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Topical Questions

Volume 678: debated on Tuesday 21 July 2020

The coronavirus vaccine taskforce set up in my Department under the excellent leadership of its chair, Kate Bingham, has been making good progress. The Government have supported the vaccines being developed at Oxford University and Imperial College and have now secured access to three different vaccine classes, as well as a treatment containing covid-19 neutralising antibodies. We are also investing, as I said earlier, in vaccine manufacturing capacity in the UK, and the taskforce is doing all it can to ensure that the United Kingdom gets access to a safe and effective vaccine as soon as possible.

Well, that is a very welcome announcement, but I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the tsunami of job losses now facing us. What industry needs right now is orders to get the lines running. That is not just for the big companies, but the whole supply chain. Does he accept the role of Government, not just as regulator and funder, but also as customer? Too often, the public sector, the civil service, local government and the police, fire and ambulance have, frankly, let British industry and British workers down, claiming they are bound by so-called EU rules. Now we are coming out of the EU, will he get going, shake up the civil service, put British industry first, get the orders out there and get the production lines moving?

I do not think there is much more to say. The right hon. Gentleman has made a powerful point.

I have received a letter from James Ritchie, the chief executive of Tekmar, based in my Newton Aycliffe industrial estate. He is also the chairman of Energi Coast, the UK’s leading energy cluster, whose members employ more than 3,000 people. He believes that the offshore wind hub would be perfectly placed in Teesside. The region includes a number of left-behind communities, in vital need of levelling up in jobs. That opportunity would support them and benefit my Sedgefield constituency. Can the Secretary of State assure me of his vital support in helping me and the Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen to bring the hub to Teesside and honour our pledge to the blue wall voters? (905116)

I am delighted to assure my hon. Friend that the Government are, as he knows, determined to ensure the rapid expansion of the offshore wind manufacturing supply chain. We have committed to 40 GW of offshore wind by 2030, and I fully agree with him that the north-east region is critical to that development. I know the project to which he is referring, and officials and myself are looking closely at its viability.

The non-payment of the national minimum wage in Leicester garment factories was shocking, but unfortunately unsurprising. Exploitation in the garment industry has been extensively reported for years, including in a 2019 Environmental Audit Committee report. The cases we know about are likely to be the tip of the iceberg. Given that these abusive working practices are not only criminal, but a threat to public health, will the Secretary of State tell the House what steps he has taken to escalate enforcement in light of the covid-19 pandemic?

The hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly important point, and I think we have all been appalled by what we have read and heard. He will know that the National Crime Agency is leading investigations right now into the current set of allegations. He will also know that a pilot operation was run in autumn 2018, bringing together a whole range of agencies. In the past 18 months, there have been more than 200 investigations. I confirm to him that the enforcement of the minimum wage is something that HMRC investigates, and in 2019-20 it has issued across the country 1,000 penalty notices.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for championing the life sciences sector and my hon. Friend the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth for championing the cause of universities and researchers, but we also have a superb charitable medical research sector in the United Kingdom. With the loss of funding due to covid-19, will my right Friend commit to working with the medical research charities to ensure that they can continue to work on creating the next generation of medical treatments for patients? (905119)

As my hon. Friend will know, in June 2020 we announced a support package to enable universities to continue their vital research. Universities will be required to use some of that funding for research normally funded by medical research charities. We are continuing to look at this situation and we hope to engage closely with charities to develop an even more robust package.

My constituents are particularly concerned about Marks and Spencer’s announcement that it will indefinitely close its East Kilbride store due to covid-19, undermining our town centre. Will the Secretary of State support a “fit to trade” licensing scheme proposed by the all-party parliamentary group for textiles and fashion—which I chair—alongside the British Retail Consortium, which will not only offer protection for garment workers across the UK, but provide an incentive for retailers to invest in UK manufacturing, creating thousands of skilled jobs and aiding the economic recovery plan? (905117)

The hon. Lady raises an interesting point, and I or one of my fellow Ministers would be happy to meet her to discuss it further.

Air pollution has a direct impact on children’s health. My 13-year-old constituent Tom Hunt is perhaps the first person to measure air pollution at ground level, by collaborating with his labrador dog Baggy, who has been wearing a pollution monitor on his collar. His father Matt owns an alternative energy company, Bio Global Industries, in my constituency, and supported him. The data showed that air pollution is two-thirds higher, closer to the ground. Will the Secretary of State join me in commending Tom and Baggy for that really enterprising research, and look at recommending to manufacturers a greater emphasis on producing higher buggies, strollers and pushchairs, which will keep young children further away from the concentrated air pollution that he found closer to the ground? (905121)

I am delighted to join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in commending Tom Hunt and Baggy for their pioneering work. She knows that tackling carbon emissions and improving air quality go hand in hand. We are taking action to address both, particularly with the 300,000 ultra low emission vehicles registered in the UK, and we are also providing new funding for vehicle charging infrastructure.

Further to the question by the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), may I push the Government on clinical trials and medical research? Medical research has saved hundreds of thousands of lives in this country in recent years. I have known people this year who started on a clinical trial that was their only hope of life. It was suspended because of coronavirus and now they have died. We need to make sure that the money is getting into the medical research charities. Last week, Cancer Research UK said that it would lose 500 members of staff and cut its research to £150 million. We need the Government to act fast to get these clinical trials up and going again—and the medical research, too. (905122)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight this issue and I share a lot of his concerns, but it is wrong to suggest that we are not doing anything. From autumn this year, we are providing a package of low-interest loans with long payback periods, supplemented by a small element of grant, to cover up to 80% of the universities’ income losses from international students. The money that is being pumped into our further education deals precisely with the point that he raised, and we are continuing to do that.

Because the exhibitions industry generates so much additional economic activity we should reopen it fully immediately, shouldn’t we? (905128)

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. Of course we recognise the valiant contribution that the sector makes to the UK economy. We are working closely with the sector to pilot the reopening of conference centres, with a view to full socially distanced reopening from 1 October, subject of course to continuing to make progress.

Constituents are still reporting a catalogue of problems with bounce back loans, including long waits to be approved and being turned down for business bank accounts because of credit ratings. When will Ministers get to grips with that, to ensure that all eligible businesses apply and receive the loans quickly? (905127)

Bounce back loans have been a big success; more than 1 million have been approved for businesses. If the hon. Lady has specific issues that she wishes to raise about businesses in her constituency, she should write to me.

The economic impact of covid-19 is likely to be particularly acute in coastal resorts such as Blackpool, which are heavily reliant on seasonal tourism. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to diversify the local economy in such resorts and to support businesses to create well-paid, skilled jobs in emerging industries in these areas? (905130)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, because it goes to the heart of what we are doing as a Government. We already have more than 460,000 UK jobs in low-carbon businesses and their supply chains. Those are green-collar jobs and our research and development is totally committed to expanding those opportunities, whereby we want to reach 2 million green jobs by 2030. It is my conviction that coastal communities such as the one he represents will fully benefit and be in a place where they can reap the rewards of our investment in the green economy.

Money for the aerospace technology industry is welcome, but it is money for a future that may not exist if we do not save the aerospace industry today. Will the Secretary of State and his Ministers agree to sit down with industry leaders, trade unions and hon. Members in this House to form a recovery plan and a sector deal specifically for the aerospace sector, which of course generates five jobs for every job in the sector itself? (905133)

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the key importance of the aviation sector, and the Government are supporting aerospace and its aviation customers with more than £8.5 billion, as part of our measures to support the overall economy. I understand that Airbus has drawn down £500 million on the corporate finance facility, and of course the Secretary of State and the ministerial team are happy to engage with him and his constituents on this important matter.

I know that my right hon. Friend does not underestimate how difficult this year has been for hospitality businesses in North Devon. I warmly welcome the action the Government have taken to get people safely back into our pubs, restaurants and cafés. Will he join me in visiting The Bell Inn, in Chittlehampton, to look at the fantastic hard work that has been done there to ensure that all the appropriate measures are in place to reopen? (905135)

I already have one week of holiday plans and not in her constituency, sadly, but we all need to get out there to visit pubs and restaurants and cafés, which are the heart of our communities. From what I have seen, they are very much adhering to the covid-secure guidance, and that is how we will all enjoy summer safely.

Last year, it was announced that the Ford engine plant was to be closed in September of this year. Ineos was brought in, with both UK Government and Welsh Government funding, but it has now suspended its development at the plant. BA has announced potential job losses at three sites across south Wales, and GE has put staff under a statutory notice period at its plant in Nantgarw. What support is the Secretary of State going to start putting into the south Wales economy so that we can save, protect and create new highly skilled and well-paid jobs? (905146)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have been supporting the economy across the United Kingdom, to the tune of £160 billion of additional funding announced by the Chancellor. If the hon. Gentleman would like to engage with my ministerial team on particular issues, I would be very happy about that.

Nothing is more important right now than protecting public health and supporting our recovery. Does the Minister agree that his UK Internal Market White Paper last week will ensure that all four nations in our Union can overcome covid-19 together? (905147)

Like my hon. Friend, I am a firm believer in the Union—in one United Kingdom. The proposals we set out in the UK Internal Market White Paper are all about supporting jobs, protecting businesses and livelihoods, and encouraging investment across the whole UK. I hope that all colleagues across the House will write in support of that as part of the consultation.

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 suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.