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Topical Questions

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 14 September 2023

The Windows update is now complete at the Dispatch Box, Mr Speaker!

As Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my priority is to support inward investment into all regions and nations of the UK. This week the Department for Business and Trade, in partnership with the Northern Ireland Office and Invest Northern Ireland, delivered the investment summit, which I referred to earlier. This momentous event showcased to more than 200 international investors the wealth of opportunities and talent that exist across the breadth of Northern Ireland. A young and talented workforce, competitive operating costs and unparalleled access to global economies make it an exceptional place to grow a successful business. I met representatives from US-owned aerospace manufacturer Spirit and several financial services companies that have established a base there. From Derry/Londonderry-based tech firms to Belfast budding creative companies, we boast a thriving ecosystem of world-class businesses across numerous sectors.

This weekend, like most weekends, I will visit Wilko in Newcastle city centre. Should I explain to the fantastic staff there and their appreciative customers that mass redundancies and empty shopfronts is what the Conservatives mean by levelling up?

We are all very sad that a well-known business such as Wilko, with a strong presence on many high streets across our constituencies, has had to enter administration, and my thoughts are with employees who have been made redundant. Our Department has been not just supporting the business but discussing the best way forward with unions. We have been supporting by helping to find bidders. The fact is that sometimes these things do happen. It is not a reflection of the Government. In fact, making sure that people have somewhere to go to is how this Government are providing support.

T2. Do Ministers agree that delegates to the Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, which was set up under the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU, should be there to promote Britain’s interests overseas, and that those who do not want to do so and who simply want to be apologists for Brexit and to act against the UK’s interests should leave the PPA? (906389)

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. The Parliamentary Partnership Assembly created under the trade and co-operation agreement is a parliamentary body independent of Government. The Government value its work and its role supporting a mature and constructive relationship with the EU, rooted in shared values and delivering on shared interests. She is right that we should look forward, not backwards.

The loss of Wilko is a significant blow to the nation’s high streets. However, more concerning is that no rescue has proved possible because several bidders have said that town centre retail is no longer a viable business model. In the light of that, do the Government really believe that their current policy environment is sufficient for British high streets to thrive?

We are very concerned for the families affected by Wilko’s demise. The world of retail is a very competitive marketplace. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise that the high street is dead—not at all. It is reshaping itself, and while it does so we will help it, such as with the £13.6 billion of rates relief over the next five years.

Ministers’ answers do not match the scale of the problem; 12,500 Wilko workers alone are at risk of redundancy. Labour’s plans for the high street are about reforming business rates, tackling late payment, cracking down on antisocial behaviour and stopping premises being left empty, with councils having more powers. The problem demands a response from Ministers. Based on their answers today, this Government have simply given up on the British high street.

That is complete nonsense. This week, I met Helen Dickenson from the Retail Sector Council to discuss this matter closely. There are certain situations in certain companies of course. I guard the hon. Gentleman against political opportunism on the back of those 12,500 jobs, many of which have been picked up by other retailers such as Poundland in rescues of stores. On his point about business rates, which I hear time and again, all the Labour party has done is say that it will cancel £22 billion of business rates, without saying how it will replace those taxation receipts. Where is the money coming from?

T4. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have both been in India recently and had the opportunity to negotiate further on the wonderful trade deal that we wish to do. Her predecessor but one or two promised a trade deal with India by Diwali. Of course, they did not mention which year. Diwali this year is later than normal; what confidence does she have that we will have it in place by Diwali this year? (906391)

My hon. Friend is keen for a deal by Diwali, but as the Prime Minister and I have been at pains to say, it is about the deal, not the day. We are working as much as we can to get a deal, but we will not do so by sacrificing British interests. The deal has to work for both the UK and India. I met the Indian Commerce and Finance Ministers to ensure that we create a mutually beneficial deal.

T3. Recent figures show that small businesses in the UK are owed more than £32 billion in late payments. When coupled with a 40% rise in energy costs and other inflationary pressures that I mentioned before, that is making running small businesses in my constituency impossible. On Tuesday, the EU set out its SME relief package, which will help to tackle the problem. What is the Minister doing to combat late payments for SMEs? (906390)

The hon. Lady raises an important point. That is why we launched a payment and cash flow review earlier this year, which is due to report very shortly. We are ambitious to make sure that small businesses get paid more quickly through putting more pressure on larger companies, the results of which will be announced very shortly.

In August, I was lucky to be invited to the 70th anniversary of Caterpillar being founded in my constituency. It was the first place outside the US it set up a base in, and it now employs 1,300 people, making things such as the electric backhoe loader. Will my hon. Friend congratulate Caterpillar on its investment here, from where it exports across the world? Would she like to come and see exactly what it does in Bosworth?

I join my hon. Friend, a great champion of Bosworth, in congratulating Caterpillar on 70 years and 1,300 employees. That is fantastic. I look forward to going along and having a go on the electric diggers.

T5. The loss of Wilko is devastating, in particular for the thousands of workers who will lose their livelihoods. Will the Secretary of State confirm that she will seek answers from Wilko management about why clear warnings were ignored and the business was driven into the ground, at the same time that shareholders collected hundreds of millions in dividends? Will she meet me and the GMB trade union to assure us that those basic failures will not be repeated? (906392)

The hon. Member raises an important point. There is certainly, as part of the administration process, an obligation on the administrators to look at the circumstances that led to the demise of that company and report to the Insolvency Service. I am sure that she, like I, will be very interested in the outcome of that investigation.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for events, can I highlight the huge benefits the sector brings us in promoting trade, exports and inward investment? Will the Department do more to promote the UK worldwide as a great place to bring international events, business meetings and conferences?

My right hon. Friend raises a good point. The events industry is often overlooked, yet it is a great export opportunity. Those are some of the things I am going to raise with the Board of Trade, which is meeting next week. It is about promoting the best of British internationally. Events is one of the areas we can take a closer look at.

T6. Airdrie and Shotts is home to some fantastic local businesses. Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting Christie’s bakery and sampling some of its delicious domino cake. I also met Angela from Gin Blossoms, a florist on Alexander Street. Small businesses across Scotland play a vital role in the local economy, yet many are feeling the brunt of the rise in prices of raw materials caused by increasing import-export costs. To be frank, this is another direct impact of Brexit that Scotland did not vote for. Can the Minister outline how the UK Government will compensate businesses for the damaging losses that Brexit continues to cause? (906393)

The hon. Member raises an important point about the cost of living impact on businesses. These are global issues, not domestic issues, and she should be clear on that with her businesses. As I said in response to the question from her hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), the Scottish Government might look at increasing the generosity of the business rates relief scheme, as the rest of the UK has.

In the period leading up to 2021, sector deals were a very effective means of boosting productivity, innovation and skills in such sectors as aerospace, AI and offshore wind. What plans are there to review, revitalise and extend those effective public-private sector partnerships?

My hon. Friend raises a good point. Those sectors are critical for the UK economy. While we did have plans around sector deals, I would focus on the Chancellor’s five sectors that he thinks will drive growth in the UK. I am happy to write to my hon. Friend specifically about what impact those sectors will have in his constituency.

T7. We know that phoenixing, unpaid-for services rendered, puts a burden on legitimate SMEs, but it also puts a burden on the taxpayer through unpaid taxes. That is acutely felt by all hard-pressed local authorities which have significant unrecoverable debt owed. Given that the Minister did not accept my amendment to the Economic Crime and Transparency Bill, can he explain what the Government are actually doing to prevent this practice? (906395)

I am happy to engage with the hon. Member. I missed the earliest part of his question, but we are providing an awful lot of support for small businesses in various ways. I cannot remember his amendment to the Bill, but I am happy to engage with him to see what we can do to help.

The Treasury published a consultation in March on a range of measures to mitigate carbon leakage. Potential policies include a carbon adjustment mechanism on managing product standards. I am sure it will report shortly.

T8. Yesterday, I joined my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) on the all-party parliamentary group on music for the launch of UK Music’s impressive “Manifesto for Music”. The opportunities and risks of AI are a key issue for the industry. Will the Government commit to musicians having a voice and a place at the table for the AI summit in November? (906396)

That is certainly something we can look to do. There are many concerns about what will happen to copyright and intellectual property once AI continues to advance in this area. The hon. Member raises an important point. If he writes to me specifically, I will make sure that the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology gets to see that so we can incorporate it.

I notice, by the way, that the Americans refer to it as the trans-Pacific partnership, which I think is actually a lot shorter and better than what we call it. Have there been any discussions at all with the United States Administration to ask whether they might eventually rejoin the partnership?

My hon. Friend is right. It used to be called the TPP, and it was the Canadians who added the “comprehensive and progressive” to make it quite a mouthful. The question of what the US wants to do on trade deals comes up time and again. The US has said that it will not sign any free trade agreements even though it was initially considering the TPP. That is why the announcement of the Atlantic declaration by the Prime Minister and President Biden is key. That is our new vehicle to form a trade partnership, and my Department is working actively across Government and with our counterparts in the US to make sure that that delivers for the UK.

Many small businesses, particularly in the retail and hospitality sectors, still rely on high street banking. Earlier this month, the last bank in Denton town centre—the Halifax —closed. It was not just the last one in Denton but the last one in the Denton and Reddish parliamentary constituency, leaving small businesses without access to high street banking. It is not good enough, is it?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and we urge banks to listen to their customers about keeping their doors open. Of course, we have the banking framework relationship with the post office network, which provides deposit and cash facilities for small businesses on high streets in Denton and other parts of the country. We are determined to make that relationship more generous to the Post Office to ensure the sustainability of the post office network.

Over the recess, I had the pleasure of visiting the historic Harland & Wolff shipyard in north Devon, where we talked about the potential for UK shipbuilding jobs linked to the offshore renewables sector. Given last week’s disappointing auction round, to put it mildly, what can the Minister say to convince the shipbuilding industry that there is a future for it in making those service vessels?

I was with Harland & Wolff just last night for London International Shipping Week, and the firm is really excited about the shipbuilding credit guarantee scheme, which provides Government-backed loans of up to £500 million to ensure that shipbuilding continues to thrive in the UK. That is a product for which the industry has been asking for many years, and we have been able to deliver it this year.

Ministers have spent the past hour or so telling us, in the face of overwhelmingly contrary evidence, that Brexit is just the most wonderfullest thing ever to have happened in the history of the entire universe. Will the Secretary of State level up with us for a minute and tell us whether there is anything at all about Brexit that she finds regrettable, disappointing or frustrating?

The hon. Gentleman is right—there is one thing that I find regrettable, and it is the fact that he continues to bang on and on about this even after the rest of the world has moved on post the referendum. The fact is that we have left the EU and we are not going back into it—certainly not under the terms that would require us to do so. He should be focusing on the benefits of Brexit, such as having more control over our laws, our borders and our money, as well as being able to deregulate, including through our smarter regulation programme. If he looked at that, there might be opportunities he could deliver for the people of Scotland.

As the UK automotive industry wrestles with the looming increase in the rules of origin thresholds, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has just announced a probe into the flood of cheaper Chinese electric cars coming into the market. Although there has undoubtedly been much for the UK to welcome, with announcements from Jaguar Land Rover and BMW, what additional measures are the Government taking to ameliorate the impact of cheaper and heavily subsidised Chinese imports?

That is an excellent question, because it raises something fundamental. The transition to net zero will change the nature of the UK supply chain and, as I said earlier this week, China poses a systemic challenge here. The path to net zero creates a risk of even greater reliance on China, especially when it comes to the battery manufacturing needed for zero emission vehicles. We cannot be naive about that. That is why I am working hard to ensure not only that business competitiveness is at the heart of our transition, but that British national interests come first. We cannot depend on a single country. We must protect our national security, so we are working with like-minded allies. My hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Economic Security has spoken about our critical minerals strategy and we are working to diversify and build those supply chains. That is what the Atlantic declaration, which I mentioned earlier, is also about. We are very aware of this point, but I think it is important to reinforce it.

I thank the Secretary of State very much for the encouraging positivity of her answers—[Interruption.] At least, most of us are encouraged.

Great Britain is Northern Ireland’s main export market for agricultural goods, accounting for some 64.1% of all exports. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs back in Northern Ireland to ensure consistent, free-flowing agri-trade, given the complications caused by the Northern Ireland protocol?

The hon. Gentleman is right. The first thing we want to see is the restoration of the Executive. When I was in Belfast this week, I spoke to Members of the Legislative Assembly from across the parties, and this is something they repeatedly raise. Businesses are telling us that the Windsor framework is helping, and we are working closely with the ones that still have issues. Such discussions facilitate business conversations and encourage the restoration of the Executive, which would help to drive the changes the hon. Gentleman wants to see.