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Topical Questions

Volume 686: debated on Tuesday 15 December 2020

At this last Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy oral questions of the year, I take this opportunity to thank my brilliant ministerial team, our brilliant Parliamentary Private Secretaries, our fabulous Whip and the outstanding civil servants for the huge effort they have made this year to support business and procure 357 million doses of the most promising vaccine candidates.

Since the previous oral questions last month, the Department has led on the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan, which is our blueprint for a green industrial revolution, and the energy White Paper. We have also been central in setting the UK’s ambitious nationally determined contribution, as well as helping to organise the climate ambition summit on 12 December. The pace and energy of delivery will continue in the new year, because our businesses and people across the United Kingdom deserve no less at this challenging time.

Rate relief for hospitality venues is welcome, but many are racking up huge rent debts while they are closed and getting only a third of the support they got earlier in the year. Have the Government had any discussions about a model of sharing the rental debt burden among tenants, landlords, banks and the Government, because without more help, many of these businesses will close?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and of course we have dialogues with landlords and tenants. As he will have heard, the rent moratorium has been extended to 31 March, and he will also know that because the rates holiday continues, that is money that does not have to go out, which can be used for other purposes.

The Government are leading the way with the green revolution, and in Cornwall we are teeming with green potential. Will my right hon. Friend work with my Cornish colleagues and I to help put Cornwall at the heart of the green industry, unleashing geothermal energy, lithium, floating offshore wind and their vital supply chains, creating long-lasting jobs in Cornwall? (910359)

My hon. Friend and I have had a number of conversations about the green industrial revolution. I am very excited about the opportunities in her wonderful county, and I look forward to visiting, when restrictions permit me, some of these wonderful projects.

Businesses face a double whammy from the ongoing economic crisis and potential Brexit disruption. They want the Business Secretary to stand up for them. Some 61% of the country will be in tier 3 from tomorrow, and the situation for many pubs, restaurants and bars is catastrophic, as this morning’s record redundancy figures show. Will the Secretary of State now finally recognise what he has been told repeatedly by Members across the House—and again today—and by industry that support for the hospitality sector is hopelessly inadequate if many of these businesses are to survive through the winter?

I completely accept that it is a very difficult time for lots of businesses, particularly in the hospitality sector right now, but as the right hon. Gentleman will know, support is being provided. Businesses that are required to be closed can get grants of up to £3,000 a month. I also point him in the direction of the International Monetary Fund, which said that the support the UK Government are providing is

“one of the best examples of coordinated action globally”.

I am afraid that the Secretary of State is failing to stand up for the hospitality sector. Let us talk about the 150,000 businesses that, even with a trade deal, will have to fill in customs forms for the first time from 1 January. The ports are struggling, the IT systems are not ready, the customs agents are not in place, and businesses still do not know the rules that will exist in just 16 days’ time. Are these firms not entitled to conclude that they are being badly let down by a Government who have left them totally in the lurch and a Business Secretary who seems asleep at the wheel?

I will refrain from coming back on that jibe. As a Government, we have been working incredibly hard to support businesses. I know that it is very difficult. The right hon. Gentleman talks about the end of the transition period. Of course, there are a lot of changes that businesses can already put in place and, as he knows, we are communicating with businesses to ensure that that happens. I think that businesses do want us to continue talking to the European Union, and that is precisely what we are doing.

Last week Swanwick Hayes conference centre in my constituency was forced to make redundancies, having had practically no turnover since March. Is there more that we can do to support the events industry, which may face many more months before it can start earning anything like its normal levels? (910360)

As my hon. Friend knows, we are providing support. It is difficult for a lot of businesses right now. The furlough scheme has been extended until the end of March, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is working closely with the sector, as is the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully).

My constituent Mark, a publisher, sells 60% of his specialist books outside the UK. He wrote to me to say that the prospect of Brexit is bad enough for business, but the increased costs to post overseas could be the nail in the coffin for his business and many SME exporters. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Royal Mail about recent price hikes, and can he tell my constituent when the temporary air carrier surcharge will end? (910355)

We are in regular dialogue with Royal Mail and others. I am happy to take up the point that the hon. Gentleman raised separately, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, who is responsible for Royal Mail, will be happy to follow up with him.

My right hon. Friend might have seen me pushing the Prime Minister to support a 26-hectare renewable energy manufacturing facility at Oldside in the port of Workington. There is potentially around 100 hectares available. Does he agree that, alongside the larger sites of over 200 hectares, we need a number of smaller sites around the coast with good access to road, rail and sea routes, such as our offer in Workington? (910363)

My hon. Friend is right to say that renewable energy manufacturing of all sizes has huge potential, not least in his constituency. At this stage, our initial focus is to establish a first-of-its-kind, large-scale manufacturing site of over 200 hectares, and after we have established that, we can look at strengthening the supply chain.

I am sure that I am not the only one whose heart sang when I heard about the Oxford University covid vaccine, developed in partnership with AstraZeneca. Yesterday’s “Panorama” programme about the research team made me immensely proud of this unique British achievement that will benefit not only the UK but the world at large. Our life sciences sector has always punched above its weight, but progress in medical research is being hampered because of its issues with fundraising this year. Will the Business Secretary congratulate my constituent Kevin Sinfield on running seven marathons in seven days to raise over £2.5 million for the Motor Neurone Disease Association, and will he commit to properly invest in research that could see the next breakthroughs in treatments and even cures for diseases including dementia, MND and cancer? (910356)

I congratulate the hon. Lady’s constituent, Kevin Sinfield. We have a good settlement in the spending review for R&D: we are committed to reaching £22 billion a year by 2024-25.

In High Peak, we are lucky to have the best pubs, restaurants, hotels and small businesses anywhere in the country. However, these businesses, by their very nature, are highly seasonal and many of them depend heavily on the busy Christmas period. Unfortunately, despite having a case rate lower than the national average, High Peak is in tier 3. Can my hon. Friend make representations to his ministerial colleagues about getting High Peak out of tier 3 as fast as possible, and make certain that as much support as possible is provided to the affected businesses? (910364)

I thank my hon. Friend for that. He is a big champion for his local pubs, for which I know there will be a lot of competition. Yes, the review will be in the next couple of days, and I hope we will see a number of pubs being able to open at that point, because that is what they want. Government support has been welcomed, but customers coming back through the doors, especially in the busiest months, is what we all want to see.

The Secretary of State will know that not all businesses need to re-furlough staff, and many that do not were counting on the £1,000 per employee job retention bonus. However, this has been scrapped, blasting a black hole in the books of countless businesses across the UK. The Treasury will not say when or how the scheme will be replaced, so can his Department perhaps give businesses some certainty over the billions in support that have been snatched away from them without warning? (910357)

I would just point out to the hon. Gentleman that, on support for businesses, what we have done is to look at the requirements and increase that support. As he will have heard, the level of support is now £280 billion. We have extended furlough and we have extended the self-employment scheme, and businesses that are now required to be closed because of restrictions can get up to £3,000 a month.

    The Government are focused on supporting the NHS, opening schools, getting businesses back working, and getting gyms open and leisure facilities going again, but of course the last lever is hospitality and socialising. With the advent of a vaccine, will my hon. Friend have a meeting with the Treasury to put together a pathway and a package of support for those industries most affected, such as the weddings, events, office, conference and travel industry? (910365)

I thank my hon. Friend, who has raised the issue about weddings and events with me on a number of occasions. We continue to work with the Treasury to see what more we can do to support the hospitality sector as a whole. I am really looking forward to working with the weddings taskforce, which has been set up by the sector itself, to see what a covid-19 secure wedding looks like and how we can introduce that when the health science allows.

The GMB, Unite and Unison trade unions are fighting hard for workers who are being fired and then rehired on worse terms and conditions. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that companies such as British Gas are negotiating in good faith with the workforce, not imposing these completely unacceptable practices on them? (910358)

We call out British Gas and other employers if and when they are using unfair pressure in negotiations, but we do say that we need to retain flexibility as well, so that big companies can save as many jobs as possible in difficult times.

With the imminent review of tiers, can Ministers reassure me that they are pushing firmly within Government on the fact that many businesses, especially in places such as York, where the virus is very low, are at the stage where they can no longer be subsidised for low footfall or to stay closed, but need to be able to trade as normally as possible ultimately to survive? (910367)

I know the hospitality business in York has been affected, as it has around the country. Yes, we will continue to look at this and, when the data allows, we will move York and other areas into more forgiving tiers. For the hospitality sector—as I say, it welcomes Government support, largely, but wants customers—this is what is going to help the pubs, bars and restaurants in York and beyond to be able to survive and thrive.

Many freelancers and self-employed people have had little or no financial support. They do not qualify for furlough, for the self-employed scheme or for business grants. With billions of pounds being returned in tax relief for business rates by the major retailers, why are Ministers not using that money, as the retailers are suggesting, to support those hundreds of thousands of people who have had little or no financial support so far? (910361)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, a whole range of support is available. I completely accept that not everyone will feel they have got precisely the amount of support that they would have liked, but a significant amount of support is available and, of course, all of this is always kept under review.

Many businesses are linked to the NHS supply chain, such as Zimmer Biomet, one of the largest employers in my Bridgend constituency. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with ministerial colleagues about getting NHS non-urgent, non-critical procedures back up to pre-covid levels? (910368)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and my right hon. Friend the Health and Social Care Secretary is working very hard to help NHS trusts return to pre-covid levels of elective care as soon as possible. I have been really quite impressed over the past months throughout this pandemic at how businesses, both within the medical field and outside, have come together to support the NHS.

What measures can the Minister take to ensure that GB businesses do not use the Northern Ireland protocol as an excuse to refuse to do business with companies in Northern Ireland? Some are already saying that after 31 December they can no longer supply goods to those companies, and some are using the situation as an opportunity, because of the additional bureaucracy and paperwork, to increase prices. (910370)

If the hon. Gentleman has specific examples, I will be very interested to hear about them, but the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is there to provide certainty—to provide access for Northern Ireland to GB and vice versa.

Whistleblowing is valuable to organisations and society. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to prepare for ISO 37002, the new international standard for whistleblowing, and can he reassure my constituents that whistleblowers in the UK will enjoy enhanced protection to the same degree as, or greater than, that provided by the forthcoming EU directive? (910372)

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to ensuring that whistleblowers enjoy high standards of protection under UK law. The international standard to which she refers is for employers wanting to introduce their own whistleblowing policies, which is already encouraged by our code of practice.

The furlough scheme is really important for young workers—for young people—but when the scheme ends many are worried that we will see large-scale youth unemployment, so what is the Department’s input into the kickstart scheme and exactly how many jobs will be created by March next year to help young people?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the kickstart scheme is a Government initiative, and the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions have led on this. I have had discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the issue, and of course we want to make sure we continue to support young people at this crucial time. We know that when unemployment is going up, it is new workers who find it particularly difficult to get jobs.

On Thursday, I had the pleasure of taking my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), the Minister for science, research and innovation, to Greencore’s Springfield Meadow development in my constituency, where it is building not just net-zero homes but carbon-positive homes and selling them to Sovereign Housing at precisely the same cost as for any other kind of home. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Greencore on this innovation and does he agree that it is exactly the sort of thing we need more of to hit our 2050 goal?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. I am delighted to report that our joint hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) had a very successful visit and thoroughly enjoyed her trip to Greencore Construction, and we obviously heartily welcome Greencore’s excellent work in sustainable construction.

After 10 years of this Government, before covid, constituents of mine were averaging £100 a week less in earnings than the average for the rest of the country; now a third of them are on furlough, which means a further £100 less per week—£10,000 a year less than the average. Will the Minister understand that when the Government talk about levelling up, in an area like mine people will say it is time that Ministers got out of their privileged bubbles and did something for communities all over this country, where millions of people are living very precarious lives?

I know it is a very difficult time for very many families, and that they will feel that particularly acutely as we get to Christmas. I would just say that across the country we have protected 9 million jobs—households up and down our country, who have been supported by the measures that the Government have put forward; and that that will extend until the end of March, as well as the other support that has been provided.

Given that we have now come to the end of questions, Mr Speaker, I thank you and your staff for all the support that you have provided to all Members in a very challenging year. I thank all Members—including the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband)—for all their support, and I hope that they will have an opportunity to get some rest over the festive period.

May I just say thank you to the Secretary of State for completing the list? 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.