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Topical Questions

Volume 715: debated on Tuesday 7 June 2022

I am pleased to announce that since I last addressed the House we have committed £37 billion, along with our friends in the Treasury, to support the most vulnerable households with the cost of living. We have managed to attract substantial new investments across the piece in new technologies, and we continue to focus on energy, to ensure that it is sustainable, affordable and, above all, secure in the coming months.

Semiconductors are an unbelievably important strategic asset to this country, and I commend the Secretary of State for calling in the acquisition of Newport Wafer Fab, which is our largest producer of semiconductors and an important innovator of compound semiconductors. That is exactly what the National Security and Investment Act 2021 was designed to do. Will he update the House on his next steps?

My hon. Friend will know that the NSI Act, which came into scope at the beginning of this year, gives me as Secretary of State powers to call in transactions that I feel are detrimental to national security. After long consideration and weighing up all the evidence, Newport Wafer Fab was, I think rightly, deemed to be such a transaction.

If a chair or chief executive of a FTSE 100 company presided over a culture of rule breaking, broke the law themselves and then said that they would do it again, would that person have the Business Secretary’s support, or would he demand better standards than that in public life?

I think that we deserve and are all well placed and right to demand the highest standards in any profession across any position and in any institution.

I agree, but if the Business Secretary believes that integrity and honesty are important in all walks of life, he should have voted against the Prime Minister last night.

I welcome the Government’s U-turn on a windfall tax, but yet again they say one thing and do another. There is uncertainty about who the tax will apply to, and there is worry that the chaotic nature of the announcement could perversely incentivise investment in fossil fuels over renewables. Uncertainty and botched announcements are a feature of the Government, which is one reason why business investment has been so poor under the Conservatives. When will the Business Secretary offer certainty to businesses on who exactly the Government intend to apply the tax to?

The hon. Member will know that issues relating to taxation are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As far as the hon. Member’s windfall tax is concerned, I have always been opposed to such taxes on principle, and I continue to be opposed. I hope that this energy profits levy does not discourage investment; actually, it has features that do attract greater investment.

T2. I am sure that Ministers will join me in congratulating a Royal Mail depot in my constituency that has moved its fleet to electric vehicles. However, that does place a lot of demand on the system, so will Ministers ensure that, when formulating policy, industrial estates, for example, have sufficient electricity to enable even more of them to change to electric vehicles? (900407)

I know of my hon. Friend’s ongoing interest in all matters in relation to energy, and he makes an important point about big energy users such as the Royal Mail planning and ensuring that they are efficient and robust for the future. I will ensure that his point on industrial estates is reflected back to our Department, to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and to other relevant Departments.

T3. I have heard from constituents in West Derby how the use of fire and rehire tactics by employers such as British Gas and British Airways put them in unbearable situations during the pandemic. Shamefully, in the middle of a cost of living crisis, we see many rogue employers across all sectors utilising those immoral practices on a daily basis to drive people into poverty. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) made clear, we need employment legislation now and the outright outlawing of the despicable practice of fire and rehire. Can the Minister justify why workers should accept anything less from the Government? (900409)

Later this year, the hon. Gentleman will see an effective code that will penalise the most egregious cases of fire and rehire and hit those companies in the pocket. That is an effective way of banning those egregious situations without disallowing the flexibility that some employers need in times of trouble.

T6. Mr Speaker, you will know as well as I do that Milton Keynes has a rich history of science and innovation that goes well beyond me banging on about robots in this place. I was pleased to see the historic settlement for the UK Research and Innovation fund last month. Does my hon. Friend agree that places such as Milton Keynes with such a history of innovation should get a fair share of that funding? (900412)

Milton Keynes has been slowly becoming a globally recognised innovation hub on the Oxford-Cambridge arc, particularly on autonomous vehicles and with the connected places catapult. May I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend and Milton Keynes on achieving city status as part of the jubilee celebrations? I assure him that our funding allocation mechanism is designed to support emerging clusters such as Milton Keynes.

T4. What is the Department doing, working with the Department of Health and Social Care, to improve the recovery of cancer trials and clinical research more broadly? Will the Minister meet me and Cancer Research UK to discuss how the rate of recovery can catch up with comparable countries post pandemic? (900410)

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady. We have allocated £8 billion over the next three years for life science and medical research across the Medical Research Council, the National Institute for Health and Care Research, and all relevant agencies. We will launch a cancer mission shortly and I would be delighted to talk to her about it.

T7.   I declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary markets group. The “Love Your Local Market” campaign, supported by many Members across the House, has just come to an end. Does my hon. Friend agree that local markets and traders are a vital part of the local business community and make a huge economic contribution to the health of our high streets and the regeneration of our city and town centres? (900413)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work and interest. We absolutely recognise the contribution that markets make to the vibrancy and diversity of our high streets up and down the country, and indeed of our town centres. We believe that local markets should stay at the heart of community life, and we want them to flourish all over the country.

T5. Insect protein is likely to play a significant part in meeting the needs of the agri-food industry and it can certainly address some of the sector’s climate impacts, but it needs the right support. Brexit and supply chain issues have caused major chaos for the industry. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how to support the industry and, more importantly, how to protect the really highly skilled jobs it supports? (900411)

The insect protein industry is becoming increasingly important, given the need to nearly double global food supply in the next 20 or 30 years. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman. It is one of the sectors we are looking at, as part of our £25 billion three- year allocation, that needs development and support.

T8. In a rural constituency like Newbury, fuel prices are a key driver of spiralling living costs. As such, it is a source of frustration that petrol stations are still failing to pass on the Treasury fuel duty cut. I know my right hon. Friend and his team have been working closely with the Competition and Markets Authority, but could he tell me what progress has been made to ensure that consumers are getting a fair deal at the pumps? (900414)

We are engaging constantly to make sure that consumers are getting a fair deal. You would expect us to do so, Mr Speaker, after our 5p fuel reduction following 12 years of freezes and £5 billion of relief. It is vital that we see that saving being passed on to consumers. That is why my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary and I meet regularly with the sector and will continue to work closely with the CMA to analyse the workings of the market and make sure our constituents get those reductions.

Exactly what steps is the Department taking to reduce the prohibitive bureaucracy facing scientists trying to access the very welcome £50 million funding for research into motor neurone disease, a horrifying disease that affects more than 5,000 people in this country? The research was announced in November last year, but they have faced those problems.

The hon. Lady makes an important point. We made a major announcement on MND research and will shortly be setting out our fully funded broader dementia and mental health missions. On research bureaucracy, we are looking, through the Professor Adam Tickell review, at how we can reduce administrative bureaucracy in the system so we are able to get those grants out much more quickly. I will happily talk her through that.

T9. Mr Speaker, would you believe it? Where I live in Westminster there is a lift that was made by the Bolton Gate Company 100 years ago and is still operating at the back end. Bolton Gate leads the door industry on the latest standards, but will the Minister outline what support we can provide to companies like Bolton Gate to navigate the new UK Conformity Assessed marking regulations, and to ensure that both Bolton Gate Company and its MP will be operating for another 100 years? (900415)

As well as the Minister for product safety and standards, I am also the Minister for the hair and beauty sector, so can I thank my hon. Friend for supporting the sector with his new haircut? In all seriousness, we are taking a pragmatic approach to implementing the UKCA regime. We know the challenges that businesses have and we are committed to supporting businesses to adapt. We continue to work closely with industry to understand and resolve implementation challenges. We are also engaging extensively with the industry in the UK and around the world to explain our new requirements.

It was really interesting to hear the Secretary of State palm off the detail of the tax on electricity generators to the Chancellor, because the Chancellor could not answer many questions on that at the Treasury Committee yesterday, such as defining excess profits or saying exactly when it will start or what the impact would be on renewables generators in Scotland. Will he publish a full impact assessment on this policy and investment in the renewables sector in Scotland, which is a key sector in getting to net zero?

I am very happy to speak to the hon. Lady about the details of that fiscal change. The energy profits levy was announced by the Chancellor and the details will be worked out in consultation with us, but they are ultimately a responsibility for the Treasury. However, I am very happy to talk to her about those details.

Diesel and petrol prices have hit a record average high this morning, with diesel costing more than £1.85 a litre. Along with labour shortages, that is having a devastating impact on haulage businesses in North Shropshire and across the rest of the country, as well as driving inflation in the economy. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to support this critical industry through these dual crises?

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris), we are engaging constantly with the sector and the CMA to make sure that the tax cut is passed on. However, I find it a bit rich for the Liberal Democrats, who, if I am not mistaken, voted against all the fuel freezes and this year’s Budget, to then claim that the reduction in fuel duty, which they opposed, is now not being passed on to their constituents. If they had voted for the reduction in the first place, I would have a lot more sympathy with their position.

We have been trying to find out today exactly what the Secretary of State’s job is, because he kept saying “That is not my job”. May I remind him that he is responsible for energy and that, in the recent energy strategy, energy from waste was hardly mentioned? It could produce 20% of our energy needs. Why is he ignoring that?

I am always very pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman’s contributions, given that he was born in my constituency—I am always pleased to see constituents doing extremely well in life. On my role, he is absolutely right that I am responsible for energy—I was Energy Minister and am now the Secretary of State—and that is why we have brought through the net zero strategy, which has plenty on energy from waste, including in relation to our energy needs.

The recently published preliminary report by the administrators of the failed Safe Hands funeral plans company suggest that this is yet another instance in which company directors have made false promises to innocent people, taken their money, played fast and loose with it and are likely to have lost it all. Will the Minister give us a timetable for the various bits of legislation in the Queen’s Speech so that dodgy company directors can be held to account immediately and not 10 or 15 years later?

On corporate governance, we will see, in the economic crime Bill, the reviews relating to Companies House, and we have also had the Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Act 2021. However, the hon. Gentleman cites a particularly egregious example and I will make sure that my colleague Lord Callanan, the Minister responsible for corporate governance, responds accordingly.