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Topical Questions

Volume 730: debated on Thursday 23 March 2023

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.