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Topical Questions

Volume 656: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2019

One of the frustrations about the dominance of our Brexit debates over the last two years is that insufficient attention is given to the fact that this is one of the most exciting times for British industry and commerce since the first industrial revolution, which was forged in this country. We are in the vanguard of so many of the industries of the future. Earlier this month, my right hon. Friend the Energy Minister was in Lowestoft and, again, in Grimsby to launch the offshore wind sector deal—the 10th sector deal in our industrial strategy. It is helping Britain to procure a third of its electricity through offshore power by 2020, to provide a lead right around the world and to export good technology.

I share my right hon. Friend’s optimism and enthusiasm for the opportunities that lie ahead for this country. Following the Chancellor’s statement last week, when specific measures were announced, which I welcome, could he elaborate on how he expects the UK to take a lead in science and innovation to develop new technologies for renewables, which he touched on, and new materials?

My right hon. Friend is correct that our reputation for science and innovation, and the standing of our universities, are among the best in the world. At a time when every country around the world is investing in the technologies of the future, we need to emphasise the abilities and talents we have. Through the industrial strategy, we have the biggest increase in public and private sector spending and innovation that we have ever had in this country. It is already making a difference, but we have more to do.

Our automotive sector is facing significant challenges. To quote the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders,

“There is a perfect storm of a hostile global trading environment, the imminent threat of significant tariffs on cars exported to the US, rising costs, technological revolution and the already damaging impact of Brexit on the UK industry”.

This perfect storm has already claimed some victims: Honda in Swindon, the loss of the production of the X-Trail and Infiniti models in Sunderland, and the loss of thousands of jobs at Jaguar Land Rover and Ford. The sector needs immediate and substantial support. Does the Secretary of State think the Government are doing enough?

I am glad the hon. Lady recognises the importance and effectiveness of our automotive sector. She is absolutely right that the acceleration of the shift to new technologies is affecting the sector in every country around the world. Through our industrial strategy, agreed with the automotive sector through the sector deal, and the Faraday challenge, we are advancing our position in battery technology. That makes sure that, when the new generation of batteries are produced, they are produced in Britain, guaranteeing our future.

Those are warm words from the Secretary of State, but actions speak louder. On Brexit, his Government have threatened a catastrophic no deal and run down the clock. On rising costs, the Government have allowed costs such as industrial electricity prices and business rates to disadvantage UK manufacturers. On electrification, the Government have allowed us to fall behind. The planned charging infrastructure investment fund is still not in operation 16 months after it was announced, and subsidies for electric vehicles have been cut. Is not the truth that this Government are failing to provide the automotive sector with the support it needs to weather this perfect storm?

We are the leading country in Europe when it comes to the production of electric vehicles, and as the hon. Lady is well aware, we have, through the industrial strategy, advanced our leadership position. However, if she listens to the leaders of the automotive sector, they say one thing time and again very clearly: we need to conclude a deal with the European Union. They have endorsed comprehensively the deal the Prime Minister has negotiated. If the hon. Lady is concerned for the future of this important sector, she would compromise and recognise the importance of bringing to an end this uncertainty and passing the deal.

T4. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a business briefing in Tendring where I met some of the wonderful entrepreneurs in my area. They just want certainty. They just want us to get the job done. What is the Department doing to protect those businesses as we leave the European Union? (909892)

Our business environment is among the best in the world. By reducing corporation tax and investing in skills, innovation and productivity-boosting schemes, we are supporting businesses to compete in an ever-changing market. Ensuring that businesses can access finance is key, and the British Business Bank has the tools to make that happen, including its enterprise finance guarantee scheme, start-up loans and our export strategy.

T2. Just days after hundreds of children in Glasgow joined the thousands around the world campaigning for action to tackle climate change, a massive cyclone and devastating floods have hit Mozambique, Malawi and other parts of central Africa. What steps is the Department taking, working with the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to help developing countries to mitigate and tackle the causes and effects of climate change? (909890)

The hon. Gentleman is right that CO2 molecules do not care where they are emitted or where they have an impact. I am delighted to tell him that we are one of the world’s largest donors of climate-facing aid, with £5.8 billion over this Parliament, about half of which is spent on adaptation and half on mitigation. There is clearly more to do, but we should be proud of that record.

T5. What is BEIS doing to ensure that the oil and gas industry, which is the largest employer in my constituency, is the most innovative oil and gas sector in the world? (909893)

My hon. Friend speaks proudly of the hundreds of high-skilled jobs in his constituency, and there are hundreds of thousands such jobs across the UK. We are increasing R&D spend across the piece, but innovation in the oil and gas sector is driven through the almost £200 million investment in the oil and gas technology centre, which I have been pleased to visit, including £90 million from the Government.

T3. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders told us in big, bold type in its briefing note this morning that the vehicle excise duty diesel supplement must be removed immediately if we are to encourage the sale of the most advanced and cleanest diesel engines, such as those in which JLR is investing heavily. If that change is needed immediately, can manufacturers be expected to wait until the October Budget for an answer? (909891)

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have been in discussion with the industry. The sector has participated in the development of the path to the decarbonisation of vehicles, and it is important that we are consistent with that. However, part of that process is about recognising that buying a diesel car is a perfectly reasonable choice for many people, but some people have got the wrong impression from the announcement.

T7. The all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking and finance is dealing with several cases, including those of Keith Elliott and Julia Davey, that raise serious questions about inappropriate links between insolvency practitioners and banks, specifically KPMG, PwC and Lloyds Bank. What action is the Minister taking to remove such conflicts of interest? (909895)

My hon. Friend is a passionate campaigner in this area and for his constituents, and he knows that I would particularly like to tackle this matter. Insolvency practitioners must adhere to the insolvency code of ethics and must not allow conflicts of interest to override the fundamental principles of objectivity. Breaching the code may result in regulatory action, such as a fine, reprimand or, in the most serious of circumstances, the removal of a licence. The code is currently being updated by the recognised professional bodies that license insolvency practitioners, but I will continue the dialogue with my hon. Friend on this matter.

T6. As a result of IR35, small contractors who provide services to the public sector are paying more tax than regular employees but without benefits such as holiday pay or sick pay. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor on revising IR35? (909894)

The hon. Lady raises an important point, but she knows we are doing a lot in this area to strengthen employment rights for people in the workplace. We have the good work plan, we are looking at flexibility, we are increasing holiday pay and we are always looking at how we can improve the situation for workers, whether the self-employed or general workers.

T10. Last week the Chancellor announced investments in genomics, photonics, quantum computing and nuclear fusion. Does my right hon. Friend agree that investments in world-class innovation bring economic benefits for all? (909898)

The spring statement was indeed a statement for research, innovation and science. Looking at just one of those investments, there is £60 million to keep the Joint European Torus facility going, and there are hundreds of jobs and tens of PhDs at that facility. I am delighted that the Chancellor made that commitment as we move forward to 2.4% of GDP being spent on research and development by 2027.

T8. Can the Secretary of State explain whether he personally thinks the Prime Minister’s exit deal will make the UK better off than remaining in the EU would? (909896)

Substantial analysis has shown that, of all the options available, the Prime Minister’s deal is the one that provides the best economic future, and I hope the hon. Lady will support it.

Post offices are at the heart of our communities, so does the Minister welcome the news that Newick post office in my constituency, after being closed for months following the sad death of the postmaster, Terry, is set to reopen? Does she agree that we must do all we can to keep post offices open in our rural communities?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work she has done with her constituents, the Post Office and the community to make sure that the post office in Newick is reopened. Post offices play an important role in our communities, and we are committed to maintaining the network of 11,500 post offices with the support of MPs like her.

T9. In my constituency, the Crown post office in Middleton is to be closed and franchised into WHSmith, the consultation on which has just finished. As if that were not enough for one constituency, a consultation has just begun on moving the Heywood post office into an empty shop with an as yet unidentified retailer. Does the Minister agree that that consultation is a sham and that our post offices are both national institutions and part of our communities? (909897)

As the hon. Lady knows after our meeting yesterday afternoon to discuss this issue, we are committed to delivering and maintaining the post office network, which did not happen under the last Labour Government, when there was a reduction. As I have already outlined and made very clear, where there are concerns about specific branches, practices and consultations, I will personally raise them directly with the Post Office.

I am delighted that the Prime Minister was able to join my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and me to celebrate the success of the beginning of that deal. The next phase is about investment in skills, and I look forward to visiting Cleethorpes and Grimsby to inaugurate that important set of investments in the skills of the population.

At the last general election, Labour promised to introduce a “Post Bank” to combat financial exclusion and ensure that everyone has access to banking services in their community. Does the Secretary of State agree that introducing a Post Bank to provide banking services in post offices would do wonders for the high street, as well as reducing financial exclusion?

The hon. Gentleman gives me an opportunity to talk about the fact that we already offer banking services in our post offices. As I outlined earlier, we are doing the most we can to make sure that post offices and sub-postmasters are remunerated for the work they do.

Order. I am sorry, but the questions and answers are just too long. I am trying to help the House, but what we want is a brief question and a brief answer, not a speech.

Barclays has just announced another swathe of branch closures that affect my constituency, as the banks continue their flight from small towns and rural areas. Where does the Minister think all this will end? Does she agree that banks have a wider social obligation?

I agree with my right hon. Friend that banks have a wider social responsibility. That is why I am committed to working with the Post Office to make sure that under the new banking framework post offices are remunerated correctly for the service they are providing for communities that the banks have moved away from.

Fracking is bad for the environment, our health, our democracy, our landscape and even the courts. Does the Minister recognise that the Government are on shaky ground, quite literally, and will they ditch their support for this failing industry?

We have said repeatedly that the opportunity to create a home-grown energy source that provides thousands of jobs in parts of the country that economic policies have not been able to help, with the toughest regulations for oil and gas exploration in the world, is something that we should soberly and sensibly explore. That continues to be the case.

The switchover has already started. The priority is smart meters that have gone dumb through customers switching, because we do not want there to be an impediment to switching. The commitment is unchanged: it will be rolled out completely by the end of 2020.

A common feature of all patient safety scandals is that whistleblowers were ignored, intimidated or lost their careers, and were not protected by the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. Will the Secretary of State bring forward legislation for all sectors to ensure that that concern is investigated and that whistleblowers are protected?

The hon. Lady addresses a very important area that I am extremely concerned about. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care on how we can best strengthen the protection for whistleblowers within the NHS to support families and staff who raise concerns. This is a key area for us and I will continue to communicate with her on it.

I am sorry to disappoint the large number of colleagues remaining, but on the principle that one should encourage an up and coming young Member at the conclusion of proceedings, I call Mr Dennis Skinner.

Why should Jim Ratcliffe make millions creating misery for all the people affected by fracking? Coincidentally, there are not many jobs either.

The hon. Gentleman, as a proud representative of a former coalfield community, knows that, to the contrary, many people, including the GMB, support the fracking policy because of its potential—

The hon. Gentleman says the unions are wrong—that is probably a first. People support fracking because of its potential to create jobs. [Interruption.] Crikey, if he would stop yelling. I must say that I feel desperately sorry for female Members on the Opposition Benches if this is how their colleagues treat them: being howled down, winked at—the other hon. Gentleman is not in his place—and having kisses blown after a question. The brocialists are in full control of the Labour party. I know that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) will accept that we need to explore the science sensibly and see whether there is a natural resource there, because when he was digging up coal, energy security used to matter.

I am genuinely sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but demand has exceeded supply, as is so often the case at Question Time.