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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 23 March 2021

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

TV Advertising Restrictions to Reduce Obesity

What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the effect on businesses of proposed TV advertising restrictions to help reduce rates of obesity. (913785)

I assure my hon. Friend that I meet regularly with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on a range of issues. My Department has engaged with businesses and colleagues across the country and within Government to ensure that our policy is proportionate and achieves the Government’s desired public health outcomes.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He may be aware that the scope of products captured in this proposal will be very wide indeed, including kitchen cupboard products such as All-Bran, HP sauce and cough sweets such as Fisherman’s Friend—products that are unlikely to appeal to children. Given the significant hit to business and UK broadcasters specifically, will he commit to working with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to narrow the scope of products covered by this proposal?

Of course I would be very happy to work closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. As I noted in my initial answer, my Department has worked closely with the Department of Health and Social Care up to this point, but I would be happy to hear more from my hon. Friend about this particularly important issue.

Queen’s Speech: Employment Legislation

What the timeframe is for bringing forward the legislative proposals on employment announced in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech. (913786)

What the timeframe is for bringing forward the legislative proposals on employment announced in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech. (913790)

I am grateful for the opportunity to say here in the House that the Government do intend to bring forward the employment Bill when parliamentary time allows.

The TUC estimates that 3.6 million people—one worker in nine—were in insecure work ahead of the coronavirus outbreak, leaving them exposed to massive drops in income or unsafe working conditions. It was bad then, and it is worse now. The Government have driven the author of their own Taylor review to say in quite extraordinary terms that the Government have lost their “enthusiasm” for enforcing workers’ rights. With no employment Bill yet on the horizon, is that not the plain truth for all to see? Whose side are the Government on?

I will take no lessons from the hon. Lady about workers’ rights and what this Government have done over many years to protect workers’ rights. The national living wage is higher than it has ever been in this country’s history. We have taken thousands of people out of tax, and I am not going to take any lectures from her.

If the Secretary of State will not take lessons from my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), will he take lessons from the TUC, which estimates that fire and rehire is most likely to take place among young people and black and Asian workers, or will he take lessons from Go North West, which sacked its workforce in Greater Manchester, and offered them increased hours of work, loss of sick pay and a reduction in annual pay of £2,500? Is that what the Secretary of State wants, to make Britain the best place in the world for work?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s question. He will know that I take my relations and my conversations with the TUC extremely seriously. I have met a number of TUC leaders since taking up the post two months ago, and I am very conscious that fire and rehire as a negotiating tactic is completely unacceptable.

The Secretary of State says that he does not take lessons from Labour—this is from the man who described the British as

“the worst idlers in the world.”

The Supreme Court ruling that Uber drivers are workers, rejecting the company’s claim that its drivers are self-employed, sets a precedent for all gig economy workers, who will also be entitled to the minimum wage, holiday pay and sick pay, but it took Uber drivers six long years of legal action to have their rights recognised. The Government must not abandon the 3 million adults in the UK working in the gig economy to spend years fighting in the courts. So will the Secretary of State commit to introducing legislation in this Session of Parliament to ensure that all gig economy workers receive basic employment rights?

As I said in response to an earlier question, we are going to introduce an employment Bill not in this Session but when parliamentary time allows. We are also of course considering the effects of this extremely important Supreme Court ruling and we are considering options to improve clarity around employment status.

Support for Businesses: Discussions with the Chancellor

What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on increasing support to businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (913787)

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has extended our support measures in the most recent Budget to provide an additional £65 billion. With the new restart grant scheme, the Government will have allocated a total of £25 billion in business grants. Our restart grants will provide up to £6,000 for non-essential retail businesses and up to £18,000 for hospitality, personal care and gyms. This year and next year, we are spending £407 billion to support people and businesses throughout the pandemic.

We know that when big business is set to fail former Prime Minister David Cameron uses his hotline to the Chancellor. With 3 million still excluded and the £20 universal credit uplift, furlough and self-employed support ending in September, can the Minister tell us whether any former Tory leaders have contacted the Department on their behalf, or is it sink or swim for the ordinary folk?

As I have indicated before, this Government have done unprecedented work and one of the things we do all the time is speak to stakeholders and all the people we need to. Think about the money we have invested: £407 billion to support people and businesses throughout the pandemic.

Many bricks-and-mortar retailers are still desperately concerned about the build-up of commercial rents during the lockdown, including many pubs that are prevented from negotiating a rent review due to restrictions in regulation 7 of the pubs code. The recent extension of the ban on commercial evictions is welcome, but when will Ministers come forward with a long-term solution to commercial rents?

I thank the hon. Member for the question. One of the things we are doing is working with the stakeholders. We have done a review of the pub code and we will be reporting on that situation soon, but we have extended the moratorium and we will be looking into this as well.

I am afraid the previous answer simply was not good enough, because we cannot have a situation where some businesses do not have the support that they need while another set of businesses have had absolute certainty since the start of the pandemic—those, of course, being the ones with links to the Tory party; as we now know, they have had Ministers on speed-dial since day one and even a former Prime Minister tried to get in on the act. So does the Minister believe her Government have a culture of covid cronyism at their very heart, and will she now back an independent investigation into apparent lobbying by David Cameron?

Throughout the covid-19 pandemic, the Government have supported people and businesses across the United Kingdom. The Budget extends the UK coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme and extends the VAT cut to support tourism, leisure and all the sectors. People and businesses all over the United Kingdom will benefit and have benefited from the Government’s actions.

Women in Business

The Government have taken significant steps to support women in businesses. We have launched the Government-backed Women’s Business Council and published the women in finance charter. The recent Rose review and report also shows that good progress is being made to overcome barriers for women entrepreneurs.

The majority of people employed in the wedding industry are women. The road map out of lockdown offers very little hope for the wedding industry or the supply chain as couples would rather wait than have only six, 15 or 30 guests. What assurances can my hon. Friend provide that women in the wedding industry will receive the support their businesses need to survive until June 2021, or even beyond?

I thank my hon. Friend for her great support; I know how much she supports women entrepreneurs, especially with Derbys Finest. Since March 2020, the Government have provided an unprecedented package of financial support to businesses, including those in the wedding sector. That package of support is kept under regular review. My colleague the Minister for Small Business regularly meets the industry-led weddings taskforce to understand the impact of covid-19 on businesses in this sector.

Research clearly shows that gender-diverse boards perform better on every single measure, so it stands to reason that diversity across the workforce can only be a benefit. Will the Minister confirm what steps the Government are taking to encourage more women into business, particularly in areas such as engineering and science, in which they are traditionally under-represented?

My hon. Friend makes a really important point, and I thank him for his tireless work to champion women, especially in his role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women and enterprise. I sincerely thank him for that. FTSE companies have indeed made great progress, and we have seen a more than 60% increase in the number of women on boards in the past six years. The Government recognise that the science, technology, engineering and maths workforce is vital to increasing the UK’s productivity and economic growth, and I am really pleased that Government-funded programmes such as the STEM ambassador programme and the CREST awards are successfully encouraging young women into STEM roles.

Vaccine Taskforce

The vaccine taskforce has successfully brought together the collective effort of Government, academia and industry behind a single purpose and mission. Its hard work and focus, in partnership with the NHS and other organisations, helped the UK to become the first country to procure, authorise and deploy the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines. As I speak, over 30 million individuals across the UK have now received their first dose.

As the Secretary of State has rightly acknowledged, under his Department’s authorisation the vaccine taskforce has performed brilliantly, but it has needed a scientific and industrial base that was already there to work with. As he knows, there are some concerns about dependency on an overseas supply chain that may be interrupted. As the new Secretary of State, will he make a name for himself by challenging the dead hand of Treasury dogma and ensuring that Government contracts and projects across the board put British industry first at last?

I am very pleased that the right hon. Gentleman is so enthusiastic about our British ingenuity and hard work. I and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer are always working extremely hard and are very focused on trying to promote innovation in this country in our research and development base.

Covid-19: Wedding Industry

My officials and I regularly meet the industry-led weddings taskforce, established to represent all parts of the UK wedding sector, to understand the impact of the pandemic on jobs and businesses.

The Minister knows that businesses in the wedding industry have faced an incredibly difficult year, and they have not had much financial help. He also knows that this is a very seasonal industry, and confidence is at an all-time low. Does he think it is acceptable that, even now, people are still confused about the guidance regarding the wedding industry—whether to have weddings; what sort of numbers there should be—and that the guidelines that have been issued are very vague and confused? Does he accept that it is unacceptable that people are still asking for clarity at this stage, bearing in mind that the wedding season is about to start?

Having dealt with the UK weddings taskforce, I understand the need to plan. We have published the guidance for ceremonies, and receptions will follow. Receptions from 12 April will be outdoor receptions. I am pleased that the UK weddings taskforce pushed us so that we were able to include dedicated wedding venues in that guidance.

The Chancellor announced in his Budget a raft of new measures to help to support businesses, including those in the wedding sector. These include an extension to the furlough and self-employment income support schemes and further grants for business.

The wedding industry has suffered disproportionately during the last year and I am concerned that the anomalies will continue. For instance, if we look at phase 3—from 17 May—we see that a venue in my constituency, such as Kensington Palace Pavilion, will be able to open to a music event at 50% capacity, which is 200 people, with alcohol, but a wedding the next day in exactly the same venue will be able to host only 30 people. Can my hon. Friend explain that anomaly?

My hon. Friend has been a formidable champion for businesses in her area, including weddings, personal care and hospitality, especially. The pace and sequencing of reopening in the road map have been informed by the latest scientific evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies in its working groups. Weddings, which bring family and friends together, with their interaction, are particularly vulnerable to the spread of covid-19.

Rural Electricity Grid Investment: Electric Vehicles

What recent discussions he has had with electricity network distribution operators on the adequacy of investment in rural electricity grids to meet potential demand as a result of a transition to electric vehicles. (913795)

Distribution network operators are incentivised to ensure adequate investment in electricity networks under the framework set by the independent regulator, Ofgem. My officials regularly meet distribution network operators to discuss impacts of the electric vehicle transition, including in rural areas.

Diolch, Mr Speaker. Achieving Wales’s ambitious climate targets would require a rapid transition to electric vehicles, yet currently just 0.17% of vehicles used in Wales are electric. One of the biggest barriers to the transition is grid capacity, particularly in rural areas. Will the Minister outline how she will future-proof the grid in Wales, especially after the concerns expressed by the former deputy national security adviser, Paddy McGuinness, that the integrated review published last week failed to focus on the dangers that a future cyber-attack on the grid would pose as the EV transition accelerates?

The majority of the UK Government’s infrastructure grant schemes are available in Wales, and we are working with the Welsh Government to ensure that there are strong and co-ordinated plans in place to support the roll-out of charging infrastructure. We recognise the particular challenges that some rural areas may face across the UK, such as longer distances between substations, and Ofgem has set up a funding framework to ensure that our electricity network supports our net zero ambitions.

Dismiss and Re-engage Tactics in Negotiations

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. (913796)

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. (913807)

We have been very clear that employers threatening to fire and rehire as a negotiating tactic is completely unacceptable. As we have been concerned by such reports, we engaged ACAS to conduct a fact-finding exercise as to how fire and rehire has been used. It spoke to a wide range of stakeholders, including businesses and employee representatives. We are now considering these findings.

The Government have been sitting on the ACAS fire and rehire report now for over a month, raising fears that they are trying to bury it because they do not agree with the recommendations. Will the Minister tell me when we will get a chance to see what ACAS has to say, and, in the meantime, will she tell us whether ACAS agrees that the shameful practice of fire and rehire is quite simply unacceptable?

As I previously stated, we find that fire and rehire is just not acceptable. In fact, the Department engaged ACAS to hold discussions in order to generate the evidence that we need. We therefore need to make sure that we consider all this. There is, of course, a degree of confidentiality that we need to bear in mind as well. ACAS officials shared their findings with BEIS officials in February, as the hon. Lady rightly said. We are giving this full consideration and will communicate our next steps in due course.

Fire and rehire is utterly immoral. Members across the House have received many emails from desperate constituents who are being subjected to the disgraceful tactic. From British Airways and British Gas to Go North West, workers across the country have been treated with contempt. One of my constituents who was served with a section 188 notice said to me, “We want changes to be made with us, not to us.” Seeing as this Government promised to protect and enhance workers’ rights when we left the EU, will the Minister confirm how many employers in receipt of coronavirus job retention scheme payments have adopted fire and rehire tactics, and will she now commit to outlawing this practice once and for all?

Just to reiterate, we have been holding clear consultations with a group of stakeholders and ACAS has been conducting this for us. We will be republishing the report in due course.

Energy Efficiency in Homes

The Government are committed to getting as many homes as possible to EPC band C by 2035, where cost-effective, practical and affordable. We are doing this through setting long-term minimum standards, providing financial support where it is needed most, and getting the market conditions right to support action.

The green homes grant is a scheme that can improve home insulation, cut carbon, save on energy bills and create jobs across the country. It needs backing, not scrapping, so what plans does the Minister have to extend and improve the green homes grant, and how does she see the scheme helping to improve the efficiency of older, often rural, homes, especially those with solid walls, which use more energy and cost more to heat?

We absolutely recognise that older rural properties may be more challenging to improve. That is why we provide an incentive for off-gas homes under the current energy company obligation, and we will focus the future home upgrade grant on poorer-performing homes. We also have a range of exemptions under our minimum standard regulations for homes that are too expensive or difficult to improve. This is a really important aspect of our net zero challenges, and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend in the months ahead.

The situation regarding covid-19 has had a big impact on the household incomes of residents in Wolverhampton. What long-term plans does my right hon. Friend have to help elderly and working-age residents to save money on utility bills and give them access to affordable energy efficiency schemes?

The Government have invested £500 million in the local authority delivery scheme to improve the energy efficiency of low-income households, helping to reduce fuel poverty for around 50,000 households by the end of this year. My hon. Friend is a champion for his constituents in Wolverhampton, and I look forward to working with him as we work with those communities and households to meet our net zero challenge through home efficiency improvements.

I am now going to interrupt the proceedings. We are going to pause questions, and I would like to invite the House to join me in a moment of reflection. Today marks one year since the Prime Minister addressed the nation and asked us all to stay at home to combat the spread of coronavirus. Since then, many thousands of lives have been lost and the lives of those left behind have been changed forever. Every single one of us has been affected. It is right that we pause now, together with the whole country, and remember those who have died and those who are bereaved. Our thoughts and prayers will always be with those colleagues who worked with us in serving this House who also died. They will not be forgotten.

It is so important that we do this and that the nation comes together as we now see the green shoots that will hopefully take us out of this pandemic. Hopefully we will have a world that comes back to all of us. We will remember the role that Members have played in this House and the way that we have worked together, not only to enable the Government to legislate but to ensure that the Opposition can scrutinise as well. It has been so important for us all to get to this stage, and hopefully when we get beyond this, we will see a House return. As I say, we will not forget those who have died in this country, but we will also remember those who have died serving this House. It is important to us to ensure that they will be remembered, and we will be doing something to remember them at an appropriate stage in the future. The country is united and at this moment, we will take one minute’s silence. I say thanks to those who have turned up in the Chamber now, and I know that across the estate people will be recognising this important one minute’s silence. Nobody could ever have envisaged the numbers across the world that would be lost and the sacrifice that this country has made. A big thank you also goes to the NHS workers and all those who have been involved in making this country tick over, whether in transport or in shops. It is important to us all. I invite Members to stand for one minute’s silence.

The House observed a minute’s silence.

May I say that Opposition Members wish to be strongly associated with your words this morning, Mr Speaker, and that I am sure that goes for everybody else in the Chamber today?

The Government’s flagship programme to improve energy efficiency in homes, the green homes grant scheme, has produced figures for the latest month: vouchers applied for—18,526: vouchers issued—1,186; measures installed—99; and, I am not making this up, measures paid for—20. Does the Minister take responsibility for this catastrophic failure of a scheme? Will she say now whether she intends to extend the programme and roll the funding over so that it has a chance to succeed in the end? If she does, will she be sacking the US-based private consultancy firm she hired to run this awful mess?

May I, too, associate myself with your words earlier, Mr Speaker? I think we have all, sadly, been touched by the loss of someone, or more than one person, whom we have known to this dreadful disease in the past year. Thank you for your words, because it is so important that we are able to hold this moment together.

The green homes grant voucher scheme has made significant strides since its launch in September 2020. We have received more than 90,000 applications and issued 33,000 vouchers, worth £142 million, and an additional £500 million has been given to local authorities to improve the energy efficiency of low-income households, helping to reduce fuel poverty for about 50,000 households by the end of this year. This is such an important part of the just transition that we want to ensure that we achieve with net zero. We recognise that the scheme has faced a number of delivery challenges, as many new mechanisms do, which has meant it has not delivered at the rate or the scale that we had originally hoped it would. However, we are working with the scheme administrator to process the backlog of voucher applications, streamlining the voucher issuance and redemption process as a top priority. Some delays in voucher processing are due to our robust fraud and gaming checks, which we have implemented by learning from previous schemes.

May I associate myself, and all those participating in proceedings remotely, with the moment of national reflection that you have just led, Mr Speaker? Thank you. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend will have seen the report published by the Environmental Audit Committee on the energy efficiency of existing homes, in which we highlighted the scale of the challenge in decarbonising the 19 million homes in this country that account for most of the 20% of UK emissions from domestic buildings. Will the Government commit in the heat and building strategy to a clear timetable to encourage owners of all tenures of homes to install affordable energy upgrades, in order to meet our net zero Britain targets?

My right hon. Friend is right that the challenge of making all our homes energy-efficient and moving to net zero is enormous. I thank him for his leadership, as Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, in looking in depth at some of the vital issues, to help us not only to solve the technical and financial challenges but to encourage our constituents to make changes to reduce their power and heat usage through efficiency.

We have a strong track record in improving the energy performance of our homes over the past decade, with 40% above energy performance certificate band C —up from only 9% in 2008. We are also funding the first hydrogen-powered homes in Gateshead and allocating more than £500 million this year alone to improve the energy efficiency of 50,000 households in social and local authority housing throughout the UK.

Covid-19: Supply Chain Businesses

At the Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced an extra £425 million in additional restrictions grant funding to local authorities, which means that more than £2 billion has been made available to local authorities since November 2020. This discretionary funding enables local authorities to support businesses, including businesses in supply chains that are impacted by restrictions but ineligible for other measures.

Given that the UK has suffered the worst recession of any major economy, businesses in Slough and throughout our country find themselves in a precarious position. To help them, the Government should have brought forward a plan that includes debt restructuring and a job guarantee for the young. Despite repeated requests, an estimated 3 million people—including taxi drivers, plumbers, other self-employed people and sole traders—find themselves with absolutely no support at all from the Government. What does the Minister say to people who have worked hard their entire lives, paid their taxes and now find themselves and their businesses up against the wall and collapsing, through no fault of their own?

Indeed, we do find ourselves in unprecedented times, but the Government have been so committed in all the things we have done. We have committed to providing additional support for small and medium-sized enterprises as restrictions are lifted, and businesses will continue to benefit from Government-guaranteed finance throughout 2021. On young people, the apprenticeship scheme we are offering is second to none.

Paid Neonatal Leave

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on bringing forward legislative proposals to introduce paid neonatal leave. (913800)

I understand how difficult it is for parents whose newborn baby needs to spend time in neonatal care, which is why last year we set out our intention to introduce a new, generous entitlement to paid leave for those parents. We remain fully committed to doing so and will legislate as part of an employment Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows.

It has now been more than a year since the Government committed to implementing paid neonatal leave to support the parents of babies born sick or prematurely, but we are still yet to see any progress. Will the Minister confirm exactly when the Government plan to bring forward the necessary legislation to ensure that the new entitlement is available in 2023, as promised in the March 2020 Budget?

The Government remain committed to bringing forward the employment Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows. The delivery of the new entitlement to neonatal leave and pay will require changes to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ IT payment systems to allow employers to administer statutory neonatal pay on behalf of the Government, but we are working towards that goal.

British Steel Production

I thank the hon. Lady for meeting me on 10 March to discuss this vital issue. It is of course a commercially sensitive matter that the Government are monitoring extremely closely.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but more than 5,000 workers at Liberty Steel, including 900 in Rotherham, are facing an uncertain future following the collapse of Greensill Capital. Will the Secretary of State now commit, as other Governments in Europe have done, to step in, if necessary, to safeguard this vital strategic industry?

The hon. Lady will know that in my meetings with management and relevant union leaders, I have always stressed that the management plans need to be worked through. We are monitoring the situation extremely closely. The hon. Lady will know that I have a direct interest in the future of Liberty Steel.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, as well as supporting tens of thousands of decent jobs, UK steelmaking capacity is of key strategic importance to our future competitiveness and resilience? If he does, is he as concerned as we are about the future of Liberty Steel, and will he ensure that the Government are working now on a plan B with all options on the table, including public ownership, should the firm fail to secure finance? Or is he ideologically opposed to this, preferring the UK Government either to step aside or to spend huge sums to prop up businesses at risk only to sell them off cheap overseas?

The hon. Lady will know that we have a repeated and often stated commitment to decarbonisation in our industry. It was only last week that we published, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, the industrial decarbonisation strategy. She will also appreciate that the steel industry is a vital part of that decarbonisation strategy.

Horizon Europe

What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the funding of the UK associating to Horizon Europe. (913802)

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy regularly speaks to Her Majesty’s Treasury on a range of issues. I am pleased that we are taking part in the Horizon Europe programme; it will bring a huge benefit to the United Kingdom. We will set out our plans for 2021-22, including Horizon Europe funding, in due course.

Last week, the Government’s integrated review confirmed that there would be a multi-year settlement for UK Research and Innovation. Can the Minister confirm that funding for associating to Horizon Europe will be covered separately from this settlement? If not, can she explain how funding for Horizon Europe and this multi-year uplifted settlement will be supported?

As I have previously mentioned, the discussions around this are ongoing and the funding will be announced in due course. I would like to point out to the hon. Lady that we have an ambition to be a science superpower and, in fact, we have committed £22 billion by 2024-25.

Everyone who has had a coronavirus vaccine knows of the deep sense of gratitude to scientists. In facing the challenge of climate change, future pandemics and technological change, we look to science. At the general election, the Prime Minister promised to double science spend. Instead, we appear to have a £1 billion cut to the science budget plus a £120 million cut to our overseas development science as part of a “new settlement” that protects

“the most effective research programmes.”

Can the Minister say which programmes will be cut, which scientists will lose their grants, and which institutions will close? The Government who clap the NHS but impose a real-terms pay cut now plan to praise science and cut scientists.

BEIS regularly has talks with Her Majesty’s Treasury on these issues. Let me reiterate that we plan to be a science superpower by 2024-25, with a £22 billion investment. We also have a Second Reading debate today on a high-risk, high-reward agency. Furthermore, in terms of the spending review, more than £40 billion across Government was spent on science.

Energy Transition Projects in Scotland

The Chancellor’s Budget recently announced significant investment for energy transition projects in Scotland. We hope to shortly announce the North sea transition deal, which will play a vital role in transitioning the oil and gas industry to low carbon alternatives.

COP26 will allow Scotland to showcase existing and emerging net-zero technologies, but, policy-wise, we need to see a minimum floor mechanism for pumped storage hydro. We need innovation power purchase agreements available for wave and tidal, a contract for difference for hydrogen and the go-ahead for the Acorn carbon capture and storage project. Will the Minister meet me to discuss these matters and take the necessary actions ahead of COP26?

It is always a pleasure to meet the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) to discuss these matters. COP26 is such an important moment, not only with our carrying the responsibility of the presidency to help encourage other countries to do more to reach their net-zero targets, but in order to showcase the genuinely world-leading decisions that we have taken to drive our own net zero.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) just mentioned a number of areas where the UK Government can and should invest in Scotland. But we do not just need cash; we need a level playing field. That is particularly true in relation to the electricity grid. I am sure that the Minister is aware that a new renewables project in Scotland will have to pay in excess of £4 per unit to access the grid, whereas the renewables project in the south-east of England gets paid £1 per unit to access the very same grid. That is no Union of equals. Scotland has the ability to lead Europe in the renewables field. Why are the Tories trying to hold us back?

Scotland has indeed played an important part, particularly in the wind development sector. The Chancellor’s Budget included £5 million for the global underwater hub in Aberdeen, £2 million for the North sea transition deal and £27 million for the Aberdeen energy transition zone. This is just one part of the whole net zero challenge that we are looking to take on. We look forward to continuing to work with our Scottish colleagues.

Covid-19: Support for Businesses

We have spent over £352 billion, and have committed £407 billion to an unprecedented package of support for businesses, including the job retention scheme, support grants and Government-backed loans. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer recently presented to Parliament his Budget, which sets out the additional £65 billion to support people and businesses.

I very much welcome the restart grants and the sector-specific guidance for weddings as we cautiously reopen the economy. Will the ministerial team please keep updating the guidance on reopening for the hospitality and retail sectors, so that businesses can successfully reopen in a covid-safe way?

I thank my hon. Friend for his ongoing support and for championing businesses, including in the hospitality and wedding sector. We will continue to ensure as best we can that the guidance is available in time for businesses to plan and to give them the certainty they need.

Many councils, including my own in Bury, retain millions of pounds of additional restrictions grant moneys in their bank accounts, rather than distributing this crucial financial support to businesses in need. What steps can my hon. Friend take to ensure that these moneys are used to support businesses now?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work that he does for his local businesses. At the Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced £425 million of additional restrictions grant funding to local authorities, which means that more than £2 billion has been made available to local authorities since November 2020. The Government will continue to work closely with local authorities to ensure that these grants are distributed to businesses when they need them and that the additional money can be used. I urge authorities to relook at their local policies to include businesses that have not had that support in the past.

The UK furniture industry is a success story, with nearly £17 billion of annual consumer expenditure, over 330,000 jobs and exports that had grown to more than £1 billion a year before the pandemic. My constituency of Dewsbury is the UK’s third largest furniture manufacturing base and it faces a number of challenges, including a potential global shortage of steel and foam, and issues relating to rules of origin. Will the Minister agree to meet the British Furniture Confederation to address these concerns and help to ensure that the industry continues to thrive?

My hon. Friend, having worked in the sector, is an excellent champion for it. I understand that these remain extremely challenging times for the furniture industry, which particularly relies on retail premises to sell its products. I speak to the British Furniture Confederation on a regular basis as part of my roundtables, but I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend and the confederation itself.

Topical Questions

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.