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Topical Questions

Volume 696: debated on Tuesday 25 May 2021

I would like to say that over the last few weeks I think we have gone through a trying time, but two things have really stood out as remarkable successes. The vaccine roll-out continues to go from strength to strength. Something like 60 million jabs have been administered across this country, which I am pleased to say is a world-beating target to have reached for a country of our size. On the back of that, we have managed to hit the dates in the road map. On 12 April, we opened up in the way we said we would, and then we looked at the data and we were able to do so again on 17 May. This has provided business with a huge degree of support and a measure of certainty ahead of a summer reopening.

Carshalton and Wallington residents, particularly those living in New Mill Quarter in Hackbridge, have been suffering at the hands of the Lib Dem-run council-owned district energy network called SDEN—Sutton Decentralised Energy Network—leaving residents without heating and hot water, some more than a dozen times in just six months. I know BEIS is keen to ensure that residents such as these are not victims of shoddy operations, so following the closure of its consultation last year, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that district energy networks are regulated?

It is an excellent question. My hon. Friend and I corresponded about this and spoke directly about this when I was the Minister of State for Energy. I am very pleased to tell him that we are committed to regulating the heat networks market within this Parliament, and we will bring legislation forward at the earliest possible opportunity. It is clearly a really important thing to be doing, and he and his constituents can rest assured that we are acting with due speed.

I want to return to fire and rehire. Chris is a British Gas engineer who lives in Spelthorne, the Secretary of State’s constituency. Chris says:

“Working under fire and rehire has been horrific. It has caused stress and anxiety not just for me, but my family. I can’t overstate the effect that it has on mental wellbeing. And the Government and the Business Secretary, who is supposed to represent me…in parliament is doing absolutely nothing about it. I voted for Kwasi Kwarteng in 2019, but he’s failed us on this. A total let down.”

Chris met the Business Secretary recently and asked him why he had not acted on fire and rehire. What did he tell him?

I remember the meeting well. I met Chris, I think on the Avenue in Sunbury, and I said very clearly to him that we had an ACAS report that we hoped to publish in due course, and that once we published that we would set out further action, as the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), very ably mentioned earlier.

The problem is that the right hon. Member is the Business Secretary. He is in charge. He promised an employment Bill two years ago. He has had the ACAS report for three months. He is not even telling us what is in the ACAS report. Maybe he can satisfy Chris and millions of people around this country by saying from the Dispatch Box today that he agrees with the principle that we should legislate to outlaw fire and rehire, and he will bring forward an employment Bill to do it. If he does not do that, people will suspect that the truth is not that he is not acting because he cannot act, but that he is not acting because he does not want to act, because he thinks this kind of one-sided power for employers is necessary for our economy to succeed.

We all know the Marxist trope of the employers versus the workers, and we have moved on from that—most of us. There are two issues there. One was related to the employment Bill, which we are committed to introducing to this House when we can, and that has always been our position. The second is that the whole point of having an ACAS independent report was to allow it to happen and then we would consider, after publication, the steps forward. I know the right hon. Member is impatient, and I know he is probably wishing that there was a leadership change in his party, but we have to stay focused on delivery.

    With an enormous amount of work going to take place in the next few years in building energy and transport infrastructure, there are significant opportunities to enhance skills and create jobs in steel fabrication. What plans does my hon. Friend have for promoting fabrication hubs, including one in Lowestoft where skills and expertise has been developed over many years in the oil and gas industry, and exciting opportunities are coming forward in the offshore wind and nuclear sectors? (900479)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about seizing the broader benefits of the green economy, which are integral to our industrial decarbonisation strategy. We will continue to work closely with all those helping us to meet our net zero commitments, from 40 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030, to the Government’s commitments to deliver at least one more gigawatt nuclear power station, and substantial commitments to the next generation of nuclear. For all that, infrastructure investment and growing the skills base will be vital across the country, including in Lowestoft. We have set up the green jobs taskforce, which will report to the Government this summer and inform the next stages of our green skills plans going forward.

Stats released by the Office for National Statistics this morning show that trade with the European Union has fallen by 23% in the first quarter. In the meantime, Scottish farmers are facing up to the reality of a trade deal with the Australians that threatens their very future. The Scottish Parliament—it has no say; the Scottish Government—ignored. What exactly will the UK Business Secretary do about that, and how much damage are his Government willing to cause?

The hon. Gentleman is right to mention the ONS data, but he will appreciate that that is comparing quarter 1 this year with quarter 1 last year. [Interruption.] Of course it does. January was exceptionally bad—I fully admit that—because there was uncertainty about how the new deal would operate. Subsequent data from Q2 and from March was much better, The next quarter will have better results, and I am sure that quarters after that will show proportionate improvement. The Australian trade deal is a fundamental issue for us. If we cannot make a trade deal with a country that has shared legislation, shared history, and shared traditions, we will not get anywhere with any of these trade deals. I think this is an excellent opportunity for the UK.

The Government are to be congratulated on their plans to phase out diesel and petrol cars, but that raises the question of how we will charge electric cars, especially for those who do not have driveways and have to park on the roads. What can we do to speed up the development of the infrastructure? (900480)

Just yesterday, the energy regulator, Ofgem, announced that it has approved a £300 million investment to help triple the number of ultrarapid electric car charging points across the country. That will give a green light for energy network companies to invest in more than 200 low-carbon projects across the country over the next two years, including the installation of 1,800 new ultrarapid car charge points for motorway service stations, and a further 1,750 charge points in towns and cities.

The green homes grant was scrapped at the end of March, due to severe mismanagement. Nevertheless, we urgently need a long-term strategy to help homeowners cut emissions and bills, if we are to tackle the climate emergency properly. Now that local authorities have been awarded £300 million to deliver the green homes upgrades, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that councils have all the support they need to jump over bureaucratic hurdles and handle the unrealistic deadlines created for them, so that we can significantly cut carbon emissions across UK homes? (900476)

The hon. Lady will appreciate that the green homes grant initially had three elements: the first dealt with owner-occupier houses, the second was distributed by local authorities in the way she describes, and the third was about public sector building decarbonisation. Two of those elements were successful. The third was a short-term stimulus, which we have closed and are looking to replace.

Many of my constituents work in the aviation sector and at Southampton Airport. Advances in green technology to cut emissions are vital for the future of air travel, and that may even include electric airplanes, powered by greener fuels. Will my right hon. Friend outline what encouragement the Government will provide in that area? (900486)

We have done a number of things that I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate. I was very pleased, with my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary, to appoint Emma Gilthorpe as chief executive officer of the Jet Zero Council, which brings together considerable industry expertise to drive sustainable aviation fuel. Electric aeroplanes may be a thing of the future, but clearly, we have the technology today to innovate and to use things such as hydrogen and sustainable fuels to power a net zero aviation sector.

The Secretary of State will be aware of pladis’s proposal to close the McVitie’s factory in Glasgow’s east end, putting at risk up to 500 jobs in a very fragile part of the local economy. On Saturday, I, politicians from across parties and, indeed, the GMB union came together to send a loud message to Salman Amin in Turkey that doing so would put the local economy at risk. Will the Secretary of State join us in calling on pladis to rethink these devastating plans, which would deliver a hammer blow to the local economy in Glasgow and Scotland? (900481)

In my business engagement, I have been lucky enough, I suppose, to meet the CEO of pladis, the McVitie’s operator. I am not particularly aware of the specifics of what the hon. Gentleman has just informed the House, but I would be very happy to speak to him and others to see what we can do to ensure that the situation is improved. The business seems open; I had a good conversation with the CEO, but I would like to hear more about the specific details of that plant.

Levelling up has never been more important than in the historic town of Lye in my constituency, an area that I am determined to help regenerate—made easier, I hope, by the funding put in place by this Government. One business in Stourbridge, I’m Lucky, was unlucky enough to open just before the second lockdown, but with Government support, and helped by its own fantastic entrepreneurism, it has survived. It now has an online shop front, and it has begun recruiting staff. Does my hon. Friend agree that businesses such as I’m Lucky have a vital role to play in levelling up this country? (900489)

I thank my hon. Friend, and I wish I’m Lucky all the best for the future. Over the past year, I have met a number of businesses that have opened either at an unfortunate time—just going into a lockdown—or possibly at a fortunate time, as they steal a march and pivot into new business areas. Growing those small and medium-sized enterprises is really important to levelling up. We have already provided over 1,000 start-up loans worth £11.8 million this year. We are reducing employment costs by up to £4,000 through the employment allowance and supporting skills through apprenticeships. The strengthened prompt payment code ensures that those small businesses will get paid within 30 days.

Following the Budget, the Leader of the Opposition said that establishing “Treasury North” in Darlington was “not levelling up” but “giving up”. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the opposite is true, and that by shifting decision making outside London, including in his own Department, we will truly level up our country? (900494)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; it is a huge opportunity. I was delighted to see him in his constituency only a couple of weeks ago. I was very pleased to see the photograph that was taken of us looking like an advert for “Reservoir Dogs”. BEIS is absolutely committed to recruiting excellent staff in Darlington, among other places around the UK.

Following the announcement that the Government plan to cut £120 million from official development assistance research, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the long-term impact that that will have on UK research and development? (900483)

The hon. Lady will know that that was a very difficult decision. The Treasury and the Government made a decision to reduce ODA spending from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%. In the integrated review, we said that we would get it back to 0.7% when we could. We are fully appreciative that it was a difficult decision, and we want to get back to 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows.

The Government are already embarking on their unprecedented levelling-up agenda. What measures is my hon. Friend planning to facilitate levelling up by small businesses, looking specifically at start-ups and growing SMEs, as well as at issues arising from late payments, reducing employment costs, improving skills such as digital skills, and levelling up apprenticeships? Those are the specific questions asked by the Federation of Small Businesses in Hastings and Rye. (900495)

The Federation of Small Businesses does a great job across the country, including in Hastings and Rye, and, as I said, it is very important that SMEs play a massive role in levelling up around the country. I have talked about the fact that strengthening the prompt payment code will ensure that small businesses get paid within 30 days. We will always do more to make sure that we can support small businesses, because we know that cash flow is king, and they will be a major part of building back better.

I have sat through a number of Select Committee reports that have exposed the deficiencies of not-so-smart meters and the extra costs involved, but I was shocked when we found for a recent report that smart meters will not work if we transfer from North sea gas to hydrogen. What do Ministers think the implications are for the future of smart meters of the possibility of using hydrogen as a replacement fuel? (900484)

We are continuing to work with the regulators and to look at how smart meters are rolling out. We continue to encourage people to do so, if they have not done so yet, but as the technology changes, we will obviously make sure that regulations afford those adaptations.

UK industry, particularly the furniture sector, has seen great benefits in recent years from the British Standards Institution’s leading role in the CEN—the European Committee for Standardisation. As membership of the CEN is not related to being a member of the EU, will the Minister consider renewing our membership at year end so we continue to play a leading role in the development of sensible standards? (900500)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is really important that he stands up for the furniture industry, as he does. The BSI has informed the Department of its intention to retain its membership to continue to influence the development of standards for the benefit of UK businesses. The Government support that position.

May I ask the Minister for an unequivocal statement, consistent with the Government’s zero-carbon promises, that there will be no new coal mines and no new licences for fracking in this country? (900487)

There are two issues there. On fracking, I was very pleased, as Minister of State, to impose a moratorium on it. The language that we used at the time was that it was going to be evidence-focused and scientifically based. There is no new evidence to suggest that we should end the moratorium, so it stays—no more fracking. On coal mines, I have said specifically that this is a judicial issue, in terms of the west Cumbrian coal mine, and that has to go through the planning process.

As the Minister knows, I am passionate about inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers. Will she tell the House what plans her Department has to build on the previous good work in this field, such as the Year of Engineering?

We have committed to investing £14.9 billion in R&D in 2021-22, meaning that Government R&D spending is now at its highest level for decades. We have our ambitious road map. We have our innovation strategy that we will be launching. We have our R&D place strategy, and we are working to ensure that the benefits are felt nationwide.

Sitting suspended.