The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Lord Callanan) (Con)
My Lords, as always, it has been a great pleasure to hear so many varied and valuable contributions over the last five hours and I thank everyone who has contributed to this important debate.
First, it was, of course, a great pleasure for the whole House to be able to welcome the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich to this House, and I congratulate him on his excellent maiden speech. The House will know that I am a great football fan, so on maiden speeches I always try to look at the football affiliations of the Member joining. Of course, Ipswich Town is where the right reverend Prelate comes from—or, rather, represents in his bishopric —but when I saw that the nickname of Ipswich Town is the Tractor Boys, I thought, maybe we will not go there on this occasion. He joins this House with much valuable experience, gained domestically and internationally, and I am glad that he is now recovered enough to speak today on the challenges that we face on the climate. To that end, I hope that his horticultural pursuits, with which he entertained the House, continue to flourish, and I agree with him that planting trees is a symbol of hope and faith in the future. We will all look forward to his contributions when the energy security Bill is brought before this House later in the Session.
Many of us have years—perhaps more years than we care to remember—of experience under our belts. We have seen many crises come and go, but these past couple of years have of course been particularly testing. The war in Ukraine has shocked us all, but, beyond the horrors it has wreaked on the poor people there, it has increased the cost of energy and food across the entire world. Many in this country have moved from worrying about living through a pandemic to worrying about the cost of simply living. But, as my noble friend set out, and to answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, the Government’s legislative agenda for the coming year will aim to meet many of these challenges head-on.
The Government of course know that the rising cost of living is making life harder for people. We know that people are worried, and we do not seek to minimise that worry, but we do seek to alleviate as much as we can. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, raised a number of points when she spoke on behalf of the Opposition at the beginning of this debate and I hope that, over the course of this speech, I can respond to many of those points. I start by reassuring her and other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Noakes, the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, and my noble friends Lord Bridges and Lord Horam, who all rightly talked about the challenges we face on the cost of living, that we stand ready to help shoulder the burden and we have already provided support worth more than £22 billion in 2022-23. We are boosting the incomes of the lowest paid and helping families with their energy costs.
As the noble Lord, Lord Wood, pointed out—I do not know whether he is in his place; I cannot see him—inflation adds another layer of concern, particularly for families. As noble Lords will know, monetary policy is of course the responsibility of the MPC of the Bank of England, but my noble friends Lord Tugendhat and Lord Forsyth spoke about the make-up of this committee and the efficacy of the 2% inflation target. I hope noble Lords will understand that separation of fiscal and monetary policy is a key feature of our economic framework, but, on the first point, appointments are made on merit following fair and open competition, and, on the second, the Chancellor has reconfirmed the 2% inflation target. The Chancellor is also taking practical action that will help households ride out this extremely stormy period. He has increased the national insurance primary threshold and the lower profits limit to £12,570. The Government have cut fuel duty and the universal credit taper rate. We have increased work allowances by £500 a year and, of course, increased the national living wage to £9.50 an hour.
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, speaks with authority when he tells us about the current attitude of business and the current tax rates. However, I reassure him and my noble friend Lady Noakes that the tax plan announced at the spring Statement will allow further tax cuts in the future—conditional, of course, on fiscal sustainability and robust levels of headroom.
Equally, my noble friend Lord Bridges asked for more help for the most vulnerable in our society. I can tell him that our modelling shows that the poorest 60 % of households receive more in public spending than they contribute in tax and that households in the lowest income decile will, on average, receive more than £4 in public spending for every £1 that they pay in tax.
My noble friend Lord Altrincham asked, rightly, about bank closures. I of course recognise the importance of appropriate access to banking. However, the way that consumers interact with their banking is changing. Decisions on opening and closing branches are a commercial issue for those banks and building societies. Clearly, banks need to carefully consider the impact of planned closures on customers and ensure that those customers are treated fairly. I hope noble Lords will also agree when I say that by growing the economy and investing in the long term, and through levelling up the United Kingdom, we can help to mitigate the worst effects of the cost of living crisis.
As the noble Lord, Lord Londesborough, noted, productivity has long been a puzzle that remains unsolved. The Government recognise that vacancies are at a record high of 57% above the pre-pandemic level. However, unlike the puzzles given as Christmas gifts, this is one that we are determined to complete. That is why the Government launched the Way to Work campaign to get 500,000 jobseekers into work by the end of June 2022. We are quadrupling the scale of employer-led skills bootcamps to provide more retraining opportunities for adults in high-growth sectors. It is also why, as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Monks, we must ensure that employers play their part in improving conditions and pay to attract workers. I am of course delighted to remind the noble Lord—I know he does not like hearing this—that the UK has one of the best employment rights records in the world. It is well known that in many areas the UK goes much further than the EU on worker protections.
My noble friends Lord Colgrain and Lord Shinkwin spoke about making a more favourable environment for part-time workers, retirees and disabled people. I share their views that we cannot and will not neglect these important groups.
The noble Lords, Lord Haskel, Lord Monks, Lord Hendy and Lord Woodley, my noble friend Lord Colgrain and the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, all asked why there is no employment Bill. I reassure them all that as we rebuild our country after the hardships of the pandemic, the Government are committed to building a high-skilled, high-productivity and high-wage economy worthy of the people who worked so hard to get us through that pandemic. I reassure noble Lords that the Government remain committed to bringing forward legislation to deliver on their manifesto commitments on employment as soon as parliamentary time allows.
As we look towards how we grow the economy, I agree with my noble friend Lord Hunt on the importance of competitiveness within the financial services market. The sector plays a critical role in ensuring that this country remains an attractive place to do business; indeed, it helps to attract investment. I am sure that my colleagues in the Treasury will welcome his scrutiny of the Bill, and that of my friend Lady Noakes, when it eventually comes to this House.
Let us remember that this is still a country that other nations want to do business with and one which, with its spirit of enterprise and openness, still delights in attracting global investors. The noble Lord, Lord Razzall, said that Brexit has not worked. I would respond that we are still very much a country to be reckoned with and that between 2019 and 2027, the UK is forecast to see the third highest growth in the G7, behind only Canada and the United States. Our fintech community is thriving and, as my noble friend Lord Holmes noted, can continue to play its part in growing our economy. The Government have confirmed that they will provide £5 million of seed funding for the creation of new industry-led centres for finance, innovation and technology to help tackle the barriers to growth and accelerate the UK fintech sector.
The noble Lords, Lord Davies and Lord Sikka, asked about audit and corporate governance reform. The audit, reporting and governance authority—ARGA —will protect and promote the interests of investors, other users of corporate reporting and the wider public interest. The noble Lord was right to say that regulation should be proportionate, and I welcome his further engagement as we refine the legislation. I particularly enjoyed the trenchant criticism from the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, of a Bill that he has not actually seen yet. Perhaps the noble Lord should wait, as we will shortly publish the Government’s response to the White Paper consultation in which we will demonstrate our approach to many of the issues that he raised.
Let me respond in this section of my speech to the noble Lord, Lord Fox, who also asked about the economic crime Bill. I cannot give him a precise date for its introduction yet, but I assure him that work is proceeding at speedily as possible: lots of draftsmen are beavering away furiously on the Bill as we speak. On the implementation of the first Act, we are also proceeding speedily with that, and I will be contacting the noble Lord shortly, he will be delighted to know, to invite him to a meeting to discuss the 12 statutory instruments that we will shortly be introducing to implement the provisions—[Interruption.] He asked the question and I am responding to it. Other noble Lords also took an interest in that, so, as I promised during the passage of the Bill, I will want to involve them in the discussion, because we want the register of overseas entities, in particular, to be implemented as quickly as possible.
On the subject of energy, we can all be proud of the way that this country has stepped up to support our friends in Ukraine: from sending packages of military aid for generators for hospitals to opening homes up for refugees, we the British people have shown that we will not abandon our allies during their darkest hours. Like many in this House, I am sure, it makes me so proud to see those brave Ukrainian soldiers saying “God save the Queen” as they launch more UK-supplied missiles at Russian tanks.
My noble friends Lord Howell and Lady McIntosh spoke about the impact of the crisis in Ukraine on oil and gas supply, and we continue to divest ourselves of Russian oil and gas. The Government are clear that we will not be the financial backers of Putin’s war crimes. Indeed, this crisis has highlighted the need for a secure British energy supply, one that is not disrupted by war or influenced by rocketing global prices. Ultimately, we want lower energy prices so that hard-working people do not worry about the basic right of a warm home. A bold drive to create energy for the UK in the UK was outlined in our recent British Energy Security Strategy. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Haworth, with his long-standing interest in this area, supports it. We will supercharge our renewables, knowing that the hostile actors I referred to cannot control the offshore winds of the North Sea or stop the sun from shining occasionally in Kent and Wiltshire, where some of our biggest solar farms have been built.
Following on from that, the noble Lord, Lord Haworth, and my noble friends Lord Bourne, Lord Moynihan and Lord Wakeham also rightly spoke about nuclear. As we decarbonise and look for a steady load of clean electricity to complement our renewables mix, the size and importance of the nuclear sector will continue to grow. We have an aim of delivering up to 24 gigawatts of nuclear power by 2050, approximately three times the level we have today. That requires reversing decades of underinvestment in this sector. The new energy security Bill strengthens and complements that strategy, and it will secure our energy needs and build a more affordable system that is fit for the future. The Bill will complement the action we are taking right now through our £9 billion package of financial support to protect consumers from the full impact of rising prices. It will also provide high-skilled jobs and help to rejuvenate our industrial heartlands up and down the country.
I turn to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. Of course, she will know that, although I disagree with many of the points she raised, I respect her passion and commitment to the green agenda. She will know that the Government are already taking a joined-up approach to delivering world-leading climate commitments through our net-zero strategy, the Environment Act and the environment improvement plan. Further, our 10-point plan, together with the net-zero strategy and the energy security strategy, is driving an unprecedented £100 billion-worth of private sector investment by 2030 into new British industries, including offshore wind, and supporting about 480,000 clean green jobs by the end of the decade.
Having said that, our oil and gas sector is still important to the UK and continues to keep us warm and strengthen our security of supply. Maximising economic recovery and oil and gas need not be in conflict with the transition to net zero: they can and should be fully integrated. The North Sea Transition Authority has therefore integrated expressly into its strategy where industry can assist the Government in meeting our net-zero target.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, also spoke about the rights of way Act, which I must say we have no plans to change. Easy access to the beauty and restorative nature of the countryside is so important for people’s health and well-being. That is why we have created and restored some 360,000 football fields-worth of habitat since 2010.
Many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, the noble Lords, Lord Wood and Lord Low, and my noble friends Lord Howell and Lord Bourne, raised the topical subject of a windfall tax on oil and gas companies. The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, also raised it, as he should do as an Opposition Front-Bencher. I understand, as we see these energy companies report record profits just as ordinary people start to dread opening their latest bills, that the call is getting louder. However, noble Lords will know that the Government already place additional taxes on those companies which extract from the continental shelf. Indeed, their tax rates are double those paid by other businesses.
In response to the question posed by my noble friend Lord Forsyth, according to HMRC tax receipts and national insurance contributions for the UK statistical table, net offshore tax receipts from oil and gas production were approximately £1.4 billion in 2021-22. However, as always, the Chancellor and Government keep all taxes under review and the Business Secretary has made it clear that these companies must reinvest in the UK and in renewables.