Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Questions

16th June 2020

Alok Sharma, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy answers MPs’ questions.

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

Insolvency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hansard

 

Covid-19: Support for Businesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hansard

 

Life Sciences Sector: Vaccine Manufacturing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hansard

 

Topical Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...

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

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

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

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

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

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

...

Hansard

 

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