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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
16 June 2020
Volume 677

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

Insolvency

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What steps his Department is taking to support businesses facing insolvency. [903254]

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What steps his Department is taking to support businesses facing insolvency. [903281]

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Mr Speaker, may I join you in your words about our former colleague, Jo Cox?

We have introduced the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill to help companies maximise their chances of survival. The Bill introduces new corporate restructuring tools and temporarily suspends part of insolvency law to help businesses keep trading.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I was proud to make my maiden speech on Second Reading of that very important Bill, which will provide vital safeguards during the coronavirus pandemic. Can he tell me what benefits it will have for businesses, not just in my constituency of Heywood and Middleton and across the north-west but in the wider country?

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My hon. Friend is proving to be a real champion for businesses in his constituency, and he raises an incredibly important point. The impact assessment of the Bill’s measures suggests that the three permanent changes to the UK insolvency framework will result in net benefits to business of over £1.9 billion in today’s prices, which is a much needed boost for businesses at this uncertain time.

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I welcome the Secretary of State back to the Dispatch Box after his recent illness. Businesses in Newcastle-under-Lyme and across the country face the risk of insolvency, especially those with business models that are dependent on socialising. In addition to what he has set out, which I welcome, can he tell us what Companies House proposes to do to support businesses at threat of insolvency?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point, and this is part of the Bill. While Companies House has extended the period for filing accounts, we will give businesses the maximum period available under the powers in the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill for filing their accounts, confirmation statements and event-driven updates. At a time when many companies are focused on surviving, that will be very welcome respite.

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Mr Speaker, may I echo your sentiments on the tragic loss of Jo Cox?

Businesses facing insolvency will be under further pressure with the premature end to the furlough and self-employed schemes, and loan schemes are of little help, because they simply add to a pile of debt. Does the Secretary of State agree that the sectors hit hardest by covid-19 need long-term support to survive and rebuild, which means extending the furlough scheme and support loans being written off or converted to equity?

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The level of support we have provided across the economy is incredibly favourable by any international comparison. The furlough scheme will be in place for a full eight months. That is precisely the support that we have been very keen to give to businesses.

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Tourism is worth £10.5 billion to the Scottish economy, and before the pandemic it provided 8% of jobs. While some businesses will soon be able to reopen outside areas, vital public health rules and consumer sentiment will mean that most activity is subdued. Will the Secretary of State follow the Scottish Government by setting up a tourism taskforce and use his Government’s reserve powers to cut VAT for tourism and other sectors, to help firms that are at risk of insolvency?

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As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is working with the tourism sector, and there is regular dialogue with it. I recognise the concerns that he has raised about this sector, which is closed, but that is why we have provided particular support through a rates holiday for hospitality businesses.

Hydrogen Technology

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What steps he is taking to develop hydrogen technology in the UK. [903255]

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We are investing up to £121 million between 2015 and 2021 in hydrogen innovation, supporting the application of new low-carbon hydrogen technologies across the value chain. I have had valuable discussions with businesses on the importance of scaling up hydrogen supply, including with Wrightbus, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

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I echo the sentiments expressed about our late colleague, Jo Cox.

The Minister will be aware that Germany announced in the last number of weeks that it is investing £5 billion in hydrogen technology. It joins the long list of countries investing billions of pounds, which includes Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia, as well as the EU. The £121 million to which he referred is very welcome, but it will never make us the leader of the pack in this industry. Let us move on from trials, Minister. Let us move on to real investment in this technology and become the world leader that Britain and the United Kingdom can be in this wonderful technology, which will create jobs and provide more employment across the whole UK.

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I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for that technology. The countries that he describes have announced commitments to spending the money; they have not spent the money yet. We will be following and pursuing that technology very rigorously, with full Government backing, in due course.

Climate Change

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What steps his Department is taking to tackle climate change. [903256]

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Since 1990 we have grown the economy by 75% while cutting emissions by 43%, and in June 2019, we became the first major economy to legislate for a net zero carbon emissions target.

We are hosting the COP26 climate negotiations next year. Along with our G7 presidency, we are determined to use our international leadership to drive global climate ambition.

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What assessment has my right hon. Friend’s Department made of the potentially significant role that nuclear power can play, in the hydrogen production from both large and small reactors? Does he agree that Wylfa Newydd, in my constituency of Ynys Môn, is the jewel in the crown of new nuclear sites?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. New nuclear obviously has an important part to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We are investing in new nuclear. On Wylfa, I am afraid, I cannot comment on the merits of the site, given that the Secretary of State is currently considering a development consent application. That said, there are a number of potentially good sites around the entire United Kingdom.

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The COP26 summit, now rescheduled for November 2021, will be a critical moment in a fight against runaway global heating. We all have a stake in ensuring that it is a success. Building momentum for that summit and establishing our credibility as its host is dependent on demonstrable leadership at home. In that regard, does the Minister agree that there is a strong case for publishing our nationally determined contribution before the end of 2020, and an arguable case for basing that NDC on a significantly enhanced 2030 target that puts us on the path to achieving net zero?

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My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is, of course, president of the COP26. He is committed to publishing very rigorous and ambitious targets for ourselves. As I responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), we are second to none in our commitment—our legislation—in terms of dealing with climate change. We have legislation that is very clear and sets the path.

Post Office Network

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What steps he is taking to support the sustainability of the post office network. [903257]

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The Government recognise the critical role that post offices play in communities across the UK. This is why the Government have committed to safeguard the post office network by investing over £2 billion between 2010 and 2018, and a further £370 million from April 2018 to March 2021. I regularly meet with the Post Office to find innovative steps to secure network sustainability and the continuity of services across the UK.

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I thank the Minister for his answer, but during the covid-19 pandemic, when sub-postmasters have proved just how essential they are to our communities, many are handing in their keys as they struggle to make a living, leaving communities without vital services. Pre-covid Post Office figures show that Scotland is still being hardest-hit by the postmaster crisis, with the highest number of closed branches in the UK, increasing by 17% since last year. Notwithstanding what the Minister has just said, in the 2020 spending review, will Ministers agree to maintain or increase the Government subsidy to post offices, to ensure that communities can access a post office branch, or will they continue putting the Post Office on a pathway to privatisation?

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The Post Office is obviously made up of small businesses, which are subject to the same problems as any, and Scotland, with its rural nature, has been affected. That is why we look to temporary post offices and outreach. But clearly, going forward, the Government will reflect the value of postmasters and the post office network in all their deliberations.

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Last week, the House united in calling for a judge-led inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal—hundreds of lives ruined and innocent people imprisoned by a trusted public institution—except the Minister, who proposes a forward-looking independent review, which will not mention managerial or ministerial accountability, Fujitsu’s responsibility or the key question of compensation. Now the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance is refusing to co-operate, saying it does not believe that the review will get to the bottom of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice of our times. After all that those people have endured, will the Minister not listen to them and commit to a judge-led inquiry?

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The hon. Lady is mistaken if she believes that the review does not look at the managerial responsibility of all the people responsible for what has happened, and we need to listen to the postmasters’ rebuke. Indeed, yesterday I discussed the matter in a meeting with chief executive Nick Read and Calum Greenhow, chief exec of the National Federation of Subpostmasters. Nick Read committed fully to the review, leaving no stone unturned, which is why I hope that with everyone coming together I can encourage postmasters to engage in the review so that we can get the answers they and the hon. Lady are looking for, to secure the redress and the answers that they need.

Covid-19: Support for Businesses

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What steps his Department is taking to support businesses during the covid-19 outbreak. [903258]

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What steps he is taking to support the business economy during the covid-19 outbreak. [903260]

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What steps his Department is taking to support businesses during the covid-19 outbreak. [903264]

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What steps he is taking to support the business economy during the covid-19 outbreak. [903265]

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What steps his Department is taking to support businesses during the covid-19 outbreak. [903268]

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What steps his Department is taking to support businesses during the covid-19 outbreak. [903271]

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What steps his Department is taking to support businesses during the covid-19 outbreak. [903275]

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The Government have introduced an unprecedented package of support. This includes grants for small businesses, a rates holiday for businesses operating in the retail, leisure and hospitality sector, a range of loan schemes covering all sides of businesses, the furlough scheme, the self-employment scheme, and a range of tax deferral schemes, all designed to help businesses through this very challenging time.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Brian and Karen Tinniswood run the Provenance restaurant in Westhoughton, but they have a deep concern about social distancing, which makes it impossible to reopen their restaurant. What consideration has my right hon. Friend given to reducing social distancing from 6 feet to 3 feet, then getting rid of it altogether?

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The issue that my hon. Friend raises is raised with me regularly by businesses, and I completely understand the economic rationale that his constituents have outlined to him. As he will know, a review is taking place, and we will wait to see its results.

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The OECD predicts that the UK recession will be the worst in the developed world. The Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland has issued a similarly depressing assessment. In terms of supporting Scottish business, what have been the key asks of the Department from the Secretary of State for Scotland?

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I have detailed discussions with all Cabinet and ministerial colleagues. I recognise the challenge ahead of us—there is no doubt about that—but we have provided a significant amount of support for the UK economy, and if that had not been put in place a range of independent commentators have made it clear that we would be in a far worse position.

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The automotive sector is important to my constituency of Bridgend, as it is to the whole UK economy. Will my right hon. Friend outline what the Government are doing to help businesses in that sector recover from the impact of covid-19?

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I have set out the full range of support available to all sectors across the economy, and the automotive sector can take full advantage of that. I would point out that the job retention scheme has been widely utilised by the automotive sector, with a recent survey by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders showing that the scheme has been accessed for over 60% of full-time workers in the auto sector.

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A number of businesses in my Glasgow Central constituency find themselves blocked from claiming under the job retention scheme as a result of the deficiencies of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs uploading real-time information before the outbreak. Will the Secretary of State take up that matter with HMRC and the Treasury, ask for discretion, and make sure that no business that would otherwise be eligible has to lay off valued staff or, worse, go bust, as businesses in my constituency cannot wait any longer?

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We want to support businesses, and I have set out a range of measures that we have put in place. The hon. Lady referred to a matter that ultimately is for HMRC and Her Majesty’s Treasury, but I am happy to have a discussion with her after questions.

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A few weeks ago, I was pleased to visit Arnold market in my constituency and it was great to see that it was operating very well under the new guidelines. As the wider high street is now beginning to reopen, can my right hon Friend tell me what support his Department will be giving to shops as they reopen?

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I thank my hon. Friend for doing his bit to support businesses in his constituency. In coming up with the workplace guidance, which has allowed businesses to open safely, we have worked closely with businesses, business representative organisations and trade unions. I have already outlined the support that we have provided for the sector, but what we all need to do is to get out there to support businesses that are now opening. We owe that to them and to the economy to get it going again.

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What is available for those fast-growing firms that rely on equity finance and for which loans and grants have not been a good fit?

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What an intelligent question. On 20 April, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a package of support worth £1.25 billion for fast-growing innovative companies and that, of course, included £750 million in grants and loans delivered through Innovate UK, and a £500 million future fund, through which the Government will invest up to £5 million per company, matched by the private sector.

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As my right hon. Friend adapts support for businesses, will he keep very much in mind those important sectors of the economy such as tourism and the creative industries that will need longer to recover and more notice of guidance changes? Will he recognise, as I am sure the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), will have told him, that in places such as Warwickshire those sectors are mutually reinforcing and very important not just to the local economy, but to the income of local authorities?

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My right hon. Friend, I know, has been engaging with businesses through virtual networks across Warwickshire, and I thank him for the work that he is doing locally. What I would say to him is that, of course, we have ensured that loan schemes are available across the economy. Smaller businesses in hospitality, leisure and retail have been able to access a £25,000 grant. The key issue is to have a safe and phased reopening of the economy to get it going again, which is what we are currently undertaking.

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I join you today, Mr Speaker, in both mourning and remembering Jo Cox.

I welcome much of the help that the Government have provided, but, according to Make UK, we could see the loss of 170,000 manufacturing jobs this year. In France, steel got loans within 10 days of applying for them, and aerospace is benefiting from billions of pounds of support, including for low-carbon engines. Here, three months after the crisis began, 60% of companies that have applied for large loans are still waiting and there has been no targeted help for our manufacturers. Will the Secretary of State tell us when specific help will actually materialise for sectors such as steel and aerospace?

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I do welcome the constructive tone in which we have approached our exchanges over the past few weeks, but what I would just say to the right hon. Gentleman is that if he looks at the sum total of what this Government are providing, he will find that it is significant and incredibly favourable when compared with international comparators. On loans, as he knows, we have increased the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme to allow up to £200 million to be made available, and we will continue to support businesses. He will also know that in certain cases we do have individual discussions going on with businesses.

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I urge the right hon. Gentleman to get a move on when it comes to those sectors, because they really need the help. I want to ask him additionally about sectors such as hospitality, tourism and the creative industries, which have just been raised. They will take longer to reopen and recover because of public health measures, and I want to ask him about the impact on them of the one-size-fits-all winding down of the furlough. Can he explain to thousands of pubs across the country how they are supposed to find an employer contribution for furloughed employees from August when they are struggling even to survive? Is not the risk of that approach, and we have seen the jobless figures this morning, that hundreds of thousands more workers will lose their jobs, and all of us will end up paying the costs in higher benefit bills and a weaker economy? Would it not be better to have a different approach for those at-risk sectors?

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We have taken a whole-economy approach, as he knows, and I have set out the measures that we have put in place. With regard to the retail and hospitality sectors, we have provided specific support for them in the one-year rates holiday, as well as the additional support that is available, but the key issue here is the safe reopening of the economy, and that is what we want to continue with over the coming weeks.

Rural Areas and Market Towns: Support for Businesses

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What steps he is taking to support the recovery of businesses in (a) rural areas and (b) market towns during the covid-19 outbreak. [903259]

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Our thoughts are indeed with our colleague who was murdered, Jo Cox, and also with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan); we wish her a safe return to this House.

We have introduced an unprecedented package of support for businesses across the country to get through this incredibly challenging period. More than £10 billion in grants—grants—has been paid to over 830,000 businesses of all sizes, including £100 million to over 8,000 businesses in Dorset. I want to thank the local leadership there for delivering that. This has explicitly been targeted at those in receipt of rural rate relief, as well as small business rate relief.

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Market towns in West Dorset such as Lyme Regis, Sherborne and Dorchester are thinking ahead, and I am supporting them to look at innovations to boost the local economy following coronavirus. These include virtual high streets and collaborating to improve accessibility of local brands to those who may not be able to get to the town. Will the Minister meet me to look at these concepts and determine how we can support these initiatives going forward?

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I know better than most, with Shipston-on-Stour, Alcester and Bidford—very important market towns—in my constituency, that it is more important than ever at this time to support businesses to adopt innovative business models. I would of course be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss those approaches to reopening our economy in West Dorset and the lessons that this may hold for the rest of the country as well.

Covid-19: High Street Businesses:

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What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on businesses trading on the high street. [903261]

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What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on businesses trading on the high street. [903298]

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My Department has regular discussions with Housing, Communities and Local Government colleagues on the impact of covid-19 on high street businesses. We have provided unprecedented support to high street businesses. Pubs, shops, and hotels will pay no business rates for 12 months; eligible retail, hospitality and leisure businesses have received cash grants of up to £25,000; and businesses that cannot pay their rent because of coronavirus will be protected from eviction.

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Businesses across my constituency continue to report the major challenges that have been present since the start of lockdown, particularly a loss of income, mounting debts, enforced closure, insurance policies not paying out, the need to make redundancies, and an inability to plan for the future given the uncertainty of the current situation. Although many non-essential businesses have reopened this week, it will still be a long road to recovery, so will the Secretary of State review the grant scheme to ensure support for our high street businesses that are doing the right thing but could be decimated by covid-19?

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One of the reasons we launched the £617 million discretionary fund was so that we can reach more businesses, but clearly we need to reopen safely non-essential retail, as started yesterday. We need to monitor that. We need to make sure that opening up our economy is the best way, along with the flexible support that we are giving, to make sure that it can start to bounce back, including in Jarrow.

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Economically, my constituency has been especially hard hit by the coronavirus crisis, with almost 19,000 employees having been furloughed. But while some businesses have been able to gain access to Government grants and schemes, numerous independent and family-run businesses have not been able to do so and have fallen between the cracks of Government support. Will the Minister urgently review the Government grant and loan schemes, particularly for our high street businesses, so that they too can benefit from them and our towns do not become ghost towns, or mere carbon copies, because we would then lose our much loved independent businesses?

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the plight of independent businesses. That is why I was pleased to go to Northcote Road in Clapham to see what they were doing there and the community spirit that brings them together. We always look at the flexibility of support, but we will also make sure, with the safe opening of shops now, that the new normal is coupled with a future view of the high street—the new reality, with changing behaviour of consumers—so that in the years to come independent shopkeepers can sustain and indeed thrive as local businesses on the high street.

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We now go to marvellous Manchester, with Lucy Powell.

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May I, too, put on the record my remembrance of my good friend Jo Cox?

Pubs, cafés, hairdressers and restaurants are the lifeblood of our high streets. Business-critical guidance about their reopening in just two and a half weeks’ time was due yesterday but is nowhere to be seen. Instead, they got another review, making a bad situation much worse. When will they get that guidance? With either 1-metre or 2-metre distancing, most of those businesses still will not be viable, so will the Government finally recognise that vital business support schemes need to follow the public health measures before we see large-scale job losses and the decimation of our high streets?

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As you will see from my hairstyle, Mr Speaker, I am desperately awaiting the opening of hairdressers and barbers too. It is key that we get this right, though. The economic impetus from the hospitality sector in particular is made apparent to me every single day that I speak to its representatives; indeed, I will be speaking to a lot of them later this afternoon. We have to make sure we get that right, with the confidence of customers coming back. The Government’s first priority is to save lives and to work with the scientific guidance. At the moment, when people go out to shop at the businesses that are open today, 2 metres is still the rule, but we will get further guidance as soon as we practicably can.

Chinese Investment: Intellectual Property

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What steps he is taking to ensure that Chinese investment in UK businesses does not undermine UK intellectual property. [903262]

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The Government have powers under the Enterprise Act 2002 to intervene in certain transactions on national security grounds. We will bring forward legislation to strengthen our existing powers in this area, including enabling Government intervention in acquisitions of assets such as sensitive intellectual property.

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First, may I associate myself with our memories of Jo Cox? She was my close friend, neighbour and great comrade and colleague.

Why cannot this Government and Prime Minister wake up to the threat from China, which wants to be the dominant world economic superpower? Does the Minister not realise that China cannot be trusted? It has been stealing our intellectual property from universities, businesses and Government for years. How could we possibly want it to be involved in our telecommunications industry through Huawei, and will we please put a stop to the partnership on developing nuclear power in our country?

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We welcome inward investment in the UK’s civil nuclear sector. All investment involving critical infrastructure is subject to thorough scrutiny. Foreign investment and an active competitive economy are key to the UK’s growth. The UK wants a modern and mature relationship with China based on mutual respect and trust.

Life Sciences Sector: Vaccine Manufacturing

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What steps his Department is taking to support vaccine manufacturing and the UK life sciences sector. [903263]

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We have set up a vaccines taskforce to lead and co-ordinate all the Government’s activities to develop and manufacture a coronavirus vaccine. As part of that, we are investing £93 million in a vaccine manufacturing innovation centre, which will be completed 12 months ahead of schedule, by summer 2021. We are also funding a rapid deployment facility, which will be able to begin manufacturing vaccines at scale from August this year.

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Ultimately, throughout this process, we are in the hands of our brilliant scientists. I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement on what he is doing to accelerate opening the vaccine manufacturing innovation centre by next summer, but what more can be done to ensure that we get on top of this disease and address it as early as we possibly can?

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Of course, my hon. Friend will know that we are providing direct support to the vaccines being developed at Oxford University and Imperial College London. He may also be aware that the Imperial vaccine is now set to enter clinical human trials. We are also leading international efforts to support vaccine discovery and deployment.

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I call the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Darren Jones.

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UK-EU research collaboration contributes £2 billion to British research and development and accounts for at least 5,000 researchers in British universities, as well as its contributions to covid research and vaccination research. Will the Secretary of State make a commitment that, irrespective of the free trade agreement negotiations with the EU, the UK will seek third country full associate membership of Horizon Europe to keep that money coming into British R&D?

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The hon. Gentleman will know that we are committed to being a science and R&D superpower, which is why we have committed to spending £22 billion a year by 2024-25 and to reaching 2.4% of GDP by 2027. The discussions with the EU are ongoing, and we will see what they lead to.

Hospitality Sector: Covid-19

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What recent discussions he has had with representatives from the hospitality sector on the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on that sector. [903267]

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What recent discussions he has had with representatives from the hospitality sector on the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on that sector. [903278]

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What recent discussions he has had with representatives from the hospitality sector on the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on that sector. [903296]

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I have met regularly with a large number of representatives of hospitality organisations to discuss the issues that they are experiencing, including through the BEIS ministerial taskforce on pubs and restaurants and my own weekly call with sector representatives, the next of which is this afternoon.

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I, too, record that my thoughts are with Jo Cox’s family today.

The hospitality sector has faced an unprecedented challenge due to coronavirus, which has had an impact on many businesses in my constituency of Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough. At the start of the outbreak, the Prime Minister said that he would do whatever it takes to support individuals and businesses. Will the Government therefore extend the full furlough scheme to ensure that the hospitality sector survives and workers in the industry do not add to the shocking unemployment figures released today, and, ultimately, to protect our communities from a further spike of this terrible virus?

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Indeed, Sheffield City Council has paid £87 million to 7,329 business premises. We have provided an unprecedented package of financial support to businesses in the hospitality sector. We continue to work with them. We continue to extend the furlough system and make it flexible, in order to have part-time furloughing, so that people can start to come back to work. It is important, however, that we get the guidance out so that we can work with the hospitality sector to get it to reopened, so that it can start to bounce back.

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Rumours are swirling about whether, how and which pubs will be able to reopen on 4 July. The brewing industry urgently needs clarity on whether it will be all pubs or just those with gardens. The Minister just said that the guidance will be available as soon as possible, but that is not good enough. We are two and a bit weeks away. Beer needs to be brewed. Some of us need a pint. When will that guidance be available? The brewing industry and pubs need that clarity urgently.

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It is not only that we need a pint. For pubs, it is about not just coming back for the opening, but making sure that it is an enjoyable experience for people, so they keep on coming back. That is what will allow them to survive and thrive, so it is important that we get the guidance out. I am trying to work with the hospitality sector and pubs to make sure that there are as few surprises as possible, but we need to make sure that we are weighing that up with the scientific guidance so that pub people, clients and people who want a pint know that they can go into a pub safely.

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I send my condolences to the family of Jo Cox.

Workers in the hospitality industry are heading for a crisis. It has been one of the worst-hit sectors by the virus, with a disproportionate number of young, low-paid and insecure workers. My constituency of Liverpool, Riverside has an estimated 11,700 employees furloughed who are employed by small family-run businesses, many of which do not qualify for grant support because they are outside the £51,000 rateable value. Will the Secretary of State fix the loans, extend the grants and plan for recovery to ensure that support for the hospitality sector?

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It is time for me to add my voice to that of Members across the House expressing their condolences to the loved ones of Jo Cox and, indeed, wishing a swift recovery to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan). That was horrific news, and I hope that she is back on her feet as soon as possible.

Liverpool City Council, which I have spoken to, has handed out £87,885,000 to businesses, including small businesses and those in the retail and hospitality sector. That is why I was pleased to be able to extend the discretionary scheme to capture more of the businesses that fell short. I know that Liverpool City Council has an economic recovery plan, in addition to “Liverpool Without Walls”, to encourage pubs and restaurants to open safely. That will help young people especially to get back into employment and get our economy up and running.

Start-Up Businesses

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What steps his Department is taking to support start-up businesses. [903270]

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We want to make the UK the best place to start and grow a business, and it should not matter where in the UK that is. The start-up loans programme has helped more people to realise their dream of starting a business, with more than 72,000 loans, worth £591 million, since 2012. During 2018-19, our growth hubs helped more than 9,500 business starts in England, and through programmes operated by the Government-backed British Business Bank we are currently supporting more than £7.7 billion of finance to more than 94,900 small and medium- sized enterprises.

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Start-up businesses are vital to our economic recovery. What more can the Government do to help the very smallest businesses access the right finance quickly to survive during and post covid-19?

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I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the work that he has done with small businesses for many years, including when we were working with businesses together. I know that he continues that work. As part of the package of covid-19 recovery measures we created the bounce-back loans scheme, which targets small and microbusinesses in all sectors, providing loans from £2,000 up to 25% of the business’s turnover, with a maximum loan of £50,000. Applications are done via a simple online form. As of 7 June, 782,246 loans, worth £23.78 billion, have been approved.

Independent Pubs: Covid-19

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What steps he is taking to support independent pubs during the covid-19 outbreak. [903272]

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We have provided a significant package of support to pubs—including a one-year business rates holiday and access to grants of up to £25,000 per qualifying property—through a number of schemes. That is alongside the business support available to all sectors, including access to the coronavirus job retention scheme and various Government-backed loan schemes.

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Pubs in Wolverhampton such as the Merry Hill, Oddfellows and the Mount Tavern will have been impacted by covid-19. I welcome the measures the Minister outlined, but what is the longer-term strategy to help pubs to return to a profitable state and to become the vital community hubs that they were before?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question, because it is vital that we recognise how important such businesses are as community hubs. We recognise that trading conditions may be challenging for many businesses for some time to come. We will continue to work with the sector, both to prepare for reopening and afterwards. I understand that the Minister responsible for small business—the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully)—plans to continue to meet representatives of the sector regularly.

Manufacturing Sector: Covid-19

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What support he is providing to the manufacturing sector during the covid-19 outbreak. [903273]

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We are committed to ongoing engagement with industry to ensure that our manufacturers have the support that they need. That includes a roundtable that I am holding tomorrow for north-east businesses, which the hon. Gentleman will be interested in. Our support for the industry includes the unprecedented £330 billion package of business continuity support.

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I send my condolences to the family of my dear friend and colleague Jo Cox.

UK workers are much more vulnerable to redundancy than French and German workers because the UK Government have announced that they are already winding down their job retention scheme. That is not my view, but the view expressed this weekend by the chief executive of leading aerospace manufacturer Airbus. In France and Germany, the subsidy schemes are set to last for up to two years. Does the Minister not agree that UK workers deserve at least the same job protections and guarantees as have been introduced in other countries? What more can be done to save these vital UK jobs?

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The hon. Member mentions the aerospace sector, into which the Government have put around £6.5 billion between the Bank of England corporate finance scheme and UK Export Finance, with an additional half a billion pounds of support. We have also put £3.4 billion into the growth deal across the northern powerhouse, with almost £380 million of that going to the north-east local enterprise partnership area, including his constituency of Wansbeck, which is benefiting from that to the tune of around £2.25 million in a science, technology, engineering and maths building at Northumberland College’s Ashington campus. A lot of work is going into this unprecedented package, but we continue to review all our interventions to make sure that UK workers get the benefit of a dynamic recovery.

Post Office IT System (Review)

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What progress his Department has made on undertaking a review of the Post Office IT system. [903274]

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On 10 June, the Government announced an independent review to consider whether the Post Office has learned the necessary lessons from the Horizon trial judgments and to provide an independent and external assessment of its work to rebuild its relationship with its postmasters. We are keen to see the review launch as soon as possible, and we are in the process of identifying a chair to lead the work of the review in order to get the answers that we need and to hear those voices.

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I welcome that answer and the Government’s commitment to the review. Is the Minister aware of any support for postmasters and postmistresses while the situation is ongoing?

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The December 2019 settlement comprised a comprehensive settlement of £57.75 million. The Post Office has opened a historical shortfall scheme for postmasters who were not part of the group litigation and who want shortfall issues recorded in Horizon to be investigated and addressed. Many convicted claimants are going through a further process with the Criminal Cases Review Commission, with 47 referred to the Court of Appeal. Where convictions are overturned, processes are in place for them to receive compensation if appropriate.

Topical Questions

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If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [903314]

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My Department, together with Her Majesty’s Treasury, is at the forefront of supporting businesses during these unprecedented times. More than £10.3 billion has been paid out to businesses to date by direct grant and an additional £38.2 billion through the major loan schemes. The Government have supported 9.1 million jobs through the coronavirus job retention scheme and 2.6 million claims have been made through the self-employed income support scheme.

In the past week, I have led five businesses taskforces to listen to and work with the business community and academic experts as we consider the measures needed to support our economy bouncing back. We want to create a cleaner, greener and more resilient economy and the output from those taskforces will feed directly into the Government’s work on the economic recovery.

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The Secretary of State will know that the UK has an opportunity to lead the world in hydrogen technology, which will create thousands of green jobs, cut emissions, unlock private investment and increase our energy security. Just as we lagged behind with battery technology, we risk missing the boat on hydrogen as other nations set multibillion-pound hydrogen strategies. The UK needs a hydrogen strategy. Will the Secretary of State meet me and other colleagues from across the House who share my belief in hydrogen to discuss how we can place hydrogen at the forefront of our green recovery?

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As my hon. Friend will have heard in the earlier answer from the Energy Minister, we are committed to developing hydrogen as a strategic decarbonised energy carrier. We are investing in the value chain and both the Energy Minister and I will be happy to meet him.

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I associate myself with your remarks, Mr Speaker, and those of other Members, about our much-missed colleague, Jo Cox.

There is a clear racial and class dynamic in the covid-19 death rate, with those in working-class jobs, such as carers, taxi drivers, security guards and retail assistants, who are disproportionately black, Asian or minority ethnic, more likely to die from the virus. Throughout the pandemic, insecure employment practices have left millions without protections at work or the financial support they need to safeguard their income and allow them to self-isolate. Will the Secretary of State as a first step recognise that insecure employment practices are directly responsible for worsening inequalities, including structural racism and discrimination?

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I add my deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of everyone who has lost their lives in this pandemic.

We are providing support across the piece for all individuals. The hon. Gentleman talks about people from ethnic minority backgrounds. He will know that we hold regular roundtables to ensure that we are addressing individuals in all sorts of groups that have protected characteristics.

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My constituency has nearly 30 miles of coastline from Workington to Bowness-on-Solway, with some of the highest tidal ranges in the UK. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the potential benefits of tidal range barrages along the Cumbrian coast—not only the benefits to energy production security but the wider socioeconomic benefits that integrated infra- structure might bring? [903316]

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The Department is aware of several projects being considered on rivers and estuaries such as the Wyre, the Duddon, Morecambe bay and the Solway firth, and we have had frequent contacts with developers. We remain open to considering well-developed, well-considered projects that can demonstrate strong value for money alongside other renewable generation.

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The coronavirus business interruption loan scheme—CBILS —was supposed to offer a lifeline of support to struggling businesses, but it is not reaching those who need it the most. Sky-high interest rates are now being offered by some lenders, and that is making it less of a lifeline and more like picking the bones off desperate smaller firms. Will the Secretary of State press the Chancellor to take action now to stop this unfair profiteering and ensure that businesses pay no more than 2.5% interest, in line with the bounce-back scheme? [903320]

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As the hon. Member will know, the latest figures show that over 49,000 loans have been approved, to the value of more than £10 billion. There is a significant number of lenders attached to the CBIL scheme, but if he has specific cases, he should definitely come and talk to me.

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I would like to put on record my remembrance of my good friend, Jo Cox. In the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, we are undertaking an inquiry into the impact of covid on our major industries. All of them rely on our maritime and ports sector to keep the supply chain going. Of the £22 billion—a vast sum of money—that is being put together for research and development, how much will be allocated to maritime innovation and tech? [903322]

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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work that she did as shipping Minister. We have made the commitment to £22 billion a year by 2025. That is the biggest increase in public funding of R&D, and no doubt, as projects come forward from that sector, we will look at them.

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I had the pleasure and privilege of sharing an office with Jo Cox for almost a year before she was so brutally taken from us, and our thoughts are with Brendan and the family today. On the issue of steel, the Secretary of State will be aware that the French and German steel industries received vital Government-backed loans within 10 days of their respective lockdowns starting. Here, months since the start of ours, the British steel industry has yet to receive a penny. Does the Secretary of State think that that is acceptable? [903325]

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We are working with the steel sector, as the hon. Member will know, and we continue to work closely with it. Of course I absolutely remain committed to supporting a sustainable UK steel sector. We have increased the amount of borrowing that can take place under the larger CBIL scheme but, as I said to the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) in answer to an earlier question, when individual companies approach us, we will of course enter into direct discussions with them.

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It is good news that our shops are gradually reopening across England, but they are in a delicate economic position. The good old British compromise of our Sunday trading laws allows a balance between the larger stores, the smaller shops, the interests of consumers and the interests of staff working in those shops. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the very last thing we should be doing is disturbing that compromise and potentially placing at risk the jobs and economic capabilities of our small shopkeepers across England? [903323]

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Of course we keep all these matters under review, and I know that there is a range of views on this matter. I would just point out that we did temporarily relax Sunday trading during the London Olympics. That was to support consumers and, of course, the economy as well.

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As businesses go back to work, what support are the Government giving to disabled people to ensure that they are able to return safely or to continue to work from home? Will the Secretary of State consider a tailored furlough scheme for disabled and shielded people who cannot return to their workplace? [903328]

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The obligations on employers to take care of disabled employees have not changed. In the guidance that we have provided we make reference to the fact that employers need to take particular care of employees with particular protected characteristics.

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Yesterday morning, I had the pleasure of visiting the excellent Lexicon shopping centre in Bracknell, where I saw busy shops, happy shoppers and dedicated staff who had done everything possible to keep customers safe. Does the Minister agree that it is now time to revise social distancing measures to below 2 metres, not least to give our high streets a big boost? [903324]

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I again thank my hon. Friend for all he is doing to support local businesses in Bracknell—more power to his elbow. I am sure all of us will do the same in our constituencies over the coming days and weeks. As I said in response to an earlier question, we are reviewing the social distancing rule.

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One in four pubs do not have enough space to reopen and comply with the 2 metre rule and 82% of those that could reopen would have to operate at less than half capacity, putting pubs including many in Portsmouth at risk. With reopening fast looming, on what specific date will the Minister provide guidance to British pubs? [903329]

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The hon. Gentleman will know that we have worked collaboratively with employers, employee representative organisations and trade unions in producing the guidance that we have put out so far. We continue to have a good dialogue with individual sectors, and once we have concluded that, we will of course make that guidance available.

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May I begin by saying that my thoughts and prayers are with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) and her family at this time? Although a political opponent, she is, like Jo Cox was, a lovely person. Will the Minister, given the recent major policy change, ensure that contracts for difference— [903326]

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Order. We are going to have to clear Members away from the entrance. There are some seats. You will have to sit down. You just cannot gather.

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I will begin the question again, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister ensure that contracts for difference funding will only be made available to onshore wind farms in Scotland that have local community support?

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I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for the question. He will know that local consent and local support are absolutely key to the pot one auction, but he will also be aware that planning policy is a devolved matter in Scotland, and it is therefore for the Scottish Government to set up national planning policies and the approach to declining planning applications. He is well aware that this Government have been very focused on local consent right through this process.

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I also concur with the remarks made about my friend and colleague Jo Cox. We remember her today and what she stood for. As a member of the Transport Committee, I stand by our description of British Airways as a “national disgrace” for the way it has effectively fired most of its staff and will rehire some of them on vastly cut pay and conditions. BA has done that under the cloak of the pandemic and gone way beyond any other major employer. The aviation sector will take longer to recover. When that does happen, I hope the Government will step in to support the sector. When they do so, will they ensure that employers cannot get away with the tactics of British Airways and also commit to delivering on climate change? [903330]

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We appreciate that announcements about redundancies for British Airways staff have been incredibly distressing for the employees and their families. At the end of the day, the use of the Government’s job retention schemes is preferable to making redundancies. That is why we made them available. What I would say in this case is that it is a commercial decision. We expect British Airways and, indeed, all employers to treat employees fairly and in the spirit of partnership.

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I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is right that the Government are requiring landlords to show forbearance to commercial tenants, but that is shifting some of the burden from the tenants to the landlords, many of whom are small and medium-sized enterprises, yet the banks are not providing a full payment holiday as they are for residential and buy-to-let. It is simply a capital repayment holiday, which is a small part of the payment. Will my right hon. Friend see what he can do about that? [903336]

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My hon. Friend, as ever, raises an important issue. It is why both the CBILS and the bounce-back loans have a 12-month period during which interest is paid on behalf of the business. I would expect lenders to apply similar forbearance where needed in the case of existing commercial loans.

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My thoughts are also with Jo’s family. Let me acknowledge the basic decency of the furlough scheme. However, with vacancies plunging and the spectre of unemployment rising—youth unemployment in Birmingham is now at 18%—is it time for a jobs and training package, so that we avoid a return to 1980s unemployment levels for young people, when many from black and minority ethnic backgrounds simply felt written off? [903337]

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The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. As we look to see how we can restart the economy and the whole process of recovery, we will, of course, look at skills as well.

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Many constituents, from right across Ashfield, have been in touch with me as they are very concerned that they will be made redundant by Rolls-Royce. With Rolls-Royce announcing last week the locations of its first 3,000 redundancies in the UK, what more can my right hon. Friend say to reassure my constituents that the Government are doing everything they can to ensure that they are supporting the employees affected, as these are the people who have worked so hard to establish the company’s world-leading position? If any of these highly-skilled and professional workers are made redundant, what are the Government’s plans to ensure that their skills are repurposed to other projects? [903340]

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My hon. Friend raises a hugely important issue. Employment and the possibilities and opportunities for people are something we are absolutely focused on. I assure him that we will do all we can to help those who will be affected by this announcement to get back into work as quickly as possible. This will include working with the Department for Work and Pensions, Jobcentre Plus and Rolls-Royce itself to make sure that economic opportunities and jobs are freely available to those who might be affected.

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My constituency stands to benefit from offshore energy coming ashore, yet it is hampered by prejudicial grid charges and investment in infrastructure going elsewhere. Will the Minister end the discriminatory charging regime and support Scottish Government schemes seeking to ensure that Scotland benefits from its natural resource off its shore and does not lose out, as it did with oil and gas? [903339]

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I do not think that is a fair characterisation of the situation. We have huge offshore capacity; 35% of the global offshore wind capacity is in the UK, with much of it sited in Scotland. Scottish firms are extremely capable of competing in the auctions, and I do not think it is fair to characterise our position in the way that the hon. Gentleman has.

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In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am now suspending the House for five minutes.

Sitting suspended.