House of Commons
Tuesday 29 September 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
R&D Road Map
In July, the Government published their ambitious R&D road map, reaffirming our commitment to cement the UKs position as a science superpower. We will revitalise our whole system of science, research and innovation to release its potential, and our investment in multiple disciplines and methodologies will be guided by expert researchers.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. A successful transition to new approach methodologies requires the support of Government- backed infrastructure, a strategic allocation of funding, improved education, multidisciplinary collaboration between universities and industry, and close collaboration with the regulators. Will he undertake to prioritise the opportunities offered by human-relevant methods, so that the UK does not risk losing its position as a global leader in biomedical research and innovation?
I know that the hon. Gentleman cares deeply about this issue and launched a white paper on it earlier this year; I welcome the contribution of that report. The use of animals in research is carefully regulated and remains important in ensuring that new medicines and treatments are safe. However, the Government are committed to reducing and replacing the use of animal research, and we have invested £67 million to support the development of new techniques that will help to achieve that.
Support for Businesses: Covid-19
My Department has delivered a wide range of measures as part of the Government’s unprecedented support package. That includes £11 billion in grants supporting almost 900,000 business premises and over £57 billion in loan guarantees to over 1 million businesses across the UK. We have also extended the deadline for the loan schemes to the end of November, ensuring that there is further support for those who need it.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and for the support to date. When we emerge from the current crisis, we must build back in an environmentally sustainable way and ensure that we are on track to meet our net zero target. What is he doing to deliver carbon capture and storage across the UK, to ensure that manufacturing and agricultural businesses have certainty, with net zero in mind?
I agree with my hon. Friend: we need to build back better and build back greener. CCS will be an essential part of the transformation to a low-carbon economy, and it presents an opportunity for the creation of high-value jobs, which we want to see in our country. We have already announced a CCS infrastructure fund of £800 million to deploy carbon capture and storage in at least two industrial clusters over the next decade.
Many businesses in the Vale of Clwyd welcome the measures that the Chancellor announced last week, but some local and regional employers of all sizes still face significant challenges—none more so than Airbus. Will my right hon. Friend recommit to doing all he can to support Airbus and its highly skilled staff at this particularly uncertain time?
My hon. Friend and other Members are champions for the businesses in their constituencies. Airbus has been discussed with me and other ministerial colleagues. Of course, Airbus is a vital part of UK aerospace. We are currently providing the aerospace and aviation sector with over £8.5 billion of support through the covid corporate financing facility, R&D grants, loan guarantees and export support. We are in regular dialogue with Airbus, to see how we can assist it and its employees.
Over 1 million people are employed in sectors that are currently shut down, including weddings, events and nightclubs. The Chancellor last week refused to support them because he said they are not “viable”, but those businesses are shut because they are rightly following the Government’s public health guidance to help tackle the virus. As the person responsible for standing up for the businesses of this country, does the Business Secretary not think it is wrong, insulting and terrible for our long-term economic future as a country to write off as unviable these businesses and jobs that provide livelihoods for so many people in our country?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I talk to businesses every day, as he does, and I know it is very difficult for many of them right now. The job support scheme announced by the Chancellor provides targeted support for jobs and business facing lower demand over the coming months. He will also know that the measures have been welcomed by business groups and, indeed, trade unions. The TUC said:
“the Chancellor has listened and done the right thing.”
In addition to the JSS, there are other measures available to support all businesses across the country.
The Secretary of State did not answer my question about these businesses that are currently shut down and that are doing the right thing. Many of them have no income coming in, they are excluded from the JSS and they are already loaded up with debt, yet they have rent to pay and overheads to cover, and the Government are just leaving them out in the cold. I believe these were good, viable businesses before the pandemic. They were good enough for the Government to support them back in March, and we need them for our economy after the crisis is over. Will he stand up for these businesses that need help and give them the support they need to help at least survive the crisis?
Let me assure the right hon. Gentleman that this Department does stand up for businesses. We have a very regular dialogue with sectors on an ongoing basis. As I said, I acknowledge that some of them are facing particular difficulties. As he himself knows from his time in government, we are not going to be able to protect every single job—very, very sadly—but that is why we are providing extra support in the welfare system but also, really importantly, in support with skills and, indeed, apprenticeships and the kickstart scheme for young people, so that we can help people into better jobs.
It has been confirmed that the Secretary of State is due to rewrite the industrial strategy this autumn. Given the concern from businesses that the Department is the voice of Government to business, as opposed to the voice of business to Government, could the Secretary of State confirm how businesses will be engaged in the drafting of the new industrial strategy?
The Chairman of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee of course raises an important point, and he will know that I have come to the House on previous occasions and outlined the detailed discussions we have. I set up a range of taskforces, where we had discussions on issues around the industrial strategy back in June, and we converse on a daily basis with sectors across the country.
I was really disappointed by the answers the Business Secretary gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). I have global exhibition companies in my constituency that are on the verge of going bust. They do not need to be told about the kickstart scheme or apprenticeships, or to be told that universal credit is available for them. These companies are calling for an extension of business rate relief and a new grant scheme, bearing in mind that many of them were not eligible for the retail, hospitality and leisure grant. Will the Secretary of State consider this, and commit to publishing a provisional date when conferences and exhibition events can reopen, as has been happening in parts of Europe? Will he also agree to meet the sector? I have tried lobbying the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on this, and I am getting nowhere. Will he pay attention to this sector?
As the hon. Lady outlines, this particular sector is the responsibility of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. However, I have been talking to representatives of the sector, as have my ministerial team and, as I have said, we will continue to have such conversations. As I have also said, the Chancellor set out a significant package of support since the start of this pandemic, and people are still able to make use of that support.
Scotch Whisky Tariffs
My Department is working closely with the Department for International Trade to secure a swift settlement of the ongoing aerospace dispute to the benefit of all UK industries, including Scotch whisky, and demonstrating our commitment to free and fair trade.
Does the Minister recognise that it is very important to resolve this issue within the current presidential term? Will his Department therefore take forward urgent measures to resolve, bilaterally, the Airbus-Boeing dispute so that we can get these damaging tariffs removed from Scotch whisky, as I say, during the current presidential term?
I reassure my right hon. Friend that the Government are urgently seeking a negotiated settlement of this dispute and are exploring all options. The imminent award of retaliatory rights should incentivise the US to engage in discussions to reach a fair and balanced settlement.
Reducing Business Emissions
As my hon. Friend knows, helping businesses reduce emissions is crucial to delivering our net zero commitment. To tackle some of our highest carbon-intensive businesses, we have just launched the £289 million industrial energy transformation fund, and we are also extending the £300 million climate change agreements scheme to incentivise businesses to invest in energy efficiency.
I thank the Minister very much for his answer. The business sector has successfully reduced greenhouse gas emissions by over 30% since 1990. However, emissions from business transport are counted separately, and transport emissions have gone down only by 3% since 1990. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that we have a great opportunity in the UK to be a world leader in green transport—from electric vehicles to hydrogen lorries—and will he work closely with the Treasury to incentivise businesses to use more low emission vehicles in the future?
We do have extensive plans. We have further plans for decarbonising freight that will form part of the transport decarbonisation plan, which we expect to publish later this year. We work constantly with other Departments to ensure that we can reach our net zero targets. My hon. Friend is quite right to emphasise, in particular, the role that transport plays in carbon emissions.
If we want business to play its full part in reducing emissions and to finance the innovation and infrastructure critical to the transition to a low-carbon economy, the Government need to address the very real barriers to private investment. One obvious way to do so is through a national investment bank with a clear mandate to channel both public and private capital towards projects that aid a green recovery and help the country to achieve its net zero target. Does the Minister’s Department as a whole support the establishment of such a bank, and if so, will he update the House on what progress has been made in convincing his colleagues in the Treasury to get behind the proposal?
Support for Manufacturing
BEIS continues to engage with industry and suppliers to ensure that we can support our manufacturing sectors during and after the covid-19 crisis. This includes an unprecedented package of Government support to help with business continuity and drive recovery after the pandemic.
Steel manufacture is the heart and soul of towns like Stocksbridge in my constituency. It provides high-skilled, well-paid, productive jobs. Once we have left the EU, we will be free to use our procurement processes to favour British manufacturers. Will my hon. Friend commit to grasping this opportunity to make sure that our infrastructure revolution helps to secure the future of British steel?
The Government have helped our steel industry to compete globally by providing more than £480 million in relief to the sector for electricity costs since 2013. We want to ensure that UK steel producers can compete for and win contracts associated with domestic infrastructure investments, including HS2. We are working closely with the sector and other relevant parties to realise these opportunities.
Furniture manufacturing is an enormously important part of the economy in my constituency, with firms such as Ercol and Hypnos Beds located in Princes Risborough. As a result of covid, the industry estimates a 25% to 30% reduction in UK furniture sales this year, with 10,000 jobs at risk. Will my hon. Friend join me in backing the industry’s “Buy the Best, Buy British, Save Jobs” campaign, which is also supported by the all-party parliamentary group on furniture makers, and outline what more she can do to support our furniture makers?
I will be delighted to support that campaign. It is great to see the furniture industry supporting high-quality British manufacturing with its “Buy British” initiative. Now, more than ever, we all need to do our bit by backing British industry to drive jobs, innovation and growth.
Manufacturing industries in my constituency such as Cadbury’s in Chirk—part of the Mondelēz group—Barnett Engineering in Rhos and Ifor Williams Trailers in Cynwyd are the bedrock of the country’s manufacturing sector. Will the Minister comment on how the Chancellor’s announcement of economic measures last week will help these manufacturing companies through the coronavirus crisis?
I welcome the measures announced by the Chancellor last week and agree that manufacturing is a key component of the UK’s thriving industrial sector. The job support scheme will provide eligible manufacturing businesses in Clwyd South with a grant covering one third of all employees’ wages for hours not worked, up to a cap of £697.92 a month. Furthermore, the deadline for applications for coronavirus business interruption loans and the future fund has now been extended to 30 November.
More than 90% of the UK’s manufacturing companies have kept working, even at the height of the pandemic, keeping food on supermarket shelves and medicines and ventilators in our hospitals. However, many of them will face a major crisis when the furlough scheme ends in a few weeks’ time. Demand is still incredibly low in some parts of industry, but Government support is being withdrawn. It is patently obvious that the well-paid and highly skilled jobs that we have in sectors such as aerospace and aviation should be the foundations of our future economic growth and the public will not forget it if the Government allow them to wither on the vine. As the voice of business within the Government—
The hon. Lady will know that the Government are absolutely committed to making sure that businesses are the future of the economy and that we need to get the economy back on track. We have invested billions of pounds making sure that we have all the schemes in place that will enable this economy to thrive.
Marine Energy Sector
My hon. Friend will know that the Government have a long history of supporting the development of marine technologies. Since 2010, we have provided £80 million in research and development funding, and last month we published a call for evidence on the potential of marine energy, and we are looking forward to those responses.
Will my hon. Friend please update the House on progress that has been made on the development of wind and wave technology around the coastline, as I know that the Crown Estate is looking at the development of wind farms off the south-east coast, near my constituency of Hastings and Rye?
My hon. Friend is quite right. In addition to the proposed extension to the Rampion offshore wind farm off Brighton, I understand that there is significant market interest in the Crown Estate’s current seabed leasing round, and that, we expect, will include areas off the coast of the south-east of England, near my hon. Friend’s constituency.
Automotive Sector: Environmentally Sustainable Recovery
My hon. Friend will know that we continue to support the transformation of the sector towards zero-emission vehicles. Last autumn, we announced up to £1 billion of new funding for the next generation of innovative, low-carbon automotive technologies. A competition, as we speak, is under way.
As we recover from the economic effects of the coronavirus, it is vital that we build back greener. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that he is backing the innovators who are working on decarbonising our automobile industry—companies such as Gridserve Sustainable Energy—and who can get their cutting edge ideas on to the market, supporting green jobs along the way?
Green recovery is an absolute priority for my Department. We have brought forward funding to restart innovation, support business and deliver our decarbonisation ambitions. This includes £10 million through the Advanced Propulsion Centre and £12 million from the Office for Low Emission Vehicles.
I thank my hon. Friend for his earlier answer. Vehicle regulations regarding electric vehicles, I am told, now come under the auspices of the electricity at work regulations. Not many garages realise that and as electric cars have the equivalent to domestic three-phase electricity amounts of stored energy that can kill very easily, what is he doing to ensure that we do not lead the world in deaths in this sector?
There are 182,000 vehicle technicians in the UK, of which 21,000 are EV qualified. Last year, we endorsed the Institute of the Motor Industry’s TechSafe professional standards, which will help to ensure that staff are properly trained and qualified to work on electric vehicles.
My hon. Friend may be aware that Elon Musk, the chief executive officer of Tesla Motors, recently landed at Doncaster Sheffield Airport and has seen the land ready for development. Will the Minister work with me to put a case forward to encourage this automotive giant to build its next gigafactory in Don Valley?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am very keen to secure battery manufacturing capability in the United Kingdom, and I am very supportive of discussions with potential investors about their requirements. As he knows, we are currently calling on industry to put forward investment proposals for gigafactories.
The Minister of State has mentioned the production of electric vehicles as a key element of sustainable economic recovery in the automotive sector, and we want that production to be supported by the phasing out of new internal combustion hybrid vehicles by 2030. He, I think, wants 2040 to be the date, but we will agree, I am sure, that that must be accompanied by an appropriate national charging infrastructure. Its development, however, is seriously lagging. A recent report by the International Council on Clean Transportation found that as few as 5% of the chargers that will be needed by 2030 are currently installed. What is he doing to ensure that charging infrastructure can meet future demands placed on it?
We have, as the hon. Member rightly mentioned, consulted on bringing forward the end to the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040 to 2035, or earlier if a fast transition appears feasible, as well as including hybrids for the first time. We will announce the outcome in due course. I remind him that we are investing £2.5 billion in grants for plug-in passenger commercial vehicles and more than 18,000 publicly available charging devices, including 3,200 rapid devices: one of the largest networks in Europe. I want to see him supporting that endeavour rather than talking it down.
Businesses and Covid-19
Ministerial colleagues and I have engaged closely with affected sectors throughout the covid-19 pandemic. Recently, I have had meetings with representatives of the retail, hospitality, consumer goods, weddings, nightclubs and events sectors, and small and medium-sized enterprises across the UK.
I thank the Minister for his response, but it is simply not good enough. My local pubs, bars, restaurants, theatres and taxi drivers were already fighting for their survival. The introduction of an arbitrary and unevidenced 10 pm curfew has led one of my constituents, Stephen Sullivan, who runs Ziggy’s in South Shields, to say, “I simply can’t see a way forward. There is no way out for my business.” When on earth will the Government abolish this curfew?
I am sorry that the hon. Member does not feel that speaking to 3,000 or 4,000 businesses over the past few months to understand their issues is good enough. None the less, I understand the concern of the hospitality sector and other sectors in South Shields in particular, where there are local restrictions. It is so important that we get the economy up and running as soon as we can. The Government’s first priority is to save lives, but to save businesses and livelihoods is just as important.
I am proud of my many constituents who work in the creative industries, such as musicians, actors, producers and designers, to name but a few. Making ends meet in this sector can be difficult at the best of times, but it is now even more precarious as many businesses will not yet be able to reopen. What plans does the Minister have to ensure that workers in creative industry, including permanent, freelance, self-employed and those previously excluded, can receive financial support in the tough months ahead?
That is something that I continue to engage with the Treasury and with businesses on, to understand it and to see what more we can do. I am someone who has in the past been a company director and paid myself through dividends, so I understand the position of those in the creative sector, who are doing much the same thing. We will work together to see what more we can do.
I used to work in the nightclub industry, like 70,000 people in the UK. Clubs are currently shut down on Government advice and are getting no support on rent, rates or other overheads. Loans are no good because they are just building up the debt. These are businesses that will be not just viable, but thriving businesses and good employers if they can get through the covid shutdown. What are the Government going to do to help them to get through this crisis?
I have met nightclub representatives and people who run nightclubs. I have met with Sacha Lord and other people who work with the elected mayors. We have set up a nightclub taskforce to work with the Night Time Industries Association and other owners to try to work our way to a covid-19-secure nightclub, when we can start to open up the economy. Many nightclubs have actually repurposed to be able to open as bars and other areas of industry.
The Minister says he understands, but it beggars belief that his Government still refuse to support businesses that were vibrant and viable. Workers, freelancers, creatives and the newly self-employed have been hung out to dry. Government sources now predict that all pubs, restaurants and bars will be ordered to close for two weeks initially. Without furlough and restricted by curfew, why is he creating another class of the excluded?
I am not sure where the Government sources are coming from. As I say, lives are absolutely first in our priorities; we are trying to make sure that we can stop the transmission of this virus. We want to keep the economy open, which is why we have put measures in place so that, although they are hampered because they cannot trade fully, pubs, restaurants and other sectors can stay open at this time.
The Government will not provide grants to struggling firms, they are giving a pittance to the self-employed and they are replacing furlough with a scheme that excludes businesses closing on health grounds. They are incentivising the rest to cut staff, with 3 million already thrown to the wolves and more to come. Did the Minister demand that the Chancellor introduce an emergency Budget to save the excluded? If not, is it not the case that his role is simply not viable?
The Government have put in £160 billion-worth of support, wrapping our arms around as much of the economy as we can. We have put off business rates for these businesses. We have extended the VAT cut for another few months for the hospitality sector in particular. We will continue to see what more we can do to keep our economy open.
I am afraid that talking and engagement is all well and good, but what we need is some action. Does the Minister think that Deer Park in Devon, which was fully booked for weddings next year, or the conference business in Manchester, which was 90% booked for next year, are unviable businesses? The Government have thrown those and thousands of other thriving businesses on the scrapheap this week—businesses that were very much viable and will be so again when the restrictions are lifted. They have taken the loans. They will not qualify for the job support scheme. They were promised that track and trace would allow them to reopen, yet the Government have now turned their back on them. The Conservatives are no longer the party of business. As a very small measure, will the Minister reallocate the cash grant underspend to ensure that we do not see thousands of businesses go bust on his watch?
We have handed out £11 billion-worth of cash grants to businesses across the country. In terms of the underspend, the under-allocation varied by local authorities and how much money they could get to those businesses, which is why we need to have it in to reconcile. I work with the wedding sector. At the moment it is impossible to work through a system that makes it viable for those businesses to open beyond a certain number. However, they will be viable businesses in the future.
UK Internal Market Bill
Ministers have clearly set out the benefits to all UK businesses of ensuring that goods and services can flow freely across the UK. That is in Scotland’s interests, given that it exports more to the rest of the UK than to the EU. The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that I have spent about 12 hours on these Benches with the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), having discussions and debating this issue.
Businesses in my Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency and across Scotland benefit from not only the most competitive business rates regime in the UK but vital schemes such as the transition training fund, the inward investment scheme and a half-billion pound infrastructure plan. With the internal market Bill allowing UK Ministers to spend in devolved areas, what guarantees can the Minister give that such expenditure will not result in a consequential reduction in essential Scottish Government funding, putting such schemes at risk?
Spending from the UK Government will be complementary to that coming from the Scottish Government. We want to add to that and to make sure that the UK economy can flourish. Scottish business will be at risk without the regulatory certainty of this Bill, so we want to prevent additional layers of complexity.
Merseyside: Sustainable Energy Production
I reassure the hon. Lady that we are looking with great interest at the Mersey tidal project and that the Government have already funded the north-west energy hub so that we can drive huge opportunities for the region in renewable energy. I know that BEIS officials recently met representatives from the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority to discuss the very Mersey tidal project that she mentions.
Highly skilled, green manufacturing jobs should power our economic recovery beyond the pandemic and it is calculated that the Mersey tidal scheme could have the potential to generate up to four times the energy of all the wind turbines in Liverpool bay—enough energy to power 1 million homes. Liverpool city region’s Mayor has already secured £2.5 million of funding for the next phase of work. Given the Minister’s positive response, will he meet with the metro Mayor, local MPs and industry experts such as Martin Land, who now heads up the project, to help to accelerate it to feed stage development at the appropriate juncture?
Any discrimination when selecting people for redundancy would be not only wrong, but unlawful. Employees with the necessary qualifying service can bring a claim to an employment tribunal where they believe that they have been unfairly selected for redundancy.
Citizens Advice research shows that one worker in six is facing redundancy and that parents and carers of those who have shielded are twice as likely to be made redundant. Will the Minister now provide additional emergency resources to enforcement bodies to ensure that people are treated fairly, equally and safely during this extremely worrying time?
Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme
Some 9.6 million jobs have been supported through the coronavirus job retention scheme and millions of people have now moved off furlough and back into work. The job support scheme and other measures, such as the extension of our temporary VAT cut for the hospitality and tourism sectors, demonstrate our commitment to supporting businesses and workers.
May I return to a theme that has been raised by other Members without success in terms of answers? Sheffield City Region Music Board wrote to the Culture Secretary with local Members over six weeks ago about the problems facing the music industry. We have had no reply. The new job support scheme offers nothing to businesses that are unable to open, such as many of Sheffield’s iconic music venues, with impacts on jobs right across the sector. One constituent said to me yesterday that by declaring most music businesses not viable, the Government have basically hung everyone out to dry. Ministers did not address this issue in their earlier answers, so will the Secretary of State recognise the problem and spell out what action the Government will take to protect jobs in the music, events and creative industries?
I completely understand the concerns that colleagues have about the sectors that are not open. I can only reiterate, without going into full details, that we continue to have discussions with those sectors. The hon. Gentleman talks about the particular sector that he knows, which is the responsibility of another Secretary of State, but I have spoken to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about those issues in the past day or two. We will continue to have discussions.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that we are trying to make sure that the economy stays open, and the vast majority of the economy is open, but we need to do that in a safe way. If we all play our part, we will be in a position where we can reopen the rest of the economy and move to some sense of normality.
Advanced Nuclear Reactors
The UK is fast becoming an exciting place for developing small and advanced nuclear reactor technologies. That is why we have recently invested over £130 million to support their development. We will shortly be undertaking a comprehensive assessment of siting requirements, including suitability, safety and security.
Jobs and Covid-19
We are committed to ongoing engagement with industry to understand the impact of the pandemic on manufacturers and to ensure that they have the support they need. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular meetings with manufacturers, including one yesterday with more than 100 manufacturers and major businesses, including Make UK.
Manufacturers in Rotherham have faced huge disruption as a result of covid-19. It is now becoming increasingly likely that Britain may exit the transition period without a deal in place with the EU. Will the Minister please outline what steps he is taking to ensure that manufacturers in my constituency and across the country have the certainty and support they need from the Government to sustain their businesses in the face of unprecedented challenges?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State addressed refreshing the industrial strategy, and, of course, manufacturing absolutely remains central to our industrial strategy. Some 65% of research and development is delivered by manufacturing in the UK. We remain the ninth largest manufacturer in the world, so manufacturing will be front and centre of our long-term investment in our green, sustainable recovery.
Government Departments consider the impact of any support they provide and the Government’s recent covid-19 measures have been hugely welcomed by businesses. Our upcoming consultation on subsidy control will allow us to gather views on how to ensure those measures continue to be effective in achieving our economic objectives.
Putting the covid period to one side, it is worth remembering that in 2018 the UK spent only 0.38% of GDP on state aid. France spent twice as much and Germany four times more. With the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, the Government will centralise state aid decision making in London. When will his Government lift the arbitrary borrowing cap on the Welsh Government to enable Wales to invest in Welsh infrastructure and thus boost Welsh productivity?
We have had this debate, of course, during the passage of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill over the past few days. Subsidy control has never been a devolved matter. The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. We have always been clear that the regulation of subsidy control is a reserved matter. There will be a consultation, but ultimately we want to promote a competitive and dynamic economy throughout the whole of the United Kingdom.
The UK has one of the most vibrant and innovative tech sectors in the world, and it has been highly resilient through the pandemic. We are providing a wide range of support for high-tech industries, including the artificial intelligence sector deal, the industrial strategy challenge fund and the £1.25 billion coronavirus package of support for innovative firms.
The Minister will be aware of the value of the photonics industry to the UK economy. My constituency is home to the EPIC Centre in Paignton and its own site in Brixham. Given the leading value it has in the manufacturing industry and in quantum photonics, what support will it be given, along the lines of the research and development roadmap?
Indeed, I know about the excellent work in Totnes. The Government recognise the important contribution made to the UK economy by the photonics industry and its underpinning role in growing the UK’s quantum technology sector. Successive Governments have supported the growth of the sector with R&D investment. As the Government implement our ambitious “UK research and development roadmap”, published in July, investing in cross-cutting technologies and realising the potential for regional strengths will be vital to making the most of the UK’s potential and becoming a science superpower.
Nuclear Power and Decarbonisation
Nuclear power, which is a safe, reliable and low-carbon source of power, has a key role to play, alongside other technologies such as renewables, as we transition our energy system to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
I thank the Minister for his answer. The recent withdrawal of Hitachi from the Wylfa Newydd nuclear project in my constituency is exceptionally disappointing. I would like to thank the Isle of Anglesey County Council, Annwen Morgan, Llinos Medi Huws and all those at the council who worked so hard on the project, the team at Horizon and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Most importantly, I would like to thank the communities of Ynys Môn for their support, patience and vision. Vision is hope with a plan—
I want to add one more person to that list for her work, and that is my hon. Friend. We recognise that Hitachi’s decision will be disappointing news for the people of north Wales. We remain willing to discuss new nuclear projects with any viable companies and investors wishing to develop the site. It is a great site that has a great amount of backing from the community.
Research and Development
We are making good progress in implementing the Government’s ambitious R&D road map, including by investing £236 million around the UK through the strength in places fund, setting up the innovation expert group and the place advisory group, and taking steps to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy.
As part of the R&D road map we are actively developing a place strategy, which will set out how we can develop and grow an R&D capability across the country. I regularly meet my noble Friend Lord Grimstone, the Minister for Investment, to discuss how we can leverage and increase foreign direct investment to benefit all regions and nations of the UK.
I know that the plight of sub-postmasters involved in the Horizon IT scandal has rightly concerned many hon. and right hon. Members. There have been repeated calls for a judge-led inquiry into this matter. I can confirm that former High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams will chair the Government’s inquiry, which begins this week. The terms of reference have been expanded following feedback from former postmasters and hon. Members. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who is leading this work in my Department, will be pleased to update colleagues.
The landlord of the Burnaby Arms pub in Bedford has three staff on zero-hours contracts. One is currently on flexible furlough, working reduced hours. The other two are still on furlough and have been informed that they will lose their jobs when furlough ends unless the situation for wet-led pubs changes. How does the job support scheme—which actually costs this and many other businesses in my constituency more money to keep staff—prevent mass job losses?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she is doing in this area. I also congratulate the United Downs project on last month securing £4 million from the Government’s getting building fund. As the Prime Minister has said this weekend, the UK will lead by example by keeping the environment firmly on the global agenda and serving as a launchpad for a global green industrial revolution.
Two years ago, having spent £1.2 billion of taxpayers’ money developing the European Galileo programme, the Government abandoned it to build a duplicate British system at a cost of £3 billion to £5 billion; they spent tens of millions on this “me too” sat-nav system, plus half a billion pounds on OneWeb, a bankrupt American satellite company. Now we hear that the British sat-nav system is to be abandoned too—and for what? According to newspaper reports, which are better briefed than Parliament, it is so that the Prime Minister can go head to head with Elon Musk.
We are indeed refreshing the 2017 industrial strategy to reflect the Government’s priorities, which are putting the UK at the forefront of technological opportunities, boosting growth and productivity across our country, and supporting a green recovery. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the black country industrial strategy.
I recognise the historic significance and role of the post office in Sanquhar, and I thank all the staff who have kept it running over the years, particularly most recently through the covid pandemic. I very much hope that a long-term future for that post office can be secured.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are supporting the hospitality sector. Business rates are not required to be paid for the full year, and other support is available across the economy. If we want to get back to normality, we must get this infection under control, and we all have a part to play in that.
My hon. Friend may know that we have funded Citizens Advice to provide local advice during this crisis, and we have negotiated a voluntary agreement with energy suppliers to support households impacted by covid-19. I also commend the Money Advice Service for developing the money advice tool, which gives people important practical support in managing their finances.
We are very supportive of any schemes in this country that promote the net-zero agenda, and I would be interested to hear details of that scheme in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I would be happy to meet him, and others, to discuss those matters further.
The Vaccine Taskforce, which is part of my Department, has made incredible progress in securing access to the most promising vaccine candidates. We have invested to build our manufacturing capacity in Oxford, Essex, Scotland and north Wales, and we will continue to work with the UK bioindustry to determine how further to develop our vaccine capabilities across the whole country.
The hon. Gentleman and I have different views on that issue. It stands to reason that as we go towards net zero, we will need dispatchable power and a source of firm power. Most of the analysis we have seen suggests that nuclear has a part to play in that net-zero future.
The Government of course recognise the challenges facing the industry. My hon. Friend is right, and I have also heard directly from representatives of the National Exhibition Centre about these challenges. Conference and events businesses can draw on the Government’s current support package, but I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who has responsibility for the sector, will continue to work closely with them.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend welcomes our jobs package. The Government continue to provide a full range of measures to protect jobs, businesses and livelihoods. Of course, I want this sector—indeed, every sector—to return to normal as soon as possible, but that will require scientific evidence to show that it is safe to do so.
I had the honour and pleasure of being questioned by the hon. Lady at a Select Committee in recent days. I repeat what I said then—that we are asking all countries to come forward with ambitious NDCs, and that I completely understand that there will be a requirement on the UK as well.
I am absolutely delighted to offer my congratulations to Heywood Magic Market, and everyone involved with this initiative, on demonstrating such innovation. As my hon. Friend knows, in May I announced the discretionary grant scheme to support market traders. We absolutely back entrepreneurs and innovators in Heywood and Middleton and across the country. The Conservative party has always been the party of business, and we will always continue to be the party of business.
Students’ Return to Universities
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement regarding the return of students to universities. Throughout this pandemic, our priority has always been to keep young people as safe as possible while they continue to learn. It is this commitment to learning and skills that has led the Prime Minister to announce today that, through our lifetime skills guarantee, we will upgrade further education colleges across the country with huge capital investment. We will expand the apprenticeship offer, we will fund valuable free technical courses for adults equivalent to A-level, and we will extend our digital boot camps. We will expand and transform the funding system so that it is as easy for a student to get a loan for a higher technical course as for a university degree. The Government will give everyone a flexible, lifelong loan entitlement to four years of post-18 education, so that adults will able to retrain with high-level technical courses instead of being trapped in unemployment.
At the beginning of September, we saw the successful reopening of our schools and colleges. Universities have been working just as hard to make campuses as safe as possible, including through enhanced cleaning measures, social distancing on campuses and changes to timetables to stagger and manage attendance on site. We have now seen the new intake of first-year students who are beginning a new chapter in their lives at university, together with those who are returning to carry on their studies. I know that this will not be the start that any of them would have wanted or expected, and I would just like to say that I am pleased to see that universities and students have followed the guidance in a responsible way, putting themselves, their friends and the local community in a safe place and out of harm’s way.
Students, as well as the wider community, accept that when we are living in a global pandemic we have to operate in a society with restrictions, but I do not believe we should look to inflict stricter measures on students or expect higher standards of behaviour from them than we would from any other section of society; there must be a parity. The decision to keep universities open and all our students learning has been a result of an enormous team effort throughout the university and higher education sector. We have drawn on the expertise of the HE taskforce that we set up, and we have been providing robust public health advice and regular updates to the sector to help it to plan carefully to keep students and staff as safe as possible. As with all our education settings, we will continue monitoring the situation closely and will follow the latest scientific advice, adapting policies as the situation changes
I know there has been some anxiety about the impact safety measures will have on the Christmas holidays. Students are important members of the communities they choose to study in. We expect them to follow the same guidance as those local communities. We will work with universities to make sure that all students are supported to return home safely and spend Christmas with their loved ones if they choose to do so. It is essential that we put in place measures to ensure that that can happen, while minimising the risk of transmission. Where there are specific circumstances that warrant it, there may be a requirement for some students to self-isolate at the end of term, and we will be working with the sector to ensure that will be possible, including by ending in-person learning early if that is deemed to be necessary. My Department will publish this guidance shortly, so that every student will be able to spend Christmas with their family.
Where students choose to stay in their university accommodation over Christmas, universities should continue making sure that they are safe and well looked after. Of course, it is inevitable there will be cases of covid occurring in universities, just as there are in our wider communities and the constituencies we represent, but we believe that universities are very well-prepared to handle any outbreaks as they arise, and we have been working with the sector and Public Health England to make sure that they have every support and assistance they need should this happen. I have been impressed by the steps that our universities have been taking, working hand in glove with local authorities and local public health teams to safeguard students and staff. All our universities have local outbreak plans, and all of those have been discussed with local directors of public health.
It is essential that we continue to allow our students to have face-to-face teaching wherever possible, as part of a blended learning approach. I have heard the Opposition call for all learning to move online. Although online learning is a highly effective part of the learning experience, many courses, including medicine and dentistry, as well as the creative arts, require a face-to-face element. That is why our guidance, published on 11 September, set out a tiered approach in higher education.[Official Report, 30 September 2020, Vol. 681, c. 6MC.] Tiers enable a balance of face-to-face and online learning within the context of the covid risk, and will operate alongside local restrictions that are placed on the wider community in the area that the university is in.
I would now like to mention the latest position regarding testing for students. We have been working with the Department of Health and Social Care to make sure that the testing capacity is sufficient and appropriate for universities, and I am sure the House will be aware that the Department has now launched the NHS covid-19 app. The Department continues to make more testing available, and the vast majority of people can get a test locally. The Department is also increasing the number of local testing sites and laboratories, adding new Lighthouse laboratories in Newport and Charnwood to the national lab network, as well as additional walk-in centres being planned. While we know that testing capacity is the highest it has ever been, we are still seeing a significant demand for tests. It is vital that staff and students at universities, like any other member of society, get a test only if they develop coronavirus symptoms or if advised to do so by a clinician or a public health official.
I am aware that going to university can be a stressful time for some students, many of whom will be living away from their family and friends for the first time in their lives. This year will undoubtedly see added pressures because of disruption and uncertainty caused by the global pandemic, and we must be mindful of how that will affect the mental health and wellbeing of students. Many universities have bolstered existing mental health services and offer alternatives to face-to-face consultations. Once again, I would like to thank staff at universities and colleges who have responded so quickly and creatively to the need to transform those essential services.
We have asked universities to provide additional help and practical support to students as well, and I am pleased to say that universities are making sure students who are isolating are properly cared for and can access food and medical and cleaning supplies if needed. Student accommodation and support services will be a vital resource if any student has to isolate and for students generally during the whole period of the pandemic. As well as providing support for those in halls of residence, universities will make sure that students who live in houses in multiple occupation away from campus will still have access to advice and support if they need it. Universities are also able to call on £256 million provided by the Government for hardship funding for students who have to isolate.
The Government have taken a conscious decision to prioritise education. We know how fundamental a good education is to opportunity, to aspiration and to social mobility.
That is why we opened schools, and why over 99.8% of schools are now open, delivering education to our children. Delivering education and the opportunity to go to university is equally important for those youngsters who have left college or school as well. We will never be in a position where we can eliminate all risk, but we will not condemn a generation of young people by asking them to put their lives on hold for months or years ahead. We believe that universities are very well prepared to handle any outbreaks as they arise. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it. I am glad that, after a decade of slashing funding for further education, the Conservatives have recognised that this is an important sector for life chances and for our economy. I would like to work constructively with the Government to get this right, but their continued reliance on loans to fund education and the fact that the funding will not come on stream for many more months as we head for an unemployment crisis, are deeply concerning.
The situation as students return to university is desperately worrying. Across the country, many find themselves in isolated and cramped accommodation, parents are worried about their well-being and safety, and university staff who have worked so hard over the summer to prepare are anxious and angry that the Government did not keep their part of the bargain. They have all been let down by the Government, just as they let down many of the same students with their handling of exam results last month.
What students, staff and their families need now is reassurance. Nineteen days ago—the last time the Secretary of State commented on the situation at universities—he stressed the importance of delivering clear messages to students, and I hope he will use the opportunity of answering my questions today to do that.
Everybody knew that the return of students to universities would present significant challenges—SAGE warned of the impact weeks ago. What planning was put in place over the summer to ensure students would be able to return safely? Universities have stressed the importance of being able to work closely with local public health teams, so why did it take the Secretary of State and the Health Secretary until last Wednesday to write to local directors of public health about the return of university students?
What is the Secretary of State’s message to those students who have not yet moved to campus? They need clarity, should they do so. What urgent steps is he taking to ensure that every student can get the best possible education, whether they are at home or on campus? How many students are currently unable to learn remotely because of a lack of digital access or devices, and what is he doing to address that? What extra support will be given to students with special educational needs and disabilities? He is right that some courses require face-to-face teaching, but has he considered supporting universities to move all teaching online, where this is possible, at least for this first term?
For weeks now, Labour has warned the Government that they must get a grip on testing and tracing if we are to reduce the spread of the virus, and the failure to do so lies at the root of this situation. Sorting it must be the Government’s top priority. In his statement, the Secretary of State said that only those with symptoms should try to get a test. That will leave many without symptoms in self-isolation in difficult circumstances. Can he tell us how many students, staff and members of the community around universities have symptoms but are waiting for a test? What is the local testing capacity in each community with a university, and is he confident that it will be sufficient if there is a spike cases? Some universities have taken the lead where the Government have failed, and have begun to develop their own testing capacity. What support is the Secretary of State offering those institutions and others that wish to do this?
We cannot forget that, at the heart of this crisis, are thousands of young people—many away from home for the first time, and many now isolated with a group of people who are practically strangers. We can only imagine how hard it is for them. The Secretary of State said he has asked universities to provide additional help, but beyond asking, what will his Department do to help them? I am glad he has listened to Labour and finally given a straight answer on reuniting students and their families over Christmas, but why did it take several days and repeated contradictions from his ministerial colleagues?
In conclusion, the crisis now threatening our universities was predictable, and it was predicted. Today, the Secretary of State failed to outline a plan to get testing fit for purpose, failed to commit that every student who needs access to remote learning will get it, and had no plan to ensure the future of our universities. If he does not get a grip, the situation we have seen in recent days could repeat itself across the country. Students will be unable to continue their studies, families will be concerned for their wellbeing and universities will face serious financial difficulties—and the Secretary of State will once again have let young people down as a result of his incompetence.
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. I am glad she welcomes the announcements on further education. The changes we want to drive in further education are absolutely vital to ensure that our country is in the right place to seize new opportunities now that we have exited the European Union and to make sure our youngsters, and people of all ages, have the skills they need to drive productivity in this country and ensure that they get the very most out of their lives.
The hon. Lady mentioned the advice from SAGE. Understandably, we wanted to update the advice we had issued on 2 July on the return of universities and higher education institutions following the conclusions of SAGE, which we did. That took into account the issues that SAGE had raised and some of the suggestions that it had put forward. SAGE also warned about the impact of youngsters not going to university and of having the opportunity to return taken away from them. That was recognised across all four nations of the United Kingdom—how important it is for youngsters to be able to go to study at university.
The hon. Lady raises an important point about digital access. I am sorry that she missed the announcement that we have made £100 million available for universities to use to ensure that youngsters have digital access, including students from the most deprived backgrounds, who would perhaps not be in a position to access courses. It is vital that if we are in a situation where people will have blended learning, all students are able to access it. We are taking seriously some of the challenges that all students and universities will face, which is why we have made £256 million available to make sure that where students are facing real hardship, universities can access funding to help them.
I thank the Minister for Universities, my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), who has been in regular touch with universities over the last few days. A small number of universities have seen a number of coronavirus cases—it is not uncommon in communities across the country. She has been in touch with them to make sure that they know we are there to support them and give them any help that is required. We must not forget, however, that hundreds of thousands —almost a million—students have safely returned to university over the last few weeks. They will start their studies and benefit from a brilliant, world-class university education.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that a proportionate response means that students have a right to their course and to face-to-face education? All of us, including older people such as myself, must take personal responsibility. We cannot destroy the life chances of the young. If someone is doing a history degree, they cannot be condemned to permanent online teaching. They might as well sit at home; why have they paid all that money? Will he confirm that, of course, students must self-isolate if they get ill, but we cannot have whole halls of residence being locked down? That is not the sort of university that we all want—a place of light and learning, not enforced lockdowns.
We expect students to follow the same rules as we ask everyone in society to follow. Those who have tested positive for covid or have been in close contact with someone who has would understandably be asked to self-isolate. Universities are working closely with local public health teams to ensure that that happens. We always want to ensure that there is a sensible and proportionate response to ensure that students are able to go about their business and continue their learning online and, importantly, face to face.
I start by declaring an interest: my son is currently at university having to deal with online lessons and my husband teaches in a university.
Unfortunately, covid is only one of the challenges facing universities, with a hard Brexit fast approaching. I start by joining the Secretary of State in praising the steps that universities have put in place to keep staff and students safe through blended and online lessons and mental health support. I hope he will join me in recognising the support that has been given by individual universities such as Glasgow, which will refund one month’s rent for any student having to self-isolate in halls, and Dundee University, which is offering free accommodation to international students who have to quarantine. Students and young people should not be blamed for the rise in cases. The vast majority are complying entirely with the guidance.
While Scottish students attend university in Scotland for free and therefore are not financially impacted by fees, students in England will pay over £9,000 for a mostly online education. This is clearly the time to reflect on the fee-paying structure of higher education and consider following Scotland’s example of free higher education for all. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Cabinet colleagues on reducing fees and increasing Government funding to universities? We know that there have been issues in accessing tests in England, and that can be more acute for students, who may not have the ability to travel to testing centres. What steps is he taking to set up on-campus tests for students?
Finally, in the Science and Technology Committee earlier this month, the principal of Glasgow University, Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, described the R&D road map published by the Government in July as a “very high-level document” that
“needs to be turned into a definitive plan very quickly”,
with clarity given on the Government’s exact plans for investment. Could the Secretary of State set out when details of the road map will be released?
I thank the hon. Lady for her many comments. I know that both the University of Glasgow and Glasgow Caledonian, which neighbour her constituency, have been doing an awful lot of work in welcoming students from all four parts of the United Kingdom. That demonstrates how important the United Kingdom is for all universities to succeed, in terms of collaboration.
I thank the hon. Lady for putting forward policy suggestions for future Conservative party manifestos. We want to ensure that universities are properly funded, so that they are able to have world-class facilities that can beat other universities anywhere in the world. Universities in Scotland also benefit from the UK finance system, as do Scottish students. In terms of test and trace, we continue to work—
I apologise, Mr Speaker. I spent so long with the SNP Chief Whip when we were Chief Whips together that I naturally gravitate to him and have a lovely conversation with him. Old habits die hard, but I will ignore the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady).
In our work with universities, we recognise that we are dealing with a fluid situation. We are working with the test and trace system to ensure that there is availability for all students to access testing at universities, close to their residence.
I know that locally, Keele University and Staffordshire University have been working extremely hard during the pandemic to support students. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, despite the challenges we face, everything possible must be done to ensure that students get as enriching an experience as possible this year?
I pay tribute to those two great universities from Staffordshire, the University of Staffordshire and the University of Keele, for all they have done to give a warm welcome to all students and ensure that they can progress their life chances and have the opportunity to learn. We want all youngsters in all four nations of the United Kingdom to have that opportunity.
What we have seen this week in two halls of residence in my constituency sums up everything that the Government are getting wrong in handling this crisis: no planning over the summer and no foresight, even though it was obvious that halls of residence would be the main area of risk; confused messages that even the Secretary of State’s own Ministers cannot keep track of, let alone 18-year-olds arriving in our city from different parts of the country; and a woeful lack of quick testing, which could have helped us to avoid this situation. When will his Government get a grip, especially of the testing regime, so that others do not have to face restrictions because he has lost control?
The hon. Lady is probably aware that we are doing more tests a day than ever before: 225,000 tests every single day. We are increasing the testing capacity to 500,000 by the end of next month. We recognise that this has to be targeted in areas of high need, such as the areas the hon. Lady has highlighted, but we will be asking—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady is going to ask questions, she may want to have the opportunity to hear the answers.
We are asking students, where they get tested and there is a positive test, to self-isolate and, as in the wider community, that the immediate contacts also self-isolate. However, we do recognise how important it is for universities to be able to provide support for those youngsters—I touched on this in my statement—with food and cleaning products, and other support that may be available. My hon. Friend the Universities Minister spoke to the vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan just yesterday, making clear our offer of support—we are there, standing behind universities and helping them to support their students—which is so critical. I know that is a view both the hon. Lady and I share.
One of the things that has worried a lot of university students is the idea that, if they either test positive or are a contact of someone who tests positive, they might have to self-isolate, even over Christmas, in their university accommodation, and I am glad the Secretary of State confirmed that we will treat university students like everyone else. The regulations yesterday confirm that people can self-isolate not just at their own home, but at the home of a friend or family member, so someone could return to a family home if that was appropriate. To reassure university students, can he confirm that they will be able to do that and will not be trapped in their university accommodation for the period of self-isolation?
We are very conscious that a lot of students—most students—will not want to be in university accommodation over the Christmas period. We will be setting out quite clearly how that will be avoided, so any students who do not want to be in that position will be able to be at home with their loved ones. We will make sure that all students who want to return home are able to do so.
There are lots of very worrying reports that young people are scared, confused, isolated and vulnerable to mental ill health, so could the Secretary of State please confirm on what date specifically he knew that some universities were planning to put groups of students in quarantine and on what date specifically he first discussed asking them to put measures in place so that every student had access to mental health support?
The work on mental health support started right at the start of this covid crisis. We made sure that we put in place measures to support students and to put the whole education community at the heart of what we do, recognising the importance of dealing with mental health issues. If we look back at the guidance issued on 2 July and the guidance issued on 11 September, we can see that there was always a recognition that people who tested positive for covid would need to self-isolate. Those people who have been in close contact with those who test positive—not dissimilar to what we would see in workplaces and other educational settings—would also have to isolate as a result.
Following on from that, for many young people, even in a normal year, this is a difficult time of transition—moving to independent study and living, managing finances, meeting new people, and all in unfamiliar surroundings—and a lot of great work is done by universities and the likes of Student Minds, for example. Could my right hon. Friend say a little bit more about the support that is available, and about how it is being stepped up in universities and can be stepped up to fully support our young people?
An amazing amount of work is done by every single university, but there has also been a recognition by the Office for Students that there may be gaps. That is why the Office for Students has stepped in to ensure that where students find that there is not that type of provision, something is provided for them, so that no student is in a position of not being supported. It is incredibly important that all students understand that support is available to them for them to be able to enjoy their time at university and succeed in their studies.
The climate of fear deliberately created by Ministers and their advisers has done untold damage to individuals and to the economy as a whole, and has now hit students and universities, with lock-ups of students and students being denied face-to-face education and unable to engage in the activities we normally associate with student life. Yet they are expected to pay the full price for this substandard opportunity in higher education. Does the Secretary of State think it is fair that universities still hold on to the money paid by students when they are not offering the student experience that they promised? Will he clarify whether the direction that students can go home at Christmas was a result of Government guidance or a decision by universities themselves?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, it was guidance issued by Government and a decision of Government, because obviously any actions that are taken have to be taken in the context of dealing with covid right across the United Kingdom. I am sure that he will have taken the time to read the guidance that we issued on 11 September and studied it in detail. He will have seen the four tiers that we set out to ensure that students benefit from the maximum amount of learning face to face with their lecturers so that every student gets the very best experience that can be made available to them in all universities in England.
It is right that we are keeping universities such as the University of Bolton open. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give that efforts are being made, first, to stymie perpetually enforced self-isolation within the student community, and secondly, to ward off financial ruin caused by unsubstantiated scaremongering on things such as closing down Christmas for students?
I pay tribute to the University of Bolton for all the work that it has been doing in order to be able to welcome back its many thousands of students. The University of Bolton plays an important role in providing education not just for students who have travelled internationally and across the country but locally for many young people. We will continue to work with the University of Bolton to ensure that people understand how the rules are applied. We need to make sure that people understand who needs to isolate and how long they should be isolating for, but equally, they need to understand that many young people can go about their normal business while observing the restrictions and courtesies that we ask all universities and all people within society to observe.
As I mentioned, we continue to work with the Department of Health and Social Care and with Test and Trace to expand the footprint of testing facilities, which are going to be increased to 500. We are making sure that all universities are within walking distance of a testing centre. Many universities will be making some of their facilities available so that testing centres can be placed there. We have also had assurances from the Department of Health and Social Care in terms of mobile testing facilities that will be made available if there are any local outbreaks and that is required.
Surely the right approach is that, despite the virus, we all have to get on with our lives as best we can, and that includes students. Does my right hon. Friend agree that starting the academic year on time was exactly the right decision, and that social distancing and isolation rules that apply to the rest of us need to apply to adult students, no more, no less?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There should be the same set of rules across the board. There is a real cost to not opening up our universities, as there is a cost to not opening up our schools. The cost is not in money: it is in the missed opportunities for those youngsters who want to study to be a doctor, a dentist, a nurse or a teacher, or to train to become an engineer. Denying them the opportunity to be able to return, to learn and to have the opportunities that so many in this House have had would do them an injustice. That is why it has been right to make sure that young people are able to go back to university and benefit from what so many Members in this House have also benefited from.
First-year students have already had to endure the Government’s chaotic handling of A-level results and now the predictable campus outbreaks, but without sufficient testing or support in place, and the very distressing threat to them and their worried parents that they might not be able to return for Christmas. Will the Secretary of State clarify the point in his statement where he talks about ending learning early? Is he proposing now that all students should have to self-isolate at the end of term, so that they can return safely for Christmas? If so, why not, instead, pursue mass testing with universities so that those students can safely go about their lives and return safely home?
The right hon. Lady obviously listened to only a part of the statement. I said that all youngsters who want to be able to return home will be able to do so. We will look at where there are specific cases. She will be fully aware that many universities end at different times for Christmas, but, where there are specific cases and specific local circumstances, we will be working with the university sector to look at shifting to online learning solely to be able to ensure that all students have the benefit of being able to return home to be with their families for Christmas. We envisage that that will cover only a very small number of universities.
I am glad the Secretary of State has confirmed that face-to-face learning will continue where possible, but in some cases students will be paying full fees for what are now only online courses. The financial burden must be shared with universities, so can he ask the Office for Students to confirm, and strongly advise, that university bonuses should not be paid out unless fees are lowered?
My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. We have had an issue of excessive vice-chancellor pay and bonuses for quite a long time. I will be asking the Office for Students to look at this and give very strong and clear steers on this matter to ensure that no bonuses are going out as a result of this crisis.
I declare an interest: my son has started university in the past week or so. He has not had to self-isolate yet, but a lot of his friends have and I will tell the Secretary of State what they are saying. They are saying that this is exactly the same as the A-level debacle. It was completely predictable and completely avoidable. They have lost confidence in the Secretary of State being able to deliver a safe education. What can he say to them to ensure that, moving forward, they can have confidence that this pattern will not be repeated for the next six months?
I very much hope that the hon. Member’s son is enjoying his time at university and the opportunities that it will open up. We have always been clear that, if youngsters contract covid, they will have to self-isolate. We have also been clear that, where students have been in close contact with people who have covid, they will also have to self-isolate. Those are the rules that we expect everyone right across the country to abide by, so it is right that we also expect that of students. What he would see, if he had taken the time to read the guidance that we issued both on 2 July and the 11 September and the additional work and support made available to universities, is that we recognised that there were going to be challenges as a result of this. That is why we have worked with the university sector and asked it to reduce the risk as much as possible, so that young people are able to have the benefits of university and their learning is not impacted by covid—or the impact is minimised.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Education is essential for opportunity and social mobility. The role of further education colleges is absolutely vital, as I am sure he will endorse. Does he agree that it is right to prioritise education by keeping schools, colleges and universities open, and that we cannot ask young people put their lives on hold for months?
As someone who has worked in the FE sector and feels so passionately about it and about the opportunities that not just further education but higher education and all schools provide all our youngsters, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right to advocate the importance of opening not just our universities but our schools and colleges at the earliest opportunity. Let us not forget that when we suggested opening schools on 1 June, the Labour party opposed that. When we issued guidance on 2 July to see the full opening of all schools in September, the Labour party opposed that. The Labour party does not come forward with positive suggestions; it just tries to politicise a global pandemic, in the words of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green).
The Secretary of State presided over the GCSE and A-level fiasco over the summer. That was a dog’s breakfast, and now he is not able to guarantee students testing when they need it. The World Health Organisation has called for testing since March, yet this Government have shown nothing but incompetence. Can the Secretary of State give a straight answer and guarantee that every student who needs a test will get it, instead of this fiasco that he presided over right through the summer? He has failed to prepare and plan. He needs to do his job.
The hon. Lady is probably aware that in order to be able to access testing, someone has to be symptomatic. That is where the testing is most likely to produce the most accurate results. Those guidelines are produced by the Department of Health and Social Care, and I would be very happy for my office to forward them on so she can better understand them.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and also the Prime Minister’s statement today. Training and retraining have never been more important than in our now rapidly changing economy. But with parents worried about the cost of university accommodation—they often act as guarantors—and students worried about the heavy debt they will have to repay after university, as well as the paucity or even trauma of their university experience due to lockdown, will my right hon. Friend champion two-year degree courses, such as those offered by our own excellent Buckingham University, which ensure academic excellence and achievement at a much lower cost to students and families?
The pioneering work that has been undertaken by the University of Buckingham and its vice-chancellor, the brilliant Sir Anthony Seldon, who has done so much for education in this country, is something to behold and something that I would like to see more universities copy. We need to ensure that young people understand that there is not only one option available to them at the age of 18, that going to university is not the only way to succeed. There are so many opportunities, including pursuing an apprenticeship or even a degree apprenticeship, or going on to one of our brilliant further education colleges. Expanding the breadth of that choice is one of the key missions of this party. We recognise that that is how we will level up opportunity for all youngsters in this country.
In April, a report commissioned by the University and College Union on the impact of the covid pandemic found that universities were facing a funding black hole of £2.5 billion in 2020-21, and students still graduate with average debt in excess of £50,000. Calls for an urgent sector-wide funding guarantee have fallen on deaf ears, and we now face the covid crisis in the university sector, putting lives at risk. This was avoidable. Will the Secretary of State now listen and act on the advice of experts by making online learning accessible to all, enabling students to go home without fear of financial penalty, and providing the sector and students with proper funding?
The hon. Lady is maybe not aware that we have taken a number of actions to support the sector, including changes and improvements in research funding, making sure that we continue to protect the vital scientific research base in which we are truly a world leader; the actions that we took before the summer to bring stability to the sector; and working with Universities UK to ensure that the profiling of money to universities works best for them and gives them stability to be able to provide for young people, not just in England but hopefully also with benefits in Wales.
I would like to thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for Universities, my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), for their work on getting students back to university as soon as possible. It is very important that students are able to continue their studies with as little disruption as possible, and the university is the largest employer in Loughborough. I would therefore welcome the Ministers’ comments on the steps being taken to ensure that students can now safely remain on campus for the duration of their courses.
I know the wonderful work that the University of Loughborough has been undertaking, and the fact that it is in The Times’ guide to the top 10 universities in the United Kingdom is testament to the amazing work that it is undertaking. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that students want to go to university to get the most out of the experience at university, and that is why the unprecedented measures that our universities have taken to create a safe and secure environment, so that students can benefit from being at university all the way through the year, are so important. We will continue to work with universities such as Loughborough to provide that to all students.
The Secretary of State said in his statement that face-to-face teaching should continue wherever possible within the context of covid risk and local restrictions. Should the local context or restrictions require a university to move teaching online completely, however, will the Government ensure that neither the university nor its students will be punished financially for doing the right thing?
We continue to work with the sector to ensure that there is the very best quality of teaching. If youngsters have an issue with the quality of teaching, the Office for Students has made it absolutely clear that it will investigate this and take action where it is required against universities that are not delivering what is in their contract with the students.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Our fiercely independent universities are rapidly adapting to this new way of operating so that thousands of young people who have been hard hit by coronavirus can get on with their lives after six months of the pandemic, and I think they deserve all our support. However, many of those students might have planned to use the summer months to earn money to support themselves through university or, indeed, they might have been looking for part-time work while they were studying as a way of ensuring that they could support themselves through these important years of their lives. I am interested to hear from my right hon. Friend what additional work the universities will be doing to ensure that those students who are working hard will be able to get the support they need if they hit financial hardship.
Quite rightly, both this Government and the previous Labour Government put a really high value on ensuring that students who started their studies were able to complete them. The ways in which universities ensure that that happens is something that we monitor closely. We have worked with the Office for Students to ensure that hardship funding is available. That is part of a quarter of a billion pound package that was made available to universities so that proper assessments could be made of students if they required that support. The Student Loans Company also offers a system whereby extra maintenance support can be made available through individual assessment if a student chooses to go down that route.
While people can pin the exam results fiasco on the Education Secretary, they certainly cannot blame him for the shambolic privatised test and trace system, which is being personally led by the Prime Minister, his chief adviser and the Health Secretary, and which has put the lives of our young people and their families at risk. Given that many of us fear an increased university drop-out rate among students, along with increased stress and mental health issues, can the Secretary of State promise that every student will have access to tests so that they can travel home safely, especially for Christmas?
As we have made clear, we want to ensure that all students who wish to do so can return home safely for Christmas. We and the university sector are confident that the best way of keeping students and young people engaged in their studies is for them to be part of the university community; that is an important step towards ensuring that we do not see high drop-out rates. As I have said, both the hon. Gentleman’s party and my own have always put a great emphasis on the need to ensure that youngsters complete their studies, to ensure that they get something incredibly important from the investment that they make, because this will stand them in good stead to achieve the very best in life. We will continue to work with the sector to give young people the support that is required in these times that are much more challenging than any of us thought we would ever have to face.
We are rightly proud that the UK attracts so many international students who come to our country every year to study. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what steps his Department is taking to support those students during these unprecedented times?
We have been working closely with the whole university sector to reach out to nations right across the world to make them understand not only that we have the best universities in the world and so many of the best research and teaching universities, but that we offer a brilliant lived experience of being here in the United Kingdom and the opportunity of post-study visas, which are incredibly important. We have also been working with the Home Office to ensure that visa applications are done well and quickly, and ensuring that we have a campaign reaching out to those nations to make sure that youngsters there understand that this is a great country to study in.
As the Secretary of State said, most university courses this academic year will now involve a blend of online and face-to-face teaching, but it is clear that those proportions might change in response to circumstances. An informal survey conducted by Disabled Students UK shows that changing learning set-ups can cause anxiety and fatigue. Many disabled students also experience issues with pre-existing conditions flaring up when they are adjusting to a new study environment, and excessive screen time can be problematic for people with some conditions. Disabled students and those with chronic conditions might also be more fearful of attending in-person classes. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that every student has the equipment and support they need to learn remotely and that the needs of disabled students are not an afterthought?
The hon. Lady rightly raises an important point, and under equalities legislation there is a duty on universities to ensure that there is proper and fair provision for all students. That is what we would expect from all universities. I wonder whether she would be kind enough to share with me the details of the survey. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities would very much like to follow this up in a meeting with her to discuss it in more detail. As we have touched upon in terms of the availability of devices and the £100 million fund, I certainly hope that youngsters who are suffering with disability would be a top priority for any university, but I look forward to my hon. Friend taking this further in discussions with the hon. Lady and hopefully offering her full and total reassurance on that matter.
Much has been made of the short-term impact on students and on universities, but there is a long-term impact too, and we have known for a while that for increasing numbers of university students the graduate outcomes are not great. This health crisis is only going to exacerbate that problem, so will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to examine the choices that we are offering to young people as they leave school and what the proper role for universities in our education system might be?
My hon. Friend knows very well that, while I am a passionate advocate for universities, I cannot help feeling that we must never ignore the great opportunities that are offered through our further education colleges and through apprenticeship routes. For far too long, this area has been ignored. We need to see changes, we need to see improvement and we have to make sure young people realise that sometimes these opportunities are as good as, and in some cases much better than, going to university. That is what we are looking at delivering and what we are going to deliver as part of this Government’s agenda.
The blame for the coronavirus outbreak on campuses lies squarely with the Government’s decision to ignore their own evidence warning that face-to-face teaching and halls of residence were areas of risk. Independent SAGE has called for all teaching to be moved online, as has the University and College Union, the staff union. By choosing not to do so, are the Government not putting student and staff safety at risk simply to uphold a broken university model, as they fear that online teaching would lead to demands for fee or rent refunds?
Schools, further education colleges and universities in and around my constituency are doing all they can to get great, positive educational outcomes for the young people they are looking after in these difficult times. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will be devoting 100% of his efforts to the education of Britain’s children and young people, rather than seeing the global coronavirus pandemic as a “good crisis” and an opportunity to score political points, which is, sadly, the stated position of the Opposition Front Bencher?
I certainly know that my hon. Friend is putting 100% into representing his constituents in North West Durham and making sure their voice is heard in this Chamber, including on driving changes and improvement to Derwentside College to make sure that youngsters get the very best opportunity, as, far too often, it had been neglected in the past. He is absolutely right to say that Government Members are 100% committed to making sure young people get the very best in education, as against constantly taking the line of trade unions and trying to find excuses not to do things.