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Business and Trade

Volume 730: debated on Thursday 23 March 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

Duties of Economic Regulators: Utilities

1. What recent progress she has made on updating the statutory duties of economic regulators in the utilities sectors. (904242)

We are committed to bringing forward a consultation in the coming months on proposals to reform our approach to economic regulation in the utilities sector. This will include the outcomes of our review of the regulators’ statutory duties.

I welcome the bright and shiny new ministerial team to their roles, and I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, as the new broom, to get this moving a lot faster. Some economic regulators are too expensive, too slow and too soft, so could we use the upcoming competition Bill to refocus them on sharper competition so that consumers get better deals and fewer rip-offs, because otherwise we will miss the best opportunity for years?

My hon. Friend is quite right. As set out in our policy paper, the duties and functions of Ofwat, Ofcom and Ofgem have significantly expanded since privatisation. I agree that the Bill would enable us to move more quickly, and I would like to work with him to see what we can do to improve regulation more broadly.

I thank the Minister for her response to this important question. All our constituents are squeezed due to rising prices over which they have no control. In the light of her response, and in anticipation of her correspondence with the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), I hope that we can increase accountability and reduce prices, and thereby reduce inflation, which will help our constituents.

The hon. Gentleman is right that our constituents are at the end of what the regulators are doing, so our reforms should build on their strengths and continue to reinforce the UK as a leading global destination for investment in utilities infrastructure, to the long-term benefit of all our constituents and consumers.

Corporate Responsibility

2. What recent assessment her Department has made of the effectiveness of businesses’ actions on corporate responsibility. (904243)

The Government are rightly proud of the record of UK companies when it comes to corporate responsibility. The UK is home to 10 of the world’s top 100 companies, ranked by social responsibility. These standards are reflected in the UK being considered by business leaders to be the world’s third most important country for investment.

The Government have recently taken action on deforestation in supply chains through the Environment Act 2021, and they have made progress on regulating British companies overseas through the Bribery Act 2010 and the Modern Slavery Act 2015, but I want them to go further. The Cerrejón coalmine in La Guajira, Colombia, has been responsible for widespread, persistent, harmful pollution, and for the diverting and polluting of many rivers, causing the displacement of more than 20 indigenous communities. The companies involved have ignored local court rulings. What more can be done to ensure that businesses registered in the UK uphold human rights and do not commit environmental damage? Will the Minister look again at this case?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important case. The UK is a signatory to the OECD’s declaration on international investment and multinational enterprises, a voluntary set of standards intended to promote responsible business conduct worldwide. My Department is the UK’s national contact point on these guidelines, allowing anyone who thinks there are problems to make a complaint, which will then be investigated. I am very happy to work with him on that basis.

Will my hon. Friend update the House on any recent discussions that he or his Department have had with the Home Office on the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill?

I regularly meet Home Office colleagues, including this week to make sure this legislation is fit for purpose and will do what it says on the tin: tackle economic crime.

Critical Minerals

I wish everybody a happy Ramadan on our first day of fasting.

We are moving towards a world powered by critical minerals. We need lithium, cobalt and graphite to make batteries for electric cars, and we need silicon and tin for our electronics. I am pleased that we recently published our “Critical Minerals Refresh.” This strategy will accelerate the growth of UK capabilities, collaborate with international partners and enhance international markets.

Cornwall is known for its mining—some people even define a mine as a hole in the ground with a Cornishman at the bottom. What efforts is the Department making to ensure that we make the most of our home-grown mineral security?

I am so grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding the House of Cornwall’s mining heritage and the world-renowned Camborne School of Mines. This is why we are backing Cornish lithium and geothermal engineering, through the Getting Building fund and the automotive transformation fund, which are collaborating to build a zero-carbon lithium extraction plant at an existing site in Cornwall. I very much look forward to visiting it in the near future.

The Minister knows that the steel industry is an important customer for critical minerals in this country, so will she confirm for the House the status of the Steel Council in her Department and whether it is actively meeting?

I served with the hon. Gentleman on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee for many years. He will be very familiar with the fact that I meet the steel sector and the unions, and I have all the regular meetings, including those with the all-party parliamentary group for steel and metal related industries, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). The meetings are most definitely taking place.

I join the Minister in wishing the whole House a happy Ramadan.

It is great finally to see the critical minerals strategy, but, as the Minister indicated in her answer, long-term, durable access to minerals is also dependent on our wider strategic trade policy. The Government have failed in their objective of ensuring that 80% of our trade is conducted under free trade agreements. In addition, the Office for Budget Responsibility says that our exports are projected to fall by 6.6% next year. How does she propose to integrate her critical minerals strategy with our wider trade policy? How much will that 6.6% fall in exports cost the UK economy in cash terms?

I only recently published the critical minerals refresh and I was expecting some sort of positive response, given how it is integrated internationally; it deals with the threats of China and works with the Inflation Reduction Act 2022 in the United States. But of course the Opposition use any reason to dampen a positive step forward for all of our manufacturing sector across the country. UK exports to Europe amounted to £386.9 billion in the four quarters to the end of 2022, which was an increase of 25%—I think that is an increase, not a decrease.

Industrial Strategy

The Prime Minister has made it clear that growing the economy and creating better-paid jobs is one of our top priorities, and the Government are working with industry across the UK to achieve that. We have set out clear plans for prioritising technology sectors, advanced manufacturing, financial services and creative industries, and this includes our investor road maps. In particular, the Chancellor has announced 12 investment zones across the UK, which could benefit from £80 million of interventions over the next five years.

The Government have not published an industrial strategy since 2017 and, as a result, the UK now has the lowest level of business investment in the G7. So what is the Minister’s plan to encourage business investment in the UK, given that the Government have not even published an industrial strategy?

I think the hon. Lady has misunderstood exactly what we are doing. We have industrial strategies, be it for the automotive sector, the aviation sector, the maritime sector, or science and tech—that one was published just yesterday. This is not just about publishing strategies; it is also about delivering, which is what we are cracking on with and doing. As for UK investment, we are the leading country for start-up capital outside the United States, and just a few weeks ago we attracted £20 billion into tech—this is twice as much as France and Germany.

While the EU and the US are investing billions in accelerating their transition to net zero, including through the Inflation Reduction Act, the lack of a robust green industrial strategy in Britain is leaving us stranded at the back of the pack. Does the Minister share my frustration that the Chancellor’s Budget did so little to set out a convincing strategy for green growth? Do the Government intend to make the public wait for Labour to win the next general election before a world-leading green industrial strategy that drives private investment in green industries and establishes the UK as a clean energy superpower is brought before this House?

I am sorry to dampen the hon. Gentleman’s ambitions about winning the next general election, but we do indeed have a strategy to deal with decarbonising our economy. We are supporting research and development to help decrease our reliance on gas and electricity and deal with long-term energy security: we have £380 million for the offshore wind sector, £385 million for nuclear R&D, and £120 million for future nuclear enabling. We have a green industrial strategy and we are keen to ensure that we deliver it right across the country, for all of our communities.

People in Scunthorpe, Rotherham and Port Talbot know how important steel is for their communities. We Labour Members understand how important it is, for communities and for the green transition. The UK is the only G20 country in which steel production is falling, but when asked about the survival of this strategically important sector, the Business Secretary said:

“Nothing is ever a given.”

Is that because the British steel industry is not safe in her hands?

I do not know where the hon. Member got that quote from, but the British steel industry is very safe in our hands. Let me explain why. There has been over £800 million of support for energy costs, and over £1.5 billion to support competitive funds to ensure that the sector can decarbonise. We have done a huge amount of work with our steel sector. Colleagues from across the House will agree that in every meeting, whether it is with the unions or the sector, we are on the side of the steel sector and steelworkers, including when challenging commercial decisions are taken.

Post Office Network

I thank the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for the fantastic job she does as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on post offices. I met the Post Office leadership this week to reiterate our commitment to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the post office network. We have funded the network to the tune of £2.5 billion over the last 10 years, and have set access criteria to ensure that vital services remain within local reach of our citizens.

I thank the Minister for his kind words. Last month, London Economics issued a report showing that the Post Office has a greater economic impact on the UK than Heathrow airport, with three in 10 small and medium-sized enterprises using it at least once a week. The Minister has said that he will invest lots of money in the post office network, but could he also look at “drop and collect” locations? They have a Post Office lozenge, but they are not the properly functioning post offices that most Members in this House would expect.

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Drop and collect locations offer important services for our citizens, and can be counted towards the commitment to having 11,500 branches. Having said that, the access criteria overlaid on that commitment ensure that branches offering core services, including the sale of mail products, access to cash, and banking and bill payment facilities, remain within 3 miles of 99% of our population.

The report to which my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) referred found that the social value delivered by the Post Office is 16.5 times greater than the financial input it receives from the Government, so will the Minister carry out an analysis of how additional investment in the post office network will allow it to continue to grow, so that it can help our communities and small businesses to grow and develop?

That is a very good point. We are working all the time with the Post Office—as I said, there was a meeting earlier this week. Around half of its 11,500 branches are in rural areas. They are hugely important to our local communities, as the hon. Gentleman says. The Government’s funding for the network helps to ensure the viability of rural branches. Of course, this will always be work in progress. We are keen to make sure that the facilities are there for our communities.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and may I wish Ramadan Mubarak to all those who today mark the beginning of the holiest period in the Islamic year?

The Minister will be aware that the model of sub-post offices is based on the expectation that most of them will be run by small, semi-independent or independent retail businesses. Those businesses are under desperate strain for a number of reasons, some of them within the Government’s control and some not. The people who run these businesses tell me that they are put off the possibility of taking on the responsibility for a sub-post office because it is now more a drag on the business than a benefit. What steps is he taking to review the business model on which sub-post offices operate? It is quite clearly not fit for purpose, and we are getting to crisis point. If it is not changed soon, we will lose even more post offices.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. The model of a post office is evolving to a more diversified approach, but it is important that remuneration is fair and makes post offices sustainable. I was pleased to see that in August 2022 some improvements were made to remuneration. I appreciate that they may not have gone as far as some might wish, but nevertheless we want to see a sustainable network and make sure that our sub-postmasters are fairly remunerated.

In an hour or two we will hear the latest update on the Horizon compensation scheme. Has the Minister made an assessment of how much damage that scandal has done and is continuing to do to the willingness of businesspeople to take on responsibility for running a sub-post office, given how severely badly treated, and indeed betrayed, so many of their potential colleagues have been in the past?

Again, that is a very fair point. It was a horrendous scandal, and the first thing we need to do is properly compensate the victims. Alongside that there is an inquiry going on, headed by Sir Wyn Williams. It is important that we find out exactly what went wrong and who was responsible, and where possible hold those people to account. I think that will restore some measure of confidence to those who have been subject to such disgraceful mistreatment.

Trade with Ukraine

Supporting Ukraine is a Government priority. On Monday, I signed the UK-Ukraine digital trade agreement, Ukraine’s first ever digital trade deal, guaranteeing access to the UK’s financial services sector, which is crucial for their reconstruction efforts.

My right hon. Friend’s Department has this week published a guide to doing business in Ukraine. Can she outline what this industry guidance sets out and how businesses can get further information if they need it?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the guide to doing business in Ukraine that my Department published. It provides an overview of the Ukrainian market, including setting out Ukraine’s reconstruction needs and the expected financing and procurement routes for reconstruction projects. It is accompanied by information on the business environment, trading agreements between our countries and logistical guidance. The information is intended to help businesses considering working in and with Ukraine to understand how their market works and encourage industry to increase trade with Ukraine.

Maybe one of the best ways to assist in increasing trade with Ukraine is to limit the opportunities for the Russian Federation to access Scottish limited partnerships. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is still time to improve and strengthen the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill to limit them?

In co-ordination with our allies, we have implemented the most severe economic sanctions ever imposed on any major economy and will maintain pressure on the Russian regime to secure peace. If the hon. Gentleman will write to me with more detail about what he is referring to, I can look into it, but I assure him that this Government are doing everything we can within the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill to ensure the integrity of our economy and our allies.

I also took part in a very sobering visit to Ukraine last month and saw for myself the utter devastation of homes, businesses and infrastructure, with World Bank estimates of reconstruction costs now at some $630 billion. In spite of warm words, we still have no clear plan from the Government for the seizure of Russian state assets that could be used for the recovery of Ukrainian businesses and the reconstruction of Ukraine. Now that the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Putin, and with the United States, the European Union and Canada already looking to seize assets, can the Secretary of State tell us when the Government will set out how they will seize frozen Russian state assets?

As I said in my earlier answer, we have introduced the largest and most severe economic sanctions ever imposed on a major economy. We have sanctioned £20 billion, or 96%, of UK-Russia goods trade from 2021. Since the start of the invasion, UK goods imports from Russia have fallen by 99% and goods exports to Russia have fallen by 80%. Sanctions have sent Russia into a severe and sustained economic recession. Of course we will do all we can, but not all of the things the Opposition are asking for have easy mechanisms to deliver.

Occupied Palestinian Territories: Illegal Settlements

7. Whether she plans to advise businesses not to trade with illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. (904248)

The UK has a clear position on Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories: they are illegal under international law and constitute an obstacle to peace and the two-state solution. As set out in Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office guidance on overseas business risk, there are clear risks to UK businesses related to economic and financial activities in the settlements and we do not encourage or offer support to such activity.

Ramadan Mubarak to everyone celebrating.

In January, the Foreign Secretary told the House that the UK Government’s position on the illegality of Israeli settlements remains unchanged. If that is the case, will the UK Government finally suspend trade in goods and services between the UK and companies operating in illegal Israeli settlements? Do the Government understand that if not, the UK is essentially legitimising outposts that clearly violate international law?

The UK’s long-established position on the settlements is clear, as I outlined. The UK does not recognise the Occupied Palestinian Territories as part of Israel, including the illegal settlements. For example, goods originating from illegal Israeli settlements in the west bank, including East Jerusalem, are not entitled to tariff or trade preferences under either the agreement that the UK has with Israel or the agreement between the UK and the Palestinian authorities. I think it is important for the House to recognise that, of course, we also have an agreement with the Palestinian authorities.

Rural Microbusinesses

8. What steps her Department is taking to support the growth of micro- businesses in rural and isolated communities. (904250)

As somebody from a business background who also represents a rural area, I fully understand the importance of provision of a range of support to help small and microbusinesses to grow, including those in rural areas. Such businesses can find support through the free business support helpline, the 38 growth hubs across England, and the newly launched “Help to Grow” website, as well as through start-up loans. I note that 240 businesses on the Isle of Wight have benefited from start-up loans.

I am delighted that that is the case. I want to tie this question into previous comments about post offices. Some microbusinesses and small businesses are incredibly reliant on post offices and sub-post offices. My sub-postmasters—Andy Smith in Ventnor was the last I spoke to, a couple of weeks ago—are increasingly concerned about the payments regime for sub-post officers. They have asked me to look into several specific instances, and I have written to the Minister about that. One area in which I think we could make improvements is banking payments. Banks are increasingly shutting down. Why? To save money. They pass the responsibilities for cash takes on to sub-postmasters, who do not get the remuneration—or anything like enough—to make it economically worthwhile. Will the Government look at the payments system, specifically in relation to banks?

That is an interesting point. That relationship between banks and post offices is important for post offices and the banks, so we urge for fair terms to be struck. We also have concerns about the banking deposit limits that were introduced recently to cover money laundering issues. I am looking into that in great detail and at great pace to ensure that those issues are resolved, because they are limiting remuneration for postmasters, too. I am very happy to take that forward.

The Minister will know that my constituency has large rural areas and lots of farmers. Like many microbusinesses, they have difficulty in getting a bank account at all. Could he do something or talk to other colleagues about it? Social and trade enterprises cannot get a bank account. Could we get some action on that?

If the hon. Gentleman writes to me about specific instances, I will be very happy to look at them. There has been a significant increase in the number of new banks entering the marketplace, such as Starling Bank and Tide, so it is getting easier to open a bank account. I know that it is difficult with some of the larger banks. I am very happy to look into the specific instances that he refers to and see if we can help.

Business Insolvencies

In total, 22,109 companies entered insolvency in England and Wales in 2022, which was 57% higher than in 2021. There were lower rates of insolvency in 2020-21 because of the measures that we put in place to prevent the foreclosure of certain businesses. The trend over the last three years is pretty consistent with previous trends, but it is something that we are looking at very closely.

Notwithstanding that the trend may be consistent, in the last quarter of 2022, 313 companies in Scotland were insolvent. In my Edinburgh West constituency, companies are struggling, particularly those in the hospitality sector, in which there is high energy use. The Federation of Small Businesses has criticised the Budget by saying that there is nothing for businesses once the energy prices support ends at the end of next month—there is nothing for cashflow; there is nothing for tackling late payments. For the sake of small businesses, will the Government review their decision to take away support for businesses at the end of the month?

The Government have not taken away support; they have replaced one scheme with another. The scheme we have now reflects the fact that wholesale prices have come down significantly since the peak between July and December last year. Of course, we are concerned about businesses that are suffering, particularly those that entered into contracts between July and December on fixed rates that last up to a year. We are working with Ofgem and suppliers to see what can be done to ensure that those businesses are not unfairly treated.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the tax cut for business worth £25 billion in the Chancellor’s Budget will benefit national and international businesses in the new powerhouse city of Southend such as Olympus KeyMed and ESSLAB, incentivising investment, boosting growth and delivering more jobs not just in Southend but across the UK?

What an excellent question—I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. In previous Budgets, the Chancellor has set the annual investment allowance effectively for SMEs at £1 million; that is permanent policymaking. He has now introduced full expensing across the piece, which, as she says, costs around £9 billion a year. We are the only country in the developed world, to my knowledge, that has done full expensing across the board in that way, and it will be a massive boost to business investment, not least in Southend.

Our great British businesses are being let down by 13 years of Tory failure, with little to help but sticking-plaster policies. The Minister may not be aware, but insolvency numbers are at their highest level in four years, which is perhaps no surprise when we look at this Government’s record on small businesses, with Help to Grow: Digital ditched, energy bill support slashed and business investment the lowest in the G7. It is no wonder that the Federation of Small Businesses says that the Budget has left many businesses feeling “short-changed”. It is clear that for this Tory Government, small businesses are an afterthought, so will the Minister follow where Labour leads—reform business rates, boost skills, make Brexit work and make Britain the best place to start and grow a business?

I wish I could say I was surprised that the hon. Lady is once again talking Britain down. The reality is that UK growth since 2010 has been the third fastest in the G7. The private sector is now bigger than it was pre-pandemic. Private sector growth has been on trend in terms of other countries, with businesses growing. The FSB says that three out of five businesses are more resilient than they were pre-pandemic. Of course, we would all like to reform business rates, and it has been looked at on a number of occasions, but simply saying that we will scrap something that would cost £22 billion a year without putting in place a replacement for that funding is irresponsible. What will she do to replace business rates—[Interruption.] She made the point. She wants to scrap business rates, but what will replace it with, given that it would cost £22 billion a year?

Energy-intensive Industries

There has been support to the value of about £18 billion for businesses to help them with their energy bills, and we are determined to secure the future for our energy-intensive industries and to protect jobs. To support those most at risk of carbon leakage, the Government have announced the British industry supercharger, to support those most exposed to the cost of electricity. Those measures will bring the energy costs of the UK’s energy-intensive industries in line with those charged across the world’s major economies.

Many of the tourism and leisure businesses in Blackpool are energy-intensive, not least the world-famous illuminations and pleasure beach, which now pay hundreds of thousands of pounds more for their energy than previously. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the specific challenges around energy consumption facing the tourism industry, ahead of a busy summer season?

Once again, my hon. Friend is a stout campaigner for his constituency, and for the tourism and leisure businesses in Blackpool. He will know that the decision about which businesses fall within the EII scheme is for the Treasury; I am not sure whether the £63 million for leisure centres falls within that catchment or not, so of course, I will meet with my hon. Friend to make sure he has the absolute clarity that he needs. The EII relief scheme is in place to support the most energy-intensive industries, but let me sit down with him and work out whether that industry falls within that category.

The Government’s support for the energy costs of businesses in my constituency has been most welcome. As the Minister will know, fishing is a key industry there, so I am particularly pleased that the processing and preserving of fish, crustaceans and molluscs is included in the energy and trade intensive industries scheme. Representatives of the Scotch Whisky Association tell me that they are surprised not to be included in that scheme—especially as manufacturers of wine, cider and beer are—despite falling within the top 20% of sectors by energy intensity and the top 40% by trade intensity. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of that industry to discuss this apparent anomaly?

My hon. Friend raises the fishing industry. There are two Back-Bench colleagues present who are huge champions of that industry—I dare not say anything further—and I know that my hon. Friend is a huge promoter of Scottish products, including Scottish whisky. I look forward to a tour post Ramadan at some point soon.

The decision about who falls within the EII scheme was taken by the Treasury. I have been reading about the work that my hon. Friend has been doing on behalf of the sector, and I counter-propose a meeting that involves Treasury officials and Ministers. If my hon. Friend is happy with that, I am more than happy to set it up.

I am honoured to be the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for steel and metal related industries, and I thank the Secretary of State to agreeing to come and meet us—I am very much looking forward to that discussion. However, may I raise again the issue of her Sky interview in which she said, or certainly strongly implied, that it is not a given that we should have a steel industry in this country? Given the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world, the massive role that steel plays in providing good jobs that people can raise a family on and the vital role it plays in the transition to a decarbonised economy, may I invite the Secretary of State to come to the Dispatch Box and clarify her position—that steel is, in fact, a given in the United Kingdom?

Unfortunately, I have to come to the Dispatch Box—that is just the way it works—so I disappoint the hon. Member by not being the Secretary of State. However, he knows that steel is absolutely key to our sovereignty and security and for the resilience of all our sectors. The Secretary of State has mentioned repeatedly that the quotes that are being repeated in the Chamber are a misrepresentation. The commitment to the sector continues. It was in place for years: it is why we had £800 million of support for the energy sector, and it is why we have a £1.5 billion competitive fund to help the sector decarbonise.

Small businesses such as coffee shops and cafés in our high streets are the lifeblood of a local economy—one example would be Jeanie’s Coffee Shop in Baillieston. Running a kitchen all day is an incredibly intensive process for energy, and John Devaney was telling me last week how that business’s energy bills have gone up. As the Minister is being so generous with other meetings, would she be willing to meet me to look at how we can support businesses such as Jeanie’s in Baillieston to ensure that they get through the cost of living crisis?

I will be full of meetings, but I defer to the Minister with responsibility for small businesses, who is more than happy to have that meeting. We have provided billions of pounds of support for businesses to deal with their energy costs, and we have the new supercharger in place. We lobby the Treasury long and hard, and we are more than happy to represent businesses small and large.

New York Stock Exchange

12. If she will make an estimate of the number of UK businesses that chose to list on the New York stock exchange in the last three years. (904255)

The UK is the most internationally connected financial centre in the world. We continue to attract some of the most innovative and largest companies. More than £17 billion of capital was raised for firms in the UK—a 15-year high—with over 120 deals completed. The UK is taking forward ambitious reforms to rules governing its capital markets, building on our continued success as Europe’s leading—globally, the second largest—hub for investment.

My right hon. Friend is always so succinct in his questions, and there is often a huge amount of sense behind it. I fundamentally agree that we need to collaborate with business and industry. [Interruption.] Forgive me, Mr Speaker. The response I want to give to my right hon. Friend’s very good question is that, as he will be pleased to know, there is the Lord Hill listing review and the Sir Douglas Flint review, and in particular the Edinburgh reforms, which will be considering competitiveness and will, I think, provide some sort of answer to his question. It would be remiss of me—because I know that he is particularly interested in this—not to mention that it is 50 years since women were first admitted to the floor of the New York stock exchange after 170 years of just men.

Fashion and Textile Industry

My Department actively engages and promotes fashion and textile companies domestically and internationally. In 2022, fashion, footwear and textiles exports totalled £7.5 billion. For 2023-24, my Department is providing the British Fashion Council with funding to support London fashion week, and the UK Fashion and Textile Association with funding for activity at key international trade sector shows. To drive sustainability across the sector, we have announced, via UK Research and Innovation, a £15 million circular fashion programme.

The Chancellor has set out his long-term plan for growth, including harnessing our creative industries. As has been said, the UK fashion and textile industry already punches well above its weight, employing in excess of 500,000 people, including in Scotland. Will the Department meet the all-party parliamentary group on textiles and fashion to look at what more can be done to harness young fashion designers who want to walk in the wake of such icons as Stella McCartney?

I would be happy for either officials or a Minister in my Department, depending on diaries, to have a meeting with the APPG. It is a sector that we want to support, and we will do all we can to demonstrate that.

Support for SMEs

17. What steps her Department is taking to help support the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises. (904261)

Through finance, we are making sure that the Government are supporting UK SMEs through our recovery loan scheme and through the start-up loans scheme, which has provided 101,000 loans and nearly £1 billion. On business support, a network of 38 growth hubs across England provides access to information and advice, and we are removing barriers by supporting SMEs seeking to export through the Export Academy, UK Export Finance, cutting red tape and incentivising investment.

Businesses and traders in Stoke-on-Trent city centre are supported by the fantastic team at our Hanley business improvement district. This week, with investment from the safer streets fund, they are giving a much-needed facelift to shop fronts in Hope Street, making the gateway route to our city centre more attractive. Does my hon. Friend agree that such initiatives, which make our shopping areas more attractive, are a good investment that encourages business growth locally? Will he join me in congratulating my city centre BID?

It is a great pleasure to do so. I congratulate my hon. Friend on her work. The money that has been invested in Hope Street will contribute to its being a safer, more welcoming place to visit and shop, which in turn will support the local economy. Regenerating streets such as Hope Street is essential to making our high streets and town centres successful, and I congratulate her on the work she does in this regard.

The financial viability of the high street continues to decline as businesses struggle to compete with online shopping, the impact of which will be felt most keenly in local and small to medium-sized businesses. What discussions has the Minister had with the Chancellor about the urgent need for a long-term, local-scale economic plan to support high streets?

The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. We have put in place £13.6 billion of business rates support to help businesses over the next few years, but we are also improving access to finance, improving business support through our growth hubs and cutting red tape, making it easier for businesses to start up and scale up in the UK. That work will continue.

Trade: Indo-Pacific

18. What steps her Department is taking to help businesses increase their level of trade in the Indo-Pacific region. (904262)

20. What steps her Department is taking to help businesses increase their level of trade in the Indo-Pacific region. (904264)

We are currently negotiating accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, a bloc worth £9 trillion of global GDP in 2021. As part of that, our businesses will get enhanced access to the Malaysian market for the first time. Beyond CPTPP, we are continuing negotiations on the UK-India free trade agreement and working to implement FTAs with Australia and New Zealand, in addition to existing trade dialogues with Indo-Pacific partners.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the assistance that her Department gives me in my role as trade envoy to the Republic of Korea. Does she agree that the forthcoming negotiations for an enhanced trade agreement with Korea offer real opportunities for British businesses?

I do agree, and I would like to thank my right hon. Friend for his tireless work as the trade envoy to promote closer trade links with the Republic of Korea. Our trade relationship with Korea is thriving, no doubt thanks to all his hard work. It amounted to about £14 billion in 2021, much of which is in critical goods such as microchips, cars and pharmaceuticals. It is currently supported by our 2019 FTA, so we are going to start discussions with Korea to review how we can make the FTA even stronger, ensuring it continues to support existing trade and create new opportunities for British business.

Further to my right hon. Friend’s reply, what more specifically can she say about what help His Majesty’s Government is giving to South Derbyshire and British businesses as a whole to take advantage of trade opportunities in Cambodia and Laos?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We have increased the tempo of trade missions in Cambodia, and we are actively supporting British companies to expand operations in the education, infrastructure and sustainable energy sectors. In May 2022 the Department appointed a new export support service trade officer to help British companies, including those in her constituency, that wish to export to Laos. It is also eligible for preferential treatment under the developing countries trading scheme. Both initiatives will help boost the UK’s trade with Laos, and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend on improving relations with that country.

A Canadian company sponsored by several Pacific island states is poised to begin deep-sea mining at the bottom of the Pacific ocean next year unless we manage to secure a precautionary pause at the International Seabed Authority meetings that are going on at the moment. Will the UK be joining France, Germany, Spain, Chile, New Zealand and some Pacific nations in calling for that precautionary pause, and in what way can we support the economies of Pacific island states without them having to resort to sponsoring such environmentally damaging activities?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and this is a serious matter. The Minister responsible for industry and economic security—the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) —has been dealing with this issue, and she will get in touch if the hon. Lady writes to her.

Here in the UK, we are rightly proud of our high food standards, which include very low allowable levels of pesticide residues in the food we eat. However, organisations such as the Pesticide Action Network have warned that the Government could weaken standards on pesticides and other factors in a rush to sign free trade agreements in the Indo-Pacific region. Can the Government therefore confirm that new FTAs will not lead to a weakening of standards such as those on pesticide residues in food entering the UK?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We have repeatedly said that we are not lowering food standards at all for any free trade agreements that we are signing. That is something we have committed to, and we would want to reassure all of those who lobby on this issue that our trade negotiators have it very much at the forefront of their minds.

Topical Questions

As Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my priority is to support UK companies to thrive at home and abroad. During my visit to Israel this month, I held talks with my counterpart, Nir Barkat, on our upgraded FTA. Israel’s economy is booming, its services sector has grown by 45% in the past decade alone and, while in Israel, I met Teva Pharmaceuticals and Trigo, which are involved in pioneering partnerships with the UK. I also saw the Israeli appetite for British expertise in sectors such as fintech and projects such as the £30 billion Tel Aviv metro.

Albert Bartlett is a potato processor in my constituency of North Norfolk and one of its largest employers, with 250 staff. Due to water abstraction permits, this and other farming businesses are simply not going to be able to continue trading or even growing in Norfolk if they are not helped. These significant water licensing issues are affecting all of Norfolk. Has my right hon. Friend spoken to DEFRA colleagues about water supply shortages and how they are impacting on businesses growing food, food security and employment all over the UK?

As set out in the environmental improvement plan, the Government recognise the need to improve the resilience of our water supplies. We are committed to a twin-track approach of investment in new supply infrastructure and action to reduce leaks and improve water efficiency. This includes support for agriculture, such as grants for reservoirs through the farming transformation fund. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs takes decisions on this issue, and we will liaise on my hon. Friend’s points and make references to Ofwat, which is the regulator in this case.

The automotive industry is a jewel in the crown of British manufacturing, but to keep that jewel we need to be building batteries for electric vehicles in the UK. So far we have one gigafactory up and running, while Germany already has 10 times our capacity. Alarm bells are ringing across the sector, and we recently had disappointing news with Ford announcing job cuts in Essex. The Faraday Institution estimates that the UK needs 10 battery factories by 2040 to retain our car industry. Does the Secretary of State agree with that assessment? If she does, how and when will she publish a clear plan for how the Government intend to hit that target?

We have a strategy in place to support the automotive industry, with £1.3 billion of innovative projects, including the Faraday factory challenge —[Interruption.] I have a response to the question. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that we have investment in place, so let me continue. With a budget of £544 million, the Driving the Electric Revolution scheme includes nearly £80 million of Government investment through the Innovate UK programme. I suggest that the Opposition Front Benchers flick through my “Critical Minerals Refresh” document, because there is a fantastic page on UK battery supply chains—not just the automotive transformation fund but the Envision AESC announcement, which is worth £1 billion for the north-east electric vehicle hub. Perhaps they will read it before the next Question Time, so that they have a tricker question for us to deal with.

T2. One up-and-coming internet provider in my constituency understands from Building Digital UK that the next roll-out will create a single cross-Devon and Cornwall procurement contract. That will be available only to companies that already have massive turnover, thereby blocking smaller, more agile companies that may be able to deliver contracts faster. Will the Minister review that urgently, if necessary working with others? (904283)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue, because it gives me an opportunity to point out that that is also an issue in my constituency, and something I am concerned about. Unfortunately, it is a matter for the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, because BDUK is an Executive agency of hers, but if she requires any support from me as Business Secretary, I would be happy to provide it. BDUK is doing a good job in looking at this issue in the round, but we would be happy to help and do whatever we can to support businesses in all our constituencies.

T5. The crypto and digital assets all-party group has been informed, shockingly, that many businesses are struggling to even open a UK bank account. What support can be given to address that issue, and ensure that the UK remains an international hub for fintech innovation? (904287)

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point, which is similar to the one raised earlier. I am happy to look at any particular instance where businesses cannot open a bank account. My hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury is also interested in this issue, so if my hon. Friend writes to me about any instances I will look into them.

T4. My right hon. Friend will be aware that our creative industries rely on a stable copyright regime to protect thousands of jobs. Can she reassure them that the Government have no plans to weaken our gold-standard intellectual property laws as part of the EU retained law process? (904285)

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill allows the UK to take the next step in reasserting the sovereignty of Parliament, and ends the special status of retained EU law in the statute book. Reforms will not come at the expense of our already high standards, and we will maintain our commitments to international obligations, including the withdrawal agreement. We will, of course, ensure that the UK’s position as a global leader in the creative industries will not just remain but be strengthened.

T7. Every time I speak to those running sub-post offices in my constituency, I hear the same message: the various packages that are available and the business models are simply not sufficient for them to run a viable business. What will the Government do about that, or are we just going to wait until it becomes a crisis? (904289)

There is no waiting at all and the issue is constantly on our agenda. This week I met the Post Office leadership to look at the sustainability of post offices. We are keen to ensure that the post office network is sustainable, and that sub-postmasters are remunerated fairly. We provide financing to the post office network to ensure it is sustainable, with £2.5 billion over the past 10 years, and that will continue. We are determined to ensure that that network is sustainable and provides those services for our citizens.

T6. This month we are due to have the seventh round of trade talks with our partners in India, working towards a free trade agreement. My right hon. Friend’s predecessor but one promised a free trade deal by Diwali. What assessment has she made about achieving a free trade deal by Diwali this year? (904288)

The Secretary of State has been very clear: it is about the deal, not the date. We will not tie our hands by setting an arbitrary deadline. I am pleased to confirm, however, that round eight of the discussions is currently under way. Both nations have committed to and are working together for a mutually ambitious deal. We are working through substantive issues such as goods, market access, services and investment. I appreciate my hon. Friend’s continuing commitment. It is vital to expand on the deal with India, with £35 billion in bilateral trade sustaining half a million jobs in the two countries.

T8. In all the discussions about the Post Office, the Minister did not mention meeting the trade unions. Is he aware of current research by the Communication Workers Union on the opportunities to develop the role of the Post Office and postal workers within the communities of Scotland? Will the Minister engage with the trade unions to discuss the work of protecting post office services across these islands? (904290)

I have met CWU representatives. I am always keen to listen to new ideas on how we make the post office network more sustainable, so yes, I am absolutely willing to do that. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will put them in touch with me.

May I ask about the CPTPP? Unlike the European Union, this organisation is growing all the time as a percentage of global population and global GDP. When will we finally enter this very exciting trade agreement? When will we have a campaign across the United Kingdom to inform businesses of the tremendous opportunities of us joining the CPTPP? When I talk to my constituents about how excited I am about the CPTPP, they ask me, “What is the CPTPP?”

For the benefit of my hon. Friend’s constituents, the CPTPP is the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, the new trade bloc we hope to join imminently. We have reached a great stage in negotiations, but, as he will have heard in answer to questions from across the House, trade negotiations are not easy and we need to make sure we protect UK food standards. There is a lot we are doing, and I think we will have some good news for him in due course.

T9. I welcome the Secretary of State’s visit to Mexico last month. If she had the chance to do some shopping, she may know that the largest chain of department stores in Mexico is called Liverpool, founded in 1847 and named after my home city and port for all the merchandise that was shipped through it. There is huge potential for infra- structure building in Mexico, including in clean technology. What is her Department doing to link UK industry to those opportunities and that potential in Mexico? (904291)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am afraid I did not have any time whatever during that trip to do any shopping. It was all about the UK-Mexico free trade agreement, which will do exactly what he wants. The negotiations are ongoing and continue to reflect the shared ambition for an agreement that is both modern and comprehensive. We talked in particular about services and investment in digital. We are aligned in the green chapters and in areas such as small and medium-sized enterprises, innovation and trade, and on gender equality.

What discussions have the Government had to secure further memorandums of understanding with individual US states? When visiting Nebraska last year, I spoke to the Governor of that state. There is huge enthusiasm, especially among Republican-led states, to strike further deals, so it would be brilliant if we could get some of them over the line.

I thank my hon. Friend, because while the US may not be interested in a free trade deal at the moment, we are working with individual states to develop memorandums of understanding. We have already concluded them with Indiana, North Carolina and South Carolina, and are in discussions with California, Texas, Utah and Oklahoma. We are open to further discussions, because there is huge opportunity of mutual interest.

Can the Minister explain how the UK can maintain a close and historic friendship with Israel during the current difficulties? Can he let us know what the Prime Minister will do, when he meets the Israeli Prime Minister this weekend, to challenge the sale of goods produced in illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories?

I refer the hon. Lady to my answer earlier on part of that question. With our friends and allies, including who we trade with, we raise issues and concerns of interest to our constituents and to the British Government on an ongoing basis, not just in trade and business discussions but through other channels and Government Departments. We are happy to have robust conversations with our friends.

Unlike other alcohol producers, the Scotch Whisky Association and industry are having to put up with a 10% increase in duty, making the cost of whisky 75% tax. Spirits are effectively excluded from the draught support scheme, and distilleries cannot access the energy-intensive industries support that other alcohol producers can. When will we get a level playing field for the Scottish whisky industry?

This Government value and support the Scotch whisky industry. Just last year, we helped to liberalise tariffs on Scotch whisky in the USA. My Department and I are in continual discussions with the Scotch Whisky Association and industry to see what we can do to support them.

The retail sector is a hugely important part of our economy and a huge employer in my constituency. What are the Government doing to support it in difficult times?

The retail sector is benefiting from the £13.6 billion of business rates support and the 75% discount up to £110,000 per premises. These are difficult times for many businesses, not least retail, but we are keen to ensure that we end up on a fair and level playing field. Also, businesses will benefit from the economic turnaround that we expect later this year.

Is the Secretary of State aware of just how much wonderful research is going on in our universities in medical technology, environmental technology and all the rest? Will she do something to make our universities more entrepreneurial? Some are lagging in their expertise. What can we do to make universities partner with business to make them more entrepreneurial?

The hon. Gentleman is right that we want universities to become more entrepreneurial. We had fantastic work at Oxford University with AstraZeneca. Many of them are doing quite well. I am keen to hear his suggestions of what I can do to encourage universities. The Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology is working on this issue, but from a business perspective, we want to ensure that we are continuing to facilitate relationships with both businesses and universities, especially in clusters where universities are essential to the local economy.

Why is the Secretary of State perpetuating the myth that the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is a good thing, necessary or going to receive Royal Assent in anything like the shape in which it was first presented to this House? What is the target date for Royal Assent? Should she not prepare now to drop the thing entirely?

Further to the negotiations for a free trade agreement with India, can the Minister perhaps update the House on the impact of the closure of the internet in the state of Punjab over the last week, and the reduction in freedom of expression for the majority of the Sikh population of that state?

As I mentioned in answer to a previous question, when it comes to other issues, including human rights and freedom of the press, these are conversations we also have with our friends and colleagues around the world. We cannot deal with all these issues with free trade agreements.

The United Arab Emirates recently warned Ministers against raising concerns about human rights issues in Gulf Co-operation Council countries if we want to negotiate strong trade deals. That goes completely against our trade principles. Can Ministers confirm that they will not be held to ransom and will not sign trade agreements where human rights are a key concern?

In everything we do, we ensure that we continue to promote and assert British values. That includes within the trade agreements that we are signing with all countries.

You have called me, and I have a question ready-made here, Mr Speaker. Like on “Blue Peter”, here is one I prepared earlier.

Only yesterday, the Secretary of State signed a trade deal with the Ukrainian First Minister to provide pivotal support to the Ukrainian economy. Has the Secretary of State assessed how soon that will impact Ukraine in helping it—[Interruption]—lay the foundation for revival?

I am afraid I missed the end of the hon. Member’s question but I am happy to write to him in response.