows of specific cases, he should definitely come and talk to me.

I would like to put on record my remembrance of my good friend, Jo Cox. In the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, we are undertaking an inquiry into the impact of covid on our major industries. All of them rely on our maritime and ports sector to keep the supply chain going. Of the £22 billion—a vast sum of money—that is being put together for research and development, how much will be allocated to maritime innovation and tech? (903322)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work that she did as shipping Minister. We have made the commitment to £22 billion a year by 2025. That is the biggest increase in public funding of R&D, and no doubt, as projects come forward from that sector, we will look at them.

I had the pleasure and privilege of sharing an office with Jo Cox for almost a year before she was so brutally taken from us, and our thoughts are with Brendan and the family today. On the issue of steel, the Secretary of State will be aware that the French and German steel industries received vital Government-backed loans within 10 days of their respective lockdowns starting. Here, months since the start of ours, the British steel industry has yet to receive a penny. Does the Secretary of State think that that is acceptable? (903325)

We are working with the steel sector, as the hon. Member will know, and we continue to work closely with it. Of course I absolutely remain committed to supporting a sustainable UK steel sector. We have increased the amount of borrowing that can take place under the larger CBIL scheme but, as I said to the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) in answer to an earlier question, when individual companies approach us, we will of course enter into direct discussions with them.

It is good news that our shops are gradually reopening across England, but they are in a delicate economic position. The good old British compromise of our Sunday trading laws allows a balance between the larger stores, the smaller shops, the interests of consumers and the interests of staff working in those shops. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the very last thing we should be doing is disturbing that compromise and potentially placing at risk the jobs and economic capabilities of our small shopkeepers across England? (903323)

Of course we keep all these matters under review, and I know that there is a range of views on this matter. I would just point out that we did temporarily relax Sunday trading during the London Olympics. That was to support consumers and, of course, the economy as well.

As businesses go back to work, what support are the Government giving to disabled people to ensure that they are able to return safely, or continue to work from home? Will the Secretary of State consider a tailored furlough scheme for disabled and shielded people who cannot return to their workplace? (903328)

The obligations on employers to take care of disabled employees have not changed. In the guidance that we have provided we make reference to the fact that employers need to take particular care of employees with particular protected characteristics.

Yesterday morning, I had the pleasure of visiting the excellent Lexicon shopping centre in Bracknell, where I saw busy shops, happy shoppers and dedicated staff who had done everything possible to keep customers safe. Does the Minister agree that it is now time to revise social distancing measures to below 2 metres, not least to give our high streets a big boost? (903324)

I again thank my hon. Friend for all he is doing to support local businesses in Bracknell—more power to his elbow. I am sure all of us will do the same in our constituencies over the coming days and weeks. As I said in response to an earlier question, we are reviewing the social distancing rule.

One in four pubs do not have enough space to reopen and comply with the 2 metre rule and 82% of those that could reopen would have to operate at less than half capacity, putting pubs including many in Portsmouth at risk. With reopening fast looming, on what specific date will the Minister provide guidance to British pubs? (903329)

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have worked collaboratively with employers, employee representative organisations and trade unions in producing the guidance that we have put out so far. We continue to have a good dialogue with individual sectors, and once we have concluded that, we will of course make that guidance available.

May I begin by saying that my thoughts and prayers are with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) and her family at this time? Although a political opponent, she is, as Jo Cox was, a lovely person. Will the Minister, given the recent major policy change, ensure that contracts for difference— (903326)

Order. We are going to have to clear Members away from the entrance. There are some seats. You will have to sit down. You just cannot gather.

I will begin the question again, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister ensure that contracts for difference funding will only be made available to onshore wind farms in Scotland that have local community support?

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for the question. He will know that local consent and local support are absolutely key to the pot 1 auction, but he will also be aware that planning policy is a devolved matter in Scotland, and it is therefore for the Scottish Government to set up national planning policies and the approach to declining planning applications. He is well aware that this Government have been very focused on local consent right through this process.

I also concur with the remarks made about my friend and colleague Jo Cox. We remember her today and what she stood for. As a member of the Transport Committee, I stand by our description of British Airways as a “national disgrace” for the way it has effectively fired most of its staff and will rehire some of them on vastly cut pay and conditions. BA has done that under the cloak of the pandemic and gone way beyond any other major employer. The aviation sector will take longer to recover. When that does happen, I hope the Government will step in to support the sector. When they do so, will they ensure that employers cannot get away with the tactics of British Airways, and also commit to delivering on climate change? (903330)

We appreciate that announcements about redundancies for British Airways staff have been incredibly distressing for the employees and their families. At the end of the day, the use of the Government’s job retention schemes is preferable to making redundancies. That is why we made them available. What I would say in this case is that it is a commercial decision. We expect British Airways and, indeed, all employers to treat employees fairly and in the spirit of partnership.

I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is right that the Government are requiring landlords to show forbearance to commercial tenants, but that is shifting some of the burden from the tenants to the landlords, many of whom are small and medium-sized enterprises. However, the banks are not providing a full payment holiday as they are for residential and buy-to-let. It is simply a capital repayment holiday, which is a small part of the payment. Will my right hon. Friend see what he can do about that? (903336)

My hon. Friend, as ever, raises an important issue. It is why both the CBILS and the bounce-back loans have a 12-month period during which interest is paid on behalf of the business. I would expect lenders to apply similar forbearance where needed in the case of existing commercial loans.

My thoughts are also with Jo’s family.Let me acknowledge the basic decency of the furlough scheme. However, with vacancies plunging and the spectre of unemployment rising—youth unemployment in Birmingham is now at 18%—is it time for a jobs and training package, so that we avoid a return to 1980s unemployment levels for young people, when many from black and minority ethnic backgrounds simply felt written off? (903337)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. As we look to see how we can restart the economy and the whole process of recovery, we will, of course, look at skills as well.

Many constituents, from right across Ashfield, have been in touch with me as they are very concerned that they will be made redundant by Rolls-Royce. With Rolls-Royce announcing last week the locations of its first 3,000 redundancies in the UK, what more can my right hon. Friend say to reassure my constituents that the Government are doing everything they can to ensure that they are supporting the employees affected, as these are the people who have worked so hard to establish the company’s world-leading position? If any of these highly-skilled and professional workers are made redundant, what are the Government’s plans to ensure that their skills are repurposed to other projects? (903340)

My hon. Friend raises a hugely important issue. Employment and the possibilities and opportunities for people are something we are absolutely focused on. I assure him that we will do all we can to help those who will be affected by this announcement to get back into work as quickly as possible. This will include working with the Department for Work and Pensions, Jobcentre Plus and Rolls-Royce itself to make sure that economic opportunities and jobs are freely available to those who might be affected.

My constituency stands to benefit from offshore energy coming ashore, yet it is hampered by prejudicial grid charges and investment in infrastructure going elsewhere. Will the Minister end the discriminatory charging regime and support Scottish Government schemes seeking to ensure that Scotland benefits from its natural resource off its shore and does not lose out, as it did with oil and gas? (903339)

I do not think that is a fair characterisation of the situation. We have huge offshore capacity; 35% of the global offshore wind capacity is in the UK, with much of it sited in Scotland. Scottish firms are extremely capable of competing in the auctions, and I do not think it is fair to characterise our position in the way that the hon. Gentleman has.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am now suspending the House for five minutes.

Sitting suspended.