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Topical Questions

Volume 681: debated on Tuesday 29 September 2020

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?

The best thing we can do to continue to keep the hospitality sector open is to ensure that we get the virus and the infections under control, and that is precisely what we are doing with the proportionate measures that the Government are taking.

I was extremely pleased recently to welcome the Secretary of State for International Trade to Truro and Falmouth, where she was able to look at the globally significant lithium grades in geothermal waters in my constituency. Will the Minister ensure that the Government continue their part funding of this United Downs project to help it to continue its important steps towards the commercial production of lithium in Cornwall? (906825)

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.

Order. I have had this each day. I do not mind the shadow Minister asking questions, but the idea of topical questions is that they are short and punchy, not big, long statements and questions. Please can we have a quick question?

I think the hon. Lady is making reference to the UN global navigation satellite systems programme. It is not being closed; due to the importance of the Government’s ambitions for the space sector, the programme is being reset and its remit widened.

With around 70,000 jobs reliant on manufacturing in the Black Country, now is an opportune time to review the Black Country industrial strategy. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend confirmed a refresh of that industrial strategy. Will he meet me to discuss how we can leverage industrial and manufacturing capacity in the Black Country to restart that industrial revolution? (906827)

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.

Sanquhar in my constituency has the world’s oldest post office, and that title derives from the fact that the post office has been on the same site for 300 years. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, along with the Post Office, he will take every opportunity to keep a post office on that site? (906828)

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.

The Chancellor claims that certain businesses and jobs are no longer viable—he says “unviable”. Will the Minister explain how the Government can support people sitting on packed aeroplanes for three and a half hours, but will not support restaurants and cafes in Warwick and Leamington, and across the country, or cinemas and bars, where people may be sitting at the same density? (906829)

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.

What advice does the Secretary of State offer to people in Kettering and across the country who are struggling to pay essential bills as a result of the pandemic? (906830)

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.

Significant economic activity is ready to be unlocked by the Horden housing masterplan being developed by Durham County Council. The scheme ticks all the boxes: it will benefit small businesses and the green economy, improve housing, and support the Government’s levelling-up and build back better agenda. Will the Minister support that plan, and help to bring much-needed investment to my constituency? (906831)

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 north of England, and in particular Bury, has the potential to become a hub for start-ups, research and development, and innovation. That should also be utilised in the fight against coronavirus and the Government’s efforts to secure a vaccine that will end the pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Vaccine Taskforce relies on the strength of the whole UK, by distributing manufacturing capacity across the country? (906833)

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.

Of the Government’s planned six nuclear sites, so far we have the most expensive plan in the world at Hinkley, Toshiba has walked away from Moorside, and now Hitachi is giving up on Wylfa and Oldbury. Instead of relying on a Chinese state company to deliver the remining two nuclear sites, is it time for the Government to follow the private sector and ditch that outdated technology? (906832)

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.

Harrogate and Knaresborough has a large conference and events industry, mainly driven by the Harrogate convention centre, which is now a Nightingale hospital. I have raised the industry’s specific challenges with Ministers already, but I understand that my right hon. Friend has been having discussions with the sector directly. Will he update the House on those discussions, and will he meet me to discuss the specific challenges for the industry in my constituency? (906834)

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.

The Government must make a just transition to a lower- carbon economy and, in doing so, create green jobs. Will the Minister outline the number of green jobs created since he has been in post, and specifically which green technologies and industries can expect investment from the Government over the next year?

We currently have close to half a million green jobs in this country. We want to create another 2 million. The hon. Lady will also know that the Chancellor announced the green homes grant package, which will support more than 100,000 green jobs.

Last week, I spoke with my constituent David Bevan, who runs Alive Network, the UK’s largest live entertainment booking agency. He and I acknowledge that he has already had an awful lot of support from the Government, through grants, furlough, bounce back loans, VAT deferral and so on. Times are tough at the moment, but he expects things to be busier than ever when we get to the other side. What more can my right hon. Friend’s Department do to help David’s business get to the other side? (906835)

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.

Last week, the Prime Minister announced that the UK would come forward with what he called a “very ambitious national contribution for COP26”.Can the Secretary of State confirm that that really means that the nationally determined contribution will be published this year and, crucially, that it will at the very least be aligned with 1.5° C? (906849)

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.

Heywood Magic Market in my constituency has been offering stalls for just £28 a week, enabling sole traders and the self-employed to find new, innovative ways of earning a living during the coronavirus pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the staff, the traders and the board of the Magic Market on their ingenuity and community spirit, and will he reiterate the Department’s long-standing commitment to small traders and entrepreneurs, who will be essential in rebuilding our post-covid economy? (906836)

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.

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.