House of Commons
Thursday 25 March 2021
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Business Before Questions
That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a New Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough Constituency of Hartlepool in the room of Michael Robert Hill, who since his election for the said Borough Constituency has been appointed to the Office of Steward and Bailiff of Her Majesty’s Three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham in the County of Buckingham.—(Mr Nicholas Brown.)
That, on the sixth day of April 2021, the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a New Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County Constituency of Airdrie and Shotts in the room of Neil Charles Gray, who since his election for the said County Constituency has been appointed to the Office of Steward and Bailiff of Her Majesty’s Manor of Northstead in the County of York.—(Owen Thompson.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Food and Animal Products: Trade to the EU
World Feeds Ltd in Thorne and FourFriends Pet Food in Dunsville, both in Don Valley, are having issues importing and exporting pet food products between the UK and the EU. It pains me to know that two businesses in my constituency are seeing their cash flow severely disrupted and their reputation damaged in the eyes of their European customers and suppliers. Can my right hon. Friend therefore inform the House what her Department is doing further to rectify such issues? What reassurances can she give these two particular businesses?
I am very sorry to hear that the two businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency are suffering cash-flow issues as a result of, one assumes, goods coming out of customs controls and being then exported back into the EU. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the devolved Administrations have set up the UK Agriculture Market Monitoring Group, which is looking at these issues, but I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the precise issues those companies are facing to see what further we can do in the interim while these things are resolved.
Government Contracts: Small Businesses
Each year, the Government spend some £290 billion on public procurement. Now that the EU transition period has ended, we aim to make it simpler, quicker and cheaper for small and medium-sized enterprises to bid for Government contracts, as set out in our ambitious procurement Green Paper. We received over 600 responses to that consultation and the submission from the Federation of Small Businesses welcomed our drive to simplify and diversify public procurement.
Across Keighley and Ilkley, we have some of the finest small to medium-sized businesses which are passionate about the products they produce and the services they offer. Many are hungry for growth and expansion opportunities—I think of Wyedean Weaving, which is based in the Worth Valley. However, sometimes small businesses feel disadvantaged in comparison to larger businesses when it comes to bidding and being selected for Government contracts. Can my hon. Friend outline what her Department is doing to ensure that there is no disparity in the process and that small businesses have just as much chance of being selected as larger businesses?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I know that businesses in Keighley will really appreciate what a great champion he is for their interests. We are doing a range of things within our new measures. We want to slash 350-plus regulations and put this into a single uniform framework. We want to do things such as reserve contracts below a certain threshold for SMEs, be able to discriminate by virtue of geography and divide contracts up into smaller lots. There is much more that I can talk to him about if he is interested in this subject.
I thank my hon. Friend for her response. Alongside wonderful small businesses, does the Cabinet Office also look at venture capital companies to enable Government Departments to have the opportunity to support and benefit from our brilliant, innovative venture businesses?
We are looking all the time at how we innovate in public procurement. Some of my hon. Friend’s query might be better addressed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or Her Majesty’s Treasury, but we hope that the improvements that we are proposing will open up many more opportunities to SMEs. She might also be interested in existing programmes such as the small business research initiative, which funds organisations to conduct challenge-based R&D to develop products or services that address a specific unmet public sector need.
I thank the Minister for her response. May I invite her to come and visit Carshalton and Wallington post pandemic to meet some of the small and medium-sized businesses that are keen to bid for Government contracts, to hear their concerns about the process and to encourage more to look at opportunities to do so?
I would be very happy to do so. My hon. Friend understands that the Government have tremendous buying power, which we think we can use to drive the recovery. We want to use our procurement reforms to open up many more opportunities to SMEs. We are doing that in a range of ways, which I have discussed, but we also have a new social value model, which explicitly allows greater weight to be given to those bids that will help to drive the post-covid economic recovery.
The economic success of our country depends on small and medium-sized businesses and their enterprise and entrepreneurial skills. As the UK seeks to rebuild our economy, does the Minister agree that SMEs should be at the forefront of bidding and securing Government contracts?
I completely agree. We want to see a much greater variety of companies deliver contracts from every corner of our country, not just because it benefits local economies and communities, but because we think it helps to diversify our risk, creates a more resilient supplier base and delivers some of our critical priorities.
Small businesses are often the source of innovation, particularly in the digital economy. It is often through digital investment that productivity is boosted, so how is my hon. Friend ensuring that those responsible for Government procurement and implementation have the skills that they need to take advantage of the opportunities that small businesses are creating?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Along with our procurement reforms, the Cabinet Office has also created a new Central, Digital And Data Office under expert leadership, and through that, we want to improve digital capability and expertise across Government. We also want to create many more opportunities for tech start-ups and other dynamic digital SMEs to bid for Government work, and the CDDO team is closely engaged in how we can do that through the forthcoming procurement Bill.
Civil Service: Location of Jobs
As the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, naturally, my heart is always in the north-west of England. However, I am delighted that more civil service jobs will be moving to York. I am also delighted that other Departments have made their own announcements about the relocation of senior positions in our civil service, with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government announcing plans to create a second headquarters in Wolverhampton, the Treasury creating an economic campus in Darlington, alongside the Department for International Trade, and, of course, DIT has established trade and investment hubs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Cabinet Office has also announced that our second headquarters will be located in Glasgow, with 500 officials to be located there, and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has established a joint headquarters in east Kilbride with 1,000 new roles relocating to Scotland.
First came the promise on the House of Lords, then it was the northern Government hub, then some Cabinet Office jobs, with hopes raised and then dashed in York—one of the worst hit economies from covid-19, yet one of the best connected northern cities, with a brownfield site adjacent to the station and full of people eager to serve. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster set out the framework within which his Government determine which locations are recipients of central Government jobs, resources and projects across the piece, so that we can all understand whether transparency or cronyism is driving this Government? And exactly how many jobs will York get?
Transparency drives everything that the Government do—that and a commitment to levelling up and ensuring that our Union is stronger. That is why we are moving jobs to Glasgow, a beautiful city that, sadly, has not flourished as it might have done under the Scottish Government’s stewardship over the course of the last 14 years. It is also why we are moving jobs to York, the city that the hon. Lady so ably represents alongside my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy). We will be increasing the number of Cabinet Office jobs in York by 50% in the coming months, and it is not just the Cabinet Office; other Government jobs will be coming to York as well, because, as she rightly points out, its transport connectivity, its historical connections and its potential for brownfield renovation all make it a superb site for investment.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his earlier answer. Moving Government Departments to the provinces is a fantastic initiative, but I implore him not to forget the southern coast. We may be near to London, but we have deprivation and we need the benefit of civil service jobs in our area. I ask him to give us in Clacton serious consideration.
Thanks to my hon. Friend, I never give Clacton anything other than serious consideration. Clacton, Frinton and the communities that he so ably represents contain talented people who have a contribution to make, and of course we will do everything possible, not necessarily by relocating civil service departments to that part of Essex, but by ensuring that there are opportunities through apprenticeships and the civil service fast stream, to ensure that talented young people in Essex have an opportunity, like him, to serve.
The Minister may know that Hollywood has bought into Wrexham football club, and seeing as our American friends are investing in Wrexham, may I ask the Government to consider doing likewise? We already have the much welcome promise of office relocations to the north of England, so will he make such a commitment to north-east Wales? Will he consider Wrexham, the gateway to Snowdon, with its skilled workforce, business-minded council and easy transport links to Liverpool, Manchester and London, as a candidate for some levelling-up relocation?
My hon. Friend is a brilliant advocate for Wrexham, and an economic renaissance is taking place across north Wales from Dolgellau to Wrexham, ably assisted by the brilliant advocacy of new Conservative MPs such as my hon. Friend and her colleagues. The Government want to get behind that, not just by ensuring that our new levelling up fund can provide additional resources for local authorities and businesses in north Wales, but by ensuring that we can have senior decision makers relocated to north Wales—whether that is in Wrexham, Bangor, Prestatyn, Rhyl or other locations that are still to be decided. Of course, the case that she makes for Wrexham is a formidable one, and one that has been heard in the Cabinet Office and, indeed, in No. 10.
In the recent bidding process for freeports, the port of Immingham in my constituency came out top, scoring high in every category. May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that moving the civil servants who oversee the freeport operation to one of the Humber ports—preferably Immingham—would be a good move?
My hon. Friend makes an important case. Overall responsibility for freeports rests with Her Majesty’s Treasury, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made clear his commitment to ensuring that civil service and other decision-making jobs are relocated effectively across the UK, with the establishment of a second campus in Darlington in Teesside—something that has been done in partnership with the outstanding Mayor of the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen. Of course, there is a concentration of expertise in Humberside, both in north Lincolnshire and the East Riding of Yorkshire, not just in commerce but in renewables, and we will do everything we can to ensure that that expertise is supported by Government.
Census 2021: Covid-19
The Office for National Statistics has assessed the census operation and made adjustments in the light of the pandemic to ensure the safety of the public and census staff. Following census day—which was, of course, Sunday—the ONS remains on target to deliver a high-quality census, and I would reassure and encourage Members that there is still time for those who have not completed the census to do so.
With research suggesting that 40% of those aged 75-plus are digitally excluded, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the now largely digital census does not result in a grossly skewed picture affecting long-term service provision for elderly people?
Considerable steps have been taken to ensure that that scenario does not come about. While I welcome the ONS’s intention for this to be principally a digital census, because that is generally in line with the times, the hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point about our needing to work together to ensure that nobody is left out from that method. The ONS has taken extensive measures to ensure that that is the case, starting, for example, with the ability to use the telephone call centre to request a paper form and then going on to there being many types of support available for completing the form. Indeed, that happens in other communities where extra support may be required. I would be very happy to write to him with fuller details from the ONS, but I stress that that is already available on the ONS census website. Again, I encourage all right hon. and hon. Members to familiarise themselves with that so that we can all best encourage our constituents to fill in the form in the way that suits them best. That will help us all to have a successful census, with the data that will help us to deliver public services.
Office for Veterans’ Affairs
I am incredibly proud of the work of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, which has fundamentally shifted the dial when it comes to looking after our veterans in this country. Whether it is the guaranteed interview scheme, the £10 million mental health care pathway that we established last week, veterans’ railcards or national insurance contribution holidays, we are making slow and irreversible progress in this domain, and we will continue to do so under this Government.
I am enormously grateful to the Minister for his work with the Secretary of State for Wales to create a veterans’ commissioner for Wales. With so many veterans in and around Brecon, this would recognise the circumstances faced by Welsh veterans where services such as healthcare and education are controlled at a devolved level. Will the Minister confirm that work to create the post is under way at pace and that the postholder will work across both Welsh and UK Governments to ensure that all hurdles for Welsh veterans can be overcome?
I pay huge tribute to my hon. Friend for campaigning so energetically on this issue. Veterans’ commissioners are incredibly important across the country. There is no doubt that in some areas there is excellent veterans’ care, and in other places not so much. What this Government are absolutely committed to is levelling up that experience as a veteran across the UK. We have a veterans’ commissioner in Scotland, and in Northern Ireland for the first time. I am delighted that the Welsh Government are working with us on this. We will deliver it so that the whole United Kingdom becomes the best place in the world in which to be an armed forces veteran.
Ports: New Trading Arrangements
The port infrastructure fund is granting £200 million of public funding to ports to build facilities required for border controls, which will now come into effect on 1 January 2022, while checks on live animals, low-risk plants and plant products will come in from 1 March next year. The delay to the introduction of controls announced this month allows more time for accreditation in operational testing of those facilities.
Ministers continue to withhold vital funds needed for Portsmouth International Port to build post-Brexit livestock inspection points, yet other inland sites have been fully funded by Government. The absence of this control post threatens trade worth £10 million per year to local authority-controlled ports. Can the Minister tell the House why she is picking winners when it comes to post-Brexit trade and whether she will deliver on the long overdue promise to explore alternative funding?
We are not picking winners on the issue of facilities. The port infrastructure fund is an investment that ports do not have to make themselves, and Portsmouth has received £17 million. The hon. Gentleman may interested to know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is undertaking a review of facilities that will be needed at border control posts, including facilities for live animals, in advance of March next year to see whether the size and scope of the facilities have changed. We will continue to engage with Portsmouth, as I have been. I have had several meetings with representatives there, but with the change in import controls, there will now be more time to deliver and build these facilities, and we hope that this time proves useful.
Trade with the EU: Non-tariff Barriers
Our trade and co-operation agreement with the EU provides for 100% tariff-free and quota-free access to each other’s markets—the first trade agreement in the world to do so. We are working closely with business, including manufacturing, to minimise any potential disruption.
I wrote to the Minister six weeks ago about my constituent Graham Leggett, who said his worst fears had come true, and shared the concerns of a local freight operator who said that Brexit
“is a far bigger disaster than the huge disaster that I predicted.”
Mr Leggett imports materials to sell across the UK and EU, but now finds it near impossible to arrange exports because he does not have a physical operation in the EU. The impact of paperwork—which he has in order—and extra charges has been catastrophic for his business, 60% of which is with the EU, and it appears that his and other businesses will go bust. This is more than a hiccup or teething problem. What message and help does the Minister have for Mr Leggett?
I am sorry to hear that that business is having ongoing difficulties and that other businesses are too. Frictionless trade would have required regulatory alignment with the EU, which would have undermined our own autonomy in that area and our sovereignty as an independent trading nation. That was not a price that we were prepared to pay. However, we do recognise that these are ongoing difficulties. I would be very happy to look at the individual case. We will be bringing forward further practical measures to address these issues and to provide business with more support.
Bedfordshire chamber of commerce is doing an excellent job helping businesses in Bedford and Kempston to cope with the significant challenges that the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal has imposed on them. Businesses are in shock, trying to overcome the new and complex operational challenges around rules of origin, unexpected tariffs, VAT implications and the vast swathes of logistical paperwork. The Minister needs to understand that these are not just teething problems. Will she attend a roundtable with Bedfordshire chamber of commerce to hear the real experiences of small and medium-sized enterprises that do not know whether they will survive this disruption?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that offer. I am always happy to meet businesses. My noble Friend Lord Frost and I are looking at ways that we can gather information more swiftly and in real time from businesses that are facing difficulties. I would be very happy to follow up with the hon. Gentleman after this session.
Unicorn Grocery in Chorlton tells me that
“the notion that no tariffs means no problem is not the case at all. We still have to deal with agent fees, phytosanitary certificates and organic certificates. The admin fees are the same whether it’s a box of broccoli or a pallet of broccoli.”
These barriers are going to cost Unicorn £170,000 a year. What are the Government going to do to reduce the administrative burden, or support the small businesses that are disproportionately affected?
We have already provided financial support to compensate sectors that are suffering particular issues. We have also put in place a framework whereby we are able to work through these problems. While we do that, we are obviously looking at what we can do to mitigate and reduce prospective burdens that other businesses might be facing, such as stretching out the timetable by which people would have to comply with other rules and regulations. Again, I would be very happy to look at any specific cases, and that offer is to all Members.
At the last Cabinet Office questions, I mentioned that a lorry from my constituency was unnecessarily detained in France for 12 hours. The Cabinet Office took that up with vigour. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster really went about it; I thank him for that and congratulate him on that work. Is the Minister making assessments of any other lorries that are unnecessarily held up as they try to get their goods across the continent, since of course frictionless trade benefits not just this country but our friends on the continent as well?
I thank my hon. Friend for his thanks and praise to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. We look at and vigorously pursue all cases that Members raise with us to ensure that such businesses are being supported in every way. What this case shows is that, as well as some genuine issues that need to be worked through with our partners in the EU and with member states on a bilateral basis, there are some issues that are purely related to people not understanding the processes or implementing them incorrectly. That has caused a large share of the difficulties that we have seen, but those issues are being resolved. I am very pleased that we were able to help in my hon. Friend’s case.
Like many on the Opposition Benches, I believe that Ministers must be held to account for the commitments they made to British businesses and industry during the Brexit negotiations, so can the Minister outline what discussions she has had with the Welsh Government about protecting the businesses and livelihoods in Newport West that are paying the price for this Government’s bad deal?
The Road Haulage Association has highlighted that UK exports to the EU will not recover until summer at the earliest due to a shortage of customs agents. The industry estimates that we need 30,000 customs agents for the whole of the UK, and we are presently well short of that target. Will the Minister delineate what steps are currently being taken to meet that target?
The original assumptions that were made about numbers of people that we would need either in customs or of vets, for example, were overestimated, because having looked at it we now have a much clearer understanding of what is actually required. We have obviously, through securing this agreement, been able to mitigate a lot of those things. A great deal of these things are, as I say, about people not understanding how things should be implemented, so a large part of our work is about ensuring that businesses, agents and others understand how these processes need to be operating. With the problems that genuinely remain, we now have a framework in place where we can work through those things.
The Food and Drink Federation reported this week that exports are down by 75%, salmon has collapsed by 98%, and beef is down by 91%. The industry is suffering a total loss of £750 million, and much of that collapse is down to the bundles of red tape introduced by the Government’s Brexit deal. Indeed, the British Meat Processors Association has said that the extra paperwork will cost its members £120 million a year. This is not what British business was promised by the Government. What do the Government now propose to do to help the industry though a crisis not of its own making but which threatens jobs, livelihoods and indeed businesses up and down our country?
Our management information shows that overall ro-ro freight traffic between the UK and the EU is now back to normal levels for this time of year. That is, in very great part, due to the hard work put in by traders and hauliers to prepare for the end of the transition period and to work through the new things that they are having to do. I would point the hon. Gentleman to the deal that we secured and the framework that we have put in place to agree to trade facilitations going forward, including potential reductions in the frequency of import checks where that is justified. It is in both parties’ interests that we do that. That is how we will be resolving these remaining issues. Our track record since we left the EU shows that, where further support, either financial or in other ways, is needed for sectors, we will do that.
Public Procurement: Value for Money
The overarching principle in all public procurement is to secure the best value for money for the taxpayer, and that principle lies at the heart of our plans in the procurement Green Paper. Simpler procurement procedures will drive increased competition and innovation in public procurement, ultimately saving taxpayers’ money. We are also due to publish version 3 of the “The Outsourcing Playbook” in spring ’21, which includes 11 key policies that help Government and industry to work better together to deliver quality public services and value for money, and our new approach to social value will help to secure wider public benefit, allowing us to contract with firms that deliver more apprenticeships, local growth opportunities and environmental benefits.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but she will not be surprised to know that taxpayers in east Hull expect Government contracts to be awarded responsibly and fairly, and not with a nod and a wink and a text message between Secretaries of State and pub landlords. Does she want to say something about that to my constituents and perhaps apologise?
I think that the particular thing the hon. Gentleman is referring to relates to personal protective equipment, which I know has attracted a lot of interest. I wish to assure the House that although there has been a lot of discussion about the high-priority lane, it was effectively an email inbox that triaged the thousands of suggestions that were coming in for particular contracts. Even if people got through that—90% of people from that process were rejected—the contracts then went through the same eight-stage process. I wish to assure him that there have been no corners cut.
From the start of this pandemic, the Government chose to use a centralised, privatised approach to contact tracing through a handful of large companies, rather than putting local public health teams in charge. While a growing number of councils have now had to establish their own systems on a shoestring, it is a completely different set of affairs for the expensive management consultancies. Last night, we learned that as well as the Government paying Deloitte £323 million for its role in the Test and Trace system, it is even paid to draft Ministers’ parliamentary answers defending the indefensible. This is a Government who appear even to have outsourced themselves. What will the Minister do to end this practice, or do I need to write to Deloitte to find out?
I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting that interesting piece of information. It is not something I am aware of. I appreciate the concerns that have been raised about the use of consultants in relation to some of the work that has been done during the pandemic. We had to surge our capacity very quickly, but I appreciate the concerns that have been expressed about the cost of contracting. We are doing various things to improve the capability and expertise of the civil service. We are looking at secondments for senior civil servants, and we are looking at having our own in-house consulting hub, but I am very happy to look into this idea that consultants are drafting responses for Ministers. It is not something I am aware of.
It surprised some attendees of the recent OECD global anti-corruption and integrity forum that the Government’s anti-corruption champion defended the Government’s handling of public contracts. That role is occupied by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). As well as being a Conservative MP, he has, of course, a very close family interest in the Government’s pandemic response. Does the Minister agree that the post of anti-corruption champion must be independent from party politics to avoid the growing conflicts of interest within Government?
The Minister will be aware of recent mergers and acquisitions of outsourcing companies, some with substantial public contracts worth many millions of pounds, including Mitie, Interserve and, most recently, G4S. Can the Minister tell the House what steps the Cabinet Office is taking to ensure that, in such circumstances, the public interest is protected and does not play second fiddle to the interests of capitalism and greed, as referred to by the Prime Minister a few days ago?
The Prime Minister was asserting the importance of capitalism in being able to get the best answers when finding solutions to difficult problems, and I do not think we should doubt his intentions on that particular matter. I am happy to look into any concerns the hon. Gentleman has about the G4S merger, which I have not looked into personally, but I would be happy to do so. Our officials have regular conversations with key outsourcing providers and often have assurances on the work they undertake.
Safety of Local Elections: Covid-19
On 5 February this year, the Government published a delivery plan outlining how the polls will be delivered in a covid-secure way. That is backed by a £32 million funding uplift for returning officers and local authorities to address costs related to covid and by changes to the law made by Parliament to help voters and candidates participate safely in elections.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. It is clearly important that democracy is allowed to flourish and that electors get the chance to vote for their local representatives. Could she provide an update on what actions she is taking to ensure that the count is secure and that postal votes are treated appropriately, particularly during the pandemic?
I can, and indeed, an update will be provided to the House today by written ministerial statement, which will give Members full details. The Electoral Commission has produced guidance for the count, and we have worked with it to ensure that that is properly up to date and assists in understanding some of the tensions in the arrangements that will be needed by returning officers to run successful counts. Of course, the need for free and fair elections often comes to the fore of people’s minds at the count, where scrutiny is just as essential as public safety in this case.
I can reassure my hon. Friend that we continue to put out guidance on other elements of the overall election process, including postal votes. I take this opportunity to emphasise that postal votes and other items of paperwork do not need to be quarantined, contrary to some recent media reporting. That has also been made clear by the Electoral Commission and others.
The trouble is that our democracy is not open to everyone. Millions of voters are still missing from the electoral register, but instead of prioritising that, the Government have chosen to prioritise their discriminatory policy requiring voters to show photo ID—plans that will cost millions of pounds and put up barriers making it more difficult to participate in democracy, and all that while curbing free expression and the right to protest. I should not be surprised at the Minister’s half-hearted approach to being innovative in making this May’s elections accessible. What would she say to a vulnerable person who has voted in person for their entire life but now feels it is unsafe to do so due to this Government’s lack of action?
I would encourage any such person to apply for a postal vote, which I will be using at this local election. Many people will prefer to do it that way, and that is absolutely fine, as it has always been. May I call out the hon. Lady for her needless posturing? I would like to say that I am surprised by it, but it is not even new—she does it every single time—and in this case, she has not taken the opportunity to explain to the House why the Labour party does not even practise what it preaches. It still asks for voter ID at its own meetings, and that is because it is a reasonable and sensible policy.
Native Advertising in UK Newspapers: Departmental Spending
It is very difficult to follow that, Mr Speaker.
We recognise that newspapers are the lifeblood of communities, and we have negotiated an unprecedented partnership with the newspaper industry. Since 1 January, paid advertising has appeared in up to 600 newspapers across the UK, including 60 titles predominantly directed towards ethnic minority communities. We have also supported 105 Scottish titles that reach 3.3 million people—over half the population of Scotland.
Regional and local newspapers received at least 60% of the funding allocated from January to March 2021. All the titles in the press partnership have been selected independently by the media planning and buying agency OmniGov. We publish spending on gov.uk monthly as part of routine Government transparency arrangements, and we regularly review the cost-effectiveness of that spend against audience surveys, focus groups and operational data.
Food producers and manufacturers in East Lothian are in despair at the additional costs, paperwork and procedures brought about by Brexit, costing orders and threatening jobs. Would the Minister care to pay for an advert in the East Lothian Courier setting out the facts of Brexit, not the fiction that has been promoted in other paid outlets and adverts?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that. Not only would I be happy to pay for an advertisement in the East Lothian Courier; I would be happy to come to Haddington to support Craig Hoy, the excellent Scottish Conservative and Unionist candidate standing in the Scottish parliamentary elections, who will be a strong voice for East Lothian in Holyrood, just as the hon. Gentleman is here in Westminster.
In Government-sponsored ads on the alleged success of Brexit, the same three or four companies have been highlighted in at least 16 newspapers throughout the UK. Are these the only companies that the Government could actually find that would be willing to discuss the benefits of Brexit?
No, there is a limitless list, and I could take up the rest of the day by running through all the businesses and all the business people who believe that the Government’s approach is right. One thing I would not be able to do, however, is to find many businesses that would be prepared to endorse the reckless approach towards a second independence referendum that the Scottish National party is pushing. I cannot think of a single reputable business voice that thinks the priority for Scotland now is constitutional uncertainty and wrenching Scotland out of the partnership for good that is the Union.
In relation to these native adverts regarding the so-called benefits of Brexit, the Advertising Standards Authority says that
“Marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such”
and that marketers—in this case, the UK Government—
“must make clear that advertorials are marketing communications”.
Some newspapers do say “Ad features sponsored by the UK Government.” Others say, “in conjunction” or “in association”, which is less clear. Many simply say “sponsored” but not who by, and at least one newspaper describes the UK Government—the marketer—as a “contributor”. Why have the Government, as the marketer, chosen to flout the ASA code in this way?
I have been furnished with no evidence of any flouting of the code. Of course if there are any complaints that have been raised by readers or citizens, we will of course investigate them. But it is the case that the Scottish Government themselves, entirely understandably, devote tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayer money to also furnishing content in newspapers such as The Press and Journal, The Courier and even a newspaper called The National, which I understand has some popularity among some communities in Scotland.
There are many examples of what I am talking about, and the Government do not know them. That the Minister does not know is to his shame. Rule 7.2 of the ASA code makes it clear that:
“Marketing communications by central…government…are subject to the Code”
and rule 3.5 says:
“Marketing communications must not materially mislead by omitting the identity of the marketer.”
So let me ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in terms of the code: why have the UK Government, by omitting their own name, chosen to mislead the public?
I am very happy to put my own name and that of the UK Government to all of this material, and I am also proud of the contribution that we have made to supporting independent press and media titles across Scotland. It is vital, as we move towards the Holyrood elections, that we have a strong and vital independent press and that newspapers such as the Glasgow Herald, The Press and Journal, the Dundee Courier and others should hold the Scottish Government to account for what has been happening over the last 14 years.
Good morning, Mr Speaker, and I also hope that the same press hold the UK Government to account. Does the Minister not agree that the fact that the UK Government need to buy news stories to promote Brexit, rather than relying on companies to share their success themselves, is a sign that Brexit is an utterly failing project?
No, I would not say that. I have a great deal of respect and affection for the hon. Member, and that is why the work that we do in advertising in these titles is work that we do in conjunction with the devolved Administrations. We work with them in order to make sure that we are placing content appropriately, not least of course to help people keep safe during the covid pandemic. The Scottish Government of course also devote money themselves to advertising and supporting newspapers—quite right too; that is something that is appropriate at this time. Of course, he and I will disagree on certain policy questions, but on the broad point about keeping our media live and vital, I know that on that at least we are at one.
I would like to place on record my thanks to Lord Dunlop—Andrew Dunlop—for the report that he completed into strengthening institutions across our United Kingdom and, in particular, strengthening intergovernmental relations. It is a great report. Many of its recommendations the Government are already implementing. I commend it to the House, and I also commend Lord Dunlop’s selfless work to this House. He is the very model of a public servant.
The ministerial code makes it clear how important the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests is, yet the post has remained unfilled since November last year, when Sir Alex Allan resigned on principle. Transparency International believes that, last year alone, there were a potential nine breaches of the ministerial code—I can share the information with the right hon. Gentleman. So can he advise the House when the unfilled post of Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests will be filled, and what guarantee can he give the House that this time, the Prime Minister will actually listen to their advice?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. First, may I place on record my thanks to Sir Alex Allan for his contribution both in that role and previously in public service? We are seeking to find someone who is suitably independent, experienced and authoritative for this critical role. I would be delighted to work with the hon. Lady to ensure that the broadest possible range of candidates can be identified, and that whoever is put forward for that role can appropriately be scrutinised by the House to ensure that we can satisfy ourselves about their appropriateness for the role.
It has been four months. A good way to find someone might be to advertise the position and seek a candidate. Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman why this is so important. The Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests is responsible for producing the list of Ministers’ financial interests, including those of the Prime Minister. Page 16, paragraph 7.5 of the ministerial code, states that
“a statement covering relevant Ministers’ interests will be published twice yearly”
to avoid any conflicts of interest at the heart of Government. That list was published only once last year, in July, and there has been nothing at all since then. So can the Minister advise the House when that overdue list of Ministers’ financial interests will be published? If he cannot give us that date, should we conclude that the Government are deliberately delaying this to avoid much-needed scrutiny of this Government?
No, not at all. As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, it is the case that every Minister complies with all the expectations placed on them, not just by the ministerial code but by the Nolan principles on standards in public life. It is also the case that Ministers are transparent about the areas that she correctly identifies as of public interest.
Consistency is often the hobgoblin of small minds, but my view on this issue is consistent. A system that relied purely on vaccination would not be appropriate, but what would be right was a system that ensured that we can open up our economy to the maximum extent, that takes account of vaccine status, but also recent test status and potentially antibody status. But the best thing to do is to be guided by scientific and clinical advice and then to subject that advice to proper, rigorous, ethical questioning, rather than taking an instant, off-the-shelf, instinctive approach.
I cannot see the merit in that juxtaposition, but I do see merit in ensuring that the independent advisory body on public sector pay, which governs the NHS, should consider all the evidence. All Members of the House should make clear our solidarity, respect and admiration for those who work on the NHS frontline.
I thank my hon. Friend for reminding us that Yorkshire is the home of ingenuity, enterprise and creativity when it comes to responding to all sorts of crises and challenges. In Keighley, the success of the business that he identifies is one that we should all seek to emulate. He points out that sometimes companies that have been strong in one area can adjust over time to produce other products such as PPE. Some people on the Opposition side of the House have sometimes said, “This company doesn’t have a track record, so there must be something sniffy about its producing PPE.” They seem not to understand that savvy, smart Yorkshire business people can actually adapt their business models to help this country at particular times. It is called the free market, and it exemplifies the best of British and the best of Yorkshire.
It is the case that the new Office for Environmental Protection will be in Worcester, which is to my mind an equally attractive location for civil servants and for those who will be working in that critical role. The most important thing is that we have good people, making sure that we maintain the highest environmental standards. That is what the OEP will do, but our commitment to making sure that there are high-quality civil service jobs in Bristol remains. Bristol is one of the principal locations outside London at the moment for civil service jobs, but it is only right that other areas, not least in the west midlands and Teesside, as well as Worcester, benefit, because let’s face it, when we have brilliant Mayors such as Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and Andy Street in the west midlands, making a superb case for locations such as Darlington and, indeed, for Wolverhampton, it would be foolish not to pay attention to their brilliant advocacy and to hope—who knows—that they might be re-elected in forthcoming polls.
Yes. I will talk to my right hon. Friend the President for COP26 and ensure that we have a joint roundtable for the companies that my hon. Friend has spoken up for in his constituency and elsewhere, to ensure that the international event taking place in Glasgow, thanks to the UK Government, also benefits people in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.
Bridgend’s position—brilliantly, close to Cardiff but with good transport links to Swansea as well—gives it the perfect opportunity to benefit from the additional investment that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has put into a new trade hub in Cardiff. Of course, it is already the case that Swansea is the home not only to an outstanding university, but to the DVLA. We continually keep under review how we can support civil service relocation, not just to north Wales, as I mentioned earlier, but to south Wales as well, making sure that, not just in Cardiff and Swansea but in communities such as Bridgend, people can benefit.
It sounds like a brilliant idea. I know that this investment in Falmouth will not cost us a packet; I know that it will be a good investment for the future. Absolutely: we need to make sure that the G7, which is coming to Cornwall for all the right reasons, leaves a lasting legacy of environmentally sustainable investment. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend for precisely that goal.
I think it is a very good idea. I have to say that Shetland and Sutherland are benefiting from space investment as well as Cornwall. At this stage, I cannot make any firm commitment, but I do think that my hon. Friend has made a strong case for Cornwall.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point; when it comes to many foreign defence and security questions, his is a sane and sensible voice. He is absolutely right that all political parties should be made aware of some of the potential attempts to subvert our democracy. Therefore I look forward to working with my colleagues to make sure that the material that we can share is shared and that everyone is aware of what we need to do to defend our democracy.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The first thing that I would say is that it is important that we make sure that the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland come first. The decision on grace periods was taken in accordance with the freely expressed wishes of commercial operators in Northern Ireland. It is interesting that Northern Ireland retailers, businesses and so on, without prejudice to their views on Brexit or the protocol, welcomed these pragmatic steps.
I have enormous respect and affection for the hon. Gentleman, but this must be the first time ever, in this House or anywhere else, that I have been described as a calming influence, and I can only say thank you. All sorts of epithets have been flung at me, but to be described in such a way as to suggest that a former occupant of your Chair, Mr Speaker, might have described me as the equivalent of a parliamentary soothing medicament is perhaps the kindest thing that has ever been said about me.
UK Steel Production: Greensill Capital
As many right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, it would not necessarily be appropriate for me to comment on commercially sensitive matters at this stage. However, I do appreciate that many Members of this House have expressed concerns to me, individually and in groups, about their constituents working in the steel industry and the families and workers that the industry supports.
Following Greensill Capital entering into administration on 8 March, I and the Department continue to follow developments very closely. As many hon. Members know, I have directly spoken to local management on a number of occasions, and I have also spoken to representatives of the trade unions—as recently, in fact, as yesterday evening. On all those occasions, I have seen a strong and united commitment across management, across the unions and certainly among officials in my Department. I have seen a united commitment to the workforce and our steel industry.
The Secretary of State has been dragged here to finally say something, because earlier in the week he had nothing to say. I do not expect him to disclose commercial information, but it is in the commercial interests of UK plc and the customers, suppliers and workers in Rotherham, Stocksbridge, Hartlepool, Scunthorpe, Newport and elsewhere to know whether the Government will step in if Liberty fails to refinance.
We have called for a plan B. It is in our national interests for all options to be on the table. Those options should not be blinkered by ideology, because domestic steelmaking is a cornerstone of our national security and economic prosperity. What is more, Liberty Steel businesses are viable and have made the switch to electric arc furnaces, at great cost. Can the Business Secretary confirm that he is considering all options, from immediate support—if due diligence is met—to public ownership, should the business fall into administration? Does he agree that nationalisation could be the best value-for-money option, especially when we look at British Steel, which the Government spent £500 million on and then sold off on the cheap to the Chinese?
Let us be honest: UK steel and steel communities have been betrayed by this Government, because they have no vision nor any plan. There was not a single mention of steel in the Secretary of State’s plan for growth. There has been very little sector support during covid. The clean steel fund keeps being kicked up the road. There has been no action, despite promises, on the crippling issues of high energy prices and business rates. There is no buy-British guarantee in Government contracts. He just scrapped the industrial strategy. It is no wonder that the investment climate in UK steel is so uncertain. Will he finally take this opportunity to set out his vision and plan the future of UK steel?
Order. I think I am the judge of that. The Secretary of State may be new to the Dispatch Box in his new position, but the Opposition are entitled to two minutes, and the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) was within that time. Please, let me make those judgments.
I am very happy to defer to you, Mr Speaker; I have huge regard for your position, as I have mentioned many times. With respect to the remarks of the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) about my being dragged back to the Dispatch Box, that is not the case at all. As she knows, I was the Secretary of State who reconstituted the Steel Council on 5 March. That was a top priority for me, because I feel that we have a future for UK steel: the Government’s infrastructure plans will need around 5 million tonnes of steel over the next decade. It is absolutely a commitment of mine, as Secretary of State, to ensure that we have a viable steel industry in this country.
In 1998, 234 jobs were lost at a steel mill in Darlington. In 2001, the Llanwern steelworks closed, with 1,300 jobs gone. In 2003, 95 jobs were lost at the Shotton site in Deeside, and 116 at the Avesta site in Panteg. In 2004, we lost 156 jobs in Scunthorpe and a further 80 in Lincolnshire. In 2006, two closures led to losses of 250 jobs and 40 jobs. Of course, in February 2010, Teesside Cast Products was mothballed, putting 2,400 jobs at risk. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, with the Opposition’s abysmal record on steel, the Government are right to discard their failed vision and continue with our proactive approach to helping the sector?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What devastated the steel industry was, as we know, 13 years of Labour Government. We have made it very clear, with our industrial decarbonisation strategy, published only last week, that we remain committed to a UK steel industry and a decarbonised future, and also to green jobs, particularly in in our levelling-up agenda.
I commend the shadow Minister for securing this urgent question on what is an incredibly important topic, not least for the workforce, who I assume are listening very closely to the Secretary of State. Of course, this issue is important not only to England and Wales but to the people of Scotland. The Dalzell and Clydebridge steelworks are very much at the forefront of my thoughts, and so too are GFG’s wider holdings, such as the Lochaber smelter. I am very conscious of the fact that the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism made a proactive and informed statement to the Scottish Parliament yesterday. I would welcome assurance from the Secretary of State that he will engage in open and transparent dialogue with my colleagues north of the border moving forward. Finally, I would welcome a little bit of clarity from the Secretary of State on quite how far his Government are willing to go in respect of supporting what are, as I understand it, perfectly viable businesses.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point, and he will be pleased to learn that I have spoken to representatives of the Scottish Government. We have mutual and very strong interests in the ongoing future of the businesses under the GFG umbrella, and he will know that my door is always open to conversations with him and his counterparts in the Scottish Government to see a way through. As far as specifics of Government intervention, I have said repeatedly that it is not appropriate now, given where we are, for me to disclose anything of that kind, but of course this is an ongoing situation that we are monitoring extremely closely.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, for his recent visit to Teesside and for all he is doing to support the industry at this difficult time. Under the last Labour Government, steel production in this country fell by almost 50%, so we should take no lectures from Labour on this. In Redcar, we lost our blast furnace in 2015 with the closure of SSI, but the only reason we have any steel manufacturing left at all is that the Government stepped in and saved British Steel at Lackenby and Skinningrove. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will address key industry concerns such as energy pricing, that he will champion the UK steel charter and that it is our policy to increase domestic steel production, and will he work with me and Ben Houchen on a new electric arc furnace for Redcar?
I commend my hon. Friend, who, only in his brief time as a Member of Parliament, has made a real impact on these discussions and in representing Redcar. I remember a Redcar that was represented by a Liberal Democrat precisely because of the closure of the SSI plant, and I am delighted to see that it is now represented by an excellent Conservative MP.
The circumstances surrounding the collapse of Greensill Capital throw up a lot of questions about how decisions are being made regarding the use of public money to guarantee loans to struggling companies during the pandemic. It is important that Parliament has sight of those decisions to properly scrutinise them. On 12 November 2020, in response to a parliamentary question tabled by the shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), a Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Minister said that the list of companies offered coronavirus business interruption loans would be published “in due course”. Does the Secretary of State agree that transparency is essential for effective scrutiny, and will he commit to publishing the list of companies that have received Government-backed loan support without delay?
It is absolutely right to support the steel industry, given the jobs and the simple fact that steel is a fundamental material in our construction industry, and the Government do. I am sure the Secretary of State will note my Environmental Audit Committee inquiry looking at sustainable building materials for the future, such as engineered wood, which is stronger than steel and embodies carbon. Does he agree that we must explore these avenues alongside supporting existing industries as we transition to a greener economy?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s report and his contribution to the debate around the green industrial revolution. He is absolutely right that, alongside steel, we should consider all forms of innovative and novel materials—advanced materials—that can help us build back greener and more sustainably.
The three fleet solid support ships, at 40,000 tonnes, are equivalent in size to the two aircraft carriers. That is a lot of steel. Only this week, the Ministry of Defence finally conceded that they will be designated as naval vessels, meaning that they will be built in British yards. When the Secretary of State goes back to his office, will he get on to the Defence Secretary and tell him they must also be built with British steel?
I admire and am always impressed by the right hon. Gentleman’s passion for these issues, and I think he is absolutely right. We do have a need for huge amounts of steel in infrastructure in this country. That is why I have said repeatedly that there is a future for the steel industry in the UK.
Obviously, steel is also a crucial part of this Government’s decarbonisation strategy. Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents in Oldbury, where a Liberty Steel site is currently based, that he will ensure that Black Country steel is placed at the heart of that decarbonisation strategy and that they will get the support they need from the Government as we go through this difficult time for Liberty Steel Group?
I assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to the steel industry in the UK. That is why, last week, we published the industrial decarbonisation strategy, which I was very pleased to commission as energy Minister. I look forward to speaking to him about the next steps forward for this industry.
British steelworkers make the best steel that money can buy, but they are having to compete with one hand tied behind their back because electricity costs our steel companies 86% more than in Germany and 62% more than in France, an issue I raised with the Secretary of State when he met steel MPs on 3 February. On 22 February, the Prime Minister told me from the Dispatch Box that
“we must indeed address the discriminatory costs of energy.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 647.]
What progress has the Secretary of State made in addressing this critical issue since our 3 February discussion, and does he think that the Chancellor understands that there can be no post-pandemic recovery without a strong and healthy steel industry?
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor is fully aware of the importance of the sector. The hon. Gentleman will know—I think he attended the Steel Council where this issue was raised—that we have commissioned work to see what can be done to redress the balance he alludes to.
I was really pleased to hear the Prime Minister speak yesterday about the opportunities he sees for British steelmakers in major projects such as HS2. Can my right hon. Friend provide more information on that and can he—I know it is difficult—reassure the Liberty Steel workers in Scunthorpe that the Government will do all they can to support them?
I would like to reassure my hon. Friend. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was absolutely right to say that we need a huge amount of steel—about 5 million tonnes—over the next decade and that this Government are committed to an ongoing steel industry. As she knows, I have spoken to local management and workforce representatives, and we are doing all we can to look at all options to make sure that this vital piece of infrastructure continues and remains a going concern.
We know that David Cameron was an adviser to Greensill Capital, with shareholdings of potentially tens of millions of pounds, and that he made private texts and calls on a number of occasions to the Chancellor to help secure funds for Liberty before Greensill, a high-risk company, went bust, putting thousands of jobs at Liberty Steel at risk. What investigation will BEIS carry out? Will the Secretary of State ensure that in future taxpayers’ money is no longer interfered with by David Cameron and former Conservative Ministers, but is instead invested directly to protect our jobs in British steel and other vital industries?
A key part of our efforts to drive long-term green growth is to support workers in high-carbon sectors such as steel to retrain in new green technologies. Does my right hon. Friend agree that upskilling and retraining workers will be integral to our efforts to level up opportunity right across the country?
I am delighted to relate to my hon. Friend that she is absolutely right. We need to retrain people in new green technologies, which is precisely why I, as energy Minister, with my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), set up the green jobs taskforce to look at exactly the requirements and skills we need to drive the green industrial revolution.
We know that Greensill was a major financer of the Gupta Family Group and, understandably, the questions today have focused on the employment concerns that its workers might have, but we do not know what other businesses may have relied on financing from Greensill and been affected. When does the Secretary of State expect to have that information fully pulled together, and can he undertake, as far as is allowed by commercial confidentiality, to keep Members of Parliament informed of any other businesses that might be at risk as a result of the collapse at Greensill?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his personal engagement with me on this issue and for acting so quickly. Liberty Steel is a big employer in the Black Country and we have been hit particularly hard by the worst effects of the pandemic. I know that he needs no convincing about the importance of the steel industry in our part of the west midlands, so will he continue to prioritise this issue and work with me to help protect jobs in West Bromwich East?
I would be very happy to work with my hon. Friend to protect jobs. She is doing a great job of representing her constituents. All I would say on this is that we published last week the industrial decarbonisation strategy, which is the first of its kind in the world, and we are absolutely committed to a continuing future for British steel.
Liberty Steel has a diverse portfolio with a long supply chain. These jobs are often trade-unionised, so they have better pay. Losing them will have a big impact across our country. How will the Secretary of State protect the different elements of this complex company, such as the tubing plant in Tredegar in my Blaenau Gwent constituency, with its loyal and skilled workforce who have kept it going through tough times?
The funding challenges faced by Liberty are serious, but I have been reassured by meetings with my right hon. Friend, and by the Prime Minister’s response to my question yesterday, that the Government are committed to doing whatever is possible to safeguard jobs and livelihoods in the UK steel industry. However, in the longer term, for steelmaking to thrive in the UK, we must make sure that UK infrastructure projects use environmentally friendly UK steel, providing well-paid jobs and helping to level up. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that future procurement processes will favour British steelmakers such as Speciality Steels in Stocksbridge?
I reassure my hon. Friend, whom I have met on several occasions on precisely this issue, that we remain committed to decarbonised steel and a decarbonised industrial strategy, which I have referred to. That is the basis on which we can have a strong future for the industry.
The Secretary of State is well aware that Liberty in Rotherham employs 900 people, along with five times that number in the local supply chain. Our steel goes into defence, energy, aviation—all key strategic industries. In this post-Brexit world, will the Secretary of State please make a commitment that all Government procurement projects using steel will commit to buying British steel for them, because a full order book is the best way to see a future for steel in this country?
On procurement, I want to relay to the hon. Lady that we have constructed in government a UK Steel and BEIS Procurement Taskforce, which met for the first time only a couple of weeks ago, on 12 March, chaired by my noble Friend Lord Grimstone. We are absolutely committed to seeing what we can do to make sure that we have a strong steel industry in this country that will support the huge infrastructure needs that our country has in the next decade.
I strongly support all the measures that the Government will be taking to ensure that public orders concentrate on UK-made steel, where that is possible, but what further measures can the Secretary of State take to ensure that energy prices are realistic and competitive? If we have very dear energy in this country, it will be a major problem for our steel industry.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to electricity and energy costs. I am in regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to see what can be done, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) said, to address that problem.
The Greensill affair raises the issue not just of Liberty Steel’s refinancing but of ex-Prime Minister David Cameron bending the ear of the now Chancellor, although he was not on the lobbying register. With ex-Minister Eric Pickles overseeing the body regulating current Ministers’ interests, how can the Government ensure transparency on conflicts of interest when they seem to operate a culture of friends with benefits and mates’ rates, with British steel jobs being mere collateral?
Obviously, I completely reject the hon. Lady’s characterisation of what goes on. She will know that officials often meet huge numbers of business people who are affected by policy. That is part of policy development, but it is always done in a transparent, open and proper way.
The Labour party talks about vision. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Government’s commitment to net zero and their clear vision of being a technology-led innovation superpower, as demonstrated by initiatives such as the Clean Steel Fund, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, and the Future Fund: Breakthrough, mean that the future of UK steel is positive and in very good hands?
Obviously, I entirely agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. Reflecting on two years as a Minister within the Department, I can tell her that we have had the 10-point plan for the green industrial revolution, the Energy White Paper, the decarbonisation industrial strategy, and, as she says, we have committed hundreds of millions of pounds to making sure that we drive the green industrial revolution. It is a very exciting time to be in Government and I look forward to speaking with her precisely about how we can move forward.
With booming metal prices, GFG’s business in Scotland, including Liberty Steel in my Motherwell and Wishaw constituency, remains profitable. Notwithstanding his previous answers, I must press the Secretary of State to echo the promise given by the Scottish Government and do all in his power to protect this profitable industry. Will he do so?
That is a fair question, but the hon. Lady will appreciate that the assets in Scotland relate particularly to aluminium smelting, whereas in England and Wales their job is really focused on the steel industry. None the less, we are looking at all options to see what we can do to sustain these crucial jobs.
An acquisition strategy based on supply chain financing arrangements, plus a future receivables derivative scheme, plus an additional month’s cash-flow, and a liberal mix of state guarantees has the characteristics of a potential Ponzi scheme. Has my right hon. Friend been able to ascertain the facts here, or is this an issue for investigation by the Serious Fraud Office?
My hon. Friend raises very serious questions about the business model, which I am not prepared to go into now. What I will say is that, in the first two months of my tenure as Secretary of State, I have pushed forward audit reform as a big issue. A consultation on it is under way. It is issues relating to things such as Greensill capital that show how necessary it is for us to reconsider what we are doing on audit reform and to have the best standards in the world.
I think we all understand the importance of commercial confidentiality, but, where significant sums of taxpayers’ money are concerned, that cannot not be a barrier to full accountability. The Secretary of State will be aware that the Scottish Government are out for guarantees north of £500 million as a consequence of Greensill’s difficulties. Is that not something for which there really ought to be full explanations?
A strong domestic steel industry is vital to so much of what the Government do, from frigates and submarines to schemes such as HS2. With that in mind, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he will work with colleagues across all of Government—not just with the Treasury, but with the Ministry of Defence and the Transport Department—to ensure that we protect this strategic sovereign capability?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is crucial that we work across Government to look at procurement and the strategic interests of this country in having a strong steel industry, as he describes, and in order to work out how best to progress with this key sector.
Investing in transport infrastructure such as the full HS2 route and a rolling programme of rail electrification is an excellent way to boost economic recovery and put the UK on the path to net zero, but the Government will be wasting a huge opportunity to safeguard and grow jobs in our steel industry if they do not use public procurement to support it. Will the Secretary of State commit to setting targets for UK steel content in contracts for major public works, and if not, why not?
The hon. Lady will know, as I have said at the Dispatch Box today, that we have a taskforce in BEIS chaired by my noble Friend Lord Grimstone. This is absolutely something that we are looking into, given the huge need we have and the huge demand for steel products in our infrastructure plans.
For all the many reasons set out by Members today, retention of a domestic steel industry is vital for our economy and our security. Will the Secretary of State set out what he is doing to ensure that we have the right regulatory climate for steel to thrive? Will he commit that, if other countries dump steel on world markets that has been inappropriately subsidised, he will take action via our trade policy to introduce anti-dumping measures to protect and support our steel industry?
My right hon. Friend will know that the steel industry in particular is subject to fairly stringent World Trade Organisation rules. She will also know, given the publication of our industrial decarbonisation strategy, that we are rigorously focused on trying to source clean, green steel in order to drive a green industrial revolution and to create the infrastructure projects without which we cannot have any real economic growth.
Last year, the Government spent £4.8 billion on subsidies for wind power, yet almost no wind farms use UK steel. Those orders would be a boon to the struggling steel industry, but the Department does not even include renewable energy products in its annual list of orders that went to domestic suppliers. In January, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), said that the Government would consider reporting the share of UK steel used in offshore wind projects
“if it is in the public interest.”
Will the Secretary of State accept that it clearly would be in the public interest to name and shame the developers that do not use UK steel, and will he commit to making that change?
The hon. Lady will appreciate that, as part of the offshore wind sector deal, we have explicitly said that 60% of the supply chain should be UK-sourced, and clearly steel is a big part of that supply chain. She will also appreciate that, as Energy Minister, I made it a priority to ensure that in the fourth auction round at the end of this year, these targets will be met. Steel is part of that, and we are absolutely committed to having more UK content in the supply chain for offshore wind.
Being in the European Union prevented us from prioritising British steel, despite steel and its component parts being strategic resources. Now that we have left, will the Secretary of State prioritise British steel, at least in Government procurement? Will he ensure that steel and its component parts are, where possible, protected and bought from UK producers to prevent us being strategically vulnerable in the future?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend—another Conservative who won a so-called red wall seat. He has done a fantastic job in representing his constituency, particularly on this critical issue. From my answers, he will know that we are committed to making sure that UK steel has a big part to play in the construction and infrastructure plans that we ambitiously set out.
Tata Steel has reportedly said that it is in active discussions with the British Government about creating a “decarbonised footprint” for the future, especially in Port Talbot. While I welcome that, will the Secretary of State confirm that at the heart of those strategies, the British Government will prioritise maintaining volume of production and jobs in the Welsh steel industry?
The hon. Gentleman will know, but I say in the interests of transparency, that one of my first meetings when I was appointed Secretary of State was with the head of Tata Steel. He will also know that having visited Hinkley Point as Energy Minister I am fully aware of the impact and the contribution that the Tata plant makes to infrastructure. I am sure he will be pleased to hear that this is a top priority of mine. I have made the point many times this morning that our infrastructure plans are absolutely intertwined with a strong domestic steel industry.
I knew I was going into the Valley of Death. The question, Sir, is this: what percentage of our national steel production, which is a sovereign capability, is affected by the Greensill Capital financial crisis? I am very sorry—I knew I was going to get into trouble.
I am very pleased to see my right hon. Friend in his place. The key point is that Liberty Steel produces via electric arc furnaces, so it is clean steel. A lot of the steel that we produce relies on older methods. That is why, for me, in terms of our decarbonisation strategy, the future of Liberty Steel is of great importance.
For national security reasons, to tackle the climate crisis, and to build our rail infrastructure, electric vehicles and the like with well-paid unionised jobs, domestic steel production must be a strategic national priority. However, time and again the Government have let down Britain’s steel industry. On their watch, we have seen British Steel collapse, minimal action taken to tackle the huge handicap of high energy prices for our steelmakers, and an over-reliance on imported steel for Government projects. Prior to Brexit, the excuse for the lack of Government intervention was EU state aid rules. What is the excuse now?
There is no “excuse now”. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman lost me rather when he said that the Government have done nothing. We have heard from all around the House the devastating impact of the last Labour Government on the steel industry. I even took a question from an extremely able Conservative Member, my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young), whose seat was represented by a Liberal Democrat, because of the debacle around the closure of SSSI.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision to re-establish the Steel Council. Does he agree that this is a perfect opportunity for the Government to work in partnership with the industry so that we can create a long-term, sustainable plan to ensure the sector’s transition to a low-carbon future?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has mentioned the Steel Council. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that the Steel Council last met in February 2020. It was a first priority of mine, on becoming Secretary of State, to have another meeting, so we had a meeting on 5 March that went extremely well and is a solid basis for our ongoing dialogue with the sector not only among employers but among union representatives. It is an excellent body and I look forward to working very closely with it in the months and years ahead.
I am sure the Secretary of State will recognise that Sheffield is the home of steel. Stainless steel was invented in Sheffield, steel made in Sheffield is famous not merely in the UK but throughout the world, and thousands of Sheffielders still work in the steel industry and in related industries as well. So will he give an absolute assurance that the term, “Steel made in Sheffield”, will not be consigned to the history books?
It certainly will not be consigned to the history books. We have an excellent firm in Sheffield, Forgemasters, among others. We all know the great history and traditions that Sheffield embodies and its vital role in the development, and the birth, really, of the steel industry worldwide.
On behalf of manufacturers in my constituency relying on specialist grades of steel, I thank my right hon. Friend for his Department’s work to support UK steel and ask him to keep working with the industry so that we can be leaders in green steel production as we transition to a low-carbon economy.
I commend my hon. Friend’s work in representing COP26 and doing a great job in engaging with businesses on COP26. I assure him that green steel is very much at the front of our minds. It is something that I am very focused on. We have mentioned the Steel Council, and I have also mentioned a number of times the industrial decarbonisation strategy. Green steel is absolutely the way forward, and I look forward to working with him to see how we can make progress in this vitally important area.
Can the Secretary of State explain why Greensill—an unregulated shadow bank with close links to the Conservative party—was given access to the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme, which is backed by 80% taxpayer guarantees? Following its collapse, which puts the future of Liberty Steel and thousands of jobs at risk, will the Minister practise the transparency he has just been talking about and tell the House how many millions of pounds of losses incurred will end up being dumped on the UK taxpayer?
The right hon. Lady will know that I cannot possibly comment on that, because it is part of an ongoing series of discussions. We do not really know the full extent of the impact of Greensill’s collapse on the British economy. We are looking into it very closely and looking at which companies have been affected, but until that further investigation we cannot possibly comment on the extent of the liability.
One of the lessons of the pandemic has been that we need a robust domestic industrial strategy and we cannot be dependent on imports—either of final products or through the supply chain—from China or anywhere else. Does my right hon. Friend agree that steel is an integral component of that industrial strategy—and, with time, decarbonised steel?
I reassure my hon. Friend that the fact that we published the industrial decarbonisation strategy only last week suggests to me, and is a signal to the world of, how seriously we take the strategic impact and necessity of steel, and the net zero commitment.