Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
Self-employed People: Covid-19
The Government have so far provided £13.2 billion of support to self-employed people through the self-employment income support scheme, and that support continues. The UK’s self-employment scheme is among the most generous internationally.
According to the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed, the solo self-employed contributed an estimated £305 billion to the UK economy last year. So why have 1.6 million self-employed people been excluded from government support during the pandemic? What will the Minister do to address this failure of Government to recognise the huge contribution self-employed people make to the economy and to our communities?
As the hon. Lady will know, the self-employment scheme has been targeted at those who derive the majority of their income from self-employment. I hope she will welcome an extension of that scheme, which the Chancellor has announced. It will now last for a further six months, from November of this year to April 2021.
Following yesterday’s news about a covid vaccine, for the first time in a while it feels as though there may be an end in sight. If it becomes clear that a return to normality will be possible in the next few months, surely the only responsible approach is to expand support and adopt a true “whatever it takes” approach to help all businesses, including those currently excluded. So in the light of yesterday’s news, will the Secretary of State agree to work with the Treasury to review the economic support currently on offer?
One feature of the pandemic has been that we have indeed reviewed the support and provided further support where it is needed. As I said, we have extended the self-employment income support scheme, which means an extra £7.3 billion of support for the self-employed through November to January. Of course, we all hope that a vaccine comes forward, but the support is there, as well as support in terms of grants for businesses that are required to be closed.
The Secretary of State continues to duck the question. He has been told for about seven months of those excluded from support—the battered, bruised and brushed off. We are talking about the 3 million—the newly self-employed, the directors and the freelancers who have been given nothing. He is the Business Secretary, so is it that the Chancellor has ignored his calls for support or is it just that he simply does not care?
The hon. Gentleman knows me quite well and I think he will understand, at least in private, that I do very much care, as does every Member of this House. He talks about those who are not able to get access to this scheme, and, obviously, one issue relates to those who are paid in dividends. As he knows, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made the point that it is difficult to distinguish between income earned through an individual’s own company dividends and dividends that have been paid from holding shares in other companies. If the hon. Gentleman has suggestions as to how we might overcome this, I would be interested to work with him.
I want to thank those in the manufacturing sector for the brilliant work they are doing to support the economy and keep it going. Despite the national restrictions, the manufacturing and construction sectors can continue to operate and are doing so. Thus far, the manufacturing sector has benefited from about £5 billion of furlough grants and £4 billion of government-backed loans.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response. I wish to seek further assurances on behalf of my three local chambers of commerce—Hailsham, Crowborough and Uckfield. What further support can be provided for small and medium-sized manufacturing firms in my constituency, not only during covid, but during transition next year?
I know that my hon. Friend works closely with her three local chambers of commerce in Hailsham, Crowborough and Uckfield. On planning for transition, whatever our future trading relationship with the European Union things will change for businesses and they do need to prepare. My Department and my fellow Ministers and I have been communicating and engaging directly with businesses, and we will continue to do so.
Rolls-Royce is a very important manufacturer throughout the UK, not least in Derby, where it employs more than 12,000 people. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that whenever the Government help Rolls-Royce, all money spent will directly support the recovery of domestic civil aerospace manufacturing?
My hon. Friend is a great champion of workers in her constituency, and she and I have met to discuss these issues. She will know that the Government are supporting the aerospace and aviation sectors to the tune of almost £9 billion through loans and grants. Of course, we want that support to create a positive business environment and ensure that Rolls-Royce and, indeed, other companies in the sector base their work in the UK, sustaining well-paid local jobs for decades to come. As my hon. Friend will know, Rolls-Royce proposes to consolidate the assembly and testing of its large aero-engines from Singapore to Derby.
Many manufacturers, especially those in Stoke-on-Trent, face high energy costs, and there is little incentive to switch to cleaner electricity because of the higher cost. Will my right hon. Friend look at what additional support can be offered to energy-intensive industries so that our manufacturers remain competitive and can invest in improved efficiency?
My hon. Friend is a great champion of manufacturers in his constituency. As he will know, the Government are committed to helping businesses to reduce their costs through resource and energy efficiency. We have established a package of compensation exemptions from electricity costs worth more than £470 million, which will of course benefit businesses in energy-intensive sectors such as ceramics, which is a particularly important industry for Stoke-on-Trent.
One obvious way to help our manufacturers is with a green stimulus equal to the scale of the economic emergency that we face. President-elect Biden has pledged $2 trillion for such a stimulus; the French and German Governments have pledged tens of billions of euros; and Britain has pledged just £5 billion. Will the Secretary of State tell us when this Government are going to show the same scale of ambition—not in 10 years’ time but now—to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in this country?
The right hon. Gentleman may have been reading the Conservative party manifesto, because we have been clear that we have an ambition to create 2 million green jobs by 2030 and have already set out some of the measures, including £2 billion in green homes grants to support 100,000 green jobs. The Prime Minister has also announced that we will be boosting the Government’s target for offshore wind by 2030 from 30 GW to 40 GW, thereby bringing additional jobs to the sector. We will set out more plans over the coming weeks.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but the rhetoric does not match the reality. Look at what other countries, including France and Germany, are doing, and look at the scale of what we are doing. He mentions offshore wind; let us take that as an example. As he says, the Government want to see 40 GW of offshore wind by 2030, but to ensure that the jobs in manufacturing the turbines are created here, we need the ports and supply-chain investment. The amount that the Government have pledged—£160 million over 10 years—is woefully inadequate. What is the Secretary of State’s estimate of the public investment required to meet his own target that 60% of the content of the offshore wind industry should be British—a target he is missing badly? Will the Government now fund and support the scale of investment required?
We are making funding available to upgrade ports, as the right hon. Gentleman said. I hope he would acknowledge that, as a result of the Government’s work on contracts-for-difference auctions, we have the biggest offshore wind industry in the world, which has driven down prices significantly and made offshore wind viable. We will continue to work to support those jobs, and we are talking about tens of thousands of extra jobs in the sector by 2030.
Vaccine manufacturing for covid is being led by Ms Kate Bingham from the vaccine taskforce. Not only has she disclosed official sensitive documents to hedge-fund managers in the United States, but she has spent £670,000 of taxpayers’ money on private public relations advisers instead of using civil servants and is set to benefit financially from state investments. Ms Bingham should be sacked. If she is not sacked, who will be held to account for this gross conflict of interest and misuse of public funds? Will it be the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister?
I would point out that the vaccines taskforce, which sits in my Department and is led by Kate Bingham, has done an absolutely brilliant job over the past few months. We have managed to secure 350 million doses across six of the most promising vaccine candidates. The hon. Gentleman will have seen the statement that came through from Pfizer/BioNTech yesterday; we were the first country in the world to secure access to that particular vaccine candidate. The hon. Gentleman talks about spending; the senior responsible officer, in line with his delegated authority, approved that resourcing in accordance with public sector practices and frameworks.
Young Enterprise: Government Support
Young Enterprise does excellent work, engaging young people and providing valuable education in enterprise and financial skills. Ministerial colleagues recently met Young Enterprise to hear about its work and correspondence on this and have shared that information with education Ministers. If I may also add, the lessons that I learned when I did Young Enterprise in the sixth form, which was not so long ago, were invaluable.
As someone who did not go to university, who benefited greatly from Young Enterprise and who is from a rural area, I know full well how important the scheme is. How is the Minister helping young people in rural areas, such as in my constituency of West Dorset, and will she ensure that the development of non-cognitive skills in schools features in our industrial strategy?
Skills for adults and young people in rural areas, such as West Dorset, are absolutely invaluable. Towns and cities are an important part of supporting the future economy, and we are working with education colleagues to consider how Government support on skills will be an integral part of our strategy for growth.
Innovation and New Technologies
This Government are fully committed to unleashing innovation and supporting priority technologies. For example, combined public and private investment in the National Quantum Technologies Programme over its 10-year lifetime is set to pass the £1 billion mark. We are investing £750 million through Innovate UK to support innovative businesses through the pandemic and have also launched the future fund.
I welcome the Minister’s response. Does she agree more broadly with me that the UK should retain key technology assets where there is a national interest and that Arm Ltd’s capabilities in semiconductor and chip design, including processes for mobile phones, have national security implications? If she agrees, can she, her Department and the Government do more to protect the national interest in the proposed sale of Arm by SoftBank to Nvidia?
Arm is an important part of the UK tech sector and makes a significant contribution to the UK economy. Although acquisitions are primarily a commercial matter for the parties concerned, the Government monitor them closely. When a takeover may have a significant impact on the UK, we will not hesitate to investigate further and take action. We will be scrutinising the deal carefully to understand its impact on the UK.
Covid-19 Lockdown: Business Support
The Secretary of State works closely with the Chancellor, and I and my officials have had regular engagement with the Treasury. I recently met the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to discuss ongoing financial support.
We have announced additional cash grants and extensions to the job retention scheme and existing loan schemes.
Pubs and high street shops are particularly hard hit by losing pre-Christmas takings. The Minister will know that it is also the hospitality and retail sectors that are most at risk from accelerating automation, which will affect jobs. What will he do to work with those sectors on sector-specific plans to prevent the double whammy of covid and automation affecting jobs, so that our pubs and high street shops can be open?
The right hon. Lady raises a really important point. As well as having regular meetings with the hospitality and retail sectors about the immediate future, we also have the Retail Sector Council and the Hospitality Futures Group, an industry-led a group, which we participate in fully to make sure that we can address such long-term concerns.
Covid-19: Business Sectors
We know that many areas of the economy face challenges, as we have just heard, especially in sectors that have closed under new national restrictions, such as hospitality. That is why we have extended the coronavirus job retention scheme to March and provided an unprecedented support package to businesses and to workers.
Many working people have been excluded since March. They do not qualify for furlough; they do not qualify for the self-employed scheme; and their businesses do not qualify for the grants. It is no good the Government giving the mantra about universal credit. It will not wash, because most people who have been excluded do not qualify for universal credit. The Government were right to U-turn over the injustice facing hungry children, so when will they fix the growing injustice faced by millions of excluded people in this country who just want to put food on the table for their children?
The Government have put forward a comprehensive package of support, as we heard from the Secretary of State, for both individuals and businesses. The self-employed income support scheme has also been extended. The support package is not only about the welfare system, which has had an additional £9 billion put into it to help people, but about the bounce back loans, the tax deferrals and the rental support, which are all important parts of it, as well as mortgage holidays and other business support grants through local government.
Today’s unemployment figures are a sobering reminder of the scale and pace of the economic crisis now upon us. It is becoming increasingly clear that, despite the Government’s initial early action, their slowness and constant indecision are making the jobs crisis worse. Will they now get ahead of the curve, as France, Germany and Spain have done, not only to protect our key industries such as aerospace and automotive, but to bring forward an ambitious plan for their green renewal at a scale and pace to match the crisis? As we are seeing at Rolls-Royce and elsewhere, once decent jobs go, they are gone for good; and communities across the north and midlands can ill afford to lose them.
The hon. Lady makes an important point about the labour market statistics released this morning. The Government are committed to helping the most vulnerable, as was demonstrated with the £2 billion kickstart scheme for young people, who have in many ways been heavily impacted by the challenge of covid. She will see from this Government a green industrial strategy. As the Secretary of State has already set out—judge us by what we do—36% of the world’s offshore energy is produced by this country, and we will go much further.
Dismiss and Re-engage Tactics
Employers must have the flexibility to offer different terms and conditions. However, using threats about firing and rehiring as a negotiating tactic is unacceptable. The Government are working with ACAS to convene a roundtable of business organisations and employee representatives to discuss these issues.
Earlier this year, I joined workers and trade unions across Cardiff North to stand up to businesses behaving badly. People are struggling to grapple with the uncertainties of life under covid, yet some businesses are still using fire and rehire tactics to undermine pay and working conditions to line their own pockets. Will the Government stop the dithering and delay, outlaw these bad practices and protect workers’ rights?
I understand the enormous impact of losing a job, or even of a job being threatened. We expect all employers to treat employees fairly and respectfully, but businesses in real financial difficulty do need the flexibility to offer new terms and conditions to save as many jobs as they can.
Increasingly, rogue bosses such as British Airways, Centrica and ESS are using the covid crisis to cut pay and terms and conditions and are exploiting the legal loophole to fire and rehire loyal staff. With many workers now facing an impossible choice between losing pay or losing their job, will the Minister explain how these scandalous tactics can possibly be legal in the first place, and will he legislate to outlaw them—yes or no?
It is a commercial matter, but businesses do need flexibility with regard to terms and conditions—both for them and their employees—to protect jobs. We expect all employers to treat employees fairly and in the spirit of partnership. The very threat of fire and rehire is totally unacceptable, and we hope that all the businesses cited will reach a negotiated outcome with their employees.
I hope that the Minister will give a more open and clear response to my question. Heathrow airport is pushing staff to strike—a measure that garnered support in a ballot ending last week. Its behaviour now amounts to bullying. Staff are being summoned to meetings before the consultation is finished and without support. Will the Secretary of State say that this is wrong, condemn this behaviour and agree that this business has relied on the support of the community, who are owed something back in these troubled times?
I know how important Heathrow and the airlines sector is to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, which is why we put so much support into that sector. I come back to the fact that we expect all employers to treat employees fairly and respectfully, no matter what job, what position and what community they live in.
The hon. Gentleman is a Minister in government. He has repeatedly called this unacceptable. A number of his colleagues have called out companies such as British Airways that have shamefully used fire and rehire tactics. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury called it
“a practice that all of us in the House would condemn.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 168.]
The Prime Minister said that he was looking at what we can do. People are fed up with this Government’s warm words and no intention of action, so let us hear it today: does the Minister support the aims of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), and will he support it?
We will address and respond to the Bill when it comes before us. We have to reach the balance between protecting jobs and allowing employers who are in difficulty to have the necessary flexibility. We are one of the most flexible employment countries in the developed world, and we want to remain so, but we do want to make sure that businesses have their responsibilities and use those responsibilities wisely.
Surely the Minister must understand that fire and rehire tactics are not part of a negotiating tactic: they are a gun to the head of every worker in the organisation. It has nothing to do with negotiation: it says, “You will accept lower terms—otherwise we will chuck you out.” British Gas has recently become one of a number of large companies threatening their workforces in this way with this medieval tactic. I think the Minister must agree that it is not only a terrible way to reward the thousands of energy workers who have worked day and night to keep our energy supply constant and reliable during the covid crisis, but must be seen as a completely unacceptable way to conduct industrial negotiations. Will he join me in condemning the use of this practice and, specifically, write to British Gas demanding that it withdraw its threats to its employees?
In my first answer on this subject, I talked about the fact that we believe that making threats about firing and rehiring as a negotiating tactic is totally unacceptable. I hope that the situation with Centrica will be satisfactorily resolved both for employers and employees. However, it is important to retain the flexible labour markets where we remain 11th out of 140 countries with regard to the ease of hiring and, indeed, firing workers to make sure that we can protect important sectors across this country.
British Gas has put a halt on its fire and rehire plans, but only until the beginning of next year, and workers, many of whom are my constituents, are not optimistic. Centrica plc, British Gas’s parent company, reported profits of £900 million this year. Does the Minister agree that it is morally indefensible for workers to be expected to accept a reduction in their pay and conditions when shareholders still enjoy dividends, and if so, what steps will he take to ensure that workers are protected from these underhand tactics?
Retail Sector: Covid-19
I have regular discussions on the effect of covid-19 with a range of retail reps. Next month, I will co-chair a meeting of the Retail Sector Council. There has been unprecedented support, including within the £200 billion of Government support for the retail sector, but clearly we must work closely with it at all times.
Retail sector employment is a huge part of employment in my constituency of Blaydon, from huge centres like the Metrocentre to independent retailers across the whole constituency. With all but essential shops now closed for a second time, what further practical support are the Government giving to those businesses struggling to pay their rent, and their other bills, as a result of the covid crisis?
We have extended the moratorium until the end of the year and will continue to work with tenants. This week, I had a roundtable with a ministerial colleague in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. We will work with tenants and landlords to come up with a fair solution for retailers across this country to protect our high streets and our retail areas.
Covid-19: Support for Businesses
My Department continues to deliver a wide range of measures to support UK business. We have extended our loan schemes across the board, which have already delivered over £62 billion of finance, until the end of January, and the new local authority grants will also offer further support to businesses affected by the national restrictions.
I thank the Minister for his reply. During this second lockdown, many of us are likely to find comfort in reading. My constituent David Campbell, who runs Everyman’s Library, has written—with the backing of over 20 leading authors, including Salman Rushdie, Simon Jenkins and Sebastian Faulks—to the Prime Minister asking that books be considered an essential item for sale during the current restrictions. Does my hon. Friend agree that, to support small businesses during the covid-19 crisis, it would be preferable that local independent shops, which are based in the heart of their local communities and often employ local people, remain open and secure sales, rather than a global internet brand?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is a very difficult decision that we have grappled with. Independent bookshops are of great importance to local communities, with books playing a vital role in people’s mental health and wellbeing. The decision to close non-essential retail is part of a wider package of measures to make it clear that people should stay at home and accept this for a limited period of time. Of course, bookshops can offer delivery and click-and-collect services, which I am sure that her constituent, David Campbell, is probably considering.
The Government’s new support measures for businesses provide a genuine lifeline. However, support to stay closed is not the long-term answer, and many will only remain viable if they can be open as normal for the pre-Christmas season. May I ask what the Minister is doing to urgently lobby Government and the Prime Minister on the necessity of keeping businesses going and getting them reopened from 2 December, including in hospitality, which is so important to a city like York?
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point, and I absolutely agree with him. This is not the long-term answer, and I fully appreciate that retailers across England will be desperate to reopen in time for the important Christmas trading period. The regulations, as the Prime Minister said, will expire on 2 December, and we will return to the local restrictions thereafter—the tiered system. Of course, Ministers and officials are regularly engaging across Government, including my colleagues in BEIS, to ensure the sector can reopen safely on 2 December.
I thank the Minister for his answer: financial support for businesses is such a lifeline at this time. Speaking to businesses across the spectrum in Runnymede and Weybridge—from those in the wedding sector to logistics and corporate events—they tell me that one of the biggest challenges they face is uncertainty around planning for the next six months to a year. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that one of the best supports for business we can give is a long-term plan for how we deal with and get out of the covid pandemic?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. The current restrictions will expire on 2 December. After those restrictions have expired, we intend to return to the tiered system, as I just mentioned on an earlier question. Of course, we have to make sure that businesses have that clarity, hence why the Chancellor extended the furlough scheme all the way to the end of March for businesses. The British Chambers of Commerce made it very clear to me a few days ago in a phone call that that was incredibly important help at the right time.
The Arcade Tavern is one of the most popular pubs in Ipswich. It has insurance against income loss because of notifiable diseases, but its insurers, New India, is refusing to pay out, blaming the Government for the loss of income. This has left the business fighting this pandemic and for the money that it is entitled to. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the Government will look unfavourably on insurers that do not honour their contracts and that this is not the case of the little man being stitched up? I have the letter right here, so I am happy to share it with him after this.
I will happily look at the letter, and it sounds incredibly concerning that any insurer would act in this way. Pubs, of course, are a valuable part of many local communities across the country. We are in continual dialogue with the insurance sector regarding its response to this unprecedented situation. I will happily look at the letter and the details of my hon. Friend’s case.
Marine Renewable Energy
On 6 October, the Prime Minister announced new plans to build back greener, which included boosting the Government’s previous offshore wind target from 30 gigawatts to 40 gigawatts. The hon. Lady will also be interested to hear that the Marine Energy Council is looking at funding models for early tidal projects, and that is something in which the Government are very interested.
UK maritime energy is seeing seismic changes, as is so much of the economy in all parts of the nation. Workers skilled in vessels and rigs offshore are being moved to new renewable industries, but—as is always the case with this Government—some are being left behind. This Government cannot be allowed to make the same mistakes that they made in the 1980s, when they left coal workers and entire communities devastated and unsupported. Will the Minister tell the people of Newport West how the Government plan to avoid those mistakes in the new energy transition?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the green jobs element of the transition is at the centre of the Government’s net-zero strategy, and we fully intend to have something like 2 million green jobs by 2030, although now we have only 460,000. Green jobs are at the centre of the recovery that we are trying to drive.
Sizewell C Nuclear Power Station: Government Scrutiny
The Planning Inspectorate’s examining authority will robustly examine the application for the proposed Sizewell C nuclear generating station. The Secretary of State will then give careful consideration to the examining authority’s report and recommendations, before taking a final decision.
Undoubtedly, Sizewell C can bring many benefits to Suffolk in terms of increased employment opportunities, and it is an important part of decarbonising and improving our energy security. However, it is not a case of Sizewell C being built at any cost, and many people in Suffolk have concerns about the failure of EDF properly to engage with the consultation process. More than 50 outstanding concerns have been raised by Suffolk County Council. What reassurances can the Minister provide to me and my constituents, particularly those in the Wickham Market and Hacheston areas, that EDF will be held to account, will properly engage with the consultation, and will implement the changes that are needed to improve road and rail infrastructure?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and his message has been heard clearly. I reassure him that proposals for mitigating the potential impact of Sizewell C will be considered during the examination of the development consent application, and local people and local bodies, such as the county council, will have the opportunity to make representations. The Secretary of State will then thoroughly examine and consider the recommendations from the Planning Inspectorate, which will be submitted to him following that examination. I give my hon. Friend that guarantee.
Net Zero Emissions Target
The hon. Lady will know that the UK’s net zero target is a world-leading initiative. Indeed, it was striking that this month China, Japan and South Korea committed themselves to net-zero carbon targets.
My hon. Friend will know that we are taking considerable action to encourage consumers to buy electric vehicles, and we are also investing in the necessary infrastructure. So far we have invested £30 million to support vehicle-to-grid technology, and we will regulate next year to ensure that consumers benefit from smart-charging their electric vehicles.
Recent commentary has highlighted the role of the North sea as a strategic asset for net zero. It could deliver one third of our energy needs via offshore wind, which could increase the utilisation of carbon capture and storage and green hydrogen. What is the role of a carbon pricing mechanism in delivering this?
My hon. Friend, as he often does, raises a pertinent question relating to our energy strategy. Obviously, carbon pricing is at the centre of any move to try to decarbonise our energy mix. We have a track record on this, and we have also committed to 40 GW of offshore wind by 2030, which, through the auction process, is critical to delivering our net zero ambitions.
If we are to sustain public support for the goal of net zero, it is essential that we maximise the benefits of the green transition here at home, but there are far too many examples where the promise of that green transition risks not being realised. One such case is the plight of the BiFab engineering yards in Fife and Lewis, which represents a clear failure to utilise industrial strategy to ensure that British firms win work and sustain decent jobs from the billions of pounds being invested in offshore wind installations just a few miles off the Scottish coast. Citing state aid rules, the SNP Scottish Government appear content to sit back and let the steel jackets in question be manufactured overseas. Can the Minister give a commitment today that the UK Government will step in and safeguard the future of mounting fabrication in the UK and these vital 450 Scottish jobs?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we are absolutely committed to maintaining a UK supply chain for the extra deployment of offshore wind that I alluded to earlier. With regard to this specific issue, we are in conversations with counterparts in Scotland and also speaking to people in the company.
Covid-19: Support for Businesses
The Department has engaged regularly with the Chancellor and other partners across the devolved Governments, including in Scotland, since the beginning of the covid-19 outbreak to make sure that businesses have the right information, guidance and support that they need.
A pub owner in my constituency has seen his business severely impacted by covid-19 restrictions but has been unable to access a bounce back loan, as the bank where he has his business account is not part of the scheme and none of the accredited lenders are accepting new business accounts. Will the Secretary of State widen the number of banks eligible to provide these loans or ensure that the big lenders accept additional business customers, so that small businesses can access the support they need to get through this crisis?
Obviously, I am not familiar with the exact details that the hon. Lady refers to. What I can point out is that in her constituency of Central Ayrshire, banks have provided something like £37 million of business loans, but I would be very interested to hear the specifics of that case and to see what we can do to meet those concerns.
In response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), the Secretary of State claimed that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs does not have the information necessary to distinguish between an active, working owner-director of a small business, and an absentee shareholder of a big business who contributes no part to the running of the business. HMRC may not have all that information, but Companies House definitely does and most of it is on public record, so can the Minister tell us what discussions his Department has had with Companies House in the last seven months with a view to using that information to identify the million or so small businesses that have been deliberately excluded from Government support up until now?
We are in constant contact with Companies House and other sources of information relating to businesses. With regard to the specifics, I am not as familiar with those charges as the hon. Gentleman, but again I point out that something like £30 million of loan money—of credit—has been supplied to companies in his constituency.
While I welcome the extension of the furlough, albeit belatedly, I would suggest the next step to repair mistakes made in handling the pandemic for businesses is to look at the failures within the business interruption loan schemes, which I outlined in a debate in this Chamber last week. Many companies are not taking on CBILs or BBLS loans, because having more debt around their necks is the last thing they need just now. Has the Minister carried out any analysis of the potential effects of offering businesses grants, rather than loans?
The provision of credit, as I have suggested to some of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues, has been very generous during this covid-19 period. Obviously, we can refine the process and we are very open to listening to ideas from hon. and right hon. Members about how we can do that. I would like to point out that, last year, in his constituency of Midlothian, we issued something like £49 million-worth of credit. Many of the companies in his constituency have been very grateful and very happy to receive that money.
Last week, at the CBI’s annual conference, I reaffirmed our desire to build back better through levelling up across the country. We are developing a new strategy for growth, a refreshed and reinvigorated industrial strategy that puts the UK at the forefront of economic opportunity. We want to broaden the geography of our economy while taking a more strategic approach, supporting research and innovation in areas where the UK has the potential to both lead and change the world. We will work with industry as our plan for growth takes shape in the months ahead and is published in the new year.
Any help for business, like the local restrictions support grant, is welcome, however limited, but nightclubs and much of the night-time industries have been required to close since 23 March, with no sign to an end of their problems. So should the grants not be backdated to that date, rather than starting on 1 November?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the support that is being provided. He also knows that, for areas that were in tier 2 or tier 3 before the new restrictions came into force, there are backdated payments to August equivalent to up to £2,100 a month.
Employers and trade unions work night and day to keep workplaces covid-secure, so it is absolutely staggering that the health and safety inspection discovered fundamental breaches of the guidelines in the overcrammed private office of the Secretary of State. A member of the Minister’s staff tested positive for covid, yet the Secretary of State did not self-isolate: he met Prince Charles and took a flight to South Korea. The need to suppress workplace transmission is as great as ever, so how can working people and businesses have any trust in the Government when the very people responsible for setting the rules ignore them in their own offices?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, I followed all the rules, as we always do in my Department. I want to thank businesses, trade unions and the business representative organisations we worked with earlier this year to put together the guidelines to keep business areas covid secure.
I am absolutely delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituent, Jess. I thank him for all the work he does in his constituency to support engineering apprenticeships. He is absolutely right. We want the sector to keep supporting well-paid skilled jobs for our young people moving into the workplace as we build back better into the decade ahead.
I did address this issue earlier, but as the hon. Gentleman will know Rolls-Royce has indicated that it will retain key work in Barnoldswick, including fan blade capability relating to the Trent 700 engines, the joint strike fighter and a new technical capability for product development. I can also tell him that I will be meeting a cross-party group of Members of Parliament, together with Rolls-Royce, next week.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue; I know that she is a tireless champion for her local high street. She knows that click and collect and delivery services are still possible, as are takeaway services for the hospitality sector. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), is working tirelessly with retail to make sure that once the lockdown is over, we can bounce back more strongly and take on board much of the important advice that she has been giving us.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this. The oil and gas sector, as he knows, is currently developing its own proposal for a transformational North sea transition deal, as we call it now. Once we receive its input and ideas, we will be able to negotiate with the sector to make sure that we have the right level of ambition with regard to net zero while preserving the much-valued jobs and expertise that he and others are so keen to promote.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, showrooms were one of the first businesses required to be closed that were reopened in the last national restrictions period. What I would like, and what I know he wants, is for us get to the point on 2 December where we move back into local restrictions and we are able to open up businesses across the country.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very important issue. He and I have spoken about this a number of times. I wish only that his council were as focused as he is on championing his residents’ interests. BEIS has recently consulted on regulating heat networks, and our market framework from 2022 will ensure that consumers receive reliable and regulated heat from heat networks.
We have invested in manufacturing across the country. In fact, I visited Valneva, which is one of the companies that is producing one of the vaccine candidates, and we have of course invested there as well. If the hon. Gentleman has particular suggestions to make about areas where we ought to be investing in terms of vaccine manufacturing, he should come forward.
Many years ago, I had an opportunity to work for the Mars group, and I know what a brilliant job food processing companies have been doing throughout the pandemic. The food manufacturing sector can continue to operate through the national restrictions as long as they follow the Government’s guidance on keeping factories, plants and warehouses covid-secure.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this. Obviously, this is a critical issue. We are working through the cases as expeditiously as we can. I am happy to meet the APPG in my capacity as Energy Minister and resolve what has been a difficult issue—I do not deny that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that important question. We fully appreciate that it is a very difficult time, and of course ministerial colleagues are working constantly with Treasury colleagues and officials to ensure that we have the right support, however this pandemic, this dreadful disease, develops. We are working effectively and many of the remedies are being widely appreciated.
As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government are committed to the space sector. We have already invested £40 million to achieve satellite launch from the early 2020s, including more than £7 million to establish launch services from Spaceport Cornwall. I am sure that the science Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), will be happy to meet him to discuss that further.
I recognise the difficulty that the hospitality sector faces. Of course we want to ensure that, as we come out of the national restriction on 2 December, businesses move into the tiered areas, and I hope that some business will be able to reopen. However, it is worth pointing out that pubs and restaurants can continue to operate as takeaways and support is available, including grants of up to £3,000 per month, as well as additional support through the £1.1 billion funded to local authorities.
The Post Office Horizon scandal may well be the largest miscarriage of justice in our history, with over 900 false prosecutions destroying lives, families and reputations. Does the Minister agree that a judge-led inquiry into the scandal is the only way many sub-postmasters will be satisfied?
That is exactly why we appointed Sir Wyn Williams, a former judge, to lead the inquiry. I really hope that representatives of the sub-postmasters will take time to meet him, in order to become familiar with his approach. He has outlined his engagement strategy and we really want to see justice and answers as soon as possible.
In August, I was lucky enough to meet Dynamic Imaging Analytics in Milton Keynes—a fantastic local company that is doing some really cool stuff with space technology, including working with our local university, the Open University, to mine for water on the moon. Perhaps the Minister will join me in congratulating the Open University on its recent successes on that.
The UK’s world-leading universities have a rich heritage in space science and exploration, and they are key to our ambition of becoming a science superpower. Of course I will join my hon. Friend in sending congratulations to the scientists in his constituency on their groundbreaking research. We are investing £1.5 million this year in Open University space activities, including those of PROSPECT instruments, which will improve our understanding of water on the moon—and who knows, they might put the first concrete cows on the moon.
We know that our economy is changing, supercharged by the impact of covid and new technologies that are facilitating the change; but does the Minister agree that it is desirable and possible for companies to change in a way that protects skilled jobs, whether that is Spotify’s responsibility to creative workers, or BT’s responsibility to our broadband engineers? Will the Minister do all it takes to ensure that our companies invest in people as well as digital infrastructure?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. Of course we want good jobs to be created and preserved, and I agree with her. I believe she is arguing that we need a greater level of productivity in the country, and that is precisely what we are working on as part of our strategies.