Business and Trade – in the House of Commons on 18th May 2023.
If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.
As Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my priority is to support UK companies to thrive at home and abroad, which is why this week I launched negotiations for an enhanced UK-Swiss free trade agreement alongside my counterpart, Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin. Trade between us is worth almost £53 billion and, as two service economies, a modernised agreement presents huge opportunities for the UK and Switzerland. I met representatives from SIX Swiss Exchange, the backbone of Swiss financial services, and several innovative start-ups at the fintech accelerator Tenity.
Fish and chip shops have been part of the fabric of British life for generations and should be the cornerstone of a revived domestic fishing industry. However, shops in the Lowestoft and Waveney area continue to face an ongoing triple whammy of high energy costs, high fish prices and the high cost of cooking oil. Will my right hon. Friend work proactively with the sector to agree a strategy that ensures the survival and subsequent flourishing of fish and chip shops?
My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for his local fish and chip shops. We recognise the importance of fish and chip shops to local communities and the challenges they face. We have introduced a range of support measures to address the specific issues he raises, including changes to business rates that, across the country, are worth a total of £13.6 billion in lower bills. We are also supporting non-domestic energy customers through the energy bill relief scheme, and we recently introduced the energy bills discount scheme, which runs until March 2024. We will keep working closely with the sector as part of the Hospitality Sector Council to improve the resilience of businesses, including the fish and chip shops in Lowestoft.
I call the shadow Secretary of State.
It has now been 100 days since we first welcomed the right hon. Lady to her new post. In that time, we have seen steel production fall to record lows; the automotive sector has issued warning cry after warning cry that Government policy risks shipping jobs overseas; and the US has seen incredible sums invested under the Inflation Reduction Act and the EU has put forward its own significant response. Meanwhile, the UK remains trapped in the Conservatives’ low growth, high tax loop, with the lowest business investment in the G7. This morning, three of her predecessors, each from a different political party, have said that the Government need an explicit industrial strategy. Does the current Business Secretary agree with them?
I thank the shadow Minister for highlighting that we have had 100 days as the Department for Business and Trade, during which we have been able to launch the biggest free trade agreement that the UK has seen since we left the EU and since the trade and co-operation agreement. He also mentions a lot of systemic issues, which have been faced globally. He rightly talks about the US IRA and the EU green deal industrial plan, but it is good for me to mention that we are doing a lot in this space. For example, the issue that the automotive industries are talking about relates to rules of origin. This is something that the EU is also worried out, because the costs of the components have risen. This is not to do with Brexit; it is to do with supply chain issues following the pandemic and the war between Russia and Ukraine. I have had meetings with my EU trade counterpart; we are discussing these things and looking at how we can review them, especially as the TCA will be coming into review soon.
What would have been the answer to Question 19? How many businesses were supported by grant funding in North Northamptonshire during the pandemic?
Off the top of my head, I can say that during the pandemic the Government delivered an unprecedented package of support for businesses. In total, more than £22.6 billion was provided to businesses via local authorities. In Kettering, more than 5,000 covid-19 business grants were issued, amounting to £24 million. North Northamptonshire Council delivered £29.9 million to local businesses through the covid-19 business grant scheme.
Dr Nikhil Datta from Warwick Economics noted that the £5.84 billion that UK consumers had paid in increased food prices by 2021 as a result of Brexit hit the poorest households hardest, as they spend a larger proportion of their income on food. Does the Secretary of State, the Minister or the UK Government accept that the most vulnerable households are paying the highest price for Brexit, especially in this ongoing food price inflation crisis?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. As she knows, one of the Government’s commitments is to halve inflation, which will also have an impact on food prices. We absolutely need to do that, particularly for those low-income households. That is why we directed support mostly at low-income households, with more than £2,000 a household this year and £900 in additional support for low-income households this year. This is a twin-track approach, tackling inflation and lowering food prices, and also providing direct support.
Some 70% of our economy is services, so what is the Department doing to reduce barriers in that area and supercharge our global trade in services?
My hon. Friend raises an important point: more than 70% of our economy is services. Therefore, it is absolutely right that the Department for Business and Trade has a laser focus on services as well as goods, particularly in relation to international deals. Historically, some of those trade agreements have not covered services particularly well. The Secretary of State mentioned the Swiss agreement, which was silent on services. So my hon. Friend is absolutely right about this, and we have a hitlist of barriers we are working on. They relate to both goods and services, which are hugely important right across the country, including in his constituency.
May I draw the Minister’s attention to a Which? investigation into the lack of consistency in unit pricing by supermarkets? That makes it difficult for consumers to work out the real price of goods and, crucially, to choose between them. The Competition and Markets Authority is looking at this issue, but will the Government talk to the supermarkets too?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. Which? does fantastic work. The CMA acts independently, without ministerial influence, and it is right that it does. However, I am sure it is keeping a close eye on that matter. As I said in a previous answer, the best way we can regulate prices in the UK is through strong competition. We have a very strong, competitive market in the supermarkets, with 14 chains in this country, and that is the best way to hold down prices. However, she raises an important point and I am sure the CMA will have listened to it.
UK Export Finance plays a vital role in supporting export opportunities, but a company in my constituency is having difficulties landing support to secure a contract based in one of our Trans-Pacific Partnership area countries. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss this and how we can support that business?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that. I will see whether I can get a meeting with him, but, if not, I will make sure that one of my officials is able to look into this issue specifically for him.
I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, and everyone here will wish the Red Lion in Ealing well under its new management. It even does food for non-drinkers such as me. Can Ministers work with Ofgem to find a sustainable solution to energy bills, and with the Home Office to redefine chefs as a shortage occupation, to stop the Red Lion being one of the record number of pubs going to the wall?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that issue. As I said earlier in reply to a question about energy support for small businesses, we do know that businesses are facing high energy costs. The Government are currently paying about half of everyone’s energy bills. I talked about the energy bill relief scheme and the energy bills discount scheme. We are doing everything we can to support businesses in the hospitality sector, but if there is something that is specific outside that, I ask her to please write to us and we will see whether there is any further support that can be offered.
According to the website for the Department for Business and Trade, the Department is supposed to
“shape our rules to ensure businesses thrive”.
Edenvale Turf is a successful small and medium-sized enterprise in my part of Devon and it employs more than 20 people. Older Edenvale workers have grandfather rights as supervisors, but they have been told that they will no longer be eligible to act as turf-cutting supervisors without taking a National Vocational Qualification. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how the Government might prevent scores of older, experienced people from leaving the workforce by getting out of the way and ensuring that businesses thrive?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. Clearly, our regulation must work in favour of employment and helping people to get work and stay in work. I am very happy to meet him, possibly with one of my colleagues from the Department for Work and Pensions, to look at this matter.
I am honoured to chair the all-party group on steel, and, as such, I have invited the Secretary of State to meet us, as all four of her predecessors have agreed to do. I am very disappointed that she has declined to do so. I urge her to reconsider that position.
The US is investing $282 billion in green manufacturing. The Spanish and German Governments are each investing £1 billion in the decarbonisation of their steel industries. Labour would match that opportunity with a £3 billion clean steel fund, but the Government’s response to date has been woefully inadequate. When will the Secretary of State bring forward a steel transition strategy that matches up with what our competitors are doing and that matches the ambition of our professional and dedicated steelworkers?
I have not declined to meet the all-party group on steel; I just said that it was subject to diary requirements. Where I have been is in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, visiting the steelworks. I did notify him before we went there, but he showed absolutely no interest in accompanying me to visit the steelworks in his constituency. We are spending quite a lot of money on supporting the steel industry. We look at what has happened at Teesside and how we have regenerated the former steelworks. Those on his side of the House, however, have spent most of their time smearing the Mayor of Teesside and making it very difficult for the businesses there to continue to make the investment they need in order to help turn the sector around.
Marshalls Bakery, a small business in my constituency, has just closed its doors after 43 years of trading. The owners told me that they were unable to withstand the combined pressures of covid, rising wheat and container charges and high energy costs. They feel let down and are angry at the lack of Government support for businesses such as theirs. Can the Minister tell me what further steps he is taking to ensure that other small businesses can survive in this challenging climate to provide the certainty from Government that they so desperately need?
I am sorry to hear about the demise of that business in the hon. Lady’s constituency. Clearly, it has been a very tough time for businesses in recent years, with the covid crisis followed by the cost of living crisis. I am very happy to meet her to discuss what support we provide, which is to the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds. I am informed that there has been £1 billion of support to businesses over recent years. The schemes running at the moment include: the rates discount at £13.6 billion; and £23 billion has been put into helping businesses with energy costs. I am very happy to meet her to discuss that further.
UK semiconductor businesses have been crying out for the semiconductor strategy. I have asked a number of questions about this, and two weeks ago the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation told me it would be published in “a matter of days”. The Secretary of State loves a doughty champion; can she be a doughty champion for the semiconductor industry and speak to colleagues in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to get the strategy published?
I do not need any excuse to chase up the Department on the semiconductor strategy, and I will do so. As the hon. Lady knows, it does not sit within our remit, but with DSIT. In this Department, we are making sure that the critical minerals needed to put semiconductors together are in the supply chain and that we can get hold of them, but I am more than happy to chase up that strategy.
Large global car makers have warned that the UK’s transition to electric vehicles will be impeded if the UK Government and the EU do not delay the stricter rules of origin, which could add tariffs on car exports. Will Ministers negotiate on the issue to safeguard the UK’s automotive industry?
The answer is yes; we are actively working on the issue, and we are not the only country impacted by it. Just yesterday, officials from Germany were talking about how they needed to look into it. It is due to the rising cost of components, which we will look at as part of our trade and co-operation agreement, but it is something that both sides are interested in resolving, so I assure the hon. Lady that we are actively working on it.
Businesses and organisations in my constituency, and no doubt beyond, have ended up marooned on exceptionally high energy tariffs because they were forced to sign contracts at the height of the crisis. What conversations have Ministers had with Ofgem and with the energy companies to see what can be done to support those businesses, as those tariffs will be a drag on their future growth and development, and in some cases threaten their very survival?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. Alongside the Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero, I met energy suppliers and Ofgem recently to discuss the matter. The problem is principally that energy prices have fallen, so businesses entering into new contracts today are getting more competitive rates, but the ones who entered contracts between July and December last year are facing difficulties. The energy suppliers have promised to help, but if the hon. Lady wants to talk to me about any particular instances, I am happy to help.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following the exchange I just had with the Secretary of State, I want to underline the point that her office has declined and said that she would not be interested in meeting the all-party parliamentary group for steel and metal related industries. While she did come to visit the Port Talbot steelworks in my constituency, which of course I welcome, I was not invited to join her on that visit, whereas I understand Holly Mumby-Croft was invited to join her on the visit to the Scunthorpe steelworks. I just want to set the record straight on those points.
Does the Secretary of State want to come back on that?
First of all, that is a point of correction rather than a point of order, but if somebody has made a mistake in the information given to the House, it must be corrected. I will leave that to whoever is right or wrong, and I am not going to make a judgment.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I will write to the hon. Gentleman. I do not believe that what he has said is the case, but I will check the records and make sure that he gets a response to the correction he has made.
Thank you, Secretary of State. Please check, but please also correct the matter in writing for the record of the House—if that was the case, may I add?