Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Questions

21st July 2020

Secretary of State Alok Sharma responds to MPs’ questions to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Rt Hon Alok Sharma MP speaking at the Dispatch Box, Jul 2020, BEIS Questions

Covid-19: Support for Business

What steps his Department is taking to support businesses during the covid-19 outbreak. [905049]

What support his Department is providing to businesses to help them recover from the covid-19 outbreak. [905053]

What steps his Department is taking to support businesses during the covid-19 outbreak. [905072]

Since the start of the covid-19 outbreak, the Government have provided £160 billion of support through a range of schemes to protect jobs and help businesses keep going. We have also provided support to businesses through measures in the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 and the Business and Planning Bill. Working with business and trade unions, my Department has published detailed guidance to help businesses reopen safely.

The Government’s support for people and businesses during the covid crisis has been fantastic and has helped countless constituents in Penrith and The Border and across the UK. Unfortunately, many have still not been able to access support, such as the newly self-employed, limited company directors, freelancers, new starters and those who fall on the wrong side of the eligibility criteria. Will my right hon. Friend work with the Treasury to see whether those hard-working people can be helped with some emergency financial support?

My hon. Friend will know that we have supported over 9 million jobs through the job retention scheme, 2.7 million people have benefited from the self- employment support scheme and around 870,000 small businesses have benefited from grants. The Chancellor set out his plan for jobs a few days ago. The key now is to get the economy up and running, so that businesses can trade.

That is absolutely right, but it is not just about bouncing back; it is also about levelling up. Will the Secretary of State join my hon. Friend the Universities Minister in giving his backing in the spending review to the shovel-ready MK:U—a much needed technical university in Milton Keynes which will deliver cutting-edge science, technology and engineering jobs and skills for local employers?

As my hon. Friend would expect, the MK:U proposal will be judged objectively on its merits. More generally, I can confirm that the Government recognise the significant potential of the Oxford-Cambridge arc and the important role of Milton Keynes in achieving that potential.

Airline pilots working for easyJet took an unprecedented decision on Friday to declare no confidence in their senior management. I have heard from many constituents who work at the airline in Liverpool and Manchester who are worried about the company’s approach of “fire and rehire on different terms”. Does my right hon. Friend agree that safety in the airline industry must always be paramount and that negotiations about future job losses should be respectful and in good faith?

My hon. Friend highlights an important point. Throughout the covid-19 period, the Government have provided unprecedented support for employment and worked in close partnership with the business community. I understand that it continues to be a difficult time for many businesses, but as he highlights, in that spirit of partnership, we expect all employers to treat their employees fairly and follow the rules.

I want to return the Secretary of State to the question asked by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) about the many businesses that are part of the 3 million ExcludedUK group. They include over 2 million people who are essentially self-employed but have been disqualified from help under the self-employment scheme for various—often arbitrary—reasons. In many cases, this is not simply rough justice but deep unfairness. Many of these individuals are not high earners. Will the Secretary of State give an indication that he recognises that this is an injustice, and can he tell us how he plans to address it?

The right hon. Gentleman will also acknowledge that the Government have provided unprecedented support to businesses across the whole economy. As I said, the key right now is to support businesses to open, to get the economy up and running. That is the best way that we can support businesses across the United Kingdom.

This issue of 3 million people being excluded is not going away. Let me ask him about the winding down of the furlough scheme. Yesterday, Make UK, the manufacturers’ organisation, said that a furlough extension was vital to prevent a “jobs bloodbath” in aerospace and automotive. We see the looming threat too in sectors that have not yet reopened, such as events and exhibitions, and those operating well below capacity, such as hospitality. Yet from next week, the Government are insisting that every single employer, whatever their industry, will have to start contributing to the furlough. Does the Secretary of State not recognise that this decision to phase out the furlough, irrespective of circumstances, risks handing a P45 to hundreds of thousands of workers?

The furlough scheme will have been up and running for a full eight months, providing a huge amount of support for more than 9 million jobs. It is becoming more flexible and allowing people to return to work part time. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Chancellor has also set out the job retention bonus which, if it is taken up by all employers, will represent a £9 billion boost for the economy. I say to him again that the key is to get the economy up and running and to get businesses trading.

As we have heard, many businesses, sole traders, freelancers and others have been left without support throughout this health emergency. They are on their knees and they are still getting no support. How can they rebuild their trade when the Secretary of State’s Government will not help them? If his Government will not help them, why have they refused to allow simple adjustments to Scotland’s borrowing rules so that the Scottish Government can step in?

The hon. Gentleman talks about support in Scotland; like many colleagues in the House, I believe in the Union, and we must work together to support workers across the United Kingdom. More than 730,000 jobs have been protected in Scotland through the furlough scheme. The hon. Gentleman will know that, as a result of the additional moneys that the Chancellor announced at the summer statement, the total additional Barnett funding to Scotland since March is £4.6 billion.

Oh how the broad shoulders of the Union slump when asked a difficult question. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has exposed how the promised £800 million of consequentials for Scotland from the Chancellor’s job package is in fact only £21 million. Will the Secretary of State now do the right thing by Scotland’s businesses and urge the Chancellor to replace the missing £779 million—or has he also bought into the Prime Minister’s stated view that a pound spent in Croydon is of more value than a pound spent in Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman talks about supporting businesses in Scotland; perhaps he will come forward and give his support to the UK internal market White Paper that we have published.

Hansard

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Covid-19: Retail and Hospitality Sectors

What support his Department is providing to the retail and hospitality sectors as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. [905055]

Through the Business and Planning Bill, we are simplifying reliefs and the costs to cafés, pubs and restaurants of obtaining a licence to allow for outdoor dining. The Chancellor has also announced a six-month temporary VAT rate reduction from 20% to 5% for the hospitality, accommodation and attraction sectors. Both these measures should help to provide a welcome boost for business.

My constituency is known for its culinary delights such as the fantastic Butterfingers Deli, and Balti Bazaar in Lye, not forgetting its equally fantastic independent local pubs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is crucial that we encourage customers to get back to our pubs and restaurants to support our local economies and get our economic engines firing again?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to get out there supporting our pubs and restaurants. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme operating during August is another great incentive to support participating restaurants, cafés, pubs and other food establishments. Al fresco dining midweek in balmy August weather should be a must for all of us.

I call the Chair of the Select Committee, Darren Jones.

Hospitality workers who, in normal times, rely on tips as a significant part of their income have been especially hit, not just because their workplaces have been shut but because furlough payments have not recognised tip-based income. The Government have committed to bringing forward legislation to ensure that hospitality staff can keep their tips; indeed, it was a Conservative party manifesto commitment. When will that legislation be brought to the House?

The Chairman of the Select Committee raises a very important point. As he knows, we have had to bring forward a number of emergency Bills. However, I recognise the point he is making, and we will look to see the earliest point at which we might be able to bring that forward.

Hansard

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Life Sciences and Vaccines

What steps his Department is taking to support (a) vaccine manufacturing and (b) UK life sciences. [905065]

What steps his Department is taking to support (a) vaccine manufacturing and (b) UK life sciences. [905071]

The Government are investing £93 million to set up the UK’s first dedicated Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre in Harwell. We are also investing £38 million in a rapid deployment facility, which will allow vaccine manufacturing at scale to commence from later this year.

The Government have stated that they are interested in creating a sovereign manufacturing capability in the north. An opportunity exists in Ulverston in my constituency to build a bioscience cluster, with deep collaboration with local universities. Using this site for therapeutic vaccine manufacturing would enable partnership with GlaxoSmithKline, which is already based in Furness, and it would preserve and create local jobs and skills, and be a great result for the north and the UK as a whole. Would my right hon. Friend meet the key partners to this project to see whether we might be able to take it forward?

I want to confirm that the Government of course continue to consider the options to ensure that we have sufficient vaccine manufacturing capacity in the UK. I will ask the vaccine taskforce to follow up on that issue with my hon. Friend.

For many of my constituents who work in Greater Manchester life sciences and in the Cheshire life sciences corridor, the Government’s drive to increase research and development into vaccines is really important. Recognising the importance of this to our local economy, what are the Government doing to increase and develop the strengths of life sciences in the Greater Manchester area?

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that, of course, the Government strongly support the growth of the life sciences sector in the north-west, which employs about 26,000 people. We have made a significant strategic investment in the Medicines Discovery Catapult at Alderley Edge to boost R&D.

Hansard

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Covid-19: Support for Business

What support his Department is providing to businesses to help them operate in a covid-secure way. [905068]

What steps he is taking to help all businesses reopen in a covid-secure way. [905069]

In consultation with businesses, business representative groups, trade unions, Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive, my Department has published comprehensive workplace guidance to ensure businesses can operate in a covid-secure manner, keeping both their workers and customers as safe as possible.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply, and welcome the work that he and his Department are doing to help businesses during this challenging time. However, what support is being given to the self-employed across the country?

As my right hon. Friend will know, 2.7 million self-employed people have accessed over £7.8 billion of grants from self-employed income support scheme. The scheme has been extended, and individuals will be able to claim a second and final grant when the scheme reopens for applications on 17 August.

I thank the Secretary of State for finding a way to reopen the beauty sector, which employs so many women across the country. When I paid a visit to the Malvern Spa to celebrate its reopening last weekend, I was told that it has capacity now for only 15 spa days, rather than 40, because of the square footage rules that his Department has set out. Will he look urgently at reviewing those, because it is a very spacious premises?

I thank my hon. Friend for her acknowledgement of the work we have been doing. The key has been to open businesses safely and securely in a cautious and phased manner, and we will continue to do that.

Hansard

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Topical Questions

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [905115]

The coronavirus vaccine taskforce set up in my Department under the excellent leadership of its chair, Kate Bingham, has been making good progress. The Government have supported the vaccines being developed at Oxford University and Imperial College and have now secured access to three different vaccine classes, as well as a treatment containing covid-19 neutralising antibodies. We are also investing, as I said earlier, in vaccine manufacturing capacity in the UK, and the taskforce is doing all it can to ensure that the United Kingdom gets access to a safe and effective vaccine as soon as possible.

Well, that is a very welcome announcement, but I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the tsunami of job losses now facing us. What industry needs right now is orders to get the lines running. That is not just for the big companies, but the whole supply chain. Does he accept the role of Government, not just as regulator and funder, but also as customer? Too often, the public sector, the civil service, local government and the police, fire and ambulance have, frankly, let British industry and British workers down, claiming they are bound by so-called EU rules. Now we are coming out of the EU, will he get going, shake up the civil service, put British industry first, get the orders out there and get the production lines moving?

I do not think there is much more to say. The right hon. Gentleman has made a powerful point.

I have received a letter from James Ritchie, the chief executive of Tekmar, based in my Newton Aycliffe industrial estate. He is also the chairman of Energi Coast, the UK’s leading energy cluster, whose members employ more than 3,000 people. He believes that the offshore wind hub would be perfectly placed in Teesside. The region includes a number of left-behind communities, in vital need of levelling up in jobs. That opportunity would support them and benefit my Sedgefield constituency. Can the Secretary of State assure me of his vital support in helping me and the Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen to bring the hub to Teesside and honour our pledge to the blue wall voters? [905116]

...

The non-payment of the national minimum wage in Leicester garment factories was shocking, but unfortunately unsurprising. Exploitation in the garment industry has been extensively reported for years, including in a 2019 Environmental Audit Committee report. The cases we know about are likely to be the tip of the iceberg. Given that these abusive working practices are not only criminal, but a threat to public health, will the Secretary of State tell the House what steps he has taken to escalate enforcement in light of the covid-19 pandemic?

The hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly important point, and I think we have all been appalled by what we have read and heard. He will know that the National Crime Agency is leading investigations right now into the current set of allegations. He will also know that a pilot operation was run in autumn 2018, bringing together a whole range of agencies. In the past 18 months, there have been more than 200 investigations. I confirm to him that the enforcement of the minimum wage is something that HMRC investigates, and in 2019-20 it has issued across the country 1,000 penalty notices.

...

Constituents are still reporting a catalogue of problems with bounce-back loans, including long waits to be approved and being turned down for business bank accounts because of credit ratings. When will Ministers get to grips with that, to ensure that all eligible businesses apply and receive the loans quickly? [905127]

Bounce-back loans have been a big success; more than 1 million have been approved for businesses. If the hon. Lady has specific issues that she wishes to raise about businesses in her constituency, she should write to me.

...

I know that my right hon. Friend does not underestimate how difficult this year has been for hospitality businesses in North Devon. I warmly welcome the action the Government have taken to get people safely back into our pubs, restaurants and cafés. Will he join me in visiting The Bell Inn, in Chittlehampton, to look at the fantastic hard work that has been done there to ensure that all the appropriate measures are in place to reopen? [905135]

I already have one week of holiday plans and not in her constituency, sadly, but we all need to get out there to visit pubs and restaurants and cafés, which are the heart of our communities. From what I have seen, they are very much adhering to the covid-secure guidance, and that is how we will all enjoy summer safely.

Well, if you would add the Speaker, he’ll come along.

Last year, it was announced that the Ford engine plant was to be closed in September of this year. Ineos was brought in, with both UK Government and Welsh Government funding, but it has now suspended its development at the plant. BA has announced potential job losses at three sites across south Wales, and GE has put staff under a statutory notice period at its plant in Nantgarw. What support is the Secretary of State going to start putting into the south Wales economy so that we can save, protect and create new highly-skilled and well-paid jobs? [905146]

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have been supporting the economy across the United Kingdom, to the tune of £160 billion of additional funding announced by the Chancellor. If the hon. Gentleman would like to engage with my ministerial team on particular issues, I would be very happy about that.

Nothing is more important right now than protecting public health and supporting our recovery. Does the Minister agree that his UK Internal Market White Paper last week will ensure that all four nations in our Union can overcome covid-19 together? [905147]

Like my hon. Friend, I am a firm believer in the Union—in one United Kingdom. The proposals we set out in the UK Internal Market White Paper are all about supporting jobs, protecting businesses and livelihoods, and encouraging investment across the whole UK. I hope that all colleagues across the House will write in support of that as part of the consultation.

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