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Topical Questions

Volume 689: debated on Tuesday 9 February 2021

In my first four weeks as Secretary of State, I have met with more than 100 businesses —virtually, of course—up and down the country. I have been hugely impressed by the positivity, determination and sheer grit that our businesses have shown in spite of the immense challenges they are facing. I am pleased that we can now offer lateral flow testing to businesses with 50 or more employees, providing new support to small and medium-sized enterprises across the UK. As we have seen with the vaccine roll-out, it is thanks to our brilliant scientists and our brilliant science base that more than 12 million people have now received their first dose of a covid vaccine.

In recent years, the Greater Birmingham and Solihull area has seen the setting up of the highest number of start-ups in the country outside London. Will my right hon. Friend set out his plans to support start-ups in my constituency of Meriden, so that they can continue to set up, thrive and survive after covid?

My hon. Friend is utterly committed to supporting growth and entrepreneurship in his area. I am fully aware that he was a director of business support for four years for the Greater Birmingham and Solihull local enterprise partnership. He will know that our Government continue to back growth and recovery across the UK. I think, in his own constituency of Meriden, we have done this through £90.9 million of covid loan scheme support.

Well, I have listened to the Secretary of State’s answers so far, and I am afraid that he is all mouth and no trousers. Let’s try again, shall we? Businesses face a £50 billion bombshell in April, yet many in hospitality, retail and services will not even be open by then. Councils are sending out business rates bills as we speak and difficult decisions are being made now. Does the Minister agree personally with Labour’s plan to extend the business rates holiday for at least six months as well as the furlough while public health measures remain, in order to deal with this bombshell before it blows a big hole in our economy?

I am glad that the hon. Lady has been listening to the same businesses that I have been listening to for the last year, as they have talked about the cliff edge that they face and their big fixed costs, whether those are business rates, VAT or the rent moratorium, all of which we are recognising. We are continuing our conversations with the Treasury, because it is so important that as we reopen the economy, and look to get customers back to a safe and warm welcome to retail and hospitality, we also have a flexible approach to our financial support in order to tackle this difficult period.

With local authorities such as that in Broxtowe responsible for distributing grants to struggling businesses, will my hon. Friend tell me what flexibility can be provided to allow grants underspent in one area of business support to be used for support in other areas? (912012)

Local authorities, as my hon. Friend knows, receive funding to support closed businesses through grants of up to £3,000 for each four-week period of closure. In addition, closed businesses can receive up to an extra £9,000 as a one-off payment for the current period of national lockdown. Local authorities, as I am sure he is aware, are also in receipt of discretionary funding, sharing £1.6 billion of the additional restrictions grant.

British Gas engineers and staff are key workers who, in addition to their responsibilities heating people’s homes, have been delivering food and essentials during the pandemic. Ministers have said that fire and rehire is unacceptable, so will the Secretary of State call on Centrica and Mr O’Shea to stop the bullying tactics of trying to force new contracts on to their workers cutting pay, terms and conditions, and ask them to get round the negotiating table with the union, GMB? (912010)

I am very pleased to announce that I and my ministerial colleagues have stated again and again that fire and rehire is completely unacceptable. I was in regular contact with British Gas—Centrica, as it is now called—as Energy Minister, and I have impressed upon it the need to engage with its workforce and treat them with utter integrity and fairness.

May I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend on his new job? I very much enjoyed working with him in what is now his Department, and I wish him well. I have constituents who run a very successful hotel business. They have appreciated all the support given to them by the Government, but they recognise that they are still using every last penny of their reserves to keep their golf course maintained, keep the swimming pool clean and keep the place secure, and they have no income. So can my right hon. Friend tell me, when they ask their bank, as they have, to provide them with rolled-over quarterly interest and the bank says, “We’ll do it, but we need to put you under forbearance”, is that a regulatory requirement or is it the bank making it even more difficult for them to recover once lockdown ends? (912013)

I am very pleased to be responding to my right hon. Friend. I very much enjoyed working with her in the Department and I am pleased that she is taking such an interest in our activities. In answer to her question, I would suggest that this is about policy, not regulation. The Government expect lenders to be constructive in their dealings with businesses in difficulty. I am glad to hear that in this instance her constituents are getting the support that they need from the bank, but bank regulations on forbearance are a matter for the independent Financial Conduct Authority.

When asset-stripper Melrose was allowed to take over GKN, the then Secretary of State said that Melrose had to honour its commitments to stay UK-based. Now that it has torn that up with its disgraceful behaviour and decision to close Birmingham’s GKN Driveline, with the loss of 500 skilled engineering jobs, what is the Secretary of State going to do about it? (912011)

As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, my door is always open, and I am very happy to meet him to discuss this issue. I recall that when my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) was in my place, it was a very delicate situation, but I am happy to discuss with the right hon. Gentleman ideas on how we can ameliorate it.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In my parliamentary work I have seen a number of examples of council landlords being unreasonable with tenants who are facing eviction or, potentially, insolvency when the right of forfeiture is restored on 31 March. Will my right hon. Friend set out his plans for this, but also send a message to local authorities that they should set a good example when it comes to helping businesses through this crisis? (912014)

I have been continuing to have conversations with landlords and tenants to encourage constructive conversations to see what happens after the moratorium. Those tenants who can pay should pay, while landlords should show forbearance for the medium to long term, and that includes local authorities. In government, whether central or local, we should be setting that example.

Since the US imposed tariffs on single malt whisky, the loss of exports has cost the industry more than £500 million. Will the Secretary of State detail the discussions that have taken place with the new Administration and update the House on the progress of those talks? (912016)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: we have to look after the interests of our whisky exporters. It is a key interest. I have spoken to Karen Betts I think twice in my first month precisely on that issue, and I am very hopeful that we can get it resolved.

Vaccinating our most vulnerable first, and as quickly as possible, is clearly the right strategy. My wife and I volunteered throughout the weekend and witnessed an amazing effort at the Black Country Living Museum, but does my right hon. Friend agree that having secured 400 million doses nationally puts us in a strong position to save the most lives and will, with workplace testing, save our economy from a longer recovery period? (912015)

Dare I say it, that was an excellent question, which goes to the heart of what this whole period has taught us. The fact that we managed to procure, develop and distribute so many vaccines has been a great story for not only our science base, but UK innovation. I am sure that it will be studied in years, even decades, to come. Finally, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the surest way of helping our businesses is to ensure that we can reopen our economy in a safe way.

Hand hygiene and mask wearing are most effective when accompanied by surface disinfection, especially in shared work spaces. Recent changes to the Health and Safety Executive guidance are welcome, but the Secretary of State’s Department’s guidance needs to be radically updated to provide specific guidance on the EN standard of disinfectants needed, and on the frequency of surface disinfection. Can he commit to doing that as a matter of urgency? (912018)

We always keep the guidance under review. There are twice-weekly meetings with BEIS, the HSE and Public Health England to tackle those issues, and we will certainly take away that specific point.

The Government have provided life support to the hospitality sector, but my hoteliers are flagging that we are moving into a potential perfect storm of deferred payments coming into focus and the support scheme set to close. The weekend’s announcement on bounce-back loans has been met with huge relief in my constituency for the 1,800 businesses that are in that place. I ask the Minister to look also at extending the 5% VAT rate, furlough and the business rates holiday, so that the hospitality sector in my constituency of Eastbourne, and across the country, can come back all the stronger. (912017)

My hon. Friend is right, and I fully appreciate how key the hospitality sector is to her constituency of Eastbourne, which I have visited many times, even before I was elected to this place. The Government have introduced pay as you go measures, as I am sure she is aware, which give borrowers flexibility when repaying their bounce-back loans. In terms of the other measures that she mentions, I am in constant dialogue with the Chancellor. We are looking at the economy and the situation as it evolves daily—minute by minute, almost—and we hope that we can provide the flexible support that we have in the last year.

Here in South Yorkshire, we used the local growth fund to create 2,800 jobs and attract £92 million of investment from world-leading businesses such as Boeing and McLaren. Now that funding has ended, will the Secretary of State work with us on our plan to create 6,000 new jobs and attract £600 million of investment over the next two years? [R] (912022)

I am absolutely open and prepared to work with the hon. Member. I have visited him in my capacity as Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Exiting the European Union. I think we also met when I was Minister of State. I am very happy to work with him and discuss his ideas about regeneration and growth.

The Climate Change Committee says that the UK’s contribution to international aviation and shipping emissions should be included in our carbon budgets. As hosts of COP 26 later this year, would this not be a good time to set an example to the international community by doing so? (912023)

I am absolutely aware of that issue. It is almost inevitable that we will be asked by the CCC to include those contributions in our budgets. As COP26 hosts, we will obviously want to hold ourselves to the highest standards, in terms of carbon emissions.

I am suspending the House for a few minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.