As we all know, rising energy bills are a cause for concern for people up and down this country, but we have stepped in to give families some breathing space, with our energy bills rebate and council tax discount. Our supply of gas is secure; unlike many European Union countries, we are not dependent on Russian gas. Much of our supply comes from British territorial waters and from reliable import partners, such as Norway. The UK is the fastest growing economy in the G7, unemployment is down to record low levels and wages continue to rise. There are challenges ahead, but Britain is bouncing back from the pandemic.
My hon. Friend will appreciate the excellent statement made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer a couple of weeks ago. There was a range of measures totalling £9.1 billion, which included the council tax rebate for bands A to D and a £200 reduction in energy bills, totalling £350 to reduce bills. As I alluded to earlier, there was also an extension of the warm home discount.
The Secretary of State omitted to mention that inflation is now at its highest level for 30 years. Energy costs are spiralling and the private sector has yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels. Does he acknowledge that the Chancellor’s very large rise in national insurance, coming in April, will make a bad situation for British businesses even worse?
I am delighted to hear Members from the Opposition parties so bullish about our economy, given that we are the fastest growing economy in the G7! Bill Esterson mentioned Germany; I was very struck by the Bundesbank saying that Germany was facing recession, but we do not hear about that. We are creating more jobs, we have announced record investment and the Government’s plan is working in terms of bouncing back better from the pandemic.
The Secretary of State did not answer the question, because he knows that this is a high-tax Government because they have created a low-growth economy. May I also raise his recent claim that fraud is not something that affects people day to day? Fraud is estimated to cost the British economy as much as £52 billion a year, so will he accept that he has got this wrong? Will he apologise to the 4.6 million people who are victims of fraud each year, and tell the House today what steps he will take to do better?
I will tell the hon. Lady exactly what steps I will take to do better. I will constantly and always fight against Labour’s socialism, its windfall tax, its inability to plan ahead and its total lack of remorse for the fact that it destroyed manufacturing jobs in the time it was in government.
My right hon. Friend the Minister will know that I am the promoter of the Local Electricity Bill, which is supported by just under 300 Members of this House, and I will be chairing a new all-party parliamentary group on community energy to promote it. Does he agree that community energy can play a key role in reaching our net zero goal? Will he work with us to remove the barriers to local suppliers of renewable energy?
I thank my hon. Friend for his long-standing and passionate interest in community energy. I was delighted to meet him and colleagues just before the recess. Through the introduction of UK-wide growth-funding schemes such as the towns fund, the Government are enabling local areas to tackle net zero goals. We intend to publish an updated retail energy market strategy in due course.
Less than 24 hours ago the Prime Minister said:
“SAGE is certain that there will be new variants, and it is very possible that those will be worse than omicron.”—[Official Report,
What practical steps has the Department taken to ensure the maintenance of the infrastructure needed to develop second-generation covid vaccines and to build the pandemic-readiness resilience to which the Prime Minister referred?
I will happily talk to the hon. Member offline about the extensive vaccine pipeline that we are in the process of procuring. It includes next-generation mRNA vaccines for both flu and the next phase of covid. We are ahead of the curve on the next phase, as we were during the pandemic.
May I draw the Minister’s attention to the plans, due to be published tomorrow by Midlands Connect, to significantly improve and invest in the A50/A500 east-west corridor? It runs from the M6 to the M1 and is home to many of the UK’s leading manufacturers, including JCB, Toyota, Rolls-Royce and Bentley, and it is also a hotspot for the development of hydrogen technology by businesses and by universities such as Keele University in Newcastle-under-Lyme. The opportunities for skilled jobs, innovation and green growth are huge if the Government can help to unlock the infrastructure, so will the Minister meet me and local stakeholders to discuss the opportunities?
My hon. Friend highlights the amount of opportunities that are coming to constituencies such as his in Staffordshire. I would be delighted to meet him to talk more about them.
Community schemes such as Harlaw Hydro in my constituency provide 11% of Scotland’s renewable energy production. Our current energy crisis underlines the need to diversify energy production, so I was a bit disappointed when the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston) asked about his Local Electricity Bill and the Government were not able to give it their full support. Will the Government now state for the record their full support for measures such as that Bill to make proper and full use of community energy projects like the one in my constituency?
I assure the hon. and learned Lady that we fully support the transition in the North sea transition deal and the oil and gas sector, whereas her party and the Greens are seeking to destroy it and destroy jobs. That is the fact that I want to raise here.
The fact that global energy prices continue to be very volatile is a big concern for my constituents in Burnley and Padiham. One reason for that volatility is the weaponisation of energy by countries such as Russia, highlighting how we need not to rely on hostile state actors. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister set out what we are doing to ensure security of supply, not just now but for decades to come?
Energy security is an absolute priority for the Government. Our exposure to global gas prices underscores the importance of not only our own UK North sea gas production but building a strong renewables sector to reduce our reliance on energy imports in the first place. To that end, we recently published both a comprehensive net zero strategy and the North sea transition deal.
Does the Secretary of State agree that Afghan families who have come to the UK want to participate fully in our economy? Will he therefore help to establish a funded scheme so that Afghan refugees can set up their own businesses and contribute fully to our economy?
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that issues of settlement and asylum are ably dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I engage with her constantly in respect of employment schemes for people who wish to come into this country.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of Rolls-Royce SMR’s plans to set up small modular reactor factories here in the UK? Does he agree that the high-skilled, long-term jobs in such factories could significantly help to level up north Wales and contribute to both net zero and a global Britain that exports more around the world?
Last week was the ninth anniversary of the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl who died following an asthma attack brought on by toxic air on a busy road on the South Circular. Our towns and cities need low and non-carbon transport solutions. We all know that electric cars are expensive, but second-hand electric cars are seldom available, which means that each car needs to be purchased from new. The current maximum Government grant for part-purchasing a new electric car is just not enough.
The death of the hon. Lady’s young constituent bears heavily on all of us as London Members of Parliament. I remind her that the principal responsibility for air quality in London rests with the Mayor of London. On the action that we are taking to encourage more low-carbon and zero-carbon vehicles, we have announced: the phasing out of petrol and diesel-driven cars; a big investment in our electric vehicle charging infrastructure; and a big move to hydrogen-powered vehicles. Work in these areas will see low and zero-carbon vehicles become the future of urban transport in this country.
While I welcome the establishment of the digital markets unit, does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that it should be given statutory backing if it is to set a level playing field between publishers and platforms? Can he confirm that it is still the Government’s intention to introduce that legislation early in the next Session?
Unscrupulous employers have used the pandemic to slash their loyal workforce’s terms and conditions and threaten them with the sack. Court cases have been lost by Uber and more recently by Tesco, yet all we have from this Government are platitudes. They have done absolutely nothing to stop brutal fire and rehire practices. Will the Government’s much-fabled Employment Bill finally ban them once and for all?
This Government have been really clear that such practices should not be used as bully-boy negotiating tactics. Employers should refer to the strengthened ACAS guidance that sets out that dismissal and re-engagement should be considered only as an option of last resort.
My hon. Friend is an outspoken advocate for the Cornish cluster, which is growing fast. In addition to our groundbreaking pledge to increase investment in R&D outside the golden triangle to 55%, we are specifically investing in the South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications, the Newquay Spaceport and work with the University of Exeter and Virgin Orbit. This is an exciting time for the Cornish economy.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that workers in the UK should learn from Germany, where workers do not have a habit of going into work when not well. Will the Minister learn from the German Government and bring in statutory sick pay that covers 100% of workers’ salaries instead of the measly 90% that is covered in the UK, which leaves so many workers in the terrible position of having to do the responsible thing of isolating while being sick and not being able to put food on the table? On that point, will the Minister take this opportunity—
Order. Mr McDonald, I gave you the privilege of getting in. Questions are meant to be brief. There are two other people who have to come in as well; it is not just about you.
During isolation, we made it easier to claim statutory sick pay. We also changed universal credit to make it easier to claim and more generous. We continue to support people as this pandemic becomes endemic.
Last year I organised the first ever High Peak jobs and apprenticeships fair, working with organisations such as Buxton & Leek College and fantastic employers such as Tarmac, Breedon Group and Ferodo. It was a huge success, with hundreds attending and many reporting that they had found jobs as a result, so I am delighted to announce the second High Peak jobs and apprenticeships fair, and I would love to invite the Minister to attend.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and will be delighted to attend if I can.
As I have maintained on a number of occasions, the hon. Gentleman’s party is a jobs destroyer in the energy sector, refusing to countenance any investment in the North sea, and in alliance with the Greens, who want to destroy jobs in the sector.