15 December 2020
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Questions

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

Hydrogen Energy

Dr James Davies (Vale of Clwyd) (Con)

What steps his Department is taking to support the development of hydrogen energy. (910294)

Duncan Baker (North Norfolk) (Con)

What steps his Department is taking to support the development of hydrogen energy. (910309)

The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Alok Sharma)

Both the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan and our energy White Paper, which we published yesterday, set out our bold ambition for the UK to be a world leader in low-carbon hydrogen. As set out in the White Paper, we are determined to make tangible progress in this important sector, including by investing £240 million through the net zero hydrogen fund and supporting industry to begin a hydrogen heating trial in an entire neighbourhood by 2023. We will publish a comprehensive hydrogen strategy early next year.

Dr James Davies 

The development of hydrogen energy can lead to thousands of new jobs UK-wide, including an estimated 6,000 in my region through the HyNet project. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to help HyNet access industrial decarbonisation challenge funding to allow it to progress?

Alok Sharma 

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is all about jobs—high value-added jobs. He, along with other colleagues in the House, makes the case at every opportunity for the HyNet project, and it is very lucky to have him as a champion. As he will know, HyNet has already received funding through phase 1 of the industrial decarbonisation challenge, as well as £13 million of support through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy energy innovation programme. We will announce the winners of the next phase of the industrial decarbonisation challenge in spring next year.

Duncan Baker 

Bacton gas terminal in my constituency harbours a significant percentage of the natural gas intake into the UK. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the potential opportunities presented for the manufacture of blue hydrogen at Bacton, creating low-carbon jobs for the east of England?

Alok Sharma 

My hon. Friend again raises the issue of jobs. Of course, creating these low-carbon jobs across the country is a priority for the Government. As I have set out, in our 10-point plan and the energy White Paper we have put forward policies for the creation of a significant number of jobs. The Oil and Gas Authority is currently conducting an in-depth feasibility study into blue hydrogen at the Bacton gas terminal. I very much welcome that work, and my officials and, indeed, Ministers would be very happy to engage further with my hon. Friend on this matter.

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)

I am pleased to see that the net zero hydrogen fund that the Secretary of State just mentioned will support, among other things, the production of hydrogen. Will he commit today to using that fund to prioritise the production of green hydrogen, as opposed to blue hydrogen, in the future?

Alok Sharma 

We will have to look at what bids come in in respect of how that funding is used, but I say again—I made this point yesterday at the Dispatch Box—that it is not just public money; we are also talking about private sector money coming alongside it. The hon. Gentleman will know that Hydrogen Strategy Now, a campaign group of more than 50 companies, has said that it is ready to invest £3 billion in hydrogen projects, and that was after the publication of the 10-point plan.

Low-Carbon Industries: Employment Growth

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)

What steps his Department is taking to support employment growth in low-carbon industries. (910295)

The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Alok Sharma)

Our 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, which we set out last month, has an ambition to support 250,000 highly skilled green jobs across the UK by 2030. The plans we published yesterday in the energy White Paper will further position the UK as a global leader in the future energy industry, not least by supporting the development of jobs and green infrastructure in low-carbon energy such as hydrogen, carbon capture, usage and storage, and of course nuclear.

Peter Aldous 

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. The scale of the opportunity for employment growth in low-carbon industries is immense. If the right approach is adopted, there can be enormous benefits to coastal communities such as Lowestoft and Waveney. How does the Secretary of State intend to transform the UK’s approach to energy skills in order to capitalise on these great opportunities?

Alok Sharma 

Once again, a Conservative colleague talks about jobs, which is what the energy White Paper and the 10-point plan are all about. My hon. Friend is a tireless champion for offshore wind, and for jobs and growth, in supporting his constituency. He will know that we have set up the green jobs taskforce, which was launched in November and is led by the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng). The taskforce brings together businesses and trade unions to assess how our jobs and skills should adapt to allow us to build back greener, and how the Government can support people in transitioning industries.


Climate Action

John Lamont (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (Con)

What steps he is taking to promote climate action ahead of the COP26 summit. (910299)

The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Alok Sharma)

As conference of the parties president, I have held bilateral meetings with over 40 countries and spoken at around 50 international events over the past months. Throughout, I have called for world leaders to be as ambitious as possible with the climate action targets. The UK is showing real leadership in this area. On 4 December, we announced our new, ambitious nationally determined contribution and on 12 December, we co-hosted the Climate Ambition Summit, which saw 75 world leaders coming forward with 45 NDCs, 24 net zero commitments and 20 adaptation resilience plans.

John Lamont 

The eyes of the world will be on Glasgow next year as the UK hosts the UN Climate Change Conference. This is a huge moment in our fight to stop climate change, so how will the UK Government engage with schools in Scotland and across the whole United Kingdom to promote this important event?

Alok Sharma 

My hon. Friend is right: it is going to be a big moment for the UK in Glasgow next year and, of course, in the lead-up to it as well. I have been very encouraged and impressed by the commitment that young people are showing in tackling climate change. They have a vital part to play in ensuring that we deliver an inclusive and diverse COP26. In the run-up to the summit, we will be working closely with schools and young people, including by co-hosting the COP youth event, which will bring together 400 youth delegates from around the world to discuss a range of climate topics.

Matthew Pennycook (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)

According to Climate Action Tracker, the national net zero pledges that have been put forward today could, if achieved across the board, limit global heating to around 2.1°, but in terms of actual policies, the world remains on course for catastrophic warming of over 3°. Given the gulf between what Governments, including this Government, have promised on climate action and what they are on course to achieve, does the Secretary of State agree that it is incumbent on the UK as COP26 host to demonstrate to the world that it actually has a plan to deliver net zero? If he does agree, will he assure the House that the Government will publish a comprehensive and fully costed net zero strategy well in advance of November next year?

Alok Sharma 

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I said that at the climate ambition summit. Leaders from around the world have come forward with ambitions, but we absolutely need to go further. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I think there is consensus on it in the House. With regard to his question on a net zero strategy, of course we will publish one. I also just want to make the point that, when we were talking about clean energy and hydrogen earlier, I stated that the Hydrogen Strategy Now group made a commitment on the £3 billion after the 10-point plan, but in fact it came before that.


Topical Questions

Jeff Smith (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (910354)

The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Alok Sharma)

At this last Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy oral questions of the year, I take this opportunity to thank my brilliant ministerial team, our brilliant Parliamentary Private Secretaries, our fabulous Whip and the outstanding civil servants for the huge effort they have made this year to support business and procure 357 million doses of the most promising vaccine candidates.

Since the previous oral questions last month, the Department has led on the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan, which is our blueprint for a green industrial revolution, and the energy White Paper. We have also been central in setting the UK’s ambitious nationally determined contribution, as well as helping to organise the climate ambition summit on 12 December. The pace and energy of delivery will continue in the new year, because our businesses and people across the United Kingdom deserve no less at this challenging time.

Jeff Smith 

Rate relief for hospitality venues is welcome, but many are racking up huge rent debts while they are closed and getting only a third of the support they got earlier in the year. Have the Government had any discussions about a model of sharing the rental debt burden among tenants, landlords, banks and the Government, because without more help, many of these businesses will close?

Alok Sharma 

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and of course we have dialogues with landlords and tenants. As he will have heard, the rent moratorium has been extended to 31 March, and he will also know that because the rates holiday continues, that is money that does not have to go out, which can be used for other purposes.


Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab)

Businesses face a double whammy from the ongoing economic crisis and potential Brexit disruption. They want the Business Secretary to stand up for them. Some 61% of the country will be in tier 3 from tomorrow, and the situation for many pubs, restaurants and bars is catastrophic, as this morning’s record redundancy figures show. Will the Secretary of State now finally recognise what he has been told repeatedly by Members across the House—and again today—and by industry that support for the hospitality sector is hopelessly inadequate if many of these businesses are to survive through the winter?

Alok Sharma 

I completely accept that it is a very difficult time for lots of businesses, particularly in the hospitality sector right now, but as the right hon. Gentleman will know, support is being provided. Businesses that are required to be closed can get grants of up to £3,000 a month. I also point him in the direction of the International Monetary Fund, which said that the support the UK Government are providing is

“one of the best examples of coordinated action globally”.

Edward Miliband 

I am afraid that the Secretary of State is failing to stand up for the hospitality sector. Let us talk about the 150,000 businesses that, even with a trade deal, will have to fill in customs forms for the first time from 1 January. The ports are struggling, the IT systems are not ready, the customs agents are not in place, and businesses still do not know the rules that will exist in just 16 days’ time. Are these firms not entitled to conclude that they are being badly let down by a Government who have left them totally in the lurch and a Business Secretary who seems asleep at the wheel?

Alok Sharma 

I will refrain from coming back on that jibe. As a Government, we have been working incredibly hard to support businesses. I know that it is very difficult. The right hon. Gentleman talks about the end of the transition period. Of course, there are a lot of changes that businesses can already put in place and, as he knows, we are communicating with businesses to ensure that that happens. I think that businesses do want us to continue talking to the European Union, and that is precisely what we are doing.

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con) [V]

Last week Swanwick Hayes conference centre in my constituency was forced to make redundancies, having had practically no turnover since March. Is there more that we can do to support the events industry, which may face many more months before it can start earning anything like its normal levels? (910360)

Alok Sharma 

As my hon. Friend knows, we are providing support. It is difficult for a lot of businesses right now. The furlough scheme has been extended until the end of March, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is working closely with the sector, as is the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully).

Mohammad Yasin (Bedford) (Lab) [V]

My constituent Mark, a publisher, sells 60% of his specialist books outside the UK. He wrote to me to say that the prospect of Brexit is bad enough for business, but the increased costs to post overseas could be the nail in the coffin for his business and many SME exporters. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Royal Mail about recent price hikes, and can he tell my constituent when the temporary air carrier surcharge will end? (910355)

Alok Sharma 

We are in regular dialogue with Royal Mail and others. I am happy to take up the point that the hon. Gentleman raised separately, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, who is responsible for Royal Mail, will be happy to follow up with him.


Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab) [V]

I am sure that I am not the only one whose heart sang when I heard about the Oxford University covid vaccine, developed in partnership with AstraZeneca. Yesterday’s “Panorama” programme about the research team made me immensely proud of this unique British achievement that will benefit not only the UK but the world at large. Our life sciences sector has always punched above its weight, but progress in medical research is being hampered because of its issues with fundraising this year. Will the Business Secretary congratulate my constituent Kevin Sinfield on running seven marathons in seven days to raise over £2.5 million for the Motor Neurone Disease Association, and will he commit to properly invest in research that could see the next breakthroughs in treatments and even cures for diseases including dementia, MND and cancer? (910356)

Mr Speaker 

It was a major achievement, and it shows the family of rugby league.

Alok Sharma 

I congratulate the hon. Lady’s constituent, Kevin Sinfield. We have a good settlement in the spending review for R&D: we are committed to reaching £22 billion a year by 2024-25.


David Linden (Glasgow East)  (SNP)

The Secretary of State will know that not all businesses need to re-furlough staff, and many that do not were counting on the £1,000 per employee job retention bonus. However, this has been scrapped, blasting a black hole in the books of countless businesses across the UK. The Treasury will not say when or how the scheme will be replaced, so can his Department perhaps give businesses some certainty over the billions in support that have been snatched away from them without warning? (910357)

Alok Sharma 

I would just point out to the hon. Gentleman that, on support for businesses, what we have done is to look at the requirements and increase that support. As he will have heard, the level of support is now £280 billion. We have extended furlough and we have extended the self-employment scheme, and businesses that are now required to be closed because of restrictions can get up to £3,000 a month.


Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab) [V]

Many freelancers and self-employed people have had little or no financial support. They do not qualify for furlough, for the self-employed scheme or for business grants. With billions of pounds being returned in tax relief for business rates by the major retailers, why are Ministers not using that money, as the retailers are suggesting, to support those hundreds of thousands of people who have had little or no financial support so far? (910361)

Alok Sharma 

As the hon. Gentleman knows, a whole range of support is available. I completely accept that not everyone will feel they have got precisely the amount of support that they would have liked, but a significant amount of support is available and, of course, all of this is always kept under review.

Dr  Jamie  Wallis (Bridgend) (Con)

Many businesses are linked to the NHS supply chain, such as Zimmer Biomet, one of the largest employers in my Bridgend constituency. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with ministerial colleagues about getting NHS non-urgent, non-critical procedures back up to pre-covid levels? (910368)

Alok Sharma 

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and my right hon. Friend the Health and Social Care Secretary is working very hard to help NHS trusts return to pre-covid levels of elective care as soon as possible. I have been really quite impressed over the past months throughout this pandemic at how businesses, both within the medical field and outside, have come together to support the NHS.


Mary Robinson (Cheadle) (Con)

Whistleblowing is valuable to organisations and society. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to prepare for ISO 37002, the new international standard for whistleblowing, and can he reassure my constituents that whistleblowers in the UK will enjoy enhanced protection to the same degree as, or greater than, that provided by the forthcoming EU directive? (910372)

Alok Sharma 

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to ensuring that whistleblowers enjoy high standards of protection under UK law. The international standard to which she refers is for employers wanting to introduce their own whistleblowing policies, which is already encouraged by our code of practice.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)

The furlough scheme is really important for young workers—for young people—but when the scheme ends many are worried that we will see large-scale youth unemployment, so what is the Department’s input into the kickstart scheme and exactly how many jobs will be created by March next year to help young people?

Alok Sharma 

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the kickstart scheme is a Government initiative, and the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions have led on this. I have had discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the issue, and of course we want to make sure we continue to support young people at this crucial time. We know that when unemployment is going up, it is new workers who find it particularly difficult to get jobs.


Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab)

After 10 years of this Government, before covid, constituents of mine were averaging £100 a week less in earnings than the average for the rest of the country; now a third of them are on furlough, which means a further £100 less per week—£10,000 a year less than the average. Will the Minister understand that when the Government talk about levelling up, in an area like mine people will say it is time that Ministers got out of their privileged bubbles and did something for communities all over this country, where millions of people are living very precarious lives?

Alok Sharma 

I know it is a very difficult time for very many families, and that they will feel that particularly acutely as we get to Christmas. I would just say that across the country we have protected 9 million jobs—households up and down our country, who have been supported by the measures that the Government have put forward; and that that will extend until the end of March, as well as the other support that has been provided.

Given that we have now come to the end of questions, Mr Speaker, I thank you and your staff for all the support that you have provided to all Members in a very challenging year. I thank all Members—including the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband)—for all their support, and I hope that they will have an opportunity to get some rest over the festive period.