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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 709: debated on Tuesday 22 February 2022

Business, Energy and Industrial strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

Energy Sector Jobs

The Government are committed to protecting jobs across the energy sector, which already employs over 700,000 people across the UK and is creating thousands of new jobs through our net-zero strategy.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a member of Unite the union, which tells me that OVO Energy has a tangled web of companies into which £40 million has been salted away without any clear indication of what the money is or where it is coming from. Meanwhile, it is making 1,700 of its employees—a quarter of its workforce—redundant and its boss Stephen Fitzpatrick has said that they should keep warm by doing star jumps and that he is doing them a favour by sacking them because of the jobs market. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is about time that OVO stopped threatening to sack so many of its employees and opened up its books so that we can see where all the money is going?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I speak to the operators of energy suppliers the whole time, as does my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, and we have had many concerns about the practices of some of these businesses and are very mindful of some of the accusations being made against OVO. I speak to Mr Fitzpatrick on a regular basis and I will absolutely pass on the hon. Gentleman’s concerns to Mr Fitzpatrick directly.

The other day I noticed that the Government said they were going to help and encourage people to invest more in the gas industry and help to produce more, but then I heard a statement contradicting that from my right hon. Friend’s Department. Will my right hon. Friend clarify whether the Government are prepared to see more gas extracted and greater licences?

I and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change have been very clear about the course we want to pursue. We do not believe it is the right thing simply to switch off the oil and gas sector. Unlike many Opposition Members, we do not believe in simply an extinction of the oil and gas sector; we think oil and gas is critical not only to energy resilience but to developing new technologies such as carbon capture and blue hydrogen production. We have maintained that position consistently for the nearly three years I have been a Minister in this Department.

We have to admire the audacity of the Secretary of State in talking about protecting jobs in the energy industry when of course his Government have presided over the loss of some 35,000 jobs in Scotland’s North sea industry over recent years alone. It gets worse, because this is the same Government who opted not to fund carbon capture and underground storage in the north-east of Scotland, costing some 20,000 new jobs. Can the Secretary of State clarify why on earth the public should trust the Tories when it comes to jobs?

I will make three points about that. Acorn was an excellent project, and we want to see it developed very soon in the next wave, which we want to accelerate. There is an extraordinary arrogance in Members of the Scottish National party giving us lectures about energy when they are not committed to nuclear and are in bed with the Greens who simply want to flick the switch to turn off oil and gas in their own country. I am very happy to compare our record as job creators with the hon. Gentleman’s Extinction Rebellion approach to the North sea.

I am afraid the Secretary of State does his reputation no good whatsoever by propagating such unfounded garbage. If he wants to talk about records, let us talk about records, because despite energy being reserved to this place, it is the Scottish Government who have delivered the £62 million energy transition fund; it is the Scottish Government who have just delivered £30 million to Aberdeen South harbour; it is the Scottish Government who have just delivered £15 million to the Aberdeen hydrogen hub; and of course it is the Scottish Government who have just delivered a £500 million just transition fund for the entire north-east of Scotland. After taking out some £375 billion from Scotland’s natural resources, when are the Tories going to give back?

I am not going to take any lectures from the hon. Gentleman about energy policy. His party is committed to a job-destroying coalition with the Greens, who want to switch the lights off the North sea. Everybody knows that; that is why investment is very difficult to attract, and our job is to militate against their Extinction Rebellion approach and encourage investment, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) said, in our North sea.

Jobs in the energy sector depend on an effective market, and that depends on consumers exercising their choice to change supplier, but switching fell by 73% in the year just gone compared with the previous year. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that we get back to an effective energy market?

There has been a critical issue with very high wholesale prices, which as I speak are about 200p a therm, whereas at the beginning of last year they were 50p a therm or lower; there has been a quadrupling of the price. The energy price cap has protected consumers, but we are talking to Ofgem all the time about how we can refine the cap to make it more sensitive to wholesale prices in the market.

Today marks the start of International Energy Week, formerly International Petroleum Week. The Secretary of State was billed to open the event, and he will know that, despite the rebrand, the lead sponsors include fossil fuel giant BP, which is investing just 2.3% of annual capital expenditure into the jobs-rich green energy sector. When will the Government end their cosy relationship with the fossil fuel dinosaurs and replace the outdated duty to maximise economic recovery with a duty to minimise the extraction of North sea oil and gas and to maximise clean, green jobs instead?

The hon. Lady will know that we have committed to the “Net Zero Strategy”, which was lauded across the world as a world-beating document. She also knows that, as I have said repeatedly and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change has also said, we are committed to a transition, not extinction. We have to work with fossil fuel companies and the industry to transition to a net zero future, and that is exactly what we are prepared to do.

Science and Innovation: Levelling Up

2. What steps he is taking to support the growth of science and innovation through the Government's levelling-up agenda. (905666)

12. What steps he is taking to support the growth of science and innovation through the Government's levelling-up agenda. (905677)

16. What steps he is taking to support the growth of science and innovation through the Government's levelling-up agenda. (905681)

As part of our step-change increase in investment in science research an innovation—an increase of 30% over the next three years to £20 billion a year—we are putting levelling up at the heart of our investment through clusters around the country. That is why we are putting £200 million into the strength in places fund for 12 projects across the UK; making the groundbreaking pledge that 55% of BEIS funding will go outside the greater south-east; launching three innovation accelerators in Glasgow, Manchester and the west midlands; and extending eight freeports, with two in Scotland.

I thank the Minister for his answer. In Newcastle-under-Lyme, Keele University plays a substantial role in levelling up north Staffordshire through its work with local authorities and its Keele deals addressing economy, health, culture and social inclusion. There is also the enterprise zone, including the science and innovation park, which provides a home and support mechanism for more than 50 companies, with more to come. Will the Minister confirm that universities’ role in such work will be supported as part of our levelling-up agenda, as we get more money spent outside the south-east?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I pay tribute to his work and that of Keele. The enterprise zone is first class—similarly, the work of Keele University. I confirm that we are taking into account the very important role of universities in innovation and levelling up. He will see that reflected in the allocation of £40 billion to UK Research and Innovation and Innovate UK in the next three years.

The advanced manufacturing research centre at Sheffield University would like to open an innovation facility at Doncaster Sheffield airport, which may bring the likes of Boeing and hybrid air vehicles to Doncaster. It needs just £24 million to do that. I have met the Minister on the subject before. Will he come to Doncaster and meet all the stakeholders to see if we can get the project moving forward and let the real levelling up begin?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, because this is the third time that he has raised this matter with me. He makes in important point. The Boeing interest in Doncaster Sheffield airport is part of our plan to grow an aerospace cluster around the whole of the UK. I very much welcome the opportunity to visit him and meet Boeing and local stakeholders.

Last September, Llandudno in Aberconwy was identified as having the fastest economic recovery in the UK and, last week, an analysis of Companies House filings identified it as the start-up capital of the UK. I pay tribute to the entrepreneurs and businesses for making that happen. Will my hon. Friend the Minister join me in Llandudno with some of those entrepreneurs to see how we can nurture those green shoots, secure the growth and turn Llandudno into a growth and enterprise hub for north Wales?

With pleasure. My hon. Friend makes an important point: the Welsh dragon is roaring not just on the rugby pitch and in tourism, where Llandudno is the queen of Welsh resorts, but in the science, research and innovation economy. With the north Wales energy corridor, the south Wales life sciences cluster and plant health at Aberystwyth, Wales is a science and innovation engine that we intend to support. I pay tribute to his work in the area and look forward to visiting the Llandudno cluster as part of our work on supporting clusters around the UK.

The Minister may be aware that many rural parts of the north feel that levelling up does not really apply to them, but of course it must and it should. The Minister may be aware of Cumbria’s energy coast. We are a country with plenty of wind, plenty of water and plenty of coast. We should bear in mind that, after Canada, the UK has the second largest tidal range on planet earth and we are making use of nearly none of it. Will he commit to making sure there is a tidal, marine and hydro-energy hub in Cumbria, based in Kendal where Gilkes is so wonderfully based?

I absolutely agree. As a rural MP, I do not need to take any lectures from the Liberal Democrats on the importance of rural innovation. I will address the specific point about tidal power: we have just put £30 million into it. It would be good hear the hon. Gentleman—and his party—applaud the nuclear industry, which is an important part of that region.

I thank the Minister for his answers. With reference to university places for those from low-income backgrounds, will he consider greater financial aid for STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—for students from any part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to find their passion and long-term career?

The hon. Member makes a really important point that is at the heart of our £100 million innovation accelerator pilot programme. We have chosen the locations—Glasgow, Manchester and the west midlands—for the initial tranche, because we want to invest in places where there is strong world-class research and development and innovation cheek by jowl with lamentable deprivation. I very much hope that over the next few years we can extend it out to areas, including parts of Northern Ireland, where that similar pattern of excellence alongside deprivation is sadly still present.

Levelling up, really? The Campaign for Science and Engineering has shown that the proposals in the White Paper simply freeze the current proportion of regional science spend, with the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London continuing to receive the majority of public sector science spend. When it comes to private sector science spend, London’s share has actually doubled under Conservative Governments, because they will not give our towns and cities the powers and investment they need to build strong science economies. Will the Minister say whether the proportion of public science spend going to the regions will actually increase as a consequence of the levelling-up White Paper, or is this just more broken promises from the department for funny numbers?

I suggest the hon. Lady reads the levelling-up White Paper. If she reads it, she will see that it is a very substantial document that deals with precisely the points she has just made. [Interruption.] I will deal with the specific question she asked about devolution and extending investment around the country. That is why we have made a pledge—a pledge that the Labour party never made, by the way—to increase R&D spending outside the greater south-east. Our Department, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is responsible for 75% of R&D, will move to being 55% outside the south-east. The point she misses is that we do not level up this country by destroying the golden triangle; we level up by building the clusters, moving from a discovery economy to a development economy. As a Member for the north-east, I thought she would be applauding the phenomenal growth in the north-east as a result of our policies.

Obviously, I welcome the targets to increase investment through levelling up in our regions, but the thing that really matters is not what the Government say in White Papers, but how the money gets to those businesses, particularly in Rossendale, Darwen and east Lancashire more widely. Will the Minister commit to publishing an easy guide for local businesses to work out how, through their innovation and their own R&D, they can access some of that new funding? Trash-talking levelling up by those on the Opposition Benches does not go down well in east Lancashire or anywhere in the north, because we believe in this programme.

My right hon. Friend makes a really important point. It was surprising to hear the Opposition not mention the phenomenal investment that is pouring in. In the end, levelling up will be achieved by the businesses of this country investing in partnership with us. I welcome the Bentley £2.5 billion investment and the Aston Martin investment in Wales. That is happening right now. My right hon. Friend’s point is well made. As part of our significant increase in Innovate UK funding, we are looking at how we can ensure small businesses find it easier to access grant funding. We are dramatically increasing Innovate UK funding. The key test will be whether small businesses around the country can access it.

Climate Change

3. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on cross-departmental co-ordination on tackling climate change. (905667)

Delivering our landmark net zero strategy is well co-ordinated across Government. The Prime Minister chairs the Climate Action Strategy Committee, which, along with the Climate Action Implementation Committee, provide two ministerial forums to drive co-ordinated action across Government.

The UK’s credibility as COP President over the next year rests on demonstrable climate action at home, but the Government’s net zero strategy has been torpedoed by the Treasury. Without the scale of investment needed to support households and industry, the Government cannot guarantee that they would put us on track for their 2030 or 2035 targets. Labour would invest £28 billion every year until 2030. What representations is the Minister making to the Treasury to get us back on track to meet our targets and deliver the benefits of a green transition?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and for her engagement on this, but the basis of her question is not quite right. Actually, BEIS had more capital uplift in the spending review than, I believe, any other Department. We have doubled the amount of money going into international climate finance. My right hon. Friend the COP26 President is working tirelessly to show UK leadership in this space. In the time that we have had the presidency, the amount of the world’s GDP covered by net zero commitments has increased from 30% to more than 90%.

Hydrogen Sector

We are delivering on the hydrogen strategy that was published last August and will soon launch our £240 million net zero hydrogen fund and the first £100 million allocation round for electrolytic hydrogen projects and publish our sector development action plan.

Intelligent Energy in Loughborough is keen to build a hydrogen fuel cell gigafactory, hopefully in the east midlands freeport. How will my right hon. Friend help to promote hydrogen fuel cell technology and production in the UK so that we can lead the world in that technology, harness green jobs and growth and avoid having to play catch-up?

I thank my hon. Friend; it is always brilliant to get a question about that great hub of innovation and science in Loughborough, and it is brilliant to hear about Intelligent Energy’s plans to build a hydrogen fuel cell gigafactory in the east midlands. That is the kind of investment that will support highly skilled jobs in the UK’s nascent hydrogen economy and the Government’s levelling-up agenda. The Government provide support for fuel cells through various funds, including the Advanced Propulsion Centre and the automotive transformation fund, which have already committed over £38 million to 16 projects with a total value of almost £85 million.

Onshore and offshore, my constituency has more wind turbines than I can shake a stick at. Does the Minister not agree that we should generate hydrogen where the electricity is being made? Perhaps if he came to have a look at the wind turbines in my constituency, he would get the same delicious scones that I promised the Prime Minister when he comes to see the first space launch.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question; I think I have an existing commitment to go to his constituency. In fact, in my five months in this job, I think I have been four times to Scotland, and one of those visits was to the Whitelee wind farm, just south of Glasgow, to look at precisely what he mentioned . It is the UK’s largest onshore wind farm, which generates extra energy to produce hydrogen on-site, which will hopefully power Glasgow’s buses and dustcart fleet for years to come.

Does the Minister believe that the best way to stimulate the UK hydrogen strategy is to build hydrogen products that the public ultimately use, such as buses, trains and heavy goods vehicles? Will he commit to joining that up to the Department for Transport and encouraging it to get on with hydrogen bus development that will stimulate the entire economy?

The hon. Gentleman and I know that Northern Ireland has an incredible capability and tradition in bus making. He is absolutely right that hydrogen-powered buses have a big future. I mentioned Glasgow City Council’s commitment to move to hydrogen buses, thanks to the Whitelee wind farm; I imagine that we will want to do something similar in Northern Ireland. I look forward to further engagement with the Northern Ireland Executive on the topic.

Nuclear Power

The Government have announced a £120 million future nuclear enabling fund to support new nuclear and are aiming for a final investment decision on at least one more large-scale nuclear project in this Parliament, subject to value for money and relevant approvals.

Springfields nuclear fuel manufacturing facility employs hundreds of people on the Fylde coast. I thank the Minister for recently visiting the facility and for his personal interest in protecting the operations there. Will he commit to continuing to work with colleagues to explore the opportunities for developing operations at the site and protecting the hundreds of jobs that it sustains?

My hon. Friend is a passionate supporter of local jobs in Blackpool. He is right: in December, I visited Springfields, which is just outside his constituency. It reminded me of the strategic national importance of our fuel industry, which is why we secured £75 million in the spending review to preserve and develop the UK’s nuclear fuel production capability. That funding will support the UK supply chain to power the reactors of today and advanced nuclear in the future.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Fracking has proven itself wholly unsuitable for the Fylde coast, with seismic events in Fylde twice forcing national moratoriums. Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents and me that he agrees that to deal with the energy crisis, we need to look to technologies of the future such as next- generation nuclear, powered by Fylde-manufactured nuclear fuel?

My hon. Friend is the MP for Springfields, as you rightly point out, Mr Speaker, and is a passionate backer of our nuclear industry. New nuclear is crucial to our plans for a low-cost, low-carbon resilient electricity system. On fracking, the Government’s position is unchanged: fracking will not be allowed to proceed in England unless compelling new evidence is provided that addresses concerns about the prediction and management of induced seismicity.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has rejected proposals aimed at increasing transparency and accountability. There is wide disparity from plant to plant in engagement with local communities on concerns about safety issues such as breakdowns. What does the Minister make of the NDA’s rejection of increased transparency? What steps is his Department taking to reassure communities?

I am not aware of any rejection by the NDA of increased transparency. I am happy to look at what the hon. Lady has to say; my experience from quite a few meetings with the NDA is that transparency is very good, but I am happy to engage with her if she has a specific concern in relation to transparency in any nuclear plant in or near her constituency.

To deliver the Government’s ambitious roll-out of renewables such as solar—but also nuclear electricity, if that is what the Government want—we need to proactively develop grid capacity. Why have the Government still not reformed the remit of Ofgem, which is a real barrier to increasing grid capacity?

The hon. Lady is right: we have to make sure that our grid capacity is good for the big expansion of renewables, and indeed for the big expansion of nuclear, which is what this question is about. By the way, she might have a conversation with some of her colleagues, two of whom have recently mentioned support for nuclear— against Lib Dem party policy, it would seem. We and Ofgem are looking very actively at grid capacity: a lot of reviews are going on and there is a lot of action to ensure that grid capacity is in place, not least for the quadrupling of our offshore wind capacity.

Solar Energy: Agricultural Land

6. What discussions his officials have held with their counterparts at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on agricultural land being repurposed for solar energy. (905670)

My officials have regular discussions with DEFRA about the deployment of low-carbon solar photovoltaics on farms. Many solar farms are constructed with raised panels that enable the continued grazing of livestock. Solar energy can also help farmers to increase their revenue streams from land less suited to higher-value crop production.

A planning application has been submitted for a giant solar farm around Gainsborough, with an area equivalent to 5,000 football pitches. It is designed to be a so-called national infrastructure project in order to bypass all local planning. Local people will have no control; this development will enrich a few local landowners, and some entrepreneurs in London. Is it not time for an urgent discussion throughout Whitehall about how we can stop these companies bypassing local planning and secure proper community gain and the protection of agriculture, and, for instance, ensure that there are buffer zones around villages?

As my right hon. Friend knows, I am unable to comment on potential planning applications. Solar projects developed through the nationally significant infrastructure project planning process are subject to strict controls to protect local communities and the environment, including requirements for environmental impact assessments and public consultations. The Government recognise the importance of preserving the most productive farmland. Planning guidance is clear: where possible, large solar farms should use previously developed land, and projects should be designed to avoid, mitigate, and where necessary compensate for impact.

May I start by paying tribute to Sir Richard Shepherd, who has sadly died? He was a fantastic parliamentarian in the constituency next to mine, and he was very kind to me when I first came here.

There is a plan to build a battery energy storage system on green belt land. We appreciate that such a facility is needed to provide capacity for green energy, but will the Minister give a commitment that it will not be built on green belt land?

Let me first join the right hon. Lady in her tribute to Sir Richard Shepherd. I share her sadness at his passing, of which I was not aware. He and I used to overlap with each other, and enjoyed a number of very productive times together.

I do not know whether the right hon. Lady is referring to a specific planning application, in which case it may be difficult for me to comment on it. What I will do is agree to meet her to discuss it, and if it does relate to a specific application in or near her constituency, I will ensure that I have officials there to hear what she has to say about the proposal.

A large number of solar farm applications are being processed in Lincolnshire. Some are comparatively small in scale, but others, such as the Mallard Pass development, are significant and are causing great concern locally. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government have a strategy to ensure that solar farms will be spread evenly across the country, so that rural areas such as mine do not see a disproportionate amount of development?

We are committed to ensuring that solar developments are carried out with local community support. That is the most important consideration. We recognise that in some cases solar farms can affect the local environment, which is why applicants must complete an environmental statement as part of their planning application, including assessments of the impacts on wildlife, land use and biodiversity. However, well-designed solar projects have been shown to enhance biodiversity.

Employment Legislation

8. What stakeholder engagement his Department has undertaken on the Government’s forthcoming Employment Bill. (905673)

We have engaged extensively with stakeholders, both formally and informally, on a range of reforms to our employment framework, and will continue to do so in order to ensure that they deliver on our plan to build a high-skill, high-productivity, high-wage economy.

May I first express my thanks, Mr Speaker, to you for your kindness to my partner and me when our son was born last month?

This week the Northern Ireland Assembly gave a commitment to legislate for miscarriage leave, and the Scottish Government have given a commitment to introduce three days’ paid leave in the public sector. Will this Government give a commitment to introducing paid miscarriage leave in the Employment Bill?

I congratulate the hon. Member and her partner on their fantastic news. It was a pleasure to meet her to discuss her private Member’s Bill on the subject that she has raised. We recognise that losing a baby at any stage is incredibly difficult, and we encourage employers to be compassionate. There is no statutory entitlement to leave for women who lose a baby before 24 completed weeks of pregnancy, but those who are unable to return to work may be entitled to statutory sick pay, and women are protected against workplace discrimination due to any pregnancy-related illness, including illness caused by miscarriage. That protection extends to two weeks after the end of the pregnancy.

The Government have already taken important steps to stop the abuse of non-disclosure agreements in universities. Will my hon. Friend look at how he can take this forward in his Employment Bill by talking to organisations such as Can’t Buy My Silence, which are doing important work on ensuring that non-disclosure agreements are not misused in the workplace to cover up criminal allegations?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her work in this and many other areas. I would happily meet her and that organisation to continue our conversation on NDAs.

I wonder if the Minister has done any stakeholder engagement with the new Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). I ask that question because in The Times at the weekend the new Minister said:

“Sometimes the employer would think they need more protection from the employee.”

That view is wrong. Too many people are in precarious employment and do not have strong workplace rights, and the Employment Bill is a chance to begin to address that. Does the Minister agree with us that it is employees who need more protection, or does he agree with his colleague that it is the employers who need more help?

We will bring forward changes to the employment framework in due course. While we are working on that, and when parliamentary time allows, we are working on employment. That is why we have record numbers of people on payroll—men and women and people from all backgrounds, abilities and situations.

Flexible Working

The Government strongly support flexible working. Only by championing a flexible and dynamic labour market will we grow our economy. I would like to thank the hon. Member for her response to the consultation we closed in December and I look forward to publishing our response in due course.

I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said and I am pleased that the Government are talking about making flexible working the default, but their proposal merely makes the existing right to request flexible working available from day one in the job. I am sure the Minister knows that that will do nothing to address the fact that a third of all requests for flexible working are rejected, which puts single parents and carers at a considerable disadvantage in the workplace and affects the recruitment process as well. What legislation will the Government undertake to address the fact that unscrupulous employers can pick on a range of often pathetic, unfair and broad reasons when they want to reject a request for flexible working? Will the Government be introducing any actual legislation, because that is what the Opposition want to support?

The hon. Member has reflected her consultation response in her questions. The consultation stuck to the principle that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to flexible working. We support the “right to request” framework, which facilitates an informed two-sided conversation but ensures that employers have the right to refuse requests that are unworkable within their business operations. Clearly, that will need to be robust if they feel that they need to reject a request because of the business situation.

Small Businesses: Energy Costs

We recognise the impact that rising energy prices will have on businesses of all sizes. To understand the challenges that they face and explore ways to protect consumers and businesses, Ofgem and the Government are in regular contact with business groups and suppliers.

Given that the Federation of Small Businesses has said that small business confidence in the north-east is now at minus 64%, can the Minister say what consideration he is giving to the measures put forward by the FSB to support small businesses in the energy crisis, including scrapping the planned national insurance contributions increase and extending the household rebate to be matched by an equivalent business rate rebate?

I met representatives of the FSB and other organisations yesterday, when we touched upon energy for businesses. We will always listen to those representative organisations. Clearly we want to ensure that the £408 billion of support in the last two years to protect businesses, livelihoods and jobs will help us to shape the recovery, with ongoing support from this Government—the Government for business.

Energy Price Cap: Prepayment Meter Customers

11. Whether he is taking steps to support prepayment meter customers following the increase in the energy price cap through the energy bills rebate. (905676)

We are working hard to design this scheme at pace. We acknowledge that delivering the bill reduction for this payment mechanism will require a special focus, and that is why we are engaging with consumer groups and Ofgem to work out how best to design the mechanism.

People on prepayment meters will see their bills rise by £708, which is £46 more than for those who pay by direct debit. How will the Secretary of State ensure that people do not self-disconnect, leaving them without heat and means to cook? How will that be monitored? What thought has been given to private renters so that they do not lose out on the rebate due to the frequent tenancy changes in that sector?

We are constantly engaging with Citizens Advice, Ofgem and a huge range of stakeholders about how to protect the most vulnerable consumers. The package announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor only a couple of weeks ago includes £350, which goes halfway towards addressing the increase that the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) describes. The warm home discount is being extended from 2 million people to 3 million people, and the uplift will be to £150.

The 4 million pre-payment meter customers in this country will be profoundly unimpressed by the Secretary of State’s answers this morning. Not only are they paying far more than the £693 increase on the price cap for customers with accounts, but it is uncertain whether they will have access to the £200 Government scheme to lend customers their own money, as they do not have accounts through which to do this. Indeed, many of them will miss out on the council tax rebate, too.

Would it not have been much more straightforward and fairer for prepayment meter customers if we had levied a windfall tax on companies that are profiting from high gas prices and provided those customers with a direct and non-refundable discount on their bills through their meter?

That is why we have £155 million that can be applied discretionally, particularly to protect these vulnerable consumers. Labour’s whole approach to energy security has been woeful. Labour destroyed the nuclear industry we had, without any progress, and it has created massive uncertainty in energy supply through its proposed windfall tax, which is not the way to produce energy supply that secures low-cost energy for our people.

Parkinson’s Disease

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question on the importance of research into neurodegeneration and Parkinson’s, a cause I was proud to champion as Minister for life sciences. We are investing £20 million a year, including £14.8 million through UK Research and Innovation and another £6 million through the National Institute for Health Research. We continue to fund the UK Dementia Research Institute, and in the autumn we announced another £375 million for neurodegenerative diseases over the next three years.

More than 150,000 people in the UK will have Parkinson’s by 2030. Parkinson’s UK is clear that, to accelerate the search for a cure, research must be supported by improved infrastructure, including the use of digital technology and better clinical trial design. Will the Minister meet me and Parkinson’s UK to discuss how its proposal for a challenge fund could help to defeat Parkinson’s?

Yes, I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman. He makes an important point. The truth is that the next frontier in neurodegenerative science will be a mixture of neural pathways, neural mapping, digital science and deep-tissue phenomic and genomic science, which is why I was recently in Switzerland at the institute of neuroscience in Lucerne to see whether we can establish a collaboration.

Automotive Sector

The Government support growth by offering the automotive sector certainty, by making clear statements about our intentions regarding petrol and diesel vehicles and by supporting investment, innovation and a resilient supply chain via a taxpayer subsidy through the automotive transformation fund and the Advanced Propulsion Centre.

Following the recent announcement of £100 million of Government funding for Britishvolt in Northumberland, does my hon. Friend agree that this is only the beginning of the transition to a clean, green economy and that my constituents in Blyth Valley, as well as many others across the north, can look forward to a bright and prosperous future?

I pay huge tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work he has done on Britishvolt, as a passionate advocate for his constituency. This will bring new skills, jobs and opportunities to Blyth Valley, and I congratulate him on it.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that he wanted British workers to be more like German workers. Let us be more like Germany: it has increased the number of manufacturing jobs by 1 million since 2010, whereas this Government have presided over a fall of 93,000 jobs. The difference is that this Conservative Government do not have a plan, whereas in Germany there is a plan for manufacturing. The Labour party has a plan in our country, too, so if Ministers really want to support manufacturing, why do they not use Labour’s plan to make, buy and sell more in Britain?

I am not sure that Members on these Benches will take any lessons from a Labour party that decimated manufacturing between 1997 and 2010. Before the pandemic in 2019, we had seen an increase in employment in manufacturing, and the expansive and multiple investments in manufacturing announced in just the past few months—at Nissan, Stellantis and Britishvolt—demonstrate this Government’s commitment to manufacturing for the long term.

Topical Questions

As we all know, rising energy bills are a cause for concern for people up and down this country, but we have stepped in to give families some breathing space, with our energy bills rebate and council tax discount. Our supply of gas is secure; unlike many European Union countries, we are not dependent on Russian gas. Much of our supply comes from British territorial waters and from reliable import partners, such as Norway. The UK is the fastest growing economy in the G7, unemployment is down to record low levels and wages continue to rise. There are challenges ahead, but Britain is bouncing back from the pandemic.

Will the Secretary of State outline what steps the Department is taking to help low-income households in my constituency deal with the energy crisis?

My hon. Friend will appreciate the excellent statement made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer a couple of weeks ago. There was a range of measures totalling £9.1 billion, which included the council tax rebate for bands A to D and a £200 reduction in energy bills, totalling £350 to reduce bills. As I alluded to earlier, there was also an extension of the warm home discount.

The Secretary of State omitted to mention that inflation is now at its highest level for 30 years. Energy costs are spiralling and the private sector has yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels. Does he acknowledge that the Chancellor’s very large rise in national insurance, coming in April, will make a bad situation for British businesses even worse?

I am delighted to hear Members from the Opposition parties so bullish about our economy, given that we are the fastest growing economy in the G7! The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) mentioned Germany; I was very struck by the Bundesbank saying that Germany was facing recession, but we do not hear about that. We are creating more jobs, we have announced record investment and the Government’s plan is working in terms of bouncing back better from the pandemic.

The Secretary of State did not answer the question, because he knows that this is a high-tax Government because they have created a low-growth economy. May I also raise his recent claim that fraud is not something that affects people day to day? Fraud is estimated to cost the British economy as much as £52 billion a year, so will he accept that he has got this wrong? Will he apologise to the 4.6 million people who are victims of fraud each year, and tell the House today what steps he will take to do better?

I will tell the hon. Lady exactly what steps I will take to do better. I will constantly and always fight against Labour’s socialism, its windfall tax, its inability to plan ahead and its total lack of remorse for the fact that it destroyed manufacturing jobs in the time it was in government.

T2. My right hon. Friend the Minister will know that I am the promoter of the Local Electricity Bill, which is supported by just under 300 Members of this House, and I will be chairing a new all-party parliamentary group on community energy to promote it. Does he agree that community energy can play a key role in reaching our net zero goal? Will he work with us to remove the barriers to local suppliers of renewable energy? (905655)

I thank my hon. Friend for his long-standing and passionate interest in community energy. I was delighted to meet him and colleagues just before the recess. Through the introduction of UK-wide growth-funding schemes such as the towns fund, the Government are enabling local areas to tackle net zero goals. We intend to publish an updated retail energy market strategy in due course.

T4.   Less than 24 hours ago the Prime Minister said:“SAGE is certain that there will be new variants, and it is very possible that those will be worse than omicron.”—[Official Report, 21 February 2022; Vol. 709, c. 44.]What practical steps has the Department taken to ensure the maintenance of the infrastructure needed to develop second-generation covid vaccines and to build the pandemic-readiness resilience to which the Prime Minister referred? (905657)

I will happily talk to the hon. Member offline about the extensive vaccine pipeline that we are in the process of procuring. It includes next-generation mRNA vaccines for both flu and the next phase of covid. We are ahead of the curve on the next phase, as we were during the pandemic.

T3. May I draw the Minister’s attention to the plans, due to be published tomorrow by Midlands Connect, to significantly improve and invest in the A50/A500 east-west corridor? It runs from the M6 to the M1 and is home to many of the UK’s leading manufacturers, including JCB, Toyota, Rolls-Royce and Bentley, and it is also a hotspot for the development of hydrogen technology by businesses and by universities such as Keele University in Newcastle-under-Lyme. The opportunities for skilled jobs, innovation and green growth are huge if the Government can help to unlock the infrastructure, so will the Minister meet me and local stakeholders to discuss the opportunities? (905656)

My hon. Friend highlights the amount of opportunities that are coming to constituencies such as his in Staffordshire. I would be delighted to meet him to talk more about them.

T7. Community schemes such as Harlaw Hydro in my constituency provide 11% of Scotland’s renewable energy production. Our current energy crisis underlines the need to diversify energy production, so I was a bit disappointed when the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston) asked about his Local Electricity Bill and the Government were not able to give it their full support. Will the Government now state for the record their full support for measures such as that Bill to make proper and full use of community energy projects like the one in my constituency? (905660)

I assure the hon. and learned Lady that we fully support the transition in the North sea transition deal and the oil and gas sector, whereas her party and the Greens are seeking to destroy it and destroy jobs. That is the fact that I want to raise here.

T5.   The fact that global energy prices continue to be very volatile is a big concern for my constituents in Burnley and Padiham. One reason for that volatility is the weaponisation of energy by countries such as Russia, highlighting how we need not to rely on hostile state actors. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister set out what we are doing to ensure security of supply, not just now but for decades to come? (905658)

Energy security is an absolute priority for the Government. Our exposure to global gas prices underscores the importance of not only our own UK North sea gas production but building a strong renewables sector to reduce our reliance on energy imports in the first place. To that end, we recently published both a comprehensive net zero strategy and the North sea transition deal.

T9.   Does the Secretary of State agree that Afghan families who have come to the UK want to participate fully in our economy? Will he therefore help to establish a funded scheme so that Afghan refugees can set up their own businesses and contribute fully to our economy? (905662)

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that issues of settlement and asylum are ably dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I engage with her constantly in respect of employment schemes for people who wish to come into this country.

T6. Is my right hon. Friend aware of Rolls-Royce SMR’s plans to set up small modular reactor factories here in the UK? Does he agree that the high-skilled, long-term jobs in such factories could significantly help to level up north Wales and contribute to both net zero and a global Britain that exports more around the world? (905659)

As the current energy Minister and the former exports Minister, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend on the export potential of the Rolls-Royce SMR technology, which has the potential to provide levelling-up jobs precisely in areas such as north Wales, as he so ably urges.

Last week was the ninth anniversary of the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl who died following an asthma attack brought on by toxic air on a busy road on the South Circular. Our towns and cities need low and non-carbon transport solutions. We all know that electric cars are expensive, but second-hand electric cars are seldom available, which means that each car needs to be purchased from new. The current maximum Government grant for part-purchasing a new electric car is just not enough.

The death of the hon. Lady’s young constituent bears heavily on all of us as London Members of Parliament. I remind her that the principal responsibility for air quality in London rests with the Mayor of London. On the action that we are taking to encourage more low-carbon and zero-carbon vehicles, we have announced: the phasing out of petrol and diesel-driven cars; a big investment in our electric vehicle charging infrastructure; and a big move to hydrogen-powered vehicles. Work in these areas will see low and zero-carbon vehicles become the future of urban transport in this country.

T8.   While I welcome the establishment of the digital markets unit, does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that it should be given statutory backing if it is to set a level playing field between publishers and platforms? Can he confirm that it is still the Government’s intention to introduce that legislation early in the next Session? (905661)

My right hon. Friend makes an important point, which I would be keen to talk to him about. Although that is a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport lead, we are tightening up on the intellectual property provisions, and we are minded to proceed with that legislation.

Unscrupulous employers have used the pandemic to slash their loyal workforce’s terms and conditions and threaten them with the sack. Court cases have been lost by Uber and more recently by Tesco, yet all we have from this Government are platitudes. They have done absolutely nothing to stop brutal fire and rehire practices. Will the Government’s much-fabled Employment Bill finally ban them once and for all?

This Government have been really clear that such practices should not be used as bully-boy negotiating tactics. Employers should refer to the strengthened ACAS guidance that sets out that dismissal and re-engagement should be considered only as an option of last resort.

T10. Cornwall is famous for its creativity and its inventions—whether it be Richard Trevithick’s steam engine, Cornishman Richard Lower, who did the first blood transfusion, or Sir Humphry Davy’s lamp. What assurance can the Government give that research and development funding is getting to Cornwall? (905663)

My hon. Friend is an outspoken advocate for the Cornish cluster, which is growing fast. In addition to our groundbreaking pledge to increase investment in R&D outside the golden triangle to 55%, we are specifically investing in the South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications, the Newquay Spaceport and work with the University of Exeter and Virgin Orbit. This is an exciting time for the Cornish economy.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that workers in the UK should learn from Germany, where workers do not have a habit of going into work when not well. Will the Minister learn from the German Government and bring in statutory sick pay that covers 100% of workers’ salaries instead of the measly 90% that is covered in the UK, which leaves so many workers in the terrible position of having to do the responsible thing of isolating while being sick and not being able to put food on the table? On that point, will the Minister take this opportunity—

Order. Mr McDonald, I gave you the privilege of getting in. Questions are meant to be brief. There are two other people who have to come in as well; it is not just about you.

During isolation, we made it easier to claim statutory sick pay. We also changed universal credit to make it easier to claim and more generous. We continue to support people as this pandemic becomes endemic.

Last year I organised the first ever High Peak jobs and apprenticeships fair, working with organisations such as Buxton & Leek College and fantastic employers such as Tarmac, Breedon Group and Ferodo. It was a huge success, with hundreds attending and many reporting that they had found jobs as a result, so I am delighted to announce the second High Peak jobs and apprenticeships fair, and I would love to invite the Minister to attend.

The Government hate a monopoly, so can the Minister come to the Dispatch Box and tell my constituents who are former employees of Together Energy why his Government are using the energy crisis to create an energy monopoly by the big players, as opposed to small and medium-sized providers?

As I have maintained on a number of occasions, the hon. Gentleman’s party is a jobs destroyer in the energy sector, refusing to countenance any investment in the North sea, and in alliance with the Greens, who want to destroy jobs in the sector.