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Topical Questions

Volume 736: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2023

Since I last updated the House, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Data and Digital Infrastructure has announced £380 million of funding to bring the fastest internet speeds to some of our most rural communities. The Government’s Office for Life Sciences has agreed a landmark deal with BioNTech that will see up to 10,000 cancer patients benefit from potentially life-saving treatment. Today, my Department has launched a call for evidence on engineering biology.

What action are the Government taking to deliver regulatory reform and business investment in the biosciences sector, so that it can play its part in boosting economic growth and delivering great job opportunities for people across the country?

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s expertise in this area, and I thank the team that works with me on this subject, including my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, who has been central in leading how we will reform our regulatory landscape on life sciences. I point my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) to the Chancellor’s announcements, both at the Budget and still to come, on how we will continue to support our life sciences and biosciences sectors, which are essential to the UK economy.

I thank the Secretary of State for her time covering this role, notwithstanding her answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), who asked a very important question.

Today’s inflation figures confirm that prices continue to rise. Broadband customers are dealing with inflation-busting price hikes, as a direct result of the Government’s choices. They lifted the cap on wholesale costs, which has caused retail prices to rise. Will the Secretary of State apologise to hard-pressed families and tackle the cost of living crisis for broadband customers?

We recognise that households are having a very difficult time due to the cost of living, which is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has met the regulators to press them to do more to help. We have agreement that social tariffs are now available to all those in receipt of universal credit and other benefits. At the same time, Ofcom has agreed with providers that anybody who wishes to switch to a cheaper tariff can do so without charge.

T2. There can be few more exciting and innovative projects for any constituency than a spaceport to launch satellites into space. We had a done deal to build one on the runway at RAF Scampton, before the Home Office marched in and stymied the whole project. Will the Minister please lobby the Home Office to try to get the spaceport back? Why would the Home Office want a runway, or is there a darker purpose behind this? (906136)

My right hon. Friend has raised this before, and I will happily speak to him about it and support that space cluster. The UK is poised to lead Europe in the launch of low Earth orbit satellites over the coming decade, and we are building launchpads around the country for that very purpose.

T4. The Royal Society’s 2021 visa costs analysis shows that researchers entering the UK via the global talent scheme had to pay six times more than they would have paid under similar international science schemes. Does the Minister acknowledge the cost of Brexit in our failure to attract world-leading researchers and skilled workers? (906138)

The hon. Gentleman is on his own mission. He fails to see the strength of the UK science and technology sector, and he fails to see that it will be better for Scotland’s businesses, scientists and citizens to continue to be part of that thriving sector. That is what we are doing in making sure the United Kingdom is a science and technology superpower.

T3. Indeed, we have world-class universities in the west midlands. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to support regional innovation clusters? (906137)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are investing heavily in regional innovation clusters all around this country. We have three: one in Manchester, one in Glasgow and one in the west midlands, where the excellent Mayor, Andy Street, is driving a genuine innovation economy.

Almost one in two properties in my constituency, and less than one in five in rural areas, do not have access to gigabit broadband. They do not even have superfast connections. The Department must help properties get connected where profit incentives are low. Will the Minister provide an update on the gigabit voucher scheme and the total value of vouchers claimed this year?

Currently, more than 76% of premises have access to gigabit-capable broadband and we are on track to meet our target of 85% coverage by 2025. However, the hon. Lady raises a good point about the take-up of social tariffs under the scheme and we want to see that happen much more. We are determined to press ahead with Project Gigabit to achieve our target of universal coverage by 2030.