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Topical Questions

Volume 637: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2018

Since our last questions, Toyota has announced, as I said a few moments ago, that it would build its new model in Derbyshire, with most of the engines coming from the Deeside factory in north Wales. We also published our response to the Taylor review on modern employment practices. A million more vulnerable consumers will be protected by the extension of the Ofgem safeguard tariff cap and, as Members know, the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill has been introduced into Parliament. Yesterday, as part of our industrial strategy, we announced a major £300 million research programme into technologies to serve the ageing population and to ensure that we can benefit from this encouraging global trend.

What engagement is the Secretary of State having with a Canadian company called Brookfield, the likely buyer of Springfields nuclear fuels in my constituency, which manufactures nuclear fuel for the UK and provides over 1,200 well-paid jobs?

My hon. Friend is a champion of this sector. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), has met the vice- president of Brookfield and expressed our continuing support for Springfields to have a future in providing fuel for plants in this country and overseas.

GKN was forged in our country’s first industrial revolution. It built the tanks used in the D-day landings, and its innovative battery technology will power our future economy. The Government’s industrial strategy identifies batteries as a key technology and manufacturing as a priority sector, yet the Secretary of State has nothing to say about the hostile takeover of that great firm. Why is it that all too often, as with Arm and Unilever, his industrial strategy seems to leave great British success stories less great or less British?

I would have thought that the hon. Lady would have informed herself as to the responsibility of Ministers under the Enterprise Act 2002. That Act, which was passed under the previous Labour Government, states that Ministers can intervene only in mergers that raise public interest concerns on the grounds of national security, financial stability or media plurality. She should know that the Government’s corporate governance reforms have ensured that GKN had longer to prepare its defence, preventing the kind of smash and grab raid that Cadbury’s was subjected to under the previous Government, and that provision has been made for legally binding undertakings to be given in takeover bids. Those are intended to be used, and I would be surprised and disappointed if any bidder did not make their intentions clear, extensive and legally binding.

T2. Can my hon. Friend assure me that protected status for Cornish produce such as the Cornish pasty will not be compromised post-Brexit? (904350)

It is said that I am no stranger to the fish supper, and I also have knowledge of the Cornish pasty and, indeed, Cornish clotted cream. All those products will achieve UK geographical indications and will continue to be protected in the UK after our EU exit. As negotiations are ongoing, I cannot give my hon. Friend a cast-iron assurance right now that UK products will remain protected in the EU after exit, but I can categorically state that that is the Government’s clear objective.

T5. I am grateful to Carl Webb, my Communication Workers Union regional political officer, for bringing to my attention the BT Sport call centre in my constituency, which is paying the minimum wage to agency workers beyond 12 weeks using the Swedish derogation. The Taylor report talked about getting rid of the Swedish derogation, so when are the Government going to act to protect some of our lowest paid workers? (904353)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are acting right now; a consultation is under way with regard to the Swedish derogation. Firms and businesses should be in no doubt that this Government expect everyone to be paid either the national minimum wage or the national living wage. That is why we have doubled the amount of enforcement and protected the pay of 98,000 workers. We are absolutely committed to everybody getting paid the national minimum wage.

T3. Late and non-payment of retention payments in the construction industry is affecting small firms in Moray and across the UK. When will Ministers deal with that issue? (904351)

The Government are determined to improve payment practices, and we understand that retentions have caused problems for contractors in the supply chain. We consulted on the contractual practice of cash retention and we are now considering the responses to assess the extent of the issues and to determine what further intervention is required.

T9. Does the Minister agree that there is overwhelming evidence that migrant workers, including EU nationals, make a hugely positive contribution to business, the economy and our public finances, and that they do not undermine wages? (904357)

I think that we all recognise the extremely positive contribution made by workers from the EU, whether in business or in our public services, and I endorse that.

T4. According to the tidal energy industry leader Tidal Lagoon Power, Southport is considered to be one of the best locations in the United Kingdom for a tidal lagoon. Will my right hon. Friend therefore meet me to discuss the possibility of bringing tidal energy to Southport? (904352)

My hon. Friend is, as ever, assiduous in promoting the interests of his constituency, and I would be delighted to meet him. I should point out that the lagoon project in his constituency is currently not part of the proposal being put forward by the company promoting other tidal projects.

The Government raised business rates on rooftop solar schemes by up to 800% last year, and it now appears that on-site battery storage is likely to go the same way. Given that gas combined heat and power has been exempted from business rates, should not the Government do the same for solar and battery storage to support clean energy?

Our solar capacity has increased by more than 30% in the past two years, so we clearly are bringing forward such schemes. The hon. Gentleman will know that we are looking closely at ways of reducing some of the disincentives, particularly around on-site storage, but I am happy to meet him to discuss things further.

T6. Does the Minister agree that the south-west is a great region in which to do business? Will he join me in recognising the work of the Barnstaple and District chamber of commerce, which I met on Friday, in promoting North Devon as, without doubt, the region’s economic powerhouse? (904354)

The south-west is indeed a great region in which to do business. Chambers of commerce including Barnstaple’s, which has been serving its community since 1911, have a valuable role to play in supporting local businesses and ensuring that their voice is heard. That is why I have met chambers of commerce 11 times in the seven weeks in which I have been the Minister for small business.

Solar power is the most popular source of clean energy and one of the cheapest, so why has it been excluded from clean power auctions for the past three years? Why oh why does it continue to be excluded, putting the industry at a clear competitive disadvantage?

We continue to look at ways of bringing forward all forms of renewable energy. Indeed, up to 30% of energy generation in this country now comes from renewables. We have not yet taken decisions about future contract for difference allocation rounds, but we intend to do so.

T7. The banking scandals at RBS destroyed thousands of businesses, but the owners of those businesses have no means of seeking justice or recompense. Will the Minister support the proposal of the all-party group on fair business banking and finance for redress through an independent tribunal system? (904355)

I pay tribute to the work of the all-party group, of which my hon. Friend is a vice-chair. I met it just last week to explore the options. I share his aim that small businesses should have an accessible and impartial forum through which to seek redress when things go wrong. There is work to be done on how that would be paid for and on whether legislation would be required, but I look forward to seeing the research and to working with him.

The 220 people who work at GKN Aerospace in my constituency produce windshields for military and commercial aircraft, so is that not another indication that the hostile takeover bid raises national security implications? The Secretary of State has the power to intervene under the Enterprise Act 2002.

As we have met to discuss this matter, the hon. Gentleman knows that I must ensure that I do not prejudice any assessment. I set out to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) the constraints under which I have to operate.

T8. Last October’s “Made Smarter” review set out how manufacturing businesses in East Renfrewshire and across the UK can be transformed through the adoption of industrial digital technology. How will the Government support “Made Smarter” now that it has been announced as a deal in development in the industrial strategy? (904356)

I have met Juergen Maier, the chief executive of Siemens UK, to discuss that. At a recent dinner, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a “Made Smarter” commission and asked Sir Mark Walport to work with Juergen on the development of an industrial strategy challenge for the digitisation of our manufacturing industry.

The number of electric vehicles on our roads is likely to increase significantly over the next few years. What work is being done to ensure that charging points are more frequently powered by renewable sources over that period?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Part of our industrial strategy is about bringing together the energy and automotive sectors, so that one reinforces the other. That is the Faraday challenge, which is attracting so much attention in both industries.

T10. Given our close defence and trading relationship with the United States, will the Minister reassure the House that he is making efforts to secure an exemption for UK-produced steel and aluminium products from next week’s imposition of tariffs? (904358)

I was in Brussels yesterday to meet other European Union Ministers, trade union leaders and representatives of employers to ensure that we do exactly that.

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has heard powerful evidence on why the Government should call in the Melrose bid for GKN on national security grounds, and the Secretary of State for Defence has written to the Business Secretary about the matter. Will the Business Secretary use his powers, before it is too late, to protect this great British engineering giant?

I will look very carefully at the report of the Committee and that will be one of the pieces of evidence that I will seriously consider.

The Secretary of State has said that his door is still open to discussions about the benefits of green energy, so will he commit today to seeing Charles Hendry—the author of the Hendry review, which is still awaiting a response from the Government 14 months on—me, as chair of the all-party group on marine energy and tidal lagoons, and representatives of Tidal Lagoon Power and TidalStream?

It is always a pleasure to respond to my hon. Friend, who is an assiduous campaigner for this form of energy. We continue to commit to supporting our marine energy industry. I refer him to the answer that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave at the start of questions. We continue to exchange information with the Welsh Government, and we have to understand what is on offer. We want to reach the right decision on behalf of low-carbon technologies, but also British bill payers and taxpayers.

The county in which I live, Flintshire, has only two electric charging points. Given the earlier exchanges, can the Secretary of State set targets for charging points in rural areas as well as urban ones?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. It is true that the charging network needs to extend right across the country if people are to have the confidence that they will be able to recharge their vehicle, and we have the rural aspect very much in mind.

According to the press, the Secretary of State gave a presentation to a Sub-Committee of the Cabinet about the automotive sector and how important it is that we do not have a hard Brexit. That seems to have persuaded members of the Cabinet who had thought that a hard Brexit might be a good idea that it would, in fact, be a very bad idea for British business, notably the automotive sector. On that basis, will the Secretary of State make that presentation available to all right hon. and hon. Members?

It would be wrong of me to disclose conversations that took place in Cabinet—my right hon. Friend understands the requirements of collective responsibility—but it is no secret to anyone in this House that I regard the fact that the success of the automotive sector depends on integrated supply chains as good evidence of what type of trade agreement is needed. That was highlighted in the excellent speech made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the Mansion House.