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Topical Questions

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2022

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.