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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 732: debated on Thursday 18 May 2023

Business and Trade

The Secretary of State was asked—

Small Businesses: Growth

The Government are providing better support in a number of ways, including through our network of 38 growth hubs across England, our Help To Grow management scheme and mentorships. We are improving access to finance, not least through our start-up loans and recovery loan scheme. We are removing barriers to trade for our SMEs. Those that are seeking to grow through exports can now access support through our UK Export Academy and UK Export Finance.

Small and medium-sized businesses are the beating heart of Chester and our country’s economy, yet their costs have become crippling, with extortionate energy bills, staff shortages and businesses forced to shut their doors for good. Reports show that a record number of people are off work due to health reasons, notably an increase in mental health issues. What is the Government’s plan to put that right and help businesses in Chester and up and down the country?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. The first thing we will do for any business is to ensure that the economy is growing, as it is. We are seeing much higher rates of growth than anticipated by many, and we are cutting the costs of doing business by halving inflation, which again is incredibly important for business. In the short term, we are providing support with £13.6 billion of business rate discounts. We put £23 billion into energy discount schemes, too. We also have a big programme, across government, to try to get 9 million people who are economically inactive back to work.

Portsmouth’s fantastic small and family-run businesses tell me that after the Tories crashed the economy, they are struggling with rising business rates, supply chain issues and soaring energy costs. Why does the Minister not just adopt Labour’s plan to scrap business rates and replace them with a system fit for the 21st century?

We would all like to reform business rates. When people in my constituency hear about Labour’s plans to scrap business rates, the question I always get is, “Where is the money coming from?” Business rates raise £22 billion in England alone. I have heard Labour’s plans to scrap business rates. Which taxes will be increased to make up that shortfall? That is the question. We are reforming business rates to ensure that small businesses pay less, and providing short-term discounts. Labour cannot simply wipe away £22 billion without telling us where the money is coming from.

I recently had the pleasure of hosting a business roundtable in my constituency for small and medium-sized businesses, many of whom are proud of the products and services they want to export. Will my hon. Friend outline what additional steps the Government are taking to support small and medium-sized businesses in my constituency and across the UK that are looking to export their world-leading products to the global market?

My hon. Friend is a great champion for his businesses across Keighley, and I thank him for the work he does. He will know that through our export strategy, “Made in the UK, Sold to the World”, we provide extensive support and advice to SMEs, whether they are considering exporting, learning about how to go about it, or expanding into new markets. UK Export Finance focuses on supporting SMEs so that they can secure export opportunities.

Barrow-in-Furness is, I hope, about to enter a 25-to-30 year jobs boom thanks to the Government’s steadfast support for Dreadnought, AUKUS and the renewable energy projects up and down our coast. However, that causes issues for our local SMEs, which are struggling to retain and recruit, not least because of the geographical isolation of Barrow-in-Furness. May I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to cross the Pennines to speak to the SME cluster that I chair over there and hear some of their concerns? Does the Department have some specialist support to help those businesses leaning into this new economic challenge?

I would be happy to cross the Pennines; I have been known to. It would be my pleasure to do that. What businesses want more than anything is to make sure that we have a growing economy, which we have, and that we are controlling costs by halving inflation. The next thing that businesses want is access to labour and skills. I attended the British Chambers of Commerce’s global event yesterday at the QEII Centre, and it was one of the key asks. We are doing many things on making the workplace more attractive: flexible working and, for example, carer’s leave. We have a programme across government to try to get those 9 million people who are currently economically inactive back to work. That can solve many of the problems, along with reform of childcare and other things. I am happy to come and listen to my hon. Friend’s businesses and find out the particular challenges they are facing.

Twenty billion pounds! That is the amount of money currently held up in late payments—more than the entire science budget. It should be flowing to small businesses, allowing them to innovate, develop new products, create new jobs, drive our local economies or simply stay afloat. Instead, every day thousands of our great British small and medium-sized enterprises are wasting precious time and money chasing late payments, at an estimated cost of £684 million a year. For the sake of British business, will this Government take a leaf out of Labour’s policy book and properly legislate to tackle late payments to small businesses?

Well, £90 billion is the amount of Labour’s uncosted spending plans, but let us talk about the £20 billion for now. The hon. Member is absolutely right to raise the issue of late payments. I attended a roundtable yesterday as part of our payment and cash flow review consultation, which is hugely important. We have significant engagement with businesses across the piece. We are determined and ambitious to reform the rules on late payments to ensure that businesses get paid on time. We have made significant progress in recent years in our international performance, so we are not an outlier. Nevertheless, we can and shall do more. The results of the consultation will be made available shortly.

NDAs: Sexual Assault, Harassment and Misconduct

2. If she will make an assessment of the implications for her policies of trends in the level of use of non-disclosure agreements by businesses in cases relating to sexual assault, harassment and misconduct. (904987)

Non-disclosure agreements can be used legitimately by employers—for example, to protect commercially sensitive information. The Government understand concerns about the use of NDAs to silence victims of sexual misconduct. We have legislated to prevent higher education providers using NDAs in cases of sexual abuse, harassment or misconduct and other forms of bullying or harassment.

Imagine, Mr Speaker, that you are a victim of bullying, misconduct or sexual harassment at work, and your employer pushes you to sign a gagging clause preventing you from publicly disclosing what happened to you; this sits over you in perpetuity, reminding you of the trauma you experienced. The campaign group Can’t Buy My Silence will soon be launching a business pledge to commit to ending this practice in businesses for good. Will the Secretary of State consider meeting me to discuss this forthcoming pledge, and does she back a ban on the use of NDAs in these specific cases?

I am aware that the hon. Member had a private Member’s Bill on this very issue. The Government are supportive of preventing harassment in the workplace, and we supported the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill. We believe that NDAs have a place, but she has raised specific circumstances where they are inappropriate, so I am happy to discuss with her what we can do to stop this problem from continuing.

Digital Markets: Competition

3. What assessment her Department has made of the potential impact of the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill on levels of competition between businesses in digital markets. (904988)

The Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill will establish a new pro-competition regime for digital markets. This will boost competition between businesses in digital markets, driving productivity, growth and innovation.

The Competition and Markets Authority’s recent ruling blocking the acquisition of Activision Blizzard has made us an outlier. Its intervention in the nascent, innovative cloud gaming market was based on potential rather than real market power. You will know, Mr Speaker, that regulators have as much of a lever on growth in the economy as the Government. As we are doing in financial services, all regulators should have a remit for growth, and maybe—just maybe—we can call them “regulators for growth”.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. He may have noticed that we recently launched a paper, “Smarter Regulation to Grow the Economy”, so we absolutely agree with that point. Some of the measures it proposes are about ensuring that Ministers, officials and others look at alternatives to regulation, rather than jumping straight to regulation, and have an earlier impact assessment of what regulation would mean for businesses’ costs, rather than just looking at other factors. I absolutely agree with him that the best regulator is competition—the No. 1 thing we want to drive forward—which is also the best thing for growth. I am keen to talk to him about this matter in further detail after these questions.

A huge element of growth in the digital market is the crypto industry. The European Parliament has just signed off the Markets in Cryptoassets Regulation. That ambitious and forward-thinking law gives the European Union the first rules to govern the crypto industry. When will this Government do the same?

We are looking at the crypto sector carefully, and there was a report yesterday from the Treasury Committee on that matter. The crypto sector is moving at pace, and it is important that regulation keeps up with that. We have regulated already on some of the promotions around cryptocurrency, and it is something we will keep under scrutiny. I am sure my Treasury colleagues will be doing that even more than I shall.

Steel Industry

We are actively engaging with the steel industry to secure a positive and sustainable future. Alongside that, my Department announced the British Industry Supercharger in February—a decisive and necessary intervention that will help to reduce energy costs for energy intensive industries such as steel.

As the Minister knows, the key issues facing the steel industry are energy prices—we are still paying much more than our European competitors—and decarbonisation. There are 23 clean steel projects in Europe, but none here. In reply the Secretary of State will quote support that is historic, too little, or too late. Labour Members have a plan for steel, where is the Government’s?

I visited the Port Talbot steelworks, and no one there is talking about Labour’s plan; they are talking about what the Government have been doing, and they have been grateful for the support we have provided. It is misleading to call that “historic” when we have been showing continued support for the steel sector. The Government continue to provide that significant financial support, and the steel industry has been able to bid into Government funds worth more than £1 billion to support energy efficiency and decarbonisation.

I thank the Secretary of State for her visit to Scunthorpe steelworks. She knows well the challenges that the steel industry is facing. While the British Industry Supercharger was a welcome announcement that I hope will go a long way to putting us on a fairer footing, I am concerned that some of that support might not be fully in place until 2025. Given current concerns, can she do anything to speed that up?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for accompanying me on my visit to British Steel last week. We are moving quickly to deliver the supercharger policy. It will reduce energy costs to energy intensive industries, including steel, by around £20 per megawatt hour. She mentioned speed, and we will consult on the capacity market exemption shortly. We intend to bring forward secondary legislation on all three measures around renewable energy obligations and capacity market costs. I will do everything I can to ensure that businesses get the support they need as quickly as they can.

CPTPP: Impact on UK Businesses

5. What assessment her Department has made of the potential impact of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership on UK businesses. (904990)

We have secured a deal that offers brilliant new opportunities for British businesses by getting an agreement in principle to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. Our exporters will have greater opportunities to sell their excellent products to some of the world’s biggest markets in the Americas and Asia-Pacific, with the bloc set to account for 15% of global GDP once the UK joins. It will be easier and less expensive to trade physical products between our countries, and more than 99% of current UK goods exports to CPTPP will be eligible for tariff-free trade.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the CPTPP agreement, which, among other things, will be a wonderful vehicle to foster better relationships within the Indo-Pacific, as well as being a key region for UK trade. Another key area for trade for the United Kingdom is Latin America, and as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Brazil, and having lived and worked there for five years, I have seen first hand the wonderful opportunities available there. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what her Department is doing to build on that trading relationship with Brazil?

I thank my hon. Friend for his outstanding commitment to improving our trade relationship with Brazil in his work as trade envoy, and I wish him well on his upcoming trip to the country. Our bilateral trade with Brazil increased to £7.7 billion in the 12 months ending December 2022, and the signing of the UK-Brazil double taxation agreement in November represents a significant step in enhancing trade across all sectors. There is much we can do with Brazil—I intend to visit the country, hopefully later this year—especially around critical minerals. I look forward to working with the Brazilian Government in due course.

As the UK crafts deeper and more comprehensive trade relations across Latin America, it is important to capture not just economic benefits but cultural benefits. In fact, student and language exchanges are a vital precursor to trade as they enable young people in both the UK and Latin America to have the mobility and skills to create those relationships and build businesses. Today, a major barrier preventing UK university students from studying in Latin America is the lack of mutual recognition agreements on qualifications. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the merits of integrating mutual recognition of higher education qualifications into trade negotiations?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, for the work that he does as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Mexico and for his interest in the region. We do look at mutual recognition for qualifications in trade deals, but most of the time they tend to be in separate agreements. Because of the nature of how free trade agreements are structured, we try to ensure that they are focused specifically on trade. We have an upcoming upgrade to our trade deal with Mexico, as we do with several other countries. If he has specific areas that he would like us to highlight, now is the time to tell us which qualifications in particular we should focus on.

While Labour Members recognise the diplomatic and security benefits of closer ties with the Indo-Pacific, Ministers’ negotiating skills are clearly not improved if Britain’s joining the CPTPP will lift economic growth here by only 0.08%. Will the Secretary of State tell the House why, in the accession talks, she was not able to resist giving some overseas corporate giants the right to access secret courts that could override the will of the British people, bypass Parliament and cost British taxpayers significant sums of money?

I believe that the hon. Gentleman is referring to investor dispute settlement mechanisms. We have used them in this country for many years, and that has protected British companies. He is wrong about the CPTPP not bringing much economic growth to the country—it will bring billions. We have repeatedly explained that the statistic he quoted is being misused. It does not take into account the growth of the bloc or the future GDP growth of those countries. We should be congratulating all our officials for the hard work they did in negotiating the agreements rather than criticising them.

Critical Minerals

As part of the UK’s strategy to secure a resilient supply of critical minerals, we are accelerating domestic capabilities along the whole critical minerals value chain, from mining to manufacturing. Our support for businesses such as Cornish Lithium and Green Lithium shows our support for these industries. Just in March, we published a refreshed delivery approach to the critical minerals strategy, including the establishment of a new industry taskforce on critical minerals that will investigate the critical mineral dependencies and vulnerabilities faced by UK industry and help it to mitigate risks.

I thank the Minister for that answer. She will know well that demand for graphite, lithium and cobalt is expected to quadruple by the 2040s. With supply currently dominated by China, what can the Government do to extract rapidly the deposits identified in all four nations of the United Kingdom so that we can gain a climate action dividend and level up the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend is right. One reason why I came back into government was to ensure that we were not reliant on one country, China. We need more lithium, cobalt and graphite, as does everybody else, to make batteries for electric cars, and we need silicon and tin for electronics. We welcome the Critical Minerals Intelligence Centre’s report, “Potential for Critical Raw Material Prospectivity in the UK”, which we commissioned. We are working with the British Geological Survey on next steps. Through the strategy, we are funding projects such as Cornish Lithium and Green Lithium, which build innovative, resilient value chains here in the UK.

Many are clamouring for the rights for deep-sea mining to extract critical minerals, but we know little about the seabed and the knock-on effects there could be on the environment and ecology of the deep sea and the wider oceans. Will the Minister continue to support a moratorium on deep-sea mining through the International Seabed Authority until we have a better understanding of those environmental impacts?

There is no deep-sea mining currently happening in areas beyond national jurisdictions. The UK has committed not to sponsor or support the issue of any exploitation licences for deep-sea mining projects unless and until there is significant scientific evidence about the potential impact on deep-sea ecosystems.

Business Regulators: Accountability

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his fine work as part of the Regulatory Reform Group, which has just published a report. Last week the Government published “Smarter Regulation to Grow the Economy”, setting out our vision for the UK’s regulation and how we can harness the opportunities that Brexit presents to re-think how and when we regulate. As part of that, we set out our agenda to ensure that regulators help drive economic growth.

I thank the Minister for his answer and for the reforms published last week. He kindly mentioned the Regulatory Reform Group and our report last week. Will he carefully consider our recommendations in the report on the Government better holding regulators to account, and look at the proposal for an accountability framework that looks at key metrics, including competition, to judge their performance?

I read that with interest, and I spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) yesterday about the matter. It is important that all regulators with responsibility for regulating and promoting growth continue to be held to account for delivering on those objectives. His proposed joint committee of Members of both Houses is for the House authorities to consider, but I note that in a regulatory system that already has a number of accountability mechanisms, adding another layer could risk more uncertainty rather than clarity.

Leaving the cost of formula up to the market has resulted in soaring prices, as Sky News has revealed this week. Parents are stealing formula from shops, relying on baby banks and formula foraging on Facebook, while profits and marketing spends of the companies have soared. Will the Minister instruct the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate the sector to protect our younger citizens?

The CMA is an independent body that decides where it should intervene. We keep these matters under very close scrutiny. Competition is the best regulator. We have a very competitive market for the supermarkets. There are 14 supermarkets, all regulated by the Groceries Code Adjudicator. It is important that competition is allowed to play its role in driving down prices, but we will keep an eye on that.

Safeguarding Democracy, Rights and the Environment

10. If she will make an assessment of the implications for her policies of the report by the Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development of the Council of Europe entitled “Safeguarding democracy, rights and the environment in international trade”. (904996)

It is clear that we live in dangerous times. Autocracies are behaving in a way that many of us have not seen in our lifetimes. The UK stands at a crossroads of this geopolitical stand-off between international rules-based systems as we know them and the system that autocratic leaders would like them to become. Trade and investment are at the very heart of that crossroads. The UK has long supported the promotion of our values globally, which will continue as an independent trading nation. By growing our trading relationships, the UK can increase its influence, which helps us to open conversations bilaterally with partners on a range of issues.

The Minister knows that I am trade rapporteur to the Council of Europe. My report, which has been agreed by 46 member states, calls for due diligence on the border to protect supply chains from human rights abuse and deforestation, and more clout for the environment vis-à-vis the interests of energy companies, in particular in dispute mechanisms. Will she meet me about taking forward those proposals so that trade agreements green rather than blacken our planet and uphold rather than diminish our fundamental rights?

I have read the hon. Member’s report, because he sent it to me. I have lost many hours of my life, but I have read it and I enjoyed it. It would be remiss of me not to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), the Conservative leader of the UK parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe, for all his work. There is lots of really good stuff. [Interruption.] He leads the delegation, but the hon. Member wrote the report, which I have read. There are some good points, especially on China’s emissions, which are greater than USA and the EU combined.

The UK works with allies and partners through multilateral systems to promote our values globally. Multilateral forums include the UN, the World Trade Organisation, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe. I will sit down and work through the hon. Member’s report with him.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) on his work on this report, which includes calling out the energy charter treaty used by fossil fuel companies to sue Governments for introducing climate policies. It is now nearly a year since the Minister’s colleague, the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), said:

“The UK cannot support an outdated treaty which holds back investment in clean energy and puts British taxpayers at increased risk from costly legal challenges”.

Can the Minister tell us when the Government will follow the example of other major European countries and commit to withdrawing from the energy charter treaty?

The energy charter treaty, which is under review, falls under the responsibilities of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, which has been formed from half of my previous Department. In their negotiations to modernise the ECT, the former Departments for International Trade and for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy worked in close collaboration and DIT led on the investment provisions, so there is no doubt that the hon. Lady’s question would be better focused at the other Department.

Chinese-owned Businesses: Contracts

11. Whether her Department has provided recent guidance to companies negotiating contracts with Chinese-owned businesses. (904998)

Our bilateral trade with China was worth £111 billion last year. The Department provides expert guidance to help UK companies succeed in China, ranging from specialised support through the export support service to practical assistance from our extensive overseas network. We will continue to support engagement, while ensuring our national security and values are protected.

This House has voted to recognise the genocide by China. This House has passed legislation to limit companies doing business in Xinjiang and to restrict Chinese companies getting involved in sensitive UK infrastructure projects, including Hikvision, which has over a million security cameras in this country and just reported an increase in sales in this country of more 50%. What message does it send when a UK trade Minister, from the Minister’s team, goes to Beijing, feting Chinese Ministers for Chinese investment in the UK, as if the golden age of UK-China relations was still a thing?

My hon. Friend raises many important points, but the key thing is that the relationship with China has been laid out recently in the integrated review, the integrated review refresh and in the Foreign Secretary’s speech, and we have made it very clear that we need to balance our trading interests with our national security interests, for the very reasons that my hon. Friend outlines.

What are the Government doing to ensure that the genomics data of British businesses held by British genomics companies that then trade or do deals with Chinese companies, such as BGI Genomics, is protected? Is it not somewhat naive, given the terms of the national security law, to think that GDPR alone is sufficient protection?

Through a variety of mechanisms and across multiple Departments, the Government give advice to companies investing overseas. In terms of dynamics the other way around, the Investment Security Unit carefully analyses investment in the UK, particularly relating to acquisitions in 17 sensitive areas. We are very careful at analysing and we will continue to keep a close eye on those two-way relationships.

Goods Exports: UK and G7

12. What recent comparative assessment her Department has made of trends in goods exports from (a) the UK and (b) other G7 countries. (904999)

The UK’s total exports have now recovered to pre-pandemic levels, measured against 2018. In 2022, UK exports were £815 billion, up by 21% in current prices compared with 2018, and up by 0.5% once adjusted for inflation. The latest data shows Scotland is the third highest exporting nation or region in both goods and services. In 2022 Scottish exports of goods totalled £35.7 billion, up by 23.5% in current prices from the previous year.

I know just what a favourable position Scotland is in, in terms of its trade exports. We do very well, even though we are held back by the constraints of this Union. The Office for National Statistics figures show that UK exports are lagging behind other G7 countries. Before the Minister tells us that this is because of the war in Ukraine and covid, let me point out that all our G7 partners have faced those headwinds as well, but only the United Kingdom, sadly including Scotland, faces the English Brexit chaos that is damaging our trade. What discussions has she had to apologise to the Scottish Government and to Scottish businesses for the drag she places on Scottish trade?

The hon. Gentleman started so positively. If he is against Brexit, then he is against every trade deal, and he is against the most integrated single market in the world, which is Scotland and England. All he wants to do is to split, split, split. I have already told him the good news that the total amount of exports in pounds is up. There is also fantastic news about whisky—surely that can raise a smile from the hon. Gentleman—and about services: in 2022, UK services were up by 24% in current prices, and by 4% when the figure was adjusted for inflation. I know it is difficult for the hon. Gentleman to accept good news from the Government Benches, but it is good for his constituents, so he should welcome it.

I am afraid the independent Office for Budget Responsibility does not share the Minister’s optimism about exports. The analysis that accompanied the spring Budget forecast that the UK would face a 6.6% fall in exports this year. That is equivalent to a fall of over £51 billion, and would represent an average hit of over £186,000 to the more than 273,000 UK exporters. It will have a devastating impact, and is it any wonder that the UK is predicted to have the worst growth in the G7? Surely, if Ministers recognised the scale of these projected losses, they would be taking urgent steps to support our exporters now.

There will always be data, forecasts, and the evaluation and re-evaluation of those data and forecasts. It is important for the House to know about all the good news that was missing from the right hon. Gentleman’s question. According to a PwC report, the UK will continue to be the fastest growing G7 economy until 2050. That is indeed good news. [Interruption.] It is a forecast. The right hon. Gentleman himself mentioned an OBR forecast.

Exports are up, including business services exports, and we are on track to reach our target of £1 trillion by 2030—and before the right hon. Gentleman jumps to his feet, let me add that 2030 is several years away, and I look forward to being on the Government Benches on this side of the House telling him, on that side of the House, how close we are to that target.

Food Prices

Our free trade programme helps to remove market access barriers for importers and exporters, making the UK more competitive and contributing to a greater choice of goods. The UK’s trade policy works to increase access to good-quality, good-value food from around the world, while the liberalisation of tariffs can help to lower food prices.

UK food price inflation is already significantly higher than that in France, Germany and Italy. This week William Bain, the head of trade at the British Chambers of Commerce, said there was a strong prospect that new Brexit regulations coming into force later this year would drive prices even higher. Is it not time that this Government apologised for their ideological obsession with Brexit, which is forcing ordinary-working class families into poverty?

The hon. Gentleman is being somewhat selective. The figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that food price inflation in the UK was 19.2%—and the EU average is 19.2%. As for apologising, I will not apologise for the fact that when we left the EU, we got rid of hundreds of useless tariffs that were doing nothing other than pushing up prices for British consumers. We liberalised tariffs on environmental goods, and we liberalised tariffs on goods that we generally do not produce in the UK, thus massively reducing the total number of tariffs faced by British consumers. That is a good thing, throughout the UK.

Recent figures from the Trussell Trust show that food bank use across the UK by people in need of a three-day emergency food supply soared to a record 3 million in 2022-23. Does the Minister accept that food bank use, which has more than doubled in a decade, has a direct correlation with the disastrous Brexit —according to the London School of Economics—causing food prices to soar, and does he agree that more must be done to tackle a disgraceful situation in which too many of my constituents struggle to put food on the table?

All of us, on both sides of the House, are concerned about the struggles faced by our constituents, which is precisely why the Government have supported families through the challenges of the cost of living to the tune of £94 billion—£3,300 per household. As for the specific connection with trade, I refer the hon. Lady to the answer that I gave a moment ago: since we left the European Union, 47% of tariff lines in our tariff schedule have fallen to zero. The figure is 27% in the EU. British consumers are better off because of our tariff policy.

If we take the Minister at his word that tariffs are coming down, that does not seem to be making much difference to the prices that people are paying at the supermarkets. Governments across Europe are taking action to tackle soaring food prices caused by what is termed greedflation. For example, in Ireland, supermarkets have been given a six-week ultimatum to bring down food prices; in France, the Government have agreed with retailers to keep the price of essential foodstuffs to the bare minimum; and Italy has set up a commission to monitor unusual movements in prices. Do Ministers accept that action to protect consumers from corporate greed is necessary and urgent?

As I said in answer to a previous question, food inflation is very similar in the UK and Europe, because we are all facing very similar challenges, including, of course, inflation through energy prices. That is precisely why we provided support to consumers to the tune of about half their energy costs this winter. Of course, we also provided support to businesses, which otherwise would have passed on higher costs to consumers; about a third of business energy prices have been covered by Government support. We are doing a lot, and the Prime Minister highlighted the challenges with a summit on food this very week.

I accept that we might be facing similar problems to mainland Europe, but we are certainly not getting the same degree of action from the Government to tackle prices in supermarkets. Does the Minister accept that by voting against my party’s motion on Tuesday calling on them to put pressure on supermarkets to pass on falling food prices to consumers, the UK Government sent an extremely clear signal to families in Scotland that they are not on their side?

Again, I and my colleagues continually engage with industry about how it can help support consumers, because both the Government and businesses have a responsibility to help consumers in these challenging times. That is precisely why we had the summit this week, which I am sure the hon. Member is well aware of.

Trade Deals: Environmental Standards

We are committed to upholding the UK’s high environmental standards in our trade deals. In our Australia and New Zealand trade deals, for example, we included commitments to preserve our right to regulate, protect the environment, and affirm international environment and climate commitments. We work across Government on environmental matters and utilise international fora to promote our environmental aims.

Trade deals can protect or destroy our natural environment. What the Minister has just said seems to contradict this, but our assessment is that the Government consistently fail to guarantee existing environmental standards in trade deals. For example, they have removed European palm oil tariffs to join the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said that that could devastate forests, destroy orangutan habitats and fuel climate change. Can he explain why the Government are happy to ignore the environment, and will the Government establish core environmental standards for any new trade deals?

I am disappointed to hear that from the hon. Lady, because we generally agree on a lot of things. We have no intention of weakening environmental standards through trade agreements; in fact, they are often an opportunity to enhance standards through co-operation. CPTPP prohibits parties from waiving, derogating from or failing to enforce environmental laws in order to encourage trade or investment. I am afraid the reality is the exact opposite of what she says.

One opportunity from our joining the trans-Pacific partnership is that it gives the UK a say in different chapters of the partnership, including that on the environment, and the ability to work with Malaysia to ensure the sustainability of its palm oil exports, in exactly the same way that we helped Indonesia shape its regulations and processes for exporting timber. Does the Minister agree that the key to all this is engagement? In that context, does he share my strong enthusiasm for a separate free trade agreement with Indonesia, so that we can work together for the huge benefit of both countries?

I thank my hon. Friend for the amount of work that he does as a trade envoy. We both met our Indonesian friends this week, and the Minister of State, Department for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) will be visiting Indonesia shortly, so we are certainly building those relationships. We are always keen to look at future opportunities for trade agreements and, outside trade agreements, at enhancing the relationship through a variety of fora, for the very reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) explains. We look forward to continued engagement with Indonesia.

Employment Bill

The best thing we can do to help people with employment is to have a strong economy with low unemployment, and I am pleased to say that we have both. Although there is no employment Bill, the Government are supporting six private Members’ Bills to deliver on our manifesto commitments: helping new parents and unpaid carers, giving employees easier access to flexible working and giving workers the right to request a more predictable working pattern. The Employment (Allocation of Tips) Act 2023 has also now completed its journey.

According to Stop Hurt at Work, 27% of employees experience bullying or harassment at work. There is no legal definition of workplace bullying and no simple path to restitution. Although we have been promised employment legislation by this Government since 2017, and in the light of Matthew Taylor’s “Good work” report, we have not seen an employment Bill in this Parliament to protect workers at work. Can we expand employment rights in legislation to ensure that there is a clear path to restitution for people experiencing bullying at work?

I point out that the unemployment rate in York is at a record low of 1.4%, which is below the national average, as I am sure the hon. Lady would welcome.

Since the good work plan was published, the Government have taken forward a wide range of commitments, including giving all workers the right to receive a statement of their rights on day one and the right to request a more predictable working pattern. I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady following these questions to discuss the points she raises.

Ministers have promised an employment Bill more than 20 times, but they have consistently failed to deliver. It seems that not a week goes by without a company in the gig economy announcing that it is stripping back workers’ rights and protections, presumably because they are confident that this Government will not legislate to introduce protections in the gig economy. Will the Minister come clean on the Government’s plans? If they are not going to bring in any protections for gig economy workers, will he now apologise to them for another failed promise?

Paying the national living wage is the law, and failing to pay workers the correct wage can result in significant fines, public naming and, for the most serious offences, criminal prosecution. The national living wage applies to all those who are classified as employees or limb (b) workers. If an individual feels that their employment status has been misclassified, they have the right to go to an employment tribunal.

Topical Questions

As Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my priority is to support UK companies to thrive at home and abroad, which is why this week I launched negotiations for an enhanced UK-Swiss free trade agreement alongside my counterpart, Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin. Trade between us is worth almost £53 billion and, as two service economies, a modernised agreement presents huge opportunities for the UK and Switzerland. I met representatives from SIX Swiss Exchange, the backbone of Swiss financial services, and several innovative start-ups at the fintech accelerator Tenity.

Fish and chip shops have been part of the fabric of British life for generations and should be the cornerstone of a revived domestic fishing industry. However, shops in the Lowestoft and Waveney area continue to face an ongoing triple whammy of high energy costs, high fish prices and the high cost of cooking oil. Will my right hon. Friend work proactively with the sector to agree a strategy that ensures the survival and subsequent flourishing of fish and chip shops?

My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for his local fish and chip shops. We recognise the importance of fish and chip shops to local communities and the challenges they face. We have introduced a range of support measures to address the specific issues he raises, including changes to business rates that, across the country, are worth a total of £13.6 billion in lower bills. We are also supporting non-domestic energy customers through the energy bill relief scheme, and we recently introduced the energy bills discount scheme, which runs until March 2024. We will keep working closely with the sector as part of the Hospitality Sector Council to improve the resilience of businesses, including the fish and chip shops in Lowestoft.

It has now been 100 days since we first welcomed the right hon. Lady to her new post. In that time, we have seen steel production fall to record lows; the automotive sector has issued warning cry after warning cry that Government policy risks shipping jobs overseas; and the US has seen incredible sums invested under the Inflation Reduction Act and the EU has put forward its own significant response. Meanwhile, the UK remains trapped in the Conservatives’ low growth, high tax loop, with the lowest business investment in the G7. This morning, three of her predecessors, each from a different political party, have said that the Government need an explicit industrial strategy. Does the current Business Secretary agree with them?

I thank the shadow Minister for highlighting that we have had 100 days as the Department for Business and Trade, during which we have been able to launch the biggest free trade agreement that the UK has seen since we left the EU and since the trade and co-operation agreement. He also mentions a lot of systemic issues, which have been faced globally. He rightly talks about the US IRA and the EU green deal industrial plan, but it is good for me to mention that we are doing a lot in this space. For example, the issue that the automotive industries are talking about relates to rules of origin. This is something that the EU is also worried out, because the costs of the components have risen. This is not to do with Brexit; it is to do with supply chain issues following the pandemic and the war between Russia and Ukraine. I have had meetings with my EU trade counterpart; we are discussing these things and looking at how we can review them, especially as the TCA will be coming into review soon.

What would have been the answer to Question 19? How many businesses were supported by grant funding in North Northamptonshire during the pandemic?

Off the top of my head, I can say that during the pandemic the Government delivered an unprecedented package of support for businesses. In total, more than £22.6 billion was provided to businesses via local authorities. In Kettering, more than 5,000 covid-19 business grants were issued, amounting to £24 million. North Northamptonshire Council delivered £29.9 million to local businesses through the covid-19 business grant scheme.

T2. Dr Nikhil Datta from Warwick Economics noted that the £5.84 billion that UK consumers had paid in increased food prices by 2021 as a result of Brexit hit the poorest households hardest, as they spend a larger proportion of their income on food. Does the Secretary of State, the Minister or the UK Government accept that the most vulnerable households are paying the highest price for Brexit, especially in this ongoing food price inflation crisis? (905010)

The hon. Lady raises an important point. As she knows, one of the Government’s commitments is to halve inflation, which will also have an impact on food prices. We absolutely need to do that, particularly for those low-income households. That is why we directed support mostly at low-income households, with more than £2,000 a household this year and £900 in additional support for low-income households this year. This is a twin-track approach, tackling inflation and lowering food prices, and also providing direct support.

Some 70% of our economy is services, so what is the Department doing to reduce barriers in that area and supercharge our global trade in services?

My hon. Friend raises an important point: more than 70% of our economy is services. Therefore, it is absolutely right that the Department for Business and Trade has a laser focus on services as well as goods, particularly in relation to international deals. Historically, some of those trade agreements have not covered services particularly well. The Secretary of State mentioned the Swiss agreement, which was silent on services. So my hon. Friend is absolutely right about this, and we have a hitlist of barriers we are working on. They relate to both goods and services, which are hugely important right across the country, including in his constituency.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to a Which? investigation into the lack of consistency in unit pricing by supermarkets? That makes it difficult for consumers to work out the real price of goods and, crucially, to choose between them. The Competition and Markets Authority is looking at this issue, but will the Government talk to the supermarkets too?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Which? does fantastic work. The CMA acts independently, without ministerial influence, and it is right that it does. However, I am sure it is keeping a close eye on that matter. As I said in a previous answer, the best way we can regulate prices in the UK is through strong competition. We have a very strong, competitive market in the supermarkets, with 14 chains in this country, and that is the best way to hold down prices. However, she raises an important point and I am sure the CMA will have listened to it.

UK Export Finance plays a vital role in supporting export opportunities, but a company in my constituency is having difficulties landing support to secure a contract based in one of our Trans-Pacific Partnership area countries. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss this and how we can support that business?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that. I will see whether I can get a meeting with him, but, if not, I will make sure that one of my officials is able to look into this issue specifically for him.

T6. I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, and everyone here will wish the Red Lion in Ealing well under its new management. It even does food for non-drinkers such as me. Can Ministers work with Ofgem to find a sustainable solution to energy bills, and with the Home Office to redefine chefs as a shortage occupation, to stop the Red Lion being one of the record number of pubs going to the wall? (905015)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that issue. As I said earlier in reply to a question about energy support for small businesses, we do know that businesses are facing high energy costs. The Government are currently paying about half of everyone’s energy bills. I talked about the energy bill relief scheme and the energy bills discount scheme. We are doing everything we can to support businesses in the hospitality sector, but if there is something that is specific outside that, I ask her to please write to us and we will see whether there is any further support that can be offered.

T7. According to the website for the Department for Business and Trade, the Department is supposed to“shape our rules to ensure businesses thrive”. Edenvale Turf is a successful small and medium-sized enterprise in my part of Devon and it employs more than 20 people. Older Edenvale workers have grandfather rights as supervisors, but they have been told that they will no longer be eligible to act as turf-cutting supervisors without taking a National Vocational Qualification. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how the Government might prevent scores of older, experienced people from leaving the workforce by getting out of the way and ensuring that businesses thrive? (905016)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. Clearly, our regulation must work in favour of employment and helping people to get work and stay in work. I am very happy to meet him, possibly with one of my colleagues from the Department for Work and Pensions, to look at this matter.

I am honoured to chair the all-party group on steel, and, as such, I have invited the Secretary of State to meet us, as all four of her predecessors have agreed to do. I am very disappointed that she has declined to do so. I urge her to reconsider that position.

The US is investing $282 billion in green manufacturing. The Spanish and German Governments are each investing £1 billion in the decarbonisation of their steel industries. Labour would match that opportunity with a £3 billion clean steel fund, but the Government’s response to date has been woefully inadequate. When will the Secretary of State bring forward a steel transition strategy that matches up with what our competitors are doing and that matches the ambition of our professional and dedicated steelworkers?

I have not declined to meet the all-party group on steel; I just said that it was subject to diary requirements. Where I have been is in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, visiting the steelworks. I did notify him before we went there, but he showed absolutely no interest in accompanying me to visit the steelworks in his constituency. We are spending quite a lot of money on supporting the steel industry. We look at what has happened at Teesside and how we have regenerated the former steelworks. Those on his side of the House, however, have spent most of their time smearing the Mayor of Teesside and making it very difficult for the businesses there to continue to make the investment they need in order to help turn the sector around.

Marshalls Bakery, a small business in my constituency, has just closed its doors after 43 years of trading. The owners told me that they were unable to withstand the combined pressures of covid, rising wheat and container charges and high energy costs. They feel let down and are angry at the lack of Government support for businesses such as theirs. Can the Minister tell me what further steps he is taking to ensure that other small businesses can survive in this challenging climate to provide the certainty from Government that they so desperately need?

I am sorry to hear about the demise of that business in the hon. Lady’s constituency. Clearly, it has been a very tough time for businesses in recent years, with the covid crisis followed by the cost of living crisis. I am very happy to meet her to discuss what support we provide, which is to the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds. I am informed that there has been £1 billion of support to businesses over recent years. The schemes running at the moment include: the rates discount at £13.6 billion; and £23 billion has been put into helping businesses with energy costs. I am very happy to meet her to discuss that further.

UK semiconductor businesses have been crying out for the semiconductor strategy. I have asked a number of questions about this, and two weeks ago the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation told me it would be published in “a matter of days”. The Secretary of State loves a doughty champion; can she be a doughty champion for the semiconductor industry and speak to colleagues in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to get the strategy published?

I do not need any excuse to chase up the Department on the semiconductor strategy, and I will do so. As the hon. Lady knows, it does not sit within our remit, but with DSIT. In this Department, we are making sure that the critical minerals needed to put semiconductors together are in the supply chain and that we can get hold of them, but I am more than happy to chase up that strategy.

Large global car makers have warned that the UK’s transition to electric vehicles will be impeded if the UK Government and the EU do not delay the stricter rules of origin, which could add tariffs on car exports. Will Ministers negotiate on the issue to safeguard the UK’s automotive industry?

The answer is yes; we are actively working on the issue, and we are not the only country impacted by it. Just yesterday, officials from Germany were talking about how they needed to look into it. It is due to the rising cost of components, which we will look at as part of our trade and co-operation agreement, but it is something that both sides are interested in resolving, so I assure the hon. Lady that we are actively working on it.

Businesses and organisations in my constituency, and no doubt beyond, have ended up marooned on exceptionally high energy tariffs because they were forced to sign contracts at the height of the crisis. What conversations have Ministers had with Ofgem and with the energy companies to see what can be done to support those businesses, as those tariffs will be a drag on their future growth and development, and in some cases threaten their very survival?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. Alongside the Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero, I met energy suppliers and Ofgem recently to discuss the matter. The problem is principally that energy prices have fallen, so businesses entering into new contracts today are getting more competitive rates, but the ones who entered contracts between July and December last year are facing difficulties. The energy suppliers have promised to help, but if the hon. Lady wants to talk to me about any particular instances, I am happy to help.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following the exchange I just had with the Secretary of State, I want to underline the point that her office has declined and said that she would not be interested in meeting the all-party parliamentary group for steel and metal related industries. While she did come to visit the Port Talbot steelworks in my constituency, which of course I welcome, I was not invited to join her on that visit, whereas I understand the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) was invited to join her on the visit to the Scunthorpe steelworks. I just want to set the record straight on those points.

First of all, that is a point of correction rather than a point of order, but if somebody has made a mistake in the information given to the House, it must be corrected. I will leave that to whoever is right or wrong, and I am not going to make a judgment.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I will write to the hon. Gentleman. I do not believe that what he has said is the case, but I will check the records and make sure that he gets a response to the correction he has made.

Thank you, Secretary of State. Please check, but please also correct the matter in writing for the record of the House—if that was the case, may I add?