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Topical Questions

Volume 703: debated on Tuesday 16 November 2021

First, I congratulate the COP26 President, my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), on his adept handling of the COP26 negotiations in Glasgow. My Department’s priority now is to turn all that ambition into concrete action. We will continue to attract private investment into green projects, and I am happy to announce that in recent weeks we have seen nearly £10 billion of new commitments at the Global Investment Summit, with £1 billion from SABIC on Teesside, and £230 million announced by Ford on Merseyside. We are getting on with the job of delivering a stronger economy for the UK.

I have recently been contacted by Prisma Colour, another fantastic local business in High Peak that does really important work. Unfortunately, it has been hit by a more than doubling of its energy bills in recent months, which is simply not sustainable. I welcome what the Government are trying to do in the long run to ease supply pressures and help energy-intensive industries to bring down bills, but what can be done in the short term to help fantastic employers such as Prisma Colour?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the excellent work he has done in a short time, representing his constituency. He knows that across Government we have regular conversations about how to help energy-intensive industries, and I would be happy to meet him and his constituents to discuss what we are doing.

I join the Secretary of State in commending the COP26 President on the progress made at COP26, but we know much greater action is required, and it is the Secretary of State’s job to ensure that every part of our Government acts. There is an immediate test with the UK-Australia trade deal: yesterday, the Australian Government reaffirmed their 2030 target, which is consistent only with 4° of warming, and there are reports that our Government have allowed the watering down of temperature targets in that deal. Surely, if we are serious after Glasgow about not letting big emitters off the hook, the deal must be rewritten to enshrine in it a proper plan for Australia as well as the UK, including for 2030, to keep 1.5° alive.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we have a duty to ensure that we put net zero at the centre in treaties and in our international obligations. Where I dispute with him is that the Australian deal does mention Paris climate ambitions and does commit to decarbonisation. Lastly, for the first time ever, the Australian Government have committed to net zero. That is a huge achievement, which I wish he would support and endorse.

The Secretary of State should not be defending the Australian Government’s 2030 target. It is he who said about the negotiations:

“There may have been an issue about specifically putting the 1.5° on the face of the negotiating mandate.”

It is time for the Government not only to talk tough, but to act tough, because we must put pressure on countries such as Australia. There is a clear pattern of behaviour here on climate. Too often, this Government face both ways: the Cumbria coal mine, the Cambo oil field, cutting overseas aid for the most vulnerable countries, cutting air passenger duty for domestic flights and failing to invest in green recovery at home. He is the man supposed to be in charge of ensuring the Government speak with one voice. Why does he think he is failing to do so? Is that the reason why people are calling for the COP26 President to take back control of energy and climate change?

The COP26 President did a marvellous job, and the person speaking with two voices is the right hon. Gentleman. On the one hand, he says COP was a great success, and then on the other hand, he is saying the Government have failed. It is inconsistent and it is implausible.

T4. Cleaner and greener aviation is undoubtedly the future, and Exeter airport is at the forefront of innovation in aerospace. This summer, we saw the first hybrid electric test flight on a commercial route, between Exeter and Newquay, thanks to support from this Government and this Department. What further steps will my hon. Friend take to support innovative green aviation to help it really take off? (904220)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have made huge progress so far or we have made a good start in trying to achieve decarbonised flight, and we will continue to do that. It is examples such as the fantastic work demonstrated over the summer, which I know he was present for, at Exeter airport, supported by the Department for Business, that will allow us to meet our long-term ambitions in this sector.

T2. A loophole in company law means that Bain Capital does not have to reveal how much it is paying the army of advisers helping it demutualise Liverpool Victoria. FTI Consulting, Clifford Chance, Fenchurch Advisory Partners and others have all benefited, perhaps by as much as £50 million or more. Does the Secretary of State not think that the members of Liverpool Victoria, whose money this is, have a right to know exactly how their money is being spent? (904218)

The hon. Gentleman will know, from his long experience in this House, that many of these issues relate to financial disclosure, which is obviously in the remit of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I am particularly interested in this deal. I think he is absolutely right that people who are shareholders and people who are customers have every right to transparent data, and I would very much support that.

T6. Carl Berridge’s company in Ashfield produces energy-saving boilers and heating solutions for industry, and he tells me that many businesses are unaware that new technologies can substantially reduce their energy consumption in a cost-effective way. What are the Government doing to ensure that industry gets the right information and businesses such as Powergas have the incentives they need to reduce the carbon footprint of industry? (904222)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he does in Ashfield and for his incredible voice in this regard. He is right to highlight how technology will take much of the weight of the transition over the next 30 years, and the importance therefore of companies supporting such technology development. We are engaging with businesses, and we will continue to do so, through programmes such as boosting access for SMEs on energy efficiency. I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend about that if it helps.

T3. Last month, I met Ed Burns, the managing director of H. Grossman Ltd, a toy company based in Glasgow East. Alongside the British Toy & Hobby Association, it is concerned about the growing number of unsafe toys being sold to UK customers by third-party sellers via online marketplaces. Will the Minister meet us to discuss the campaign to tighten up safety on children’s toys? (904219)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. The Office for Product Safety and Standards, over the period since the campaign was launched in April, has taken 10,000 unsafe products off the market, and it continues to work to identify products available online that pose a serious risk. We are reviewing the UK’s product safety framework in this area, but I will happily meet the hon. Gentleman.

T7. I welcome the steps the Government have taken in the last month to reinvigorate the UK’s nuclear industry. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that, thanks to this investment, we will have a cleaner, greener and more secure energy system that is less dependent on volatile fossil fuels? (904223)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his long-standing interest in this question. He will certainly know that, although nuclear is 16% of our current electricity generation, 12 of the 13 current nuclear power plants will be decommissioned or will no longer be producing by 2030. It is absolutely vital that we renew our nuclear capability, and I look forward to my right hon. Friend helping and supporting us in that effort.

T5. A month ago, the Secretary of State claimed that he had not commented on the Aquind project, yet two years before he had actually written to Alexander Temerko, just three days after seeing him at the Conservative conference, to confirm the Government’s support for the project. Will the Secretary of State now correct the record, confirm that he has indeed commented on the Aquind project and recuse himself from the decision-making process? (904221)

Mr Speaker—[Interruption.] I will answer that question, because the Secretary of State is due to make a decision on the application by 21 January 2022, and the Secretary of State of course has a quasi-judicial role in determining this live planning application so it would not be appropriate to comment on specific matters regarding the proposals as that might be seen as prejudicing the decision-making process.

T8.   May I first pay tribute to the BEIS ministerial team for its outstanding work during the pandemic to support businesses in central London, and particularly the Minister for London, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who I know has worked tirelessly, and I thank him? What I am hearing now as we rebuild our economy is that businesses across the Cities of London and Westminster are seeing a real rise in vacancies, which is inhibiting their ability to repair their balance sheets and recover their cash reserves and has halted their ability to grow their businesses. We have got the jobs, where are the workers? What steps is the Minister for London taking to help businesses even further, particularly in the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors? (904224)

As Minister for London, every time I go and see a business or business representative organisation my hon. Friend has been there before to champion the Cities of London and Westminster and the central activity zone in London which is so important for the culture and ecosystem of our great city. We want to build a high-wage, high-skill economy, and the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors are at the heart of that. The strategy will include the reopening and we will build resilience through increased staff supply.

T9. This UK Government are simply failing to support Scotland’s potential for green investment. We have heard as much today: the UK’s most advanced carbon capture and storage proposal shelved; grid connection charges punishing Scotland’s renewable energy projects; and funding for tidal power held up as the Prime Minister dithers. Having squandered £350 billion of oil revenues from the North sea, can the Secretary of State appreciate why there are concerns that his Government will simply do the same with our vast energy resources? (904225)

I remind the hon. Lady that this Government are the first UK Government to commit to a North sea transition deal. That deal is a world first; it is leading the world and showing how we can decarbonise a historically very productive sector to drive new technology and new economic opportunity.

T10. I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Infinite Renewables in my constituency, which has done great work facilitating renewable projects across the UK. It pointed out to me that the strike price for nuclear power provides generous support to nuclear projects, but those supported by private wire power purchasing agreements in the renewables sector get very little support. What are the Government doing to facilitate private wire PPA renewables in the UK? (904226)

I welcome Infinite’s work supporting renewable projects and my hon. Friend’s engagement in this. PPAs can improve the financial viability of renewables built without Government support. We anticipate that PPAs will complement Government mechanisms such as the contracts for difference scheme. Officials are investigating whether Government can play a role in encouraging further growth in the PPA market, and of course I am happy to meet my hon. Friend on this at any time.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) said, Scotland’s world-leading carbon capture and storage project at St Fergus was snubbed by the Government in favour of their pork-barrel interests in the red wall. Will the Secretary of State guarantee the Acorn team funding in the next round, or should we conclude that Scotland can only decarbonise with independence?

Again, I have to completely refute what the hon. and learned Lady says. The position is absolutely clear: Acorn was an excellent project and is on the reserve list, and I am looking forward to working with her constructively to make sure we land this very exciting project.

The sooner the offshore transmission network is constructed in the southern North sea, the better. It will save money for consumers and limit the damage to local communities and the environment. So will the Minister commit to restarting the previously planned consultation on a regulated asset base finance model for renewables and low-carbon energy-generating assets as soon as possible?

I thank my hon. Friend for his continual engagement on this issue. He will know that I met his colleagues in the OffSET group of MPs—the Off Shore Electricity Grid Task Force—very recently. On the offshore transmission network review, Ofgem has consulted on options for delivery models for offshore connections, including a regulated asset base approach. There continues to be ongoing work, and I am looking forward to meeting my hon. Friend at the next meeting of OffSET, or individually.

Under this Government, the gig economy workforce has trebled in the last five years, fire and rehire is accepted, zero-hours contracts are supported, inadequate sick pay is ignored, and sanctions for non-payment of the minimum wage are absolutely pitiful. Why, then, did the Government ditch their own employment Bill and block the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner)?

The UK has one of the best employment rights records in the world. We have made good progress in bringing forward measures that add flexibility for workers while ensuring the protection of employment rights, such as banning the use of exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts and legislating to extend the right to a written statement of core terms of employment to all workers. We will continue to make sure that we consider options to improve clarity on employment status, and we will bring forward an employment Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows.

In Suffolk and Norfolk, investment in research and development is vital to making the most of the opportunities emerging in such sectors as low carbon and life sciences, as well as to tackling pockets of deprivation, particularly in coastal areas. It is thus concerning that, in the Budget Red Book, the east of England is coupled with London and the south-east as an area from which spending on R&D will be diverted and in which it will be discouraged. Will my right hon. Friend work with his colleagues across Government to ensure that this discrimination against Suffolk and Norfolk is removed and is not included in the levelling-up White Paper?

I pay tribute to the fantastic work that my hon. Friend has done representing his constituents over 11 and a half years. He will know that I personally, as a Minister, have always been committed to the east of England. I have visited him in Lowestoft, I have visited offshore wind projects, and I would be very happy to speak to him about how we can drive the R&D programme and how East Anglia and his constituents can benefit from the UK’s science superpower status.

Is it not the case that the most exciting industrial development in the UK at present is hydrogen production? Does the Secretary of State welcome the pioneering work by JCB, under Lord Bamford’s direction, along with the partnership with Queen’s University Belfast, to produce the first working hydrogen combustion engine, which has made the past the future? What support will the Secretary of State give to capitalise on that engineering excellence to ensure that British jobs and British tech flow from it?

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that I am fully conscious and fully supportive of the great work that Mr Bamford and his colleagues are doing driving Wrightbus and driving the hydrogen economy. The hon. Gentleman may know that I am very shortly to visit to Northern Ireland to see that great work on the ground.