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Topical Questions

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 23 March 2021

In my two months as the BEIS Secretary of State, I have now held meetings with more than 200 businesses across the United Kingdom listening to their concerns and their hopes for the future. Last week, it was my real pleasure to see BEIS helping to make that future brighter when we launched our industrial decarbonisation strategy, which allocates more than £1 billion to driving down emissions from industry and public buildings. We have also published proposals for reforming audit and corporate governance, which will cement Britain’s status as the premier investment destination by raising standards, deterring fraud and empowering, potentially, a new regulator.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the National Engineering Laboratory based in my constituency in East Kilbride has put together a vital proposal to build a clean fuels metrology centre. Given that this project enjoys cross-party support and is vital to the UK’s transition to a decarbonised economy, will he meet me, cross-party members of the all-party hydrogen group and industry representatives to discuss how to progress these important matters?

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Member and her associates in this enterprise. She will know that as Minister of State for Energy I was particularly keen on this new technology and I commissioned a hydrogen strategy that will be published in the next couple of months. I am very interested in this and of course I would be delighted to meet her and her colleagues.

The future of plans for the Wylfa Newydd nuclear power station on Anglesey has been uncertain since Hitachi withdrew its interest. Other companies have, however, expressed an interest in the development, which could secure thousands of highly skilled jobs in north Wales. Will my right hon. Friend therefore meet me, the all-party Mersey Dee North Wales group and industry representatives to discuss the future of nuclear in the region? (913845)

I would be absolutely delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the bodies that he has mentioned. We are absolutely committed to nuclear power and to the people of north Wales, in particular. Wylfa is still a prime candidate for new nuclear power and I look forward to pursuing our discussions to see what may be done in this regard.

Let me associate myself, Mr Speaker, with the important remarks you made on this national day of remembrance.

I want to follow up the question about Liberty Steel because the Business Secretary’s answer simply was not good enough. No ideology or dogma must stand in the way of protecting the jobs of 5,000 people and many more in the supply chain. This is a critical part of our national infrastructure and it is critical to those communities. Will he now do what he has failed to do so far and say that he will do whatever it takes, including public ownership if it is the best value for money choice, to save those jobs if it is necessary?

The right hon. Gentleman will be absolutely aware that this is an ongoing commercial matter. He will know that I have seen local management, representatives of the unions and a number of people who are very, very keenly involved in the steel sector, and it would not be appropriate for me to enter into what is a commercially sensitive situation. My heart goes out to the workers. They are an excellent workforce, and Liberty Steel has a fine tradition in this space, but it would be inappropriate for me to enter into what are live, commercially sensitive issues.

It is not about the Business Secretary’s meetings or about his heart; it is about his action and his willingness to say that he will do plan B if it is necessary to save those jobs, as we expect him to do. The problem is that the reason people are suspicious of the Secretary of State is that there used to be a cross-party consensus in this country about industrial strategy, but in his two months in office he has torn up the industrial strategy, abolished the Industrial Strategy Council, and thrown in the bin all the work local areas have done over a number of years. Maybe he can tell the business community: why does he hate industrial strategy so much?

I think it is very easy for the right hon. Gentleman to get obsessed with the words “industrial strategy”. What this Government are committed to is action. That is why we launched the decarbonisation industrial strategy. That is why we are pursuing the fourth auction round in offshore wind. That is why John Kerry, who I was very happy to meet two weeks ago, said that this country is a world leader in decarbonisation.

Can the Secretary of State assure me that if the Government take the very draconian decision to ban summer holidays abroad this year, they will provide targeted support to compensate the travel sector, which will be decimated by this decision? (913848)

My hon. Friend will know—if he does not, I will let him know—that when I took office two months ago, the things that the travel and hospitality sectors assured me that they needed more than ever were a road map and support. I am pleased to say that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister came up with his road map on 22 February and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor extended unprecedented support to the economy on 3 March. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss whether he wants to see further actions, but we have committed £407 billion—an unprecedented amount—to supporting the economy at this terrible time.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that ITM Power based in my constituency is a leader in hydrogen research and production. It has just massively expanded its factory in my constituency. It is obviously disappointed that in the recent funding announcements the Government backed blue hydrogen projects but not any green hydrogen projects. As soon as restrictions allow, will the Secretary of State commit to visit ITM Power to look at the great work that it is doing and then review Government policy so we can make sure that the UK is where it should be—a world leader in the research and production of green hydrogen? (913846)

The hon. Gentleman will know that I have met ITM Power a number of times; I was honoured to meet them in Grimsby. It does a great job. He will also know that, in my time as Minister of State for Energy, I commissioned the hydrogen strategy, which will be published shortly. At the core of the strategy is a twin-track approach. We are promoting blue hydrogen—which is made through methane natural gas reformation—and, more particularly in answer to his question, we are also committed to green hydrogen, or electrolyser-produced hydrogen, in which ITM Power is the leader.

Country Cousins is an English language school in Ilfracombe in my constituency that every year brings students to North Devon as part of the 550,000 international students who visit the UK to study English, bringing in £1.4 billion and 35,000 jobs to our economy. English language schools were viable, profitable businesses before the pandemic, greatly contributing to their local economies and culture. I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister agrees that, given the right support they will be again. However, many of them have been excluded from the Government’s business rates relief for the next financial year and are struggling. Will my hon. Friend consider committing BEIS to work with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to look at expanding the eligibility for this— (913850)

My hon. Friend has been a champion for all the businesses in her area. We have spent £407 billion on support for businesses, including those that are not eligible for the business rates holiday. The interim report from the fundamental business rates review will be published next month and the full report will be published in the autumn. I urge local authorities to expand their local policies to include some of these businesses in the additional restrictions grant.

The answer earlier that the Government would respond to the appalling fire and rehire in due course is Whitehall-speak for kicking it into the long grass, and it is not good enough. Will the Government learn from the methodology of their vaccine taskforce to move at speed, clarify the problem, identify a solution and make and rapidly implement decisions? Secretary of State, will you cut through the red tape and sort out this scandal? You may even make yourself popular. (913849)

The right hon. Gentleman has obviously been speaking to my officials because the issue has popped up on my desk this morning. We will not kick this into the long grass. We will tackle it. We will not allow bully boy tactics. We want a flexible workforce, but not at any cost.

Across Sevenoaks and Swanley, high streets are preparing to reopen, supported by our brilliant Sevenoaks District Council. However, we are finding that some of our local businesses are being rejected for support from the high street recovery fund. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meet me and my local council to discuss how we can address some of the issues?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and others to discuss these important issues. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the high street is clearly a hugely important part of our economy, and that is why the business rates review will be particularly interesting.

Under the seasonal workers scheme, young people arrive from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine to pick fruit and vegetables to feed our public, but they are employed on zero-hours contracts, sometimes deprived of work, and cannot make money. This is a form of modern-day slavery. Will the Minister look into it and make sure we put an end to it? (913851)

Zero-hours contracts provide flexibility for the vast majority of people who use them and appreciate the benefits. We have got rid of exclusivity contracts. Clearly, given the impact of covid on employment, when we introduce the employment Bill in due course we will reflect on the lessons learned over this period.

Bucking- hamshire Council has done a remarkable job in distributing more than 95% of the additional restrictions grant funding that it has received from the Department, getting that money to local small firms. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that the further funding that has been promised will be transferred to the council very soon so that there is no delay in getting that cash to where it is needed most—to Aylesbury’s brilliant businesses? (913856)

I can assure my hon. Friend that the guidance will come out shortly, and that the funding will be with local councils in April—on 1 April. I urge him again to make sure that that money gets out of the door to businesses when they need it: now.

The 555 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses who took the Post Office to court in 2019 are not included in the historical shortfall scheme, creating two tiers of justice. Their award, after costs, did not even scratch the surface of their losses, so does the Minister agree that, if justice is to be served, every victim must have their claim validated under the same terms of the historical shortfall scheme? (913853)

Members of the group litigation scheme entered into a full, final settlement through mediation with Post Office Ltd last year, but we are working with sub-postmasters who have come forward on the historical shortfall scheme. I urge them still to come forward to the Post Office Horizon inquiry led by former judge Sir Wyn Williams, who is calling for evidence at the moment.

May I welcome the exciting industrial decarbon-isation strategy, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State launched last week, backed by £1 billion, £78 million of which will be spent in Greater Manchester? Does the Minister agree that that provides a road map to decarbonising our economy, and is an exciting opportunity for my Heywood and Middleton constituents to seek green new jobs? (913857)

I thank my hon. Friend for his commitment to Greater Manchester and his constituency. We are committed to building back better and creating those green jobs, which will help to accelerate our world-leading path to net zero. The package of measures set out in the industrial decarbonisation strategy is part of this complex and critical path to success.

Ellesmere Port is home to the HyNet North West project, and we were absolutely delighted to secure funding in the first round of Government support. However, there is concern that different levels of priority will be applied to the various hydrogen projects around the country when future funding is determined, so there is a risk of losing momentum. Will the Department look again at that proposal and ensure that in future funding rounds no project is held back? (913854)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have considerable plans for hydrogen production. We have a hydrogen strategy coming forward, and we have consulted on business models. I am sure that people in Ellesmere Port, and the HyNet cluster generally, will have a big part to play in the development of hydrogen production in this country.

The Beddington incinerator is one of the biggest carbon polluters in Carshalton and Wallington. I have previously raised concerns about recyclable materials being sent for incineration. What estimates has the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy made of the quantity of recyclable materials sent to so-called energy-from-waste operations, and what steps has the Department taken to ensure that those activities record carbon output accurately? (913858)

The proportion of residual waste sent to landfill, incineration and transfer stations that could otherwise have been recycled in England in 2020 is not available, I am afraid, but data on waste arisings are not structured around the material composition of waste streams. For both fossil and biogenic CO2 for energy-from-waste plants, national emissions estimates are based on an emission factor derived using the 2006 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change default factor for biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste.

Given that women are disproportionately more likely to lose their job during the pandemic, what conversations has the Minister had recently with the Department for Work and Pensions about how to support women back into work? (913860)

I speak to DWP Ministers all the time about how to create jobs for women and for all people in the UK. We had record jobs creation after the last recession. Equally, we are planning to grow and bounce back.

May I urge my friends in BEIS to think again about weddings? It is simply not logical and not fair that where venue organisers can arrange safe social distancing we continue to deny young couples who are seeking to marry that vital opportunity to have friends and family around them. (913859)

I can guarantee I think of little else at the moment, because of the way my right hon. Friend and her colleagues in the weddings taskforce have pressed that very just cause. In stage 2, wedding ceremonies in churches, register offices, dedicated wedding venues and other premises that can open will be able to take place with up to 15 people indoors and receptions outdoors. We are looking forward to expanding that in stage 3, and the events programme will conduct research to ensure that we can have non-socially distanced events and larger weddings post June.

I will now suspend the House to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.