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Topical Questions

Volume 618: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2016

Over the last month we have made substantial progress across the Department’s responsibilities. Our recently published review of corporate governance will make sure Britain is not only an excellent place to do business, but also is where business is done best. We continue to tackle climate change, ratifying the Paris agreement. My hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and Industry played an important part in the climate discussions in Marrakech, and he and I had the great pleasure of opening the Siemens wind turbine factory in Hull, creating 1,000 new jobs in that great city. By providing an additional £2 billion a year for research and innovation by 2020 and giving British homes and businesses certainty that their electricity demands will be met for the next five years, we are investing in our country’s economic future.

That was a fabulous introduction to my question about the Hendry review. I know the Government have received the review, and I am confident that it makes some clear and useful recommendations, so I would like to know whether the Government intend to make it public soon, and what are their thoughts about some of Charles Hendry’s comments and recommendations?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and would like to put on record my gratitude to Charles Hendry for writing his report. It is important that it is published soon. Charles Hendry is travelling at the moment, but as soon as he is back I will agree with him a date to publish it and he can answer questions on it. It is a substantial document and my hon. Friend will understand that we will want to consider it and make our response in due course.

T5. New research from Edinburgh university finds that electricity generation from wind farms cuts even more greenhouse gas emissions than previously thought: almost 36 million tonnes over six years, the same as taking 2.3 million cars off the road. Meanwhile the Government’s own figures predict their renewables cuts will see 63 million tonnes more CO2 being released into the atmosphere. Will the Minister clarify how the Government plan to continue cutting emissions, as the Leader of the House confirmed to me last week regarding ongoing commitments to climate change targets, while bringing in policies that will bump them up? (907810)

Order. Members need to understand that topical questions were always intended to be briefer. We cannot have these three, four and five sentence questions. What one wants is a quick question.

We will publish early our emissions reductions plan in the new year. It is a legal requirement on the Government to set out exactly how we expect to meet our long-term carbon commitments.

T2. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), for the recent meeting in relation to my private Member’s Bill on the regulation of certain laser pens. Will she clarify when the consultation’s call for public evidence will start and when the Government will come forward with their conclusions? (907807)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work to bring the misuse of laser pointers to the Government’s attention. The Government are concerned about the misuse of high-powered laser pointers and will seek evidence early next year on the potential options for tackling such misuse.

T7. A review by academics at the Leeds University Business School and the University of Exeter found that every pound invested in the Union Learning Fund results in a return of £12.70, leading to an estimated net contribution to the economy of £1.45 million and an estimated return to the Exchequer of £3.57 for each pound spent. With that in mind, what steps are being taken to ensure much better engagement with the unions? (907812)

T3. A construction business my constituency has alerted me to corporate mandate fraud, by which a fraudster pretends to be a company and asks its customers to change the bank account details for future payments. What steps can the Minister take to alert all businesses to such criminal behaviour? What discussions has she had with the Home Secretary about bringing the perpetrators to justice? (907808)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to this type of fraud, which affects businesses in all sectors. It is essential that business owners and staff know what to do when they are notified of changes to bank account details. The best pointer in the first instance is the advice available on the Action Fraud website.

T10. Research published this week by Scottish Renewables shows that Scottish expertise in renewable energy is in demand around the world, with Scottish companies involved in projects worth £125 million over five years across 43 countries. What support will the UK Government give to the sector in the industrial strategy? (907815)

The transition to a clean energy system is fundamental to our energy strategy, and significant supply chain opportunities will flow from that. As for the Government’s commitment to renewable energy, this country has seen one of the fastest deployments of renewable energy across Europe since 2010, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have renewed that commitment through the contract for difference auctions.

T4. With engineering and textiles doing particularly well in Huddersfield and Colne Valley, will the Department continue to commit to an industrial strategy that builds on our regional economic strengths? (907809)

We certainly will. It is important that the industrial strategy and business policy recognise the strengths of particular places. Yorkshire is a particularly fine example.

Two weeks ago, GB Energy ceased trading, affecting 160,000 customers. Credit must go to Ofgem for ensuring that those customers were promptly transferred to another supplier, but does the Secretary of State believe that the regulator’s approach to risk management needs to change? Instead of carrying out little or no assessment of the viability of new entrants and then picking up the pieces if they fall, more rigorous financial health checks need to be undertaken to minimise the risk of failure, disruption to customers and a loss of confidence in switching to new energy providers.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Like him, I commend Ofgem for the arrangements that it put in place. He raises a reasonable point, and as Chairman of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee he will want to work with me to ensure that the right arrangements are in place.

T6. Will my hon. Friend ensure that those who benefit from self-employment are aware of the different kinds of national insurance contributions? Will she also ensure that they pay the correct NI class, so that they are able to access the full range of support available to other types of jobseeker in the event that they re-enter the jobs market? (907811)

Earlier this year, the Prime Minister commissioned Matthew Taylor to carry out an independent review of modern employment practices, such as in my hon. Friend’s example, as part of ensuring that our economy works for everyone. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will also consider my hon. Friend’s suggestion.

The energy-intensive industries compensation scheme is due to end in April 2017. The Government have promised to bring forward legislation to exempt energy-intensive industries from renewable obligations and feed-in tariffs, but we are still waiting for that to happen. As things stand, the steel industry is therefore looking down the barrel of having to go back to the crippling energy costs it faced until the compensation package was introduced. Will the Secretary of State assure us that measures will be put in place before April 2017 to ensure that we do not go back to that situation?

The discussions we have had with the steel sector emphasise the importance of energy costs, and our commitment is to work with the sector to bring them down.

T8. Skills have been removed from the Department’s portfolio, yet for many businesses in the Bradford district access to talent remains a key challenge. So how will the Secretary of State ensure that education policy dovetails with his Department’s priorities to ensure that businesses have access to the skills they need? (907813)

With higher and further education policy, apprenticeships and skills in a single Department, the Government can now take a comprehensive, end-to-end view of skills and education. This Government will, of course, support people from their early years through to postgraduate study and work.

Is it not time for the Secretary of State to order an investigation into the Royal Bank of Scotland’s practices on lending to small businesses?

T9. Now that the future of Hinkley Point is secure, what further plans does my right hon. Friend have for nuclear energy to form a key part of our energy supply industry? (907814)

It is important that nuclear energy should form a key part of that. One of the pieces of neglect of the previous Labour Government is that they presided over the forecast closure of our nuclear fleet without making any plans to replace it. When I made the statement about Hinkley Point C, I also said that this would be the beginning of a new era of civil nuclear power in this country, and that is absolutely right.

In the week when we saw a great deal between Tata Steel and the Community trade union, largely down to Roy Rickhuss and the return of Ratan Tata, we also saw the merger of Baosteel and Wuhan Iron and Steel. What risk assessment has the Department made of market economy status for China and its effects on the British steel industry?

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to both Ratan Tata and Roy Rickhuss, as both the company and the unions have worked constructively together, and the progress is welcome. I have, with the Minister for Climate Change and Industry, a very regular dialogue with both employers and trade unions. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been active in making sure that we have the right trade defences against practices where countries dump steel unfairly in the UK market.

Although business rates are set by the Valuation Office Agency, rather than by the Government, it is right the Government then try to soften the blow for those most affected. Will the Minister expand on what is being done to protect the businesses using solar panels that have been adversely impacted by high business rates?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that these rates are set independently. She will also know that the overall net effect of the reforms is to reduce business rates and that some transitional relief is in place. She is also right to highlight the challenges in respect of businesses that have installed solar for their own use, and we are working through that issue.

When will the Government publish their response to the Law Commission’s report on “Consumer Prepayments on Retailer Insolvency”? We need to do more to protect consumers when businesses go into administration.

I will note the hon. Lady’s comments and I will write to her. I am sorry, but I did not hear all of the question.

INEOS, Tata Chemicals and Banner Chemicals in my constituency provide high-quality, high-wage, high-skilled jobs. What consideration has been given to energy price competiveness in respect of our European neighbours, as a more competitive energy price would disproportionately benefit the northern powerhouse?

As I said to a number of hon. Members, the energy prices that are paid by businesses generally, and by energy-intensive industries in particular, are a crucial part of competitiveness, and we want to work with these industries to reduce the costs.

Nissan has benefited from a pre-Brexit deal. What reassurance can the Secretary of State offer Brighton-based businesses such as American Express and EDF that, after Brexit, they will still be able to have an open and free relationship with the EU?

American Express is a very important employer in Brighton, and it is very welcome here. It has located itself in this country because Britain is a fantastic place from which to do business. That is the message that I receive wherever I travel to in the world. There is great appetite to invest in Britain, and the hon. Gentleman will know of our recent success stories. I hope that American Express will continue to invest more and employ more in his constituency.

Following the collapse of the Greater Lincolnshire devolution deal, the LEPs in Humber and Greater Lincolnshire take on a greater significance, but there is concern that some central Government funding may be lost as a result of the collapse of the deal. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the LEPs will be used to channel the funds from his Department when suitable projects are identified?

As my hon. Friends on the Front Bench have said, we regard local growth as a very important component of our industrial strategy, and my hon. Friend knows that I have been a big champion of local growth, so I want to see more of that. Obviously, certain offers were part of the proposed deal, but these deals are never compulsory, and if the councils and the businesses do not want to proceed then it is a matter for them.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, as part of the industrial strategy, the future development of enterprise zones will be of great economic benefit, especially to the manufacturing sector?

I agree that enterprise zones have been successful. They have provided some tax advantages and, in many cases, a simplified regulatory environment, which is very attractive to businesses. Their experience commends them.