House of Commons
Tuesday 29 November 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
Energy Price Guarantee: Impact on Households
Future energy prices remain highly uncertain and are expected to remain elevated throughout next year. The energy price guarantee from April ’23 is currently expected to equate to £500 of support for households in 2023-24.
As I hope the Secretary of State will know, recent analysis published by The Herald has shown that the typical dual fuel bill for people in Scotland will be £3,300—£800 more than the current £2,500 price cap. Given the Chancellor’s plans to increase the price cap further, what levels does the Secretary of State expect average energy bills to reach in Scotland next year?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, a comprehensive range of different support is in place, including the energy price guarantee, which on average looks to guarantee £2,500. It is not specific to each household, of course, and it depends on how much energy is actually used—it is a cap—but there is additional help including the £400 non-repayable support through the energy bills support scheme.
The support to which the Secretary of State refers offers scant consolation to those suffering, particularly the near-130,000 households in Scotland who rely on heating oil. The £200 of support from the UK Government covers less than half the price of the typical minimum order of heating oil, so will he finally commit to increasing the support available to these households?
Of course, everybody has had a £400 discount from their bill that is not repayable, and 8 million families also have additional support—those on income support and the like. The hon. Gentleman mentions the £200; we only just doubled that from £100 in the autumn statement the week before last.
Rising bills terrify most households. The End Fuel Poverty Coalition recently warned that
“predictions of ‘a humanitarian crisis’ for children stuck in cold homes are now a very real possibility”,
so does the Secretary of State accept that failure to provide additional support for vulnerable families in April will have dire consequences?
I just mentioned support for 8 million families that goes beyond just the £400 and the energy price guarantee. Those 8 million families will benefit from all manner of additional support—£1 billion for local authorities, additional money for people on various forms of universal credit, and money for pensioners—all of which is designed to help people through a crisis that the whole House should recognise has been brought on by Putin the dictator invading Ukraine.
Contrary to what the Secretary of State says, the consequences will be dire. The Institute of Health Equity indicates that the development of millions of children will be damaged, so will he commit to providing adequate support for vulnerable families so that no child suffers the diverse health impacts of fuel poverty this winter?
I have mentioned the 8 million homes, but perhaps it will help the hon. Lady if I point out the specific means-tested benefits which mean that those families will receive an extra payment of £650 on top of all the other assistance and help that I have outlined. This is an unprecedented situation. We have put billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money into supporting people. I hope the whole House will recognise that this Government have done everything within our power to assist.
The reality is that it is a damning indictment of decades of failed UK Government energy policy that we are even discussing harm to children as a result of rising energy Bills, given the vast energy resources at Scotland’s fingertips. Given that context, does the Secretary of State agree that it is absurd that nearly 1 million households in Scotland will be experiencing fuel poverty?
I have mentioned the household support fund, which is also available for the most vulnerable. I do just have to say, to this line of questioning, that it is extraordinary that while this Government are spending so much energy and money trying to support consumers, we still have the SNP refusing to allow new renewables such as nuclear power.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the plight of park home owners, who are in a different position from others because of the lack of connection, sometimes, to the grid. We are working very hard to ensure that they get their payments as well, which will happen this winter. My right hon. Friend can be reassured that we are doing that, and currently working through local authorities to deliver it.
Mr Speaker, I know you are a huge fan of making sure your pottery comes from the Potteries. Ceramic manufacturers, despite the energy price cap guarantee—it has been hugely helpful, with one manufacturer saying it will save it £4 million over the winter months—are still left in a dire situation. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me, the other Members of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent and Rob Flello, the chief executive of the British Ceramic Confederation, to discuss what further support can be given to this vital industry?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the pressure those manufacturers are under, and I absolutely recognise that. There is the energy-intensive industries discount of 85%, but I would certainly be very happy to meet him and colleagues to discuss the matter further.
To summarise, what we know is that, in Scotland, average household energy bills will exceed the energy price guarantee, but the Secretary of State is unwilling or unable to tell us by quite how much. Of course, we know that on top of that households in Scotland, and indeed children in Scotland, are going to suffer as a result, yet we see no new announcements of additional financial support forthcoming. All the while, Scotland produces its own energy far in excess of what would be required to meet its own demands. Can I therefore ask the Secretary of State whether it is little wonder that viewers watching this at this moment in time would be thinking that Westminster is failing Scotland?
I absolutely do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have already talked about the £400 that everybody has been able to receive back, with some additional measures coming through for people with unusual connection positions. We have the £650 cost of living payments for those on benefits, £300 for pensioners and £150 for disability costs of living. From what I can work out, the SNP does not like its oil and gas industry and does not want new nuclear power, so I have no idea what its plan actually is.
It is a remarkable state of affairs that a nation that produces more energy than it requires faces child fuel poverty as a result of the actions of this Government here. The Secretary of State does not like those facts, but here are some more for him. To alleviate this crisis in the medium to long term, what we need from this UK Government is not investment in nuclear, but investment in clean, sustainable renewable industries. In that regard, can I welcome his U-turn on onshore wind, but also seek clarity about whether he will provide the same tax incentives for the renewables sector as he will for the fossil fuel industry?
This Government have a very proud record when it comes to renewables. When we came to power, barely 10% was from renewables; now the figure is 42%. In fact, on one day the week before last over half of this country’s energy was produced from offshore wind alone. The SNP does not like the answers I am giving because the amounts of money we are spending supporting people, including Scots, with energy bills this year means that, for example, the average single parent on means-tested benefit will be £1,050 better off because of the energy bills support scheme. Yes, we are doing our part, and perhaps it is time the SNP looked at its own policy to make sure it is encouraging energy production.
I visited the site yesterday and was delighted to confirm the nearly £700 million investment in Sizewell C pledged in the autumn statement.
There are clearly significant national benefits to Sizewell C in terms of national security, but as a Suffolk MP I am particularly interested in potential jobs creation. I understand that about 10,000 new jobs could be created. I previously worked closely with EDF and Suffolk New College to see how we can ensure that as many local people—and my constituents in Ipswich—benefit from Sizewell C as possible. Will the Secretary of State, in his own time—when he has a little availability—meet me, the principal of Suffolk New College, other education sector leaders and EDF to see how Ipswich people can benefit in a real, tangible way from Sizewell C?
My hon. Friend will be interested and happy to learn that I met two apprentices at Sizewell yesterday, who have two of what we expect to be 1,500 new apprentice jobs. He is right to mention 10,000 jobs in the immediate area—perhaps there will be 20,000 across the country—and we expect more than 70% of investment in the project to come to the UK. I will gladly meet him and his colleagues to discuss that further.
Cumbria’s energy coast, including nuclear, wind, wave and tidal, also has the capacity to create thousands of jobs in our county. When will the Secretary of State make an announcement in respect of his engagement with Cumbria’s energy coast to make best use—
Community Energy Sector
Ofgem supports community energy projects and welcomes applications from the sector to the industry voluntary redress scheme. We encourage community energy groups to work with their local authority to support the development of community energy projects through UK-wide growth funding schemes.
Although I am sympathetic to the outcome desired by proponents of, for instance, last Session’s Local Electricity Bill, I am concerned that mandating suppliers to offer local tariffs may be disproportionate and have unintended consequences. But I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend, who I recognise is a great champion in this area, that as part of a wider review of market mechanisms we are considering retail market reforms and responses to the electricity market consultation.
While the Government seem particularly confused about their position on onshore wind—the most tried and tested and easiest to roll out of all renewables—their focus on community energy is even worse. The creation of strong, well informed, capable communities able to take advantage of their renewable energy resources and create community benefits is embraced by the Welsh Labour Government. Why do the Conservative Government not do the same?
I thank the hon. Lady for her typically partisan contribution. [Interruption.] She is always consistent, and her Front-Bench colleagues rightly point out that I have some things in common with her. The rural community energy fund has provided £8.8 million in development grants for 208 projects focusing on a variety of technologies, which I am pleased to say include solar, wind, low-carbon heating and electric vehicle charging. The Government will be delighted to work with the devolved Administrations and others to drive forward our pathway to net zero.
Referring to the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), energy market reform is critical to ensure the growth of the community energy sector and to splitting out the wholesale gas price from the electricity price and other things. Will the Minister update the House on the Government’s current thinking on wholesale market reform?
Community energy schemes such as Hoy Energy Ltd in Orkney perform a really important role in the community by reinvesting their profits in local schemes and projects. Will the Minister assure me that when it comes to devising regulations under section 16 of the Energy Prices Act 2022, there will be exemptions for such companies to ensure that they can continue to put the profits that they generate back into the community?
Does the Minister accept that the inability of local energy providers to trade within their local community remains one of the biggest obstacles to the development of community energy overall? If he is not willing to take on board the provisions of the community energy Bill that is presently being promoted by community energy supporters, does he have any other ideas as to how that problem could be overcome in the context of the Energy Bill, which I am delighted to see has resumed its parliamentary process today?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and for his close interest in this field and knowledge of it. I look forward to sharing with the House further thoughts on how we can deliver precisely that more dynamic situation going forward. As he rightly says, there are provisions in the Energy Bill, which I am delighted to announce is resuming its passage through Parliament.
Off-grid Energy Support
The Government have doubled support to £200 for alternatively fuelled households in recognition of the pressures caused by rising fuel costs. We are committed to delivering that payment to households as soon as possible this winter, and will announce further information on the delivery and timing of those payments in due course.
People living in park homes are concerned that they have had no further information on when support will be available to them, or how they will access it. One representative of the company managing a park home site in my constituency first raised this issue with me in August, yet months on we still have no further information. Can the Minister provide some reassurance that people living in park homes will not slip through the cracks, and give some clarity as to when they will receive the £400 of support that they have been promised?
I think the hon. Lady has slightly confused the alternative fuel payment for those who are not on the gas grid with the energy bills support scheme—an easy mistake to make in this complex landscape. Those with a domestic electricity supply are already receiving the £400 discount under the EBS scheme that she has talked about. We are looking to come forward with details about timing, but it will be this winter; we are looking to work with local authorities in Great Britain to set up a scheme whereby people in park homes can apply as households, to ensure that they receive that £400 through local authorities as quickly as we can manage.
Now then. The residents of Ashfield mobile home park do not have a regular energy supplier. They get their gas and electricity sold on by the park owner—who, by the way, marks it up and puts a little bit back in his own pocket. Those residents do not have a great deal of money, so can the Minister please reassure them that help is on the way as soon as possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question; I hope he found my letter yesterday, and the annex to it, helpful. As I said, the Government have doubled support to £200 for alternatively fuelled households in recognition of the pressures caused by rising fuel costs. We are also determined to get support in place for edge cases. It sounds simple, and if I were where my hon. Friend is, I would certainly be shouting at the Minister to get on with it, but we do not live in a central database-driven society; it is necessary to identify these people in a way that protects public money. We are working flat out to deliver this support as quickly as we can.
A number of my constituents live in park homes, and many more have no access to gas mains and so rely on bulk deliveries of kerosene and liquefied petroleum gas. They are all concerned about the rising cost of energy, so would the Minister outline to the House how he is going to communicate to those groups the support that is available, and ensure that it is delivered for them this winter?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. As I said, we are very much looking to work with local authorities, which we think are in the best position to help to go through the verification and assessment process and look after public money, and most importantly, to get the funding to heating oil users and others who need support to meet these unprecedented bills this winter.
I cannot give the Chair of the Committee an exact figure, but I hope that very large numbers will be covered by that—[Interruption.] Opposition Front Benchers may find that amusing, but we should remember how few homes had an energy performance certificate C when Labour left power and how many more have had their level raised since then.
Manufacturing: Support for Innovation
Despite the Opposition’s constant attempts to talk down UK manufacturing, the truth is that we are ninth in the world and fourth in Europe, and that our advanced manufacturing sector contributes £205 billion gross value added to the UK economy. That is why we continue to support it in sectors such as aerospace, automotive and life sciences through £850 million to the high-value manufacturing catapult and nearly £200 million through our Made Smarter programme.
I thank my hon. Friend, the chair of the all-party group for the future of aviation, and I take this opportunity to invite the whole House to celebrate the world-first achieved by Rolls-Royce and easyJet: the first run of a green hydrogen-powered auto engine. I am happy to reconfirm our commitment to aerospace technology. That is why we have put £685 million into the Aerospace Technology Institute programme and £125 million through the industrial strategy challenge fund into the UK Research and Innovation future flight challenge. The UK is leading in clean energy for the aviation sector and jet zero.
The Government set a goal of the development of eight gigafactories before 2040. Will the Minister say how that is progressing, and will he reassure my constituents that the Government are in conversation with Britishvolt to secure its gigafactory site at Cambois in my constituency?
The hon. Member is absolutely right that we are committed to growing that supply chain for the gigafactory revolution in the north-east, the midlands and all around the country. That is why we set out, in our critical minerals strategy, a coherent plan for making sure that the country has the whole supply chain, as well as those factories. I know that the Minister with responsibility for energy technology will be happy to talk to the hon. Member to make sure that the supply chain is working locally as well.
On 16 November, the Government awarded the contract for the new fleet solid support ships to a Spanish state-led consortium. Around £700 million of that contract will go to overseas industry when our steel and shipbuilding sectors are crying out for support. Also on 16 November, the Minister for Industry and Investment Security wrote to me to say that the future of UK steel companies was a commercial decision. Will this Minister explain why the UK Government did not take the commercial decision to deliver £700 million of work to UK steelmakers and shipyards?
The hon. Member raises an important point. We are committed to using our Brexit freedoms both on procurement and regulation to support UK industries. I will raise that issue with the Minister for Industry and Investment Security, who sadly cannot be here this morning, and make sure that she picks that up with the hon. Member directly. However, the answer is that we are totally committed to the UK steel sector and to getting the balance right between ensuring that we have open procurement and that we use Government procurement muscle to back our industries. They are not easy decisions to make, but we are very sighted on them to try to get that balance right.
Small Business Support
It is a delight to be part of a ministerial team of whom many members actually have a business background. We are for business because we are from business, and we know what it is like to lie awake at night worrying about how to pay the bills.
The reversal of the national insurance rise will save small businesses an average of approximately £4,200 a year, alongside the cut to fuel duty for 12 months and the energy bill relief scheme. The British Business Bank supports small and medium-sized enterprises to access growth finance.
From Muswell Hill to Myddleton Road, from Turnpike Lane to Hornsey High Street, we are celebrating Small Business Saturday in my constituency this weekend. There are two major concerns on the mind of small businesses. The first is the business rates expense. When will the Minister consider reforming it to help small business? The second is a wider question for business and trade unions about retained EU legislation, which is providing a lot of uncertainty in the business community and a drag on growth. When will the Government come out with a decision on that crucial issue?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question, especially the part about Small Business Saturday. As hon. Members can imagine, I will be spending much of the day visiting small businesses across my constituency. I will also shortly be attending a House of Lords reception to celebrate the 100 small businesses recognised in the programme.
As the hon. Lady knows, in the autumn statement my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced £13.6 billion of support for businesses over the next five years, reducing the burden of business rates for SMEs. Of course we all want to see reform, but simply announcing the scrapping of business rates without announcing any replacement cannot be the right thing, because it does not give business the certainty that it needs. That is the sensible reform that I think the hon. Lady should be grateful for.
May I put it on the record that as well as being the week of Small Business Saturday, this is Family Business Week? I had the opportunity to visit Tony at Croxley Hardware a few weeks ago. Does the Minister agree that small businesses are the lifeblood not only of the economy, but of our communities?
I thank my hon. Friend for his recognition of the small businesses in his constituency. He is absolutely right: there is no greater force behind the supply side of the economy than small businesses, which are essential to prosperity and productivity. He is absolutely right to champion their cause, and we should all join him in that endeavour.
There has been some talk about business rates. I appreciate what the Minister says about needing a proper plan. Businesses in my constituency tell me that business rates are their big bête noire and that reforming and replacing them would make their lives a lot easier and their survival more certain. Will he give some indication of the Government’s thinking, and of the timescale in which they might be looking at the matter? Labour is proposing a radical reform.
Well, Labour is proposing a radical reform, but we cannot quite work out whether it will scrap business rates or reform them. There have been mixed messages among Labour Front Benchers—indeed, among the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition—so we are not quite sure what Labour’s policy will be. We are certainly not sure how it would replace the £25 billion to £30 billion of revenue. I would really like to understand that.
This is a thorny issue, because if we scrapped business rates the taxpayer would have to find that huge amount of money by some other means. The right thing to do right now is to see businesses through this very difficult time with the kind of concession that we have made, such as the £13.6 billion, rather than making irresponsible and in my view undeliverable promises to completely scrap business rates.
Essex Linen Services, which provides laundry services to hospitals and hotels, is struggling to survive because of electricity prices. It believes that its sector has been left out of the energy support packages. Will the Minister agree to review the situation for providers of laundry services and see whether they can be supported in paying their electricity bills in future?
All businesses have access to the energy bill relief scheme. There are concerns about which sectors will be covered by the revised scheme. We will have details on that by the end of the year; the Government have committed to that. Clearly we are trying to balance the interests of the taxpayer, who has to fund this, with those of business. It is right that we focus on businesses that cannot mitigate their energy use, by whatever means, or pass on the costs to consumers. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the interests of the sector.
I grew up in a small family business. Labour is proud to be supporting Small Business Saturday and its 10th anniversary, and to have supported last week’s family business week.
Small and medium-sized enterprises are indeed the lifeblood of our economy, but they have been hit hard by 12 years of Tory failure and staggeringly low growth. Even after three Prime Ministers this year, the Government have no answers—and the House should not just take that from me; the Federation of Small Businesses judged the autumn statement as being
“low on wealth-creation, piling more pressure on the UK’s 5.5 million small businesses”.
If the Government are really serious about helping small businesses to grow, is it not time they adopted Labour’s plan to reform business rates, back our high streets, make Brexit work, and make Britain the best place in which to start and grow a business?
As one who was in business in 2010, I remember very well what the economy was like in that year, when we took over from Labour: it was not having a good time. [Interruption.] Yes, it is a lot stronger now.
We should bear in mind that while we can choose our own opinions, we cannot choose our own facts, and the facts are that the UK has experienced the third fastest growth in the G7 since 2010—behind only the United States and Canada—and has grown faster than Germany since 2016. It is right that we seek to provide new solutions for businesses; we have to stimulate the supply side of the economy, not least because that is good not only for businesses but for consumers. However, as I said earlier, simply claiming that you are going to scrap business rates without saying how you are going to replace that £25 billion of revenue is highly irresponsible.
SMEs: Recruitment Support
I am new to this, Mr Speaker.
My Department works closely with other Government Departments and with firms in all sectors of the economy on a range of issues relating to the labour market and skills. That includes increasing the number of apprentices and business investment in skills development, the adoption of T-levels and skills bootcamps, and ensuring that there is better information along with easier routes into careers in a range of sectors.
Last month I held a business roundtable with the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. It was clear that SMEs were struggling with recruitment, high energy costs, Brexit, and £20 billion worth of late payments.
When it comes to late payments, the prompt payment code does not cut it for SMEs. Will the Minister work with me to introduce legislation to outlaw late payments once and for all and give our SMEs a fighting chance?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s correspondence on this matter, and I look forward to meeting him on 7 December.
The prompt payment code, which we introduced and which we reviewed recently, will be out for consultation very shortly, and I am keen to learn from best practice how we can make it more effective. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are many issues facing businesses today, and we are keen to help them get through the difficulties that will no doubt continue over the next few months, but in my experience of business our best years come after our worst years, and I think we can be confident when looking ahead while also recognising that there will be difficult times in the short term.
There are many SMEs in the retail and hospital sector. It is a sector that does well in the run-up to Christmas, which gives those businesses the opportunity to make some money. What impact does the Minister think the rail strikes that are planned for next week will have on their ability to recruit more staff?
It is, of course, right that we look after the interests of business and consumers. There is no doubt that the strikes will have an impact on both parts of that sector, and it is also right for us to prioritise the needs of all consumers, not just those who are seeking to take industrial action. We urge all parties to get round the negotiating table as quickly as possible and try to reach a sensible agreement.
As my colleagues have already pointed out, the Government are supporting households and businesses during the winter through a series of measures including the energy price guarantee, which will save the average household £900 this winter, the £400 energy bill support scheme payment, and, for businesses, the energy bill relief scheme, which will provide a price reduction to ensure that all eligible businesses and other non-domestic customers are protected. That is in addition to the £2 billion that the energy-intensive industries have received since 2013.
Over the last six months, several businesses in my constituency have approached me to raise concerns about potential tenfold increases in their energy bills. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the Government will continue to act to ensure that no business will face such shocking increases in reality, either this year or next year?
In a word, yes. All of us in the Business Department are focused on the point that my hon. Friend raises—namely, the pressure on businesses from the energy price spike this winter. In the autumn statement the Chancellor announced the Treasury-led review of our energy bill relief scheme beyond March, and we are actively working as a Department to make sure that that review has all the necessary data and evidence from businesses. Our energy bill relief scheme supporting energy-intensive industries has put in £2 billion of relief since 2013, and our 2022 energy security strategy announced that the EII compensation scheme would be extended for a further three years. We are also looking at making similar changes to the related EII exemption scheme. The Business Department absolutely gets how much difficulty businesses are facing through energy.
The north-east of England process industry cluster has advised me that major companies on Teesside currently obtaining their energy via a private wire relationship do not qualify for the energy bill relief scheme, with some major employers paying millions more for their energy and facing the real prospect of ceasing operations and moving overseas. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how their concerns can be addressed?
BEIS Capital Spending
As the Department for science, research and innovation, with the historic uplift in public R&D announced in the comprehensive spending review 2021 and the autumn statement 2022, and the Department for net zero, BEIS secured the highest increase in capital budgets at the last spending review, growing at 8.3% per annum over the spending review period.
As we know, capital expenditure spent effectively drives economic growth. To this end, would the Minister agree that capital projects such as those in my constituency that will clearly help economic growth and can start in the next 12 months will be prioritised, and that additional support will be given where they have shortfalls due to rising costs?
Is it still in the Department’s plans to take a 20% shareholding in Sizewell C? If so, will that result in a capital spend of £6 billion or £7 billion—money that could be better spent elsewhere? Private investment could be freed up in the Scottish cluster if it was made a track 1 cluster and pumped storage hydro could be helped by agreeing a pricing mechanism for electricity.
Unlike the Scottish nationalists, we are committed to the private-public partnership that drives investment in our nuclear industry, and Sizewell C is a major commitment. The Government are proud to be partnering with industry, and it is a shame that the Scottish nationalists are not similarly partnering with industry for the benefit of Scots voters and bill payers.
Energy Price Guarantee
The Government have announced changes to the energy price guarantee from April 2023, as well as additional support for pensioners and those on benefits. The Government will work with consumer groups and industry to consider the best approach to consumer protection from April 2024 as part of wider retail market reforms.
Does the Minister agree that while subsidies are necessary short-term sticking plasters, investors will not commit the multi-billion pound investments that the energy sector needs to upgrade and modernise energy storage, generation and transmission unless the long-term rules are clear? Will he therefore update the Energy Bill to lay out a sustainable long-term future with investable deadlines and milestones to transition from today’s highly distorted, politicised and bureaucratic sector to a cheaper, simpler, better-value industry with much lower political and regulatory risks?
I am proud that this Government have led the way, with contracts for difference driving renewables such as offshore wind by driving down costs. I am also delighted that we have the legislative vehicle to deliver the necessary changes, and the Energy Security Bill will be taken forward in this Parliament to transform our energy industry by turbocharging carbon capture, utilisation and storage and our hydrogen industries in pioneering projects from the Humber to the Mersey, and beyond. The Bill will encourage competition in the energy sector, creating opportunity, prosperity and security with clean jobs, new skills and, as my hon. Friend rightly highlights, cheaper bills.
The Minister talks about long-term energy support. Will he bear in mind that, despite the promises made here today that everyone in the United Kingdom is already benefiting from short-term support, not one penny has been allocated to consumers in Northern Ireland, even though the electricity companies are ready and the utility regular has told him that the ground has been set. When will payments be made to people in Northern Ireland? We are looking not for promises tomorrow but for payments today.
The energy price guarantee is benefiting Northern Ireland consumers today, along with pensioners and vulnerable families—they are all being helped. Of course, energy policy is devolved to Northern Ireland, and we have had to step in because of the lack of an Executive. We are working very hard. I held a roundtable with energy suppliers only last week, and another one was held yesterday. We are doing everything within our power to find the right route, while protecting public money in the proper fashion, to get money out to Northern Ireland consumers this winter. We are doing everything for our part, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will support me in urging others to do the same.
With Sizewell C, we are securing a cheap, clean and reliable supply of energy to supercharge growth—I will provide more details in my oral statement. We have recommitted to increasing public investment in research and development to £20 billion each year by 2024-25, which will supercharge science and innovation, and we are supporting local enterprises and increasing the national living wage by almost 10%, the largest ever cash-terms increase.
As well as renewables, it is clear that we need to add more baseload capacity, and nuclear is the favourite for that. Hundreds of my constituents work at Rolls-Royce, and many of them work on the development of small modular nuclear reactors. Will my right hon. Friend outline what support the Government are giving to Rolls-Royce to develop this technology, which will not only add to the UK’s energy security but deliver a technology that we will be able to export successfully around the globe?
Like my hon. Friend, I am very keen on small nuclear reactors as part of the solution. We will be launching Great British Nuclear early next year to assist both Rolls-Royce and its competitors. There are other brands out there, all of which have interesting ideas about modular production of nuclear power, which will provide sustainable energy even when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.
I welcome the Business Secretary to his first oral questions. He is the third Business Secretary we have had this year, and I have to say that lack of stability is the No. 1 complaint from businesses, which genuinely cannot keep track of Government policy in any particular area. If they do know the policy, they feel it could change at any moment if the internal politics of the Conservative party shift one way or the other. Does he accept that political instability has very real consequences for economic stability?
I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s welcome, I hope to be in post for a long time, not to disappoint him in any way. His talk about the instability of policy is a bit rich, as many Labour Members sat on the Front Bench under their previous leader, who believed in a whole bunch of different things. Even the shadow Secretary of State for Climate Change and Net Zero, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), once said it is impossible for this country to get to 40% renewable energy—he called it “pie in the sky.” Right now we are producing 43.1% of our energy from renewables. That is from a party that is consistent.
Respectfully, I think the Business Secretary needs to focus a little bit more on his own side and the humility required to do that.
On a more positive note, this Saturday is small business Saturday. A future Labour Government will tackle the issue of late payments to small and medium-sized enterprises by making audit committees report on public companies’ payment practices. With more than £20 million waiting to be paid at any one time, this is a change that will make a real difference and one that is backed by the Federation of Small Businesses. We could, however, implement it sooner by amending the draft audit reform Bill when it comes forward. Would the Secretary of State support that change?
I agree that payment for small businesses is very important, particularly when it is not done by larger companies that have the resources. That is one of the reasons why the Government have led the way to make sure that, when small businesses deal with Government, payments are made quickly and efficiently. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) is looking at a whole range of different things to ensure that we speed up the culture of late payments to small businesses, and he will be saying more about that very shortly.
We do not know where the half a billion pounds announced last week to cover Horizon uncertainty is coming from, as the Science Minister refuses to answer my questions, but we do know that British scientists are still having to choose between the country they love and the funding they need. British science, British businesses and British jobs are at risk while the Government play a blame game, instead of keeping their manifesto promise to associate with the world’s biggest science fund. Will the Science Minister admit that no science fund can have the efficiency, effectiveness, influence, prestige or range of Horizon, and that he has let British science down?
In a word, no. I will tell the hon. Lady exactly where the £484 million that we announced last Monday—I think the Opposition supported it—is coming from. It is coming from Her Majesty’s Treasury to support universities, researchers and companies in this country that have been affected by—and this is the second point—the European Union’s block on our negotiated membership of Horizon, Copernicus and Euratom. I was in Paris last week negotiating. We are still actively pushing to be in Horizon, Copernicus and Euratom, but we have made provision, and early in the new year Members will start to see that we will be rolling out additional support for fellowships, innovation and global partnerships. If UK scientists cannot play in the European cup, we will play in the world cup of science.
I do enthusiastically support our SAF—sustainable aviation fuel—industry. Actually, it is a little known fact that last year at COP26 we sent more than 500 aircraft home with sustainable aviation fuel in their tanks, and this country has set a more ambitious target for sustainable aviation fuel than elsewhere, with 10% by 2030.
The Groceries Code Adjudicator has done a good job over the past 10 years, leading to a big fall in the number of breaches of the fair purchasing code, but bad practice is still rife in the fashion industry, with UK fashion retailers among the worst offenders. The Environmental Audit Committee called for a garment trade adjudicator. Will Ministers bring that proposal forward?
I thank the right hon. Member for all his work in this area; I know that he has done an awful lot. We have no plans to bring forward a garment code adjudicator, but we do take reports of illegal and unsafe employment practices very seriously. Since October 2020, a wide group of stakeholders, comprising retailers, manufacturers and non-profit organisations have been working with the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority to address poor practice and working conditions.
I can confirm that that is the intention with Great British Nuclear. I know that areas such as Wylfa Newydd—if I am pronouncing it correctly—in my hon. Friend’s constituency could well be in line to benefit. However, as she can tell from my Welsh pronunciation, I suspect that I will be on the English side tonight.
Yesterday, I hosted a roundtable meeting for businesses in my constituency. They were worried about late payments and a Government who are not helping them. Fifty thousand businesses close every year due to late payments, and small businesses account for two thirds of UK private sector employment. Will this Government act before the worst of the Tory-led recession bites to save millions of jobs?
I thank the hon. Member for his question. He is absolutely right to bring up this matter. It is one of the concerns that has been raised most frequently with me since taking on this role. We are tackling the culture of late payments with measures including the Payment Practices Reporting, the Small Business Commissioner and the Prompt Payment Code, but I am determined to see how much further we can go to be effective in this area.
It is great to hear that my hon. Friend’s constituent is looking to export right across the world, and we are determined to make it easier to do so through trade deals outside the European Union. Ministers and officials from across BEIS regularly engage with SMEs on a wide range of issues and will continue to do so as the retained EU law programme proceeds.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), when will Ministers start to use procurement in order to generate and defend British jobs? I have been listening for years to Ministers coming to that Dispatch Box saying that they will use procurement, so when will we actually see it?
That is a very important point. The Government are determined to tackle not just their own procurement practices, but those further afield. Clearly, we want to keep our markets open to international competition, because we want to compete internationally as well, but there also needs to be fair competition. Where we can prioritise the needs of British companies and British workers, we should do so.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for standing up for his constituency businesses; I hope he is supporting Small Business Saturday this weekend, as I am sure hon. Members across the House will be. It is absolutely right that we are supporting businesses through these difficult times with the energy bill relief scheme and the £13.6 billion of rates support that they will see over the next five years, but we will continue to look at the needs of business to ensure that we have the right measures in place.
The Rosebank oilfield would produce more than 200 million tonnes of CO2 when burned, which is equivalent to running 58 coal-fired power stations for a year and more than the combined annual emissions of 28 low-income countries. How does that make any sense in a world where heating needs to be constrained to below 1.5°?
Our use of oil and gas in this country is falling as part of our pathway to net zero. It is usage that drives the burning of oil and gas, and it is on the downward pathway. Producing our own oil and gas when we will be burning it on our net zero pathway domestically is sensible. It is good for Scottish jobs—although sadly opposed by the Scottish nationalists—it is good for the British economy and it is entirely net zero compliant. That is why we will continue to manage the mature and declining basin that is the North sea.
Recently, a Premier Inn hotel in my constituency threw out one of their visually impaired guests, Ms Angharad Paget-Jones, and her guide dog Tudor in the middle of the night because they refused to believe, despite being shown identification, that Tudor was a guide dog. Can the Minister tell me what action his Department is taking not only to ensure that businesses are complying with the Equality Act 2010, but to go after those who show frank disregard for it in practice?
That is a very disturbing case, and I am happy to help the hon. Lady with it. I know that the guide dog campaigning organisations have this issue in their sights as something we need to address. I would be grateful if she wrote to me with the specific instance and I will be happy to deal with it for her.
I welcome the Government’s recent doubling of the alternative fuel payment and yesterday’s written communication from the Minister confirming that the majority of households eligible for those payments will receive their £200 automatically as a credit on their electricity bill. Can he reassure constituents in Banff and Buchan who are dependent on heating oil in particular that those payments will indeed be made as soon as practically possible?
A few months ago, CF Fertilisers in Billingham ceased ammonia production there because of the high gas price. Now Mitsubishi, just a few hundred yards along the road, is consulting on the closure of one of its plants, with the loss of hundreds of direct and contractor jobs, for the same reason. Is the Minister aware of that latest blow to Teesside, and what is he doing to help firms such as Mitsubishi?
I was up in Teesside the week before last, and I have been keeping in close contact with what is happening there. The good news is that there are new jobs coming about in new industries, including new industries supplying electric battery manufacturing, which are available because this country is outside the European Union and able to produce new rules that will allow things such as green lithium to thrive here and provide up to 8% of Europe’s entire needs. New jobs are coming to Teesside.
As my right hon. Friend will know, maths and higher maths is often the foundation skill upon which other innovative technologies are built. Can he therefore tell the House what steps his Department is taking both to fund higher maths and to give people the skills they need in maths to help us to reinforce our status as a global science power?
My hon. Friend makes an important point: maths is one of the underpinning disciplines of all our science and technology leadership. That is why we have increased funding through UK Research and Innovation for core maths, and I am delighted to confirm that we are looking at various ways in which we might be able to turbocharge our international fellowships in maths as well.
Households in Great Britain have had access to the £400 energy support payments since 1 October, but households in Northern Ireland have not had any substantial support whatsoever. The energy price guarantee does not really work in Northern Ireland, because 70% of households there use oil. Can the Government give the people of Northern Ireland a firm date by which the £400 payments will be made available?
As I said in an earlier answer, we are doing everything we can, working through suppliers, to ensure that the money reaches Northern Ireland consumers. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that every single Northern Ireland household is receiving the alternative fuel payment, in addition to the energy bills support scheme. We are looking to make sure not only that that money gets out and is credited to households, but that they are able to access it this winter. There is no point having it as a credit on an electricity bill, as that does not help them deal with other costs this winter. That is the sticking point; that is what we are working on.
The proposed takeover of Activision by Microsoft has the potential to have a profound impact on many of Britain’s brilliant video games industry manufacturers and makers. Although I know that the Secretary of State will not want to comment on the specifics of that case, can he reassure me that the Competition and Markets Authority has all the resources it needs to come to the right conclusion and to do so as thoroughly and rapidly as possible on this important matter?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that question. I know that the CMA has received a large number of submissions, and some very large submissions as well. I think it has until 1 March next year to complete its phase 2 inquiry. We absolutely believe that it has the right resources to do that, and we will make sure that it has over the coming months.
Anti-lockdown Protest in Shanghai: Arrest and Assault of Edward Lawrence
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the arrest and assault of Edward Lawrence by Chinese authorities while covering an anti-lockdown protest in Shanghai.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity. It has been 12 years of waiting—patience is a virtue.
I find it hard to believe, given his powers of persuasion, that this is the hon. Gentleman’s first urgent question. He is an ever present ray of sunshine in Parliament, and we love him for it.
As the Foreign Secretary made clear yesterday, the arrest of a BBC journalist while covering the recent protests in Shanghai is a deeply disturbing and wholly unacceptable situation. Journalists must be able to do their job without fear of arrest of intimidation. The BBC has stated that the journalist was beaten and kicked by the police during his arrest, and was held for several hours before being released. In response, we are calling in the Chinese ambassador to make clear the unacceptable and unwarranted nature of those actions and the importance of freedom of speech, and to demand a full explanation. We have also been in close touch with the journalist and the BBC throughout to gather the facts and provide consular support.
We recognise that the covid-related restrictions in China are challenging for the Chinese people. We urge the Chinese authorities to respect the rights of those who decide to express their views about the situation. Moreover, as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday in his Mansion House speech, the media—and, for that matter, our parliamentarians—must be able to highlight issues without fear of sanction or intimidation, whether in calling out human rights violations in Xinjiang and the curtailment of freedom in Hong Kong, or in reporting on the recent protests.
This, of course, follows the recent incident in Manchester. As we have previously made clear to the House, the apparent behaviour of staff at the Chinese consulate general was wholly unacceptable. In view of the gravity of that incident, we summoned the Chinese chargé d’affaires on 18 October and delivered a clear message through our ambassador in Beijing. There is now an ongoing investigation and it would be wrong to pre-empt the findings.
More broadly, we recognise that China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, which, again, the Prime Minister highlighted yesterday. That challenge grows more acute as China moves towards greater authoritarianism. That is why we are taking robust action to protect our interests and stand up for our values. That includes imposing sanctions, leading action at the UN and strengthening our supply chain resilience. Let me assure Members that, as part of our frank relationship with China, we will continue to raise our human rights concerns at the highest levels.
I thank the Minister for having a certain firmness in his response, which is what we wish to hear. I welcome the news that the Chinese ambassador has been summoned by the FCDO to account for this arrest. I encourage the Minister to share—hopefully he can—all the justifications that will be given at that meeting. The reason given to the BBC by the Chinese authorities was that they had arrested Edward Lawrence for his own good in case he caught covid from the crowd. Wow, what a pathetic answer! My goodness. Such was their concern for him, a senior journalist in the BBC and a British citizen, that the Chinese police beat him and kicked him as he tried to lawfully cover a peaceful protest in Shanghai. He had all the necessary permits and licences, and is a veteran reporter in China.
The first question we need to ask is: what assessment has the FCDO Minister made of the safety of British journalists in China following this assault? It is important to remember that the arrest and assault of Edward Lawrence is not the first attack on freedom of speech, but just another example in a long line of journalists and human rights defenders who have been silenced, arrested or simply disappeared by the Chinese Communist party. This is the sixth urgent question granted in this parliamentary term on human rights abuses by the Chinese Communist party. We have seen the CCP establishing incognito police stations in the UK, the assault of Bob Chan outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester, the Xinjiang police files highlighting horrendous crimes against the Uyghurs, and the arrest of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. This is unprecedented and needs urgent action.
This incident is part of a clear pattern of behaviour of increased crackdowns and restrictions on Chinese people within China and on British soil in the run-up to, and following, the 20th national congress of the Chinese Communist party last month. Last night at the Lord Mayor’s banquet, the Prime Minister gave a speech stating that the “golden era” of China-UK relations was over. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment, which is worthy of saying. The director general of MI5 said that China represents
“the biggest long-term threat to Britain and the world’s economic and national security”.
Clearly, tougher action is needed to protect British citizens, human rights defenders, pro-democracy activists, and religious and ethnic minorities targeted by the CCP.
As always, my friend the hon. Gentleman raises important points, and he can be assured that when the Chinese ambassador is called in to the FCDO, they will be raised, particularly the immediate point about the arrest, its unacceptable manner and the justification, which as he highlighted is incredibly thin. In that meeting, we will also raise the wider point he has mentioned about the safety of journalists. He raises a number of other important points, including about Chinese police stations. As the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), made clear in his statement to the House on 1 November, reports of undeclared police stations in the United Kingdom are extremely concerning and will be taken seriously. The Home Office is reviewing our approach to transnational repression, and the Minister for Security has committed to providing an update on that work to the House in due course. The hon. Gentleman rightly says that there are wider concerns about the increasing authoritarianism and muscular foreign policy of the Chinese, and the Prime Minister rightly set out a new era of robust pragmatism, which we have seen grow over recent years, but which was clearly articulated by the Prime Minister yesterday.
May I congratulate our friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on successfully securing this urgent question? He raises a series of very important points. We all absolutely and rightly condemn the brutal treatment yesterday of Ed Lawrence, the BBC cameraman, that saw him dragged away and beaten. I have seen a text from him to a colleague saying that he was beaten hard during the course of his detention.
With all the other issues that have been raised—the chasing and incarceration of journalists in Hong Kong, the crackdowns and genocide on the Uyghur—there is now an endless litany of China’s bad behaviour, so I simply ask my hon. Friend the Minister this. How is it that yesterday the Prime Minister, who previously said that China posed a “systemic threat”, has now moved to saying it poses “a systemic challenge”, and that our strongest policy statement now, in terms of our reputation and relationship with China, is that we are going to be “robustly pragmatic”? Can he please explain to me how “robustly pragmatic” will worry the Chinese any one bit?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. He is a long-standing campaigner on these issues, and I listen keenly to what he says, as does the Foreign Secretary. What the Prime Minister set out yesterday was a co-ordinated and coherent approach in which we do more to adapt to China’s growing impact. As he knows, we will revise and update the integrated review, which will help us to invest in our alliances and in the serious capabilities that we need to counter the actions that we see in China’s foreign policy.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing his first urgent question in the House—who would have known that it was the first?
I turn to the serious matter of the arrest and detention of journalists, which is deeply shocking and, in this particular case, concerns our own BBC. Sadly, this is the approach and tone that we have come to expect from an increasingly authoritarian Chinese regime. That has been further demonstrated this week by the case in Hong Kong of the independent media outlet, Apple Daily, whose founder, Jimmy Lai, faces court cases in Hong King on basic freedom of expression for local people. We must show solidarity in that terrible situation, not just in Hong Kong but across the People’s Republic of China.
I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary has summoned the Chinese ambassador, as well as the consular support that has been provided for Mr Lawrence. The robust response is a welcome change to the Government’s previous handling of Chinese overreach in Manchester, which the House thought did not match the severity of the violence outside the Chinese consulate. Our support for the work of the press must be unified, and we stand squarely behind the Government in making it clear to Chinese officials that their treatment of journalists doing their job is not and never will be acceptable. The Opposition have made it clear that the BBC must be protected in its crucial work abroad, tackling disinformation and providing reliable, accurate reporting—I am sure the Minister agrees with that.
I have one question for the Minister. We are in the middle of profound cuts to the BBC World Service, including of Chinese journalists. Will the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office say on the record today that it will not defund Mandarin-speaking journalists, because, particularly in covid lockdown, it is crucial that individuals can listen to good journalism on our BBC World Service?
I thank the hon. Member for her considered and important words. Of course, with the calling in of the ambassador, we will raise those matters, and to hear them raised across the House helps to add strength to what we are going to say, so we are grateful for that.
The hon. Member made an important point about protecting journalists across the board, and I will raise that with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and with the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), who is responsible for the Indo-Pacific and is currently travelling.
The hon. Member made some important points about Manchester, and I assure her that we do not have any intention of giving the Chinese Government any excuse to make this a political issue. It is about law, and we will see it through.
The hon. Member made points about the BBC World Service. There is a move to a digital platform, and we have set out our funding plans with the World Service. I will meet it shortly on the wider points that she made.
Another day, another blatant abuse of human rights by the Chinese communist Government. Who but that Government would think that arresting, cuffing, kicking and beating a journalist could be construed as for his own good?
We have had an awful lot of calling in the Chinese ambassador. If robust pragmatism is to mean anything, should there not be clear consequences? We have still not expelled the Manchester consulate general, and there should be sanctions against Chinese officials who are waging seriously cruel oppression on brave protesters who are simply trying to stand up for their rights in China and against the oppressive lockdown, which resulted in the deaths of over 100 people in a fire in Wuhan last week. When are we going to get serious about China?
My hon. Friend makes a good point: the case against the BBC journalist was thin to say the least, and we will raise that with the ambassador today. He raises an important point about Manchester, about which an investigation is ongoing. Unlike the Chinese, we will see that process through before we take action—and we will. On his broader point about the action that we will take, we have put sanctions in place in relation to the atrocities in Xinjiang, so action is being taken. We are also refreshing our integrated review, which will help us to create the framework in which further action can be taken as appropriate.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this urgent question and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. It is important for the House to take account of the issue. Journalists deserve a special status anywhere: they tell the truth, they shed a light and they do a public service. They need support, so we express our support for Edward Lawrence. I am glad to hear that the ambassador will be summoned to the FCDO, but, frankly, I would like to hear about more consequences. Bluntly, the Manchester investigation also seems to be taking longer than it needs to; I think the House would support consequences on that.
There is a wider issue at play. I am deeply concerned about the pressure that is building within China. The Communist party has boxed itself into a zero covid strategy that has been coupled with a terrifyingly low vaccine uptake, particularly among the elderly. That huge pressure could tend towards greater authoritarianism and a more violent crackdown. What assessment has the FCDO made of the risk to UK nationals in China? Does the advice need to change? On a humanitarian level, is there scope for assisting the Chinese state, for all its faults, with a catch-up vaccine roll-out? That might go some way to alleviating the humanitarian pressure that could tend towards worse consequences for the people of China.
As I have highlighted, consequences have been put in train in relation to other situations, particularly in Xinjiang, and we will be having a robust conversation with the ambassador today. The hon. Member talks about Manchester; I have already highlighted that we are awaiting the details of the police investigation. It is absolutely right that we get that done properly so that we can then take informed action, which was clearly not the case with what happened to our BBC journalist.
On what is happening more broadly with the Chinese Government and their approach to covid, that is for them to decide. We have scientific co-operation and, if and when appropriate, that dialogue can take place. Ultimately, they need to make a decision about how they tackle covid within their borders.
May I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this crucial urgent question?
The Government must always do all they can to protect the safety of His Majesty’s subjects abroad; that is a fundamental duty. I wonder what effect calling in the ambassador will have and whether more does not need to be done urgently that actually has an effect on the Chinese operation in the UK. Should we not be looking to expel diplomats; to take tougher actions in international forums where Chinese interests are at stake; or to do things that the Chinese would not want us to do, such as improving our relationship with Taiwan or inviting the Dalai Lama on a formal visit by the British Government to show that we are not a pushover and will not support the communist running dogs?
At the calling in today, those issues will be raised in a robust manner. Of course, the safety of our citizens is absolutely key across the world and in China, so we will raise those issues. In terms of providing a robust, muscular approach, as we have seen, given the concerns that have been raised in the House about Uyghur minorities, sanctions and trade guidelines have been put in place. We will continue to take the appropriate action to counter what we believe are incorrect practices.
Last night, the Prime Minister said that our relationship with China would be characterised by “robust pragmatism”. I have no idea what that means, and nor, I expect, do tech start-ups trying to decide about Chinese investment; universities looking at Chinese funding; journalists trying to decide how to cover Chinese stories; businesses looking at their supply chains and market strategies; and Chinese activists risking their lives. Is it not time that we had the long-promised China strategy, not just another hollow slogan?
As I said in answer to a previous question, we will be updating the integrated review to ensure that we continue to invest in our alliances and the capabilities that we need. We have not committed to publish a separate China strategy, but we will continue to maintain as much transparency as possible and keep Parliament updated on our approach to China. The integrated review will be the main focus for that.
This disgraceful episode reminds us of the importance of the BBC’s work in China. About a decade ago, ringfenced funding was stopped for the BBC World Service and BBC Monitoring. Some ringfenced funding has now been restored for the World Service but not, as far as I know, for Monitoring. Will the Government undertake to look at that matter? The degree of investment in such services should not be competing with commercial BBC considerations.
The Chinese people are living with this authoritarian rule and they are taking immensely brave actions in protesting against it. We all remember—they will remember better than we do—Tiananmen Square and the way that the Government cracked down on that protest. There is a serious threat and a serious challenge, and now we have “robust pragmatism”—I am trembling at those words. Words mean nothing; action is desperately needed. Manchester is less than 20 miles from where I live, so this is on our doorsteps. We must take action now and start sanctioning to let the Chinese Government know that we are taking them seriously. They are laughing up their sleeves at us in this state.
The hon. Member makes an important point about the protests that are taking place and we urge the Chinese authorities to respect those who decide to express their views about the current situation. The freedom to protest must be respected. She also makes an important point about Manchester, which is not far from my constituency either. We have these concerns, but we need to go through due process. We have taken steps on sanctions in response to the situation of the Uyghurs and the integrated review will set out a wider strategy.
The violent, aggressive crackdown against journalists and protesters is yet another completely unacceptable act by the Chinese Communist party. I have seen at first hand how UK Ministers and our brave diplomats are prepared to stand up against autocratic bullies across the world; often, we are one of the few countries that will do that. When it comes to robustness, I urge my hon. Friend to continue to ensure that the UK is a leader in standing on the side of freedom, especially freedom of speech.
That is something that we take great pride in and is fundamental to our values and those of many other countries. We need to speak up for those values. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for her incredible work at the FCDO in making the case and highlighting the robust action that we take and will continue to take.
What happened to Edward Lawrence was not a one-off or isolated incident. It is part of a deliberate strategy to ensure that reporters in China do not tell the rest of the world what is going on there. This week, the other place will debate the Report stage of the Procurement Bill and will consider an amendment in the name of Lords Alton, Blencathra, Coaker and Fox. It would require the Government to set out a timetable
“for the removal of physical technology or surveillance equipment from the Government’s procurement supply chain”
where there is evidence that the supplier has been engaged or involved in modern slavery, genocide or crimes against humanity. Is the Government’s policy now sufficiently robust to accept the noble Lords’ amendment, or does the Minister think that pragmatism will lead them to vote against it?
I am not aware of that amendment, but I am sure the relevant Ministers will listen to what the right hon. Member has said. I would highlight that action is being taken, however. On 24 November the Government announced that companies subject to the national intelligence law of the People’s Republic of China should not be able to supply surveillance systems to sensitive Government sites. Actions are being taken, and I will get back to the right hon. Member on the particular amendment he talks about.
The Chinese Communist party’s attacks on freedom of speech and democratic institutions abroad show that its domestic authoritarianism is now spreading overseas. Following recent revelations about overseas police stations, attacks on the free press, and now crackdowns on peaceful protestors, what steps are the Government taking to stand against totalitarianism and for British values of democracy and freedom of speech at home as well as abroad?
I have just returned from my first ministerial visit to Latin America—Colombia and Panama—and it is very clear that our amazing civil servants and diplomats speak up, actively call out any authoritarian activity and speak true to our values. We will continue to do that, including this afternoon when the Chinese ambassador is called in.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on obtaining this urgent question, but I must warn you, Mr Speaker, that I think you have set him on a new trend. He was always concerned as to why he was the last person to be called in questions, but now he has found a method to be called first, so just beware, Mr Speaker, because I think you are going to get a tsunami of requests from him.
Is the Minister not concerned that increasingly autocratic regimes seem to think they can kill our citizens, attack people on our own territory, tear up agreements made with us, and affect our vital interests by their behaviour? Does he not have some concern that the message being sent out by the Prime Minister that we will be pragmatically robust—whatever that means—will not scare the Chinese and will not stop them doing what they are doing at present? Given the vital interests we have in the China sea, where China is expanding, and in Taiwan, where China is increasingly aggressive, and given the stranglehold China is seeking on resources across the world through colonialism, the pragmatic—
It is indeed a team effort; we have seen our colleagues work together on these issues before, but it is good to be able to respond to both of them. The points the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) makes are important and we are updating the integrated review and our broader strategy. We are very committed to investing in the alliances and capabilities we need to counter the growing threats and challenges the right hon. Gentleman highlighted in his important contribution—even if it was a bit long.
I spent much of my early career working as a presenter on BBC World Service TV news. Its correspondents and crews then as now put themselves at risk in order to tell the truth to the world, and we owe them all a debt of gratitude. Can my hon. Friend assure the House that he will be extremely firm and robust in future conversations with China, and indeed with other countries, in insisting that protecting journalists’ rights to report freely is absolutely non-negotiable?
Whether it is Chinese Communist officials beating up pro-democracy protestors on the streets of Manchester or Chinese authorities arresting British journalists on the streets of Shanghai, it is deeply worrying and sinister that the so-called Chinese Communist police stations overseas, including in this country, are even a factor that is occurring. May I through my hon. Friend encourage the Minister for Security to come back to this House as soon as practically possible for an update on what actions the British Government will be taking to close down such agents of the Chinese Communist party acting here in British cities?
That is an important point and was well made. As I highlighted earlier, the Minister for Security has committed to coming back to update the House, and the Home Office is reviewing our approach to transnational oppression and will provide an update in due course.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on energy security.
Over half the gas we use in this country is imported. A third of all our energy comes from other countries. Each click of the thermostat and every flick of the kettle sends our money abroad. We are lucky that we have access to secure supplies and strong alliances, but while the price of energy is dictated by the whims of international energy markets, it will be hard to release ourselves from the grip of high bills ushered in by Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.
The solution is energy sovereignty. We have the ability to generate our own energy here in the UK. We need only look at our renewables to know we are already doing this rather well, but it is time for us to do more: to bring energy home; to clean it up; to reduce our reliance on dirty, expensive fossil fuels; and to create a thriving, secure and affordable energy network. We will use the might of our many brilliant engineers, experts and innovators to build a system fit for the future.
As I mentioned in questions earlier, yesterday I was in Suffolk where, thanks to Government investment, the development of the Sizewell C nuclear plant has been given the green light. It will generate not only cleaner, cheaper, low-carbon electricity for the equivalent of 6 million homes, but 10,000 jobs during construction and thousands more in the supply chain. This is the first direct stake a Government have taken in a nuclear project since 1987, and it is the first step on the ladder to long-term energy independence. This has been long awaited, and to boost the nuclear industry further we will work fast to scope and set up Great British Nuclear. With GBN we are aiming to build a pipeline of new nuclear projects beyond Sizewell C where they offer clear value for money, and we will make announcements on this early in the new year.
It is not just nuclear of course: in order to strengthen our energy sovereignty we must look to our natural resources. This island is, as students of Shakespeare will know, a “fortress built by Nature”, and we are utilising that which nature has bestowed upon us—the howling winds of our coastlines, the crashing waves of our sea, and the radiant sun across our land—to create green, clean, cheap energy at home for us.
Those industries are booming, providing jobs and growth up and down the country. In fact, earlier this month, the country hit a truly historic moment, when our onshore and offshore wind farms provided more than half the UK’s electricity. Furthermore, the National Grid reported that on that day all our renewable energy combined provided 70% of the country’s overall electricity needs. However, we need low-carbon back-up for those days when the wind is not blowing and the sun is dimmed, which is why I have put the Energy Bill back on track. It will fire up our nascent hydrogen and carbon capture industries by providing new business models and liberating private investment. The Bill will hammer into place the high-tech solutions we need to produce our own energy.
Even after record Government support for household and business bills, the British people need us to take bold action, and the war in Ukraine, combined with sky-high energy prices, has put a spotlight on the importance of energy efficiency. Our ambition is to reduce energy demand by 15% by 2030. That will be backed by £6 billion in cash between ’25 and ’28, coming on top of the £6.6 billion we have already spent during this Parliament.
The majority of British houses are, thanks to their Victorian builds, rather draughty. Our energy performance certificates did not really bother the estate builders of the 19th century, which is why our ECO+ scheme will help households install insulation, saving them hundreds of pounds off their bills each year—money they can spend elsewhere to grow the economy.
Energy sovereignty is now within our grasp. Clean, affordable energy for households and businesses is not a pipe dream; it is a project we have now embarked upon. Building new energy networks will create jobs; producing our own renewable energy will keep bills low; and as businesses and households are relieved of the pressure of crippling bills, the economy can flourish and grow. Energy is coming home.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and can I take the opportunity to welcome him to his new role? We support new nuclear, and I welcome the announcement on Sizewell. The Climate Change Committee tells us that nuclear should play a role as part of the balanced pathway to net zero. In his reply, could he tell us the timetable for Sizewell’s final investment decision and when we expect it to be up and running? I also welcome the return of the delayed Energy Bill, which should never have been paused by the Government.
As for the rest of the statement, I am bound to ask: is that it? Alongside nuclear, we need a sprint for cheap, clean, home-grown renewables, and I have to say to the Secretary of State that, given the chaos, confusion and embarrassment of the Government on onshore wind, I find it extraordinary that he did not clear that up in the House today. Let me remind the House of some facts. The ban on onshore wind in England that they put in place in 2015 has raised bills for every family in this country by £150 each, and keeping the ban in place up to 2030 would mean customers paying £16 billion more on bills compared with a target of doubling onshore wind. Let us be clear: opposing onshore wind waves the white flag on our energy security and raises bills for families.
The only reason we are debating this issue is not that the public do not support onshore wind—they do, by 78%, according to the Department’s own polling—but that dinosaurs on the Government Benches oppose clean energy, and David Cameron and every leader since has indulged them. The problem is that the Secretary of State, who prides himself on being a truly modern man, is part of the fossilised tendency. He was part of the lobbying effort against lifting the ban in April. He said onshore wind was an “eyesore” and created “problems of noise”, and he urged the then Prime Minister to “largely” reject it. I may have had some issues with his predecessor, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), but the Secretary of State’s position is making the Victorian of the Tory party look positively on trend, because the right hon. Member for North East Somerset after all called for the consenting regime for onshore wind to be brought into line with other infrastructure. Can the Secretary of State clear up once and for all what his position is on onshore wind? Will he now act in the national interest, properly end the ban and finally bring the consenting regime in line with other infrastructure?
On solar, it is the same problem. The Prime Minister spent the summer saying he wanted to block solar, echoed by the Environment Secretary in the last couple of weeks. Blocking solar risks preventing the equivalent of 10 nuclear power stations-worth of power being built, so will the Secretary of State rule out the plans of the previous Environment Secretary to further block solar power on land?
On energy efficiency, frankly this Government should be ashamed of their record, with the green deal fiasco, the green homes grant fiasco and energy efficiency installations running 20 times lower than under the previous Labour Government. Can the Secretary of State tell us from his announcement, which I am afraid contains no new resources, in what year the 19 million cold, draughty homes below energy performance certificate band C would be brought up to that level of decency under his plan? We would do it in a decade. Can he confirm that, at the current rates of installation, under this Government it would not happen till the next century?
We have seen five Energy Secretaries since 2019. To overcome the bills crisis we face and to tackle the climate crisis, we need ambition, consistency and going all in on the green energy sprint. I am afraid we have not had these things from this Government. All we have had is inconsistency, dithering and a Government looking over their shoulder at their own Back Benchers. The Secretary of State has a lot of work to do to convince the country that that is going to change, and if he does not, it means that this Government will land us with higher bills and more energy insecurity, and will fail to take the leadership we need in tackling the climate crisis.
I do not think the right hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber earlier for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions, but I did point to a quote from him back in 2010, when he said it was “pie in the sky” that the then new Conservative Government would get to 40% renewables by 2020. What happened? By 2020 we had got to 43.1% renewables. That is our record of delivery when it comes to renewables, so I do not think we need to take too many lectures from the Labour party, or from the party that five minutes ago did not support new nuclear power. It failed to commission any of it during its time in office—13 years, was it?—but now that we are getting on with it, all of a sudden it seems to have swapped sides.
On wind power, both offshore and onshore, I do not think the right hon. Gentleman recognises the fact that the strike prices in the contracts for difference are now lower for any version of power production at all when it comes to offshore wind. These turbines are now so large that they cannot even be constructed onshore. They are so big that the turbines cannot be carried by road; they have to put offshore.
How big are they? It is convenient that the World cup is on because the right hon. Gentleman will be able to envisage this. Single turbines are seven football pitches in scope, as they turn. They are not buildable onshore, which is one of the reasons why the cheapest way to build them offshore to produce energy offshore is to build these mammoth turbines, which go together in groups of 200 or even up to 300. However, I am sure he knows all of this and that, rather than discussing the actual solutions, he likes to throw up the chaff.
Since the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned onshore, I just want to note that the energy White Paper and the net zero strategy have both said exactly the same as we have been saying this week, which is that onshore can happen where it has local consent. I do not know why this local consent principle is so difficult for him to understand. There it is: we are delivering on the renewables, on the nuclear, on the energy independence and sovereignty that this country needs, and there is nothing from the Labour party.
Over the last 48 hours, wind has generated as little as 1% of our electricity, and it was at 2% when I checked this morning, while of course most of the homes we represent use gas for heating. Will the Secretary of State confirm that we need to get on with issuing more production licences for domestic oil and gas, which cuts the carbon dioxide involved and will enable us to keep the lights on, which we cannot do when the wind does not blow?
My right hon. Friend is characteristically correct that we cannot always rely on a single form of electricity generation. As the French have found out, we cannot always rely on nuclear. I think France has 71 nuclear power stations in its fleet, but about half of them are down at the moment, so it cannot rely only on nuclear. I was discussing this very fact with my opposite number yesterday. I know that my right hon. Friend welcomes the £700 million development approval cash that we have put into the first new nuclear since the 1980s, and he is absolutely right that we need a broad spread of different energy forms to ensure that we can provide the cheap power we require at all times.
The reality is that this statement is just a padding out of the press release that BEIS put out earlier. I do welcome the energy company obligation funding for energy efficiency, but I think we need to be clear that this is not Government money; it is money funded from our energy bills and paid for by all bill payers. One issue with ECO4 is that it cannot be combined with other grants, whereas ECO3 did allow that money to be combined with other grants to bring down the costs of external insulation, for example. That is something the Secretary of State could consider to make schemes more affordable for people. The reality with EPC bandings is that there are more homes currently rated D to G than A to C, so much more direct investment is needed in energy efficiency to rectify that.
The Secretary of State talked about energy security, so does that mean that the Government have finally bought out China General Nuclear from the Sizewell C consortium? Talking about sovereignty, will he confirm that uranium imports are going to be needed to keep Sizewell C going? Is it still the intention to take a 20% stake, and does that mean funding capital of £6 billion or £7 billion towards Sizewell C, because there is still no clarity in today’s statement? On the myth about nuclear baseload, by the time Hinkley Point C comes on stream, seven of the eight existing nuclear power stations will have stopped operating, which proves there is no need for nuclear baseload whatsoever.
On wider energy policy, the Scottish carbon capture and storage cluster was the most advanced project, but it was still only classed as a reserve. Will the Government urgently review this classification, and make the Scottish CCS cluster a track 1 cluster to allow that investment to be released and for that project to go ahead? Pump storage hydro, as I have raised several times, could deliver about 3 GW of power by 2030. All that is needed is an electricity pricing mechanism—a cap and floor mechanism—so will the Government urgently review that and start these discussions?
Finally, we know about the oil and gas investment allowance. If we are going to have continued record investment in renewables, there should be a renewables investment allowance to encourage that, particularly for green hydrogen.
Yes, I can confirm that China has now been bought out of the deal on Sizewell. The money yesterday ensured that it is no longer involved in the development.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the future funding for Sizewell. He may be familiar with the new “regulatory asset base” approach to funding, which is built along similar lines to the contracts for difference that have been used so successfully for offshore wind power. That is how we will look to bring income to the project. I should also say that CfDs will now take place on an annualised basis, which will give those including Scottish clusters the opportunity to bid in as well.
I am always curious about the SNP’s approach to energy. As far as I can work out, it does not like the oil and gas industry—even though the industry employs thousands of its constituents—and it absolutely hates nuclear. I am not quite sure what it wants to do on non-windy days.
Cumberland has sites ready to go for new nuclear. It has expertise, interest and development companies for both small modular reactors and large-scale nuclear. Will the Secretary of State work with me and my hon. Friends the Members for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) and for Carlisle (John Stevenson) to bring Rolls-Royce SMR and UK European pressurised reactors 5 and 6 to Moorside?
I know that Cumberland has a tremendous amount of expertise and a lot more to offer. When Great British Nuclear launches in the new year, it will help to bring not just traditional Sizewell-style nuclear assets to this country, but the small modular reactors from Rolls-Royce and potentially other competitors.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his role. May I push him slightly further on the financing of Sizewell C? My understanding is that the Government are committed to spending 20% of the cost, and EDF 20% of the cost. That leaves 60% to be financed from the private sector, which I think means that up to £20 billion of financing still needs to be sourced. What will the Government do if they cannot find that from the private sector?
I thank the hon. Member for welcoming me to the Dispatch Box. As he will know as Chair of the Select Committee, we have been working on the Sizewell deal for quite some time and we got to the Government investment decision stage yesterday. Of course, we have been talking to potential financiers along with EDF and the French Government. We are confident about the level of interest, but I have no doubt that I will come to his Select Committee, along with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Climate, to discuss that in more detail soon.
I welcome the announcements on nuclear and specifically on Sizewell C. The Rolls-Royce scheme for modular nuclear seems very exciting, but we do need to get on with it. Does the Secretary of State have a view as to what year we will be starting the first project?
My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that when I was at Sizewell yesterday, I was with leaders from EDF and the French Government—indeed, the French ambassador was there. Later in the day I spoke to my opposite number about ensuring that we can speed up co-operation on nuclear, as well as on things such as wind, and even on our interconnectors. I was going to say that the point of Great British Nuclear is to really put the acid under this, but I am sure that there is a much better nuclear comparison. It is really about ensuring that we get on with producing our new nuclear fleet a lot faster than has happened in the last few decades.
It is worth the House knowing that we have already put in £6.6 billion. We have announced another £6 billion, which will be spent in the period from 2025 to 2028. The £1 billion that I announced yesterday will cover hundreds of thousands of homes. Of course, it is typical of the Labour party to think that the only way in which this can ever be funded is by the taxpayer and that there are no other routes to market. Lots of homes will be improved by, for example, regulations on build, ensuring that the overall increase in improvements in EPCs comes not just through spending taxpayers’ cash.