House of Commons
Tuesday 14 March 2017
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
Between 1990 and 2015 the UK’s emissions have fallen by over a third while our economy has grown by over 60%. Since 2010, Government policy has contributed to a trebling of renewable electricity capacity and encouraging the take-up of low-carbon heating and ultra-low emission vehicles.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Businesses in the Scottish renewables sector predict that one in six jobs is at risk over the next six months due to changes in UK Government support. Will the Minister take action now to reverse those changes, to make sure we grasp the opportunities that our fantastic national energy resources provide?
Few countries, certainly in Europe, have done more than we have to expand renewable energy electricity capacity since 2010, and the low-carbon economy sector now employs over 220,000 people. The hon. Lady questions our continued commitment to renewable energy; I refer her to the public commitment to forthcoming auctions to support the less mature renewable technologies.
A recent Chatham House report as well as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s own following study on North American woody biomass both concluded that the use of these pellets for energy production in the UK is high-carbon. Given that and that a review was promised of bio-energy policies in 2012, will the Government conduct an urgent review and impose a moratorium on new subsidies for biomass?
Given that Scotland’s renewable energy will be cheaper than that produced at Hinkley by the time it is complete and that Brexit is already pushing up the build costs of these reactors in an environment where the UK Government have unilaterally decided to abandon the protection of Euratom, will you scrap the costly and inefficient nuclear obsession in favour of a low-carbon future?
Frankly, previous Governments neglected their responsibility to this country to invest in upgrading its power infrastructure, but this Government are grasping that challenge. As I have said, few countries have done more to make the transition to cleaner energy, with a trebling of capacity in renewable electricity, and the commitment to Hinkley offers us the potential for 7% of the country’s electricity—low-carbon based power.
Colleagues in both Houses have signed an offshore blade made by MHI Vestas on the Isle of Wight, which is also arranging a schools outreach programme. Does my hon. Friend agree that this sort of initiative raises awareness of how low-carbon renewable energy technology can ensure that the UK reaches its potential of exporting its first-class engineering and advanced manufacturing worldwide?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and wholly endorse what he says. The Secretary of State and I saw at first-hand when visiting the new Siemens offshore wind blade turbine factory in Hull just what this technology and engineering can do to inspire, in particular, young people in the area about opportunities for employment in this exciting sector.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her election to the Select Committee, and she is absolutely right: energy innovation is critical to both our future ability to reduce the cost of decarbonisation and unlocking the industrial opportunities inside the low-carbon energy sector. We are reviewing our plans in relation to our energy innovation portfolio. The nuclear industry is a very important part of those plans, and I hope we will have something to say very shortly.
The Minister will be aware that we in the south-west do not share the Scottish National party’s negative view of the Hinkley Point power station project, but will he reassure me about what work the Government will do to ensure that young people have the skills to take the jobs that will become available in these industries?
I thank my hon. Friend for correcting the impression that investment in new jobs in the nuclear industry is somehow bad news, given the commitment that 65% of the content of Hinkley should be supplied from this country. Just as important is the contribution it makes to upgrading our power infrastructure and making sure this country has the ability to access reliable low-carbon energy in the future.
Last week, the Budget failed to stop the 800% rise in business rates for companies that have installed solar panels. This week, research published in the journal Nature Energy states that to achieve our targets set out in the Paris agreement we need to set out longer-term plans beyond 2050, yet the Government have now dithered for five years and still refuse to publish their own implementation plan, even up to 2030. How does the Minister propose to increase our low-carbon exports when he cannot even set out how we will achieve our medium-term climate targets?
The hon. Gentleman accuses us of dithering, but our performance on emissions during the last Parliament was one of the most successful since 1990. He talks about delaying the emissions plan but he will know that the fifth carbon budget was set only last July. This country, and this Government, have a proud record of proving that we can reduce emissions while growing our economy, and we will continue to build on that.
With more than 30 large wind turbines in the borough, Kettering is coming close to generating more green electricity than it consumes, but what incentives are there in the business rates and planning systems to reward housing developments and business start-ups that are low carbon?
I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out how much progress we are making at the local level as well as nationally on the transition to green power. This has been facilitated by substantial investment through public subsidies and, as we look to encourage the deployment of renewable energy through competitive markets—preferably subsidy free—we are looking at what else we can do to facilitate that using the tools available to the Government.
Our concern on Hinkley is that the Government appear to be stacking the deck in favour of nuclear power over the much cheaper renewable energy. The strike price for Hinkley was £92.50 in 2012, compared with a much lower £82.50 for onshore wind in 2015, yet in the value-for-money assessment the Government assume a £90 strike price for onshore wind. Why are they inflating the price for renewables in comparison to Hinkley?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not want to give the wrong impression. He knows from his experience that one of the keys to a successful energy policy is diversity of supply. That is the key to energy security, which is the primary responsibility of every Government. Ensuring diversity of supply is absolutely evident in what we as a Government are trying to do.
The Minister has completely missed the point of my question, which was about comparisons. The Government commissioned Frontier Economics to look at the whole systems impact of electricity generation models, yet despite repeated parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests the report has not been published. If the Government have nothing to hide, why are they hiding things?
I am not aware of hiding anything. I am trying to make a point about diversity of energy supply. I would make a further point about prices, in answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question. One of the most encouraging things is the progress we have made in our policy structure on driving greater competition, through contracts for difference, in order to get better prices for consumers and for the taxpayer from the public subsidies that are available. I hope that that will be evident very soon in the results of the forthcoming auctions.
We are committed to making the UK the global go-to nation for scientists, innovators and tech investors. That is why, as part of the industrial strategy, we have announced an increase of £4.7 billion in public research and development funds—the biggest increase in science support for 40 years.
I welcome the Government’s recent £14 million investment to develop space technologies in Leicester, including the university-led national space park. What further steps could the Minister take to encourage the space industrial cluster in the midlands?
The space industry has an important role to play in driving growth across the UK, and the Government are working closely with the sector to make that a reality. I am pleased that the Leicester and Leicestershire local enterprise partnership is grasping this opportunity. The Satellite Applications Catapult has funded a centre of excellence in the east midlands for the past three years, focused on linking industry to local and national expertise. In addition, the UK Space Agency is supporting business incubators in Leicester, Nottingham and Loughborough to develop innovative space start-ups.
Page 98 of the Government’s industrial strategy talks about the importance of long-term institutions. Many of those who work in the science-based industries in Wirral and elsewhere feel that the single market is a long-term institution that has served them well. Has the Minister asked the Prime Minister to change course and keep our country in the single market?
The UK is a powerhouse of academic research, and our collaborations with institutions in Europe and around the world are an important part of that success. Through the industrial strategy, we want to continue to play to our great strengths as a science and research powerhouse, and we will continue to welcome agreements to collaborate with our European partners on major science and technology programmes in years to come.
The European Medicines Agency, which is based in the UK, is one reason why our pharma industry is so successful. What will happen to the agency when we crash out of the EU? What is the Science Minister doing to ensure that we have effective regulations that support our pharma industry?
The right hon. Lady should wait until we have embarked upon the negotiations for our future relationship with European funding streams. We anticipate that we will continue to collaborate closely with our European partners, so that our scientists can develop institutions such as the one she mentions to the benefit of this country for years to come.
Scientifica is a Wealden-based science and technology business that won the 2016 British Chambers of Commerce awards for business of the year and export business of the year, and I joined Scientifica members at the London Stock Exchange to open the markets yesterday. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Scientifica on championing and promoting the best of British science and research?
I am delighted to congratulate Scientifica. Companies such as that are doing brilliantly at exploiting the research that is undertaken in our science base to this country’s benefit and maximising the commercial opportunities arising from our significant public investment into R and D.
Looking beyond the two-year period to when we exit the EU, will the Minister ensure liaison with the devolved Administrations—hopefully all fully restored before then—so that excellent facilities such as the science centres in Belfast and Londonderry can be availed of and replicated right across the UK to ensure that we get the maximum advantage?
Oil and Gas Sector
The oil and gas sector is important for the UK’s economy, for energy security and for jobs. That is why the Government have established the Oil and Gas Authority as a strong, independent regulator over the past two years, providing a £2.3 billion package of support to encourage investment and exploration in the UK. In the spring Budget last week, the Chancellor announced that the Government will consider how tax could be used to assist sales of late-life oil and gas assets in the North sea, helping to keep them productive for longer.
Do this Government stand by or reject comments, which are in contrast to industry voices, made by the Scottish Conservatives’ energy spokesman, Alexander Burnett MSP, that the oil and gas industry does not need any help and that
“People in Aberdeen are not asking for more at the moment”?
I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that I will not comment on that specific economic issue. However, I admire his awareness of the oil spot price. The Government have managed to engineer a significant fall in oil and gas supply costs on the continental shelf—[Interruption.]
Order. A cerebral Minister is at the box responding to a pertinent inquiry, and the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell) is behaving in a mildly boorish fashion—very uncharacteristically. I am sure that this is an exceptional case.
UK Space Sector
The UK’s space sector is world leading. A quarter of the world’s telecommunication satellites are either built here or are built with key UK components. Our recently announced draft Spaceflight Bill will enable UK businesses to enter a global market worth an expected £25 billion over the next 20 years. Our industrial strategy will ensure that we build on that and continue to be a global leader in this very important sector.
Many people think that my constituency, North Swindon, is out of this world, and they are not wrong, as we are home to the UK Space Agency. Will the Secretary of State therefore tell me how the upcoming Spaceflight Bill will enable the UK to build on its strengths in science, research and innovation?
North Swindon has a stellar Member of Parliament, too. The space sector is one of our most important industries, and the Spaceflight Bill, in particular, will move us forwards and enable us to be in the business not only of manufacturing satellites but of launching them, which will give us further industrial opportunities from which not only Swindon but the whole UK can benefit.
The collaborative approach of the UK aerospace sector is one of the lessons that the Government need to remember in the difficult years ahead. Will the Secretary of State please come to one of the most important aerospace sectors in the country in north-east Wales to see its excellent work and the potential threats to one of the most successful industries in our country?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. One of the reasons why the space and satellite sector has been so successful is the collaboration between the firms, the Government and the research institutions, which is the way forward. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), will visit north Wales and the facilities that the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) mentions, and I look forward to hearing all about it.
I am glad that my hon. Friend is not questioning me on inertia ratios and matrices. The capacity is there, but it requires planning ahead. That is why the industrial strategy mentions the need to invest in science and research and development—it is important that we do that—and the need to look forward to make sure that we have the skills in the workforce to fulfil the order books. The purpose of having a long-term industrial strategy is so that we are prepared to reap those very opportunities.
Exiting the EU: Small Businesses
Small businesses are vital to the economy, and we are providing additional access to finance and support to help scale up businesses so that they are able to reap the benefits of future trade with the EU and the rest of the world.
I wish everybody a happy Pi Day—“pi,” the mathematical version, not “pie,” the pork version.
The Conservative party broke its 2015 manifesto commitment by failing to consult the business community on the changes to national insurance for the self-employed. Will the Government now address the ongoing uncertainty that those changes could bring to workers’ rights, such as maternity and paternity pay, sick pay, annual leave and pensions?
The Government are absolutely committed, as the Prime Minister has said on several occasions, to protecting workers’ rights as we leave the European Union. And not just to protect those rights but to enhance them, if necessary. She has set up the Taylor review to examine the details.
A number of small businesses in the oil and gas sector supply chain have been hit disproportionately by the oil price reduction. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig) and I held a meeting last week to encourage young businesses to access different methods of capital financing so that they can grow. What are the UK Government doing to encourage such businesses to access capital finance?
Although support for businesses in Scotland is largely devolved, the British Business Bank funds a vast number of companies in Scotland. It has provided £415 million of finance for Scottish companies, including through start-up loans. In addition, more than 1,600 companies in Scotland benefit from the enterprise finance guarantee scheme.
Small and medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of the south-west, and much effort is being put into upping productivity in the region. We in Taunton Deane welcome recent Government investment in a lot of infrastructure and the work that is being done on skills. However, to give us a real fillip, will the Minister, or perhaps someone else from the Department, agree to come to Taunton’s annual business conference on 6 June to give a boost to the things that the Government can help us with?
One advantage for small businesses of the United Kingdom leaving the EU is that the House will be free to repeal unwanted EU regulations. What steps is the Minister taking to consult small businesses so that she can identify those regulations?
I assure my hon. Friend that we consult small businesses all the time. The Department for Exiting the European Union regularly engages with the Federation of Small Businesses. We will, in due course, ask that Department to hold a roundtable for small businesses to discuss the very issues that he raises.
Small Business Growth
I am glad that the hon. Lady is so keen to hear my answer to this question.
We support small business growth by ensuring that small businesses can access finance and wider support. The British Business Bank is already supporting more than 54,000 smaller businesses with £3.4 billion of finance, and I am leading a taskforce to enable SMEs to accelerate their growth potential and realise their growth prospects quicker.
I know that Rugby is a great place to run a business, but many small businesses continue to tell me that an obstacle to their expansion is still a shortage of suitable industrial premises. At a time when our authority is preparing its local plan, what discussions has my hon. Friend had with her counterparts in the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that adequate land is allocated for the development of business units?
We work closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government, and I recently co-chaired a successful roundtable with my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning and providers of finance. We will be having a further meeting, and I shall obviously consider the needs of businesses in Rugby for more space.
Small businesses in Doncaster have expressed concern to me about how they can access apprenticeship schemes. Will the Minister work with the Department for Education and draw up a regional analysis—especially for Yorkshire and the Humber—of how small businesses can access those schemes effectively, particularly in the light of the apprenticeship levy?
We will certainly talk to businesses in the Doncaster region, as well as to those elsewhere in Yorkshire, but I am delighted to say that only 1.3% of businesses will actually pay the apprenticeship levy. For all other businesses, particularly small businesses, the Government will fund 90% of training costs following the introduction of the levy proper next month.
Last week’s announcement on business rates by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will provide welcome relief to hundreds of independent small businesses in my constituency. Will the Minister join me in congratulating our tourist management organisation, Visit Bath, as it focuses more attention on the marketing of our independent small businesses in Bath in domestic and international markets, which will bring jobs and growth to my constituency?
As chair of the all-party group on disability, I have been hearing from disabled entrepreneurs that they still have to face far too many barriers, including with regard to access to affordable loans, peer mentoring and information, even through the Government Gateway. What specific measures are the Government taking to support disabled entrepreneurs and what more can be done to address these very important issues?
I thank the hon. Lady for her excellent question. I work closely with the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, who is leading huge initiatives to improve opportunities for people with disabilities. I will raise with my hon. Friend the specific question of entrepreneurs with disabilities.
The truth is that the Government have to show a lot more love for small businesses to reinforce the truth that the Conservatives are the party for entrepreneurs. Will my hon. Friend start that by eliminating the time limits on the enterprise investment scheme for small businesses, and by finding a way, after we leave the EU, of reducing the compliance with regulations for small businesses to a single check mark?
As my hon. Friend knows, I am a great lover of small businesses and entrepreneurs, and I think that I can speak for the rest of the Government in that regard. He knows that the EU governs time limits and caps on the EIS at the moment. What happens following the Brexit negotiations will be a matter for the Treasury.
I do not think that small businesses are really feeling the love after last week’s Budget. A report by the Federation of Small Businesses entitled “37 problems and tax is one” states that the
“proposed National Insurance tax grab on this group is an absolute kick in the teeth, just at a time when we need to create more entrepreneurs, not fewer.”
The Minister says that the Government consult the Federation of Small Businesses, but perhaps they might listen to it in future and do what it suggests as well.
The small business world must feel more love from this Government than it would from Labour, were it to take our place in government.
On the hon. Gentleman’s specific question, I know that the FSB lobbied hard on a number of points, including national insurance, business rates and the quarterly reporting of tax accounts. On the latter two, it was very pleased with what the Chancellor provided. With regard to national insurance, the hon. Gentleman knows that more than 60% of people who are self-employed will actually benefit from the changes mooted by the Chancellor last week.
Just yesterday I was a few miles away from my hon. Friend’s constituency in Carrington, opening a new combined-cycle gas turbine plant. A few weeks before that, I was in Folkestone to see the new interconnectors being built through the channel tunnel. Both schemes remind us of the Government’s commitment to the UK’s energy infrastructure, underscored by a capacity market and contracts for difference. We are also investing £320 million in new heat infrastructure, which underlines the size of our whole commitment.
Base load energy supply is fundamental to delivering our energy needs. Solar and wind power do not provide base load, and there is a pressure not to increase the consumption of hydrocarbons, so does my hon. Friend agree that, in the absence of energy storage capacity, future investment must go to the nuclear industry, especially small modular reactors?
As my hon. Friend knows, we are spending a great deal of time working with developers, with new investment, alongside the plans that are already being executed at Hinkley. Small modular reactors could be part of that conversation. However, there are many possible storage technologies that might come on stream over the next decade or two; undoubtedly, they will also be an important part of the picture.
The country needs 21st century systems such as smart metering. Will the Minister update the House on the progress of the roll-out, and will he have a word with the energy companies to stop them blaming the Government for smart metering being part of the hike in energy prices that is ripping off the consumer?
Tidal energy gives the UK an opportunity to provide a clean and predictable source of renewable energy. It is a sector in which we have world-leading business expertise in the Solent region. Will my hon. Friend consider giving tidal a higher priority in the UK energy strategy so that we can maintain our competitive edge?
The Minister mentioned the capacity market. I am sure he will agree that the prime purpose of that market has been to procure new infrastructure capacity. Will he tell me how many new gas-fired power stations have been procured with the £3.4 billion that has been spent so far on the capacity market? What plans does he have to improve that number?
With no common definition of the “gig economy”, numbers vary in terms of how many workers are involved in it. We have commissioned new research, to be published this summer, which will look at the number of individuals working through digital platforms in the UK and at their experiences.
The number of freelancing moms has increased by 79% since 2008. Although I welcome the Government’s announcement that they will consult further in the summer on fairer maternity pay for self-employed moms, this was recommended 13 months ago. Why has it taken the Government so long to act on this crucial issue for these women when it took a stroke of a pen to increase their taxes?
As I said in my previous answer on national insurance, the increase in taxes, which itself is under review, will be ruling out—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] In terms of the maternity and paternity issues raised by the hon. Lady, I should hasten to add, the consultation will run its course this summer and she will have an answer before the end of the year.
Does the Minister begin to understand the sense of grievance on the part of the growing army of the self-employed who are reluctant conscripts to self-employment in the gig economy? They work in a twilight world of insecurity without basic rights, but they will now have to pay more in tax although there was not one measure in the Budget to put the burden on the shoulders of those truly responsible: the Ubers of this world.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the Taylor review is currently examining all the issues that he raises. I am very concerned about the plight of some low-paid workers—they may well actually be workers, rather than self-employed. That is up to the courts and the Government to conclude later this year, but I assure him that we take the issues he raises very seriously.
Industrial Strategy: West Midlands
Last week, we published the midlands engine strategy. It is further demonstration that this Government are committed to investing in the midlands, a region that has seen over 180,000 more people in employment since 2010.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Telford is seeing increasing inward investment from businesses in the automotive supply chain such as Polytec and Magna’s Cosma, bringing real jobs and growth to Telford. Does he agree that Telford, with its reputation for innovation and advanced manufacturing, is set to play a key role in the midlands engine strategy, and will he congratulate those businesses on helping to build a successful future for Telford?
I will indeed. My hon. Friend’s constituency, which includes Coalbrookdale, has a good claim to be the cradle of the first industrial revolution—[Interruption.] It is perhaps a disputed claim, but I think Abraham Darby, in 1709, was fairly early. However, now, Telford is at the heart of the fourth industrial revolution, as my hon. Friend says. The T54 site is proving to be a very important location for automotive sector supply chain.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one pivotal thing that needs to be in an industrial strategy for the west midlands is closing the skills gap that has held back the west midlands for too long, so that areas such as the black country can continue to work to become leading specialists in things such as aerospace, automotive and advanced manufacturing, which are critical to the agenda of the Conservative candidate for west midlands Mayor, Andy Street?
I agree with my hon. Friend—he is absolutely right. The reputation of the black country is very strong. There is the phrase
“Made in the Black Country, Sold around the World”,
but to fulfil that we need good skills. Andy Street, being a person of great business experience, is the best person available to bring that business acumen to bringing more businesses to the whole of the west midlands.
In passing, may I say that it was the black country that was the birthplace of the industrial revolution, not Coalbrookdale? However, on transport spending, which is key to the industrial strategy for the west midlands, when does the Secretary of State expect to persuade his colleague the Secretary of State for Transport to spend as much per capita in the west midlands as in London?
The hon. Gentleman, who is an assiduous reader of these things, will see that, in the industrial strategy, we propose a commitment to upgrade infrastructure right across the country. I hope he will respond to that so that when we have the Budget later in the year, we will be in a position to make further such announcements.
The self-employed have an important role to play. One trend that colleagues on both sides of the House will know of is that the development of supply chains is one of the key sources of innovation in many industries. Within that, start-up businesses, including those run by the self-employed, can make a big contribution to making us attractive for jobs and new businesses.
We have had great success over the years in developing key sectors, including aerospace and the automotive sector. To build on this, we have set out proposals for new business-led sector deals in the industrial strategy. The first set of deals is already under development. We are taking steps to drive growth in sectors across the economy, including with funding for science, infrastructure and technical education.
Does the Secretary of State share my concern that the implementation of an industrial strategy led by the big players will focus solely on the big players? What is he doing to ensure that the small and medium-sized enterprises in those sectors, which are often the engine rooms, get their fair say and their fair share?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not the case. I have regular discussions with the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce and smaller businesses right across the country. The supply chain, and making our country more attractive to supply chain businesses, are absolutely foundational to our industrial success, and that involves a particular regard for small businesses.
Cyber-security is one of the most important sectors for this country’s growth, but the UK has the highest skills gap in cyber-security in the world. Does the Secretary of State think that the Government’s current commitment to educate 1% of our students in cyber-security by 2021 is anywhere near good enough?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. If we are to take advantage of the opportunities that exist, we need to upgrade our technical education. That is why in last week’s Budget the Chancellor made such a clear commitment, prominent in the industrial strategy, to transform the level of technical education, including to increase by 50% the hours of tuition that are available. Cyber-security is one of the areas in which I would expect that to be applied.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is an important sector, as has been evident from our discussions this morning. That reflects the track record of working together that will continue and be reinforced. I think that all Members across the House will have been as delighted as I was that Boeing made its commitment to its first ever UK plant in Sheffield, showing how attractive we are to advanced manufacturing businesses such as that.
The BEIS Committee’s recent report stated that the industrial strategy Green Paper
“provides little clarity on how…sectoral deals will work in practice”,
and that it appears to lack “political will”, falling short of
“providing a clear framework for decision making in the long term.”
Is it lack of clarity or lack of political will that has led to a bespoke Brexit deal for certain manufacturers while leaving others, and indeed other industries, in a state of uncertainty?
May I welcome the hon. Lady to her first BEIS oral questions? I see her predecessor behind her. She is, I think, my third opposite number in the eight months that I have had this job. The first was appointed in the summer, the second in the autumn, and she was appointed in the winter. I noticed this week that the birds were singing and the sun was out, so I hope that is not bad news for the hon. Lady. On her points about the industrial strategy, the sector deals that we have proposed have been widely welcomed. We have set out a number of initial deals in, for example, life sciences and the creative industries. We are already talking to other sectors such as the steel sector, and a lot of colleagues in the House will want to see that taken forward.
Oh, the Secretary of State is cheeky! He might want to refer to the report, because it also states that the White Paper on exiting the EU failed to meaningfully refer to an industrial strategy
“and reinforces a lack of coordination between the Government’s major challenge and its principal plank of business policy.”
Given that last week’s Budget failed to mention Brexit or the industrial strategy, does the Secretary of State agree with the recent Foreign Affairs Committee report that the Government have provided “no evidence” of industrial contingency planning in the event of no deal? If that is so, what is his no deal plan?
I say gently to the hon. Lady that she will have to do a bit better than that. I have the Budget here. She says that it does not mention the industrial strategy. I can tell her that it is mentioned in the first paragraph on the first page, and throughout. Given her interest in this, she ought to read the Budget.
In my hon. Friend’s area, as in every area of the country, the opportunities for the supply chain to be attracted to and to locate in this country—to supply the major manufacturers and service providers, but also to export around the world—is one of the key themes emerging from the sector deals that are being negotiated.
Nearly £56 billion has been invested in renewable energy since 2012. In the Budget last year, my right hon. Friend the former Chancellor of the Exchequer announced £730 million of annual support for less established renewable energy projects, including offshore wind. In the previous autumn statement, the renewable heat incentive was announced, at £1.15 billion by 2021.
We have heard a lot about the importance of small business this morning. There are 44,000 small businesses that have their own solar microgenerators. Currently, they are exempt from business rates, but from 1 April they face an 800% increase in business rates, which is clearly damaging for them and for the solar industry. I hope that that is not deliberate, so will the Minister meet the Chancellor to see what can be done to relieve the situation?
Of course, the impact of rates differs from company to company as regards their solar panels. Three quarters of businesses are projected to have rates that fall next year and there is of course transitional rates relief, but the Department has long recognised the problem in some cases to which she refers, and we are in active discussion with other Departments about it.
Energy Supply Market: Competition
I will respond shortly to the Competition and Markets Authority report, and I will take steps to increase competition and help consumers.
As well as continuing the consultation on our industrial strategy Green Paper, we are acting on its diagnosis. Last week’s Budget set out our plan to transform technical education—increasing the hours students are taught by 50%, increasing funding for technical education by £500 million a year and establishing new institutes of technology. We announced in the Budget the first £270 million of projects under the industrial strategy challenge fund, including a world-leading investment in the development, design and manufacture of batteries to power the next generation of electric vehicles, and we announced a £100 million fellowship fund to attract the world’s brightest minds to come and work in the United Kingdom.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend is planning to visit AstraZeneca’s Macclesfield site, the largest pharmaceutical site in the United Kingdom, in the near future. Will he tell the House what plans the Government have to support the life sciences further as part of its northern powerhouse strategy?
My hon. Friend, who is a great champion of the life sciences as well as of the Cheshire economy, knows that the opportunity to negotiate a sector deal for life sciences, which is being led by Sir John Bell, will be good for the whole country, but will have particular relevance to Cheshire and Macclesfield. I am looking forward to visiting his constituency to see the facilities for myself.
Having dipped my toes into controversy by talking about places with claims to be the cradle of the industrial revolution, I am certainly not going to nominate the best local newspaper in the country—suffice it to say that I gather the Foreign Secretary began his illustrious career on the Express & Star, although I do not know whether that shows its prescience, or whether it has recovered from that particular judgment. Local newspapers make a vital contribution to the success of local business, and I am delighted to hear about the initiative that the Express & Star is promoting.
The new phase of the “Get in Go Far” campaign focuses on helping small employers understand the benefits of apprenticeships. The National Apprenticeship Service supports that by contacting small businesses that have previously engaged with the programme. That will be of great benefit to small and medium-sized enterprises in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
Making ourselves attractive as a country to the workforce and making sure that we are the best place to operate a business and to work is an important theme of the strategy. I look forward to the hon. Lady’s contribution to the consultation, and if that issue does not have the emphasis that she thinks it needs, we will have the opportunity to address that.
I quite agree with my hon. Friend. That demonstrates the need for all businesses, especially SMEs, to take advantage of our target of 3 million apprenticeships and the huge improvement in the quality of apprenticeships that the National Apprenticeship Service supports.
The UK is the No. 1 place in Europe for inward investment in technology, and the Government’s industrial strategy will deliver the Prime Minister’s vision of Britain as a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead. We are making sure that our regulatory landscape and visa system are up to that challenge through a range of measures, including the tier 1 exceptional talent visa.
The Government have made it clear on many occasions, including at the highest level, that we value tremendously the important contribution that EU nationals make to the success of our higher education institutions and scientific establishments across the country, including in Scotland, and we have every intention of that continuing in the years ahead.
When I visited the Corby steelworks on Friday, there was real enthusiasm for a sector deal for the steel industry and a real commitment to ongoing partnership working. Is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State willing to visit the Corby works to discuss those opportunities?
I have already emphasised in earlier answers the importance of a diverse energy supply, which is at the root of energy security. There is no question about this Government’s commitment to ongoing investment in renewables.
Many of those focused on driving forward the fourth industrial revolution are in new sectors such as robotics and 3D printing. Can the Minister ensure that the industrial strategy’s sector engagement includes new, innovative challengers, not just incumbents?
I certainly can. Through our industrial strategy, we are backing Britain’s innovators with the biggest investment in science and technology since 1979 and a new industrial strategy challenge fund to bring cutting-edge ideas out of the lab and into the wider economy.
Yes, this country does recognise that it has been under-investing in research and development, and that is why at the autumn statement and in the Budget we have made the biggest investment in R and D for more than 40 years. Public investment in R and D helps to bring in private sector investment at the rate of about £1.36 for every £1 of public investment.
Following npower’s 15% price hike last month, the Government pledged that
“where markets are not working we are prepared to act.”
E.ON raised its prices by 14% last week and SSE by 8% yesterday. How many more companies need to raise their prices before the Government actually act to stop energy customers getting fleeced?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that that behaviour is unacceptable. It has been reported by Ofgem that there is no reason to increase prices. We have committed to a Green Paper on consumer markets, which will be published very shortly. The time is up for these companies.
As the recently elected chair of the all-party group for small and micro business, I know that access to finance in the early years is a real challenge for small businesses. What advice could the Minister give to those in my constituency who are looking for access to finance in the early years?
What plans does the Secretary of State have to encourage new innovation support for SMEs in our key foundation industries, which make materials such as glass, ceramics and steel for cars, including those needed for Nissan in my constituency? This could help to create hundreds of jobs in the supply chain that are actually made in Britain.
Support for innovation has received its biggest boost since 1979 in the autumn statement and in the Budget that was just announced. The industrial strategy challenge fund has just seen the first allocation of £270 million, which will help to boost innovation in key areas across the economy.
Diesel-powered generators add to poor air quality. Will the Minister welcome the contribution of Off Grid Energy, a small, innovative business in my constituency, whose mobile hybrid units provide green energy to the construction and event sectors?
Of course, the primary effect of success in that area will be to keep costs down for small business, as well as for large.
On Friday, I visited Graham Engineering, in Nelson. It is an excellent company in the nuclear supply chain that currently has 30 new vacancies, which will be on offer at my seventh annual Pendle jobs fair on 24 March. What more can we do to support the nuclear supply chain?
One of the things that we have done to support the nuclear supply chain is to have a continuing commitment to nuclear power in this country, and that will benefit my hon. Friend’s constituents. Through our network of training colleges, we will make sure that we grow the nuclear skills that we need for this industry.
I thought the Minister was a touch complacent in his earlier answer on smart meters given that this will cost the taxpayer £11 billion by the end of the Parliament. What is he going to do about the fact that they do not work when a customer switches supplier?
The digital strategy is a key component of the Government’s industrial strategy. Can the Secretary of State do better than the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and tell me which companies have committed to work in Great Grimsby as part of the digital skills partnership?
The Pubs Code Adjudicator Paul Newby failed to declare a much more fundamental direct conflict of interest than Charlotte Hogg, yet Ministers are ignoring it. Tomorrow, tenants will protest outside his office. How long will Ministers keep failing to do their duty and not face up to this situation?
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on last week’s European Council, and the next steps in preparing to trigger Article 50 and beginning the process of leaving the European Union.
The summit began by re-electing Donald Tusk as President of the European Council. I welcomed this because we have a close working relationship with President Tusk and recognise the strong contribution he has made in office. In the main business of the Council, we discussed the challenge of managing mass migration; the threats from organised crime and instability in the western Balkans; and the measures needed to boost Europe’s growth and competitiveness, which will remain important for us as we build a new relationship between the EU and a self-governing global Britain. In each case, we were able to show once again how Britain will continue to play a leading role in Europe long after we have left the European Union.
On migration, I welcomed the progress in implementing the action plan we agreed at the informal EU summit in Malta last month. This included Italy strengthening asylum processes and increasing returns, and Greece working to implement the EU-Turkey deal, where the UK is providing additional staff to support the interviewing of Iraqi, Afghan and Eritrean nationals.
At this Council, I argued that we must do more to dismantle the vile people-smuggling rings who profit from the migrants’ misery and who are subjecting many to unimaginable abuses. With co-ordinated and committed action, we can make a difference. Indeed, just last month an operation between our National Crime Agency and the Hellenic coastguard led to the arrest of 19 members of an organised immigration crime group in Greece. As I have argued before, we need a managed, controlled and truly global approach, and that is exactly what the Council agreed. We need to help to ensure that refugees claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, and help those countries to support the refugees so they do not have to make the perilous journey to Europe. We need a better overall approach to managing economic migration, one which recognises that all countries have the right to control their borders. Engaging our African partners in this global approach will be crucial, and this will be an important part of the discussions at the Somalia conference which the UK will be hosting in London in May.
Turning to the deteriorating situation in the western Balkans, I made clear my concerns about the risks it presents to the region and to our wider collective security. Organised criminals and terrorists are ready to exploit these vulnerabilities, and we are seeing increasingly brazen interference by Russia and others. In light of the alleged Montenegro coup plot, I called on the Council to do more to counter destabilising Russian disinformation campaigns and to raise the visibility of the western commitment to this region.
The UK will lead the way. The Foreign Secretary will be visiting Russia in the coming weeks, where I expect him to set out our concerns about reports of Russian interference in the affairs of the Government of Montenegro. We will provide strategic communications expertise to the EU institutions to counter disinformation campaigns in the region, and we will host the 2018 western Balkans summit. In the run-up to that summit, we will enhance our security co-operation with our western Balkans partners, including on serious and organised crime, anti-corruption and cyber-security.
More broadly, I also re-emphasised the importance that the UK places on NATO as the bedrock of our collective defence, and I urged other member states to start investing more, in line with NATO’s target, so that every country plays its full part in sharing the burden. For it is only by investing properly in our defence that we can ensure we are properly equipped to keep our people safe.
Turning to growth and competitiveness, I want us to build a new relationship with the EU, as I have said, that will give our companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the European market, and allow European businesses to do the same here. So a successful and competitive European market in the future will remain in our national interest. At this Council, I called for further steps to complete the single market and the digital single market.
I also welcomed the completion of the free trade agreement between the EU and Canada and pressed for an agreement with Japan in the coming months. For these agreements—[Interruption.] Yes, just wait for it. These agreements will lay the foundation for our continuing trading relationships with these countries as we leave the EU.
At the same time, we will also seize the opportunity to forge our own new trade deals and to reach out beyond the borders of Europe to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike. This weekend, we announced a two-day conference with the largest ever Qatari trade delegation to visit the UK, building on the £5 billion of trade we already do with Qatar every year. We will also strengthen the unique and proud global relationships we have forged with the diverse and vibrant alliance of the Commonwealth, which we celebrated on Commonwealth day yesterday.
Finally, last night the Bill on article 50 successfully completed its passage through both Houses unchanged. It will now proceed to Royal Assent in the coming days, so we remain on track with the timetable I set out six months ago. I will return to this House before the end of this month to notify when I have formally triggered article 50 and begun the process through which the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. This will be a defining moment for our whole country, as we begin to forge a new relationship with Europe and a new role for ourselves in the world.
We will be a strong, self-governing global Britain with control once again over our borders and our laws. We will use this moment of opportunity to build a stronger economy and a fairer society, so that we secure both the right deal for Britain abroad and a better deal for ordinary working people at home.
The new relationship with the EU that we negotiate will work for the whole of the United Kingdom. That is why we have been working closely with the devolved Administrations, including the Scottish Government, listening to their proposals and recognising the many areas of common ground that we have, such as protecting workers’ rights and our security from crime and terrorism.
So, Mr Speaker, this is not a moment to play politics or create uncertainty and division. It is a moment to bring our country together, to honour the will of the British people and to shape for them a brighter future and a better Britain. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of the statement. The passing into law of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill marks an historic step. The triggering of article 50 later this month is a process that will shape this country’s future. There is no doubt that if the wrong decisions are made, we will pay the price for decades to come.
Now, more than ever, Britain needs an inclusive Government who listen and act accordingly. However, all the signs are that we have a complacent Government—complacent with our economy; complacent with people’s rights; complacent about the future of this country. I urge the Prime Minister to listen to the collective wisdom of this Parliament, and to give the House a full opportunity to scrutinise the article 50 deal with a meaningful final vote. The people’s representatives deserve better than “take it or leave it”. If we are to protect jobs and living standards, and if we are to protect the future prosperity of the country, the Government must secure tariff-free access to the single European market.
The Prime Minister has already made the threat to our negotiating partners to turn Britain into a deregulated tax haven. Is that what she means by “global Britain”? When the Foreign Secretary says that no deal with the EU would be “perfectly OK”, it simply is not good enough. Far from taking back control, leaving Britain to World Trade Organisation rules would mean losing control, losing jobs, and, frankly, losing out. The Prime Minister says that no deal is better than a bad deal. Let me be clear: no deal is a bad deal. Such a complacent strategy would punish business, hit jobs, and devastate public services on which people rely.
The Prime Minister says that she is seeking to secure a future free trade deal with the EU, after initial negotiations have been completed. If that is the strategy, it is essential that the Government stop being complacent and focus on securing a transitional agreement with the EU at the earliest opportunity. That would at least give the British people and businesses some short-term clarity during this period.
The Prime Minister said that she wanted to provide certainty on the issue of EU nationals as soon as possible. Why, then, have the Government voted down every Labour attempt to bring certainty to EU nationals, who make such a massive contribution to our community and our society? These people are not bargaining chips; they are mothers, fathers, wives and husbands. They are valued members of our community. The Government could and should have acted months ago. I agree with the Prime Minister that now is not the time to create uncertainty or play politics. She should tell that to the EU migrants in Britain who have no idea what their future holds because of the decisions made by her Government.
Is the Prime Minister saying that she is content for refugees to remain in camps in Libya—is that a safe country?—or for Greece, Italy and Malta to shoulder the entire burden of refugees from north Africa and the middle east? While we welcome the conference on Somalia that she is proposing, we need to know what support Britain is offering to all those countries. Does the Prime Minister still believe that we have a collective responsibility on the issue of refugees?
The Prime Minister said that she had argued about tackling vile smuggling rings, and about people being subjected to unimaginable abuse. Does she not agree that her argument would be so much stronger if her Government had been prepared to accept some of the victims of that unimaginable abuse; for example, the children who should have been accepted through the Dubs amendment?
As we move towards the triggering of article 50, there is much uncertainty about Britain’s future. A responsible Government would set a positive tone with our negotiating partners, and would move to protect our economy, workers and citizens at the earliest opportunity. Instead, we have a reckless Government who are playing fast and loose with the British economy. We will fight for jobs and the economy, using every parliamentary mechanism that is available, and the Government should welcome that scrutiny.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned a range of issues. He spoke again about the issue of EU nationals. As I have said in the House and as has been said by others from this Dispatch Box, we do want to ensure that the issue of the status of EU nationals who are living in the UK is dealt with at an early stage in the negotiations, but we also have a consideration for the UK nationals who are living in the EU. He said that the EU nationals living here are individuals who have contributed to our society. Indeed they are, but UK nationals living in EU member states are individuals who have contributed to their society and economy. I want to ensure that their status is also ensured. We hope and expect that this will be an issue that we can address at an early stage.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the need to come forward and be very clear about the need for a transitional period. I refer him to the speech I gave in Lancaster House in January and to the White Paper that we published. The need for an implementation period so that we have a smooth and orderly Brexit process is one of the objectives that was set out in that speech and in that document.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about refugees from north Africa and the middle east. What we want to ensure is that people do not feel the need to make the often dangerous, life-threatening journey across the central Mediterranean. Many of these people—more than three quarters of the people who are doing this—are not refugees; they are economic migrants. We need to ensure that we are providing facilities and working with countries in Africa—which the EU and other countries are doing—to ensure that the circumstances are such that people do not try to make a life-threatening journey. We also need internationally to be able to make a better distinction between refugees and economic migrants, so that we can give better support to those who are refugees.
The right hon. Gentleman appeared to suggest that the UK Government are doing absolutely nothing to break the vile smuggling rings. In my statement, I quoted a recent example of the work of the National Crime Agency; I might add that it was a Conservative-led Government who set up the NCA and the Organised Immigration Crime Taskforce. The Government are dealing with these issues. He talks about abuses and the movement and trafficking of people, but it is this Government who brought in the Modern Slavery Act 2015. I am very proud that it is this Government who did so.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to global Britain and what it means. I will tell him what it means. It is about a strong, self-governing Britain, a Britain that is trading around the world with old friends and new allies alike, and a Britain that is proud to take its place on the world stage.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend not only on her statement and the way in which she dispatched the Leader of the Opposition, but on the passage of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. Does she accept that now is the time for the UK to do all the things that she has recommended in her statement and, in addition to that, to take urgent legal advice in respect of the legal warnings that have been given by Lord Hope of Craighead to be sure that we do not have any unforeseen further attempts to undo that Bill in the courts?
I thank the Prime Minister for advance notice of her statement. I agree with her about how valuable it was that a large part of the EU Council was given over to jobs, growth and competitiveness. That is hugely welcome for the whole of the UK. It really matters that there is economic growth across all 27 member states. The single European market matters to all of us, given it is the largest single market in the world.
The last time the Prime Minister came to the Dispatch Box following an EU Council meeting, I asked her what issues she had raised on behalf of the Scottish Government and their priorities. She could not give a single example then, so I am going to try the same question again. Given that this was the last EU Council before the invoking of article 50, can she give an example—just one, please—of a single issue that was raised on behalf of the Scottish Government and their priorities at the Council meeting? [Interruption.] Goodness, there is a lot of hubbub from the Government Benches on this issue. Perhaps they are also keen to hear from the Prime Minister on that. She did not make a single mention during her statement of what she raised on behalf of the Scottish Government. We will all wait with bated breath to hear the Prime Minister answer that question.
While the Prime Minister was in Brussels, what discussions did she have about her Brexit timetable? Can she confirm that the plan is to negotiate a deal and that, after that, there needs to be time—time for ratification and for agreement across the EU and its institutions? Will she confirm from the Dispatch Box that that is indeed her plan?
The Prime Minister has decided, for one reason or another—I cannot imagine why—to delay the invoking of article 50. Last July, we were told by the Prime Minister herself—I am sure that she remembers saying these very words—that she would not trigger article 50 until she had a “UK-wide approach”. She knows that she has no agreement with the devolved Administration, despite months of compromise suggestions from the Scottish Government. Will the UK Government, even at this very late stage, use the next days to secure a compromise UK-wide approach, or does she still plan to plough on regardless, even though she knows what the consequences of that will mean?
The right hon. Gentleman asks what issues of relevance to the Scottish Government and to the Scottish people were raised at the European Council. I can answer him—jobs, growth and competitiveness. Those are issues that matter to the Scottish people. They matter to the people of the whole of the UK. He asked whether at the Council there was a discussion of the timetable for the negotiations in respect of article 50. As I said early on in my statement, in the main business of the Council, we discussed the challenge of managing mass migration; the threats from organised crime and instability in the western Balkans; and the measures needed to boost Europe’s growth and competitiveness. This was a Council at which we focused on those issues. I was presenting the case for the UK’s concerns in relation to those issues, including jobs, which, as I have said, matter to the people of Scotland.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the importance of access to the single market of the European Union. I simply remind him and his colleagues once again that the most important single market for Scotland is the single market of the United Kingdom.
Should not friendly democracies with decent values rush to reassure British citizens that they can stay on the continent, and is it not strongly in the economic interests of our partners to accept our generous offer of continuing with tariff-free trade on the same basis as today?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The issue of EU nationals and UK nationals, and the question of the trading relationship we have in the future, is not a one-sided argument; it is about the benefits for the EU as well. I very much think that that is the case in relation to trade. As I have said before, this is not about something that works just for the UK. I believe the right trading deal for the UK, the sort of free and open access that he talks about, will be good for the rest of the EU as well.
The Prime Minister has spoken many times about the importance of achieving a good deal from the negotiations that the country is about to embark upon, yet in recent days the Foreign Secretary has said that leaving with no deal would be perfectly okay, while the Secretary of State for International Trade has said that not achieving a deal would be bad. Would the Prime Minister care to adjudicate and tell the House which of those Ministers was speaking for the Government?
No deal may be a bad deal for both the EU 27 and for the UK, but it is very far from the worst deal for the UK if there were no route to a future free trading arrangement with the EU. The deal is in the gift not of the Prime Minister’s Government, however hard they are trying to deliver it, or of this Parliament, but of the European Parliament and our partners. So no deal remains a real possibility. It seems that her Government and Departments are now preparing for it. Will that preparation include the opportunity for individuals and businesses to make their own dispositions for that possibility?
I was clear in the Lancaster House speech that no deal was better than a bad deal. I am optimistic that we will be able to negotiate a good deal, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right of course that there are other parties to this, and it is not just about what we say. There will be a negotiation about that trade arrangement, and I can assure him that in coming to an agreement on that arrangement I and others in Parliament—the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—are talking to businesses across the United Kingdom to understand the issues that are most important to them.
We are about to enter into a negotiation with the remaining 27 members of the European Union. As part of that, we will be negotiating a trade deal for our future relationship with the European Union. I confidently expect that we will get a good deal. [Interruption.] Somebody says “You hope” from a sedentary position. It is precisely because of the answer I gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood): this is not a one-sided negotiation. It is not just about what is going to suit the UK; it is about what is right for the future relationship between the UK and the EU, and a good trade deal for the UK is a good trade deal for the EU.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement that the UK is strengthening its contribution to cyber-security and countering disinformation and also the Foreign Secretary’s forthcoming visit to Russia, but with Russia spending over a billion dollars on media outlets and troll factories, is she satisfied that the EU’s East StratCom organisation, which counters fake news and misinformation from the Kremlin, is sufficiently resourced? Also, what progress was made on setting up the further centres to identify and counteract Russian propaganda that were mentioned in the pre-briefing to the Council?
My right hon. Friend raises a very important point. The UK has particular expertise and experience when it comes to the whole issue of strategic communications around these sorts of areas, and we will be making that expertise available to the EU in order to be able to enhance the work it is doing to counter the disinformation campaigns.
May I tell the Prime Minister that it is not just in Scotland where there is a fear that the right wing of her party is dictating the terms of this debate and pushing us towards a Brexit deal that favours London and the south over the north? May I ask her to dither no more, and to establish a Brexit committee of the regions and nations, and give places like Greater Manchester equal and fair representation in this crucial debate?
As I have repeatedly said in this House, this Government will be negotiating a deal that will be good for the whole of the United Kingdom. That is why we have been listening to businesses and others from across the whole of the UK—yes, the devolved Administrations, but also people from the regions of England and businesses from across the whole of the UK—to understand the interests and what we need to take into account as we negotiate the deal.
As my right hon. Friend launches into the negotiations, I wonder if she has had time to consider the excellent House of Lords report that says we have no legal obligation to pay any money whatsoever to the European Union. Does she share my view that that is an excellent basis for beginning the negotiations?
I can assure my hon. Friend that I have noted the House of Lords report on this particular matter. As he will know, when people voted on 23 June last year they were very clear that they did not want to continue year after year paying huge sums of money into the European Union.