(2 years, 11 months ago)Commons Chamber
The Secretary of State was asked—
The industrial strategy makes it clear that a competitive UK economy in which firms compete on price, service and innovation is one that serves consumers best. Our recently published Green Paper, “Modernising Consumer Markets”, sets out proposals to ensure that consumers benefit from new technologies and, in particular, that consumers’ data must be used to benefit them and not to act unfairly against them.
I welcome that response. In ensuring that markets work for consumers, it is important that they work for vulnerable consumers, including those with mental health issues or dementia. Will my right hon. Friend enlarge on what he is doing to ensure that the markets work for those sorts of consumers?
It is important that providers of services take into account the struggles of people suffering from mental ill health or dementia. The Green Paper sets out proposals requiring that minimum standards be applied, especially for utilities. In that regard, I applaud the work of the Alzheimer’s Society, which has launched the dementia-friendly utility guide, in which several companies are participating. That will help to make sure that people who deal with vulnerable consumers can assist them with bills, booking appointments and suchlike.
I do think it is necessary to keep it under review, hence the Green Paper, because with the rise of new technologies, there are new challenges for regulators and new perspectives are required on mergers. We have increased the funding for the Competition and Markets Authority. My hon. Friend will have noticed that I appointed as chairman of the CMA Andrew Tyrie, who I think everyone on both sides of the House would recognise is a good, robust champion of the consumer.
22. One of the ways in which consumers are very often ripped off is through the practice of drip pricing in online purchases—particularly through the practice of outlaw companies such as Viagogo, for example, which uses it. What work is the right hon. Gentleman doing in relation to that and with his colleagues from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport? 
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. Again, this is at the heart of the Green Paper, which looks at how new technologies can disadvantage consumers. In fact, in the case that he mentions, prosecutions are in train. Very robust action is being taken against that kind of abuse.
Will the Secretary of State come down from the clouds? He knows that the biggest damage to all consumers in this country is coming from leaving the European Union. Did he see the LinkedIn report this morning that says that talented people in our country are fleeing overseas? Is that good for consumers?
That was an ingenious piece of shoehorning, I must say. Part of our commitment is to make sure that we have a free trade agreement with the rest of the European Union that allows us to continue to serve markets right across Europe and the world. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the success of employment, including in his constituency in recent months, he will see that companies are employing people at rates not seen for many years.
The British Business Bank supports over £4 billion of finance to over 65,000 small businesses. The start-up loans programme has further delivered more than 54,000 loans, totalling over £400 million. We are tackling late payments through the Small Business Commissioner, and 38 growth hubs across England provide access to information and advice. Through the industrial strategy we plan to unlock over £20 billion of investment in high-potential businesses, including through establishing a £2.5 billion investment fund.
I thank the Minister for his response. As in many parts of the country, Mansfield has struggled to support shops and other town centre businesses. Will he explain what action the Government are taking to support such businesses and to regenerate what were formerly bustling town centres?
I recognise the work that my hon. Friend has done to support businesses in his constituency. The Government have made 100% small business rate relief permanent while increasing the threshold of the relief, taking 600,000 of the smallest businesses out of business rates. We have introduced the employment allowance, giving employers up to £3,000 off their national insurance contribution, and we have established the Future High Streets Forum to provide businesses with Government leadership to better enable our town centres to grow.
I recently visited the food manufacturer Scratch in my constituency, which is just launching a new dough-free pizza. It has taken on an additional 25 members of staff and has asked if more could be done to support it, particularly around reducing its business rates, which would go a long way to supporting it and the local high street.
I recognise the hon. Lady’s point. It is good to see that kind of investment and growth in small businesses. We are investing in apprenticeships and skills—44% of apprenticeship participation is in small companies—and, as part of our industrial strategy, we are establishing a technical education system that rivals the best in the world. We are also investing £406 million in subjects such as maths and digital and technical education to support the kind of small businesses she talks about.
Microbusinesses have told me that they are struggling to get their voice heard—for instance, on their concerns about implementing data protection legislation and the implications of Brexit. What is my hon. Friend doing to make sure he hears and understands the concerns of microbusinesses?
Every week, the Secretary of State meets representatives of the business community from across the country, and I hold a forum with small businesses once a month to ensure that the Government are finely attuned to their needs. The Department is determined not only to understand the issues facing small businesses in our country, such as those my hon. Friend raises, but to ensure that legislation is fit for purpose.
The all-party group on disability, which I chair, has published an inquiry report highlighting the fantastic contribution of entrepreneurs with disabilities, but they still face many challenges, such as in accessing finance. Will the Secretary of State meet the all-party group to discuss this issue and ensure a truly inclusive economy?
I thank the hon. Lady for the question and the great work the all-party group does. I absolutely recognise that encouraging people with disabilities to start their own businesses and contribute in this way is good not only for the British economy but for them. I would be delighted to meet her to discuss the matter further and to see what we can do to support those businesses, particularly through things such as the British Business Bank.
Project bank accounts ring-fence the money for suppliers in construction contracts yet were not used by the Government with Carillion. As a result, 30,000 mostly smaller businesses are likely to lose money, and some will struggle to survive, so will the Minister confirm that the Government will now use project bank accounts to protect businesses and jobs in their own supply chain and guarantee there is no repeat of the Carillion fiasco?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government took swift action, led by the Secretary of State, when Carillion collapsed, to ensure we understood the issues relating to the construction industry, including by setting up a forum with trade representatives. He will also be aware that we consulted on project bank accounts in the construction industry. That consultation finished just a few weeks ago. We are considering the responses and will respond shortly.
Non-UK EU nationals account for 7% of total UK employment. Scottish businesses have had the opportunity to feed into the Migration Advisory Committee’s analysis of the role of EU nationals in the UK. We appreciate the strong contribution that EU nationals make to small and large businesses, and we have already agreed to protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK under our withdrawal agreement with the EU.
In my constituency, fruit and veg producers and the tourism industry rely heavily on EU seasonal workers. Does the Minister recognise the damage that continued uncertainty is doing to those businesses? Two years on from the referendum, when will they get a bit more certainty so that we can maintain those EU seasonal workers who contribute so much to our economy?
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that there should not be uncertainty. We have made it clear that we do not regard the referendum result as a vote to pull up the drawbridge. The United Kingdom will remain an open and tolerant country which recognises the valuable contribution that migrants make, and welcomes those with the skills and expertise that will make our society even better. The Government commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to report on EU patterns of migration in different sectors and different parts of the UK, and it will do so by September 2018.
Analysis shows that EU citizens contribute £4 billion a year to the economy in Scotland. We see that happening in small businesses along Shettleston Road, for example. Does the Minister agree that the devastating effect of free-movement restrictions will have a colossal impact on small businesses in Shettleston and in Scotland as a whole, and will he support the calls from the Scottish Trades Union Congress for immigration to be devolved to Scotland?
Our position on immigration policy and who should be responsible for it is clear, and has not changed. Since the referendum we have been engaging widely with, among others, the devolved Administrations and businesses in Scotland to ensure that we fully understand the requirements, but let me make it absolutely clear that the Government understand the issues of businesses and will ensure that the system works for them.
My hon. Friend is no stranger to the Ribble Valley. He knows that it is a jewel in the crown for the hospitality trade, which employs a great many EU citizens. Does he agree that post-Brexit there will still be many opportunities for people in the EU to come to the United Kingdom and work in the hospitality trade?
I can report that I have experienced the hospitality in the Swan with Two Necks, and I recommend it to the House.
As my hon. Friend will know, the Migration Advisory Committee is looking at exactly the issue that he has raised, but he is absolutely right: EU migrants play a massive role in our hospitality industry, and the hospitality industry is one of the reasons people visit this country.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Brexit provides a welcome opportunity for us to attract talent to our shores from all countries, not just those in the EU, and can he assure me that the Government remain committed to ensuring that all businesses have the access to the workforce from overseas that they need?
Absolutely. We have a competitive workforce here. The economy is thriving, partly because of the contribution made by the people to whom my hon. Friend has referred. I particularly commend her for the work that she has done in relation to the soft fruit seasonal workers scheme.
The Federation of Small Businesses says that the right of EU staff to remain in the UK is vital. In Scotland, 45% of tourism and leisure businesses rely on EU staff for their workforce. They fear that they will not be able to recruit for their future needs, and their fear is heightened by the possibility that the immigration skills charge—which is currently up to £1,000 a year—will be applied. Can the Minister categorically assure employers that they will not be subjected to any charge for EU workers post-Brexit?
We will set out in due course the system and the scheme that will operate post-Brexit. I can, however, assure the hon. Gentleman that I regularly meet representatives of the Federation of Small Businesses, and we will ensure that the workforce is there for those businesses.
The Scottish Affairs Committee, the Home Affairs Committee in its report, and the Economics Committee in the House of Lords all see the sense of a differentiated immigration system for Scotland. Can the Minister confirm that he, too, accepts that there is a clear case for a policy that recognises the different needs of businesses in Scotland?
This Government well understands the needs of businesses both throughout the UK and specifically in Scotland. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Home Office will shortly present further details of the scheme that is to be introduced.
We are proceeding with work on 52 of the 53 review recommendations made by Matthew Taylor, and we are currently engaged in consultations on how best to implement those measures. We are committed to ensuring that we protect and enhance workers’ rights in the modern economy, and to legislating for that purpose. We will ensure that employment law and practices keep pace with modern ways of working, while striking the right balance between flexibility and worker protection.
The Minister may be aware that workers at McDonalds are taking strike action in Cambridge today. One of them, Sheila, told the Cambridge News at the weekend that although she has worked for 18 years, her work is insecure, she never knows what hours she will work, and fresh fruit and vegetables are luxuries. What has the good work plan to offer Sheila?
Matthew Taylor set out in the good work plan how we can further enhance the protections for workers such as Sheila. There is a huge amount of day-one protections, and we are looking at what we can do with flexible working and zero-hours contracts to give greater certainty and security to workers exactly like Sheila.
The Government response to the Select Committee report on a modern employment framework stated:
“The Government wholeheartedly agrees that strong action should be taken against employers who repeatedly ignore both their responsibilities and the decisions of employment tribunals.”
Those are fine words, but if they are to be meaningful the Government must back them up with action and put in place rules to prevent or deter repeat offenders from bidding for public sector contracts; will they do that?
The Government recognise that unfortunately some employers continue to offend repeatedly in this way. We are looking at what further measures we can take in the work plan, and more widely in the work of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to ensure that such repeat offenders are clamped down on.
Given the work that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee have done on the gig economy, will the Government undertake to ensure that, when they introduce a Bill based on the Taylor report, we will have a chance to stage pre-legislative hearings?
We have worked closely with the right hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee, and, as he knows, we greatly value his contribution. We are consulting on the work of Matthew Taylor, and I pledge to the right hon. Gentleman today that we will work hand in hand with his Committee to ensure that it properly scrutinises that proposed legislation as it comes forward.
The world of work is changing as businesses respond to changes in customer demands. Does the Minister agree that many workers enjoy and appreciate the flexibility of the freedom to choose when they wish to work?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. New technologies have provided a huge number of new and exciting work opportunities for people, but we also want to ensure that we not only enhance and capture that potential, but offer protections for those working in the gig economy, to make sure they are not disadvantaged.
This is a concerning time for workers at the JLR factory and in the wider supply chain, particularly the 1,000 or so temporary workers involved, but I can assure the House that I speak to the company regularly; in fact, I met JLR’s managing director Jeremy Hicks on 17 April, the day after the announcement. The Government, including my Department and the Department for Work and Pensions, are ready to support those affected, and it is important to recognise that, despite this announcement, the UK automotive industry remains a great success story, in particular JLR.
Following the announcement of these 1,000 job losses at JLR, the Government were urged to work with the unions and assist the workforces in whatever way necessary. What meetings has the Minister had with the unions about these job losses?
I have not met with the unions specifically on these job losses, because they have not asked for a meeting. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady asks why, but I would be delighted to meet them. I hope Members on both sides of the House realise that my door is always open to trade unions—the steel industry in particular would accept that—and I am pleased to meet anyone the hon. Lady suggests, with her, to discuss the automotive industry.
20. Jeremy Hicks will have told my hon. Friend that the problem is in part uncertainty over diesel engines, but my hon. Friend knows that JLR is particularly keen on developing electric cars. Will he comment on the £80 million Government investment in new battery technology? 
As usual, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) makes a good point—although, unusually, on this occasion he did not mention the John Lewis Partnership. Our Faraday battery challenge, which he indirectly refers to, will ensure that this country is at the forefront of battery technology, and JLR and other companies are firmly behind it.
The hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) applied a self-denying ordinance, which is not a common feature of our proceedings, but colleagues will have noticed that there is a lot of chuntering from a sedentary position from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) about castles and the importance of being plugged in. He should fear not; we have not forgotten him, and nor will we.
23. Does the Minister accept that under both Governments, his and ours, the renaissance of the British motor industry has been outstanding and that JLR has been a big part of that, to the benefit of the country and particularly of the west midlands? However, the car market is being heavily hit by the Government’s ill-thought-out and ill-prepared war on diesel. Will his Department have urgent talks with the Department for Transport so that we can get our policy for the motor industry and the car market back on track? 
I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but in this case he is ignoring the fact that my Department and the Department for Transport speak regularly with all the car manufacturers about the evolution from diesel and the internal combustion engine to what will be a brilliant industry for Jaguar Land Rover and all the other companies, involving the eventual production, by 2040, of pollution-free cars.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. All the recent decisions on new contracts by manufacturers in Europe have gone to British firms. This is most recently typified by the announcement by Toyota, near Derby, of its investment in a new model, and I am confident that this will continue. The automobile industry is doing very well. It is investing hundreds of millions of pounds in new products to be produced in UK factories.
Last year, the Treasury announced a £400 million public-private sector fund to develop charging infrastructure for plug-in cars. This is vital for the development and growth of that market. To date, however, no one has even been appointed to manage that fund. Will the Minister tell me when the fund will be operational?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the money is already spent. It is our intention to launch a request for proposals to secure a fund manager this summer. Further details will be included in the Department for Transport’s forthcoming zero-emissions road transport strategy.
Following figures showing that car registrations plunged in March by 15.7% compared with 2017, Jaguar Land Rover announced that 1,000 jobs would be cut at Solihull and that it was temporarily reducing production at Halewood. Sadly, reports suggest that the Solihull workers were told this news at a mass meeting that lasted only 10 minutes, with no opportunity to ask questions. We have heard some hints from Members today, but will the Minister tell us whether he has made any assessment of the causes and the potential knock-on effect on jobs in the supply chain? What steps is he taking to support workers and to reverse this worrying trend in the whole automotive sector?
The hon. Lady will know that JLR has been clear that this restructuring is part of the cyclical nature of automobile production. It is very confident about this country; it is employing a lot of apprentices and skilled people and training up its workforce to take part in the next phase of automobile expansion.
I am not sure that that has actually answered my question. Automotive is not the only sector in crisis. This year alone in retail, Toys R Us has collapsed, Maplin has gone into administration, New Look has announced job losses, Carpetright is planning a company voluntary arrangement and retail profit warnings across the UK have hit a seven-year high. The chief executive officer of The Entertainer has stated:
“The Government just haven’t got it. They need to take some responsibility for the high street’s decline.”
Can the Minister explain why Government action in this sector—from woeful action on business rates and income stagnation and under-investment in retail innovation—has been so lacklustre, and what urgent action he is taking to help a sector that is currently in crisis?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the same thing is happening in the retail sector all over the world. I would be very pleased—on another occasion—to find out whether there are any exceptions. The Government have taken action. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—who is the Minister for retail, among many other things—launched the Retail Sector Council recently. A lot of thought is going into this, to change retail into a modern, leisure-driven shopping choice.
There are already 14,000 people working in well-paid jobs across our coastal communities in support of this vital sector. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we are leaders in both the quantity of offshore wind installed and innovation, and it was great that GE announced last week that the world’s biggest offshore wind turbine will be tested in the UK.
The Minister will be aware that an offshore wind revolution is taking place along the Norfolk coast and, as she mentioned, there is scope for the creation of many jobs. Will she join my campaign to set up an offshore wind energy academy at the Construction Industry Training Board’s Bircham Newton site in west Norfolk to further enhance such skills and to create a centre of excellence?
Offshore wind is an integral part of the clean growth strategy, which the Government have submitted to the United Nations as their official mid-century decarbonisation plan. However, the independent Committee on Climate Change says that the strategy will fail to meet even our existing targets for 2030. Will the Minister tell us when “mid-century” shifted forward 20 years? Why do the Government think a plan that fails even to deliver a 57% reduction in emissions by 2030 is appropriate to meet the much tougher reduction of a more than 80% reduction by 2050?
Once again, I am amazed at the hon. Gentleman’s ability to turn one of the great success stories of this country—in fact, he wrote an article about this last week that was so poor that he did not even retweet it. The point is that we have—[Interruption.] If he stopped chuntering, perhaps he might learn something. He is most impolite. We have led the world in decarbonising our economy. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we were the first country to set up statutory carbon budgets, and we are on track to meet the first three, as well as to get close to the budgets, based on current policies and proposals, in 10 and 15 years’ time. He will also know that we are the first developed nation to have said that we want to understand how we will get to a zero-carbon economy in 2050, and my request to the committee—[Interruption.] He is doing it again, Mr Speaker; his mother would be horrified by this level of discourtesy. We were the first country in the world to ask how we will get to a decarbonised economy in 2050, and I would hope that we could enjoy cross-party support for something so vital.
I do not want to quibble with the Minister, but I do not think that the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) ever indulges in anything quite so vulgar as sedentary chuntering. He is occasionally given to facial expressions, which are not prohibited by the Standing Orders of the House, and he has a penchant for what might be described as the feline purr.
And now no chuntering or purring, but simply Gardiner oratory. I call Mr Barry Gardiner. [Interruption.] I thought the hon. Gentleman was coming in a second time. The House is deprived, but I am afraid that it will have to rest content with that situation.
I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your ruling that facial chuntering is not in fact a form of chuntering. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will be delighted to take that into account in future.
As for the creative industries sector deal, Sir Peter Bazalgette’s review forecast that the creative industry deal will increase exports, sustain growth, boost jobs and narrow the productivity gap between the south-east and the rest of the UK. The deal launched only on 28 March, so it is in its early stages, but I will be carefully monitoring it and working with the industry to ensure that the deal delivers the expected benefits.
My hon. Friend is always talking about Mid Derbyshire and how the University of Derby supports the creative industries sector. She has told me about Mr Paul Cummins, a very creative chap who was responsible for the Tower of London poppies, which went all over the world. The creative industries sector has a £2.5 million regional development fund, managed through a strategic action plan, which is exactly what my hon. Friend is talking about. Her local enterprise partnership is involved, and the university is working with businesses in the area, including small and medium-sized enterprises in the creative and digital industries, to aid local job creation in areas such as Cromford Mills in her constituency.
I commend to the Minister the excellent article by one of our finest musicians, Howard Goodall, who is not from Wrexham but is very welcome to visit, recounting the difficulty he had in performing his work in the United States. Does the Minister agree that the creative industries plan will be fatally undermined if we do not have an agreement with the EU to allow the free movement of musicians and other creative artists?
I am sure that Howard Goodall will be delighted to visit Wrexham after he has been to Watford. I am sure the point about being able to work and live in the European Union will be taken into consideration in the negotiations ahead, and I would not like the European Union, after we leave, to be deprived of a man with such talent.
The £160 million agri-tech strategy, which was launched five years ago, has proved a success. We are building on that strong track record through our industrial strategy, including a further £90 million of funding announced in February to bring the UK’s world-class agri-food sector together with expertise in robotics, artificial intelligence and data science. This will make it easier for farmers and agricultural supply chains to embrace new technology, enhancing their competitiveness and improving productivity.
The transforming food production investment combines UK academic and industrial strengths, taking a whole system approach, to integrate world-leading research, advanced technologies and farming practices. It will support the development and deployment of precision agricultural technologies and solutions.
The campus of Scotland’s Rural College in Gordon and local agri-food business Harbro are playing a key role in agri-tech. Does the Minister agree that continued funding for agri-tech, and the resulting big data, is essential to developing opportunities for global Britain?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We recognise the excellent contribution that Scotland’s Rural College and Harbro have made to developing agri-tech through partnering with the centres for agricultural innovation, where they are aiding the adoption of data-driven products. As I have said, we are investing £90 million in the transforming food production challenge, which will really help the UK to capture significant global challenge.
The agri-tech sector has tremendous potential in this country, but if we are to get all the manufacturing jobs out of it, as well as the innovation, we need to do something about the most expensive corporate property tax in the entire EU. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government are still sticking to their manifesto commitment to have a wholesale review of the business rates system, so we can have a competitive system for the agri-tech sector?
Helping businesses create high-quality, well-paid jobs across the country is integral to this Government’s industrial strategy. On the Swansea tidal lagoon, taking into account that job creation capability, as well as the decarbonisation potential and the cost to UK taxpayers, is an integral part of that analysis.
It is understood that major infrastructure projects give rise to opportunities for companies throughout the UK supply chain. The proposed Swansea lagoon project certainly falls into that category, and it could provide companies throughout my constituency and South Yorkshire with opportunities to supply products and processes to the project. Will the Minister therefore assure me that a holistic approach that places a value on jobs and investment throughout the country is being used to assess the viability of this project?
The hon. Lady, as always, speaks up powerfully for her constituency. I assure her that exactly those assessments are being made, both by ourselves and by the Welsh Government, to whom there have been very specific requests from the developer. It is right that we are having a cordial, open-book conversation about what commitments are actually being asked for, because this all comes back to UK consumers and/or UK taxpayers.
The Minister mentions that the Welsh Government have committed, in January, to provide substantial equity and loan investment to get the Swansea tidal lagoon project off the ground. Indeed, they are anxious to explore with the UK Government how this might be incorporated into an overall support package for the lagoon. Over and above contacts between officials of the two Governments, what meetings has she or other Ministers in the Department held with Ministers in the Welsh Government to examine and progress this offer?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that these conversations have to happen jointly. There have been numerous meetings between my officials and officials in the Welsh Government, and I have met the Welsh Environment Secretary and her special advisers to discuss this and many other issues.
The Government have moved swiftly to support businesses, establishing the Carillion taskforce to ensure the co-ordination of support for firms affected by Carillion’s insolvency. This has included extra support from the banks of nearly £1 billion; British Business Bank supports to the tune of £100 million; and works with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to ensure firms have advice and guidance through the business payment support service.
Since my last question about Carillion, 239 jobs have now been lost in Wolverhampton, which is a huge loss to our city. The Express & Star, a local newspaper in Wolverhampton, has said that hundreds of suppliers and subcontractors will be left unpaid, which means more job losses. How does the Department plan to provide support for those businesses and their workers?
The Government recognise that there will be an impact on the supply chain and on lots of small businesses that supplied Carillion. That is why we acted quickly to ensure that the banks were aware of those situations and the pressures that would be put on those businesses, to make sure the support was in place, with access to loans and finance, to ensure that we limit the impact as much as is possible. The hon. Lady will know that, so far, 11,450 jobs have been protected in the Carillion network, and we are doing more to ensure that we protect the rest.
The Minister will be aware that Carillion regularly contravened the prompt payment code without actually acting illegally. Is it not time to examine the possibility of giving the code a statutory basis, so that in future cases there could be prosecutions?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point. We want the prompt payment code to be fit for purpose and for it to do what it says on the tin. That is why I am in discussions on the prompt payment code and why the Chancellor said in the spring statement that we would consult on late payments. He wanted to end the scourge of late payments, because this is so important for small businesses up and down the country.
A formal assessment has not yet been made, but the hon. Gentleman and I have exchanged correspondence on this important issue. It is vital that we create a market framework that works to deliver the benefits of energy cost reduction and carbon reduction from these networks but that protects consumers. I know he has a passionate interest in this, given the eight networks already operating in his constituency.
Not a month goes by in which I do not receive scores of emails from desperate constituents who are paying over the odds and are ill served by district heating networks. They are not getting a fair deal and cannot afford to wait for the Competition and Markets Authority’s partial market study to report. For their sake, I urge the Minister to give serious consideration to introducing statutory regulation now. Will she meet me to discuss the issue?
I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, as he knows. It is interesting, because on average consumers are paying less and have the same level of satisfaction as they have with other heating options. Well designed and well regulated frameworks can really deliver a benefit for consumers, which is why we are investing more than £300 million, but the hon. Gentleman and I should get together to discuss his constituents’ particular concerns.
Will the Minister tell us why it has taken so long to disburse some of the £320 million fund for district heating schemes? So many local authorities and other bodies want to apply for funding, but the Government are being slow in disbursing the money.
I am not sure I agree with that, partly because we have to get this right and make sure that there is a competitive market and that consumers do not feel that these things are being imposed on them. We should celebrate the fact that we have £300 million to take these pilots forward. Pilot projects are under way in Manchester, Sheffield and Barking, and I look forward to funding many more.
I should declare that I worked for the John Lewis Partnership for three years, from 1979 to 1982, and was therefore a beneficial owner of part of the company. That is not the only model to encourage employees, of course; share ownership is developing more widely as part of generally non-employee-owned companies. I look forward to the private sector making the business case for this model through the Employee Ownership Association, which is the representative body for employee-owned businesses.
Does the Minister agree that, taken as a sector, the UK’s 300 employee-owned businesses have higher than average productivity? Will he follow the example of the Scottish and Welsh Governments and more actively promote the sector, particularly to small and medium-sized businesses that are looking for a succession plan?
The retail sector is a vital part of the UK economy and we want it to thrive. In March, as part of our industrial strategy, I created the Retail Sector Council. Through that group, Government and industry will work together to contribute to the sector’s future direction, to boost its productivity and economic health.
The retail sector is hugely important to my constituency, from the Metrocentre through to the small fruit and veg shops on the high street. Given that the retail sector is the UK’s largest industry, will the Minister explain the rationale behind the Government’s decision to do so little for the sector in the industrial strategy?
The hon. Lady just is not correct. The Government recognise the importance of the high street and the retail sector, which is why we have provided more than £18 million in dedicated funding. It is also why in the 2017 autumn Budget we announced measures worth £2.3 billion over five years to cut business rates and improve the system’s fairness, which will support the retail sector.
The hon. Gentleman will know that investment in renewable energy is vital so that we can get towards our interim targets, as well as the 1.5° C target. With a combination of the binding statutory budgets, the investments we have made and some good policy design, we are cranking ahead with renewables. More than 30% of our energy came from renewables last year, and I am sure we will all celebrate the fact that just in the past month we went for 77 hours without coal contributing to our grid.
Satellite data shows that 5% of the methane produced by fracking is leaked through fugitive emissions. Given that methane is 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in global warming terms, that makes fracking twice as bad for climate change as coal. Will the Minister commit not to proceed with fracking and to proceed with the Swansea bay tidal lagoon project to deliver on climate change?
I think the hon. Gentleman has seen some of the same slides that I have seen, which show a hypothetical model put forward by some scientists. We are of course always concerned about fugitive methane emissions, and we will bear that in mind going forward.
Germany, France, India and China are building coal-fired power stations by the hundreds while we are relying on more and more expensive sources of energy. Does the Minister not recognise the damage done to our economy by pursuing means of expensive energy while turning her back on cheap energy? Does she really believe that erecting a few windmills will affect the world’s climate, which is determined by the sun and by natural forces beyond the control of man?
It is always good to listen to the right hon. Gentleman on this point. We could debate the science, but the truth is that we and 57 other countries, states and cities around the world have committed to phase out coal, because it is the most polluting fossil fuel. We do not need it, because we have a big investment in renewables and we have clean gas as part of our energy mix, which we must maintain going forward.
The Department has no current plans to develop projects through public-private partnerships. There are a number of areas where the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy co-funds projects with businesses, including in the areas of innovation and skills.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that the public-private partnership between Harlow College and Stansted airport in building a skills academy is exactly the kind of public-private partnership that we should be following? Harlow will now be the skills capital of the east of England. Will he use the Harlow example for the rest of the country?
25. What steps he is taking to support the automotive sector to move from diesel to cleaner fuels. 
We are investing nearly £1.5 billion between April 2015 and March 2021 to grow the market for ultra-low emission vehicles. That is one of the most comprehensive programmes of support globally.
Two weeks ago, Nissan in my constituency announced job losses, which were more than likely owing to a decline in diesel sales and the switch in production to newer, cleaner models. Therefore, notwithstanding what the Minister said, can he give us some details on what he is doing to support the automotive sector in moving from diesel to cleaner fuels?
The hon. Lady will know that Nissan is one of the biggest investors in cleaner technology, and through the industrial strategy challenge fund we are supporting the next generation generally. In her constituency, the production of the new Nissan Leaf, which is the most popular electric car in the world, began in Sunderland last year with batteries actually made there.
Over the six weeks since our last questions, I have launched, as colleagues have heard, the creative industry sector deal, a partnership with industry to unlock growth for creative businesses across the UK. Last week, more than 50 leading technology businesses and organisations united to launch another sector deal worth £1 billion to put the UK at the forefront of artificial intelligence. Our industrial strategy is building confidence across the economy, which I saw at first hand in Luton a few weeks ago with the announcement that Vauxhall’s new Vivaro van will be made in the UK, securing 1,400 jobs and the long-term future of the plant.
Many small businesses in my constituency of Southport are still struggling despite the Government’s various business rate relief schemes. What programmes and initiatives aimed at small business can my right hon. Friend recommend to help small business owners who are struggling in my constituency?
I remember with great pleasure visiting a small dairy business—a milk business—with my hon. Friend. I hope that it is thriving. Since that visit, I am delighted to say that a number of loans from the Start Up Loans Company, totalling about £800,000, have benefited businesses in Southport. The Liverpool city region growth hub has been established to give advice and support to small businesses, too.
I welcome this morning’s news that the EU has secured a further 30-day exemption from the US’s steel tariffs. However, that merely prolongs the uncertainty facing the sector. What steps is the Secretary of State currently taking to secure a full UK exemption when the temporary one ends on 1 June, and when will his Department respond to the steel sector deal, a proposal crucial to the long-term sustainability of the sector?
I can reassure the hon. Lady that there have been full negotiations between us, the Americans and the European Union from the day that this started, and I have briefed her regularly. I have a call on Thursday morning with the chief executive officers of all the steel companies, which she is very welcome to join. I assure her and everyone else in this House that every effort is being made to help the steel industry.
The sector deal will help, and has had an enthusiastic reception from the industry. This country is leading the way in the development of artificial intelligence. The Alan Turing Institute is attracting scholars from across the world. One part of the deal is to ensure that we have an extra 8,000 specialist computer science teachers in schools to ensure that the next generation can reap the rewards.
T5. Will the Secretary of State make an assessment of the potential merits of placing a requirement on private businesses seeking the long-term lease of roofs for solar panel fittings to inform their potential customers of their mortgage providers’ policies on such fittings before the lease is agreed? 
I will be happy to discuss the matter further with the hon. Lady. She has raised a hugely important point about how we include in a mortgage mix or a financing mix the value of companies and households installing measures to reduce their energy bills. The green finance taskforce, which has just reported to us, had some suggestions, and I would be delighted to discuss them further with the hon. Lady.
T3. Drax power station received £2 million a day last year to burn 13 million tonnes of imported wood, emitting more carbon dioxide per unit of energy generated than the coal burning that it replaces. Will the Minister commit to looking at this and ensuring that the renewables obligation goes towards no-burn renewables and energy efficiency? 
My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the current support for existing coal to biomass conversion will end by 2027. I am aware of many of the concerns about biomass, and we are looking at the issue carefully. However, sustainable, low-carbon bioenergy can help us on this transition, particularly away from coal burning.
T7. The proposals announced at the weekend regarding a merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda will result—along with Tesco—in the most powerful duopoly in the UK grocery sector, accounting for 60% of the market. The Secretary of State will know that the likes of Terry Leahy, Justin King and Stuart Rose adopted the mantra that the consumer wants more choice, not less. Does the Secretary of State agree that this merger is not in the interests of producers, farmers and especially consumers? 
As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is why we have the Competition and Markets Authority, which is virtually certain to conduct an inquiry into this matter, precisely to look into all the aspects to which he referred. I mentioned that the CMA has a new chair in Andrew Tyrie, and I am sure that the issue will receive the most rigorous scrutiny.
T4. The subsidy available to energy plant for burning wood is causing distortions in demand for virgin and recycled wood, which is constricting supply and increasing input costs for businesses such as Norbord in Cowie. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the wood panel industry to hear at first hand about the issues that they are facing and the consequences? 
T8. May I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), on the recent birth of his daughter? In doing so, I remind the House that, as an office holder, he was unfortunately unable to take up shared parental leave—at least, that is certainly what he told the media. Does he have any empathy with people who cannot take up shared parental leave, and will he extend the provision to allow families who are working freelance, particularly in the creative industries, to get the flexibility they need to maintain their careers? 
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes. Having just returned from my paternity leave, I reassure him that, although I am not legally allowed to take shared parental leave, the Government are very supportive of Ministers being able to take up such provisions. The Government want more families to benefit from the joy that comes from shared parental leave, which is why we have invested over £1 million in an advertising campaign to increase take-up.
The Government have created the £10 million degree apprenticeship development fund to support the development of infrastructure across England and to raise awareness of apprenticeships, among other aims. A degree apprenticeships website has been created by the National Apprenticeship Service and UCAS to highlight vacancies.
T10. Businesses in my constituency are extremely concerned that they will see more bureaucracy when we move out of the European Union. What is the Department doing to make sure that the UK will continue to be part of the single euro payments area, and also the VAT information exchange system, which my local businesses say is absolutely vital to keep them being able to pay and do business? 
My colleagues in the Department are very clear that we need to make it possible, through our agreement with the European Union, to trade not only without tariffs but with the minimum of frictions. The hon. Lady describes some elements of that. It is absolutely the purpose of the negotiations to avoid the introduction of any unnecessary frictions.
T9. Post Brexit, if the European Union restricts access to the Galileo satellite project, will the Minister undertake for us to restrict its access to the communications infrastructure of the Falklands and Ascension Island? 
The Government have been clear that we are unconditionally committed to European security and want to continue working together to develop defence and space capabilities. We feel that the Commission’s approach runs counter to what has been agreed as part of article 50, where a shared intent was agreed for strong UK-EU co-operation on defence in the future.
The hon. Gentleman knows, and the House knows, that there has been a fall in sales of diesel engines, not just in this country but across Europe. That has been the reason for some of the termination of the contracts there. We will be setting out, as a Government, the future regulatory path to clean up our roads of emissions. In doing that, we will be consulting with the industry.
Have the Government made any assessment of whether social care providers will go bankrupt this year due to the ruling on sleep-in shifts and the minimum wage, and whether this will have any impact on social care? If so, will they provide that assessment to the House?
The Government are well aware of the challenges involved in sleep-in legislation and the national minimum wage and are working closely with providers. We are also in discussions with the European Commission and will bring forward plans in future.
When will we see the review of Companies House procedures that I mentioned in my Adjournment debate on 20 November last year, which covers people who transition from one sex to another, whose records are sometimes left on the Companies House register? The previous Minister agreed to look at that.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that very important question. I remember the Westminster Hall debate that she had on this issue. The Government are minded to protect the rights of the transgender community. She will know that I recently brought forward a statutory instrument to allow directors to remove their addresses from the Companies House register in order to protect safety. I would be delighted to work with her to see what we can do to provide greater protections for the transgender community in this area.
The industrial strategy rightly sets out opportunities arising from the new technology and STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—sectors but says little about the increasing importance of skills that are unique to human beings, such as care. Does the Secretary of State recognise that part of our answer to increasing automation should be expanding employment in the care sector and the value we attach to it? If so, will he start treating this as a strategic priority?
It is indeed such a priority. I am delighted to see a copy of the strategy in the hon. Lady’s hands. In fact, one of the four grand challenges that we have set out regarding areas in which we can be a world leader is to develop the opportunities that arise from an ageing population, and care is absolutely central to that.