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Topical Questions

Volume 723: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2022

With Sizewell C, we are securing a cheap, clean and reliable supply of energy to supercharge growth—I will provide more details in my oral statement. We have recommitted to increasing public investment in research and development to £20 billion each year by 2024-25, which will supercharge science and innovation, and we are supporting local enterprises and increasing the national living wage by almost 10%, the largest ever cash-terms increase.

As well as renewables, it is clear that we need to add more baseload capacity, and nuclear is the favourite for that. Hundreds of my constituents work at Rolls-Royce, and many of them work on the development of small modular nuclear reactors. Will my right hon. Friend outline what support the Government are giving to Rolls-Royce to develop this technology, which will not only add to the UK’s energy security but deliver a technology that we will be able to export successfully around the globe?

Like my hon. Friend, I am very keen on small nuclear reactors as part of the solution. We will be launching Great British Nuclear early next year to assist both Rolls-Royce and its competitors. There are other brands out there, all of which have interesting ideas about modular production of nuclear power, which will provide sustainable energy even when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.

I welcome the Business Secretary to his first oral questions. He is the third Business Secretary we have had this year, and I have to say that lack of stability is the No. 1 complaint from businesses, which genuinely cannot keep track of Government policy in any particular area. If they do know the policy, they feel it could change at any moment if the internal politics of the Conservative party shift one way or the other. Does he accept that political instability has very real consequences for economic stability?

I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s welcome, I hope to be in post for a long time, not to disappoint him in any way. His talk about the instability of policy is a bit rich, as many Labour Members sat on the Front Bench under their previous leader, who believed in a whole bunch of different things. Even the shadow Secretary of State for Climate Change and Net Zero, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), once said it is impossible for this country to get to 40% renewable energy—he called it “pie in the sky.” Right now we are producing 43.1% of our energy from renewables. That is from a party that is consistent.

Respectfully, I think the Business Secretary needs to focus a little bit more on his own side and the humility required to do that.

On a more positive note, this Saturday is small business Saturday. A future Labour Government will tackle the issue of late payments to small and medium-sized enterprises by making audit committees report on public companies’ payment practices. With more than £20 million waiting to be paid at any one time, this is a change that will make a real difference and one that is backed by the Federation of Small Businesses. We could, however, implement it sooner by amending the draft audit reform Bill when it comes forward. Would the Secretary of State support that change?

I agree that payment for small businesses is very important, particularly when it is not done by larger companies that have the resources. That is one of the reasons why the Government have led the way to make sure that, when small businesses deal with Government, payments are made quickly and efficiently. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) is looking at a whole range of different things to ensure that we speed up the culture of late payments to small businesses, and he will be saying more about that very shortly.

T4. Transport for London consultation data shows that 80% of outer London businesses said no to the Mayor of London expanding the ultra low emission zone, but they have been ignored and now many Carshalton and Wallington businesses are considering closing their doors. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and other London Conservative MPs to discuss how we might be able to support businesses in outer London? (902489)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Labour Members talk about helping businesses, but that is what you get with a Labour Mayor in London, bashing businesses. I would be proud to meet my hon. Friend.

We do not know where the half a billion pounds announced last week to cover Horizon uncertainty is coming from, as the Science Minister refuses to answer my questions, but we do know that British scientists are still having to choose between the country they love and the funding they need. British science, British businesses and British jobs are at risk while the Government play a blame game, instead of keeping their manifesto promise to associate with the world’s biggest science fund. Will the Science Minister admit that no science fund can have the efficiency, effectiveness, influence, prestige or range of Horizon, and that he has let British science down?

In a word, no. I will tell the hon. Lady exactly where the £484 million that we announced last Monday—I think the Opposition supported it—is coming from. It is coming from Her Majesty’s Treasury to support universities, researchers and companies in this country that have been affected by—and this is the second point—the European Union’s block on our negotiated membership of Horizon, Copernicus and Euratom. I was in Paris last week negotiating. We are still actively pushing to be in Horizon, Copernicus and Euratom, but we have made provision, and early in the new year Members will start to see that we will be rolling out additional support for fellowships, innovation and global partnerships. If UK scientists cannot play in the European cup, we will play in the world cup of science.

T5. Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning the actions of the London Mayor in extending the ULEZ scheme out to the whole of London? This will have a significant impact on businesses both inside and outside London, creating a financial wall between London and the rest of the country, and hitting areas such as Dartford particularly hard, which, of course, have no say in who the Mayor of London is. (902490)

T3. I welcome the Business Secretary to his place. What assessment has he made of the number of European countries to exit the energy charter treaty on the basis that attempts to modernise the treaty have failed, and will the Government be considering the UK’s position? (902488)

We consider all those that have left the energy charter treaty, but we have so far supported its modernisation. We keep that under advisement.

T6. Does my right hon. Friend share my enthusiasm for synthetic fuels made from green hydrogen and atmospheric carbon capture as part of our route to decarbonisation? If so, what is his Department doing to support the UK pioneers in this sector, such as Zero Petroleum, to compete in what will surely be a multitrillion-pound global industry and huge export opportunity? (902491)

I do enthusiastically support our SAF—sustainable aviation fuel—industry. Actually, it is a little known fact that last year at COP26 we sent more than 500 aircraft home with sustainable aviation fuel in their tanks, and this country has set a more ambitious target for sustainable aviation fuel than elsewhere, with 10% by 2030.

The Groceries Code Adjudicator has done a good job over the past 10 years, leading to a big fall in the number of breaches of the fair purchasing code, but bad practice is still rife in the fashion industry, with UK fashion retailers among the worst offenders. The Environmental Audit Committee called for a garment trade adjudicator. Will Ministers bring that proposal forward?

I thank the right hon. Member for all his work in this area; I know that he has done an awful lot. We have no plans to bring forward a garment code adjudicator, but we do take reports of illegal and unsafe employment practices very seriously. Since October 2020, a wide group of stakeholders, comprising retailers, manufacturers and non-profit organisations have been working with the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority to address poor practice and working conditions.

T7. May I say pob lwc, good luck, to the Wales football team tonight? Can the Secretary of State confirm that, beyond Sizewell C, Great British Nuclear will be empowered to commission and build at not only gigawatt-scale, but small modular reactor-scale, so that my constituents on Ynys Môn can benefit from those new jobs from new nuclear? (902492)

I can confirm that that is the intention with Great British Nuclear. I know that areas such as Wylfa Newydd—if I am pronouncing it correctly—in my hon. Friend’s constituency could well be in line to benefit. However, as she can tell from my Welsh pronunciation, I suspect that I will be on the English side tonight.

Yesterday, I hosted a roundtable meeting for businesses in my constituency. They were worried about late payments and a Government who are not helping them. Fifty thousand businesses close every year due to late payments, and small businesses account for two thirds of UK private sector employment. Will this Government act before the worst of the Tory-led recession bites to save millions of jobs?

I thank the hon. Member for his question. He is absolutely right to bring up this matter. It is one of the concerns that has been raised most frequently with me since taking on this role. We are tackling the culture of late payments with measures including the Payment Practices Reporting, the Small Business Commissioner and the Prompt Payment Code, but I am determined to see how much further we can go to be effective in this area.

T8. I recently met my constituent, Puneet Bhalla, who is the founder and chief executive of Maxim World, a very successful small exporter of hotel goods across the world. He told me of some of the challenges that small and medium-sized exporters are facing with post-Brexit trade arrangements. Can my hon. Friend tell me what plans there are to involve SMEs in the review of EU retained law? (902493)

It is great to hear that my hon. Friend’s constituent is looking to export right across the world, and we are determined to make it easier to do so through trade deals outside the European Union. Ministers and officials from across BEIS regularly engage with SMEs on a wide range of issues and will continue to do so as the retained EU law programme proceeds.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), when will Ministers start to use procurement in order to generate and defend British jobs? I have been listening for years to Ministers coming to that Dispatch Box saying that they will use procurement, so when will we actually see it?

That is a very important point. The Government are determined to tackle not just their own procurement practices, but those further afield. Clearly, we want to keep our markets open to international competition, because we want to compete internationally as well, but there also needs to be fair competition. Where we can prioritise the needs of British companies and British workers, we should do so.

T9. Northfield Business Improvement District and I are eagerly awaiting the announcement of the levelling-up bid, especially the one for Northfield High Street. In the meantime, many local shops, especially independents, are in need of help to stay open. Can the Minister help Marcia and Andy from the Northfield BID and set out how the Government can help those businesses? (902494)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for standing up for his constituency businesses; I hope he is supporting Small Business Saturday this weekend, as I am sure hon. Members across the House will be. It is absolutely right that we are supporting businesses through these difficult times with the energy bill relief scheme and the £13.6 billion of rates support that they will see over the next five years, but we will continue to look at the needs of business to ensure that we have the right measures in place.

The Rosebank oilfield would produce more than 200 million tonnes of CO2 when burned, which is equivalent to running 58 coal-fired power stations for a year and more than the combined annual emissions of 28 low-income countries. How does that make any sense in a world where heating needs to be constrained to below 1.5°?

Our use of oil and gas in this country is falling as part of our pathway to net zero. It is usage that drives the burning of oil and gas, and it is on the downward pathway. Producing our own oil and gas when we will be burning it on our net zero pathway domestically is sensible. It is good for Scottish jobs—although sadly opposed by the Scottish nationalists—it is good for the British economy and it is entirely net zero compliant. That is why we will continue to manage the mature and declining basin that is the North sea.

T10. Sorry—I did not know I had a topical question, Mr Speaker. Can I get assurances from the Government that airports such as Gatwick will be supported as they recover strongly from the covid-19 pandemic? (902495)

My hon. Friend will be reassured to know that I did know that he would have a topical question, and the answer to it is yes.

Recently, a Premier Inn hotel in my constituency threw out one of their visually impaired guests, Ms Angharad Paget-Jones, and her guide dog Tudor in the middle of the night because they refused to believe, despite being shown identification, that Tudor was a guide dog. Can the Minister tell me what action his Department is taking not only to ensure that businesses are complying with the Equality Act 2010, but to go after those who show frank disregard for it in practice?

That is a very disturbing case, and I am happy to help the hon. Lady with it. I know that the guide dog campaigning organisations have this issue in their sights as something we need to address. I would be grateful if she wrote to me with the specific instance and I will be happy to deal with it for her.

I welcome the Government’s recent doubling of the alternative fuel payment and yesterday’s written communication from the Minister confirming that the majority of households eligible for those payments will receive their £200 automatically as a credit on their electricity bill. Can he reassure constituents in Banff and Buchan who are dependent on heating oil in particular that those payments will indeed be made as soon as practically possible?

A few months ago, CF Fertilisers in Billingham ceased ammonia production there because of the high gas price. Now Mitsubishi, just a few hundred yards along the road, is consulting on the closure of one of its plants, with the loss of hundreds of direct and contractor jobs, for the same reason. Is the Minister aware of that latest blow to Teesside, and what is he doing to help firms such as Mitsubishi?

I was up in Teesside the week before last, and I have been keeping in close contact with what is happening there. The good news is that there are new jobs coming about in new industries, including new industries supplying electric battery manufacturing, which are available because this country is outside the European Union and able to produce new rules that will allow things such as green lithium to thrive here and provide up to 8% of Europe’s entire needs. New jobs are coming to Teesside.

As my right hon. Friend will know, maths and higher maths is often the foundation skill upon which other innovative technologies are built. Can he therefore tell the House what steps his Department is taking both to fund higher maths and to give people the skills they need in maths to help us to reinforce our status as a global science power?

My hon. Friend makes an important point: maths is one of the underpinning disciplines of all our science and technology leadership. That is why we have increased funding through UK Research and Innovation for core maths, and I am delighted to confirm that we are looking at various ways in which we might be able to turbocharge our international fellowships in maths as well.

Households in Great Britain have had access to the £400 energy support payments since 1 October, but households in Northern Ireland have not had any substantial support whatsoever. The energy price guarantee does not really work in Northern Ireland, because 70% of households there use oil. Can the Government give the people of Northern Ireland a firm date by which the £400 payments will be made available?

As I said in an earlier answer, we are doing everything we can, working through suppliers, to ensure that the money reaches Northern Ireland consumers. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that every single Northern Ireland household is receiving the alternative fuel payment, in addition to the energy bills support scheme. We are looking to make sure not only that that money gets out and is credited to households, but that they are able to access it this winter. There is no point having it as a credit on an electricity bill, as that does not help them deal with other costs this winter. That is the sticking point; that is what we are working on.

The proposed takeover of Activision by Microsoft has the potential to have a profound impact on many of Britain’s brilliant video games industry manufacturers and makers. Although I know that the Secretary of State will not want to comment on the specifics of that case, can he reassure me that the Competition and Markets Authority has all the resources it needs to come to the right conclusion and to do so as thoroughly and rapidly as possible on this important matter?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that question. I know that the CMA has received a large number of submissions, and some very large submissions as well. I think it has until 1 March next year to complete its phase 2 inquiry. We absolutely believe that it has the right resources to do that, and we will make sure that it has over the coming months.