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Topical Questions

Volume 683: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2020

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 extremely proud to see that an Airbus apprentice from Filton, Jess Stone, has made the final of the Make UK engineering apprentice awards. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Jess and recognising the crucial importance of supporting aerospace in the UK, both for the economy and to ensure that young people have the option of a skilled and rewarding career—and obviously the fantastic impact that has on social mobility? (908592)

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.

On Remembrance Sunday, we rightly paid tribute to the fallen heroes, but let us not forget the engineering innovation and skills of the Rolls-Royce workers who put engines in the first British jet fighters critical to winning the second world war. Workers at the Barnoldswick site are currently on strike, fighting to save hundreds of highly skilled engineering jobs and, potentially, the site itself. Does the Minister agree with Unite the Union that those jobs belong in Britain and that Government support should absolutely be conditional on those jobs not going offshore? (908590)

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.

High streets up and down our country are struggling and rely on this peak selling time of year. What is my right hon. Friend’s plan to relaunch sales and drive footfall after lockdown and help to save our high streets? (908591)

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.

My right hon. Friend is aware that we cannot get to net zero without the technologies being developed in the oil and gas sector, on which thousands of my constituents rely for employment. With that in mind, might he be able to give an update as to when we might see the long-awaited and now rebranded oil and gas transition deal? (908596)

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.

Vauxhall Motors in Ellesmere Port faces an uncertain future, as does much of the automotive sector, so we need Government support now more than ever. Will someone please explain what the sense is in allowing the manufacturers to stay open so that they can build the cars, while the showrooms remain shut so they cannot actually sell them? (908593)

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 know that Carshalton and Wallington residents, particularly those living in New Mill Quarter in Hackbridge, will be very grateful that the Government are consulting on regulating a district energy scheme network to prevent residents from being ripped off without any consumer protection. Will the Minister outline when he expects to report back on the consultation on district energy schemes, and can we have a timeline for implementation? (908598)

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.

The Government claim that they want to rebalance the economy and have invested in new vaccine manufacturing capacity. Why was that not in the north of England or other regions, rather than in Braintree? (908594)

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 businesses in Rutland and Melton create extraordinary food, such as Samworth Brothers, Belvoir Fruit Farms, Mars, and Long Clawson Dairy. They also have done an excellent job of protecting employees throughout the pandemic, so will the Secretary of State join me in thanking them but also confirm what steps have been taken to safeguard supply chains, particularly for food and food processing businesses across the country? (908600)

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.

Four weeks ago, the Prime Minister agreed with me when he said this about the green deal mis-selling scandal:“We must accelerate the process by which these complaints are upheld…and compensation is delivered”—[Official Report, 14 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 372.]I have three constituents who have died waiting. I do not want this to be political and I do not care who gets the credit when it is all resolved; I just want it sorted out. So will the Secretary of State please meet the all-party parliamentary group on green deal mis-selling as a matter of urgency and work with us to find a way forward? (908595)

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, like others, have had many approaches from my local businesses in Sedgefield, some of which, because of specific rules, have received inadequate support in the context of what they need to survive. Bexbrides in Hurworth and J&C Coaches in Newton Aycliffe are perfect examples. Bex described it as like having a mine of customers that has been flooded: you know the customers are there—brides are still waiting to get married—but you cannot get to them until the flood subsides. But you know it will. These businesses and others need to keep themselves afloat until the flood subsides. Can the Minister please work with his friend the Chancellor to ensure that they are better supported through the next phase of the pandemic? Will he meet me to enable me to discuss in detail the best support options for them? (908601)

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.

Forty-one per cent. of hair and beauty salon owners say that they do not know whether their businesses will be able to survive until Christmas, putting tens of thousands of jobs at risk. Will the Business Secretary speak to the Chancellor about the VAT cuts for hospitality and extend those to hair, beauty, spa and wellbeing businesses to give them a much-needed boost during these very difficult times? (908599)

I completely understand how incredibly tough it is for many businesses, including in the sector the hon. Member outlined. She has raised a point, and I am sure that this issue will be looked at.

Could I ask the Secretary of State to confirm that being the first in Europe to develop a horizonal satellite launch facility is not only an ambition of Spaceport Cornwall but an integral part of the UK Government’s space ambitions? Could I ask him to meet me to discuss how the Government and the UK Space Agency can support Spaceport Cornwall to deliver this facility for the benefit of the whole UK space industry? (908604)

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.

Can I ask the Minister for his assessment of the comments made by Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s in recent days that there will be a barrier to some goods coming to Northern Ireland; that some will not be available and others will be available at an increased cost? Surely that is the result of a sea border. What assurances can he give to Northern Ireland consumers that, come 1 January, that will not be the case? (908602)

We have been very clear on this issue and, as the hon. Lady knows, we have introduced the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. Of course we will continue to work on these issues.

The Secretary of State will be aware that many businesses in the hospitality industry—pubs, and also some companies in the wedding industry—are reliant on the six weeks around Christmas for much of their profit during the winter period. What additional support can he reassure me will be put into place to ensure that the hospitality industry is properly recompensed for the Christmas period and the early part of the new year given the difficult circumstances that we face with covid? (908605)

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.

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 suspend the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.