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Topical Questions

Volume 726: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2023

On Thursday, I will be flying our flag on the global stage for the CBI in Davos, making sure the world knows that Britain is the place to invest. At the World Economic Forum, I will be setting out a bold vision to scale up Britain, backing British business, empowering our entrepreneurs and driving disruption.

Will my right hon. Friend give further detail on whether the Government think that the non-domestic energy support package will help to provide a level playing field for British steelmakers?

My hon. Friend, who has done more than many others to fight for and support steel in her constituency, is right to highlight the energy bills discount scheme, but other schemes, including the one I was talking about, the energy-intensive industries scheme, where we have the consultation to take the level up to 100%, may in the end be much more meaningful. I want to assure her, Opposition Members and the whole House that the Government are very focused on this issue.

Tomorrow, the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill comes back before us. It will see vital employment rights such as holiday pay, TUPE and maternity protections scrapped at the end of this year if Ministers do not act. Labour Members believe in strong employment protections, so will the Government vote with us tomorrow to ensure that those vital rights are saved?

There is absolutely no truth whatsoever in this idea that employment rights, environmental rights or other rights will be scrapped, and the sooner the Opposition stop peddling this stuff the better.

The levelling-up White Paper outlined that the new UK shared prosperity fund will support interventions that reinforce the Government’s commitment to net zero by 2050. That includes £2.6 billion of funding for investment in places, including for community infrastructure projects.

The calls that we have already heard to take action to support people on prepayment meters are echoed by more than 40 Members of both Houses on the all-party parliamentary group on fuel poverty and energy efficiency. They, too, are calling for a ban on forced installation of prepayment meters by court warrant and an end to unfair standing charges and price differentials. It is not good enough just to hear nice words from the Government; they have to require action from the energy suppliers.

We agree that the most vulnerable consumers in this country should be protected. Those duties already lie with Ofgem. I shall repeat what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier: it is completely unacceptable that vulnerable patients leave hospital and find that they have been automatically disconnected. We are convening a roundtable meeting and my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister for Energy and Climate are putting pressure on Ofgem to make sure that vulnerable consumers are looked after.

T4.   Wimbledon is one of the best places for young diverse entrepreneurs to start up. The recent London Chamber of Commerce and Industry report suggested that there were problems and additional problems for those entrepreneurs to access finance. What exactly are the Government doing to make sure that access to finance is open to as many people as possible? (903101)

The UK, including Wimbledon, is one of the best places in the world to start a business, as evidenced by the OECD report. My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of access to finance, particularly for diverse groups. The Start-Up Loans Company has provided £1 billion of loans to around 100,000 businesses, including £2 million of loans to businesses in his constituency, and 40% of those loans go to people from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background.

There is an inconsistency in how the public sector is required to report greenhouse gas emissions. That makes it difficult to keep a track on progress as we approach net zero, and difficult for citizens to hold the public sector to account on delivery. What is the Minister doing to rectify that so that we can keep a proper track on what is happening?

May I take this opportunity, on behalf of the Department, to thank the hon. Member and the Public Accounts Committee for their report, to which we will very shortly reply? I am delighted to say that the public sector has reduced emissions by 44% since 1990 and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy by 70% since 2010. We appreciate her Committee’s point that the data—the metrics—have to be clear and coherent, and we are taking that on board.

T5. To help promote energy security and to protect the planet, what steps is the Minister taking to reduce UK energy demand by the 15% target by 2030? (903102)

My hon. Friend rightly highlights the target set by the Chancellor to reduce by 15% demand across our energy system. The energy efficiency taskforce is being established, with my colleague Lord Callanan as co-chairman. We will be taking a number of steps, alongside the additional £6 billion in 2025-28, on top of the £6.5 billion being spent on energy efficiency in this Parliament.

I am grateful to the Minister for Energy and Climate and his officials for their work on rolling out the energy payments in Northern Ireland, which started this week. Will he reassure us that he will continue to work very closely on the roll-out with the energy companies and the advice sector, ensuring that photographic ID issues and potential changes of address by property occupiers and park home owners are addressed so that everyone across Northern Ireland receives help, particularly the most vulnerable?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for so assiduously pressing the case, along with his colleagues, for Northern Ireland residents. I am delighted to see payments going out automatically to direct debit payers, and vouchers going out to others. He is quite right to focus on this. Suppliers have worked with the Post Office in trying to make sure that the right instructions are going out alongside the vouchers to help people get through this. To avoid scammers, I encourage people to go to the Post Office and, ideally, get this paid into a bank account. That will be £600 for every household and family in Northern Ireland, which will help at this time.

T6. What action is the Secretary of State taking to deal with the large number of house fires arising now because of malfunctioning solar panels? (903103)

Obviously, management of safety is not something for which I am directly responsible, but I am happy to follow up with my hon. Friend. I always thank him for giving me prior notice, which of course he did not do today.

The Secretary of State is well known for his airbrushing skills, but he cannot airbrush the fact that, of the top 10 economies in the world, the UK is the only one with a declining steel industry. When is he going to sit down with Tata Steel and the other businesses to do a deal on green steel for the future of our workforce?

We are working with the whole steel industry across the UK and regularly hold meetings. I do not think the question was posed in an appropriate way, because we are doing a huge amount of work to support the steel sector, including providing £800 million since 2013. We have provided a package of relief support for non-domestic users throughout this winter worth £18 billion. The report published by the BEIS Committee, which I previously sat on, also mentioned that any earlier bail-out for Liberty Steel, in particular, would not have been good value for taxpayers’ money.

T7. Last week I visited Duftons Plumbing & Heating Supplies, a leading local firm, and its tie-up with Daikin UK, a heat pump manufacturer. The importance of having trained engineers locally available to advise customers and install green heating technologies was clear. Will my right hon. Friend please advise what support there is for training those new skills? (903104)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the need for skills and training if we are to meet our ambitious net zero targets. On 20 September, the Government launched the latest phase of the £9.2 million home decarbonisation skills training competition, which will fund training for people working in the energy efficiency, retrofit and low-carbon heating sectors in England. We are confident that there is enough training capacity to meet demand for heat pump upskilling as heat pump deployment increases.

The UK imports all medical radioisotopes used for treatment and diagnosis, mostly from European facilities that are due to close down by 2030. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the need to ensure security of supply of nuclear medicines?

As the life sciences Minister I can say that we are working extensively with the industry to ensure that we have good equipment in our supply chains. I am not particularly aware of this situation, but I am happy to have a meeting or write to the right hon. Lady to see what exactly the problem is.

T8. The UK is a hub of privately driven research and development. I am proud that my Bracknell constituency is the silicon valley of the Thames valley and the home of fantastic companies such as 3M, Dell, Honda and Panasonic, which is also great for local employment. What steps are being taken to encourage more international R&D investment into the UK? (903105)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have the groundbreaking commitment to move from £15 billion to £20 billion a year of investment in public R&D over this comprehensive spending review, the creation of the National Science and Technology Council, the recent launch of our international science partnership fund, the ISPF, which I announced in Japan with a first tranche of £119 million, a series of strategic bilats and multilats, and, of course, our £7 billion ring-fenced for Horizon for three years—if we cannot deploy it through Horizon, we will deploy it in other ways to support UK R&D.

I recently wrote to all the major energy companies to ask about the shameful practice of obtaining warrants to forcibly install prepayment meters. The responses showed a lottery across all the companies, but British Gas told me that 7,500 warrants were obtained in 2020. That jumped to 24,500 last year, and one court in the north of England approved 496 warrants in three minutes. Ofgem has proven incapable of dealing with this scandal; when will the Government act?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for this question and for the numerous parliamentary questions he has also tabled, highlighting the need to ensure that vulnerable customers, including those on prepayment meters, are treated properly by suppliers. Where customers are not treated properly, those suppliers are in breach of their licensing conditions from Ofgem, which, as he knows, has investigated that matter, has found the suppliers wanting and is taking compliance action now. I share his frustration, as does the Secretary of State, to ensure that the system not only does what it says on the tin, but delivers in practice for people, including his constituents and mine.

T9.   After the price of energy, the second most common complaint from local businesses in Amber Valley is that they cannot work out how the tariff that they are quoted bears any relation to the wholesale price and the cap. They then cannot work out why all the additional charges are now, for no obvious reason, a multiple of many times what they were a year ago. Can the Minister ask Ofgem to cut down on those practices so that businesses can see a fair and transparent price that cannot be altered halfway through the year? (903106)

It is important to differentiate between the domestic market, which is much more heavily regulated and for which, of course, we have the energy price cap, and the non-domestic market, which is much more complicated and for which we have not felt that a one-size-fits-all approach would work. But my hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight issues where companies do not behave in the right way. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are working with Ofgem to ensure that it fulfils its obligations. It may not be fully regulated in the same way, but it has licensed conditions and it needs to fulfil them.

Will the Minister confirm that post offices, which are at the heart of our community, will receive support for their energy bills so that they can continue to function for the rest of the community?

Post offices, like all non-domestic businesses and institutions, will benefit from the new energy price discount scheme, which follows the energy bill relief scheme, as announced by the Chancellor.

My right hon. Friend the Energy Minister is more than aware of the deep anger in my constituency and across the east of England about National Grid’s green proposals to put pylons across the whole of East Anglia. Will he give clear assurances that the Government will work proactively to explore offshore grid options—an alternative, basically—to deliver more resilience and capacity, and to protect our countryside?

I thank my right hon. Friend who, along with colleagues, has been assiduous in championing constituents’ interests and making sure that no infrastructure that imposes a burden on constituents goes in if it is not necessary. I am pleased to say that we have launched the £100 million offshore co-ordination support scheme, which provides funding to ensure a more co-ordinated approach. Although we recognise that we cannot forcibly change some contracts, we can—including with that funding—encourage developers to look at doing their infrastructure in the way that has the least negative impact on her constituents.

Last year, a pay transparency came into law in Colorado. It requires employers to publish the salary range when they advertise for jobs, saving considerable amounts of time, and sometimes costs, for would-be employees. Would such a common-sense rule not be good for British job applicants and employers, too?

That is an interesting point. We are looking at pay reporting, especially in larger companies. We want to minimise the burden of regulation on smaller companies, of course, but the hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, and we will have a close look at it.

My right hon. Friend knows only too well our energy triple challenge of keeping the bills down, keeping the lights on and decarbonising. As chairman of the 1922 Backbench committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I draw his attention to the fact that we have just published a report on the future of energy. In my humble opinion, the report is packed full of incisive and actionable policy suggestions. May I invite him to meet me and my vice-chairs to discuss it and the implications for his Department?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right in her analysis: I have not yet read her report but I look forward to receiving a personalised copy of it, and I certainly look forward to meeting her, alongside the Minister for Energy and Climate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart).

The west midlands has the highest fuel poverty in the country. How many west midlands homes will benefit from the new energy company obligation plus scheme when it comes online this year? Will the figure be nearer 4,000 or 20,000 homes?

I will write to the hon. Gentleman as I do not have those numbers to hand. I am delighted that we have gone from just 14% of homes being rated EPC C or above in 2010 to more than 46% now. That is not enough, but we have transformed the situation of UK housing stock that we inherited from Labour.