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Topical Questions

Volume 741: debated on Thursday 30 November 2023

This week, I hosted more than 200 global CEOs and investors at the UK global investment summit, which was an extraordinary success. The Prime Minister set a £9.5 billion target to beat, and we tripled it, securing £29.5 billion of investment and more than 12,000 jobs. The success of the GIS is a vote of confidence in the UK. My Department’s work, supported by the £20 billion business tax cut in the autumn statement, is securing our country as a world-leading business and investment destination.

Many people are aware of the incredible story of the Redcar steelworks site being reborn as Teesworks, creating 20,000 jobs and unlocking £2 billion in private investment. Fewer people are aware that Stockton’s very own freeport business park is being built at the airport. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Teesside, as the home of the UK’s first and biggest freeport, offers a unique opportunity to those investing in the industries of the future?

I do agree, and my hon. Friend is quite right to praise the progress that has been made on delivering Teesside freeport. The freeport has already been successful in securing several landmark investments, including from SeAH Wind, which is investing £650 million in building an offshore wind manufacturing facility. That will create around 750 high-skilled jobs and builds on the measures announced in the autumn statement last week to further strengthen the offer of UK freeports. My Department will continue to work with freeports, in Teesside and elsewhere, on securing high-value investment.

This is the Department in charge of growth, investment and exports. In the latest figures, following the autumn statement, growth has been downgraded. Business investment is still forecast to be the lowest in the G7, and goods exports have declined, both to the EU and to non-EU countries. Given that there are so many amazing businesses and sectors in the UK, how do the Government account for their poor performance?

I will not allow the hon. Gentleman to spin his way out of what is actually a very good news story for the Government. The fact is that the UK has overtaken France to become the world’s eighth-largest manufacturing nation. We are the world’s fifth-largest exporter. We are growing faster than Germany and France, and have received more investment than them combined. We are the top investment destination, certainly for financial services. We are doing well. Perhaps this is the moment for me to tell him what businesses told me at the global investment summit: that they were unimpressed by the Labour shadow Ministers they had met; that their offer was unimaginative; and that they were repetitive, and had no vision for the future of business in the UK.

We follow the Secretary of State’s Twitter feed, and quite simply, we do not believe her.

I want to ask the Secretary of State about late payment. In the nine years that the Government have spent consulting on late payments, 450,000 businesses have gone under while waiting to be paid. Why do the Government’s new plans on late payment apply only to firms contracting with the Government? Why do they not rather follow our proposal to make sure that all public companies disclose their payment practices?

I have been working with the Federation of Small Businesses and others on late payments. The hon. Gentleman will have heard the measures announced in the autumn statement; this is an issue that the Government take very seriously. I disagree that we are implementing our plans in a partial way. We will resolve this issue, but I am afraid that I completely disagree with the Opposition: have done quite a lot on this, and many businesses have praised the measures that we announced in the autumn statement.

T4. On 14 November, the Government signed a memorandum of understanding with the US state of Florida. This is the seventh such agreement that the Government have signed with a state in the US, and I understand that there are ongoing discussions with other states. Obviously, that is welcome. Will the Secretary of State give us an assessment of the effect of this approach, and tell us what the next steps are to getting a more general trade agreement with the United States? (900394)

We are ready to have a free trade agreement with the US, but it is not undertaking free trade agreements with any country. That is, of course, disappointing, but it knows that we stand ready. That is why we have the state MOU programme. The latest figures show that UK-US trade has reached £310 billion. We are the biggest investor in Florida. I was pleased to meet Governor DeSantis earlier this month, and I also met the California Governor, Gavin Newsom, who wanted to be even faster in signing an MOU with the UK. They believe that this country has a lot of opportunity, and they want to do business with us.

Import tariffs on egg products allow us to recognise the higher cost of UK egg production because of safety, welfare and environmental considerations. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that eggs and egg products will be afforded sensitive product status by the UK in future free trade agreement negotiations, and that import tariffs will remain in place on those products?

It is difficult to comment on tariffs in live negotiations, but I would say two things to the hon. Gentleman: first, this country imports very few eggs from abroad, and secondly, anything that happens with imported eggs would not change our standards on food imports, food safety and animal welfare in this country.

T7. In yesterday’s data Bill debate, Ministers gave clear and positive replies about the importance of interoperable data standards, and the need for an investable timetable of which sectors will get smart data and when. However, they were much less clear—one might even call it bashful—about giving a date for when that timetable will be published. Is my hon. Friend the Minister willing to be a little less coy this morning? (900400)

I am not known for my coyness. My hon. Friend has done very important work in this space, and we share his ambition: I chair the Smart Data Council, and we are planning to open up databases right across our economy to allow for more competition in the worlds of energy, telecoms, and buying and selling houses. He has been a great champion of all those measures. I am very keen to bring forward the roadmap that my hon. Friend has referred to, hopefully as early as January next year.

T2. At their busiest time of year, British cheese exporters are warning of damaging losses as the Government continue to fail to reach a deal that ensures access to the Canadian market. Every day that the Government fail, companies such as the Snowdonia Cheese Company in north Wales lose contracts, and they cannot make plans with the looming deadline of 31 December a matter of weeks away. Can the Minister update the House on the negotiations to extend the deadline for cheese tariff quotas between the UK and Canada? (900392)

We are aware of the situation, and are working on it—negotiations to resolve it are actively ongoing. UK cheese is in increasing demand in Canada, and exports of UK cheese benefit businesses on both sides of the Atlantic. The UK has made continued and repeated efforts to find a solution since negotiations began, including by seeking an extension to the current arrangements, and we are clear that the UK is rightly entitled to ongoing access to Canada’s World Trade Organisation cheese tariff quota under our rights and obligations at the WTO.

As the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Brazil, I know that the best way of supporting exports from my Dudley businesses is to remove barriers to trade. That is why I was absolutely delighted when both our countries signed a double taxation agreement, in good faith and to the highest possible standards. There appear to be complications in Brazil at the moment with ratifying that agreement through Congress, as we have ratified it through our Parliament. What more can Ministers—the Chancellor of the Exchequer, perhaps—do to try to persuade Brazil that it is indeed a very good deal for itself as well?

First, I praise my hon. Friend for the amazing job he does as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Brazil. Partly due to his efforts, UK-Brazil trade has increased by 33% in the past year alone, so we are doing a very good job there. The UK-Brazil double taxation agreement was passed into UK law in June, and is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the UK. I hope that Brazil ratifies the agreement soon: it is very much in its own interests as well. As my hon. Friend knows, the Chancellor has made very strong representations to that effect, and we look forward to strengthening our trade relationship at the next UK-Brazil joint economic and trade committee next year.

T5. Under current laws, unions are required to use electronic means to communicate with their members about matters relating to work, yet are prevented from using the very same electronic methods when balloting their members for industrial action. Does the Minister accept that it should be possible to ballot trade union members on industrial action electronically? (900395)

The hon. Lady raises an important point. That is something we are looking at; we have been looking at it for some time, and are keen to bring forward the results of our deliberations very shortly.

May I ask the Trade Minister, whom I welcome back to his position, what efforts the Government are making to raise awareness of the developing countries trading scheme, particularly among African countries? What encouragement is he giving those countries to take advantage of that scheme, which would benefit them and us?

Again, we have almost a full turnout of the Prime Minister’s trade envoys in the House this morning, and I commend my hon. Friend for the work he does as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy not just to one country, but to three—Angola, Zambia and Ethiopia. He rightly takes a strong interest in the UK’s forward-leaning and exemplary developing countries trading scheme. The scheme was launched on 19 June by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), who is now the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and provides duty-free or nearly duty-free access to goods to 37 African countries. The scheme was launched to significant media attention in Ethiopia, and there was a series of events in more than 10 countries.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson): the onus is on all of us in this House to continue to extol the virtues and the benefits of the UK’s developing countries trade scheme. We have taken the EU scheme and gone significantly further, making it more generous for developing countries. We should all be united in extolling the virtues of the UK’s scheme, and of the brilliant job the UK is doing to promote goods access to developing countries.

T6.   Could I revisit my earlier question to the Secretary of State about arms export licences to Israel? I and many others do not agree with her secrecy approach, and I and many others believe that Members of Parliament are entitled to this information, so I will try another approach. Could she detail the classification and description of the goods, the stated end use and the licence type, including direct transfers and those via third countries, and could she place that information in the Library for Members of Parliament? (900396)

I believe there is a quarterly register that may contain some of the information the hon. and learned Member is asking for, but I am not able or going to list every single export decision that has been made by the export control joint unit. I will see what I can do to get her a fuller answer, but she will know that this is a very sensitive issue. I have a quasi-judicial role, and I must be seen to be impartial at all times. I will do what I can to provide the information she wants, but I do not have a list to provide her with this morning, and certainly not on the Floor of the House.

Almost all the G20 countries have operational blast furnaces, and a number of those are transitioning to electric arc furnaces as well. We know the importance of Scunthorpe, which is a key driver of economic growth. British Steel provides a third of all domestic production supplied to the construction and rail industries. We continue to be in negotiations to make sure that we secure the best deal, and one that is good value for taxpayers, when it comes to Scunthorpe.

On Tuesday, we finally had answers from Lisa Wilkinson about the mistakes that led to the collapse of that much-loved firm, but Ms Wilkinson was not able to answer why 70% of the profits in the last four years were paid out in dividends to family trusts while the deficit in the pension fund amounted to now £50 million. Will the Secretary of State ensure that regulators explore every option to claw back those dividends so that Wilko pensioners are not short-changed?

The right hon. Member raises a very important point. He has looked at this matter very carefully, including on the Business and Trade Committee, and I thank him for his work. I was pleased to give evidence to his Committee on Tuesday. Clearly, the Insolvency Service is looking at this. It is looking at the directors’ conduct report from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the administrator, which it needs to look at very carefully. It is clear from that report so far that there is no evidence of director misconduct, but further work is ongoing. The Insolvency Service is due to meet the administrator, PwC, in January, and we will look at the situation as it unfolds.

One of the most effective ways we could strengthen both the public sector and the private sector is the creation of an office of the whistleblower, as long championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson). That would strengthen corporate governance, empower those who see wrongdoing to come forward and protect them from intimidation, and strengthen the UK as a place to do business. Given that this week is Whistleblowing Awareness Week, could I encourage Ministers to bring forward proposals to support this important initiative?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and his work in this area, in which he has great expertise. I met my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) yesterday to discuss this very matter. She has set out some key proposals in this area. We are currently undertaking a review of whistleblowing, and we hope to report to the House very shortly.