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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2022

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

SMEs: Red Tape

His Majesty’s Government are committed to supporting small and medium-sized enterprises through exemption of new regulations where possible. This exemption was recently extended to businesses with up to 500 employees, potentially reducing red tape and bureaucracy for up to 40,000 more businesses. That means thousands of businesses will not have to comply with forthcoming regulations and, most excitingly of all, it will extricate them from hundreds of EU regulations during the process of review and repeal.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the support he has given to small businesses across the country in recent weeks. As a west countryman, he will know Wadworth Brewery based in Devizes, an important local employer with more than 150 pubs and probably 1,500 people employed in the brewery and the pubs. I am afraid to say that many of the pubs are in severe financial difficulties, with many saying that things are worse than covid. Does he agree that the very welcome energy relief scheme should be extended and that the Government should give consideration to reviewing business rates and the value added tax regime?

Wadworth is a very well-known west country brewer. I used to live not very far from a tied pub in Wadworth’s capable hands, and it is a distinguished company that serves fine products. However, I must tell my hon. Friend that, while VAT is a matter for the Chancellor, the British Business Bank is offering £12.2 billion of finance to more than 96,000 small and medium-sized businesses. On 20 July my predecessor introduced a new iteration of the recovery loans scheme, which helps smaller businesses to get loans and other kinds of finance up to £2 million per business, and the Government have reversed the national insurance rise, saving small businesses £4,200 on average. The energy bill relief scheme, which ought to get Royal Assent later today, will secure businesses over the winter, and there will be a review; it is one of the most generous schemes in the world and has been copied by foreign Governments.

Businesses in my constituency, including some of the fabulous small breweries, are struggling with the extra paperwork they now have to fill in in order to export to the European Union. The Business Secretary was a great exponent of Brexit, but even he must acknowledge that it is causing a huge burden to businesses and seriously affecting their profitability.

I look forward to the hon. Lady’s supporting the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which is coming later today and will get rid of lots and lots of dreadful EU regulations that are such a terrible burden on businesses. Is it not wonderful, Mr Speaker, that our socialist friends at last have this glorious zeal for deregulation? It is something we on the Conservative Benches have supported since the time of Noah.

In recent weeks, having crashed the economy, the Conservatives have increased the barriers facing small firms, with spiralling costs making it harder than ever to do business. Last week, the Federation of Small Businesses reported business confidence falling to its lowest levels since the pandemic. Yet, as almost half of small businesses reported falling revenues this quarter, the Secretary of State spent the weekend saying it was “Boris or bust”. Surely recent Government chaos shows that, for small businesses, it is Labour or bust. If the Secretary of State really wants to reduce the cost of doing business, will he back Labour’s call to raise the small business rate relief threshold for this financial year, saving local firms up to £5,000?

The hon. Lady has been in this House long enough to know that rates are a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. She is raising the question at the wrong Question Time. It is worth bearing in mind, with unemployment at its lowest level since 1973, that every single socialist Government, including their brief period in office in 1923, have led to higher unemployment. What are they talking about?

Support for Energy Customers: April 2023

2. Whether his Department plans to take steps to support (a) domestic and (b) non-domestic energy customers after March 2023. (901803)

11. Whether his Department plans to take steps to support (a) domestic and (b) non-domestic energy customers after March 2023. (901813)

15. Whether his Department plans to take steps to support (a) domestic and (b) non-domestic energy customers after March 2023. (901820)

I am proud of the support the Government have provided to energy customers. His Majesty’s Government launched a Treasury-led review into how we support energy bills beyond April next year. The review will result in a new approach that ensures there is enough support for those in need while costing the taxpayer less than planned. The cost has come down significantly because of the fall in gas prices in recent weeks. Any support for non-domestic energy customers will be targeted at those most affected. This new approach will better incentivise energy efficiency.

Citizens Advice Scotland has warned that it is already seeing huge demand for advice on the cost of living, energy bills and food insecurity. The uncertainty on the future of the energy price guarantee beyond April is frightening for consumers, not to mention the impact of insecurity faced by business. During the pandemic, the current Prime Minister kept U-turning on furlough extensions at the last minute. Will the Secretary of State offer reassurance and give at least some idea of when a post-April energy price scheme could be established?

Let me offer the reassurance that, if not for the United Kingdom, there would not be this level of support for businesses and individuals in Scotland. Scotland simply would not be able to afford it. It is the strength of the United Kingdom that allows this all-encompassing support to be provided. That is what the Government are doing. The package is one of the most generous that any country in the world has introduced. We are supporting people through the winter, and we will ensure there is focused support for the least well off in future winters.

Just four days ago, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce issued the findings of its latest business survey and, to no surprise, energy costs were the main concern. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce stated:

“The signs of an economic bounce back don’t look promising as more and more firms are telling us that they have been forced to cancel contracts, projects or plans to expand, due to soaring costs and difficulty in hiring people.”

How exactly does having no certainty on energy costs beyond March help those businesses?

Mr Speaker, I assume it is orderly to say that I think the hon. Gentleman lives in a fantasy land. Energy prices varied before this Government came in and will vary in future. What His Majesty’s Government have done is provide enormous support for businesses. I say it again: just think how much worse off businesses would be if they were dependent on an entirely Scottish Administration with no money.

It is good to see the Ministers still in their place for a wee while. Just six days ago, Martin Sartorius, the principal economist at the CBI, said:

“The prospect of household energy bills rising sharply again in April 2023 emphasises the need for Government to set out the details of any future targeted support sooner rather than later”.

The Secretary of State has repeatedly refused to clarify when households will receive clarity. Can I assume that he is also happy to leave businesses in the dark?

The hon. Gentleman cannot find a stick without picking up the wrong end. It has to be said that this Government acted with the speed of light.

“There was a young lady named Bright

Whose speed was far faster than light;

She set out one day

In a relative way

And returned on the previous night.”

We have returned on the previous night with a package that will receive Royal Assent today. The package has been worked out and thought through, with its budget provided, within a few weeks. We have some time between now and 1 April to establish what the scheme will be in future.

I very much welcome the Government’s energy support measures, but my right hon. Friend will know that in rural areas, in Cumbria and in his constituency, many households and businesses are off-grid, relying on heating oil, liquified petroleum gas, biomass and so on. The measures do need bolstering, so will he reassure me and my constituents that the Government will keep this under review, and will support households and businesses that are off-grid?

I am entirely in agreement with my hon. Friend; this is an important part of the overall scheme. The £100 payment to domestic users who are off-grid is based on the rise in the heating oil price against the price of gas, to ensure that people are dealt with fairly. It is important that that is also done for businesses. The issue with the business scheme, which we are developing and will have developed shortly, is ensuring that it is not open to gaming, because we have to use taxpayers’ money wisely. However, there is support and there will be support, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is fully behind that.

I welcome the £400 energy bill discount that is going out to most households across the country in the UK. Some park homes, such as those in Deanland Wood Park in my constituency, are not on the domestic supply, but equivalent support has been promised for them. They mainly have elderly residents, so will the Secretary of State outline the timescale and process as to how they will receive that money?

It is important that we support everybody who needs the support, and people in park homes are in a situation of which we are well aware. It is a question of working out how to get the support directly through to them, but I assure my hon. Friend that that is being worked upon.

Will my right hon. Friend outline to the House what role his Department will have, if any, in advising on and assisting with the Treasury-led review on the energy price guarantee during April?

I think the answer is in the name of the Department, which is the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy: any policy relating to energy is one the Department has a role in.

As we have just heard, the CBI, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and Citizens Advice Scotland have all expressed profound concern about the lack of certainty coming from the Government on their energy price strategy. But let us not stop there, because Age Scotland has produced a report in the past couple of days outlining that four in 10 older people in Scotland are now living in fuel poverty. Indeed, one of the respondents stated:

“The cost of living means I had to cut back on food shopping, and often go weeks with no food. It’s making me unwell.”

How does the right hon. Gentleman expect people to survive this winter?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Everyone in this House is concerned about their constituents, the least well-off constituents, which is why such a big package of support has been put together—not just the price cap, which for the average household would be £2,500, converted into units of electricity, but the additional support given for the least well-off. So there is a further £400 that everybody is getting and £800 that is available to people on certain benefits. He is right to raise the issue of their difficulties, and I always admire the work done by Citizens Advice, which receives a portion of its funding from BEIS and rightly so. As constituency MPs, we all know what a useful organisation it is. The whole purpose of this package is to support the least well-off and give them certainty over the winter. He does not help by creating fear and uncertainty.

As ever, the Secretary of State is living on a different planet. The energy price guarantee, to which he refers, is of course a unit price cap, not a usage price cap. That means that average bills in Scotland are not going to be £2,500; they are going to be £3,300 and in rural areas they are going to top £4,000. That is despite the fact that Scotland produces six times more gas than we consume and that almost all of our electricity comes from low-carbon sources. On Westminster’s watch, Scotland is energy-rich but fuel-poor. Is it not the case that at this moment the solution to Scotland’s problems does not rest with his party and his incoming Government? Indeed, it does not rest with this Parliament at all, does it?

There is a certain eccentricity in the Scottish nationalists’ boasting of the amount of oil and gas they get when they have been opposing efforts to increase the licensing round. They really cannot have it both ways. They have this fantasy approach to politics where they spend money that they have not got, they rely on the UK taxpayer to support them and then they complain that it is all the fault of Westminster. I am afraid that without Westminster the hon. Gentleman and his merry band would be bankrupt.

Businesses: Energy Costs in 2023

3. What support his Department plans to provide to businesses with increased energy costs after April 2023. (901804)

We will publish a review by the end of the year which will consider how best to offer further support to those most at risk due to energy price increases. The review will consider which groups of non-domestic customers remain particularly at risk to energy price rises; and how best to continue supporting those customers, either by extending the existing scheme for some users, or by replacing it with a different one.

The Horse & Jockey pub in Northwood in my constituency closed before the Government’s assistance package was announced. It is one of many businesses that will not continue beyond April. Many others that have managed to remain open are struggling to secure bank facilities and to reassure suppliers and customers, because they need certainty to be able thrive. I would like to hear from the Minister what the Government are going to do to provide some certainty for these critical businesses beyond the winter period.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right—businesses deserve certainty, and we will give that to them as soon as we can, and well before the end of the scheme. It is important that we make sure, because this is a very expensive scheme for taxpayers, that we give that support where it is needed, at best value for the taxpayer. That means that we need to target it at those businesses that are at most risk of being damaged. I hope that that gives the hon. Lady some reassurance in the meantime—we are determined to give some advice before the end of the year.

The Minister has announced what will happen if businesses have fixed-term energy contracts running into the period of the support scheme, but she has not said anything about what would happen where businesses are forced to sign new fixed-term contracts during the term of the scheme that run on after it has ended. Many businesses and firms might face ruin if they sign new, sky-high fixed-term contracts for which they know that there is support only for perhaps a few months of it. They need assurances now, not at the end of April. What assurances can the Minister give that proper measures will be urgently put in place to support businesses under such circumstances?

I repeat that we will announce conclusions before the end of the year, which provides sufficient notice before the end of the scheme. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we need to give support that is as targeted as possible, given the cost of the scheme. In respect of the point that he made regarding contracts, Ofgem will play a key role in making sure that energy suppliers behave honourably in the scheme. It remains our intention that businesses should receive the support that they deserve and that pricing is fair.

SMEs: Energy Price Cap

4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential effect of raising the energy price cap on small and medium-sized businesses. (901805)

Businesses are not subject to the energy price cap in the same way as domestic homes are subject, and are not eligible for the energy price guarantee. The Government are providing equivalent support to businesses through the energy bill relief scheme, which was launched on 21 September 2022.

I have been inundated with calls from businesses, because those prices are not capped and they have soaring, runaway fuel costs. The latest was from Toryglen Community Base, whose bills are going up from £9,745 a year to £62,273 next year—a 539% increase. How does the Minister expect community organisations to pay those increased bills? They have to sign those contracts, whether they can afford them or not. The price is not going to go down. The community base has been quoted £50,000 a year for 2024. How does he expect community organisations to survive?

I thank the hon. Member for raising her concerns, and I understand the points relating to her constituents and businesses. The Government are absolutely committed to supporting small and medium-sized businesses. I am very proud that, as the first point in my portfolio, small businesses are absolutely at the top of my agenda. Having worked with small businesses for many years, it is absolutely essential that we support them. We are looking at how we can best help to support businesses, and I will gladly write to her with further details.

Onshore Wind Farms

5. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the number of onshore wind farms established in England since 2015. (901807)

We currently have more than 3 GW of installed, operational onshore wind capacity in England and 14 GW across the UK—the most of any particular renewable technology. We do not believe that the Government should prescribe the proportion of energy from any particular technology, but of course we have transformed the level of renewables since the hon. Gentleman’s party left power—when I think the figure was less than 7% of electricity. [Interruption.] Opposition Front Benchers may well groan, but it is quite clear that Labour did not deliver. It is more than 40% today—and we are.

As a direct result of the Conservative Government’s decision to cut the “green crap” in 2015, every household’s bill is hundreds of pounds higher. Does the Minister regret that mistake, and is it not long past time to reform planning laws and to get on with building the quickest, cheapest, cleanest forms of power, such as onshore wind and solar, which would increase our energy security, cut bills and tackle the climate crisis—work that the Government have been blocking for far too long?

It was this Government who passed the net zero legislation. It was this party that was the first major party to call for the climate Act, which has driven this behaviour, and it was this party that took us from 6.8% electricity from renewables to more than 40% today. It is this party that brought in the contracts for difference, which have been copied all over the world, and which see tens of millions of pounds paid to reduce bills at the moment, with the last round driving 11 GW of additional clean energy into the system. It is this party that delivers on net zero and the environment and it is that party—the Labour party—that talks about it.

Labour is committed to maximising the vast opportunities that exist in developing the UK’s onshore and offshore wind industries. In sharp contrast, the Conservative Government’s 12 years of low growth, low investment and low productivity saw the UK’s largest wind tower factory at Campbeltown close. Labour will increase onshore wind capacity. We will deliver jobs, lower bills and energy security, and we will set up a publicly owned Great British energy company. Is the truth not that Labour’s industrial strategy is the credible way forward for UK energy production?

If only Labour’s record in office was as good as the oratory that the hon. Gentleman uses today—less than 7% of electricity was from renewables then. We are also absolutely focused on developing green jobs. We have developed those green jobs, but, sadly, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, it is the fate of almost every Labour Government to come in with promises and end up with higher dole queues than when they started.

Marine Energy

I am delighted to say that, on 7 July, we announced that 40 MW of new tidal stream power was secured in Scotland and Wales through the contracts for difference round, and analysis has confirmed the predictability, resilience and potential cost-effectiveness of marine energy, which can play a key role in delivering energy security and net zero.

Over a decade ago, nuclear power was dismissed as it was too expensive, and it was said that it would not be online until 2022. How short-sighted has that proven to be? Does the Minister agree that marine energy must not suffer the same fate as nuclear? Does he also recognise that the cost will reduce over time with investment, and will he meet Jim O’Toole from Mostyn docks in my constituency to discuss his opportunities with tidal stream?

There is long-standing Government support for wave and tidal power research and development, with more than £175 million having been invested in the area over the past two decades. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, where it can be shown that it is cost-effective, tidal and marine energy has a big role to play.

As is so often the case, local ideas can provide national solutions. Will the Minister meet me and Rev. Andrew Langley from my constituency, who is using his churches to look at using new tidal technology to power the town of Dartmouth? Those are the sort of schemes that we need to be looking at and then investing in and supporting the technology.

Rev. Andrew Langley sounds like a community hero. It is exactly that kind of grassroots approach that is at the heart of Conservative philosophy as we deliver these high-level targets, but we work with the whole community to see it delivered. Community groups have a big role to play in our efforts to eliminate our contribution to climate change, and of course I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and his local hero, Rev. Andrew Langley.

A fortnight ago, I raised the Swansea bay tidal lagoon at Treasury questions. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury kindly offered me a meeting to discuss it. He was very positive, but then, unfortunately, he lost his job. The potential of the barrage for cheap renewable energy could really kickstart our green economy in south Wales. Will the Minister reopen the business case on this important project?

We consider a whole series of critical factors, including funding mechanisms, planning considerations, the environmental impact and whether the benefits of coastal and flood defence and energy security can be included. Like the hon. Gentleman, I hope that we can see a way forward and that tidal and marine energy can compete with other technologies, as we bring about the transformation that was talked about under his Government but is being delivered under this one.

The United Kingdom has the highest tidal range on the planet after Canada, yet we use so very little of it, especially when we consider that a massive majority of the supply chain for marine, tidal and hydro is British. There are so many jobs to be made out of all this. Will the Minister look particularly at the potential for tidal energy in Morecambe bay? I know that his hon. Friends on both sides of the bay agree with me on this, so will he meet with me and others who are in favour of getting green energy out of Morecambe bay to see whether we can take this forward?

We are seeing these technologies mature, and the hon. Gentleman is right: tidal and floating offshore wind projects have won CfDs for the first time ever, which will help these industries grow and strengthen Britain’s homegrown renewables sector. As he says, we have tremendous tidal potential in this country. He mentioned a site further north, but the Severn estuary has the second highest tidal range in the world, so if we can get it right, there is huge untapped potential.

Anglesey is known as energy island. We have wind, wave, solar, tidal, hydrogen and hopefully new nuclear. We have two excellent tidal marine companies, Morlais and Minesto. When will the Minister publish the parameters for the fifth CfD auction, which is opening in March next year?

As my hon. Friend says, the fifth round is very exciting. We are moving from two-yearly to annual rounds—of course, they were interrupted by the pandemic, so it became slightly longer than that. After 11 GW last year and with new technologies coming through, we will come forward soon with information on that. I look forward to seeing that yearly set-up leading to even more renewables coming onstream.

My constituents do not like arrogance, and they do not like posh arrogance even more. Is it not the case that the guilty group here, most of whom were passionate Brexiteers, have done so much damage to our economy? That means that tidal power, energy from waste and a range of other alternatives have been languishing, because this Government have no sense of direction and will not recognise what the Bank of England Governor and previous Governors have said, which is that we have been impoverished by leaving the European Union.

Well, there was there an attempted linkage to the question, but I do not think that made it any less pompous or, indeed, irrelevant.

Support for Energy Customers: Winter 2022-23

We are providing a £400 discount through the energy bills support scheme over this winter, as well as the energy price guarantee, which will support millions of households and businesses with rising energy costs, and we will continue to do so from now until April next year. That is on top of a further £800 in one-off support provided to 8 million of the most vulnerable households to help with the cost of living, and of course pensioner households can receive £300.

The cost of living, and especially energy, is of great concern to my Carshalton and Wallington constituents. I welcome the Government’s action on energy bills, but I know from talking to many of my residents while out delivering my cost of living advice guide that, apart from the energy price guarantee, they are sometimes unaware of the additional support they may be entitled to, including from their energy provider and the Department for Work and Pensions, or the Government support provided through local councils. Will my right hon. Friend outline what steps he is taking to ensure that people are aware of all avenues of support that are available to them?

My hon. Friend is quite right to raise this. Full details of the help available to consumers can be found on the Government’s Help for Households website, which people can get to from the website. That covers my Department’s extensive energy support package and the additional help available, including through the Department for Work and Pensions, such as income support. In addition to the Help for Households site, we are communicating information on the support available to help with energy bills through suppliers, consumer groups and charities—and, it has to be said, through first-class MPs running events in their constituencies, who ensure that this happens—as well as through the media and

When Chancellor, our new Prime Minister spent precious months dragging his heels on energy efficiency, and now our fourth Chancellor this year scrambles with a Treasury-led review of the issue. We do not need more reviews to conclude that a paltry £1 billion extension to the energy company obligation falls far short of what is needed. Will the Secretary of State accept that to keep the UK’s homes warm and bills affordable for the long term, we need at the very least a further emergency investment of £3.6 billion over the rest of this Parliament, to kick-start the hugely needed nationwide home insulation programme that people are calling for?

There are focused and targeted schemes to help with energy insulation. The hon. Lady pooh-poohs £1 billion, but £1 billion is serious money, and it is going to help the households in the greatest need. A lot of work is being done with social housing landlords, but there are things people can do that lower the cost of their energy without causing any lack of warmth, such as turning down the boiler flow temperature, which almost all households can do. That will be a saving for them on the cost of energy and will make their heating more affordable; it will save energy but also reduce bills.

Poverty in Deprived Communities

8. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential contribution of his Department to reducing poverty in deprived communities. (901810)

The best way we can help deprived communities is by creating good jobs and growing the economy. By cutting red tape and boosting innovation, we are enabling more businesses to create more high-quality jobs. Cutting national insurance will encourage job creation and ensure that workers have more of their own money, but Government can also do their bit to help projects that will facilitate economic growth, and I am pleased that some £87 million is being spent in Sheffield at present.

According to recent polling, 69% of my constituents are worried about not being able to pay their energy bills. They are terrified for the future, with prices set to rise in April, but the latest new Prime Minister has shamefully boasted about taking money away from deprived areas like mine. Does the Minister agree that Britain needs a general election now, so that the public can have their say on their future?

The hon. Lady will not be surprised to hear that I do not share that opinion. She will appreciate my sincerity when I say that I am very concerned to do my bit to make sure that those in deprived communities feel reassured by the support they are getting from this Government. We will make sure that her constituents continue to get the support they need, but the best thing we can all do is give that message of reassurance, not seek to play party politics by calling for a general election.

Despite being the engine room of Britain’s economy, London still has some of the most deprived areas in the country. Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way we can get people out of poverty is to create good, well-paid jobs, so that they can earn their own living and have the ability to contribute to the economy?

My hon. Friend is quite right. We seem to have got ourselves into a cul-de-sac of seeing deprivation as a result of geography, when actually the truth is far from that; we have deprived communities in all parts of our United Kingdom. It is important that we ensure that everybody has access to good, well-paid employment. We will achieve that by making sure that we are equipping people with the skills that employers need and taking away the red tape and tax barriers, to encourage firms to create new jobs. That is the Government’s approach, and that is how we will grow our way out of the problems we are facing.

Climate Change

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I work closely with colleagues across the Government on the cross-Government challenge of net zero. Only yesterday, the Climate Action Implementation Committee met and discussed our progress on meeting our net zero targets and the carbon budgets.

Tackling climate change is a win-win-win for Hull West and Hessle, and indeed for Beverley and Holderness. Labour’s plan for Great British Energy will provide good, green, local manufacturing jobs in offshore wind and carbon capture, help protect our planet and ensure our country’s future energy security, but the short-termism of this Government and, sadly, their high turnover of Ministers is not giving this crucial issue the focus it needs and is preventing our country from developing the long-term skills strategy that is needed to fill those jobs. When will the Government stop fighting themselves and match Labour’s ambition for our country?

In 2021 alone, £24 billion of new investment was committed across low-carbon sectors in the UK. I share the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm for what that can do for the whole country, particularly the Humber area. We estimate that just over 69,000 green jobs have been supported in the UK since the launch of the 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution in November 2020, many of which are in former industrial heartlands. It is important that Members on both sides of the House send out the message that the whole House is united in believing that net zero is the right place to go and the UK is the right place to invest. I am sure that hon. Members will send that message across the world.

I sincerely thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for Climate for helping to depose the Prime Minister last week with their insistence on bringing back fracking. They may have technically won the vote but, given the response of their MPs, it is obvious that they lost the argument. Can the Minister now confirm that the Government’s anti-green agenda has exited Downing Street along with the outgoing Prime Minister? Will he commit to bringing back the ban on fracking?

Perhaps it is the nature of being in Opposition that means that people misrepresent things, but it is of course this party and this Government who have driven the net zero strategy and are greening our economy. [Interruption.] The Opposition may grumble and they may not like it, but we can see it in all the numbers. Just 14% of homes had an energy performance certificate rating of C or above when Labour left office; that figure is 46% today. Whether on energy efficiency, renewables or low-emission gas, we are the party that has solutions.

Rare Minerals and Metals

13. What steps he is taking to help secure the supply of rare minerals and metals for industry and business. (901817)

The Government published the critical minerals strategy last summer, which sets out plans to accelerate the UK’s domestic capabilities, collaborate with international partners, and enhance international financial and trading markets. We are expecting to publish a delivery plan by the end of the year to refresh the strategy and ensure that we understand the global race for critical minerals.

I thank the Minister for her response. Northern Lithium and Weardale Lithium in my constituency received more than £1 million from the Department for their work looking at lithium, which is vital for battery manufacture, including on Wearside at Nissan. Will she commit to ensuring that those projects are proceeded with at speed, so that we are not reliant on global factors, as we have been with oil and gas in recent years?

Once again, my hon. Friend is a staunch advocate for North West Durham and its businesses, particularly Weardale Lithium. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that we have resilience and security of supply. The Government are committed to building domestic critical mineral supply chains and generating jobs and wealth across the UK—for example, by supporting lithium projects in County Durham via the automotive transformation fund. He has often spoken about China; resilience is key.

The Government’s plan for net zero by 2050 is unplanned and uncosted. On top of that, we now have the difficulty of finding the metals that are needed for batteries, magnets and the required systems, because China controls 60% of earth metals. Only this week, a Finnish Government report indicated that there is not enough lithium in the world for the batteries that are required for motor cars and battery storage. How will the Government deliver on that unrealistic target?

There is indeed a race to secure critical minerals, especially when countries such as China own so much of them. By 2040, the world is expected to need four times as many critical minerals as we can access today for clean energy technologies, but there is work under way in collaboration with international partners and in the UK with the Critical Minerals Intelligence Centre.

Intellectual Property Rights

The UK’s intellectual property framework and enforcement regime is widely recognised as world-leading. Our trade deals help UK businesses to get more from their rights overseas, and our ambitious counter-infringement strategy protects the value of investment in innovation and creativity.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the critical importance of intellectual property protection to all the creative industries. Will he therefore reaffirm the commitment of his predecessor to look again at the proposal of the Intellectual Property Office to expand the exception for text and data mining, which would severely undermine intellectual property protection?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I think we have a shared love of the creative industries—definitely a love of film and music—and I understand the concerns he raises. When it comes to intellectual property, there is an absolute need to make sure that we are at the forefront of that around the world. On his specific question, the Government’s proposal on text and data mining supports their ambition to be a world leader in artificial intelligence research and innovation, but we recognise the concerns of the creative industries and want to make sure we get the balance right. That is why we will soon be launching a period of stakeholder engagement to consider the best way to implement the policy. I look forward to meeting him. He may want to bring some people from the industry along, too. I would gladly do that.

We have seen an increase in research, sponsored by foreign countries, across the UK developing dual-use technologies that have benign civilian uses, but could be used for military purposes. Can the Minister provide assurances to this House today that IP developed on these shores will not be used against our allies for military purposes?

I thank the hon. Member for his very important question. I will gladly follow up in writing to assure him of the position of the Government on the matter. What I would say is that the Government’s proposal to create a new text and data mining exception for copyright is part of their ambition to be a world leader in artificial intelligence research and innovation.

Topical Questions

The Department’s work is at the vanguard of this Government’s mission to go for growth. A secure supply of affordable energy is the foundation for economic prosperity. The energy price guarantee is bringing down bills for households, ensuring that Britain’s most vulnerable can stay warm this winter, and our energy bill relief scheme is cutting costs for schools, hospitals and businesses. We are stepping in to support consumers now, but we are focused on British energy security both for this winter and the future. We continue to work closely with Ofgem, National Grid and our international partners to secure our energy supply. That will be a challenge this winter, particularly if we have a cold winter, and is a matter of concern. The energy supply taskforce has been negotiating to help with that.

We will ensure that everything is done to provide long-term green growth, with new industries, new skills and new jobs. We are cutting red tape to help existing businesses, particularly small and medium-sized ones, saving thousands of pounds for tens of thousands of companies. This is a central Government Department.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. He will know that the west midlands is a major centre—if not the major centre—for car manufacturing. What discussions has he had with the Mayor of the West Midlands, who is a keen proponent for a gigafactory to assist electric car manufacture based in Coventry?

I was actually in Coventry last week because it is a centre for battery technology development, and my hon. Friend knows very well that Andy Street is one of the most effective campaigning advocates for the west midlands. What is needed is for companies to indicate that they want to invest in gigafactories, and the Government stand ready to support as much as we can.

The Government’s economic crisis is now being paid for by every household and business in this country, but the Government’s failure goes well beyond the pantomime of the last few weeks. Twelve years of Conservative Government have given us the lowest rate of business investment in the G7, and that is with the lowest headline rate of corporation tax. So why does the Business Secretary believe the Conservative party has been so consistently unable to provide a platform for the UK’s fantastic businesses to invest in throughout the last 12 years?

What we have seen is the lowest level of unemployment in this country since 1973. That is real people and real jobs, and employment is the best route out of poverty. We have seen the most enormous advance in clean energy, with more offshore wind than any other country in the world. We have ensured that, during this difficult winter, we were one of the first countries to come forward with a comprehensive package to protect both domestic and non-domestic users to ensure that the economy could thrive. The hon. Gentleman complains that everything that has gone wrong is the fault of the Government. He seems to have forgotten about Ukraine and covid. Perhaps he should read the newspapers occasionally.

That was an interesting answer on the 12 years of failure—it was perhaps an answer to a question, but not the one I asked. Our wonderful businesses want to expand, invest and grow, but they cannot do that with so much uncertainty hanging over the country. The Conservative party cannot be the solution to that instability because it is the cause of it. Will the Business Secretary give us his honest view and tell us whether he still holds the view he has expressed before—that what we should have, following a change of Prime Minister, is a general election?

Pots and kettles, Mr Speaker—that was neither short nor sweet. The greatest uncertainty of all is having socialists in office because the socialists ruin economies wherever they go. They create desolation, chaos and high taxes. As I said before, every socialist Government have left office with higher unemployment, including the short-lived one of 1923.

I thank the BEIS ministerial team for the investment of £10.65 million in the Centre for Process Innovation at Darlington, which is leading the way in ribonucleic acid technology. May I invite the Minister to visit that fantastic facility in Darlington on our amazing mile of opportunity?

The vaccine taskforce did indeed grant £10.65 million to fund the launch of the CPI’s new centre of excellence in Darlington, and my hon. Friend did a great job advocating for that investment. That is on top of the £26.48 million that the vaccine taskforce previously put in place at the centre. If time allows, and if I continue to be the Minister, I will be more than happy to come and visit.

T2. This afternoon the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill will be debated, and hard-working workers in my Liverpool, Riverside constituency are very concerned that workers’ rights and protections will be scrapped. Can the Minister confirm today whether his Government are intending to remove the 48-hour working week, minimum rest periods, parental and annual paid leave, and other hard-won employee rights—yes or no? (901829)

The UK is not dependent on the EU for its rights. We had better workers’ rights before we joined. We had longer periods for maternity leave, even while we were a member of the European Union. We are continuing to safeguard the rights of workers in this country in a proper way. We do not need to be told to do so by foreign Governments.

Whether it is grooming gangs, hospital deaths or economic crime, it is often a whistleblower who highlights the criminal activity and wrongdoing. They then often rely on the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, which is not fit for purpose, to protect them. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the manifesto of the all-party group for whistleblowing, and its recommendations to repeal PIDA and bring in an office of the whistleblower?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and her many years of work in this area. She is a staunch advocate for whistleblowing, and the chair of the all-party group for whistleblowing. I will gladly meet her to explore the issue further. I confirm that His Majesty’s Government are committed to the whistleblowing framework that the Department is still looking at.

T3. I thank the Minister for the constructive meeting that I and others had with him last week regarding the Post Office Horizon scandal, but he will know that no one from the Post Office, Fujitsu or the Government has yet to be held accountable. At that meeting, and last night in the other place, it was raised that despite this scandal, the Government are still awarding multimillion-pound contracts to Fujitsu. An apology from Fujitsu is not enough. Will the Secretary of State commit to pausing and reviewing all existing Government contracts with that appalling company? (901830)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and for meeting last week. The Horizon scandal was awful and I will gladly follow up with further meetings to discuss the matter further.

T4. We know that businesses need certainty on energy, and that is even more important for those working in essential services such as social care. A care home in my constituency cannot even source a broker to be able to look at future deals. What assessment have the Government made of the brokerage industry so that it can provide that vital support? (901831)

One of the things that we are doing in the Bill that is receiving Royal Assent pretty much as we speak, is ensuring that there are powers to deal with any inefficiencies in the market. I am very concerned that the wholesale price cuts provided by the taxpayer feed through to the retail market, and there are powers in the Bill to ensure that that happens.

Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to support UK forestry production, which supports companies such as Egger in my constituency, and that the best way to do that is to ensure a minimum of 1% forestry planting on public sector land?

Forestry is not one of the Department’s many responsibilities, but I will certainly take up my hon. Friend’s excellent point with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

T5. Postal workers at the depots in Forest Hill and Anerley in my constituency do a brilliant job, but they have faced weakening pay and conditions and now their jobs are under threat as Royal Mail looks to cut 10,000 positions. During a cost of living crisis, how can the Government allow that company to turn its back on hard-working staff? How is reducing the workforce compatible with maintaining the universal service obligation? (901832)

That is a matter for the management of the company and its workforce to resolve. Disruption due to strike action impacts on consumers, businesses and other users. We are monitoring the dispute and urge both sides to reach an agreement as soon as possible.

T6. The future of our planet is important to people in Newport West, who know that our climate is burning. We can see the impact all across the globe. With that in mind, what environmental assessment has the Minister made of the impact of a new round of oil and gas licences on the UK’s international climate commitment? (901833)

T8. The Minister accused this side of the House of misrepresenting the figures on climate change, but it is the independent Climate Change Committee that says that the Government are not on track to achieve net zero and that 61% of their own targets for emission reductions have no credible plan in place to achieve them. Is the committee also misrepresenting the facts? (901836)

We are on track. [Interruption.] We are on track and we are focused on delivering that. The margins are tighter than we would like, but we are on track, we have delivered to date and we will deliver in future.

Will the Secretary of State meet me and Swansea University to talk about using off-peak renewables to convert plastics into hydrogen and blending that in the gas grid, as his predecessor did, as part of the growth agenda? I appreciate that his predecessor did not do very well following that meeting.

I note that the hon. Member has raised the issue a number of times with BEIS. I am grateful that he has done so again. We are encouraged to hear about the development of new hydrogen technologies in Swansea. I know that the previous Secretary of State visited Swansea University. A range of Government support is already available for hydrogen production. The net zero hydrogen fund, the net zero innovation portfolio and the UK shared prosperity fund would help very much in Swansea.

British researchers are desperately waiting for an update on the UK’s association to Horizon Europe. The former science Minister pledged to publish the details for the replacement scheme, should our association not be concluded, before the summer recess, but they have still not been published. When will they be?

It is curious to respond to the Chair of the Select Committee of which I was once a member. We are waiting for the EU to make a decision on our association to Horizon. It is not within our grasp. We are still focused on securing association, but it would be irresponsible not to pivot if that was not forthcoming in the near future. [Interruption.] The hon. Member is gesticulating at me, but he knows very well that we are prepared to pivot and have guarantee schemes in place to help researchers and academics if needed.

In addition to the life-changing innovations from Cancer Research UK, medical research charities make huge economic contributions. How are the Government supporting charities such as Cancer Research UK, and investing in cancer research more broadly, so that they can continue to be such a huge driver of economic growth?

One of the first meetings I had as the Minister with responsibility for life sciences was with Life Sciences Vision and the mission team, chaired by John Bell and Jon Symonds. This is done with the Department of Health and Social Care, and of course we are looking at this particular issue as well. The hon. Member will be aware of the £375 million grant, which is focused on investing in research into these sorts of diseases. We will shortly be announcing six new life science missions. The hon. Lady will no doubt be pleased to hear that they will cover dementia, cancer, mental health, obesity and addiction.

Judging from the earlier answer, can the public now assume that the Government are happy for Royal Mail management to drive the company into the ground, sack 10,000 people and reduce ex-workers to poverty—and the Government do not even have a view?

Decisions on staffing levels and workforce structure are for Royal Mail. Collective redundancy legislation requires employers to consult employees or their representatives within a 90-day period, and that must include consultation on ways to avoid redundancies, reducing the number of redundancies or mitigating their impact. We want a resolution as soon as possible.

The previous Secretary of State admitted that he had ignored looking at a price mechanism for pump storage hydro because he viewed it as a Scottish technology. It is actually a vital form of energy storage going forward, so can I get a commitment today on a timescale for BEIS officials to speak to SSE about a pricing mechanism for generating electricity at Coire Glas?

The hon. Gentleman is an effective campaigner for pump hydro storage and it is important to look at that. We are looking at all possibilities for maximising renewable energy.

Today’s news that an additional 10,000 people every single month are now on pre-payment meters, bringing the total to 7.5 million, is deeply troubling, not least as they are paying up to 27% more for their energy. What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that there is poverty alleviation on energy for the very poorest?

As I have said already, schemes are in place to support people during the winter. There is £800 available that has already been announced. There is the £400 that everybody will get. I also went through the additional schemes that are available to support people. I absolutely recognise—the hon. Lady is right to raise this on behalf of her constituents—that the price rises are difficult and worrying for people. That is why such a wide package of support has been brought forward.