Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Questions

29th September 2020

Alok Sharma answers MPs questions to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

R&D Road Map

Whether he plans to prioritise the development and uptake of human-relevant new approach methodologies in the forthcoming UK research and development road map. [906764]

In July, the Government published their ambitious R&D road map, reaffirming our commitment to cement the UKs position as a science superpower. We will revitalise our whole system of science, research and innovation to release its potential, and our investment in multiple disciplines and methodologies will be guided by expert researchers.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. A successful transition to new approach methodologies requires the support of Government- backed infrastructure, a strategic allocation of funding, improved education, multidisciplinary collaboration between universities and industry, and close collaboration with the regulators. Will he undertake to prioritise the opportunities offered by human-relevant methods, so that the UK does not risk losing its position as a global leader in biomedical research and innovation?

I know that the hon. Gentleman cares deeply about this issue and launched a white paper on it earlier this year; I welcome the contribution of that report. The use of animals in research is carefully regulated and remains important in ensuring that new medicines and treatments are safe. However, the Government are committed to reducing and replacing the use of animal research, and we have invested £67 million to support the development of new techniques that will help to achieve that.

 
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Support for Businesses: Covid-19

What steps his Department is taking to support businesses during the covid-19 outbreak. [906765]

What steps his Department is taking to support businesses during the covid-19 outbreak. [906787]

My Department has delivered a wide range of measures as part of the Government’s unprecedented support package. That includes £11 billion in grants supporting almost 900,000 business premises and over £57 billion in loan guarantees to over 1 million businesses across the UK. We have also extended the deadline for the loan schemes to the end of November, ensuring that there is further support for those who need it.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and for the support to date. When we emerge from the current crisis, we must build back in an environmentally sustainable way and ensure that we are on track to meet our net zero target. What is he doing to deliver carbon capture and storage across the UK, to ensure that manufacturing and agricultural businesses have certainty, with net zero in mind?

I agree with my hon. Friend: we need to build back better and build back greener. CCS will be an essential part of the transformation to a low-carbon economy, and it presents an opportunity for the creation of high-value jobs, which we want to see in our country. We have already announced a CCS infrastructure fund of £800 million to deploy carbon capture and storage in at least two industrial clusters over the next decade.

Many businesses in the Vale of Clwyd welcome the measures that the Chancellor announced last week, but some local and regional employers of all sizes still face significant challenges—none more so than Airbus. Will my right hon. Friend recommit to doing all he can to support Airbus and its highly skilled staff at this particularly uncertain time?

My hon. Friend and other Members are champions for the businesses in their constituencies. Airbus has been discussed with me and other ministerial colleagues. Of course, Airbus is a vital part of UK aerospace. We are currently providing the aerospace and aviation sector with over £8.5 billion of support through the covid corporate financing facility, R&D grants, loan guarantees and export support. We are in regular dialogue with Airbus, to see how we can assist it and its employees.

Over 1 million people are employed in sectors that are currently shut down, including weddings, events and nightclubs. The Chancellor last week refused to support them because he said they are not “viable”, but those businesses are shut because they are rightly following the Government’s public health guidance to help tackle the virus. As the person responsible for standing up for the businesses of this country, does the Business Secretary not think it is wrong, insulting and terrible for our long-term economic future as a country to write off as unviable these businesses and jobs that provide livelihoods for so many people in our country?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I talk to businesses every day, as he does, and I know it is very difficult for many of them right now. The job support scheme announced by the Chancellor provides targeted support for jobs and business facing lower demand over the coming months. He will also know that the measures have been welcomed by business groups and, indeed, trade unions. The TUC said:

“the Chancellor has listened and done the right thing.”

In addition to the JSS, there are other measures available to support all businesses across the country.

The Secretary of State did not answer my question about these businesses that are currently shut down and that are doing the right thing. Many of them have no income coming in, they are excluded from the JSS and they are already loaded up with debt, yet they have rent to pay and overheads to cover, and the Government are just leaving them out in the cold. I believe these were good, viable businesses before the pandemic. They were good enough for the Government to support them back in March, and we need them for our economy after the crisis is over. Will he stand up for these businesses that need help and give them the support they need to help at least survive the crisis?

Let me assure the right hon. Gentleman that this Department does stand up for businesses. We have a very regular dialogue with sectors on an ongoing basis. As I said, I acknowledge that some of them are facing particular difficulties. As he himself knows from his time in government, we are not going to be able to protect every single job—very, very sadly—but that is why we are providing extra support in the welfare system but also, really importantly, in support with skills and, indeed, apprenticeships and the kickstart scheme for young people, so that we can help people into better jobs.

It has been confirmed that the Secretary of State is due to rewrite the industrial strategy this autumn. Given the concern from businesses that the Department is the voice of Government to business, as opposed to the voice of business to Government, could the Secretary of State confirm how businesses will be engaged in the drafting of the new industrial strategy?

The Chairman of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee of course raises an important point, and he will know that I have come to the House on previous occasions and outlined the detailed discussions we have. I set up a range of taskforces, where we had discussions on issues around the industrial strategy back in June, and we converse on a daily basis with sectors across the country.

I was really disappointed by the answers the Business Secretary gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). I have global exhibition companies in my constituency that are on the verge of going bust. They do not need to be told about the kickstart scheme or apprenticeships, or to be told that universal credit is available for them. These companies are calling for an extension of business rate relief and a new grant scheme, bearing in mind that many of them were not eligible for the retail, hospitality and leisure grant. Will the Secretary of State consider this, and commit to publishing a provisional date when conferences and exhibition events can reopen, as has been happening in parts of Europe? Will he also agree to meet the sector? I have tried lobbying the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on this, and I am getting nowhere. Will he pay attention to this sector?

As the hon. Lady outlines, this particular sector is the responsibility of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. However, I have been talking to representatives of the sector, as have my ministerial team and, as I have said, we will continue to have such conversations. As I have also said, the Chancellor set out a significant package of support since the start of this pandemic, and people are still able to make use of that support.

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Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

What assessment he has made of the potential effect on employment levels of closing the coronavirus job retention scheme. [906775]

Some 9.6 million jobs have been supported through the coronavirus job retention scheme and millions of people have now moved off furlough and back into work. The job support scheme and other measures, such as the extension of our temporary VAT cut for the hospitality and tourism sectors, demonstrate our commitment to supporting businesses and workers.

May I return to a theme that has been raised by other Members without success in terms of answers? Sheffield City Region Music Board wrote to the Culture Secretary with local Members over six weeks ago about the problems facing the music industry. We have had no reply. The new job support scheme offers nothing to businesses that are unable to open, such as many of Sheffield’s iconic music venues, with impacts on jobs right across the sector. One constituent said to me yesterday that by declaring most music businesses not viable, the Government have basically hung everyone out to dry. Ministers did not address this issue in their earlier answers, so will the Secretary of State recognise the problem and spell out what action the Government will take to protect jobs in the music, events and creative industries?

I completely understand the concerns that colleagues have about the sectors that are not open. I can only reiterate, without going into full details, that we continue to have discussions with those sectors. The hon. Gentleman talks about the particular sector that he knows, which is the responsibility of another Secretary of State, but I have spoken to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about those issues in the past day or two. We will continue to have discussions.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that we are trying to make sure that the economy stays open, and the vast majority of the economy is open, but we need to do that in a safe way. If we all play our part, we will be in a position where we can reopen the rest of the economy and move to some sense of normality.

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State Aid

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the use of state aid by the Government. [906780]

Government Departments consider the impact of any support they provide and the Government’s recent covid-19 measures have been hugely welcomed by businesses. Our upcoming consultation on subsidy control will allow us to gather views on how to ensure those measures continue to be effective in achieving our economic objectives.

Putting the covid period to one side, it is worth remembering that in 2018 the UK spent only 0.38% of GDP on state aid. France spent twice as much and Germany four times more. With the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, the Government will centralise state aid decision making in London. When will his Government lift the arbitrary borrowing cap on the Welsh Government to enable Wales to invest in Welsh infrastructure and thus boost Welsh productivity?

We have had this debate, of course, during the passage of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill over the past few days. Subsidy control has never been a devolved matter. The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. We have always been clear that the regulation of subsidy control is a reserved matter. There will be a consultation, but ultimately we want to promote a competitive and dynamic economy throughout the whole of the United Kingdom.

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Topical Questions

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [906824]

I know that the plight of sub-postmasters involved in the Horizon IT scandal has rightly concerned many hon. and right hon. Members. There have been repeated calls for a judge-led inquiry into this matter. I can confirm that former High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams will chair the Government’s inquiry, which begins this week. The terms of reference have been expanded following feedback from former postmasters and hon. Members. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who is leading this work in my Department, will be pleased to update colleagues.

The landlord of the Burnaby Arms pub in Bedford has three staff on zero-hours contracts. One is currently on flexible furlough, working reduced hours. The other two are still on furlough and have been informed that they will lose their jobs when furlough ends unless the situation for wet-led pubs changes. How does the job support scheme—which actually costs this and many other businesses in my constituency more money to keep staff—prevent mass job losses?

The best thing we can do to continue to keep the hospitality sector open is to ensure that we get the virus and the infections under control, and that is precisely what we are doing with the proportionate measures that the Government are taking.

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What is the Government’s strategy for the British sat-nav system?

I think the hon. Lady is making reference to the UN global navigation satellite systems programme. It is not being closed; due to the importance of the Government’s ambitions for the space sector, the programme is being reset and its remit widened.

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With around 70,000 jobs reliant on manufacturing in the black country, now is an opportune time to review the black country industrial strategy. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend confirmed a refresh of that industrial strategy. Will he meet me to discuss how we can leverage industrial and manufacturing capacity in the black country to restart that industrial revolution? [906827]

We are indeed refreshing the 2017 industrial strategy to reflect the Government’s priorities, which are putting the UK at the forefront of technological opportunities, boosting growth and productivity across our country, and supporting a green recovery. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the black country industrial strategy.

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Sanquhar in my constituency has the world’s oldest post office, and that title derives from the fact that the post office has been on the same site for 300 years. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, along with the Post Office, he will take every opportunity to keep a post office on that site? [906828]

I recognise the historic significance and role of the post office in Sanquhar, and I thank all the staff who have kept it running over the years, particularly most recently through the covid pandemic. I very much hope that a long-term future for that post office can be secured.

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The Chancellor claims that certain businesses and jobs are no longer viable—he says “unviable”. Will the Minister explain how the Government can support people sitting on packed aeroplanes for three and a half hours, but will not support restaurants and cafes in Warwick and Leamington, and across the country, or cinemas and bars, where people may be sat at the same density? [906829]

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are supporting the hospitality sector. Business rates are not required to be paid for the full year, and other support is available across the economy. If we want to get back to normality, we must get this infection under control, and we all have a part to play in that.

 
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What advice does the Secretary of State offer to people in Kettering and across the country who are struggling to pay essential bills as a result of the pandemic? [906830]

My hon. Friend may know that we have funded Citizens Advice to provide local advice during this crisis, and we have negotiated a voluntary agreement with energy suppliers to support households impacted by covid-19. I also commend the Money Advice Service for developing the money advice tool, which gives people important practical support in managing their finances.

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The north of England, and in particular Bury, has the potential to become a hub for start-ups, research and development, and innovation. That should also be utilised in the fight against coronavirus and the Government’s efforts to secure a vaccine that will end the pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Vaccine Taskforce relies on the strength of the whole UK, by distributing manufacturing capacity across the country? [906833]

The Vaccine Taskforce, which is part of my Department, has made incredible progress in securing access to the most promising vaccine candidates. We have invested to build our manufacturing capacity in Oxford, Essex, Scotland and north Wales, and we will continue to work with the UK bioindustry to determine how further to develop our vaccine capabilities across the whole country.

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Harrogate and Knaresborough has a large conference and events industry, mainly driven by the Harrogate convention centre, which is now a Nightingale hospital. I have raised the industry’s specific challenges with Ministers already, but I understand that my right hon. Friend has been having discussions with the sector directly. Will he update the House on those discussions, and will he meet me to discuss the specific challenges for the industry in my constituency? [906834]

The Government of course recognise the challenges facing the industry. My hon. Friend is right, and I have also heard directly from representatives of the National Exhibition Centre about these challenges. Conference and events businesses can draw on the Government’s current support package, but I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who has responsibility for the sector, will continue to work closely with them.

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The Government must make a just transition to a lower- carbon economy and, in doing so, create green jobs. Will the Minister outline the number of green jobs created since he has been in post, and specifically which green technologies and industries can expect investment from the Government over the next year?

We currently have a close to half a million green jobs in this country. We want to create another 2 million. The hon. Lady will also know that the Chancellor announced the green homes grant package, which will support more than 100,000 green jobs.

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Last week, I spoke with my constituent David Bevan, who runs Alive Network, the UK’s largest live entertainment booking agency. He and I acknowledge that he has already had an awful lot of support from the Government, through grants, furlough, bounce back loans, VAT deferral and so on. Times are tough at the moment, but he expects things to be busier than ever when we get to the other side. What more can my right hon. Friend’s Department do to help David’s business get to the other side? [906835]

I am pleased that my hon. Friend welcomes our jobs package. The Government continue to provide a full range of measures to protect jobs, businesses and livelihoods. Of course, I want this sector—indeed, every sector—to return to normal as soon as possible, but that will require scientific evidence to show that it is safe to do so.

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Last week, the Prime Minister announced that the UK will bring forward what he called a “very ambitious national contribution for COP26”.Can the Secretary of State confirm that that really means that the nationally determined contribution will be published this year and, crucially, that it will at the very least be aligned with 1.5° C? [906849]

I had the honour and pleasure of being questioned by the hon. Lady at a Select Committee in recent days. I repeat what I said then—that we are asking all countries to come forward with ambitious NDCs, and that I completely understand that there will be a requirement on the UK as well.

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Heywood Magic Market in my constituency has been offering stalls for just £28 a week, enabling sole traders and the self-employed to find new, innovative ways of earning a living during the coronavirus pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the staff, the traders and the board of the Magic Market for their ingenuity and community spirit, and will he reiterate the Department’s long-standing commitment to small traders and entrepreneurs, who will be essential in rebuilding our post-covid economy? [906836]

I am absolutely delighted to offer my congratulations to Heywood Magic Market, and everyone involved with this initiative, on demonstrating such innovation. As my hon. Friend knows, in May I announced the discretionary grant scheme to support market traders. We absolutely back entrepreneurs and innovators in Heywood and Middleton and across the country. The Conservative party has always been the party of business, and we will always continue to be the party of business.

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