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Business and Trade

Volume 744: debated on Thursday 25 January 2024

The Secretary of State was asked—

SMEs: Access to Finance

1. What steps she is taking with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to help increase access to finance for small and medium-sized enterprises. (901135)

Please may I take this opportunity, Mr Speaker, to pay tribute to Tony Lloyd? I worked with him very closely on the all-party groups on poverty and fair business banking. He was a thoroughly decent man. On behalf of myself and the Department, I pass on our deep condolences to his friends and family.

The Government work with the British Business Bank to improve access to finance for smaller businesses through targeted programmes, such as the £12.4 billion of finance that is backing more than 90,000 businesses across the UK and the £1 billion in start-up loans for 105,000 small businesses since 2012.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Many SMEs and new businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to open a bank account and to then obtain the support and services that used to be available in the rapidly diminishing branch network. What steps is he taking to address those challenges that SMEs are facing?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Leading banks and alternative lenders are committed to the SME finance charter to help small businesses and start-ups. We continue to work with the UK finance and banking industry to make sure that SMEs have the support from banking services that they require. Many leading challenger banks, such as Metro, Aldermore and Starling, provide additional application support. Banking hubs are also available for those without a bank on their high street to offer face-to-face support. Thirty have already opened, and 70 more are in the pipeline.

I thank the Minister for his response. There is a willingness to meet net zero commitments from businesses all over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so would the Minister be prepared to introduce a scheme whereby small businesses can access funding to implement infrastructure changes in their businesses to help them achieve net zero, and will this be available to all parts of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

The hon. Member raises a very important point. It is something that we look at all the time, and certainly we have had discussions on the matter. We already have programmes in place, including the £12.4 billion that we distribute through the British Business Bank that supports nations and regions funds. Some of that will certainly help businesses to access finance to decarbonise. We look at those measures all the time, and we are happy to work with him on future programmes that we might roll out.

Small and medium-sized enterprises are a vital part of a thriving global economy, yet 49% of British SMEs say that they lack the time or resources to sell internationally. They are being hindered by complex regulation, insufficient access to funding and inadequate Government guidance. That is why Labour has launched the small business export taskforce with the Federation of Small Businesses to listen to business needs and address them head-on. What is the Minister doing to support hard-working SMEs in navigating the Government’s complex web of regulatory requirements and help unleash this untapped entrepreneurial potential?

We agree with the hon. Gentleman on the ambition, but he is probably behind the game a little in terms of what we are actually doing, not least in the 73 free trade agreements that we have agreed, including the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership that is coming down the track. I hope that he will be supportive of that agreement. He has probably also never heard of the export support service, the international trade advisers and the export champions, all of which help our SMEs export to other parts of the word.

May I take this opportunity to congratulate and thank the Secretary of State—[Interruption.] Sorry, Question 2.

Science and Technology Sector: Inward Investment

2. What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology to help increase inward investment into the science and technology sector. (901136)

My Secretary of State was so savvy that she brought in a science Minister and now, under her stewardship, science and technology is booming in the Department for Business and Trade. The UK has the No. 1 tech ecosystem in Europe, raising more venture capital than France and Germany combined. Science and tech is not just for fans; we have now mainstreamed it with the Office for Investment, which is reaching out to companies around the world to highlight the advantages of investing in the UK, bringing in over £5 billion of investment, as was announced at the global investment summit just last year.

Mr Speaker, you can see that I am using my freedom on the Back Benches to improve my fitness and to make myself as fit as the Department.

May I take this opportunity to thank and congratulate the Secretary of State and the team at the Department for Business and Trade on the work they are doing, particularly with the global investment summit? There is a wall of money out there globally to invest in UK science and tech—in life science, quantum, fusion and agritech—and we are beginning, finally, to attract that money. What plans does the Department have to make it easier for global investors to deploy money at scale in UK clusters?

My hon. Friend will know more than most, having had this brief previously. Of course, we are out there sourcing investment for the UK and, as I mentioned, we are already beating France and Germany. Further afield, the UK is the third country, behind the US and China, to reach the landmark of $1 trillion in value. We have the concierge service with the Office for Investment. We have also recently secured £4.5 billion through the advanced manufacturing plan. That, coupled with the research and development budget of around £39.8 billion between 2022-25, shows that we are ready to enable investment in the UK and to manufacture products in this area.

Will the Secretary of State and her team pay much more attention to the science and innovation possibilities in the hydrogen sector—that is, hydrogen energy and power? This is something we are good at, and the research is there. We need to be there quickly before the Chinese dominate the market.

I gently say that the hon. Gentleman should pay attention to the hydrogen strategy, which shows we are leaning forward and ensuring that we can capture the investment, de-risk any of the testing and ensure that intellectual property can be commercialised here in the UK. We of course see hydrogen in the mix in our future energy spectrum.

SMEs: Operating Costs

3. What assessment her Department has made of the implications for her policies of trends in the level of operating costs for small and medium-sized enterprises. (901137)

The Government have taken action to help SMEs deal with cost of living pressures, including freezing fuel duty, maintaining the 5p cut for a further year, introducing the energy bills discount scheme and reversing the national insurance rise. In the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced a substantial business rates package to support the UK’s small businesses worth £4.3 billion over the next five years.

Notwithstanding what the Minister says, I am still frequently being approached by small and medium-sized enterprises in Edinburgh West that are struggling to meet soaring energy costs, stave off inflation and deal with Brexit red tape. The number of Scottish SMEs in financial distress is up 10%, according to research, and those were formerly strong, stable and well-managed businesses. They have a huge impact on employment in tourism, which is one of our main industries. Will the Minister tell me what more the Department will do to reassure businesses in my constituency and elsewhere, and whether he will ask the Chancellor to do more in the forthcoming Budget to help them?

The hon. Lady raises important points. Of course, the Chancellor can do nothing if the Scottish Government do not pass on our support to Scotland, which they have not done for business rates. I know that that is out of her hands, but it is a point she may want to raise with the Scottish Government. The average pub in Scotland is £15,000 worse off a year than its English counterpart because they have not passed through that rates support. The average restaurant or guest house is £30,000 worse off than its English counterpart, and closure rates in Scotland are 30% higher than in England.

Business closures now exceed new business openings, with 345,000 businesses across the UK closing in 2022—the highest since records began. This week, the Financial Times reported that more than 47,000 businesses are on the verge of collapse. Former Prime Minister Johnson used an expletive to describe his party’s commitment to business. His successor well and truly delivered on that commitment by crashing the economy. Is it not time the Government put businesses out of their misery by calling a general election, so that the country can get back to business?

On this side of the House, we are for business because we are from business, and we understand the needs of businesses.

That is an interesting point that the hon. Gentleman makes from a sedentary position. The actual numbers of closures—although of course we are concerned about increases—are below pre-pandemic averages, but nevertheless we have stepped in to help by freezing fuel duty, maintaining the 5p cut and announcing £4.3 billion of business rates support, all to help our SMEs. Closure rates are lower in England than in Labour- run Wales.

Proposed Trade Deal with India: Human Rights

4. If she will take steps to ensure that the proposed trade deal with India includes legal commitments on upholding human rights. (901138)

The UK is a leading advocate for human rights around the world. When we have concerns on human rights, they are raised directly with partner Governments, including at ministerial level, and that includes India. Trade negotiations with India are continuing, to build on our £38 billion trading relationship and get better access to 1.4 billion consumers.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but an industry risk analysis dataset shows that India ranks among the worst performing countries for human rights abuses across a host of key industries. My question is a specific one and I would like an answer please: have the Government consulted human rights monitoring bodies and experts, and are the Government actively considering the impact of this deal on human rights abuses in India?

I congratulate the hon. and learned Lady on her recent election as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The UK engages regularly with the Indian Government and other Governments around the world, bilaterally and multilaterally. Where we have concerns on human rights, we raise them directly with the partner Government, including at ministerial level.

I must say, though, that I am not entirely sure that whatever we do on human rights will make any difference to whether the SNP will support this trade deal. It is not only fans of free trade agreements who have noticed; we have all noticed that the SNP has never supported any trade deal negotiated by either the EU or the UK. It has abstained on Japan and Singapore and has been against Canada, Australia and South Korea—and even against Ukraine. [Interruption.]

I would like to give the Minister another chance, because that was pretty dismal stuff even by his standards. India has one of the poorest human rights records in the world when it comes to child labour. To give the Minister an opportunity to get us to a position where we could potentially support a deal, will he explain how Ministers and the Government are engaging with negotiators in India to tackle child labour there and to ensure that the United Kingdom does not become complicit in that exploitation?

Of course the UK has a very proud record on labour standards and on raising these issues with counterparts at all levels. Lord Ahmad was in India just a couple of weeks ago raising specific human rights issues, including a case that the SNP has raised frequently. The Government are proud of our record on labour protections and have been clear that an FTA with India does not come at the expense of labour standards. But may I refer the hon. Gentleman back to the rhetorical question: when will the SNP ever support a trade deal with anybody?

Minister, you know it is not your responsibility to ask the question. It is for others to ask you the questions. Come on—you know better than that as an ex-chair of the Conservative party.

Houthi Attacks: Supply Chains

5. What steps her Department is taking to help protect supply chains in the context of the Houthi attacks in the Persian Gulf. (901140)

18. What steps her Department is taking to help protect supply chains in the context of the disruption to trade in the Red sea. (901155)

More than 15% of global shipping traffic passes through the Red sea, making it one of the most important strategic waterways in the world. Overall, a whopping 12% of global trade volumes use this trade route and my Department is monitoring the impact of events in the Red sea closely. I was previously the shipping Minister and now I am the Minister for advanced manufacturing, so I know that this is important to industry.

We are working to equip UK businesses with the tools they need to deal with global supply chain issues. Just last week, I published the world’s first ever critical imports and supply chains strategy in collaboration with industry. The strategy includes making the UK Government the centre of excellence for supply chain analysis and risk assessment, supporting our status as the world’s eighth largest manufacturer. This will help UK business to build secure and reliable supply chains, which are vital to the UK’s economy, national security and the delivery of our essential services.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not need to ask a question now, with all you have read out. Come on, Sir Michael!

I will think of one, Mr Speaker. As my hon. Friend has said, we are the eighth largest manufacturer in the world—and where is the centre of manufacturing? It is, of course, the west midlands. What advice is my hon. Friend giving to people such as Andy Street about what can be done to support businesses in the west midlands to overcome what I hope is a temporary difficulty?

My hon. Friend has hit so many markers in that question. He is absolutely right that the west midlands, and Birmingham in particular, are the heart of advanced manufacturing. I suggest that the Mayor catches up on supply chain reporting. I am more than happy to sit down and talk to him about that. We have worked with industry, including in the automotive sector, to ensure that supply chains can be as flexible and resilient as possible. Of course there are concerns about extended routes from that part of the world into Europe, but, as I mentioned earlier, we are the first country in the world to produce a strategy, working with industry to ensure that the UK continues to provide the data that it needs—

At a time when we are beginning to see inflation fall, recent developments in the Red sea are extremely concerning, not just in terms of security, but because of the huge cost to shipping. My constituents do not want an increase in prices as a result of the terror attacks. Can the Minister build on the excellent answer she gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) by reassuring businesses in my constituency that we will do all we can to maintain the flow of goods to and from the UK?

Absolutely. The UK will always stand up for the freedom of navigation and the free flow of trade. We take threats to shipping vessels in the Red sea extremely seriously. My hon. Friend is right to note that, fundamentally, there has been an increase in cost potential, including a 124% increase in freight rates, which is why we have produced a strategy and why we have a council that will continue to work with industry to ensure that supply chains are resilient and the situation has the smallest possible impact on our economy.

Businesses in Rural Areas

The Government provide extensive business support for all businesses, including those in rural areas. As a Member of Parliament for a rural constituency, I am keenly aware of the difficulties that apply specifically to rural businesses because of their location. With other Departments, we focus on access to energy, and we work with the Department for Education on apprenticeships. We also have the British Business Bank’s recovery loan scheme, and the Start Up Loans company, which improves access to finance to help businesses to invest and grow. I believe that that package helps rural businesses.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Sutherland spaceport could be a fantastic boost for local businesses. Equally, floating offshore wind in the North sea presents opportunities for the Wick and Scrabster harbours. To underpin that, we need the transport infrastructure. The public service obligation for Wick airport runs out in March this year, with no word from the Scottish Government on whether it will be continued—it would be a fatal blow if not—and then there is the abject failure to invest in the A9. Promise after promise after promise has been broken. What advice does she have for me?

I would ask the hon. Gentleman to speak to the SNP-led Scottish Government, who are responsible for much of that investment. It is a real shame that the SNP Government do not care about rural businesses or small businesses in Scotland. Office for National Statistics figures show that Scotland lost more than 20,000 businesses last year, and they were mainly the smallest businesses employing up to 50 people. However, I take his point about infrastructure. We have to look at that on a UK-wide basis, and I am prepared to look in a little more detail at what my Department can do to support him.

I think that my right hon. Friend is doing a great job for rural businesses. However, the Met Office, which is under her stewardship, is responsible for providing wind forecasts, which are particularly important given that the Orwell bridge was closed recently. I would like there to be more transparency and, specifically, for the Met Office to publish the wind speed on its app so that there is transparency for all businesses and the bridge is not closed unnecessarily.

That sounds like a significant issue. However, I am pleased to say that the Met Office is the responsibility not of my Department but of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. We can raise the matter with DSIT colleagues to ensure that they look at it as quicky possible.

Small Businesses: North Wales

7. Whether she has had recent discussions with the Welsh Government on the adequacy of Government support for small businesses in north Wales. (901142)

I regularly meet Ministers from the devolved Administrations through inter-ministerial fora to discuss a range of policy issues. SMEs across Wales have access to a range of UK Government services to help them to grow and thrive. The UK Government also recently announced that we will appoint new international trade advisers in Wales to provide tailored support for Welsh SME exporters to take advantage of new export opportunities.

The Labour Welsh Government are reducing rate relief for the hospitality sector from 75% to 40% in April. Following that announcement, Monmouthshire County Council, which is also Labour-run, called on its colleagues to maintain support at the same rate as in England. Business owners have criticised the Welsh Government, saying that it would be deeply unfair, but the outgoing First Minister has rejected their calls, and a number of hospitality businesses have already closed their doors this year. Will the Minister join me in urging the Welsh Government to maintain the 75% support that businesses need, instead of cutting their feet from under them just because Welsh Labour cannot manage a budget?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the Welsh Labour Government need to start supporting businesses and to maintain the 75% relief rate, as we are in England. The Welsh Government have also cut the budget of Business Wales from £26.6 million to £21 million. Figures from UKHospitality show that the average pub in Wales will be £6,800 worse off as a result, compared with England; for the average restaurant, that figure will be £12,000; and for the average hotel, it will be £20,000. I do not know who will be in charge of Labour in Wales, but it is about time that it started to back Welsh business, as the UK Government do.

Foreign Direct Investment: North Northamptonshire

8. What recent steps her Department has taken to help increase foreign direct investment into north Northamptonshire. (901143)

The Department for Business and Trade has done a lot to bring foreign direct investment into the UK. Just last November, we raised £30 billion at our global investment summit. Specifically for north Northamptonshire, my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that his constituents can take advantage of the DBT national and regional investment teams, which work with local partners to provide support for foreign investors who wish to invest and set up in the region.

Recent inward investment into the Kettering constituency includes the Ball Corporation from the US building Europe’s largest and most modern aluminium drinks can manufacturing plant in Burton Latimer, creating 200 new jobs. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate and thank Ball for its confidence and investment in north Northamptonshire’s manufacturing economy, and encourage others to see Kettering—with its superb connectivity and motivated workforce—as an ideal location for further investment?

I am extremely pleased to be able to do so. I congratulate and thank Ball Corporation for placing its investment in Kettering. That is exactly the sort of investment that we want to see all around the UK: it is the levelling-up agenda writ large. I also thank all the officials in my Department, but especially my Ministers, who travel all around the world—including to the US—to promote the UK. We never talk this country down; we let people know that this is a great place to do business, and we are seeing the benefits of that strategy.

Post Office Horizon System: Exoneration of Sub-postmasters

9. When she plans to bring forward legislative proposals to exonerate the remaining sub-postmasters with criminal convictions relating to the failure of the Post Office Horizon system. (901144)

On 10 January, we announced the Government’s intention to bring forward legislation within weeks to overturn the convictions of all those convicted in England or Wales on the basis of Post Office evidence during the Horizon scandal. I met the Justice Secretary only this week to make sure that those plans are on track, and we hope to bring forward that legislation as soon as possible.

Does the Minister have an estimate of how many convictions were made during the Horizon pilot? Will he confirm that those convictions will be included in the legislation, given that they were not made using Horizon data?

We do not know that number yet, but we are very concerned about people who used the pilot version of Horizon and were potentially subject to similar abuses. We do believe they fall under similar compensation schemes, and there is no reason why they would not be covered by the legislation to overturn convictions.

For the legislation to work, postmasters have to come forward. When I asked one of my constituents this weekend why they had not come to me sooner, they said it was because they had signed a non-disclosure agreement, but also because they had had to sign the Official Secrets Act. I thought that was so bonkers that I did not believe it, until I read page 26 of Nick Wallis’s book, which says that postmasters do have to sign the Official Secrets Act. If that mad policy is still going on, will the Minister bring it to an end? Will he tell postmasters all over the country that they are completely at liberty to talk to their MPs about any aspect of the Post Office?

I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work he has done in this area. I understand that the requirement to sign the Official Secrets Act relates to the confidentiality of mail; it does not relate to the confidentiality of issues regarding mistreatment by Post Office Ltd. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point, and I will certainly raise it with Post Office Ltd, but I can confirm that that would not prevent somebody from speaking out, including to their Member of Parliament.

The Minister knows that we are willing to work with the Government on a way to exonerate the sub-postmasters and get them compensation as quickly as possible. The proposals will have to be imperfect, but they represent a clear option for resolving this terrible issue. As a way to ensure safeguards against any potential future misuse of precedent, could cross-party agreement be established as an essential provision for the exercise of powers of this kind?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the constructive way he has engaged with us on this issue. I know that the Justice Secretary spoke to the Leader of the Opposition this week on this very matter, and we are very keen to engage with the hon. Gentleman too. He is right to say the solution is imperfect. We believe it is the least worst option, but of course we will engage with him and make sure that he feels the legislation is in the right place.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, and I hope that exchange gives some reassurance to all colleagues in the House. Will he confirm that all prosecutions that arise from the Horizon pilot scheme will now also be included in the exonerations, given that, although people were technically prosecuted without official Horizon data, it is very much the same issue?

Again, the hon. Gentleman raises a very important point, similar to one made earlier. The circumstances were similar, so we feel there is no reason to exclude people who have been convicted in similar circumstances. Again, I am happy to work with him on that issue.

Trade Barriers

The Government are committed to breaking down barriers to trade through our ambitious programme of free trade agreements. In August last year, the Government announced the border target operating model, which will simplify border processes for both imports and exports. These changes, based on smarter use of data and technology, will put in place new security and biosecurity controls while ensuring they are as simple as possible for businesses to comply with.

The five-times-delayed border checks will come into effect very soon, but those dealing with plant and animal health products are seriously worried about potential delays. Indeed, the chair of the Horticultural Trades Association has pointed out that the process of importing a petunia from the Netherlands has already increased from 19 to 59 steps, and he warns that the

“new border is a disaster waiting to happen”.

What is the Minister doing to ensure that we will have a plentiful supply of imported red roses for Valentine’s day, especially for all those Conservatives on the other side who love each other so much?

I am feeling the hon. Gentleman’s love this morning, Mr Speaker.

We have consulted very widely on the border target operating model. We have put in a lot of time and effort, we have done a lot of consultation, we have been running webinars and putting out leaflets to make sure that businesses are aware, and the introduction of the model will of course be staged.

The hon. Gentleman needs to be careful about what Labour’s plan will be. This week, the EU ambassador to London revealed the fact that Labour’s desire for a food and veterinary agreement is likely to lead to closer dynamic alignment between London and Brussels in the future, which is directly against his party leader’s stated policy of no dynamic alignment.

Post Office Horizon System: Compensation for Sub-postmasters

11. What steps her Department is taking to encourage sub-postmasters who were affected by the failure of the Post Office Horizon system to claim compensation. (901146)

12. What steps her Department is taking to encourage sub-postmasters who were affected by the failure of the Post Office Horizon system to claim compensation. (901147)

Over £153 million has been paid to 2,700 victims. We encourage anyone impacted to use the three compensation schemes available. We have already published the details of the up-front £75,000 fixed-sum offer for group litigation order postmasters on the website, created a new claim form, and written to all eligible members of the GLO scheme to explain the offer further.

The Post Office Horizon scandal has shocked the nation. My constituent Kym Ledgar received a settlement under the historical shortfall scheme, which did not take into account the enormous stress, the extra work in trying to balance the books, the damage to her reputation and the price she and her family paid in lost income, having had to make up the shortfall herself. Does the Minister agree that we need to acknowledge the wider cost of the Post Office’s appalling behaviour? Will he meet me to discuss how those who accepted an offer under the historical shortfall scheme may now receive compensation that truly reflects the impact that the Post Office’s conduct over two decades has had on their lives?

I apologise on behalf of the Government to Kym Ledgar for what she has been through. It is absolutely our intention that everybody gets full and fair compensation, and that is not only for financial losses but for non-pecuniary losses. We have taken a number of steps to ensure that the compensation is fair and delivered swiftly, including by establishing the independent advisory board, on which the noble Lord Arbuthnot sits. We will continue to work with the board and consider what further action is required, but yes, I would of course be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss these matters further.

The Post Office Horizon scandal has made clear to us all what happens when whistleblowers are ignored or silenced. Does my hon. Friend agree that as well as ensuring that victims are properly compensated, we need better legislation to protect whistleblowers? As the Government’s whistleblowing framework review draws to a close, will he meet me to discuss how the outcome of the review can be used to support the Whistleblowing Bill that I presented to the House yesterday?

I thank my hon. Friend for all her work. At one point we were co-chairs of the all-party group for whistleblowing, and she does a tremendous job in raising this issue time and again in the House. We are currently reviewing the effectiveness of the whistleblowing framework in meeting its intended objectives. Every scandal that I have talked about in this House over the years, from the Back Benches and the Front Benches, has come to light because of whistleblowers, who are hugely important. We are reviewing that frame- work. The research for the review is near completion, the Government will set out the next steps in due course, and yes, of course I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that.

I, too, have a constituent who, although she was thankfully not prosecuted, was forced over a period of more than a decade to pay back thousands of pounds every year, and it amounts to a six-figure sum. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) said, this is not just about that pecuniary loss; this is about the impact on my constituent’s family—I will not go into her personal details, but they took a real hit and I wish she had come forward to me sooner. I met her a couple of weeks ago and it really has wrecked her life. She has not yet had any compensation through the shortfall scheme, so I urge the Minister to ensure that such people are properly compensated.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that point. Yes, the compensation scheme is there to compensate and provide redress for financial loss, but also, quite rightly, for personal loss, loss of reputation, impact on health—those kinds of matters. There are two routes open to compensation: the £75,000 fixed-sum award, which is pretty much an immediate payment, or someone can go for a full assessment of losses, which takes into account all those matters. Interim payments are also available. We have paid out £153 million in total across the schemes. I am happy to help the hon. Lady with that specific case, and we are looking to try to expedite the payment of full and fair compensation to all individuals. I am working on a daily basis to try to do that.

SMEs: Late Payment

The Government are committed to tackling late payments. That is why we launched the prompt payment and cash flow review, which was published alongside the autumn statement. The review includes amending payment performance reporting requirements for large businesses, and providing the Small Business Commissioner with more powers to investigate late payments.

Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, but unfortunately late payments continue to blight the ability of small businesses to trade, with an average of £684 million a year being lost. Unfortunately, that is on the increase, with a 7% increase in 2023. I appreciate what the Minister said about another review— I think we had one a few years ago—but what specific actions are the Government taking to address this appalling abuse of power, which is contributing to 50,000 small businesses going under a year?

The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue, and earlier I set out specific actions such as giving the Small Business Commissioner more powers, and producing league tables. We work closely with the Good Business Pays campaign, which produces league tables on this issue, and naming and shaming the people responsible is important. The Government are leading the way, and from April 2024 firms bidding for Government contracts worth more than £5 million will have to demonstrate that they pay their invoices within an average of 55 days, tightening to 45 days in April 2025 and to 30 days in the coming years.

Steel Industry

14. Whether she has had recent discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on taking fiscal steps to help support the steel industry. (901149)

The Chancellor and I meet regularly, and obviously we know and recognise the importance of the steel sector in the UK economy. Our commitment to the sector is clear, and we will be investing more than £500 million in the Port Talbot site to ensure that steelmaking continues in the UK. Without that investment, the 8,000 jobs at the port and the 12,500 jobs in the supply chain would have been at risk.

We are working with Tata, and we have set up a transition board—the hon. Gentleman knows about that because we both serve on it—and we have provided more than £100 million of support for affected employees and the local economy. Last Friday, Tata announced that it will provide an additional £130 million of support for employees facing redundancy. The option was steel- making no longer continuing at Port Talbot, or the investment that we have provided.

Ministers keep spinning this line that Tata Steel was threatening to close down the Port Talbot works and walk away, but they know that was an empty bluff, because the costs of dismantling and remediating the Port Talbot steelworks were vast and utterly prohibitive. Against that backdrop, let us be clear: is it the case that no strings were attached to the £500 million of taxpayers’ money that has been given to Tata Steel? Was that £500 million given by the Prime Minister to Tata Steel with a green light to make 2,800 steelworkers redundant?

I would not want steelworkers to think that we are not working together, and the hon. Member and I work together and will be working together to ensure that steelworkers are protected as much as possible. I think it is extraordinary that the position he is now putting forward is that it would have been better to risk the absolute loss of steelmaking in the UK and then allow the taxpayer to pick up the cost to manage the site.

I believe it far more preferential that we made the largest investment ever in steelmaking to protect more than 5,000 jobs at Port Talbot and the 12,500 jobs in the supply chain—[Interruption.] Fundamentally, we have steelmaking—

Order. It might be better that that conversation is carried on outside, rather than going on across the Benches while the Minister is replying.

At the heart of our decision was two things: continued steelmaking at Port Talbot and protecting steelworkers.

We have recently heard from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence how the west is facing “a pre-war world”. Will the Minister ensure in her conversations with the Treasury that it understands the vital strategic importance of a virgin steelmaking capability here in the UK?

My hon. Friend has a huge amount of knowledge of the steel sector and is a huge champion for Scunthorpe. She knows that we are working incredibly hard with the company in her constituency, and we are waiting for it to respond to the business plans going forward. We know how important virgin steelmaking is, and we accept, because technology has moved on, that going forward 90% of all steel can be made in electric arc furnaces.

Mr Speaker:

“The UK steel industry, the trade unions, and Labour are…proposing an industrial policy worthy of a serious industrial country.”

Those are not my words but those of the world economic editor of The Daily Telegraph writing yesterday. He also said that

“the Government’s minimalist plan…does just half the job, leaving the UK with a stunted second-tier industrial base, the only G20 country lacking a sovereign capability in ‘weapons grade’ primary steel.”

He is right, isn’t he?

The £28 billion that Labour is proposing has no plan behind it, and we are not told what hard workers across the country would have to pay to fill that black hole. Labour has asked for a transition to green steel. It would want us to protect steelworkers and obviously would want to protect advanced manufacturing in the UK. Customers want cleaner steel. Port Talbot could no longer function with its ageing blast furnaces, and our package will save 5,000 jobs at Port Talbot.

Co-operatives and Social Enterprises

This week, I spoke to a conference attended by building societies about how we can increase presence on the high street to help with access to cash and finance facilities. The Government provide extensive business support to all businesses, including social enterprises and co-operatives. The British Business Bank’s recovery loan scheme and start-up loans improve access to finance to help those kinds of businesses to invest and grow.

Co-operatives and social enterprise businesses provide a fairer way of doing business, involve members in greater business decisions and provide economic growth for local areas. However, they are being held back by financial and regulatory constraints. Will the Government match the Labour party’s and the Co-operative party’s ambition of committing to address those challenges and doubling the size of the co-operatives sector?

Personally, I am a big fan of co-operative movements and the regional mutual bank system in Germany, which I have spoken about many times in this place. Of course, the Government supported the Co-operatives, Mutuals and Friendly Societies Act 2023, which helps to maintain the status of co-operatives. Social enterprises and co-operatives can also access support via the business support helpline as well as help through our websites and our network of local growth hubs.

Economic Growth: Regulators

At the autumn statement, we announced the decision to extend the growth duty to Ofgem, Ofwat and Ofcom, alongside a series of reforms to the duty to hold regulators to account for delivering growth in the sectors they regulate. We are also currently consulting on proposals to strengthen the economic regulation of the energy, water and telecoms sectors.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but on retained EU law reform, in the June to December 2023 reporting period there were only two regulatory reforms of note, which were on wine marketing and working time calculations; the rest were technical corrections. What steps is she taking to speed up reform of retained EU law to ensure that regulation works for business and enables growth?

I am glad that my hon. Friend read the report that I sent out this week on what we have been doing. However, I disagree that only two reforms of note have been delivered. We have repealed or reformed more than 2,000 measures. The Port Services Regulations 2019, which were not designed with UK ports in mind, are an example. We have also passed the Financial Services and Markets Act 2023 and the Procurement Act 2023. I remind him that that list is what we are using the schedule for, and there are many other mechanisms in the retained EU law programme to deliver on that road map so that we improve our economy and make it more competitive by making sure that our laws are tailored to our economy.

In support of economic growth, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) cut £235 million from Environment Agency budgets when she was at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Rather than bringing economic growth, that served to bring sewage growth: sewage discharge doubled between 2016 and 2021. I was delighted to hear yesterday that the Government will adopt my Water Quality Monitoring Bill, but will they also restore some of the cut Environment Agency funding to bring back powers as well as duties?

A spending review, where we can look at these things, will be coming up shortly, but I really have to challenge much of what the hon. Gentleman said. It is a misrepresentation to say that the issues going on with sewage are to do with the actions of my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss). This Government have been taking reforms through the Environment Act 2021 to improve the situation throughout multiple Governments, including the one in which his party, the Liberal Democrats, participated during the coalition. So it is very wrong to make that case.

Topical Questions

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.