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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 689: debated on Tuesday 9 February 2021

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

UK Research and Development

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

We announced at the spending review an investment of £14.6 billion in R&D for 2021-22. This will no doubt cement our status as a science superpower here in the UK. We are taking forward the ambitious commitments in the R&D road map, which was published only last year, and we are of course continuing co-operation with the EU through association with the Horizon Europe programme.

Apprentices have played a key role throughout this pandemic, including working on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is helping the country overcome this virus. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, in National Apprenticeship Week, he will be working with and encouraging more R&D-based businesses to provide apprenticeship opportunities so that more young people can gain the skills they need to progress in this field?

Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for the great work he is doing as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on apprenticeships. He will know that apprenticeships are a key part of this Government’s plan for jobs as we build back better from the pandemic, and that is why we are offering employers cash payments of up to £2,000 when they hire a new apprentice, until 31 March this year.

We are all grateful to Britain’s world-leading scientists for blazing a trail of hope in this terrible pandemic, but how are Government protecting science’s future? Medical charity research is predicted to fall by over £4 billion after Government refused support. University research has only been offered loans to cover losses from international students, while 90% of UK researchers are excluded from support, even though the virus prevents them from finishing their research. Postgraduate research students from the nine doctoral training programmes have written to demand action, given the escalating scale of the crisis, and there is a massive reduction in funding for early career researchers. Why are Government not protecting the future of the science that is protecting us?

The hon. Lady seems to be living in a parallel universe. If we look at the vaccine roll-out—we have seen 12.3 million, or nearly 12.3 million, people vaccinated as of this morning—we can see that the strength of the UK science base is really impressive. It is looked on throughout the world as something to aspire to. We are a world-leading science power—a science superpower. I have already mentioned the £14.6 billion that we have committed to R&D, and this is an area where we are confident and world-beating.

Post Office Closures: Scotland

What assessment his Department has made of the effect of the closure of post offices operated by CJ Lang & Son Ltd on the post office network in Scotland. (912040)

Post offices and postmasters have played an absolutely key role in our communities, especially at this particular time, and I am pleased to report that, of the 25 CJ Lang branches due to close—while discussions continue—CJ Lang has agreed to keep 18 open. Post Office Ltd is actively working on alternative arrangements to ensure continuity of services for affected locations.

My constituents in Eastriggs, Thornhill, Gretna and the Georgetown area of Dumfries will be pleased to hear that their local post offices are not to close at this time, particularly during a pandemic. Can the Minister reassure me, however, that in the negotiations or discussions that are to take place between the Post Office and CJ Lang—or SPAR, as it is known locally—the Post Office will have the flexibility to look at new models of operation of a post office in such a retailer so that that model can meet the needs of the retailer, the needs of the Post Office and, most importantly, the needs of the post office customer?

My right hon. Friend has been a big champion for post offices in his constituency and across Scotland, including the world’s oldest post office in Sanquhar. I am glad to report that, yes, the Post Office does want to be flexible in delivering postal services across the country, including different models, according to demand.

Dismiss and Re-engage Tactics

What recent discussions he has had with (a) employers and (b) trade unions on the use of dismiss and re-engage tactics in negotiations with employees. (912042)

Using threats of firing and rehiring as a negotiating tactic is completely unacceptable. That is why this Government have asked ACAS to look into this matter. It is talking to businesses and employee representatives to gather evidence of how fire and rehire has been used in practice.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

GoNorthWest bus workers, many of them my constituents, are balloting for industrial action against shameful fire and rehire tactics that would see 10% cuts to wages and jobs and sickness protection policies shredded, all in the middle of a pandemic. With British Airways recently forced to back down from similar threats against cargo staff after targeted strikes by Unite the union, does the Minister agree that Government inaction against this exploitative legal loophole has meant that industrial action and trade union organising are working people’s only defence against disreputable employers?

This Government have an unprecedented record in looking after employee rights, and we expect all employers to treat employees fairly in a spirit of partnership.

Covid-19: Support for Businesses

What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on increasing support to businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (912050)

What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on increasing support to businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (912062)

What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on increasing support to businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (912076)

It is well known that we spent over £280 billion on an unprecedented package of support for businesses, including the job retention scheme, support grants and Government-backed loans. I speak regularly with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on all the support measures available for businesses, including in the next stage when we try to lead and help them through the pandemic and towards recovery.

Hundreds of my local hospitality businesses are extremely grateful for the Government support grants they have received. As the success of the vaccine roll-out allows those businesses to start planning reopening, will my right hon. Friend continue to speak with the Chancellor about helping hospitality businesses, including the wedding industry, as they get back on their feet, perhaps by extending help with VAT and business rates?

As my hon. Friend knows, we speak all the time not only to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer but to the sector; indeed, ministerial colleagues spoke to the sector just yesterday and I have dipped in on roundtables as well. We are very concerned about this; we fully recognise the great efforts my hon. Friend is making on behalf of his constituents, but we are in regular contact with our colleagues in the Treasury.

Almost 24,000 retail, hospitality and leisure businesses in Scotland are currently supported by 100% rates relief. That support has been extended until the end of July, but the Scottish Government want to go further and Scottish businesses need us to go further. However, due to borrowing constraints placed on Scotland’s Parliament, the funding necessary to extend further can only come from the UK Government, so does the Secretary of State agree that his Government should step up and fund this relief for another year?

What I do agree with is the fact that we have extended an unprecedented range of support and measures. I am in regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor; he has taken a nimble approach, and I look forward to engaging with him on what further support we can supply.

The hospitality supply chain has remained open despite a significant loss of earnings to continue supplying the NHS and schools that have to be open. Here in North Devon, Philip Dennis and Savona delivered to people’s homes and operated pop-up click and collect venues when many vulnerable households struggled for supermarkets slots. However, these companies are not eligible for the same support as the hospitality businesses they normally service; will my right hon. Friend ensure that they have the support they need so they are still trading when our hospitality sector reopens?

As my hon. Friend knows, in January the Chancellor announced an additional £500 million in grant funding to local authorities for the additional restrictions; this discretionary funding enables local authorities to support businesses, including, as she pointed out, those in supply chains that have been adversely impacted by restrictions but are ineligible for other measures. This funding comes on top of the £1.1 billion allocated in November 2020.

If the furlough scheme is not extended beyond April, Scotland, like the rest of the UK, will face mass unemployment, with the consequent damage to businesses, communities, families and the mental health of hundreds of thousands of people. Will the Secretary of State therefore urge the Chancellor to take urgent action to ensure that this is avoided by extending furlough?

I am absolutely mindful of the immense pressures our businesses right across the UK are suffering under at the moment. I am in regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who has acted in an unprecedented way; as I have said, he has put £280 billion into the economy to help our struggling businesses. But of course we are looking at the situation as it evolves, and we are very keen to help our economy through this.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend again on his new position and on behalf of the 3,700 businesses across Beaconsfield that have benefited from the £200 million-worth of Government-backed loans since the start of the pandemic? Will he join me in paying tribute to Buckinghamshire Council for its excellent work in ensuring that businesses are supported during the pandemic, and confirm that he will continue to offer all the support he can to protect jobs and keep businesses afloat so that we can look to not only restart our economy but build back better from the pandemic?

Throughout this crisis, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, the Government have stood by businesses, as she mentioned, and worked tirelessly to protect people’s jobs and livelihoods across the entirety of our country. As we emerge from the pandemic, we will ensure that we seize the initiative, as she put it, to build back better, greener and faster from this pandemic.

Does the Secretary of State not accept that, if people who are excluded from support packages are forced to wind up their businesses and move to universal credit or social security, that is more costly to the Government and damaging to the economy in the long run? Surely it is better to bring the excluded in from the cold now than to pay the long-term costs of exclusion in the future.

I fully appreciate—this is our key message as a Government—that jobs and employment are a No. 1 priority. That is exactly why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor extended the furlough scheme. I am in constant conversation with him about how better to provide support for our economy under this distress.

Businesses are facing a £50 billion bombshell in less than two months as Government support packages are due to end, and there is still no clarity about the future. The Secretary of State must realise that the Budget is too late. Businesses are making decisions now about their future and that of their workers. The CBI director general said a week ago:

“Businesses are currently completely in the dark when planning for the weeks and months ahead and this is hindering investment.”

The Secretary of State’s job is to stand up for our businesses, so can he explain to them why, yet again, they are being left completely in the dark?

What I will explain is the fact that, in four weeks in the job, I have seen 200 business leaders. I meet the BROs—the business representative organisations —constantly, and I am in constant dialogue with them to ensure that the Government provide the support. We have provided £280 billion so far, which is beyond any precedent that we have seen. We are in constant conversation not only with our stakeholders but with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Excuses are no substitute for a plan. Businesses need clarity and certainty, and they are not getting it from the Government. Let me turn to another critical issue facing them. We want them to succeed in our new trading relationship with the EU, but according to Make UK, 60% of manufacturers are experiencing disruption, the fashion industry says it faces “decimation”, and hauliers are warning of a permanent reduction in trade. What personal, tangible action is the Business Secretary taking to get a grip and deal with the mountains of red tape now facing our businesses?

Of course, Mr Speaker, you will remember that, ahead of the Brexit deal, we were told that there was never going to be a deal and that we were going to crash out with no deal. We were told all sorts of scare stories about what would happen with Brexit. I fully accept that there are issues on the border, and I fully accept that many of the business leaders I have spoken to have raised issues, but I think the situation is far better with a deal—ask Nissan in Sunderland—than was the case, certainly, only three months ago.

I have been listening closely, and so far the Secretary of State has failed to give a long-term commitment to the furlough scheme, he has failed to provide any certainty whatsoever on business rates, and he has failed to back support for the excluded. As was just referred to, businesses are not just dealing with the damage caused by the pandemic; they are also facing the chaos of Brexit. Exports from the UK to the EU are reportedly down by 68%, and just 10,000 out of 50,000 customs agents are in place. Can the Secretary of State confirm just how bad things need to be before his Government set aside their dogma and instead ask the EU for a grace period in order to protect Scottish businesses?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Brexit debate is over; he, for his own purposes, wants to rekindle this. The business leaders I have spoken to have been extremely grateful for the fact that we got a deal, which he and others opposed—they also predicted that we would not get one. We are moving forward with an active plan and active engagement with the economy. Some £280 billion has been proffered so far. That is a picture that he fails to recognise.

It is probably helpful to advise the Secretary of State that in Scotland the Brexit debate is far from over—in fact, we are just getting started. But I will take it from his answer that there will not be any grace period for Scottish businesses. However, there is one area where I hope he can provide some positive news: in relation to the North sea transition deal. The perfect storm of the pandemic and price crashes has seen 12,000 jobs associated with the North sea go already—and sadly, more are expected to follow. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he still expects the deal to be signed by the end of March, as his predecessor stated in the House? Will he agree to meet me and my colleagues in the city to discuss this hugely important matter?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. He will be courteous enough to acknowledge that, as Energy Minister, I was directly involved in the conversations ahead of the North sea transition deal. I was very much in favour of bringing forward the completion of the deal. I am hopeful that we can manage to reach a really good deal, in which the sector accepts the need for decarbonisation very quickly.

The UK is a key player in supporting the research happening in developing countries that will be essential to putting an end to the pandemic and allowing our businesses to recover. Is the Secretary of State aware of the devastating blow that overseas development aid cuts will be to businesses and could be to our position as a global science leader, sending a message that the UK is not a reliable partner in long-term science advancement and business across the world?

I do not accept that any change in overseas development aid money will undermine our position as a global science superpower. As I said earlier, the science community around the world has been extremely impressed with how we are proceeding with the vaccine roll-out and the great innovation that takes place in this country.

Covid-19: Support for Hospitality

What steps his Department is taking to support the hospitality industry during the covid-19 outbreak. (912044)

As part of the Government’s unprecedented package of business support, worth £285 billion, hospitality businesses have access to the coronavirus job support scheme, grants, loans, reduced VAT, a business rates holiday and a moratorium on commercial evictions. We keep those and all support under review.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

It is Heart Unions Week, and I am pleased that Unite the union has published a hospitality and tourism recovery plan that outlines how the Government could safeguard jobs, protect working standards and rescue the sector. Does the Minister agree that it is important that the Government should work closely with trade unions and hospitality businesses to create a sector recovery strategy and that extending the job retention scheme, introducing rapid testing for hospitality staff and creating a hospitality commission to retrain workers would provide the sector with certainty to help bounce back better?

I thank the hon. Lady. We work with the sector and also with trade unions; I am in constant discussions with them about their various sectors. Yes, it is important that we work together with the hospitality sector on reopening it, allowing it to recover and growing its resilience. I am talking not just about the support; given the 12.3 million vaccinations that have gone out to date, we will soon be able to reopen the hospitality sector and allow it to bounce back.

Covid-19: Support for Luxury Textile Sector

My hon. Friend will be aware of the great support that the Government have already given. The Government continue to offer unprecedented support through packages for businesses worth more than £280 billion. That includes loan schemes, grant funding, tax deferrals, the self-employment income scheme and, of course, the coronavirus job retention scheme. All have been designed to be accessible to businesses in most sectors and across the UK.

I am grateful for that response. As the Minister will know, the damaging tariffs from the US-EU trade dispute are punishing textile mills in my borders constituency. Textile bosses tell me in no uncertain terms that these tariffs are going to cost us jobs and investment. Will the Minister agree to meet me and representatives from the textile sector in my constituency to discuss opportunities to support them during this difficult time?

My hon. Friend has been a huge champion for Scottish textiles, and we are working hard to de-escalate the dispute and get punitive tariffs removed. Either I or the Secretary of State would be very happy to meet him and representatives from the textile sector in his constituency. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully)—the Minister for small business—continues to engage with stakeholders from across the retail and consumer goods sector.

Covid-secure Working

What recent steps he has taken to strengthen and update his Department's guidance to employers on covid-secure working. (912046)

We keep the safer workplaces guidance under continuous review. Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive advise that the guidance remains robust on the basis of current scientific advice.

The answer that the Minister has given does not reflect the situation facing a lot of my constituents who work at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea. If the Government themselves cannot put in place suitable infrastructure to protect employees and substantially change their practices at the DVLA, how can they expect other companies to do so? Will he commit to speaking to his Secretary of State about the issue?

I regularly speak to the Secretary of State about such issues. In the event of a workplace outbreak, businesses should follow the advice outlined in their action card guidance, and that includes departments such as the DVLA. The guidance is designed by the Department of Health and Social Care for specific out- break situations, and businesses should contact their local PHE health protection team if necessary.

“The effects are non-permanent or reversible, non-progressive and disability is temporary”.

Those are the words of the Minister for Employment in justifying why covid-19 has not been categorised as a “serious” workplace risk. Some 112,000 British citizens are dead, tens of thousands are experiencing long covid, and many more have permanent damage to vital organs, but only 0.1% of complaints result in an enforcement notice. This is serious, and re-categorisation is urgently needed. The UK continues to suffer the highest covid death toll in the world, but with such a disregard for workplace safety, is it any wonder?

We work with Public Health England and with the Health and Safety Executive to ensure that we have the best safer workplace guidance, and if there are specific examples where that is not working, I would be happy to take that on board, but with 12.3 million first-dose vaccinations undertaken to date, hopefully we can get through this period and have even safer workplaces as the economy comes back to normal.

Net Zero by 2050

We are matching the UK’s world-leading net zero ambition with world-leading action. The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution will accelerate our path to net zero with £12 billion of Government investment, including a commitment to power every home in the UK with offshore wind by 2030. In December, we published the energy White Paper and we will publish our net zero strategy ahead of COP26.

I thank the Minister for her statement. Could she expand on some of the points she makes, particularly the support that small businesses in towns such as Warrington might expect to receive to reduce their carbon emissions and contribute to net zero targets at a time when many are concerned about the costs of day-to-day business in the light of covid?

We recognise the challenges that SMEs are facing and we want to work with businesses to build that green recovery, so we are offering up to £6 million with a boost in SMEs’ access to energy efficiency competitions to develop green solutions. Through the SME net zero working group, we are hearing from businesses how we can go even further to support them. Financial savings are available to businesses taking steps to achieve net zero, and I would encourage SMEs to sign up to the Race to Zero campaign.

A year ago, the UK airline industry committed to net zero carbon by 2050. What support and assistance has the Department been providing to this important sector, which is suffering loss at the moment, so that it can contribute in the future?

The Government are backing the airline sector to achieve net zero, committing £3.9 billion, with industry, to fund aerospace research and development from 2013 to 2026. This includes the FlyZero project, to study in depth the potential for zero emission aircraft. We are also investing £125 million in the future flight challenge, to enable the use of new forms of green and autonomous aircraft.

Old Mine Workings: Safety

With reference to recent flooding in Skewen, what recent discussions he has had with representatives of the Coal Authority on the safety of old mine workings. (912049)

First, I wish to offer my sympathies to all the families affected in the Skewen floods. My officials have been updated by the Coal Authority on the flooding in Skewen on a regular basis and on the work that it and local partners are doing to support the community, remediate the site and allow people to return safely to their homes. I will be meeting people from the Coal Authority shortly to discuss its work and the investments it is making to reduce the risk of this ever happening again.

My constituents in Skewen have been devastated and traumatised by the flooding that ripped through their homes on 21 January. The disused mine workings that caused this incident are the responsibility of the Coal Authority and, ultimately, of the UK Government. Will the right hon. Lady therefore ensure that the Government fill the gaps not covered by insurance and provide financial support to those who are not insured? Does she agree that not a single Skewen resident should be left out of pocket by this terrible flooding?

The hon. Gentleman is a wonderful advocate for his constituents, and I hope very much to be able to visit Skewen with him and talk personally to those affected. The Coal Authority does not have liability for flooding; flooding, whether from a river, stream or groundwater, is mainly dealt with through insurance, and I know that the Welsh Government emergency grant equivalent of the Bellwin scheme for those affected by flooding in England provides a higher sum. So I look forward to working with him and to hearing directly from his constituents as soon as we can arrange this.

Green Hydrogen

The UK has expertise and assets to support both green and blue hydrogen. Our twin-track approach to enable both routes, in line with our 2030 5 GW ambition, will drive cost-effective supply volumes in the 2020s, while scaling up green hydrogen.

My right hon. Friend is right to talk about both forms of hydrogen. Ideally, of course, we would all be using entirely green hydrogen—as she knows, there are problems with the renewable transport fuel obligation, which I hope she will be able to sort out—but blue hydrogen is going to be part of what we need in the coming decades. What steps is she taking to ensure that we provide the right support for the carbon capture that must, by definition, go alongside the production of blue hydrogen so that it is genuinely a net zero fuel?

We are committed to making the UK a global leader in developing carbon capture and hydrogen production, so we are supporting both through new commercial frameworks and financial support, via our £1 billion for a carbon capture and storage infrastructure fund and £240 million for our net zero hydrogen fund.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan announcement of the proposal to develop 5 GW of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 and, as the Minister has mentioned, the £240 million net zero hydrogen fund to support that. Is it her intention to deploy that fund to support the production of green hydrogen and not to use any part of it to support production capacity consisting of grey or blue hydrogen?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the 10-point plan, which I think the whole House believes is the right way forward. The £240 million net zero hydrogen fund is, of course, only one element of this, and we are supporting innovation, heat trials, standards, business models and a revenue mechanism to stimulate that private sector investment which is so important. This is going to put the UK firmly at the front of the pack. We will be setting out much more detailed work later in the year when I publish the hydrogen strategy.

Dismiss and Re-engage Tactics

What steps his Department is taking to reduce the use of dismiss and re-engage tactics by employers. (912052)

As I made clear to the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), the use of threats of firing and rehiring as a negotiation tactic is completely unacceptable. We expect all employers to treat employees fairly and in the spirit of partnership. Laws are in place to ensure fair treatment in respect of employment contracts and redundancy matters.

Heathrow firefighters, engineers, campus security, baggage handlers, terminal operators and more are taking strike action today against disgraceful fire and rehire abuses by management that have resulted in pay cuts of up to 25% for thousands. Ministers may call these tactics unacceptable, but with greedy bosses and shareholders using covid as a cover for long-held plans to slash wages, what steps are they actually taking to stop Heathrow exploiting its workers in this way?

As previously mentioned, the Department has engaged ACAS to hold discussions to generate valuable evidence about the use of fire and rehire. The Government will communicate our response to the evidence in due course.

Warm words from the Minister, but fire and rehire is an outrageous tactic that is sadly growing in popularity. The latest large company to jump on the bandwagon is Tesco, where staff at the Livingston depot are facing pay cuts of between £4,000 and £13,000 a year—this while profits are soaring thanks to these same essential workers who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to keep families fed. When will the Government do what it takes to stop Tesco and other rogue bosses ripping off their workers? Or will they just wring their hands and wait for a report that they will simply ignore? We want action, Minister.

Having worked for a retailer—Sainsbury’s—for 13 years, I would like to acknowledge the hard work that we know all the people in retail do. However, I reiterate that the Department engaged ACAS to hold discussions in order to generate valuable evidence on the use of fire and rehire.

Automotive Sector: Fiscal Support

What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the automotive sector on the adequacy of Government fiscal support for that sector. (912053)

Since becoming Secretary of State, I have met a number of representatives of our highly successful automotive sector to discuss future opportunities for the UK and to emphasise our Government’s commitment to the continued growth of the sector.

As the Secretary of State will know, a decision is due soon on whether a new vehicle will be built at Vauxhall Motors in Ellesmere Port. Does he agree that if the Government are truly ambitious about investment in the post-Brexit world, securing green growth and the levelling-up agenda, they will do everything in their power to make sure that we get the right decision for the Ellesmere Port plant?

I recognise the importance of the Ellesmere Port plant locally and fully appreciate the work that the hon. Gentleman has done to keep it open. I want to see its future secured. We are committed to ensuring that the UK continues to be one of the best global locations for automotive manufacturing. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, should he wish, and I have met representatives from Vauxhall as well.

Support for Victims of Domestic Abuse

Our recent report on workplace support is clear that employers’ policies can play a significant role in helping victims of domestic abuse. We will work with employers to support that role and encourage good practice, which includes employers signing up to the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse and managers downloading the Bright Sky app by Hestia.

Domestic abuse is a heinous crime that destroys lives and families, and it is vital that every part of society works together to prevent it from happening. Will my hon. Friend confirm that his Department is working with businesses to help to build their awareness of domestic abuse and ensure that they notice the warning signs and help workers to access the support that they may need?

My hon. Friend has been a huge champion of tackling abuse, both here in this country and internationally. As set out in our recent report on workplace support, we will work across Government to raise awareness with businesses and victims’ representatives. From a business point of view, it tackles the £1.9 billion productivity stretch, and employers have a duty of care, just as with bullying, stress and mental health. Clearly, wider awareness can save lives.

Several organisations in Wakefield, including Penny Appeal, have joined the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse, which empowers businesses to take positive action for their employees affected by domestic abuse. This is a crucial step in providing support at a time when the levels of domestic abuse have sadly risen. Will my hon. Friend kindly outline what additional steps his Department is taking to help businesses supporting victims of domestic abuse?

The Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse has 500 members so far signed up to it, covering 6 million employees. What we can do is work with other colleagues across the House to make sure that we get more signatories to the initiative and more support for employers, as well as employees, and that we can signpost the support where appropriate.

Covid-19: Safety of Meter Readers

What assessment he has made of the safety of gas and electricity meter readers during the national covid-19 lockdown that has been in place since January 2021. (912056)

We have introduced safer working guidance so that workers, including gas and electricity meter readers, can continue to work safely during national restrictions. This guidance is kept under constant review and updated in line with the latest scientific evidence.

Meter readers can visit between 50 and 200 properties a day, sometimes more in large cities. A large majority of these meter readers and their unions, such as the GMB, do not believe that it is right to enter those properties and put themselves and others at risk for the sake of someone getting an accurate gas or electric meter bill. Will the Minister listen to meter readers up and down the country and call for an end to internal meter readings during lockdown, to protect both meter readers and householders?

There was an extensive series of engagements to support the drafting process for the safer working guidance, with more than 1,000 users responding. The safer working guidance has had 3.3 million views, and the evidence shows that it is working well and supporting those who are doing the incredibly important work of keeping utility services going. My door is always open, and I would be very happy to discuss any concerns with the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.

Renewable Energy

The UK is a major global market for renewables, and we have world-leading ambitions for deployment. We aim to deliver up to double the renewable capacity at the next contracts for difference round at the end of this year, compared with the last round. We are spending £160 million to support new port and manufacturing infrastructure needed to achieve our 40 GW offshore wind ambition, which will secure local jobs and benefits.

We all know how essential it is to provide our industries with renewable energy at an affordable cost, but it is also essential for the transportation of energy through the national grid so that firms in my area such as CF Fertilisers do not face even greater costs. What will the Minister do to ensure that there is a first-class regulatory environment for all energy transportation, including a fair system for shorthaul gas still being considered by Ofgem?

We have ambitious targets for future decarbonisation and the systems that will go with it. We will be publishing an industrial decarbonisation strategy in the very near future, which will help to support businesses as we look at all the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises.

I declare an interest. I have been listening to too many Elon Musk conversations on what is now all the rage, which is the Clubhouse app. What support can be provided to help Bolton to explore green technology opportunities, especially electric vehicles, boosting our local job market and future growth?

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend championing the north-west and the opportunities that our green industrial revolution will bring to his area. The north-west is incredibly well placed to benefit from our £1 billion commitment to become a world-leading sector in technology to capture and store harmful emissions away from the atmosphere. We have also launched the green jobs taskforce, which will help us to develop plans for green jobs, including in the new green automotive sector across all regions, and we advise on what support will be needed for people who are in those transitioning industries.

Can the Minister comment on the opportunities for companies in Clwyd South and elsewhere in Wales offered by the latest £11 million round of the UK Government’s energy entrepreneurs fund, which is dedicated to driving forward new clean technologies?

Wales’s promising clean tech entrepreneurs are urged to bid for the latest £11 million of Government funding, which is going to support between 15 and 20 projects, with successful bidders receiving up to £1 million each. The funding available through the energy entrepreneurs fund is open to all eligible companies across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I look forward to seeing their submissions.

Workplace Health and Safety Laws

What recent steps he has taken with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to improve the enforcement of workplace health and safety laws. (912058)

The Government have invested an additional £14 million to support the Health and Safety Executive’s enforcement of health and safety laws. My Department has provided guidance on safer working in response to covid-19 that helps to inform the HSE’s monitoring and enforcement activities. This guidance is kept under continuous review.

Given the emergence of new, more transmissible strains of covid-19, why has the Minister not updated his Department’s workplace guidance with stronger recommendations on ventilation, personal protective equipment and the increasing requirement for effective surface disinfectants to be used, so that everyone can be kept safe at work?

The HSE and Public Health England continue to look at the guidance, and they believe that it is robust enough for the new variants. It has been very clear, right from the outset, that ventilation is an important weapon in tackling covid.

Topical Questions

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.