Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 735: debated on Thursday 29 June 2023

Last week, I was pleased to lead discussions with international partners and businesses at the Ukraine recovery conference and welcomed the Prime Minister of Ukraine and First Deputy Prime Minister to Mansion House, alongside over 150 companies, showcasing how UK companies in our private sector can use their ingenuity and expertise to support the reconstruction of Ukraine.

I was very proud to announce that the UK Government have backed a £26.3 million equivalent loan, which is an unprecedented transaction; the Business Bridge Ukraine platform, matching Ukrainian businesses with complementary partners; the UK-Ukraine tech bridge, to bring together UK and Ukrainian tech businesses to harness opportunities for innovation and collaboration; and the London conference framework on war risk insurance.

Recent research by a former chief competition economist to the European Commission—shared with me by Unite the union—estimates that average UK mobile phone bills could rise by up to £300 a year in the case of a merger between Three and Vodafone. Is the Secretary of State aware of that risk, and will her Department be taking any action to prevent such a merger, which would be disastrous for competition in the mobile network operator sector?

The hon. Lady will know that we have an independent regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority, which would look at cases such as the one she raises and make a call on whether it would be harmful or beneficial to the UK economy. I trust the CMA—it has been doing a good job so far—and I look forward to seeing its read-outs on forthcoming mergers and proposals by large businesses in our country.

T3. Morocco is very much looking to do more trade and business with the United Kingdom. What are the Government doing to enable that country to do so? (905710)

The UK is absolutely committed to enhancing trade with Morocco. In 2022 we did about £3.1 billion-worth of bilateral trade—up nearly 50% on 2021—and we are using our association agreement with Morocco to boost that even further. In February I visited Morocco and met my counterpart to discuss how we can maximise trade, including by tackling barriers in priority areas such as education, renewable energy and infrastructure. We are also supporting British businesses to take advantage of the significant opportunities in Morocco, including through £4.5 billion of available finance through the excellent UK Export Finance.

It is now over 12 months since the audit reform Bill was promised in what was then the Queen’s Speech, and it is over two years since the Business Department’s final consultation on these matters closed. There is widespread agreement on the need for reform, which began following the devastating collapse of Carillion five years ago, yet the draft Bill has not even been published, despite Parliament regularly rising early due to the Government’s light agenda. Does the Secretary of State support reform, and does she accept the recommendations of the Kingman review, the Brydon review and the CMA market study? If she does, when will we finally see some action?

Can I say to the Front Benchers that a lot of Members are standing? These are topical questions, which are meant to be short. If you want a long question, come in early, please. Help me to help our Back Benchers.

We do support reform and are keen to take forward primary legislation when parliamentary time allows. In the meantime, there are measures that we can take through secondary legislation, which we are taking forward. We are also looking to take forward insolvency reform, which is something else that we committed to do.

T4.   The Abraham accords have ushered in unparalleled opportunities by lowering trade barriers in the middle east, so how can my hon. Friend maximise the trade potential of the 2030 road map for UK-Israel bilateral relations by engaging with the wider region? (905711)

Through our road map, the UK and Israel reaffirmed the historical significance of the Abraham accords—which have the potential to bring about advancements to security, co-existence, peace and prosperity for the region—and our commitment to work together to deepen and expand those developments, building on the progress of the Negev summit in March 2022. Through the Britain-Israeli investment group, we will also combine UK and Israeli expertise to help solve regional technology and sustainability issues right across the world.

This week, the European Council adopted the EU’s free trade agreement with New Zealand, which includes dedicated sustainable food systems chapters, a dedicated trade and gender equality article, and a provision on trade and fossil fuel subsidies reforms. Can the Secretary of State explain why our trade deal with New Zealand, if it is so good, fell so far short on those issues?

I think the hon. Gentleman will find that, actually, the trade deal we negotiated with New Zealand makes things cheaper for our consumers, not more expensive, it is less protectionist and it is helping to improve relations between us and New Zealand. I disagree with his assessment of the EU-New Zealand free trade agreement: we looked at it and were actually quite pleased with what we got.

I am concerned that the UK is being left behind on hydrogen internal combustion engines. The EU and the USA are now recognising hydrogen combustion engines as zero emission, but the UK is refusing, which means that the automotive transformation fund for industrialising the technology is not available. I am working with brilliant companies such as BorgWarner in Stonehouse and the Renewable Hydrogen Alliance to raise this issue. I have spoken to the Secretary of State for Transport and I am raising it with the Prime Minister; I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business and Trade will use her brilliant brains on this matter too.

I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to use my brain to help unlock this with the Department for Transport. We have the automotive transformation fund and the Advanced Propulsion Centre, so we are doing a huge amount of work in this space to ensure that we are not only on the cutting edge of electric zero-emission vehicles, but looking at what the opportunities are for hydrogen. We do not want to be left behind anywhere in this space, but we do need to align ourselves with the rest of our Departments, and I will do so.

T2. The Fresh Produce Consortium, which represents 70% of the UK’s fresh produce supply chain, recently warned that post-Brexit import charges will hit small and medium-sized enterprises the hardest. Does the Minister accept that the post-Brexit trade deals are driving up already soaring food prices, as well as hitting small food producers at a time when they are facing real difficulties as a result of increased operating costs? (905709)

It should be transparently clear that the UK is conducting trade deals that are in the UK’s economic interests. That is the criterion: we would not do them if they were not in the UK’s interests. We are therefore working really hard, with a particular focus on opportunities for SMEs to trade not only with the EU but right around the world, where there are immense opportunities for further trade. We will continue to pursue opportunities in south Asia, Africa and South America—all over the world—where we have not taken full advantage of those opportunities. This will benefit many SMEs, including food and beverage producers, in the long term.

Over a third of the value of every Airbus sold in the world comes from the United Kingdom’s aerospace manufacturing—whether it is wings, engines, landing gear or other avionics—but all of the Airbus sales are recorded in international statistics as exports from France because the final take-off is from Toulouse. What can the Department do to try to make sure that the value of these exports, especially to the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region, is recognised as being partly from the UK?

This is a great opportunity to talk about Airbus’s 500-plane deal with Indian airline IndiGo. It is the largest aviation deal in history, and it has been done on our watch. We are providing the certainty that businesses need in order to go out and confidently secure such contracts. A lot of the jobs will be in the UK, but I will take away what my hon. Friend said, because we want to be able to show precisely the level of investment in the UK and the number of jobs that are created by this deal.

T5. I welcome the Scottish Government’s recent announcement that workers’ rights will be a key element of a written constitution when Scotland becomes an independent nation. That is in stark contrast to this place, where this Government have legislated for only seven of the 53 recommendations of the Taylor review. When will they legislate for the other 46? (905712)

We are taking forward a number of reforms, as the hon. Member is aware. There is a private Member’s Bill, the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill, which includes a day-one right to request flexible working, as well as the right to request predictable terms and conditions, which is one of the recommendations of the Taylor review. I think he should welcome those kinds of measures.

Kettering is the beating heart of the east midlands economy, especially in bespoke gentlemen’s footwear, with superb firms such as Loake, Cheaney, and Gaziano & Girling. Will the Government confirm that their free trade agreements and their efforts to reduce international trade barriers will help the local shoe industry in Kettering get on the front foot and take great strides forward?

I was delighted to attend my hon. Friend’s business conference in north Northamptonshire. As part of that, we passed the Loake shop in Kettering, which is a world leader in shoes—in fact, I am wearing a pair today—and he offered to try to get me a pair at a discounted price, which I very much look forward to. There are great export opportunities through that.

Last year it was the energy companies; this year it is the water companies. The sectors have changed but the taxpayers are still on the hook. So will the Secretary of State commit to undertaking a review of the financial resilience of all companies in each regulated sector and to present her findings to the House?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point. He is right that we need to make sure there is resilience across the sector, and I think our regulators are best placed to do that. They are carrying out a number of reviews at the moment, and I and colleagues across Government are working closely with them.

The Secretary of State earlier told my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) that she did not accept that Brexit was having a negative impact on the Scottish seafood industry. It is a bit like saying she does not accept that the earth is round—although, admittedly, sometimes people on her Back Benches need to be persuaded of that. If she does not think that Brexit is having a negative impact on the Scottish seafood industry, does she think it has been positive, or does she think there has not been any change at all?

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his opinion, as I am entitled to mine. He has done absolutely nothing except try to re-litigate Brexit over and over again. The fact is that we are not going back into the EU. We are using our independent trade policy, negotiating with countries around the world and delivering more for the UK as well as for Scotland. Scottish businesses are happy with what we are doing, and in particular they are happy that the grown-ups in Westminster have stopped them making the catastrophic decisions that are destroying the internal market.

Is the Secretary of State aware of just how much influence the Chinese Government and Chinese companies have on our economy? Is she aware that many times I have asked for an audit of how big that influence is? Does she share the concern of many businesses in our country that the Chinese Government are using subterfuge and espionage to further their interests?

I do not think we need an audit. China is our fourth largest export market, and we are aware of the economic challenge that it poses across the world. We work with countries across the world, but we have a pragmatic relationship with China. We need to use our influence to help them get to a better place, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point.[Official Report, 4 September 2023, Vol. 737, c. 2MC.]

How does it help UK Steel to decarbonise, or help the UK to reclaim its position of global leadership in reducing climate emissions, to support the opening of a sure-to-be-doomed new coalmine in west Cumbria?

I do not think the hon. Gentleman has ever had a positive story to tell about his region, let alone his constituency. We have a positive story on steel, and we have the same challenges as most countries in trying to deal with decarbonisation. We have issues around energy costs that we have been providing all our advanced manufacturing sectors with, and we want to ensure that we diversify our access to different forms of energy.

Going back to Brexit, can the Secretary of State name one Scottish sheep farmer who is happy with the Brexit deal, or any seafood producers and exporters that she spoke to who are happy with Brexit? Can she name any Scottish farming sectors that are happy with Brexit?

It is not my job to memorise names of Scottish businesses, and just as I said in response to a previous question, SNP Members are not serious. Perhaps if they stood up and actually represented their businesses in trying to make use of all the opportunities we have, they would be in a better place.

When it comes to increasing trade with African countries, what steps are being taken to ensure that increased trade is carried out with companies that take human rights seriously and are ethically aware in the treatment of their workers?

We are an advocate around the world for human rights. That is something that the Government take seriously and discuss across Government, including with trading partners with whom, as I said, we can have frank conversations. Through other bodies and institutions, including the work done by the Commonwealth, we continue to have those frank conversations.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Question Time this morning, the Minister for Industry and Economic Security, the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), appears to have been confused about the nature of oral questions. I asked a supplementary question, which was ostensibly a polite request to meet the Minister to discuss matters of importance to my constituents. In her response, she chose to use a pejorative insult—clearly intended to be an insult—and that does not reflect well on the Government. I am a Member of this Parliament, just as any other Member, and I deserve to be able to ask questions about the interests of my constituency without that kind of harassment. She accused me of nationalism, but I suggest that the only nationalism on display is from those Benches—

If not, there was nothing disorderly, and I cannot continue the debate. What I can say is that the hon. Member has certainly put his view on the record.