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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 637: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2018

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

Marine Energy

1. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the place of marine energy in the industrial strategy; and if he will make a statement. (904324)

My ministerial colleagues and I have regular discussions with our counterparts in the Welsh Government on all aspects of the industrial strategy. Last week, my officials were in Cardiff to discuss with the Welsh Government the proposed Swansea bay tidal lagoon.

At the heart of the industrial strategy is spreading prosperity across the whole of the United Kingdom, and working with devolved Administrations in our nations and regions will help to achieve that. The Welsh Government are working with practical developers—Minesto, an international company, and local company Morlais—to develop marine energy in my part of the world. The Secretary of State mentioned the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. Will he now make a decision and work with the Welsh Government and with developers so that we can roll that out, maximise our potential, and spread prosperity in this part of the United Kingdom?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for green energy, as he knows, and I am proud of our achievements. Since 2010, we have quadrupled the proportion of our electricity that comes from renewable sources. However, as the hon. Gentleman understands from being on the Select Committee, we also have a responsibility to minimise the impact on consumers’ bills. The Swansea proposal was very much more expensive—more than twice as expensive—as the Hinkley nuclear power station, for example. As I said, though, we are in discussions with our colleagues in the Welsh Government. I do not want to close the door on something if it is possible to find a way to justify it as being affordable to consumers.

I, too, say to the Minister that making a decision on the Swansea bay tidal lagoon is important for Wales as a whole. There is huge potential for future lagoons around Newport following the Swansea pathfinder. It is really important that we do not pass up these opportunities.

I take the hon. Lady’s point. I think that everyone recognises these issues. In fact, the First Minister wrote to me yesterday and acknowledged the

“genuine challenges in…considering a proposal involving untried technology with high capital costs and significant uncertainties.”

That is why the best way to do this is to explore all the possibilities and to recognise the constraints. That is what I have committed to with colleagues in the Welsh Government.

Smart Meters

Government research on consumer satisfaction published in August last year shows that satisfaction with smart meters is high. Eighty per cent. of consumers are satisfied with their smart meters and 80% would recommend them to friends and family. Smart Energy GB found that nearly 90% of people with a smart meter made energy savings and changed their behavioural patterns.

I thank the Minister for his response. It is good to hear that so many people are reaping the benefits from smart meters. No system is ever perfect, however, and that is the case for a small number of customers such as a club in my constituency, Killamarsh juniors athletics club, which is now on its third smart meter and is getting really unhelpful responses from its electricity provider. Can he provide any advice to the club in my constituency?

My hon. Friend has made a point about the Killamarsh juniors club in his constituency. I would be very happy to meet him on that specifically. However, I have not found this generally to be the case. The roll-out of smart meters is a very important national modernisation programme that brings major benefits to consumers generally and to his constituents specifically.

Smart meters are good for consumers and suppliers alike, but the roll-out relies on there being a good mobile phone signal for them to be effective, and in many parts of rural Scotland that is simply not the case. Can the Minister reassure me that he is working across the Government and with relevant stakeholders to ensure that residents in rural areas benefit from smart meters?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We are working on that, and the Arqiva radio solution provides communications services for the north region. That covers Scotland, and it is contracted to cover nearly 100% of premises by the end of 2020.

Does the Minister accept that his statistics are based on surveys that are carried out about 10 weeks after installation? My own survey found that 54% of constituents would currently refuse a smart meter, 97% want to see the costs of the programme shown on their bills, and 74% said that receiving one had not yet made any difference to the size of their bills. Will he also take those findings into account?

The hon. Gentleman knows me well enough to know that I am very interested in anything he has to say. He contributed a lot to the passage of the Smart Meters Bill in the House of Commons. I would be very interested to receive those statistics, but we do receive them from quite a few different places, and I do not just quote one sample.

I am sure the Minister is speaking in good faith, but I have come across constituents who find that bills are not reducing, but increasing. Has he had discussions with the utility companies about keeping an eye on this and making sure that the effect of smart meters is to reduce costs for constituents, many of whom are poor, not raise them?

I am very surprised to hear what the hon. Gentleman says. As he said—I am grateful for it—I am talking in good faith; I know he is too. I would be pleased to hear of those examples, but I cannot quite understand why bills would go up, because nearly 90% of people with smart meters say that it is changing their energy patterns and that bills are going down.

As my hon. Friend, who also contributed a lot to the passage of the Bill, knows, SMETS 2 is the newer type of meter which at the moment is in its trial phase. As the months go on, SMETS 1 meters will be converted through software that is being developed by the Data Communications Company, and all new meters will be SMETS 2.

How satisfied are consumers when they realise that a smart meter becomes a dumb meter when they switch suppliers? Can he put an accurate timeline on the roll-out of SMETS 2 meters?

As I explained, the software that is being developed now and will be in place shortly after the summer will ensure that that does not happen. The comparatively small number of SMETS 1 meters that do not operate as smart meters when suppliers change will suddenly become compliant, and they will all be able to speak to one another electronically, which is what we all want.

Carbon Reduction Targets

We should all be proud of the progress the UK has made in meeting its carbon reduction targets. The current statistics show that we have met our first budget, are on track to exceed our second and third budgets and are 97% and 95% of where we need to be to meet our fourth and fifth budgets—[Interruption.] I hear groaning, but I think those are decent numbers, given that we are 10 and 15 years away from achieving those budgets.

The lack of commitment, focus and ambition from this Tory Government mean that we are set to miss our legally binding carbon targets. Three easy wins could be to repeal the ban on onshore wind, prioritise energy efficiency measures and zero-carbon homes and commit to the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. When are this Government going to get their act together, demonstrate their commitment to future generations and get on with it?

I think the hon. Lady perhaps wrote that before hearing my answer. Let me share two facts with her. First, Britain has led the world in decarbonising our economy while growing it at the same time, not delivering carbon cuts with recessions, as other parties would like. Secondly, there are two countries in the world considered to be doing enough to meet even a 2° C target, and those are China and the UK. We have set out what has been described as the most ambitious set of policies and proposals ever seen from a Government in the clean growth strategy. We are bringing that forward, and it would be nice to feel we had a cross-party consensus on doing something that is so vital for both this country’s future and the future of the world.

I was interested to hear the Minister say that we are on target for three carbon budgets but will miss the fourth. The Committee on Climate Change said that the fourth carbon budget will not be met unless policies are supplemented by “more challenging measures”. She spoke about ambition. Can she tell us what those challenging measures will be?

As I answered before, the calculations for the fourth and fifth carbon budgets—which, I repeat, end in 10 and 15 years’ time and which we are 97% and 95% of the way to meeting—are based on an analysis of only 30% of the policies and proposals in the clean growth strategy. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says he thinks that that is quite good; I agree.

We are bringing forward further work on those policies and proposals and also spending an unprecedented amount on research and development in this space—more than £2.5 billion over this Parliament. I am extremely confident that we will meet our budgets, with our ambitious policy, the ingenuity of British businesses and the science base, the strong campaigning and the structure of the Climate Change Act 2008—the Act that we were the first country in the world to pass.

Does the Minister agree that improving home energy efficiency measures would help us to meet our carbon budgets?

My hon. Friend led an excellent debate on this in Westminster Hall, where we had a very strong outbreak of cross-party consensus. I entirely agree, and that is why we have set our home efficiency targets at band C for 2035. We are keen to do that in a cost-effective way, and I will shortly be bringing forward the consultation on ECO—the energy company obligation—and how to target it at fuel-poor households. In addition, we need to create a route to market for some of our best British technology to solve that problem.

Nuclear power will clearly be central to us reaching our carbon targets. Is the Minister confident that enough progress is being made to see the construction of nuclear plants in Anglesey and Cumbria?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, making these long-term decisions and creating costs for consumers over decades—whether in tidal lagoons or in nuclear—are matters that we have to take extremely seriously. We have to reduce the carbon emissions of our power supply, cut costs for consumers and create innovation that we can export around the world, and all of those considerations are being taken into account.

To meet carbon reduction targets, the Government will need to support, among other technology, offshore wind projects. In Scottish waters, Dounreay Tri, Kincardine and Forthwind are working to deliver first generation projects with an immediate value of £200 million for jobs and the supply chain, yet due to factors outwith their control, they will struggle to hit the UK Government’s October deadline. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we might support these projects in making their contribution to carbon reduction?

We have worked very hard on the wind industry in Scotland—the hon. Gentleman and I both welcome the recent announcement about remote island wind, which is a really positive step forward—but the challenge is that the phasing out of the renewables obligations was set over four years ago. People have been fully aware of them, and we are currently not intending to extend the length of the grace periods. However, as he knows, I am always happy to try to build cross-party consensus on this vital agenda for this country.

I am sure it is absolutely not the intention of the Minister to mislead the House in any way, but her statements about our being 96% of our way towards meeting our fourth and fifth carbon budgets need to be put in the context of the fact that we are committed to reducing CO2 emissions by 225 million tonnes, but the Government proposals will reduce the amount by only 116 million tonnes, which is only just over half the requirement between the fourth and fifth carbon budgets. What are the Minister’s proposals under the clean growth plan to make sure that we reduce the amount by the outstanding 109 million tonnes?

The hon. Gentleman is a clever scientific fellow, and he knows that those numbers refer to the baseline numbers of 1990. I would be very happy to sit down with him and go line by line through the carbon budgets and the policy proposals. Again, he and I both need to be absolutely clear that regardless—[Interruption.] There is an awful lot of shouting from the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell), who wants to bring back coal. Regardless of what this and future Governments do, those budgets must be fit for purpose, and we have to be absolutely clear and transparent about how we are going to meet them, and that is exactly what the clean growth strategy has done.

Electric Vehicle Charge Points

Britain is building one of the best charge point networks in the world, and our £400 million charging infrastructure investment fund, announced at the Budget, will see thousands more charge points installed across the UK.

Yesterday, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee visited the London Electric Vehicle Company in my constituency. The Secretary of State will remember opening it a year ago, and it is great that we are now seeing electric taxis on the streets of London. We also went to the Electric Vehicle Experience Centre in Milton Keynes, where we heard concerns about the fact that the lack of compatibility between chargers and connectors is in danger of putting people off buying an electric car. What will the Secretary of State do to encourage the industry to adopt a standard?

I am delighted that the Committee went to see the electric taxi company. The opening, at which my hon. Friend accompanied me, was a fantastic event. Having such compatibility is a very important matter. The recently introduced Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulations 2017 set minimum standards for publicly accessible charge points. In addition, the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, which is currently before Parliament, will give the Government new powers to regulate these technical standards.

Many supply companies are worried that if there is a high uptake, which I think we would all support, the infrastructure will not be there to support it. It is just not true that electric vehicles do not use a great deal of power, so there are concerns about strain on the system as a whole.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments. Our access to the network is one of the best in the world, especially for fast chargers. He is absolutely right that electric vehicles can contribute to the electricity grid’s resilience, because their batteries can store electricity generated by renewables for a time when it is needed, which is very much part of the smart systems plan.

Batteries, of course, are one of the constraints that people consider before buying electric cars, because of their limited range. Does my right hon. Friend therefore welcome the initiative of the Mayor of the West Midlands, along with the Government, for introducing a battery research centre in the west midlands?

Not a Question Time goes by without me welcoming an initiative from the Mayor of the West Midlands. We have worked very closely with the Mayor, and with the automotive industry, to ensure that we are investing at the cutting edge of research into battery technology, precisely so that we can build the cars of the future.

What comfort can the Secretary of State give the people of Bristol, who wish to see the number of electric charging points massively increased?

I am delighted that there is such enthusiasm in Bristol. The hon. Lady will be aware that the funding for charging infrastructure is available especially for city-centre authorities that can put it into public car parks.

Oil and Gas Industry

The Government remain committed to supporting the industry and building on the £2.3 billion package announced in recent Budgets. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth greatly enjoyed her recent visit to Aberdeen—as did I, when I visited—when the industry presented its initial proposals for a deal. My right hon. Friend is meeting the sector deal champion, Trevor Garlick, tomorrow.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The oil and gas industry based in the north-east of Scotland has contributed over £330 billion to the economy, supports over 330,000 jobs across the United Kingdom and has a supply chain worth nearly £30 billion. With an estimated 20 million barrels of oil still to get out of the North sea, the industry has huge potential to drive this country’s growth, but of course there is still uncertainty, so I know that the Minister will welcome the response—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but we need a single-sentence question, not a preamble.

Will the Minister pledge to work continually with the industry to develop and deliver the sector deal?

What discussions has the Minister had with the Treasury about the impact of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ new end-use procedure changes on the gas and oil industry?

I will give a very succinct answer, as you have requested, Mr Speaker. I do not know, but I will happily meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss it.

What consideration is my hon. Friend giving to the downstream sector? Our remaining oil refineries are important national assets and major centres of employment, and they could benefit from clear, long-term thinking.

As my right hon. Friend will be aware, the whole sector is important to us, and specifically the supply chain. I have met various players involved, and it is of critical importance to us.

The UK Government have so far failed to announce a sector deal for oil and gas, and there was no mention of one in their industrial strategy. There is a need for a sector deal approach to the industry. The Scottish Government have been calling for such action. Will the Minister finally rectify this glaring omission and commit that vital support for the industry and the jobs and investment it relies on?

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that this is a priority for us. We are working very hard with the sector to come up with a sector deal, and I expect those talks to come to fruition very soon.

Electric and Autonomous Vehicles

The automotive sector deal will ensure that the UK continues to reap the benefits from leading the transition to zero-emission and autonomous vehicles. Last month that drew in £33 million of investment into the UK-based connected and autonomous vehicle programmes, with participation from across the industry.

Jaguar Land Rover recently developed the I-Pace, its first all-electric performance SUV, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) mentioned, the London Electric Vehicle Company has developed the world’s first purpose-built electric taxi. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating those great British manufacturers on the world-leading role they are playing in the sector?

I certainly will. The Jaguar and the London taxi are iconic images, and to see them leading the way into the future is a matter of great delight. I congratulate both companies on choosing to manufacture those vehicles in the UK.

What is the Secretary of State doing to help development in the transition from diesel to electric vehicles? In particular, how is he helping with infrastructure?

We are working very closely with the industry to ensure that as it develops the new technologies of the future, it is able to plan a smooth transition to a world in which all vehicles will be compatible with our climate objectives.

All the new electric vehicles will need batteries, of which lithium is an essential element. Recent discoveries of large deposits of lithium in Cornwall open up the possibility of the UK securing a domestic supply for this vital element. What support can the Secretary of State give to this exciting new emerging sector?

Through our industrial strategy, we have highlighted the potential for new developments in battery storage. If Cornwall can supply the lithium to power that new industry then I am delighted to hear it. I will discuss the possibilities further with my hon. Friend.

At yesterday’s Select Committee visit, mentioned by the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), it became very apparent that the market for electric vehicles is maturing at a much faster rate than many people realise. Is it possible that the ambition of the sector itself is outstripping the ambition of the Government, and should the 2040 target not be brought forward, perhaps even by a decade?

When it comes to the new generation of automotive technology, the ambition of this Government is not outstripped by anyone. We are working very closely—hand in glove—with the industry, through the Automotive Council, to make sure that we are the best placed in the world not only to research the new technologies, but to manufacture them in this country.

Automotive Sector

The Government’s long-term partnership with the automotive industry is an exemplar of our industrial strategy. Only a fortnight ago, I went to Derbyshire to welcome Toyota’s decision to build the new Auris in Burnaston, helping to secure 3,000 jobs between Burnaston and Deeside in north Wales.

I am sure that, while welcoming that investment, the Secretary of State will have been alarmed by the comments made by the chief executive of the PSA Group, which owns Vauxhall in my constituency, about the lack of certainty, with Brexit affecting investment decisions. Will the Secretary of State meet the PSA Group and me to give us confidence in terms of investment in the future of that plant?

I regularly meet with chief executives of car companies, including Mr Tavares. It is very clear that we are determined, as the Prime Minister set out in her Mansion House speech, to make sure that this very important integrated supply chain is able to continue to operate. It is worth bearing in mind that since my team have been in the Department every single major new model decision has gone our way. I am determined to keep up that advocacy.

The automotive sector is crucial to UK industry. It employs 814,000 people and we are all proud of British car manufacturers, including the iconic Rolls-Royce and Jaguar. In recent weeks, however, President Trump has revealed an appetite for a trade war that began with the announcement of steel tariffs and now includes threats to put tariffs on EU cars, which could hit our industry hard. Will the Secretary of State tell this House what he is doing to avoid a trade war with the US? Should such tariffs come into play, what will he do to protect our steel and automotive sector?

I am sure the hon. Lady was in her place yesterday when the Trade Secretary gave a very comprehensive statement. There was some welcome for the cross-party approach that went into defending the international system of free trade. It does no one any good if we have tariffs in place that impede trade. Her endorsement of the approach being taken by the Trade Secretary would be welcome.


10. Whether he is taking steps to safeguard the employment of people who were working under private sector Carillion contracts at the time of that company’s liquidation. (904333)

19. What steps he has taken to support and engage with businesses affected by the liquidation of Carillion. (904342)

The official receiver and special manager are working to ensure an orderly transition by facilitating the transfer of contracts. As of 12 March, 8,521 jobs have been safeguarded and 1,536 people have been made redundant, sadly, through the liquidation. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has set up a taskforce, bringing together trade associations, bankers and representatives of Government to ensure that we support the Carillion supply chain. The taskforce has delivered a range of supportive measures, including more than £900 million of support from UK lenders.

Let me seek some further clarification. If there is any doubt that TUPE applies, can the Government confirm that they will instruct the official receiver to transfer employees on private sector contracts as if TUPE applied? Will the Government also ensure that trade union recognition is transferred with those staff?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question and refer him to the recent Westminster Hall debate, when we discussed at some length the legal responsibilities in relation to TUPE, which do not apply in many cases during a liquidation. Transferring employers may well decide to offer terms to transferring employees that recognise existing employment rights, terms and conditions. The Government are focused on ensuring that transferred employees are no worse off, and the official receiver is doing all he can to facilitate this wherever possible.

The Carillion collapse has exposed what can only be described as market abuse by lead contractors, with subcontractors in Cheltenham suffering as a result of the failure to adhere to best practice schemes such as the prompt payment code. What steps are the Government taking to ensure compliance with the schemes and more generally to stamp out market abuse?

My hon. Friend, who has met me on a number of occasions to defend the interests of businesses in his constituency, will know that the Government had two priorities: to protect the provision of vital public services and to do what we could to protect jobs in Carillion and jobs in the supply chain. We are clear that we must learn the lessons from the collapse of Carillion. This could be a catalyst for change for the good. We are concerned to ensure that we do all we can to learn the lessons on procurement, and we also want to do more to ensure that the supply chain is promptly paid and that small businesses are paid speedily. Looking at the prompt payment code is an important part of that.

Following on from the question from the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), when Carillion went bankrupt, many of the subcontractors had not been paid for 120 days. The money coming to Carillion was from the Government, so what are the Government doing to ensure that when they give contracts to big businesses, those businesses pay their subcontractors on time? Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy and they have been destroyed by the collapse of Carillion.

I thank the hon. Lady for that question and particularly for the work that her Select Committee is doing in getting to the bottom of exactly what happened in Carillion. That is very important work. The Government are clear that with public sector contracts we pay in 30 days, and we expect tier 1 contractors to ensure that they pay their supply chain in 30 days too. We are determined to take action to ensure that this happens, and we are looking at what we can do to make sure not only that small businesses in the public sector supply chain get paid within 30 days, but that we do more to support private sector suppliers as well.

The main priority for this Government has been to protect jobs here in the UK and the continuation of public sector contracts and services. The special manager, of course, has a responsibility to wind up the business to get the best value for creditors, but he is responsible for dealing with businesses overseas.

I have met the hon. Lady several times, and I know that she is working hard to ensure that her constituents employed by Carillion get all the protections possible. The Secretary of State has had conversations with the special manager to ensure that wherever possible when contracts are transferred employees get like conditions so that they are no worse off. As she will understand, this is a very complex and complicated business, and I do not at the moment have the specific statistics she requests.

Self-employed People

We want people to be self-employed when it is the right thing for them, which is why the Government have introduced new measures to ensure they are even better supported. These include improved support for embarking on self-employed careers, encouraging pension saving and supporting people to pay the right tax. From 6 April 2016, we have also given self-employed people the ability to build their entitlement to the new state pension at the same rate as employed people.

Morley is lucky to have a thriving high street, which matters to me as an ex-retailer. During the recent cold weather, Apollo Fisheries in Morley handed out free food to cold residents. What are the Government doing to support our businesses on the high street, and will the Minister take this opportunity to congratulate Apollo Fisheries on its fine example of Yorkshire hospitality at its best?

I think the House will recognise that I am no stranger to a fish supper, and I would like to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Apollo Fisheries on the community spirit it showed. It clearly demonstrates that businesses contribute not just to the economy but to our society. The future high streets forum provides joint business and Government leadership to enable our high streets and town centres to adapt and compete in the face of changing consumer and social trends, but we want to go further, so last week I announced the establishment of the Retail Sector Council, which will bring together leaders in retail to help to develop policies and support for the vital retail sector.

We all want self-employment to grow, but we also want to crack down on apparent self-employment, where people are forced to become self-employed by exploitative employers who then save on national insurance contributions while putting all the risk of that employment on often vulnerable individuals. What are the Government doing about that?

I am sure the hon. Lady will be delighted to know that the Government are taking forward the proposals set out by Matthew Taylor. We recognise that employment status—whether workers are employed or self-employed—is key to their getting not only the payments but the protections they deserve. That is why we have embarked on a full consultation with the intention of clarifying the status of workers, giving them extra protections and ensuring that if it looks like work and feels like work, it is work and they are paid properly.

The Government’s response to the Taylor review did virtually nothing to tackle the challenges and insecurity that self-employed people face. Equally poor was the Government’s response to the treatment of gig workers.

“Don has died and they should be making changes”.

Those were the words of DPD gig worker Don Lane’s widow, Ruth. With this in mind and with Matthew Taylor himself last week rating the Government’s response to the Taylor review a shocking four out of 10, what score would the Minister give himself?

Seven weeks in, I think I would give myself 10 out of 10. The hon. Lady quotes Matthew Taylor. He has said quite clearly that this is a complex and complicated matter. He wants us to get the definition of status right, because the rights of thousands of gig workers depend on it. That is why in the passage the hon. lady quotes he also said that when we have finished our consultation, if we deliver what we have promised he would give us seven or eight. I want to go further; I want it to be 10.

Ten out of 10 indeed! The Chancellor today might attempt to laud employment figures as positive news, but he will fail to state that over 3 million people are in insecure work, and, according to a recent report by the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, over a third of all workers do not even earn enough to live. There are also real fears, despite the Prime Minister’s assurances, that the quality of work will worsen still, with reports that the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers are pushing for major employment law deregulation. Will the Minister confirm whether his Department is carrying out any work looking at the deregulation of certain employment rights?

The hon. Lady must have missed the intention behind what the Government were doing with the Matthew Taylor report. Not only are we committed to continuing the existing employment rights and protections, but we are going further and faster than anyone else—further and faster than our European colleagues—to give gig workers and others in vulnerable conditions, such as agency workers, greater protections than ever before. We are not just talking about it; we are protecting those workers.

Small Business Sector

Apologies, Mr Speaker. I was congratulating myself too much!

The Government-owned British Business Bank provides £4 billion to support more than 60,000 UK small and medium-sized enterprises. We plan to unlock more than £20 billion of investment in innovative and high-potential businesses, including a new £2.5 billion investment fund with the British Business Bank. The Small Business Commissioner helps with payment issues, dispute resolution, and the sourcing of advice throughout the UK. Through the industrial strategy, we are continuing to invest in 38 growth hubs across England, as well as the business support helpline.

Of course I join in the congratulations to the Minister, but he will know that one of the crucial requirements for the success of the small business sector is access to and understanding of finance, and there is considerable evidence that there is currently a knowledge gap in the market. What are the Government doing to address that?

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. We are concerned by reports that businesses, particularly small businesses, are reticent about coming forward to access finance that could help them to invigorate and grow. That is why the British Business Bank produces “The business finance guide”, in partnership with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and industry bodies. The guide explains the different sources of finance that are available to smaller businesses, and is also published online. The British Business Bank will launch a new digital platform in the spring to raise awareness even further.

Small businesses in Cumbria, particularly those involved in farming and tourism, were integral to the Lake district’s gaining world heritage site status last summer, a designation that could lead to a massive increase in the number of visitors to what is already Britain’s second-biggest visitor destination. Will the Government back those small businesses with the infrastructure investment that they need in order to cope and to grow? Will they, for instance, electrify the Lakes Line?

I am delighted to support the small businesses to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. He will be pleased to know that we are boosting infrastructure, including digital infrastructure, with more than £1 billion of public investment, including £176 million for 5G and £200 million for local areas to encourage the roll-out of full-fibre networks. I should also be delighted to meet him to discuss what more we can do for lakeside businesses.

Hitchin and Harpenden, which are both small towns, have a thriving independent retail sector, but in recent months they have reported that things are getting harder for them. Will the Minister reassure me that the Government are doing everything they can to help independent small retailers in thriving market towns?

As the retail Minister, I recognise the real challenges faced by our high streets and, in particular, by independent businesses. In his spring Budget statement, the Chancellor announced a package of measures for business rate relief, including a £1,000 discount for pubs with rateable values below £100,000, £300 million for local authorities to fund discretionary rate relief, and a cap on rate increases, which means that businesses that lose their small business rate relief will not see their bills increase.

The Minister should stop being quite so complacent. Carillion was a signatory to the prompt payment code; Interserve still is. Carillion suppliers were paid on terms of 120 days, while Interserve subcontractors say that they are being absolutely hammered by late payment. Yesterday the Federation of Small Businesses again highlighted the damage done to growth by late payment. When will Ministers support smaller firms in the public sector supply chain, and enforce the prompt payment code?

We are certainly not complacent, which was why we set up the trade body group to assess the impact of Carillion. The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that yesterday I spoke to Phil King, who runs the prompt payment code, and I will be meeting him later this week to discuss how we can tighten up the code and give it real teeth. We are determined to help small businesses.

Local Enterprise Partnerships

We remain firmly committed to local enterprise partnerships. As announced in the industrial strategy, we are currently reviewing the roles and responsibilities of LEPs so that they are able to play an important role in developing local industrial strategies and driving growth across the country as we prepare to leave the European Union.

Hertfordshire LEP has been a disaster for Stevenage people. Does the Minister agree that it is shameful that growth deal round 1 money is being used to build new council offices and sell off public sector land for developers to build luxury flats, with less than 10% being affordable homes?

Some £15 million of growth deal round 1 money has already been invested in Stevenage, and that has helped to leverage a commitment of £350 million of private investment into the town. My hon. Friend raises an issue of concern, and I urge him to speak to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to resolve it.

May I invite the ministerial team to step out of its bubble by coming to Yorkshire and talking to our local enterprise partnerships to respond to their pessimism that while London and the south might survive post Brexit, the midlands, the north and the regions will be in bitterly disappointed territory?

The hon. Gentleman talks manufacturing down, but manufacturing is doing incredibly well in the north of England. He will also be aware that “place” is one of the five pillars of our industrial strategy, and we are determined to deliver across the country.


14. What assessment he has made of the effect of the UK leaving Euratom on (a) the economy and (b) scientific research in Oxfordshire. (904337)

I know that the hon. Lady has a keen interest in this subject, and we have met to discuss the impact on many of her constituents working at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. As she knows, our assessment was detailed in the “Nuclear Sector Report” at the end of December last year, and in an impact assessment for the Nuclear Safeguards Bill, which was first published on 18 December. We continue to engage with stakeholders, and the hon. Lady knows that my door is always open if she wishes to discuss this matter further.

I thank the Minister for his response. We know that the Government are seeking a close association with Euratom, but with just 109 days until Austria takes up the presidency, Oxfordshire needs clarity now to plan for the future. Can the Government categorically say they are seeking an associate agreement, and can they guarantee that they will kick-start the process before 1 July?

I can confirm that, as the hon. Lady knows, we are seeking the closest possible association with Euratom. We are working very hard to achieve that objective.

Does the Minister agree that at the recent meeting of the all-party group on nuclear fusion, which I chair, the Government’s attitude to expanding their collaboration in nuclear activity was greatly evident?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He also has a keen constituency interest in this, and I am very keen to represent the interests of his constituents.

Topical Questions

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.