Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Questions

10th November 2020

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

 

Self-employed People: Covid-19

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for self-employed people during the covid-19 outbreak. [908529]

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on Government support for self-employed people during the covid-19 outbreak. [908558]

The Government have so far provided £13.2 billion of support to self-employed people through the self-employment income support scheme, and that support continues. The UK’s self-employment scheme is among the most generous internationally.

According to the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed, the solo self-employed contributed an estimated £305 billion to the UK economy last year. So why have 1.6 million self-employed people been excluded from government support during the pandemic? What will the Minister do to address this failure of Government to recognise the huge contribution self-employed people make to the economy and to our communities?

As the hon. Lady will know, the self-employment scheme has been targeted at those who derive the majority of their income from self-employment. I hope she will welcome an extension of that scheme, which the Chancellor has announced. It will now last for a further six months, from November of this year to April 2021.

Following yesterday’s news about a covid vaccine, for the first time in a while it feels as though there may be an end in sight. If it becomes clear that a return to normality will be possible in the next few months, surely the only responsible approach is to expand support and adopt a true “whatever it takes” approach to help all businesses, including those currently excluded. So in the light of yesterday’s news, will the Secretary of State agree to work with the Treasury to review the economic support currently on offer?

One feature of the pandemic has been that we have indeed reviewed the support and provided further support where it is needed. As I said, we have extended the self-employment income support scheme, which means an extra £7.3 billion of support for the self-employed through November to January. Of course, we all hope that a vaccine comes forward, but the support is there, as well as support in terms of grants for businesses that are required to be closed.

The Secretary of State continues to duck the question. He has been told for about seven months of those excluded from support—the battered, bruised and brushed off. We are talking about the 3 million—the newly self-employed, the directors and the freelancers who have been given nothing. He is the Business Secretary, so is it that the Chancellor has ignored his calls for support or is it just that he simply does not care?

The hon. Gentleman knows me quite well and I think he will understand, at least in private, that I do very much care, as does every Member of this House. He talks about those who are not able to get access to this scheme, and, obviously, one issue relates to those who are paid in dividends. As he knows, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made the point that it is difficult to distinguish between income earned through an individual’s own company dividends and dividends that have been paid from holding shares in other companies. If the hon. Gentleman has suggestions as to how we might overcome this, I would be interested to work with him.

Hansard
 

Manufacturing Sector

What steps his Department is taking to support the manufacturing sector. [908530]

What steps his Department is taking to support the manufacturing sector. [908541]

What steps his Department is taking to support the manufacturing sector. [908554]

I want to thank those in the manufacturing sector for the brilliant work they are doing to support the economy and keep it going. Despite the national restrictions, the manufacturing and construction sectors can continue to operate and are doing so. Thus far, the manufacturing sector has benefited from about £5 billion of furlough grants and £4 billion of government-backed loans.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. I wish to seek further assurances on behalf of my three local chambers of commerce—Hailsham, Crowborough and Uckfield. What further support can be provided for small and medium-sized manufacturing firms in my constituency, not only during covid, but during transition next year?

I know that my hon. Friend works closely with her three local chambers of commerce in Hailsham, Crowborough and Uckfield. On planning for transition, whatever our future trading relationship with the European Union things will change for businesses and they do need to prepare. My Department and my fellow Ministers and I have been communicating and engaging directly with businesses, and we will continue to do so.

Rolls-Royce is a very important manufacturer throughout the UK, not least in Derby, where it employs more than 12,000 people. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that whenever the Government help Rolls-Royce, all money spent will directly support the recovery of domestic civil aerospace manufacturing?

My hon. Friend is a great champion of workers in her constituency, and she and I have met to discuss these issues. She will know that the Government are supporting the aerospace and aviation sectors to the tune of almost £9 billion through loans and grants. Of course, we want that support to create a positive business environment and ensure that Rolls-Royce and, indeed, other companies in the sector base their work in the UK, sustaining well-paid local jobs for decades to come. As my hon. Friend will know, Rolls-Royce proposes to consolidate the assembly and testing of its large aero-engines from Singapore to Derby.

Many manufacturers, especially those in Stoke-on-Trent, face high energy costs, and there is little incentive to switch to cleaner electricity because of the higher cost. Will my right hon. Friend look at what additional support can be offered to energy-intensive industries so that our manufacturers remain competitive and can invest in improved efficiency?

My hon. Friend is a great champion of manufacturers in his constituency. As he will know, the Government are committed to helping businesses to reduce their costs through resource and energy efficiency. We have established a package of compensation exemptions from electricity costs worth more than £470 million, which will of course benefit businesses in energy-intensive sectors such as ceramics, which is a particularly important industry for Stoke-on-Trent.

One obvious way to help our manufacturers is with a green stimulus equal to the scale of the economic emergency that we face. President-elect Biden has pledged $2 trillion for such a stimulus; the French and German Governments have pledged tens of billions of euros; and Britain has pledged just £5 billion. Will the Secretary of State tell us when this Government are going to show the same scale of ambition—not in 10 years’ time but now—to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in this country?

The right hon. Gentleman may have been reading the Conservative party manifesto, because we have been clear that we have an ambition to create 2 million green jobs by 2030 and have already set out some of the measures, including £2 billion in green homes grants to support 100,000 green jobs. The Prime Minister has also announced that we will be boosting the Government’s target for offshore wind by 2030 from 30 GW to 40 GW, thereby bringing additional jobs to the sector. We will set out more plans over the coming weeks.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but the rhetoric does not match the reality. Look at what other countries, including France and Germany, are doing, and look at the scale of what we are doing. He mentions offshore wind; let us take that as an example. As he says, the Government want to see 40 GW of offshore wind by 2030, but to ensure that the jobs in manufacturing the turbines are created here, we need the ports and supply-chain investment. The amount that the Government have pledged—£160 million over 10 years—is woefully inadequate. What is the Secretary of State’s estimate of the public investment required to meet his own target that 60% of the content of the offshore wind industry should be British—a target he is missing badly? Will the Government now fund and support the scale of investment required?

We are making funding available to upgrade ports, as the right hon. Gentleman said. I hope he would acknowledge that, as a result of the Government’s work on contracts-for-difference auctions, we have the biggest offshore wind industry in the world, which has driven down prices significantly and made offshore wind viable. We will continue to work to support those jobs, and we are talking about tens of thousands of extra jobs in the sector by 2030.

Vaccine manufacturing for covid is being led by Ms Kate Bingham from the vaccine taskforce. Not only has she disclosed official sensitive documents to hedge-fund managers in the United States, but she has spent £670,000 of taxpayers’ money on private public relations advisers instead of using civil servants and is set to benefit financially from state investments. Ms Bingham should be sacked. If she is not sacked, who will be held to account for this gross conflict of interest and misuse of public funds? Will it be the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister?

I would point out that the vaccines taskforce, which sits in my Department and is led by Kate Bingham, has done an absolutely brilliant job over the past few months. We have managed to secure 350 million doses across six of the most promising vaccine candidates. The hon. Gentleman will have seen the statement that came through from Pfizer/BioNTech yesterday; we were the first country in the world to secure access to that particular vaccine candidate. The hon. Gentleman talks about spending; the senior responsible officer, in line with his delegated authority, approved that resourcing in accordance with public sector practices and frameworks.

Hansard

 

Topical Questions

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [908589]

Last week, at the CBI’s annual conference, I reaffirmed our desire to build back better through levelling up across the country. We are developing a new strategy for growth, a refreshed and reinvigorated industrial strategy that puts the UK at the forefront of economic opportunity. We want to broaden the geography of our economy while taking a more strategic approach, supporting research and innovation in areas where the UK has the potential to both lead and change the world. We will work with industry as our plan for growth takes shape in the months ahead and is published in the new year.

Any help for business, like the local restrictions support grant, is welcome, however limited, but nightclubs and much of the night-time industries have been required to close since 23 March, with no sign to an end of their problems. So should the grants not be backdated to that date, rather than starting on 1 November?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the support that is being provided. He also knows that, for areas that were in tier 2 or tier 3 before the new restrictions came into force, there are backdated payments to August equivalent to up to £2,100 a month.

Employers and trade unions work night and day to keep workplaces covid-secure, so it is absolutely staggering that the health and safety inspection discovered fundamental breaches of the guidelines in the overcrammed private office of the Secretary of State. A member of the Minister’s staff tested positive for covid, yet the Secretary of State did not self-isolate: he met Prince Charles and took a flight to South Korea. The need to suppress workplace transmission is as great as ever, so how can working people and businesses have any trust in the Government when the very people responsible for setting the rules ignore them in their own offices?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, I followed all the rules, as we always do in my Department. I want to thank businesses, trade unions and the business representative organisations we worked with earlier this year to put together the guidelines to keep business areas covid secure.

I am extremely proud to see that an Airbus apprentice from Filton, Jess Stone, has made the final of the Make UK engineering apprentice awards. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Jess and recognising the crucial importance of supporting aerospace in the UK, both for the economy and to ensure that young people have the option of a skilled and rewarding career—and obviously the fantastic impact that has on social mobility? [908592]

I am absolutely delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituent, Jess. I thank him for all the work he does in his constituency to support engineering apprenticeships. He is absolutely right. We want the sector to keep supporting well-paid skilled jobs for our young people moving into the workplace as we build back better into the decade ahead.

On Remembrance Sunday, we rightly paid tribute to the fallen heroes, but let us not forget the engineering innovation and skills of the Rolls-Royce workers who put engines in the first British jet fighters critical to winning the second world war. Workers at the Barnoldswick site are currently on strike, fighting to save hundreds of highly skilled engineering jobs and, potentially, the site itself. Does the Minister agree with Unite the Union that those jobs belong in Britain and that Government support should absolutely be conditional on those jobs not going offshore? [908590]

I did address this issue earlier, but as the hon. Gentleman will know Rolls-Royce has indicated that it will retain key work in Barnoldswick, including fan blade capability relating to the Trent 700 engines, the joint strike fighter and a new technical capability for product development. I can also tell him that I will be meeting a cross-party group of Members of Parliament, together with Rolls-Royce, next week.

...

The Government claim that they want to rebalance the economy and have invested in new vaccine manufacturing capacity. Why was that not in the north of England or other regions, rather than in Braintree? [908594]

We have invested in manufacturing across the country. In fact, I visited Valneva, which is one of the companies that is producing one of the vaccine candidates, and we have of course invested there as well. If the hon. Gentleman has particular suggestions to make about areas where we ought to be investing in terms of vaccine manufacturing, he should come forward.

Many businesses in Rutland and Melton create extraordinary food, such as Samworth Brothers, Belvoir Fruit Farms, Mars, and Long Clawson Dairy. They also have done an excellent job of protecting employees throughout the pandemic, so will the Secretary of State join me in thanking them but also confirm what steps have been taken to safeguard supply chains, particularly for food and food processing businesses across the country? [908600]

Many years ago, I had an opportunity to work for the Mars group, and I know what a brilliant job  food processing companies have been doing throughout the pandemic. The food manufacturing sector can continue to operate through the national restrictions as long as they follow the Government’s guidance on keeping factories, plants and warehouses covid-secure.

...

Forty-one per cent. of hair and beauty salon owners say that they do not know whether their businesses will be able to survive until Christmas, putting tens of thousands of jobs at risk. Will the Business Secretary speak to the Chancellor about the VAT cuts for hospitality and extend those to hair, beauty, spa and wellbeing businesses to give them a much-needed boost during these very difficult times? [908599]

I completely understand how incredibly tough it is for many businesses, including in the sector the hon. Member outlined. She has raised a point, and I am sure that this issue will be looked at.

Could I ask the Secretary of State to confirm that being the first in Europe to develop a horizonal satellite launch facility is not only an ambition of Spaceport Cornwall but an integral part of the UK Government’s space ambitions? Could I ask him to meet me to discuss how the Government and the UK Space Agency can support Spaceport Cornwall to deliver this facility for the benefit of the whole UK space industry? [908604]

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government are committed to the space sector. We have already invested £40 million to achieve satellite launch from the early 2020s, including more than £7 million to establish launch services from Spaceport Cornwall. I am sure that the science Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), will be happy to meet him to discuss that further.

Can I ask the Minister for his assessment of the comments made by Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s in recent days that there will be a barrier to some goods coming to Northern Ireland; that some will not be available and others will be available at an increased cost? Surely that is the result of a sea border. What assurances can he give to Northern Ireland consumers that, come 1 January, that will not be the case? [908602]

We have been very clear on this issue and, as the hon. Lady knows, we have introduced the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. Of course we will continue to work on these issues.

The Secretary of State will be aware that many businesses in the hospitality industry—pubs, and also some companies in the wedding industry—are reliant on the six weeks around Christmas for much of their profit during the winter period. What additional support can he reassure me will be put into place to ensure that the hospitality industry is properly recompensed for the Christmas period and the early part of the new year given the difficult circumstances that we face with covid? [908605]

I recognise the difficulty that the hospitality sector faces. Of course we want to ensure that, as we come out of the national restriction on 2 December, businesses move into the tiered areas, and I hope that some business will be able to reopen. However, it is worth pointing out that pubs and restaurants can continue to operate as takeaways and support is available, including grants of up to £3,000 per month, as well as additional support through the £1.1 billion funded to local authorities.

...

We know that our economy is changing, supercharged by the impact of covid and new technologies that are facilitating the change; but does the Minister agree that it is desirable and possible for companies to change in a way that protects skilled jobs, whether that is Spotify’s responsibility to creative workers, or BT’s responsibility to our broadband engineers? Will the Minister do all it takes to ensure that our companies invest in people as well as digital infrastructure?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Of course we want good jobs to be created and preserved, and I agree with her. I believe she is arguing that we need a greater level of productivity in the country, and that is precisely what we are working on as part of our strategies.

Hansard

 

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