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Topical Questions

Volume 706: debated on Tuesday 11 January 2022

Before we proceed, I think it is fitting and right to say that I was desperately sad to hear that the hon. Member for Erdington had passed away last week. It is particularly ironic in that he was on the original draft of today’s Order Paper, fighting for his constituents as a dedicated public servant who always took a keen interest in the work of our Department.

I know that households and businesses are deeply concerned about the effect of rising energy prices across the next few months. We already provide £4.2 billion-worth of support for the most vulnerable. I am working closely, as many people know, with energy companies, Ofgem and ministerial colleagues across the Government to mitigate the impact of further price rises.

May I echo the sentiments in regards to my late good friend and fellow trade unionist, the Member for Erdington?

Energy-intensive industries such as Tata Chemicals in my patch, and the Daresbury labs on the Sci-Tech site that the Secretary of State will be familiar with, need support and they need it now. Why does he not swallow his pride, support the windfall tax that Labour is proposing, plus the VAT measures, and help companies such as Tata and indeed British Steel?

My understanding of the Labour proposal—I might have got it wrong—was that the windfall tax would not be directed to companies; it was, as I read it, directed to consumers. He will know that I, as Secretary of State, have always engaged with energy-intensive users and companies, and I am looking at the moment to try to get a solution to this problem with colleagues across Government.

T2. I commend BEIS Ministers for their enlightened decision to locate part of their team in Darlington. At the same time as we level up with more jobs in Darlington, LNER is planning to reduce services to Darlington, which will have a detrimental effect on connectivity. What steps is my hon. Friend, in collaboration with colleagues, taking to protect connectivity vital to businesses in Darlington and right across the country? (904950)

As my hon. Friend knows, a decision has not yet been taken on the outcome of the timetable consultation. Transport connectivity is largely an issue for other Departments, none the less we appreciate the importance of connectivity and infrastructure. We know that my hon. Friend will be an absolute champion of that—he has done a huge amount in his short time in this location.

I welcome the tribute that the Secretary of State just paid to our friend Jack Dromey, who was a great champion of British industry and of British workers and simply an all-round great man.

Over the last decade, Conservative Ministers cancelled the zero-carbon homes programme, banned onshore wind development, launched the eco-insulation programme and tore it up within one year. They reduced the UK’s gas storage capacity and at one particularly silly moment, the current Foreign Secretary claimed that solar panels were a risk to domestic food production. All those decisions have made this country more dependent on volatile wholesale energy prices than we otherwise would be. We know that means that there is an extremely difficult situation for British households, but it also risks making large swathes of British industry uncompetitive. The Secretary of State says that he is working hard, so what is his plan?

I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman take his place. I remember him being a prominent member of the economic team under the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). I am glad to see that there is life after death and that he is here today. My only regret is that the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) is not here. I am afraid that the split of net zero from business shows that Labour is not serious about the energy crisis. It is not serious about placing net zero in the context of business and growth and it is completely off the pace in terms of driving clean—

Order. I call Jonathan Reynolds. [Interruption.] Sorry, sit down and I will just explain once again. These are topical questions. They are not meant to have a “War and Peace” answer. I want to get Back Benchers on both sides of the House in. You are taking their time.

There was a lot of talk from the Secretary of State, but no answer. However, let us take up the point that he made. Earlier, one of his Ministers gave me an answer about UK steel production. The Secretary of State talks about net zero, but that cannot be achieved by exporting UK industry and jobs. We have pledged £3 billion of investment in steel, which would match fund pilots in hydrogen in place of coal and joint fund investment in electric arc furnaces. Domestic steel is essential to net zero; it is relevant to levelling up because it provides the jobs and the wages in many parts of the country; and it relates to Brexit because our producers now pay higher tariffs than companies in the EU to export to the US. Net zero, levelling up and Brexit amount to the Government’s entire agenda, so Secretary of State, again—

Order. Do you not both understand? Your Back Benchers are desperate to get in. If the shadow Secretary of State wants to come in, he should be brief. If not, he should come in early when he has got more time. Secretary of State, briefly.

Very briefly, we have reduced carbon emissions by 45% since 1990, more than any other country in the world. We have grown the economy by 80%. We think that net zero and economic growth go hand in hand; the Labour party does not.

T4. Storengy is a company in my constituency that provides gas storage. It tells me that levels of storage in this country have been decreasing. Can the Minister tell me how many days’ worth of gas storage there is now on a cold day, as defined by the National Grid, and whether he thinks that is sufficient? (904952)

I am happy to meet my right hon. Friend and potentially the company, but let us be absolutely clear: the issue with gas is not supply or storage, but price. Storing more expensive gas would not lower the cost of gas. We have excellent security of supply in this country—50% from our continental shelf and 30% from Norway. The issue is very much price, not storage.

T3. Energy bills are crushing families in the cost of living crisis that this UK Government are presiding over. One million more UK households could fall into fuel poverty this year, but that is not inevitable. Will the Secretary of State ask the Chancellor to act by cutting VAT on energy, increasing the warm homes discount for vulnerable households, providing support to energy companies so that they can help consumers, making an emergency energy support payment and restoring the universal credit uplift? Will he also revisit the Department’s recent position and consider freezing the energy price cap? (904951)

The hon. Lady will know that I have extensive conversations with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about that very issue. That is why we have kept to the energy price cap, increased the warm homes discount and got a winter fuel payment. The issue is squarely at the heart of our concerns as a Government.

T8. Will my hon. Friend join me and my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) in backing Intelligent Energy’s bid for investment from the automotive transformation fund, which will bring a hydrogen fuel cell gigafactory and highly skilled green jobs to Rushcliffe and the wider east midlands? Will he accept my invitation to visit Rushcliffe to learn more about those exciting plans? (904956)

I know that my hon. Friend is a huge advocate. I obviously cannot comment on individual applications. I am happy to come and visit and her support is noted.

T5. A recent survey showed that 91% of Wandsworth businesses are suffering negative effects from new Brexit regulations. Will the Minister commit to a region-by-region impact assessment of how businesses are adapting to the Government’s Brexit deal or are the Government leaving businesses to sink or swim? (904953)

This party of business will not let businesses sink or swim. We will continue to engage with businesses around the regions and around the sectors to understand exactly where they need to change and to help them in their transition.

I point out to the Secretary of State that HSBC, a British-registered bank, is being reported as having invested in Xinjiang Tianye, which is a subsidiary of Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which has been sanctioned by our allies the United States for committing atrocity crimes, including slave labour and genocide. Will he call in the bank and ask it to explain itself, as it is in breach of the modern-day slavery rules?

My right hon. Friend raises a very serious point. Clearly, HSBC’s dealings with China are of commercial interest to it, but those dealings also have a wider implication. He will know from his experience that the Treasury has direct ownership of that relationship; I am discussing it with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

T7. The Minister for Corporate Responsibility has spoken about the Horizon Post Office scandal and the need to compensate victims properly. He will agree that the object of the exercise is to put those victims in the position that they would have been in had the insult not occurred in the first place. Will he ensure that any such scheme adopts the common law principles of compensating for pain, suffering and loss of amenity; exemplary damages; and past and future pecuniary losses and costs to put those people in the position that they should have been in? (904955)

Consequential losses are included in the scheme, which is why we have an independent panel to add that expertise and ability to help those claimants to support their evidence for compensation.

At more than 2,000 acres, the Manor Farm solar park proposed for Rutland, the smallest county in England, is eight times larger than the existing solar plant. Can the Minister reassure me that when it lands on his desk, he will listen to the voice of Rutlanders and ensure proper scrutiny to protect our agricultural land and outstanding local biodiversity?

We always listen to Rutlanders and to my excellent hon. Friend who represents them. I very much agree that we want to bring communities with us when it comes to all renewables, but I think she knows that I cannot comment further at this stage. She can reassure her residents that she has been heard.

The Treasury has benefited hugely from the miners pension surplus over the years. Even though the Prime Minister pledged in the 2019 election that no miner would be left behind and out of pocket, they have been. Will the Government look again at giving miners their fair share or is that another example of the Prime Minister saying one thing and doing another?

The success of the current pension arrangements means that a pensioner in the scheme is 33% better off than they would be in a normal pension scheme. We continue to believe that the arrangements agreed in 1994 with the scheme’s trustees work well and are fair and beneficial to scheme members and taxpayers.

Regional mutual banks are key to the success of small and medium-sized enterprises in the world’s most productive economies, including Germany and the USA. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss that important opportunity?

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend. We have discussed that important issue on a number of occasions when I was wearing different hats in Government, but I am happy to meet him again.

For the last two months, people in Eccles in my constituency have had to wait weeks and weeks for their mail. Postal delays have meant people missing urgent hospital appointments, not receiving prescriptions and suffering hardship after not receiving their bank cards. It is unacceptable that Royal Mail has done so little to fix this problem. This appalling level of service is causing harm to my constituents. Will the Minister take action to ensure that Royal Mail resolves these letter delays?

I know that Royal Mail responded directly to the hon. Lady’s concerns in December 2021, and I responded just yesterday. However, I will continue to look at this, because covid sickness absences still remain, and Royal Mail is rotating deliveries so that its customers receive their mail as frequently as possible. There is clearly more that we can do, and I will ensure that we monitor that as best we can.

We all know the challenges those in the automotive sector have had in the last few years, but it is more than just them; it is the supply chains as well. Can I encourage the Secretary of State to come and visit Gestamp in my constituency, which supplies everybody from Volvo to Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan and so on, to understand its efforts in research and development, and how we can help it to develop its business?

My hon. Friend knows full well that, as Secretary of State, I have visited his constituency at least two or three times, and I would be very happy to do so again.

Households up and down the country are facing a cost of living crisis, with energy prices set to rise in April. While many are facing the choice between heating and eating, North sea oil and gas producers are posting record profits. Can the Secretary of State tell me why the Government are not backing the windfall tax on North sea oil and gas producers’ profits that would help measures to ease the burden on ordinary people?

As the hon. Lady knows, we remain absolutely committed to helping people through a difficult time. We have the warm home discount, which is worth £140, and the winter fuel payment, which is worth £200. We are doing all we can to make sure that we mitigate and alleviate the pressure of increased prices this winter.

My constituents in Consett in North West Durham are paying up to 10p a litre more at major supermarkets, including Tesco, for their fuel supplies than their neighbours just down the road in Bishop Auckland, 18 miles away. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss what I can do to stand up for my North West Durham constituents, who are fed up with being screwed by the big supermarkets?

My hon. Friend has done a great job representing his constituents. I know from when I visited his constituency in the aftermath of Storm Arwen how well he is appreciated. The RAC did a recent report on this, and I would be very happy to meet him at the earliest possible opportunity to discuss the issue.