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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 14 September 2023

Business and Trade

The Secretary of State was asked—

Levelling Up

1. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of her Department’s implementation of policies supporting levelling up. (906364)

I warmly welcome the new shadow ministerial team—it is a slimmed-down team from what we have been used to, but I welcome them all. My Department is focused on growing the economy by attracting global investment, promoting exports and creating the right regulatory business environment. Over the past five years we have supported more than 6,000 foreign direct investment projects, creating more than 280,000 new jobs across the UK. Just last week, the Department for Business and Trade supported Stellantis’s £100 million investment in an electric vehicle production plant in Ellesmere Port, showing the direct role we play in helping to level up across the regions and nations of the UK.

Like many hon. Members, during the recess I visited various sites in my constituency, including Langthwaite business park, which is an immensely successful business park with more than 50 businesses now employing almost 2,000 people. It is adjacent to two former pit villages, South Elmsall and South Kirkby, where deprivation is still deeply rooted. The people who live in those villages are not able to take advantage of the jobs created by Wakefield Council, Mohan De Silva and Karen Harrison. What Government programmes has the Secretary of State put in place, or can she put in place, to ensure there is a linkage between areas of deprivation and new jobs?

There is a lot that we are doing, and I am sorry to hear that the hon. Gentleman feels that villages in his constituency still are not able to access much of what we have given. The West Yorkshire devolution deal provided about £1.14 billion of investment and we also had a shared prosperity fund across West Yorkshire. I urge him to speak to his local council, because that is the vehicle through which many of these opportunities will be provided, but if he has a specific business issue that he thinks is affecting those companies and those villages, we are happy to look at it in more detail.

My home city of Manchester was built on export and trade, but, as a result of the Tories’ mismanagement of the economy, apathy towards the export industries and neglect of everywhere outside the M25, the value of exports from London is more than three times that of the north-west. Does the Secretary of State honestly believe that she and her colleagues are committed to levelling up the whole of the UK, or will she admit that the Tories do not care about the benefits of trade reaching everyone in the United Kingdom?

I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman. He mentions Manchester; since October 2022 we have invested £2.6 billion into projects across England and agreed landmark devolution deals for Greater Manchester. He should be speaking to the Mayor of Greater Manchester to find out exactly why all that we are doing is not reaching the people in his constituency.

Steel Industry

I am in constant conversations with specific companies to do with steel, including British Steel in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but of course those conversations are often commercially sensitive. I was delighted to speak at the event she hosted in Parliament to celebrate the launch of the Government’s updated steel procurement policy note, which will help to make opportunities more visible and maintain a level playing field for UK steel producers. In the financial year 2021-22, relevant public procurers bought around £365 million-worth of UK produced steel. Furthermore, the Government have provided around £730 million in energy costs relief to the sector since 2013.

Can my hon. Friend set out specifically what is being done to ensure the continued production of virgin steel in the UK?

Steel is vital to the UK, but we know that the industry needs to decarbonise for a sustainable future. The Paris agreement made it clear that the sector had to reduce its global emissions by 93% by 2050. The Government are actively engaging with the sector on how best to achieve that, but decarbonisation pathways for specific sites will be commercial decisions for individual companies. Industrial sectors, including steel companies, can bid into Government funds worth hundreds of millions of pounds to help them go green. As I mentioned, we have done a huge amount to support energy intensive industries.

The UK is the only major steel-producing nation where production is falling, but the Minister and her colleagues have been telling us for months that they cannot guarantee the use of UK-made steel in Government contracts, especially in the military. The thing is that the steel producers say that they can make whatever their customer asks by changing the production line. Will the Minister confirm that the reason we have a problem with steel in this country is the Government’s refusal to view it as a strategically important industry? The Conservatives’ sticking-plaster politics have failed steelworkers, as we have seen at Port Talbot.

I fundamentally disagree with the question—well, it was more of a statement. I made it clear when I took on this role that we would assess the level of steel in procurement contracts, and we have put together the steel procurement policy note, which will address how much steel is being procured in our contracts in the UK. We are doing a huge amount to ensure that the different types of steel that are needed are produced. We know how valuable the sector is, which is why we provided support with high energy costs and why we have a decarbonisation budget that the industry can link into. I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s proposition.

In Wales, it is reported that this Government will spend half a billion pounds to make thousands of Port Talbot steelworkers redundant. Head north to Derby to a train assembly plant, where thousands more jobs are under threat because this Government bungled High Speed 2. Head around the UK coastline and the Government have managed to misjudge industry so much that they secured zero offshore wind contracts. That is a UK tour of almighty Conservative incompetence. Labour will harness this country’s talent. Will the Minister explain how many jobs the Government are losing us at Tata Steel, how many jobs they are losing us in Derby, how many jobs they are losing us in offshore wind, and why they are so intent on levelling down our great British industries?

I welcome the hon. Member to her post, but I suggest that leading on stories in the paper is not a good way forward. That is all speculation; we do not comment on commercial decisions. The reality is that there is £730 million in support with energy costs and more than £1 billion of support with decarbonisation. She talks about plans. Well, I am not sure if the Labour party’s plan stands for anything because it flip-flops so often. It is not just me who says that; let us reflect on a statement made by a union leader. They said that Labour was not only just an ’80s tribute act, but that it tends to sit on a “wobbly fence”. Who knows what Labour will say tomorrow after a statement made today?


My hon. Friend asks a timely question, because this is London International Shipping Week, and I have engaged with the UK Chamber of Shipping and Maritime UK. This week, I was at the International Maritime Organisation, which was hosting an exhibition called “Rewriting women into maritime history”, sponsored by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation—I mention in particular Nicola Good and Erne Janine, who made me this scarf reflecting on women in maritime. We are doing a huge amount, including launching the shipbuilding credit guarantee scheme to support our shipyards here in the UK.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. The disappointing outcome of last week’s contracts for difference auction in respect of offshore wind was a wake-up call that clear strategies are required if we are to retain our position as a global leader in that industry. That includes support for the supply chain, of which service operation vessels are a vital component. Can she confirm that the national shipbuilding strategy will be reviewed to fully take into account this great opportunity?

We are proud of the UK’s reputation as a leader in the offshore wind sector. Together with industry, we have delivered the four largest operational wind farms in the world. The National Shipbuilding Office has done a huge amount of work in that area and will do even more with the new shipbuilding guarantee scheme. I think my hon. Friend’s other question relates to the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. This is London International Shipping Week, and our offshore wind farms and all our vessels are being promoted heavily.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that the three fleet solid support vessels for the Royal Navy are massive—equivalent to two aircraft carriers? Has she discussed with the Ministry of Defence why they will be built mostly in Spanish shipyards, rather than in British shipyards by British workers to sustain our shipbuilding industry? Does she know of any other shipbuilding country that behaves like this?

I have indeed discussed it with the Ministry of Defence and the National Shipbuilding Office. We want to make sure not only that the contracts for the work are managed here in the UK, but that we are using UK steel.

International Investment in Northern Ireland

4. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help increase international investment in Northern Ireland. (906368)

Just yesterday I was in Belfast, where my Department delivered the Northern Ireland investment summit in partnership with the Northern Ireland Office and Invest Northern Ireland. I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Secretaries of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and for Northern Ireland for their support in making it a success. Five hundred delegates, including investors from 24 countries around the world, attended to see at first hand the unique opportunities for inward investment in Northern Ireland across a range of sectors, including life sciences and advanced manufacturing.

What consideration has my right hon. Friend given to creating an investment zone that covers the whole of Northern Ireland to bring much needed investment to that much loved part of the United Kingdom?

It is a very interesting idea. Investment zone policy is owned by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, so I will raise it with the Secretary of State there and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Officials from the UK Government and the Northern Ireland civil service continue to work closely to explore developing investment zone policy in the country. The lack of a functioning Executive there has, of course, limited the scope and nature of engagement on investment zones. If the Executive is restored, we will work together to progress an investment zone at pace, and if it is not formed, we will set out different plans in due course.

First, I thank the Secretary of State and the Government for the investment conference they held in Belfast over the last two days. It clearly shows a commitment to Northern Ireland, and I am very pleased to see that. When it comes to international investment, we are happy to see in Northern Ireland that Harland & Wolff, which has specialised in ship repair and shipbuilding for some years, has recruited almost 1,000 people in the last few months. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the relevant Department back home to ensure that Northern Ireland can play its part in the UK shipbuilding industry and therefore benefit from that investment?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right: this is an area where Northern Ireland has a comparative advantage. As we hosted the summit, we all looked out on the docks, and we could see that shipbuilding is integral to the country. UK Export Finance is supporting many of the companies that build ships and want to export this magnificent UK product all across the world. My hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Economic Security spoke about the UK shipbuilding guarantee. We have been talking about this all week. Maritime investment is key, and if the hon. Gentleman would like further details on what we are doing that has an impact on his constituency, we can provide him with that information.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Business investment is lower in the UK than in any other G7 country and we rank 27th out of 30 OECD countries, ahead of only Poland, Luxembourg and Greece. More than half a trillion pounds-worth of under-investment by Government and business has left our economy trapped in a growth doom loop. What is the Secretary of State doing to undo this damage?

What the hon. Lady did not say is that business investment is increasing at a faster rate than in other countries. She is right that investment has been lower here, but that is why the Chancellor brought in policies such as full expensing to tackle this issue. She also did not mention the fact that we are the top destination for investment across financial services and many other areas. The UK is actually doing very well when it comes to inward investment, and we will continue to create policies that ensure we stay at the top of the pack.

Regulatory Reform

My Department is making it easier to do business every single day. Our smarter regulation programme—which includes implementation of the reforms recommended in the report by the taskforce on innovation, growth and regulatory reform, co-authored by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers)—is reducing regulatory burdens for business and reducing costs for consumers. We have announced reforms to employment law, wine regulation and product safety regulations, and further reforms will be announced soon.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but can we have more urgency across Departments on regulatory reform? Using our Brexit freedoms to modernise our regulation is a key way to grow the economy and raise living standards, so can we see more progress on reforming regulation in areas such as personal data, clinical trials, agri-tech and satellites?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet is absolutely right to push us on this issue. We are working across Government to implement reforms. So far, we have delivered 10 of the 69 recommendations identified in the TIGRR report, in areas such as offshore wind and reforms to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. Delivery of a further 49 is ongoing, in high-profile areas such as artificial intelligence reform, easing clinical trials, pensions, the ability to invest in venture capital, the General Data Protection Regulation and the seed enterprise investment scheme, all of which is saving businesses billions of pounds. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will shortly write to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet to confirm all those points.

Business Exports

Businesses are at the heart of the Government’s export strategy, “Made in the UK, Sold to the World”, and of our shared ambition to reach £1 trillion in annual exports by 2030. In the past year, the UK has become the fifth largest exporter of goods and services in the world. Just last week, I personally led a delegation of 20 businesses to the Three Seas summit in Romania, connecting with over 1,500 representatives to help secure contracts, work and export opportunities in the region’s 13 member states.

In my constituency, companies such as EyeOL, Lindal Valve, Peli BioThermal, Friction and Signature Flatbreads all export globally, along with 198 smaller businesses that export through Amazon, yet apparently only 10% of companies export. What more can we do to get businesses to export, not just to Europe but globally? Apparently, businesses that export pay higher wages, so this is part of levelling up, too.

My hon. Friend is a great champion for his businesses and helping them to export. He is absolutely right that free trade agreements and memorandums of understanding are opening up new markets for us, but of course we want to make sure that everyone makes the most of those opportunities. That is why we are ensuring that UK exporters have the skills they need through our innovative export academy; the information they need to capitalise on new deals through the FTA utilisation strategy; the advice they need through the export support service; and the financial backing they need through UK Export Finance. My hon. Friend also made the very powerful point that companies that export pay higher wages.

Anglesey’s freeport is a fantastic opportunity to boost the economic prosperity of my constituency of Ynys Môn. Working with the Institute of Export and International Trade, Bangor University and Grŵp Llandrillo Menai, our Anglesey freeport is set to create the first Welsh trade centre of excellence. Does the Minister agree that that trade centre is central to local people having the skills to take advantage of the high-skill, high-wage employment opportunities that the freeport will deliver, and that it will be the start of Anglesey’s economic renaissance?

I think we can all agree that my hon. Friend has campaigned powerfully to secure that freeport and the opportunities it will create for many of her constituents. Good news is already coming in, with Westinghouse saying that it will headquarter there, creating jobs and opportunities. Of course, we are looking forward to getting more details and ensuring that the trade centre for excellence is located there too, which will provide another win for my hon. Friend.

I ran export programmes in my business career before coming to this place, and I always talk to the companies I meet about whether they are exporting and what more can be done.

Steady—I haven’t asked my question yet! The message from that experience is that perceived barriers can deter activity—perhaps perceived risk or complexity. What more can be done to link potential exporters with mentors who can share their experience, overcome those perceptions and get more companies exporting?

My hon. Friend has a huge amount of experience in this area, and I am very grateful for all the advice he provides. He makes a very good point. That is why our campaign, “Made in the UK, Sold to the World”, uses localised marketing for small businesses across the country to help them make the best of their abilities. To my hon. Friend’s point, we have a growing cohort of over 360 successful champions across the UK —entrepreneurs and business leaders who can share their experience and inspire new firms to become exporters.

New analysis from the House of Commons Library that I am publishing today shows that since 2010 our trade with dictatorships has grown by over £135 billion and that it is growing twice as fast as our trade with the free world. Trade dependence on dictatorships is a risk, so when will the Minister set out a plan to define and de-risk our critical supply chains and begin growing our trade with nations that are free?

I am responsible for supply chains and critical minerals too; several months ago, I refreshed our critical minerals strategy. We are looking at how we ensure that we are building resilience and ensuring that our supply chains are stable.

I am also working with a number of industry representatives to put in place an import supply chain strategy as well. We know that there are kinks in supply chains and that there are issues of economic coercion around the world. We want to ensure that we have stable supply chains to protect our advanced manufacturing sector. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State points out that I am also the sanctions Minister. We are ensuring that that work is now co-ordinated, not only across Whitehall but internationally.

Those of us on the Business and Trade Committee are very much aware of the sterling work done by officials in furtherance of the trade deal with India. However, in the revelation at the G20 summit of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment—the counter to China’s belt and road project through a US-backed trade corridor to speed up links between Europe, the middle east and India—there was no mention of the UK. Did our Government decline to be involved or were we not invited?

I was in front of the Select Committee; that session would have been afterwards. I have just been informed that the Prime Minister is very much focused on securing a trade deal and on the other details that the hon. Gentleman raised. Because it is a Select Committee issue, I will make sure that he gets all the details in writing.

During the recess, I visited Heathcoat Fabrics, an innovative export business in Tiverton; its achievements include selling to NASA a device that helped land the Mars rover on the surface of Mars. Earlier this year, HMRC rejected Heathcoat’s research and development claim without so much as a meeting. Will the Minister talk with colleagues at the Treasury to establish why Heathcoat Fabrics and other innovative export businesses are having R&D claims rejected this year?

According to the International Monetary Fund, British exports to France and Germany since 2019 are down—by 14% to France and 17% to Germany. US exports to both are up by 20%; Canada’s are up by 23% and Italy’s are up by 29%. Ministers will not back an industrial strategy, have cut funding to get businesses to trade shows and will not negotiate a veterinary agreement. Why does this Minister think that everyone else has got so much better recently at selling things to our nearest neighbours?

Members choose which numbers they want to throw out, but those do not necessarily reflect reality. I thought it was fantastic that we are now the eighth largest manufacturer in the world; I believe that we leap-frogged France—leap-frogging the French is always good to get on the record.

Actually, exports are most definitely up. In the 12 months to June 2023, UK exports rose by £139 billion, an increase of 8% once adjusted for inflation. In the same period, goods exports reached £428 billion, an 11% increase when adjusted for inflation. Perhaps we should reflect on the opportunities for all the businesses in our constituencies.

Trade Negotiations: Human Rights

7. What recent discussions she has had with (a) NGOs and (b) charities on the inclusion of human rights considerations in trade negotiations. (906373)

The Government are committed to universal human rights, the rule of law, free speech and fairness. Those values guide all aspects of our international policy, including our approach to trade.

As trade talks continue with many countries that have deplorable human rights records and as discussions continue with India, will the Minister ensure that we receive binding commitments on human rights—particularly in relation to labour practices—rather than simply warm words, and that discussions continue with NGOs, which are well placed, and often better placed than the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, on what is going on?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The UK will continue to show global leadership in encouraging all states to uphold international human rights obligations and to hold those who violate or abuse human rights to account. The UK has successfully included labour, environment and gender provisions in the free trade agreements that we have signed—with Australia and New Zealand, for example. Those both contained dedicated chapters on trade, gender equality, labour and the environment. They uphold human rights but, crucially, also level the playing field for our UK businesses.

Trade Policies: Cost of Food

Food prices are driven by many pressures, including the global economic climate. We recognise the important role that trade can play in improving food security through diversification of supply chains. Our programme of free trade agreements is securing access to global supply chains, removing barriers and lowering costs for traders. Furthermore, in 2022, 84% of agricultural and food imports entered the UK tariff-free. By delivering trade deals and working with international partners, we are ensuring that British consumers have access to good-quality and good-value food.

Will the Minister explain how the Government’s plans for a £43 inspection fee on each consignment of food imported from the European Union represent barrier-free trade? Can she tell small food retailers, restaurants and their customers in Glasgow North when or whether they will have to pay this Brexit tax and the higher prices it will lead to? Can she also remind the House whether higher food prices as a result of Brexit were part of the Leave campaign prospectus?

I know the hon. Member wants to put all these anxieties on Brexit and forget about all the opportunities we are securing with trade agreements around the world. The issue he raises fundamentally sits at the doorstep of the Cabinet Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and we are working very closely with them to resolve it.

As if the future stoking of inflation through extra Brexit red tape was not bad enough, businesses are already having to cope with uncertainty, the lack of a level playing field and the threat to our own food safety and security through the failure to introduce checks of our own. Given that Ministers were saying as recently as April that those checks will begin on 31 March, can the Minister explain how businesses are expected to get to grips with all this turmoil in Government policy given their tendency to keep kicking the can down the road over border checks?

Food inflation is a global issue: it is not a problem just here in the UK. Many factors influence food prices globally, notably energy costs. Global wholesale food prices have been falling since March and sometimes that can take time to reach consumers. In July, UK food inflation was just over 14%, down from 17%. The hon. Gentleman did not specify which issue he was touching on, but if it was to do with sanitary and phytosanitary controls for goods from the EU, that will be introduced and in place by 31 January 2024.

The Government could stop making existing global problems even worse when they apply to the UK—I was following up on the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) about the cost of checks on imported food—but the only thing worse than bad border checks is no border checks at all. We are no longer imposing SPS checks on food coming in from the EU. Is the Minister proud that, under the guise of taking back control, she is part of a Government who have given away control instead?

I referenced in my previous response the SPS controls; they were not in place when we were in the EU so I am not sure exactly what the hon. Gentleman’s anxiety is.

Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership

10. What plans she has for accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. (906377)

I signed the UK’s accession protocol to the CPTPP in New Zealand in July. We are now taking the necessary steps to ratify our accession agreement at the earliest opportunity. We expect it to enter into force in the second half of next year.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response. The CPTPP contains investor-state dispute settlement provisions which allow corporations, as she knows, to sue national Governments through a largely secretive parallel legal system if they consider that Government policies threaten their future profits. Of the new agreement member states, Canadian countries have used the ISDS particularly aggressively, bringing 65 cases, the majority of which have been brought by mining and fossil fuel firms against the energy and environmental policies of various Governments. Will the Government consider negotiating a side letter with Canada, as they already have with New Zealand and Australia, to disapply the ISDS provisions in order to ensure the UK Government’s right to regulate is not constrained by powerful investors and corporations?

We have passed the stage where we will be making any changes; we are now trying to ratify the protocol. But the right hon. Gentleman should be reassured: the Government have always been clear that when we negotiate investment protection we do so in a way that does not hinder our right to regulate in the public interest. The UK already has investment agreements containing ISDS provisions with seven of the 11 CPTPP countries and we have never received a successful claim from any investors of CPTPP countries, or in fact investors of any other country with which we have ISDS commitments.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the progress made with CPTPP. Can she outline what plans the Department has to make UK companies aware of the opportunities that the agreement opens up for them?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, because most of the time, people ask me what CPTPP stands for, let alone what it is and how they can use it—[Interruption.] Well, not my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). We would like to make sure that people are aware of it, so they can utilise this free trade agreement as soon as it is on our statute book and ratified across the 11 countries. That is something that our export commission and support service in the Department for Business and Trade will be carrying out, and we will also be supporting MPs in their constituencies during International Trade Week to highlight opportunities that come from all our free trade agreements.

Business Exports: US

[Interruption.] Pardon me for one second; there is a technical failure. The US is our largest trading partner, with trade reaching more than £290 billion. We have already succeeded in agreeing a solution to the section 232 tariffs on UK steel and aluminium and removed the long-standing US ban on UK lamb. In fact, just yesterday, I was speaking to President Biden’s special envoy Joe Kennedy about how we can increase trade and investment in Northern Ireland. We also have an SME dialogue next month between our two countries, supporting UK and US businesses to find export opportunities in each other’s markets.

That is really good news, actually. In other good news, I learned this morning that Britain has overtaken France as a manufacturing country. In order to take full advantage of that, how can we use the nine trade representatives in the United States at our embassy and our consulates even more to encourage bilateral trade?

My hon. Friend is right. We have trade ambassadors and trade envoys working to ensure that we are fully utilising the opportunities that exist across our relationship with the US. In fact, our envoy to the US has been helping and supporting with a memorandum of understanding with Florida, which we are hoping to conclude shortly. If there are specific things he thinks we can do to assist, I would be happy to meet him and organise even more engagement that will help facilitate UK-US trade.

Trade: Europe

Europe remains a vital destination for British exports. UK businesses exported more than £416 billion in the year to March 2023, up 24% in current prices on the previous year. We are engaging extensively with key European partners. This weekend, my right hon. Friend the Trade Secretary will attend the annual UK-Italy bilateral conference to advance the landmark ministerial dialogue on export and investment promotion launched in February, the first agreed between the UK and any EU country.

Here is an issue that could be discussed at that meeting: the youth group travel sector is worth £28 billion to the UK economy, but that two-way trade has collapsed since Brexit. The Prime Minister made a vague commitment in March that there would be an agreement for French school groups to visit the UK. We have heard no more details, and anyway we need a wider agreement to include other countries. When will the Government sort out this problem?

I think this matter sits not just with our Department, but with the Department for Education. If the hon. Gentleman will allow, I will write to him formally and make sure he gets an update on this issue.

Hospitality Sector: Scotland

14. Whether she has had recent discussions with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on support for Scotland’s hospitality sector. (906384)

As the hon. Member will be aware, hospitality support is devolved. We continue to provide energy support via the energy bills discount scheme, benefiting hospitality businesses across the UK. I would be happy to meet her and any of her colleagues to see how we can help hospitality businesses across the whole UK.

That is excellent to hear, because the hospitality sector plays a crucial role in Scotland’s economy, but it has consistently been let down by the UK Government, who repeatedly fail to support the industry with the unique challenges it faces. Businesses across Scotland are grappling with inflationary pressures, labour and skill shortages and the ever-increasing complexity of trading rules with 27 countries we once traded with freely. Why will the Minister not accept that Brexit lies at the heart of these problems?

If the hon. Lady looks again, she will find that the Scottish Government lie at the heart of these problems. In England, all eligible businesses can get 75% relief on their rates, subject to a cap of £110,000, while in Scotland, rates relief is available only to small businesses and could be as low as between 25% and 0% for individual properties with rateable values from £15,000. There is far more support available for English businesses than for Scottish businesses. I think she should go back and look again at the facts.

Courier Services: Rural Areas

I appreciate the hon. Member’s interest in ensuring a fair deal for his constituents. The Government’s universal service obligation on Royal Mail guarantees delivery of parcels at uniform rates throughout the UK, without any geographical restrictions. Where other courier businesses decide to serve should be a commercial decision for them.

A constituent who visited my surgery recently complained that one courier service in particular would not deliver to his isolated rural property. The choice of courier is, of course, currently a matter for retailers. Do the Government agree, though, that there is a case for saying that large retailers could offer the consumer the choice of which courier service should be used? That would empower consumers and hopefully improve performance via competition.

The hon. Member raises a very important point. Competition plays a role in this, of course. It is absolutely right that retail business should look at this and try to get the lowest cost for their customers in terms of courier charges. It is, as he acknowledges, a commercial decision for individual retailers, but I absolutely applaud the points he raises. These businesses should be aware of those costs, because they can add significantly to the costs of the products they are selling.

Topical Questions

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.