Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 744: debated on Thursday 25 January 2024

As Secretary of State for Business and Trade, I am committed to ensuring the resilience of the UK’s critical supply chains. Last week, the Government published the “Critical Imports and Supply Chains Strategy” to help UK businesses build secure and reliable supply chains. Our 18-point action plan will help businesses to deal better with global supply chain issues from overcoming bureaucratic barriers to dealing with severe shocks caused by events such as the pandemic, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the attacks on the Red sea that have threatened a key route for global trade. DBT led the development of the strategy, which was shaped by the experiences of UK businesses. I was delighted that representatives of industry as well as key international partners joined us at the strategy’s launch at Heathrow airport, which is, of course, the UK’s largest import hub by value.

Mr Speaker, I wish you and the rest of the House a happy Burns night for this evening. Is it not a scandal that the only way to get the great chieftain o’ the puddin-race exported to the United States is by sending the vegetarian version? [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Could not the Secretary of State put that into her 18-point action plan and get on and do something, or does she want to risk forever being known as a cowran, tim’rous beastie? [Laughter.]

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his esoteric question. We are continually removing barriers to US-UK trade, and we are trading with the US more than ever before. If he has a specific example that I can help with so that he can enjoy his Burns night, I would appreciate it if he wrote to me, and we will look at the matter in detail.

T2. With many banks closing on high streets, the post office is picking up so much slack, but in rural areas the limits placed on the amount of cash that can be paid in at the post office is having a real impact on businesses. For instance, pubs have a lot of cash but cannot pay it in because of the limits. Can the Minister review that and ensure that the post office can take far greater volumes of cash from rural businesses? (901159)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work on this matter, which he and I have discussed on many occasions. The limits are there to try to prevent money laundering, but it is important that the checks are proportionate. I have raised their impact on a number of occasions with the Financial Conduct Authority and UK Finance. There is more transparency now and they are working more effectively. I know that the wonderful Ingham’s fish and chip shop in Filey now experiences fewer problems when it pays in money at its local post office. There is a great opportunity not just for Inghams fish and chip shop but for the post office banking framework to make that relationship more lucrative.

Postal workers are the bedrock of our communities, but they are being forced to work at unsustainable levels—something that, sadly, has not been recognised in Ofcom’s report on the future of universal service obligations. The input of postal workers is critical to a successful Royal Mail, so please can we have confirmation that their views will be considered in any future decisions?

That would make perfect sense. We read the Ofcom report into the review of universal service obligations with interest. Our clear position is that we will retain a six-day service for our citizens and businesses, but those views will be taken into account.

T8. The Secretary of State has often stated her support for post-Brexit regulatory reform and divergence, and did so again in answer to an earlier question. Is she in a position to deny reports in The Daily Telegraph today that the Government have pledged to introduce a requirement that all future regulatory change will be screened to ensure that extra barriers in the Irish sea are not created? That could be a significant impediment to divergence from EU laws. (901166)

I cannot comment on the ongoing Northern Ireland political process, to which I am not a participant. However, it is clear that we retain the ability to diverge. I agree with my right hon. Friend that if we are to seize the benefits of Brexit, we need to find that comparative advantage over the EU in our regulations, otherwise there would be no point. I remind her that I was the Business Secretary who made sure that there was transparency, rather than an invisible bonfire, in what we were doing on EU regulations. I ended the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice on 1 January. We have a comprehensive deregulation programme, which I am pushing. I understand her concerns, and I will speak to colleagues across Departments to ensure that they are raised at the highest level.

Will the Secretary of State please confirm that this Government have no plans to alter the legislation on the marketing of infant formula and other breastmilk substitutes?

Royal Mail customers will have welcomed the Minister’s reassurance this week about ruling out a reduction to the current six day a week service. However, many customers already feel short changed by what is often an inadequate service in their area. Does the Minister agree that any proposed changes must protect the small businesses whose business models rely on the six-day service, and customers’ rights?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. The service has not been satisfactory, and Royal Mail has been fined £5.6 million by Ofcom as a result. It has employed 3,000 more postal workers to address those problems, and we are seeing some improvement, but he is right to raise the point about our six-day service being vital to businesses, particularly those in the magazine and greeting card industries.

T3. What assessment has the Minister made of the results of private sector trials in relation to the introduction of a four-day week? Will he meet me in due course to discuss the results of those trials? (901160)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. It is clearly up to businesses to decide if they want to trial a four-day week. We have made no assessment of any results. It is our belief that we should not run a Stalinist economy, where we tell private sector businesses how to operate their workforce and on what days of the week—he may differ on that particular perspective—but we have introduced important reforms that help businesses work more flexibly, including the flexible working changes that were introduced recently.

The Gosport branch of Asda is the first in the UK to ballot for strike action. Employees cite issues including low staffing levels, health and safety, and delayed equal pay claims. Considering Asda’s importance to the UK food chain and employment across the country, what powers does the Minister have to ensure that both workers and consumers are protected?

My hon. Friend raises an very interesting point. We have looked at this particular situation with interest and will continue to monitor it. Clearly, Asda is a private company and it is up to it to decide how best to deploy its workforce, but I am very happy to continue our conversation and I appreciate her engagement on this issue.

T4. A lot of concern has already been expressed in the House this week about the steel industry. With the expansion of renewables across Scotland and the rest of the UK, there will be demand for the vital materials required to build more wind turbines, which may now need to be sourced from abroad. Will the Secretary of State tell us what steps will be taken to try to provide the vital materials for an important industry? (901161)

It is really important for us to not misrepresent what is happening on steel. Our steel industry is not disappearing; our steel industry is evolving. We will continue to have significant steelmaking capability in the UK, including producing materials for the industries the hon. Lady talks about. But we should also remember that the changes to Port Talbot are part of the decarbonisation that all Opposition Members have been asking for. This is the biggest single emitter of carbon in the UK and this House voted to reach net zero by 2050. Everything we are doing is to ensure that we do that in a sustainable and sensible way.

Following on from the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft), for the sake of clarity, can the Secretary of State confirm that it remains the Government’s position to ensure that the UK has the capacity to produce virgin steel here in the UK?

The Government maintain that we want to ensure that we keep steelmaking capability in the UK. At the moment, we import ore to make steel. When we talk about virgin steel many people assume there are no imports in the supply chain, but there still are, even now, and whatever changes we make will require some imports. However, we are making sure that our steel industry is more resilient than ever before, at a time when it faces oversupply from China and India. That is the real problem faced by the steel industry in all of western Europe. We do a lot with tariff measures, such as steel safeguards—

Please, do not do that. I called the next Member, so I expect you to sit down. It is topical questions, not free statements.

T5. Will the Post Office Minister meet me and my constituent, who was a postmistress? She lost £250,000 in 2000. It is an unusual case, otherwise I would write to him, but it does need him to meet her, so I would be grateful if he would do that. (901162)

Yes, I would be very happy to meet. There are three compensation schemes and it depends on which one she falls into. If it is the group litigation order, an immediate award of £75,000 can be made; if it is an overturned conviction, the amount is £600,000. I am sure there will be one scheme that the hon. Lady’s constituent will fit into. I am very happy to meet her to help ensure she finds the right one.

Mining is coming back to Cornwall. This week, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for critical minerals, I met industry leaders from around the country at a roundtable here in this place to talk about the challenges the critical minerals industry is facing. Will the Minister agree to come to a meeting to discuss the challenges facing the industry? Demand is going up exponentially, but it is a high risk industry and it needs her help.

Obviously it is important to secure investment in mining in Cornwall, particularly the mining of lithium, which will be critical for our car batteries. I certainly agree to be interrogated by the APPG, of which my hon. Friend is a powerful leader, and I congratulate her on securing that investment in Cornwall.

T6. Could Ministers fix the illogical loophole faced by Pixipixel, a lighting and camera hire firm in Acton? It supplied the equipment for the first two series of a popular ITV drama called “Grace”, which is set in Brighton, but because of Ofcom rules about the imposing of regional spending on public service broadcasters, it has now been banned and gazumped by a company in Manchester. Can this be sorted out, because— (901163)

Order. The Secretary of State took advantage; I do not want the hon. Lady to do exactly the same.

I believe that this might be an issue for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but if the hon. Lady will write to me, we can look at that specific case.

I am grateful to the Minister for working with me on the issue of button battery safety, and grateful for the ongoing commitment of the five working groups that were set up in 2022 following the tragic death of one of my constituents, Harper-Lee Fanthorpe, and the campaign for Harper-Lee’s law. Will the Minister meet me to discuss progress, and, in particular, how the guidelines drawn up by the Office for Product Safety and Standards can be made compulsory so that more deaths and injuries from button battery ingestion can be prevented?

My hon. Friend has done a fantastic job with the campaign, and has made huge progress towards ensuring that best practice is followed by suppliers. Of course I shall be happy to meet her to see what more can be done.

T7. Ferguson Marine, the last remaining shipyard on the lower Clyde, is threatened by the way in which its current work is configured. It badly requires an order from CalMac for seven small island ferries. The issue of procurement is one for the Scottish Government and their agencies, but will the Minister ensure that no impediment, no obstacle and no rules that are under her control will prevent the order from being given directly by the Scottish Government to Ferguson Marine if they so wish? (901164)

I am more than happy to sit down with the hon. Member to discuss furthering his case, but the overriding fact, which he mentioned, is that the decision sits with the Scottish Government. In the UK we have the National Shipbuilding Office, which provides a wraparound service not only to secure contracts but to ensure that ships are built in UK shipyards.

T9. Importers of short-life items in my constituency, such as seed potatoes and chilled equine semen, are worried about impending import controls. Will the Minister meet me, and business leaders in North Shropshire, to discuss how they can continue their businesses in the face of these imminent problematic controls? (901167)

Of course I shall be happy to meet the hon. Lady, but let me remind her of what I said earlier. The border operating model was introduced after extensive consultation with businesses, led by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with the agrifood sector. There has been plenty of opportunity for feedback from businesses, but I shall be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss specific cases.

I am sure that the Secretary of State shares my desire to revitalise our fantastic local high streets. Flitwick Town Council plans to do exactly that, but it needs support from the community ownership fund. May I urge the Secretary of State to look favourably on its forthcoming application?

It is good to see the hon. Gentleman working so hard for his community. The community ownership fund sits with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but I am sure that if he makes representations to those in the Department, they will be able to give him a more substantive answer.

Will the Secretary of State look at the impact assessments of universities? The traditional universities are failing to meet the standards of sustainable development research, and Manchester, Huddersfield and Newcastle Universities are doing much better. Will the Secretary of State look into that, and push the other universities to do better?

This is a matter that sits with the Department for Education, but of course my Department takes an interest in all the innovation research that is going on, because it will help to boost the UK economy. I am sure that officials in my Department have been looking at those assessments, and will be able to provide details if the hon. Gentleman has a more specific question.